Social Change? It's Possible!
“Is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself, both inwardly and outwardly, that shall affect both its inner and external conditions?”
With friends I talk a lot about social change. It’s true, we live today in a world caught within the throes of steep and unrelenting decline. The discussion of everything wrong in society can go on and on, seemingly forever, but what’s the use? Usually it leads to anger and despair. It’s within this context that, sometimes, conversation will veer into the possibility of solutions. And, believe it or not, one solution does in fact exist: The Baha’i Faith. After a series of conversations with a friend, he expressed interest in creating a podcast about the nature and dynamics of social change, starting with a series of interviews, with me, on the Baha’i approach to transformation. To further this process, at my friend’s request, I outlined a number of ideas, in sequence, essential to my knowledge of social change from the Baha’i perspective. Shared with you, below, is this outline of my present understandings on the process of social transformation, as well as a few of its revolutionary implications for our progress. Here’s my hope: Attracted by the possibility that there may in fact be a way for the world to advance, you will study and wholeheartedly reflect on this introduction to a new paradigm of thought. Then, feeling inspired and empowered to take action, you will join hands with several millions in the worldwide Baha’i community – walking the path of service to humanity – as, shoulder to shoulder, we all strive to move the world forward, ground up, from division to unity.
Baha’u’llah’s Vision for Humankind: The Baha’i Faith envisions the unification of the whole of humanity within one world civilization that will live in material prosperity and spiritual peace. This revolution requires the transformation of both the individual and society. At the level of the individual, what must be cultivated are the intellectual and spiritual capacities that allow for each soul to develop and progress to his or her fullest. This is the prerequisite condition for the transformation of the world. In conjunction with our individual efforts, we also must do whatever we can, now – based upon our present capacities – to advance society from the conflict and division of this age and toward the unification of all humankind, the highest state of existence in this mortal world. In Baha’i terms, we must strive to become active agents -- protagonists – in service to the Cause of God. This striving for global unity begins within the institutional structures of society -- starting with family and moving outward to neighborhoods, then into community after community -- unity that must be grounded in the divine guidance provided for humanity in this age, the Revelation of Baha’u’llah, the Manifestation of God for today. In the end, we can only become truly united, as individuals and in society, within the Truth of the Word of God, the All-Knowing and All-Loving Creator, who in this era, by His mercy and bounty, has given humanity the spiritual blueprint to progress toward a world civilization that will live in both prosperity and peace.
“The civilization of today, for all its material prowess, has been found wanting, and the verdict has been issued by the Supreme Pen: ‘Know ye not that We have rolled up that which the people possessed, and have unfolded a new order in its place?’ The establishment of Divine Civilization is, in the words of the Guardian, ‘the primary mission of the Baha’i Faith.’ It is to be built upon the most foundational qualities, ones for which the world stands in great need: unity, trustworthiness, mutual support, collaboration, fellow feeling, selflessness, commitment to truth, a sense of responsibility, a thirst to learn, the love of an all-embracing heart.” Universal House of Justice, December 30, 2021, Par. 39
Development of the Soul … Individual Intellectual and Spiritual Growth!
Identity: Our most fundamental identity is spiritual, not material. In this mortal life we are each, at our core, spiritual beings who, right now, happen to be living in a material world. This knowledge is foundational in our development of a clear and secure sense of personal identity. Someone with a clear enough sense of his spiritual identity will, in turn, develop a sense of certainty in his abilities to discern what is true from what is false, and, with this ability, the capacity to stand up for what is right and take action, positively … in ways that have the potential to help relatives, neighborhoods, and communities progress toward the state of true unity.
Here’s a sequence of questions that can lead to individual transformation:
What is the truth about who I am? The Question of Spiritual Identity!
Why do I exist? The Purpose of Human Life… What gives life meaning?
How can one develop toward his or her fullest being in this mortal life?
Transformation: This transformation must, first, be one of consciousness. Presently, we’re taught to see reality in purely material terms. Within the narrow lens of material reality, I might, for example, define myself by the color of my skin or by how much wealth I may accumulate. To be sure, there must be a place for the material within reality. Nevertheless, material reality exists in a finite realm below and secondary to the higher realms of spiritual truth, an infinite sphere of reality which exists, eternally, transcendent, beyond the physical world. From this widest of perspectives, our level of consciousness can expand and elevate to include more of the whole of what is real. This is the challenge for humanity today, to understand reality as encompassing both the material and the spiritual -- with the material guided by the spirit -- and to bring this more complete understanding of reality increasingly to bear on the ways that we live our lives and build the institutional structures of society. It is this higher level of consciousness, properly applied, that will gradually, over time, allow for the unification and progress of the human family.
The Transformation of Society, Begins … in Meaningful and Uplifting Conversation!
Relationship: The whole of civilization is grounded in relationship, our capacity to relate with each other, person-to-person, in ways that truly have meaning. The process of civilization-building, then, begins with the cultivation of our innate capabilities to engage in meaningful and uplifting conversation. Today, fewer (and fewer) people appear to have developed the capacity for genuine dialogue. People today seem, literally, to run from each and every opportunity for genuine and authentic conversation, withdrawing and isolating themselves from anyone who does not already agree with whatever they already might think, feel, or believe. Plus, when people do speak openly with another, such interactions appear to be reduced to “plot,” the exchange of stories – about the weather, what they did yesterday, are doing today, or plan on doing tomorrow – avoiding real dialogue which, if approached otherwise, might become a source of growth, intellectual and spiritual, for themselves and the life of society. The rebuilding of society, under these circumstances, must begin with learning how to cultivate our God-given abilities to engage in conversation that qualifies as meaningful and uplifting.
Here’s a sequence of questions that can lead to the transformation of society:
What is the joy of taking part in conversations grounded in spiritual reality?
How can our informal conversations be elevated, toward meaning and uplift?
How can meaningful and uplifting conversations build spiritual community?
Transformation: Here’s a quote from the Ruhi Institute, the educational arm of the Baha’i Faith, that bears repeating: “In a world in which powerful forces are tearing communal bonds asunder, the practice of visiting friends and neighbors in their homes to explore themes central to the life of society can, if it becomes a prominent feature of culture, remedy some of the ills engendered by increasing isolation. The ties of fellowship thus created, serve to fortify the process of building vibrant and harmonious communities.” (Ruhi Institute, Arising to Serve, Book 2, p. v.) To build a just world, one aligned in practice with the highest truths, we must begin by establishing the foundation of all progressive societies, the development of our abilities to engage with each other – family, relatives, friends, coworkers, neighbors – in real conversations that truly lift our hearts and souls.
The Path of Service … Moving Forward, Each of Us, Together, as Protagonists!
Protagonists: To be a “protagonist” in society means to become and steadfastly (that is, no matter what!) remain actively involved in the building of a new societal order, ground up, from the unity of family, relatives, coworkers, and friends to the unity of neighborhoods and communities, and, ultimately, toward the creation of a single, unified, spiritual global civilization. Yes, this new society will – and must – be rooted firmly in the universality of divine truth, with the one source which guides us today being God’s word as revealed by His Manifestation, Baha’u’llah. Individually and in communion, we submit ourselves before God, in the humble posture of learning, striving day by day to better understand and apply His teachings to construct one world civilization. As individuals and within community, we must learn how to better assist and accompany one another as, together, we walk along that path which advances the whole of humankind toward the condition of true unity.
Contributing to the spiritual transformation of society can take many forms, including…
Hosting in one’s home regular devotional gatherings, the base for living a spiritual life
Engaging in ongoing conversations with meaning and the potential for spiritual uplift
Visiting the homes of others, in atmospheres conducive to meaningful conversation
Participating in/facilitating the spiritual education of children, junior youth, and adults…
Actively participating in community activities that can contribute to spiritual unity
Participating in the building of new institutions aligned with the highest spiritual truths
Being active in opening spaces of public discourse to include universal spiritual realities
Transformation: Coming to see oneself and act as a true “protagonist” moves far beyond the norms of modern society today. In the dominant culture of our world, we’re taught to be passive consumers of goods, services, information, and experiences. We leave action in the world to the so-called “experts” – politicians, scientists, economists, academics, clergy, the superheroes of corporate Hollywood, entertainers, etc. – while we sit on the sidelines, passively observing, as if we’re nothing more than spectators watching and commenting (largely through social media posts) on sporting events. Life in society today is more about what we can get for ourselves – with as little effort as possible -- than what we might give of ourselves for the benefit of others; a successful “deal” is defined as one in which I get more for myself than whatever I might have to sacrifice. This new paradigm, through which one embraces the responsibilities of a true protagonist – a central character in the book of life, whose transformation helps to move the plot of society forward – serves to reorient our beings toward activity rather than passivity, toward giving ourselves instead of getting for ourselves. Embracing such a life – and thus becoming fully alive – requires us to cultivate a secure spiritual identity, a clear sense of purpose, and the development of our abilities to engage in uplifting conversations of purpose and meaning.
Understanding Social Change, in Context … It’s One Integrated Historical Process! Historical Context: The unification of humankind is now advancing within the context of potent spiritual forces that, now released into the world, delineate the dynamic process of historical transformation. In the world today, humanity finds itself moving toward unity, naturally, organically, individually, and collectively. Individually, we progress intellectually and spiritually largely in proportion to the trials, tests, and difficulties that modern life presents to us, today, on virtually a daily basis. The sufferings of modernity – with our lives increasingly confined within the empty purposelessness of materialism – push more of us to detach from exclusively material ways of understanding reality … as, one by one, hearts and minds become open and receptive to living within the possibilities for progress which exist within the spiritual realms of truth. A similar dynamic defines the collective progress of humanity. As the established world order continues to disintegrate, crumbling before our eyes, indeed, faster and faster – more of us will remove ourselves from the material meaninglessness upon which the secular world is based … as, together, in community, we create new institutional structures based upon universal spiritual realities that have the potential to benefit the whole of humanity -- materially and spiritually. This, yes, would be real progress!
Here’s a sequence of questions that explore the dynamics of historical change:
What is the process of disintegration, and how does it serve as a source of progress?
What is the process of integration, and how can it become the source of progress?
How can we understand the relation between these two complementary processes?
Transformation: This transformation involves a total conceptual shift in the ways that we know and take part in the processes of social change. Virtually from birth in today’s world, we’ve been conditioned into a thought process that misunderstands social transformation in terms of conflict, violence, and division, in terms of “either-or,” “good v. evil,” as “fighting against…” A truly spiritual understanding of change, however, will serve to elevate human consciousness above such false dichotomies, as gradually we come to understand social transformation in terms of one single dynamic, all-encompassing process. Disintegration and integration, instead of being two opposing forces that must battle to the death, become two elements of one greater process – and both elements serve one and the same purpose -- the unification of humankind. There is no evil to fight against here: The disintegration of society, being a natural component in the dynamic of change, will continue … despite each and every attempt to oppose such decline. Armed with this higher level of understanding, our efforts can and should be focused primarily on actively engaging, as protagonists, in the process of integration -- pulling more and more people together in unity.
Integration: The Guiding Principle of Spiritual Reality…
Oneness: The spiritual truth that guides this process of integration, toward unity, is what Baha’is understand as the “Oneness of Humankind.” This principle makes it explicit that the whole of humanity constitutes one people, a single race, one extended family. Distinctions based on nationality, religion, culture, ethnicity, class, race, language, or wealth, etc… are secondary, material, and man-made. God created the human being in His own likeness and image. As such, each soul carries within it the seeds of every attribute of God – qualities such as the capacity to forgive, love, think rationally and independently, trust, restrain and moderate one’s behavior, to be patient, cooperative, to place the best interests of others first, before all else. Within this spiritual conception -- of the human core as a soul endowed with the attributes of God -- no longer can there be room for claims of superiority or inferiority. No person can be inherently better or worse than any other; no race can claim superiority; no nation, culture, or ethnicity can consider itself to be above another. Baha’u’llah Himself revealed, “Ye are all leaves of one tree and the fruits of one branch.”
A sequence of questions that might deepen our understanding of this spiritual truth:
Does the “Oneness of Humanity” require that we let go of our individuality?
Does the “Oneness of Humanity” require that we relinquish all other identities?
Within this conception, how can the individual be reconciled with community?
Transformation: The integration of the whole of humanity, based on the spiritual truth of our inherent oneness, will truly constitute a revolution in the organization of society. For the past few centuries, since the European Enlightenment of the 17th century, the authority and credibility of established religion has been under attack. Religion, we’ve been told time and time again, constitutes a negative and destructive force in society. It’s alright, tolerated, if an individual chooses to worship God in private – that’s a personal right – but it is not okay by modern standards to speak, openly in public, on matters of religion. And more, it’s definitely not acceptable for religion to be considered as a guiding force in the institutional organization of society. These ideas must, and will, evolve as more and more of us gradually come to embrace what must follow logically from the truth of our oneness. If, for example, we belong to one extended human family, there can no longer be any case for the primacy of nationalism – or, indeed, the existence of prejudice in any form. Once the truth of oneness is applied in the affairs of society, we’ll see to it that all members of the human race are educated in ways that truly empower the full development of our intellectual and spiritual capacities, that the voice of women throughout the world will resound equally to that of men, that all peoples will be able to communicate through one universal language, and that no member of our precious human family can accumulate or possess an excess of wealth when brothers and sisters in the world remain without the means to shelter, clothe, or feed themselves. Where are we, now, in this (r)evolution?
Here We Are, Now: The Present Stage in this Progress…
Maturity? Not Quite Yet! … Just as the individual human being must grow and evolve over time -- from infancy, to childhood, the pre-teen years, adolescence, eventually maturing into adulthood – so must the collective whole of humanity also evolve. What is the present stage of this progress? The Baha’i Writings clearly state that, in this age, the human race stands at the “threshold of maturity.” Still within the grip of our teenage years, in late adolescence, we continue to engage in destructive behavior with incredible energy. Yet, at the same time, glimpses emerge, increasingly, of humanity struggling -- in fits and starts -- to advance into the maturity of adulthood … toward unity, the precondition of social and economic progress. We live now in a time of great energy, an exciting time, a period of monumental transition, one that holds tremendous promise for the creation of an entirely new order, one world civilization unified in prosperity and peace.
Here’s a sequence of questions that explore the stage of human development today:
What does the stage of late adolescence, collectively, look like in the world today?
How has the human race evolved from one stage of development to the next, and the next?
What foundations, today, will allow for humanity to progress toward maturity?
Transformation: Advancing from adolescence to adulthood may very well be the greatest transition, the highest progress, in an individual human life. Likewise, advancing from our collective adolescence toward the maturity of unity may well be understood as the greatest transformation in the history of civilization. What must be the first, and perhaps most important, step in this process?... the gaining of a certain and secure sense of our true identity as human beings, as one human race. Today, trapped within the materialism of modernity, we live within what Baha’is understand as a “crisis of identity”: More of us fail to develop our inborn capacities to discern what is true from what is false, starting with the truth of “who I am” as a human being. Merely existing – within the condition of persistent and chronic doubt – barely surviving the material demands of today (day after day), few (and fewer) of us live with a sense of genuine meaning. Many, indeed, have begun to doubt whether human life, in fact, has any purpose at all. To act decisively in the world, to take risks and make sacrifices, to look beyond oneself – and be guided by what is best for others, in this case the whole of humanity -- one must first develop a clear and secure sense of his or her truest identity. This transformation involves a shift in consciousness, away from seeing ourselves in exclusively material terms and toward understanding our human nature primarily in spiritual terms. We are spiritual beings, souls first and foremost, living now in a material world. This is where individual and collective transformation must begin, and, so, this is where Baha’i education begins, with coming to know in our hearts, certainly, that what most makes us human is the soul.
“The purpose of every Manifestation of God is to effect a transformation in both the inner life and external conditions of humanity. And this transformation naturally occurs as a growing body of people, united by the divine precepts, collectively seeks to develop spiritual capacities to contribute to a process of societal change.”
Universal House of Justice