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Possible futures and the limits of the Enlightenment:
the path from adolescence to maturity of the human race

written by Steven Phelps

A few reflections follow below from a recent ebbf meeting I attended, compiled from conversations held in the small group sessions and one-on-one, over meals and on a beautiful terrace overlooking Acuto, relating to how our deepest values and beliefs about the world are translated into practical and visible structures and outcomes.

From adolescence to maturity: teleology and inevitability

The metaphors of adolescence and maturity, which were our starting point for the weekend’s discussion, make a non-obvious assumption about history and progress: that history is led onward by teleological forces rather than being an aimless succession of events and power struggles. That is, it is trending in a particular direction, even if there are temporary setbacks and reversals. Where is it trending? On the cosmic scale, it seems, by the inexorable laws of thermodynamics towards increasing entropy and disorder: but in this congenial part of the local universe, it is arguably trending towards increasingly intricate modes of complexity, ever-expanding circles of unity, ever-more subtle degrees of consciousness. We may believe this for different reasons: some as an article of faith, that this evolving consciousness ultimately attains the culminating degree of self-awareness which is identical to the consciousness of the Divine; others because of supporting evidence in the cosmic and evolutionary records; still others for purely pragmatic reasons (does it not seem better to live with purpose than without?).

It may be argued, at a time when the need for individual action has never been more urgently felt, that holding a teleological view of history could tend to undermine individual agency. What does it matter what I do personally, if I know that it will all work out in the end anyway? But we are not helplessly adrift on the currents of history. We have the power, individually and collectively, to help shape the course of the river, even if we know that in the end it will reach the sea. “World peace is not only possible but inevitable”, promises the House of Justice. “It is the next stage in the evolution of this planet” — but it also warns: “Whether peace is to be reached only after unimaginable horrors precipitated by humanity’s stubborn clinging to old patterns of behaviour, or is to be embraced now by an act of consultative will, is the choice before all who inhabit the earth.”[1] Though the trend towards globalization is irresistible, painful or even catastrophic delay is possible. This is our motivation for individual and collective action.

Possible futures and the limits of the Enlightenment

In the growth and maturation of the individual the path leads inexorably to maturity. At most the chaotic period of adolescence can be prolonged, but a return to the state of childhood is biologically impossible. Equally unimaginable, from the perspective of the adolescent, is the state of maturity itself: its powers, capacities, and perspectives. For the world, too, the path leads forward, through the adolescent stages called “Enlightenment” and “Modernity”, to the other side. A return to the thoughts and conceptions of the past is impossible. That does not stop us from trying to imagine the future in terms of the conceptual frameworks of the past.

The Baha’i Faith, as the first “post-Enlightenment” religion, presents an enigma to the observer. On the one hand it employs the language and imagery of pre-Enlightenment theology familiar within the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. On the other it audaciously embraces “Enlightenment” values in the religious domain: the championing of individual spiritual autonomy, the responsibility to question received authority (both central themes of the Book of Certitude), and the primacy of rational argumentation over religiously motivated beliefs (stressed in particular by Abdu’l-Baha during his travels in the West). On the one hand it envisions a future Order shaped by the release of inconceivably vast human potentialities now stifled by the bonds of political tyranny, social oppression, religious authoritarianism, and a “lamentably defective” present order. On the other it eviscerates the license exercised in the West in the name of liberty and proposes the worldwide adoption of a strong central religious and civil authority.

How will this circle be squared? What will such an Order look like in practice? Where is the Faith of Baha’u’llah situated on the spectrum of Enlightenment thought and freedoms? Is it that the light of the Enlightenment is simply “too dim” when compared to the light of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation?[2] Or rather if, with Kant, we understand “Enlightenment” as a term for our collective adolescence[3], does the Revelation represent a further flowering, a maturation and an extension into the religious domain, of a historical movement which was first felt in 17th century Europe? As with any great enterprise that takes shape in a contingent world the answer will come not by reading it from static texts of the past but organically, through the scientific method as applied to the social realm, of postulation, experimentation, consultation and reflection, course correction, and iteration.

The forefront of all progressive movements

For, for the first time, we have a spiritual movement that looks to the future, rather than to the past, for humanity’s closest encounter with the Divine. It is a movement that contains within itself the necessary mechanisms to evolve with the changing needs of society, while maintaining the stability and integrity of its core spiritual precepts. It is, by definition, a progressive movement, able to re-create and re-shape itself on breathtakingly short timescales, and to do so coherently on a worldwide basis through the act of a unified consultative will. This is not just any progressive movement, but one that will stand “at the forefront of every progressive movement”[4]. It will be a leading indicator, and not a lagging indicator, of social progress. It will maintain its vanguard position only by setting aside laws and doctrines that no longer “safeguard the interests of humanity as a whole”, aware of the ever-present danger of “humanity to be crucified for the preservation of the integrity of any particular law or doctrine.”[5]

By “progressive”, however, is not meant the modern-day political “left” as opposed to the political “right”. The space of social possibility may indeed be extruded onto one dimension when political and economic structures are constrained by the presumption of human selfishness. But the one-dimensional logic of “left” versus “right”, which only reinforces tribalistic mindsets, gives way to a higher-dimensional space of possibility when the circle of human regard expands outwards. In such a world the structural possibilities can assume entirely new configurations.

Essential relationships and the changeless Law of Love

The new structures — new modes of governance, new models of economic relationship, new social relationships — may radically change over time. But these changing laws and ordinances derive from something deeper and unchanging: the “essential relationships deriving from the realities of things”. In an astounding series of implicit equations expressed across several talks and letters, Abdu’l-Baha provides this identical definition for a series of concepts thought to reside in entirely separate domains: the “divine law” and the “social order”[6], “nature”[7], “fate”[8], “religion”[9], and, finally, “love”[10].

Love is in the end the unchanging ground of being and of the varying expressions of relationships and laws deriving from that ground of being. It is “the most great law that ruleth this mighty and heavenly cycle,”[10] and the anchor and wellspring of all ages and cycles. As Baha’u’llah writes: “Know thou that in every age and cycle, all laws and ordinances have been changed according to the requirements of the times, except the law of love which, like a fountain, ever flows, and whose course never suffers change.”[11] And it was in terms of love that Abdu’l-Baha, addressing a public gathering in Boston on politics and economics, reduced a complex topic to utmost simplicity: “Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it.”[12]

What better example of how the most fundamental of theories can give rise to the most practical of outcomes!

[1] “The Promise of World Peace”, Oct. 1985.

[2] Farzam Arbab, “The Intellectual Life of the Baha’i Community”, Aug. 2016.

[3] Emmanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”, 1784.

[4] Shoghi Effendi, Mar. 1930, in “The World Order of Baha’u’llah”, pp. 22–23.

[5] Shoghi Effendi, Nov. 1931, in “The World Order of Baha’u’llah”, p. 42.

[6] INBA vol. 88 p. 22, “Min Makatib-i-’Adbu’l-Baha”, #13, p. 7

[7] Tablet to Dr. Forel, p. 13.

[8] “Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha”, #167.

[9] “Some Answered Questions”, ch. 40.

[10] “Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha”, #12.

[11] Bahá’u’lláh, in “The Dawn”, v5#12 p.1 (translated by Shoghi Effendi)

[12] “The Promulgation of Universal Peace”, p. 239.