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Century of Light

  • Author:
  • Universal House of Justice

  • Source:
  • Bahá’í World Centre, 2001 edition
  • Pages:
  • 157
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Pages 1-7


Let us acknowledge at the outset the magnitude of the ruin that the human race has brought upon itself during the period of history under review. The loss of life alone has been beyond counting. The disintegration of basic institutions of social order, the violation—indeed, the abandonment—of standards of decency, the betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty, the invention and deployment of monstrous weapons of mass annihilation, the bankrupting of entire nations and the reduction of masses of human beings to hopeless poverty, the reckless destruction of the environment of the planet—such are only the more obvious in a catalogue of horrors unknown to even the darkest of ages past. Merely to mention them is to call to mind the Divine warnings expressed in Bahá’u’lláh’s words of a century ago: "O heedless ones! Though the wonders of My mercy have encompassed all created things, both visible and invisible, and though the revelations of My grace and bounty have permeated every atom of the universe, yet the rod with which I can chastise the wicked is grievous, and the fierceness of Mine anger against them terrible." 1
Lest any observer of the Cause be tempted to misunderstand such warnings as only metaphorical, Shoghi Effendi, drawing some of the historical implications, wrote in 1941: 2
A tempest, unprecedented in its violence, unpredictable in its course, catastrophic in its immediate effects, unimaginably glorious in its ultimate consequences, is at present sweeping the face of the earth. Its driving power is remorselessly gaining in range and momentum. Its cleansing force, however much undetected, is increasing with every passing day. Humanity, gripped in the clutches of its devastating power, is smitten by the evidences of its resistless fury. It can neither perceive its origin, nor probe its significance, nor discern its outcome. Bewildered, agonized and helpless, it watches this great and mighty wind of God invading the remotest and fairest regions of the earth, rocking its foundations, deranging its equilibrium, sundering its nations, disrupting the homes of its peoples, wasting its cities, driving into exile its kings, pulling down its bulwarks, uprooting its institutions, dimming its light, and harrowing up the souls of its inhabitants. 2
From the point of view of wealth and influence, "the world" of 1900 was Europe and, by grudging concession, the United States. Throughout the planet, Western imperialism was pursuing among the populations of other lands what it regarded as its "civilizing mission". In the words of one historian, the century’s opening decade appeared to be essentially a continuation of the "long nineteenth century", 3 an era whose boundless self-satisfaction was perhaps best epitomized by the celebration in 1897 of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, a parade that rolled for hours through the streets of London, with an imperial panoply and display of military power far surpassing anything attempted in past civilizations.
As the century began, there were few, whatever their degree of social or moral sensitivity, who perceived the catastrophes lying ahead, and few, if any, who could have conceived their magnitude. The military leadership of most European nations assumed that war of some kind would break out, but viewed the prospect with equanimity because of the twin fixed convictions that it would be short and would be won by their side. 3
To an extent that seemed little short of miraculous, the international peace movement was enlisting the support of statesmen, industrialists, scholars, the media, and influential personalities as unlikely as the tsar of Russia. If the inordinate increase in armaments seemed ominous, the network of painstakingly crafted and often overlapping alliances seemed to give assurance that a general conflagration would be avoided and regional disputes settled, as they had been through most of the previous century. This illusion was reinforced by the fact that Europe’s crowned heads—most of them members of one extended family, and many of them exercising seemingly decisive political power—addressed one another familiarly by nicknames, carried on an intimate correspondence, married one another’s sisters and daughters, and vacationed together throughout long stretches of each year at one another’s castles, regattas and shooting lodges. Even the painful disparities in the distribution of wealth were being energetically—if not very systematically—addressed in Western societies through legislation designed to restrain the worst of the corporate freebooting of preceding decades and to meet the most urgent demands of growing urban populations.
The vast majority of the human family, living in lands outside the Western world, shared in few of the blessings and little of the optimism of their European and American brethren. China, despite its ancient civilization and its sense of itself as the "Middle Kingdom", had become the hapless victim of plundering by Western nations and by its modernizing neighbour Japan. The multitudes in India—whose economy and political life had fallen so totally under the domination of a single imperial power as to exclude the usual jockeying for advantage—escaped some of the worst of the abuses afflicting other lands, but watched impotently as their desperately needed resources were drained away. The coming agony of Latin America was all too clearly prefigured in the suffering of Mexico, large sections of which had been annexed by its great northern neighbour, and whose natural resources were already attracting the attention of avaricious foreign corporations. Particularly embarrassing from a Western point of view—because of its proximity to such brilliant European capitals as Berlin and Vienna—was the medieval oppression in which the hundred million nominally liberated serfs in 4 Russia led lives of sullen, hopeless misery. Most tragic of all was the plight of the inhabitants of the African continent, divided against one another by artificial boundaries created through cynical bargains among European powers. It has been estimated that during the first decade of the twentieth century over a million people in the Congo perished—starved, beaten, worked literally to death for the profit of their distant masters, a preview of the fate that was to engulf well over one hundred million of their fellow human beings across Europe and Asia before the century reached its end. 4
These masses of humankind, despoiled and scorned—but representing most of the earth’s inhabitants—were seen not as protagonists but essentially as objects of the new century’s much vaunted civilizing process. Despite benefits conferred on a minority among them, the colonial peoples existed chiefly to be acted upon—to be used, trained, exploited, Christianized, civilized, mobilized—as the shifting agendas of Western powers dictated. These agendas may have been harsh or mild in execution, enlightened or selfish, evangelical or exploitative, but were shaped by materialistic forces that determined both their means and most of their ends. To a large extent, religious and political pieties of various kinds masked both ends and means from the publics in Western lands, who were thus able to derive moral satisfaction from the blessings their nations were assumed to be conferring on less worthy peoples, while themselves enjoying the material fruits of this benevolence.
To point out the failings of a great civilization is not to deny its accomplishments. As the twentieth century opened, the peoples of the West could take justifiable pride in the technological, scientific and philosophical developments for which their societies had been responsible. Decades of experimentation had placed in their hands material means that were still beyond the appreciation of the rest of humanity. Throughout both Europe and America vast industries had risen, dedicated to metallurgy, to the manufacturing of chemical products of every kind, to textiles, to construction and to the production of instruments that enhanced every aspect of life. A continuous process of discovery, design and improvement was making accessible power of unimaginable magnitude—with, alas, ecological consequences equally unimagined at 5 the time—especially through the use of cheap fuel and electricity. The "era of the railroad" was far advanced and steamships coursed the seaways of the world. With the proliferation of telegraph and telephone communication, Western society anticipated the moment when it would be freed of the limiting effects that geographical distances had imposed on humankind since the dawn of history.
Changes taking place at the deeper level of scientific thought were even more far-reaching in their implications. The nineteenth century had still been held in the grip of the Newtonian view of the world as a vast clockwork system, but by the end of the century the intellectual strides necessary to challenge that view had already been taken. New ideas were emerging that would lead to the formulation of quantum mechanics; and before long the revolutionizing effect of the theory of relativity would call into question beliefs about the phenomenal world that had been accepted as common sense for centuries. Such breakthroughs were encouraged—and their influence greatly amplified—by the fact that science had already changed from an activity of isolated thinkers to the systematically pursued concern of a large and influential international community enjoying the amenities of universities, laboratories and symposia for the exchange of experimental discoveries.
Nor was the strength of Western societies limited to scientific and technological advances. As the twentieth century opened, Western civilization was reaping the fruits of a philosophical culture that was rapidly liberating the energies of its populations, and whose influence would soon produce a revolutionary impact throughout the entire world. It was a culture which nurtured constitutional government, prized the rule of law and respect for the rights of all of society’s members, and held up to the eyes of all it reached a vision of a coming age of social justice. If the boasts of liberty and equality that inflated patriotic rhetoric in Western lands were a far cry from conditions actually prevailing, Westerners could justly celebrate the advances toward those ideals that had been accomplished in the nineteenth century.
From a spiritual perspective the age was gripped by a strange, paradoxical duality. In almost every direction the intellectual horizon was darkened by clouds of superstition produced by unthinking imitation of 6 earlier ages. For most of the world’s peoples, the consequences ranged from profound ignorance about both human potentialities and the physical universe, to naïve attachment to theologies that bore little or no relation to experience. Where winds of change did dispel the mists, among the educated classes in Western lands, inherited orthodoxies were all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that called into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularization of society’s upper levels seemed to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population. At the deepest level—because religion’s influence reaches far into the human psyche and claims for itself a unique kind of authority—religious prejudices in all lands had kept alive in successive generations smouldering fires of bitter animosity that would fuel the horrors of the coming decades. 5 7
1. Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1990), p. 81.   [ Back To Reference]
2. Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1996), p. 1.   [ Back To Reference]
3. Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991 (London: Abacus, 1995), p. 584.   [ Back To Reference]
4. Leopold II, King of the Belgians, operated the colony as a private preserve for some three decades (1877–1908). The atrocities carried out under his misrule aroused international protest, and in 1908 he was compelled to surrender the territory to the administration of the Belgian government.   [ Back To Reference]
5. The processes that brought about these changes are reviewed in some detail by A. N. Wilson, et al., God’s Funeral (London: John Murray, 1999). In 1872, a book published by Winwood Reade under the title The Martyrdom of Man (London: Pemberton Publishing, 1968), which became something of a secular "Bible" in the early decades of the twentieth century, expressed the confidence that "finally, men will master the forces of Nature. They will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds. Man will then be perfect; he will then be a creator; he will therefore be what the vulgar worship as a god." Cited by Anne Glyn-Jones, Holding up a Mirror: How Civilizations Decline (London: Century, 1996), pp. 371–372.   [ Back To Reference]