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How does religion decline? How do human beings turn the spiritual multiplication provided by the prophets and messengers of God into religious division? It happens like this: in any existing religion, ego-driven individuals elevate their own human station, seek personal power and pervert the explicit and original intentions of the messengers of God. Often very charismatic people, they attract a following and orchestrate actions that allow them to obtain authority, impose their will on others, and then create a world in the image of a “lesser god.”
In whatever religion we practice, actions that spring forth from our Faith are influenced by our core spiritual beliefs. This has implications for us and others as well, especially when we independently seek to understand the overriding intent of our creation and understand the enlightenment the divine prophets wish to bring us.
This leads to a question: what do the messengers of God want for us?
The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. - John 10:10
Jesus equates those who steal, kill and destroy to thieves, and says that his intention is to bring us more abundant lives.
O you who believe! Enter absolutely into peace. Do not follow the footsteps of Satan. He is an outright enemy to you. - Qur’an: 2, 208.
Muhammed tells us that when we enter the sanctity of his revelation, it will give us peace.
God’s purpose in sending His Prophets unto men is twofold. The first is to liberate the children of men from the darkness of ignorance, and guide them to the light of true understanding. The second is to ensure the peace and tranquility of mankind, and provide all the means by which they can be established. - Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 79-80.
Baha’u’llah’s words make it clear that God sends the prophets to humanity to educate us and elevate our behavior beyond darkness into the light of peace and tranquility; and that, in this day, we have been given the means to do those things.
If the messengers of God wish to give us abundant life, peace, and tranquility, how do religions decline so dramatically that they wind up leading us down the path of death, war and strife? The following quotations from Baha'i teachings provide the answer:
But when we speak of religion, we mean the essential foundation or reality of religion, not the dogmas and blind imitations which have gradually encrusted it and which are the cause of… decline and effacement... These are inevitably destructive and a menace and hindrance…
Inasmuch as our God is one God and the Creator of all mankind, He provides for and protects all. We acknowledge Him as a God of kindness, justice and mercy. Why then should we, His children and followers, war and fight, bringing sorrow and grief into the hearts of each other? God is loving and merciful. His intention in religion has ever been the bond of unity and affinity between humankind. - Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 368.
Our souls provide us with the potentiality to refine ourselves spiritually over a lifetime. That process of spiritual refinement seeks to free us from our lower animal nature—which contains all the hatred, greed, pettiness, lust for power and position, cruelty and jealousy that we see around us. With divine guidance, we can always choose to improve ourselves, but we will never achieve the perfection of a prophet of God. Any attempt to elevate a human to this station only produces an imperfect idol with limited vision and capacity, thus depriving humanity of “the breath of life.” This is spiritual division.
How do we avoid following a manmade creation, one that springs solely from the ego?
First, each individual has been given the responsibility, and is required, to independently investigate spiritual truth. We can no longer allow ourselves to be led by what another person says. We have been given the capacity to read the holy writings and find the truth in them for ourselves.
Second, we have to question who we listen to, and understand where they intend to lead us.
Third, we must ask: does the message we hear elevate or diminish our behavior? Does it bring joy, or increase pain and suffering? Does it bring peace or war? Does it advance civilization or destroy it?
Finally, do our actions, informed by our Faith, lead us down the path of human division, or do we follow the path of love, and multiply our efforts?
The first sign of Faith is love. The message of the holy, divine Manifestations is love; the phenomena of creation are based upon love; the radiance of the world is due to love; the well-being and happiness of the world depend upon it. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 337.