Let us listen to a symphony which will confer life on man; then we can obtain universal results; then we shall receive a new spirit; then we shall become illumined. Let us investigate a song which is above all songs; one which will develop the spirit and produce harmony and exhilaration, unfolding the inner potentialities of life. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 77-78.
If humanity has entered a new age and received a new spirit, as the Baha’i teachings claim, how can we tell the difference from past ages? What makes this time in human history such a departure from previous times?
Obviously, if you look at the technological, scientific and material advancement of humanity, you have to conclude that we’ve definitely entered a revolutionary new phase of our collective existence:
From every standpoint the world of humanity is undergoing a re-formation. The laws of former governments and civilizations are in process of revision, scientific ideas and theories are developing and advancing to meet a new range of phenomena, invention and discovery are penetrating hitherto unknown fields revealing new wonders and hidden secrets of the material universe; industries have vastly wider scope and production; everywhere the world of mankind is in the throes of evolutionary activity indicating the passing of the old conditions and advent of the new age of re-formation. Old trees yield no fruitage; old ideas and methods are obsolete and worthless now. Old standards of ethics, moral codes and methods of living in the past will not suffice for the present age of advancement and progress. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 10.
But, the pessimists ask—with plenty of justification—has humanity itself really advanced? Have our morals, our spiritual attributes, our inner religious lives made similar progress? Or are we the same on the inside, people who’ve remained selfish, prejudiced, xenophobic, barbaric and warlike despite the forward movement of science and technology?
This is the cycle of maturity and re-formation in religion as well. Dogmatic imitations of ancestral beliefs are passing. They have been the axis around which religion revolved but now are no longer fruitful; on the contrary, in this day they have become the cause of human degradation and hindrance. Bigotry and dogmatic adherence to ancient beliefs have become the central and fundamental source of animosity among men, the obstacle to human progress, the cause of warfare and strife, the destroyer of peace, composure and welfare in the world. Consider conditions in the Balkans today ; fathers, mothers, children in grief and lamentation, the foundations of life overturned, cities laid waste and fertile lands made desolate by the ravages of war. These conditions are the outcome of hostility and hatred between nations and peoples of religion who imitate and adhere to the forms and violate the spirit and reality of the divine teachings. – Ibid.
Baha’is believe that both of these opposing forces operate in the world today—the great advancement bequeathed on human beings by the outpouring of new spiritual teachings from Baha’u’llah; as well as the rigid resistance to those progressive Baha’i teachings from people “who imitate and adhere to the forms” of the dogmatic beliefs of the past. This pattern isn’t new. It always occurs when the promise of a new future meets the resistance of an entrenched past. This colossal struggle between past and future, playing itself out in the conflicts of modern civilization, creates a maelstrom of rapid change:
While this is true and apparent, it is likewise evident that the Lord of mankind has bestowed infinite bounties upon the world in this century of maturity and consummation. The ocean of divine mercy is surging, the vernal showers are descending, the Sun of Reality is shining gloriously. Heavenly teachings applicable to the advancement in human conditions have been revealed in this merciful age. This re-formation and renewal of the fundamental reality of religion constitute the true and outworking spirit of modernism, the unmistakable light of the world, the manifest effulgence of the Word of God, the divine remedy for all human ailment and the bounty of eternal life to all mankind. – Ibid.
So to answer the questions at the beginning of this essay: we can tell the difference between this modern age and past ages by the enormous potential this new religious revelation unleashes in the world:
I wish this blessing to appear and become manifest in the faces and characteristics of the believers, so that they, too, may become a new people, and having found new life and been baptized with fire and spirit, may make the world a new world, to the end that the old earth may disappear and the new earth appear; old ideas depart and new thoughts come; old garments be cast aside and new garments put on; ancient politics whose foundation is war be discarded and modern politics founded on peace raise the standard of victory; the new star shine and gleam and the new sun illumine and radiate; new flowers bloom; the new spring become known; the new breeze blow; the new bounty descend; the new tree give forth new fruit; the new voice become raised and this new sound reach the ears, that the new will follow the new, and all the old furnishings and adornments be cast aside and new decorations put in their places. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 2, pp. 10-11.