From the beginning to the end of his life man passes through certain periods or stages each of which is marked by certain conditions peculiar to itself…
Similarly there are periods and stages in the life of the aggregate world of humanity which at one time was passing through its degree of childhood, at another its time of youth but now has entered its long presaged period of maturity, the evidences of which are everywhere visible and apparent. Therefore the requirements and conditions of former periods have changed and merged into exigencies which distinctly characterize the present age of the world of mankind. That which was applicable to human needs during the early history of the race could neither meet nor satisfy the demands of this day and period of newness and consummation. Humanity has emerged from its former degrees of limitation and preliminary training. Man must now become imbued with new virtues and powers, new moralities, new capacities. New bounties, bestowals and perfections are awaiting and already descending upon him. The gifts and graces of the period of youth although timely and sufficient during the adolescence of the world of mankind, are now incapable of meeting the requirements of its maturity. The playthings of childhood and infancy no longer satisfy or interest the adult mind. — Abdu’l-Bahá. Foundations of World Unity, p. 10
In the above passage, Abdu’l-Bahá puts mankind on the approach ramp to maturity. His grandson, Shoghi Effendi, writing decades later, speaks in several of his discourses of this time in history as the “coming of age of the entire human race”, and “the consummation of human evolution”. The key feature of this is a dawning awareness and conscious involvement with the idea that—as Bahá’u’lláh put it—”The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”
Coming of age.
The phrase put us squarely in the midst of our pimply, rebellious adolescence. A time in which an increasingly adult body is harnessed to a child’s mind. A time in which many teens question or even flout authority, doubt that anyone older or more experienced than they could possibly have anything interesting or important to say, and believe themselves to be both cunning and invincible (and, of course, darned good-looking, to boot).
A glance around the globe tends to reinforce this idea. The zeitgeist—at least in the western hemisphere—can be summed up in the pubescent anthem: “You’re not the boss of me.”
In some ways, as Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi have both noted, this is a Good Thing.
In Foundations of World Unity (p. 83), Abdu’l-Bahá asks: “Shall man gifted with the power of reason unthinkingly adhere to dogma which will not bear the analysis of reason?”
Shoghi Effendi, meanwhile, speaks frequently of the need to overthrow the “outworn shibboleths” of dogmatic creeds. Questioning authority, asking why things are the way they are has a strong, positive potential … if those asking the question are honestly and actively seeking a better way to do things and not just a license to behave irresponsibly.
Here in the US, the idea that each man is an island is growing in popularity as almost a backlash against the growing awareness that there is such a thing as a global community. We fondly imagine that we are little universes each on our own and that our choices, attitudes and behaviors do not affect others.
I remember a college ethics class in which we were discussing drug use as a societal problem. The girl in front of me opined that if she chose to do cocaine and happened to overdose on it, it was no one’s business but her own—a victimless crime.
I said, “I didn’t realize you were an orphan.”
“I’m not,” she said, looking puzzled. “I have a family. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“So, if you OD on cocaine, none of them will be hurt by it? Your mom won’t wonder where she screwed up? Your dad won’t grieve for his little girl? What about the person who finds your body? What if it’s your best friend. You do have friends, right?”
She got my point. We can pretend to be islands all we want. but the reality is, we’re completely interdependent. And, yes, that challenges our sense of independent “islandness”. But, if that independence is a qualified independence or even a chimera, it’s hardly rational to pretend that it’s real.
The world is in a constant state of change as are our lives within it. We are required, every day, to grapple with new ideas, new attitudes, new responsibilities …
Aye, there’s the rub.
I have told each of my children as they approached puberty that if they want to be treated like adults (i.e., trusted to make sane, rational decisions and to control their momentary impulses) they must first act like adults. I’ve been a very lucky parent. My children have, for the most part, gotten any rebellious behavior out of their system while in elementary school and have taken to heart the idea that along with adult powers and privileges comes adult responsibility and accountability.
Mankind as a species … not so much. We seem to desire every privilege we can squeeze out of life, without responsibility or accountability. Whenever ill comes of our decisions, someone else (other human beings, or circumstances, or even God) must certainly be to blame. And more and more, a good many of us look to science to circumvent the need to evolve further as human beings.
To be sure, we have employed science—and its robot child, technology—well in many respects to give us evolutionary advances that have taken other animals eons to achieve. We can move faster than sound, literally move mountains, leap tall buildings in helicopters and even fly through space. We are Super-species. Go us!
But increasingly, thinkers among us want science to solve our moral conundrums. In any number of areas of human life—but especially in the consumption of substances and sexual behavior—an increasingly vocal minority looks to science to mankind from the results of its behavior. The suggestion that one might use one’s rational faculties to overcome animal urges (whatever it’s ganging up on the weak, lashing out at those perceived to be trespassing on one’s turf in some way, or sexual acquisitiveness) is not politically correct. The subtext of the zeitgeist at that level seems to be that humans ought to be able to indulge in any desired behavior and depend on science to dodge the consequences.
All in all, it’s a very adolescent attitude. Our relationship as a species with our Creator (or any authority figure) is very much like a teen’s relationship with a parent against which he is rebelling. We indulge in a myriad self-destructive behaviors, then ask why God allows us to do so. We even use God’s lack of direct intervention as proof of His non-existence.
I think most parents have had at least one episode in which a child did something the parent had warned them repeatedly against. The child’s refrain is often, “Why didn’t you tell me?” Or even “Why didn’t you stop me?”
The parent’s answer (as they wonder if they could have done more) is “I tried. You didn’t listen.” Children aren’t muppets. And neither is the human race. Both are organic, evolving intelligences that, at some point, need to exchange the “playthings of childhood and infancy” for something that will satisfy, not just an grown up’s body, but a grown up’s mind, heart, and soul.