by Fisher Ng
Variation is inherent in the universe in the laws of probability, the statistical distribution of characteristics in populations, and the sensitive dynamics of nature. Variation also emerges in the differing opinions, the manifold religious beliefs, the breadth of cultural values, and the variety of aspirations held by humanity. Despite these vast differences, humanity is one. Issues of nationalism, senses of racial superiority, evidences of political oppression and domination, and the blatant disregard for the dignity of others in everyday interactions are forces threatening to uproot the oneness of humankind.
Far from the dichotomous thinking that poses variation and oneness as conflictual opposites is the verity that concepts of oneness and diversity, as with many other seemingly polar opposites, are instead complimentary. The resolution of conflicts of racial prejudice, gender discrimination, nationalism, and wealth inequality lies in a reframing of thought that both validates the right of the individual to hold beliefs and acknowledges the existence of an absolute Truth with which all humanity must strive to align their thinking and actions. Foundational to a constructive mindset that promotes peace and societal change is an understanding of unity in diversity.
Unity is neither uniformity or tolerance; unity is completeness through interdependence. Unity in diversity can be best understood through examples of orchestral instruments playing in harmony, animals and plants of ecological systems mutually-supporting the survival of the various creatures, or organs of the human body collaborating to support a functioning human. Alone, a single instrument, animal, or organ has little meaning or capacity to express itself fully. Yet, when contextualized in a wider system that embraces the diversity and interdependence of all the elements, each element finds its truest expression. The heart pumping blood would be useless if the lungs failed; only when all the organs of the body function in unison can the body survive.
Likewise, humanity’s spiritual progress is contingent on the acceptance of the unity of mankind. Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, exhorts humanity to be unified, writing, “Be ye as the fingers of one hand, the members of one body” (Bahá’u’lláh, 40). Likewise, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Bahá’u’lláh, stated, “Be as one spirit, one soul, leaves of one tree, flowers of one garden, waves of one ocean” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Talk 10). In describing the necessity of unity in diversity, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá further states,
“If the flowers of a garden were all of one color, the effect would be monotonous to the eye; but if the colors are variegated, it is most pleasing and wonderful. The difference in adornment of color and capacity of reflection among the flowers gives the garden its beauty and charm. Therefore, although we are of different individualities, different in ideas and of various fragrances, let us strive like flowers of the same divine garden to live together in harmony.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Talk 10)
The power and beauty of humanity rests in the individual’s active participation in the creation of a unified and diverse society.
Just as the universe is not static and must change, human nature impels individuals and society to grow and develop technologically, ethically, and spiritually. The erection of a new world order characterized by unity in diversity and peace, as compared with the conflictual nature of the present world order, hinges most fundamentally on the active participation of the individual in society and our efforts to align our thoughts with the vision of a better world. It is evident, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states, that “only if material progress goes hand in hand with spirituality can any real progress come about” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks). Spiritual progress entails advancing a morally-sound culture striving for unity, and its realization will redound to the capacity for honest and ethical practices of business and work that will allow humanity to advance technologically at a pace far beyond that of our present society.
Individual spiritual progress takes the form of living a coherent life and advancing a two-fold moral purpose. Spiritual progress means we must have the humility to realize we are not born with a perfect set of qualities, but must strive through our lives to learn to be better. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states, “There are imperfections in every human being, and you will always become unhappy if you look toward the people themselves. But if you look toward God, you will love them and be kind them, for the world of God is the world of perfection and complete mercy” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Talk 39). In the spirit of change, we must not look at people for who they are, but what they can be through change instigated from personal volition; this applies especially when looking toward ourselves. To each person God has endowed capacities that must be nurtured and unleashed for the benefit to the world. In the same manner, for change to be possible, we must not look at the society that is, rather should we envision and learn of the society that can be. Looking at faults only breeds more faults and pessimism that prevents constructive and enthusiastic action from taking place.
The individual and society are not separate, but mutually-reinforcing. Culture shapes individual behaviors, and the aggregate set of individual behaviors influences culture. The twofold moral purpose, requires of people “to develop their inherent potentialities and to contribute to the transformation of society” (Universal House of Justice “12 December 2011”), because in serving society, one changes the reality of culture, making culture more conducive to personal growth. In serving others, we also develop capacities of leadership; grow in our virtues of exhibiting love, friendship, humility, and patience; and gain greater exposure to the various peoples of the world, allowing us to appreciate those of different backgrounds.
Our human nature is a constant struggle—a persistent state variation—between expressing our nobler spiritual nature through service and worship, and resisting earthly desires and temptations that turn us away from what is truly profitable for us. Expressing our truest human nature spiritually, intellectually, and morally through service to others requires more than time dedicated to acts of service alone. Service is a lifestyle and a state of being attainable only through a consistent pattern of planning, action, study, and reflection on action. Through such a pattern of behavior, we must strive to adopt a humble posture of learning, knowing that, while our opinions are valid, we must be willing to constantly refine and advance our understanding as a collective civilization.
As a lifestyle, service also entails living within a community or neighborhood, deepening friendships through empowering and accompanying others on a path of service, and having the humility to realize that long-term change does not come overnight. Change requires time, but “Small steps, if they are regular and rapid, add up to a great distance travelled” (Universal House of Justice “Ridvan 2016”). While often social movements produce sudden results, the change is an uncovering of years of effort on the part of individuals advancing change. The beauty of social action is that inevitably it requires the unification of humanity, and that through ceaselessly dedicating oneself to serving others one advances society and learns to express their truest self.
Service should not be another aspect of a compartmentalized life. To live a life of service does not mean one needs to sacrifice prospects of a job or deny oneself opportunities afforded through hard work. Seeing work as worship and understanding the true significance of building bonds of friendship as laying the foundations of a unified society allow one to avoid leading double lives. When work, family, friendships, leisure activities, and all the other aspects of one’s life are centered around serving others, the conflict instigated by having to make dichotomous choices created by a compartmentalized life disappear. In essence, living life to its fullest entails embracing the diversity of things we do in a way that feels unifying, and having the humility to realize changing one’s life and society will take time and sustained effort.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Paris Talks. Bahá’í Reference Library, www.bahai.org/r/407182695.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Bahá’í Reference Library, https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/promulgation-universal-peace/1#820079356.
Bahá’u’lláh. Kitab-i-Aqdas. Bundoora, Bahá’í Publications Australia, 1993.
Universal House of Justice. “12 December 2011, Letter to All National Spiritual Assemblies.” Bahá’í Reference Library, 12 December 2011,https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/#20111212_001.
Universal House of Justice. “Ridvan 2016 – To the Bahá’ís of the World.” Bahá’í Reference Library, 2016, https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/#20160420_001.