Decay and Adolescence

This has been a strange summer in Kyrgyzstan. The Alatoo region is normally dry and dusty, June straight through September. Instead, everyday has been sweaty and stormy. Months of these indecisive days, thermometers and barometers soaring and plummeting and soaring again. I have always been sensitive to sudden changes in weather. Like my mind, my body seems to crave routine: give me relentless heat, but let it be relentless.

Perhaps, though, the fractured climate expresses the character of our epoch. I mean more than the Covid-19 pandemic, or the Trumpian political upheavals of the past few years. As a faith community keenly interested in the unification of humanity and the achievement of, in our view, a divine civilization, fellow Baha’is and I have been discussing at length about the nature of the sense of crisis that seems to pervade the very earth itself. I have also been discussing with a conservative Christian friend, and of course, putting the question to myself, as well. What follows here are my thoughts.

Barber, Kardeshev, Saul

A fellow Baha’i in China thinks in the direction of Benjamin Barber’s “Jihad versus McWorld”, namely, that we are undergoing the push and pull between the nation-state and an embryonic global order, a “human-state”, if you will. This is an undeniably interesting viewpoint, for religion plays an intriguing role in the struggle: does it affirm and guard the distinctiveness of nations, cultures and traditions, or does it challenge and change them? Can it do both, or should it separate entirely from the struggle and offer a transcendence outside history? Indeed, should religion engage in politics, or if not in politics per se, then should it have a political orientation? A hypothetical: one can imagine how the Baha’i Faith, in preaching the fundamental unity of humanity and the necessity of recognizing and expressing this unity in a “world commonwealth“, perhaps could bridge these divides by serving the role of a kind of “human nationalism”.

Another Baha’i friend in Europe has suggested that we are undergoing a Kardeshevian transformation. Learning how to become a planetary civilization, after all, must inevitably be a process of painful individual and collective self-education, in which we are learning how to access and optimize our resources — natural, intellectual, emotional, spiritual. The role of religion, then, is to be mentor to our civilizational autodidact. Baha’is refer to prophets as “divine educators“, and Baha’u’llah has said of religion in general, “[I]s not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions? For if the character of mankind be not changed, the futility of God’s universal Manifestations would be apparent.”

Other Baha’i friends think in more orthodox terms: humanity continues to resist recognizing Baha’u’llah as the promised Manifestation of God for this epoch. People cling either to their individual autonomy or, to quote Abdu’l-Baha, persist in the “continual imitation of ancient and worn-out ways, [such that] the world had grown dark as darksome night”. In a sense, then, the world is still approaching its Pauline conversion. Collectively, we are Saul, the persecutor of our inner Christians, riding toward an historical Damascus.

Conservatism and Liberalism

A Christian friend and I have been discussing the crisis along more perennialist lines, in terms of the conservative-liberal divide that exists, and will always exist, within society. In my view, conservatism is, at root, about preservation, liberalism about evolution. Society, like an organism, desires and needs both impulses. As conservatism and liberalism arise from deep within, their content — what people become conservative or liberal about, both nominally and attitudinally — constantly shifts and depends on the context. Yesterday’s conservative can swiftly become today’s liberal, and likewise vice versa, without any conscious intention or effort on their part to do so; history simply changes.

Let me dig deeper for a moment. My Christian friend posits that conservatism is based in the concrete realities of family and community, whether a neighborhood or a nation, while liberalism is a kind of abstraction. I think he is correct. Along these lines, I would argue that conservatism is a base state and there literally is no liberalism without it, as the latter derives its substance from the former. However, without liberalism, conservatism also cannot recognize itself, and hence remains unconscious. This is why they need each other, something akin to a ground and superstructure, or Aristotelian hylomorphism.

Conservatism and liberalism are not fixed states; they are mobile, depending on what an individual or a population are dealing with. Hence, those in favor of the traditional nuclear family, if they are in a society for whom the status quo value system has become centered around non-traditional families or no families at all, may find themselves to actually be liberal, even if they may self-identify as conservative. They self-identify as conservative because of the mirroring effect of dealing with self-identified liberals who have changed (or are in the process of changing) the status quo value system.

A more concrete and pertinent example is how in many Islamic societies since the nineteenth century, the perception of who qualifies for the category of “conservative” versus “liberal”, depending on one’s historiography, may be way off the mark. It is often noted that these societies were once cosmopolitan and pluralistic in their disposition. That could be taken to suggest that figures such as Mahmoud Mohammed Taha should be considered conservative and not “liberal”, while “conservatives” — even “fundamentalists” — such as Sayyid Qutb should be considered liberals.

Pax Americana

An Eagle Scout, I was raised a true believer in the American project of liberal democracy, as well as the international order of institutions and globalization that my homeland had been steadily building since the end of the Second World War. Although I would have voted for Sanders or Yang — and will, pinching my nose, vote for Biden — thereby placing myself quite firmly in the liberal wing of the contemporary American political spectrum, I am by instinct conservative about the world order my ancestors built. I lament at the injustices we inflicted on, or otherwise facilitated in, Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia in pursuit of that world order, and I rage at our descent into imperial and neo-liberal greed since the collapse of our Soviet foe. Yet, I still see great value in the Pax Americana.

Consequently, one of my hardest struggles as a Baha’i has been the notion that “the institutions of the old world order are crumbling and in disarray. Materialism, greed, corruption and conflict are infecting the social order with a grave malaise from which it is helpless to extricate itself”. This helplessness, it is said, arises from an intrinsic insufficiency, even fallacy, within the old world order. Yet, such a diagnosis seems to also deny the great advances in material development, and with it, to a lesser degree, justice and spiritual development, that the Pax Americana has achieved.

Of course, the United States is not the first empire to bring about as much good as it does evil. Nor would it be the first of the more, let us say “enlightened” empires to become blinded, even deluded, by its own goodness, and in the throes of its collective egoism, systematically undermine not only itself, but its accomplishments. Thucydides comes to mind: Athens, the Delian League, Sparta.


Recently, I stumbled on this remark by Frithjof Schuon: “All civilizations have decayed; only they have decayed in different ways: the decay of the East is passive and that of the West is active. […] The fault of the East in decay is that it no longer thinks; the West in decay thinks too much and thinks wrongly. The East is sleeping over truths; the West lives in errors.” Schuon was critiquing Modernity, which in general he seemed, if I understand him correctly, to have rejected. However, I draw from his observation a very different insight: decay, while often thought of as a negative state — a collapse, a dissolution, a loss — is also a positive state, for from amidst the rot there will grow fungi, some quite medicinal, and all part of the vast cycle of life and death.

We should not fear ruin. Decay is a loss, for sure. Yet, the process of decay itself is full of new combinations and recombinations that in-themselves are indeed valuable. And moreover, the process of decay is full of the promise of new growth. The Pax Americana has, and is, and will be valuable, but not because it is an end to history; no, because it is a necessary step in a great becoming. Just as a skeleton can persist long after the rot, even fossilizing, it is impossible to predict what will be the good legacies left behind by my homeland, which institutions and practices, which concepts and standards. Yet, good legacies there must inevitably be.

The choice, then, is not whether decline, ruin, decay can be delayed, even averted; this will happen sooner or later. The choice is how will America go to the grave. It is, in essence, a choice of consciousness: will it go down into the dark earth in denial, unwillingness, unconsciousness, as Athens did, struck down by Sicilian folly and Spartan fury, poisoned with ego and fruitless, or will it make of its grave fertile soil for a new world order?

Revolutionary Elderly

My homeland’s end is coming, perhaps even in my own lifetime, perhaps even soon, as the Republicans — reeling from Trump’s choleric populism — and the Democrats — in denial of my generation’s need for a different America — frantically seek any way to salvage neo-liberalism and the prosperity of a few. We have become a gerontocracy, not so much in our literal demographics — that is coming in a few decades with my generation, as the birth rate, possibly as much for worse as for better, rapidly declines — but in Republican nostalgia and Democratic senility. They fight to save oligarchy from itself, rather than to save Americans from oligarchy.

Hong Kong’s Jimmy Lai has insightfully remarked that, in the face of oppression, “We have to be more careful and creative in [our] resistance […] we can’t be as radical as before — especially young people — because the more radical [we are] the shorter lifespan we have in our fighting.” This hearkens to a wisdom that goes back to the shamans, who were often old: it is the elderly, not the young, who should be revolutionary. They have less to lose in this world, as they already stand on the threshold of eternity, while also possessing the experience and intelligence needed to bring about change. Let the young be conservative; the duty of the old is to be liberal.

Unfortunately, this is a rare insight. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, the community elders, the so-called “white beards” of the village, too often take it as their task to preserve a social order that is destined to go to the grave with them. They imagine themselves as guardians against the darkness of forgetting, forgetting how the legendary khan Manas was advised by the elder Bakai, he “who [found] the way in the dark and words of wisdom when necessary”. This is just one example; society after society today rages at the unjust dark side of the Pax Americana, yet is unwilling or unable to relinquish it. Populism is as much a ruse as neo-liberalism; they both, in different ways, are servants of oligarchy. Only Beijing, with a tradition of revolutionary elderly, seems to understand this sad reality. It puppeteers both populism and neo-liberalism, at home and abroad, as it steadily works to replace the Pax America with the Zhōnghuá Zhìshì.

Religion and Ideology

I agree, then, with my fellow Chinese Baha’i that the struggle right now is between the nation-state and globalization. I should note that she also further suggests that it is the decline of religion that is contributing to the crisis. A sinkhole has opened beneath the foundations of the world, but humanity keeps trying to repair the foundations rather than fill the pit.

While true in my opinion, I also think there exists a higher level: a struggle between religion and ideology. To be clear about my definition of “religion” and “ideology”, these concepts do not necessarily include the factual belief systems that people and governments normally call religions and ideologies. Religion and ideology for me are, ultimately, two opposed existential orientations, attitudes toward life and death, not necessarily this or that “-ism”, if you will. Essentially, religion is faith, ideology fear; religion is reason, ideology unreason.

More concretely: ideology, for me, is any kind of pre-set “truth” that supersedes the need to reason and tries to make the messiness of existence clean and easy. In its simplest form, it appears in the form of: when X is always wrong regardless of circumstance, or Y are always an enemy regardless of history, etc. The American commitment to individual autonomy and the free market is a good example. These principles have reached such an absurd level of application, such that even in the middle of a health crisis that demands clear governmental action, many Americans still revolt against masks and dread “Medicare For All”. They are afraid of losing a fictitious freedom and prosperity that was never ours to begin with, unable to see how it is precisely this fear that enslaves and impoverishes them.

At an empirical level, religion and ideology as specific belief systems are found involved in the current crisis as a cross-vector, sometimes overlapping with nation-state, sometimes overlapping with globalization. Islam is very much at the forefront of this right now, with different Islamist movements focused very specifically on nations, and others having a broader vision of uniting Muslim community into a single political unit.

At a philosophical level, though, the crisis is not per se aroused by the decline of religion, but the decline of true religion. As always with me, definitions are key. I mean “true” here in both a factual and spiritual sense: factual, in that most people have not recognized Baha’u’llah (much less any Manifestation); spiritual, in that most people completely misunderstand the function of religion to begin with, even if their intentions are good.

Ideology — which, in my way of thinking, is the Satan of our era, the way in which ego is expressed within ourselves and our societies — also often poses as religion, across history into today. A lot of what has been called “religion”, whenever it has aspired to be more than superstition and fanaticism, is secretly transformed into ideology, as though corrupted from the inside by a viral infection.

Fact and Consensus

My dismissal of American free market principles as ideology may sound like cruel disregard of my Right-wing compatriots. This grieves me. Although on the Left, I made a choice in 2016, as an American committed to our civic principles and as a Baha’i committed to unity, not to dismiss them as “deplorables”, but to understand them and find common ground. Since then, I have come to see there are deeply important truths on the Right, and through the love and fraternity of newly-made Right-wing friends, I have found my own inner conservative, about the value of marriage, family and duty, religion, morality and community, about the nobler aspects of my American upbringing. My Right-wing friends have made me a truer Baha’i, simply put.

Moreover, insofar that Biden’s centrism has any credence and substance, true democracy, if not true politics, we must relearn the art of compromise and consensus, rewrite the equation by which all sides gain even when giving up. I long to find a way forward between Right and Left, whether it be Yang’s universal basic income, or a more tightly-regulated immigration policy, or a “public option” instead of Medicare For All. The contemporary Left must be willing to countenance the sacrifice of questions dear to it, such as whether transgendered compatriots should have their own toilets or be permitted entranced into the toilet of their choice — or indeed, whether there should be gendered toilets at all — and I hope that there are those on the contemporary Right similarly willing to countenance that #MeToo and Black Lives Matter require our justice system to develop more subtle, more uncomfortable, more fraught, evidential standards.

The problem is that the manipulation of discourse in my homeland has become so severe, the two supposed “sides” see themselves only as that: sides. We are increasingly at a loss as to how to forge a common, consensus-based reality. For the Right, global warming, sexism and racism are illusions; cosmopolitanism and pluralism are a Deep State agenda to dilute and divide society; the Constitution supports a white, Christian, or at least Christian-informed, ethnic nation-state, not a civic nation-state. The Left, for them, is bitter at life’s unfairness, jealous of the success of others, too willing to trade in much-needed grit for safety, unwilling to sacrifice, steeped in self-loathing. For the Left, the Right are unredeemable conspiracy theorists, sexists, racists, jackboot conformists, who benefit so greatly from systemic privilege that they must bend and pervert the very foundations of epistemology in order to maintain it.

I am not lamenting here the loss of some fictitious “fact”-based consensus-making. Facts have always been social constructions, while scientific empiricism has always been a complex system of checks and consensus reality. In a way, both Right and Left have been manipulated about the very nature of facts, seeing their “side” as the possessor of facts, the other as the possessor of lies. No, I am lamenting the occulting of reason and the creeping-in of unreason among so many genuine, well-intentioned compatriots, both on “my” side of the Left, and on “their” side of the Right.


Fortunately, the story of humanity is far from finished. Ideology is always seductive; it is simply more seductive today because of the immense stresses our species is undergoing — some stresses self-inflicted, it it is true, but also some arising from the difficulties of our Kardeshevian maturation. And this leads me to my final idea: I think that at an even deeper level, the crisis is about identity and power. We are learning how to make sense of our species’ growing mastery of the universe, both the outer world of nature and the inner world of our own minds. It is a question, at root, about life and death.

I see humanity as very much in its adolescence. Like a thirteen-year-old, we have suddenly developed enormous physical and intellectual power. Yet, this change is not only empowering, it is fearful. So, we vacillate, sometimes wanting to return to childhood, sometimes wanting to be adults.

We cannot go back to childhood, and indeed, we even misunderstand what it was. We remember it as all wonder and ease, but in truth, it was very frightful, no less so than adulthood. From the moment of our birth, we were destined, “doomed” so to speak, to reason. However, in childhood we did not have the bodily means to reason properly, and so the world was actually a terrifying place, full of gods and monsters. Consequently, we surrendered ourselves to our parents. Now, as we grow up, we overlook the subtle fact that we chose to surrender to them.

Of course, it could be asked: what genuine choice did we really have? This is true. Yet, the sad paradox is that there was in fact some element of will, a fact about which we are in denial. Children feel guilt and shame — these are the surest signs of free will.

I alluded a few moments ago that the adolescence of humanity is expressed in the push and pull between religion and ideology, which appears to be ratcheting up century after century, from classical liberalism and nationalism in the nineteenth century, to capitalism and communism in the twentieth, to neo-liberalism and populism in the present (just to name the “headline” ideologies, and not the more subtle ideologies that pollute everyday life). As I presently see it, true religion is adulthood. It is embracing science and the terrible mystery and mess of existence. It is realizing that there are no pre-set “truths” beyond that truth itself is somehow absolute yet relative, relative yet absolute, always provisional and tentative, yet making categorical, non-negotiable demands on us.

Thymos and Risk

To close, part of the solution to the crisis, as my Right-wing friends have shown to me by being my friends, and as my faith as a Baha’i teaches, must be love and the willingness to be united, even when deeply disagreeing. Perhaps if some of us can sustain this substrate of mutuality, belonging-together, fraternity and solidarity, eventually the intricate mirage of disunity, inherited from our biology and carefully re-engineered by our oligarchs, will in time dissipate.

In general, my thoughts on these questions will continue to evolve, for sure. For instance, I have been toying with the idea of superstition and fanaticism as a kind of third category between religion and ideology. A less existential, less mental, more primal, more emotional category, as it were, perhaps a faux spirituality. In which case, religion and ideology are genuine spirituality, but one is oriented toward truth, the other toward falsehood; one toward light, the other toward darkness; one toward life through the countenance of death, the other toward death through the countenance of life.

Along these lines, even as I assert a concept of “true adulthood”, I am skeptical that, once historically achieved, history will end. I think of Francis Fukuyama’s insight about the Classical Greek concept of thymos: the desire for recognition, the thirst, if not for ease and security per se, then for power and immortality. And I think of Anne Dufourmantelle, that the ultimate manifestation of truth is death, particularly as it appears to us in its everyday form of risk. Constantly confronted with our own fragility, we are asked by existence to embrace the possibility of our being becoming changed. Our forthcoming adulthood, then — the crisis not of our declining world, but of the eventual divine civilization — may hinge somehow on the axis of risk.

The photos are from a recent hike I undertook to Yssyk-Ata Gorge here in Kyrgyzstan. They somehow seemed appropriate.

2 Replies to “Decay and Adolescence”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: