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Covenant and the Foundations of Civil Society

Over a century ago, Bahá'u'lláh, Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, wrote of the impending disintegration and collapse of the established order of civilization:

"Soon will the present-day order be rolled up,and a new one spread out in its stead."

In the interval, experience has borne out the prescience of revelation; this century has seen Bahá'u'lláh's prophetic terms, of disequilibrium and chaos, of the shaking of foundations, become so much a part of daily life that, because of the pervasiveness of such disintegration, some have been led to mistake an abnormal state for a normal one, and to conclude that there simply are no foundations for any human endeavor, and that, in consequence, strife and conflict are the inevitable condition of existence. Yet an increasing number of scholars are now willing to shed the "obtuse secularism" that, as a feature of contemporary frameworks of thought, has systematically excluded serious appraisal of the central importance of religion and spiritual reality in human life and society. Faced by the evidence of the bankruptcy of modernity, whose promises of prosperity through materialism and ideology have proven hollow, thinkers and scholars have begun to turn the light of critical scrutiny upon the far-reaching effects that the displacement of religion by secular ideology has had on civilization in the modern era. That same secularism which was once heralded as the emancipation of civilization is now increasingly identified as the root cause of its disintegration.

This conclusion had been anticipated in the Bahá'í writings, which affirm that social and moral deterioration is directly related to the decline of religion as a social force. Bahá'u'lláh wrote:

"Religion is verily the chief instrument for the establishment of order in the world and of tranquillity amongst its peoples. The weakening of the pillars of religion hath strengthened the foolish and emboldened them and made them more arrogant. Verily I say: The greater the decline of religion, the more grievous the waywardness of the ungodly. This cannot but lead in the end to chaos and confusion."

Material civilization, cut loose from the moderating influence of spiritual values, He warned, "will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation... The day is approaching when its flame will devour the cities...." Affirming the central role of religion in the civilizing of human character, `Abdu'l-Bahá explained:

Universal benefits derive from the grace of the Divine religions, for they lead their true followers to sincerity of intent, to high purpose, to purity and spotless honor, to surpassing kindness and compassion, to the keeping of their covenants when they have covenanted, to concern for the rights of others, to liberality, to justice in every aspect of life, to humanity and philanthropy, to valor and to unflagging efforts in the service of mankind. It is religion, to sum up, which produces all human virtues, and it is these virtues which are the bright candles of civilization.

In the 1930s Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, singled out as an agent of social decline the "prevailing spirit of modernism with its emphasis on a purely materialistic philosophy which, as it diffuses itself, tends to divorce religion from man's daily life," resulting in the erosion of "conceptions of duty, of solidarity, of reciprocity and loyalty" as the center of gravity shifts to the individual self. Symptoms of such a society that has lost its spiritual bearings, he wrote, include religious intolerance, racism and xenophobia, terrorism, crime, alcoholism, the weakening of the family, and the breakdown of political and economic structures, to name but a few.

In the Bahá'í view, however, the current experience of disorder and turmoil is only one aspect of a two-fold process that is ultimately therapeutic and evolutionary, rather than solely destructive. It clears the way for a recovery and renewal of the true and enduring foundations upon which a global moral order can be constructed. Though grounded in eternal verities, this process of spiritual and social evolution is forward looking and cannot be confused with a return to a vanished and unrecoverable past.

Sociologist Robert Bellah has remarked that the characteristic modern attempt to substitute "a technical-rational model of politics for a religious-moral one does not seem to me to be an advantage. Indeed it only exacerbates tendencies that I think are at the heart of our problems. If our problems are, as I believe them to be, centrally moral and even religious, then the effort to sidestep them with purely technical organizational considerations can only worsen them." Although the contemporary combination of the morality of self-interest, capitalism, and technological rationality has departed from the earlier religious and moral world view, he argues, it does not follow that the only possible alternative to modern secularism is the "literal revival of that earlier conception." Indeed, he suggests, "only a new imaginative, religious, moral, and social context for science and technology will make it possible to weather the storms that seem to be closing in on us in the late 20th century."

The Covenantal World View

In the search for solutions to current social problems, attention has been drawn to the importance of social institutions such as the family and religion that represent "seedbeds of virtue": the spiritual foundations provided by religion imbue individuals with the virtues on which both civic participation and governance depend. Yet the connection is even stronger. Religion provides not only the foundations but the bricks and cement of society--the shared beliefs and moral values that unite people into communities, as well as the world view and account of the meaning and purpose of life that infuses those moral values with sense.

These, moreover, provide the basis of all legitimation for authority, the source of legal institutions, as well as the touchstone and standard for evaluating the direction of society.

Many of those who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries influenced and fashioned modern Western political institutions understood the pivotal importance of religion to the coherence and maintenance of a social and political order. They were far less influenced than has often been thought, by that typically modern secular rationalism that displaces God by human reason; on the contrary, the world view that informed their thinking was based on the scriptural account of human nature as having a spiritual purpose, which was summed up in the idea of the divine Covenant between God and humankind. The purpose of human reason was to know the existence of God, whose handiwork was evident in creation; the summit of human freedom was to recognize and to give assent to the superior authority of revelation, thus entering into a covenant to willingly obey His commands.

This covenantal account of human nature, shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is reaffirmed in the Bahá'í Faith as an eternal truth. So it is not surprising to find that some of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings about freedom and rights, for instance, bear a similarity to certain ideas of earlier ethical thinkers, for the very reason that the concepts of religious freedom and conscience are directly related to the idea of the divine Covenant. But to confuse this transhistorical continuity for simple influence would be a mistake underrating its great significance. John Locke (1632-1704), for instance, drew his vastly influential ideas on religious toleration and liberty directly from the Bible and the logical implications of the Covenant. According to Daniel J. Elazar, the long history of deliberation about the rights and obligations of parties to compacts in medieval Jewish public law anticipated the seventeenth-century political theorists precisely because "both schools flowed from a common source"--the biblical covenants. David Little points out that modern doctrines of freedom of religion, including that in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, far from being reducible to the influence of Enlightenment rationalism, are "unthinkable" apart from the religious concept of conscience, a concept also asserted in the Qur'an.

Much has been written about the tremendous impact of seventeenth-century covenant or "federal" theology on the founding of the American colonies and subsequent developments of the U.S. constitutional era. The pivotal concept of the covenantal view is a distinctive idea of freedom, which throughout its history and in various diverse settings has retained a remarkable unity and consistency. "Covenant liberty" has been conceptualized as a dialectic of freedom and duty: the liberation gained was from the bonds of selfish desire; the supreme achievement of human freedom and agency was submission to the divine law. According to Bellah, the "profoundly social" nature of this "covenant liberty" was reflected in the words of the eighteenth-century New England Baptist, Isaac Backus:

The true liberty of man is, to know, obey and enjoy his Creator, and to do all the good unto, and enjoy all the happiness with and in his fellow creatures that he is capable of; in order to which the law of love was written in his heart, which carries in it's nature union and benevolence to Being in general, and to each being in particular, according to it's nature and excellency, and to it's relation and connexion with the supreme Being, and ourselves. Each rational soul, as he is part of the whole system of rational beings, so it was and is, both his duty and his liberty to regard the good of the whole in all his actions.

In the nineteenth century, through a number of factors, not least of which was the corrosive effect of secularization and its resulting atomistic individualism, the social consensus in this religious vision of social and moral order became steadily eroded. Today that original religious concept of freedom as "true liberty" that "meant freedom to do the good and was almost equivalent to virtue," a conception embedded in a context of social obligation and divine purpose, has been displaced by an ideological notion of freedom as the liberty of the isolated individual to pursue self-interest without interference.

Wendy M. Heller explores the religious origins of the organizing principles of civil society, tracks their secularization in the modern era, and examines the prospect of an inclusive global moral order based on the enduring concept of covenant. This article appeared in the 1995-96 edition of The Bahá'í World, pp. 185-222.



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