Balancing Material and Spiritual Civilization

No matter how far the material world advances, it cannot establish the happiness of mankind. Only when material and spiritual civilization are linked and coordinated will happiness be assured. “[1]  With these words Abdu’l Baha introduces another of the great principles of Baha’u’llah’s teachings. In short – that true civilization implies a balanced progress of material and spiritual – with neither predominating.

The immediate implication of this balancing of the material and spiritual is in the realm of human activity and human relationships.

Then material civilization will not contribute its energies to the forces of evil in destroying the oneness of humanity, for in material civilization good and evil advance together and maintain the same pace.[2]

Consider: What is this material civilization of the day giving forth? Has it not produced the instruments of warfare and destruction? In olden times the weapon of war was the sword; today it is the smokeless gun. Warships a century ago were sailing vessels; now we have dreadnoughts. Instruments and means of human destruction have enormously multiplied in this era of material civilization. But if material civilization shall become organized in conjunction with divine civilization, if the man of moral integrity and intellectual acumen shall unite for human betterment and uplift with the man of spiritual capacity, the happiness and progress of the human race will be assured. … Material civilization has advanced unmistakably, but because it is not associated with divine civilization, evil and wickedness abound. In ancient times if two nations were at war twelve months, not over twenty thousand men would be killed; now the instruments of death have become so multiplied and perfected that one hundred thousand can be destroyed in a day. In three months during the Russo-Japanese War one million perished. This was undreamed of in former cycles. The cause is the absence of divine civilization.[3]

As early as 1875 Abdu’l Baha predicted that the progress of warfare would be such as to become intolerable.

The apparatus of conflict will, as preparations go on at their present rate, reach the point where war will become something intolerable to mankind.[4]

As is well known, our weapons are now so horrific that humanity can destroy itself many times over and we stand on the precipice of nuclear war – such that atomic scientists maintain a warning clock measuring how close we stand to midnight (global catastrophe). The clock currently stands at two and a half minutes.

In a previous article we have seen Baha’u’llah’s warnings about carrying “civilization” to excess. There, the progress of civilization was placed in the context of moderation in all things. That if carried too far, what was previously good, would become harmful.

Abdu’l Baha further elaborates the concept of balancing material and spiritual as follows:

Material civilization concerns the world of matter or bodies, but divine civilization is the realm of ethics and moralities. Until the moral degree of the nations is advanced and human virtues attain a lofty level, happiness for mankind is impossible. The philosophers have founded material civilization. The Prophets have founded divine civilization. Christ was the Founder of heavenly civilization. Mankind receives the bounties of material civilization as well as divine civilization from the heavenly Prophets. The capacity for achieving extraordinary and praiseworthy progress is bestowed by Them through the breaths of the Holy Spirit, and heavenly civilization is not possible of attainment or accomplishment otherwise.[5]

Material civilization is like unto the lamp, while spiritual civilization is the light in that lamp. If the material and spiritual civilization become united, then we will have the light and the lamp together, and the outcome will be perfect. For material civilization is like unto a beautiful body, and spiritual civilization is like unto the spirit of life. If that wondrous spirit of life enters this beautiful body, the body will become a channel for the distribution and development of the perfections of humanity.[6]

It is easy enough to understand material civilization. We are continually immersed in it. The concept of spiritual civilization is necessarily abstract. It concerns itself with the connection between the material and the immaterial.  It does not mean a return to an intolerant imposition of religious dogma and superstition – as is evident from the accompanying principle of harmony of science and religion.

Perhaps one way to understand spiritual civilization — is that the progress of spiritual civilization concerns the greater expression of divine qualities in human behaviour and relationships.

It is clear from what has already been said that man’s glory and greatness do not consist in his being avid for blood and sharp of claw, in tearing down cities and spreading havoc, in butchering armed forces and civilians. What would mean a bright future for him would be his reputation for justice, his kindness to the entire population whether high or low, his building up countries and cities, villages and districts, his making life easy, peaceful and happy for his fellow beings, his laying down fundamental principles for progress, his raising the standards and increasing the wealth of the entire population.[7]

All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The Almighty beareth Me witness: To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth.[8]

In the 21st century it also implies the emergence of the unity of humankind.

O ye beloved of God! Know ye, verily, that the happiness of mankind lieth in the unity and the harmony of the human race, and that spiritual and material developments are conditioned upon love and amity among all men. …  consider how the cause of the welfare, happiness, joy and comfort of humankind are amity and union, whereas dissension and discord are most conducive to hardship, humiliation, agitation and failure.[9]

The image above is of the Baha’i House of Worship in New Delhi. In many ways its represents these concepts. It represents the unity of humankind in having doors opening in every direction – welcoming all humanity. Its nine sides represent unity. The House of Worship represents the balancing of material and spiritual – being concerned both with worship of the divine and practical service to humankind. The design of this particular House of Worship – based on the lotus flower – itself a symbol of the emergence of spiritual characteristics within the material realm.


Image Credits: By India edit1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25282581

(This article is the 50th in a series of what I hope will be 200 articles in 200 days for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh. The anniversary is being celebrated around the world on 21 and 22 October 2017, The articles are simply my personal reflections on Bahá’u’lláh’s life and work. Any errors or inadequacies in these articles are solely my responsibility.)

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