Hint: You can’t do it alone
Although it’s not often noted, all of the world’s problems — the humanworld’s problems, anyway — have spiritual roots.
Consider just one that gets a lot of attention: climate change. There is a scientific consensus that the planet is warming and that human activity is the primary reason. Although predictions are always dicey, it’s hard to deny that climate change will have an impact on us.
Why is this a spiritual problem? Because it’s rooted in human behavior. What have we done to cause or aggravate climate change? Have materialism, consumerism, and greed contributed to the problem? Are we willing to accept responsibility for what we’ve done? Are we willing to change our behavior and make sacrifices to moderate the effects?
Every socio-political problem we face arises from our own behavior. It wouldn’t be on us if an asteroid slammed into the Earth, but climate change, war, racism, sexism, nationalism, crime, backstabbing, lying and cheating . . . well, you get the point. These are all on us. They are all problems of human behavior and thus spiritual problems.
So what can we do about it? It’s often said that human nature doesn’t change. While not strictly true — it could, over millions of years of evolution — that’s a mostly valid point. We are what we are. But what, exactly, are we? Hyper-intelligent animals with no true control over our actions? Or spiritual beings with the ability to comprehend right and wrong, good and evil, and to choose our actions accordingly?
One thing is certain by now. We are not our DNA. Genetics provides the pattern upon which our bodies, including our brains, are built, but human behavior isn’t genetically determined. At most, it is genetically influenced. Scientists sparred for a long time over the nature/nurture question, the surprisingly simple-minded assumption that we must either be born as a blank slate or as a deterministic machine. Both have proven wrong. Genetics may play a role in behavior, but we are a lot less machine than is often supposed. We are malleable. We acquire knowledge and experience, form opinions and beliefs, and make conscious choices based on all of that.
This tells us, in broad strokes, how to solve all the world’s problems:
Choose to better ourselves, then do it.
Okay, not easy. Not impossible, but not easy. The weight of history presses upon us. We’ve traveled a course wending through tens of thousands of years to arrive at the present moment. We have a lot of baggage.
This suggests a metaphor. Think of a growing child. From an organism that can’t even see clearly much less sit or stand or walk, over the course of about fifteen years an infant grows to adolescence, acquiring strength, agility, and mental prowess. And then, standing on the cusp of adulthood, the brain undergoes significant changes before reaching full maturity. It can be a tumultuous time for both parents and teens.
That, metaphorically speaking, is where the human race now stands. Our science and technology have grown, giving us enormous power. Our social structures and assumptions have evolved, too. Like it or not, we are on the cusp of a global society. But as with the adolescent brain, that society is not fully matured. The systems required to make it function smoothly are still under construction. Specifically, our global order is based on power and wealth, not on spiritual principles. That’s why, like the mother shaking her head at her teenager’s behavior, we might wonder what our leaders, institutions, or neighbors are thinking when they do what they do.
Still with me? Then I’d like to ask your indulgence for a moment. You may have noticed that I’m a Baha’i. The Baha’i Faith, which originated in Persia in the mid-1800s, is based on the teachings of Baha’u’llah. His writings form the core of Baha’i scripture. If you would, suppose for a moment that God chose that era to give the world a push, like a parent trying to guide a rebellious teenager toward adulthood. Might He have said something like this?
O ye the elected representatives of the people in every land! Take ye counsel together, and let your concern be only for that which profiteth mankind, and bettereth the condition thereof, if ye be of them that scan heedfully. Regard the world as the human body which, though at its creation whole and perfect, hath been afflicted, through various causes, with grave disorders and maladies. Not for one day did it gain ease, nay its sickness waxed more severe, as it fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires, and have erred grievously. And if, at one time, through the care of an able physician, a member of that body was healed, the rest remained afflicted as before. Thus informeth you the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.
We behold it, in this day, at the mercy of rulers so drunk with pride that they cannot discern clearly their own best advantage, much less recognize a Revelation so bewildering and challenging as this. And whenever any one of them hath striven to improve its condition, his motive hath been his own gain, whether confessedly so or not; and the unworthiness of this motive hath limited his power to heal or cure.
~ Baha’u’llah, excerpt from the “Súriy-i-Haykal” (“Tablet of the Temple”), portion addressed to Queen Victoria; The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, para. 174–175
It was, at least, a valid observation at the time. Over a century later, it’s a fair summation of the present moment, too.
Unpacking Baha’u’llah’s teachings takes time and study. They cover the gamut from spiritual principles for individual life to guidance for building a unified world. But in brief, he calls us to adopt a spiritual mindset, a world-embracing vision, and an all-encompassing unity. Indeed, he maintained that only through unity could the world’s problems be resolved. So what does unity entail?
O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.
~ Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, Arabic 68
This is a deeply spiritual vision, consonant with the fundamental teachings of all religions. And note that it’s not about paying lip-service to some pie-in-the-sky philosophy. It calls for genuine love for all, humility before all, and “deeds and actions” that reflect that love and humility.
In short, if we want to transform the world, we must transform ourselves, purifying our motives and actions, bringing ourselves into unity with family, friends, community, and ultimately humanity as a whole.
This is hard. It’s a life-long project. But I believe it is possible with God’s help. As Jesus said, “…with God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26) As we walk this path of spiritual growth, we will naturally begin to affect the people around us, furthering humanity’s passage from adolescence to adulthood. The process won’t be complete for many generations, but it’s underway now and we all can be part of it if we choose.
So there you go. How to solve all the world’s problems. Seek to become more spiritual, more pure, more unified. Together. Little by little. Day by day. Over the long haul. With God’s help.
I think we’ll get there in a few centuries. How about you?