The vitality of men’s belief in God is dying out in every land; nothing short of His wholesome medicine can ever restore it. The corrosion of ungodliness is eating into the vitals of human society; what else but the Elixir of His potent Revelation can cleanse and revive it?
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, XCIX, p. 199)
Sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century, Baha’u’llah penned these words. On the surface, they seem to speak of a growing disaffection with religion and a rise in atheism. Lately, however, I’ve been pondering a subtlety in the phrasing: it is not belief that Baha’u’llah says is dying out, but rather the vitality of belief.
Vitality is the energy, the vigor, the life of something. To be sure, a lack of vitality in belief can equate to the death of belief and thus the growth of irreligion. But it may also signify belief reduced to a shell, the outward appearance of belief with nothing living at the core. What would that be like? It’s actually an old question, answered this way in the Epistle of James:
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
(James 2:14 -17, KJV)
The terms “faith” and “belief” are not the same. Faith is trust, loyalty, and fidelity. Religious faith involves both knowing and doing, for religion calls us to action. Thus, faith without works is indeed dead, being without any result. Belief, although today often regarded as a conviction that something is true, has an older, deeper meaning that is particularly applicable to religion: to hold dear. The word is identical in form to the archaic “belove,” which today is only used in the form “beloved”.
When Baha’u’llah writes, “The vitality of men’s belief in God is dying out in every land,” in one sense it can be seen as saying that we are increasingly distanced from God, that we no longer hold God dear whether we say we “believe in God” or not, that even if we say we “believe in God” we do not act as though we do. In other words, He may be saying that increasingly whatever faith and belief people profess is “dead.”
I think we can see this in the world around us. Irreligion is indeed on the rise in some countries, with some embracing a “spirituality” devoid of religion and others professing atheism or agnosticism. Even where this is not happening, materialism engulfs all societies, resulting in a hollow faith which reduces religion to a weakened shell of its former self, having at best marginal connection to real life.
People who care about religion and understand that something is going horribly wrong fight this trend, but it seems a losing battle. The forces of materialism and irreligion overwhelm their efforts, and they find themselves despised and marginalized. Interestingly, Baha’u’llah foresaw this development, too, when He proclaimed that human effort was insufficient revitalize religion. Only God’s “wholesome medicine,” He states, “can ever restore it.”
It might be worth taking a swig of it.