There is every reason for confidence that the period of history now opening will be far more receptive to efforts to spread Bahá’u’lláh’s message than was the case in the century just ended. All the signs indicate that a sea change in human consciousness is under way.
Early in the twentieth century, a materialistic interpretation of reality had consolidated itself so completely as to become the dominant world faith insofar as the direction of society was concerned. In the process, the civilizing of human nature had been violently wrenched out of the orbit it had followed for millennia. For many in the West, the Divine authority that had functioned as the focal centre of guidance—however diverse the interpretations of its nature—seemed simply to have dissolved and vanished. In large measure, the individual was left free to maintain whatever relationship he believed connected his life to a world transcending material existence, but society as a whole proceeded with growing confidence to sever dependence on a conception of the universe that was judged to be at best a fiction and at worst an opiate, in either case inhibiting progress. Humanity had taken its destiny into its own hands. It had solved through rational experimentation and discourse—so people were given to believe—all of the fundamental issues related to human governance and development.
This posture was reinforced by the assumption that the values, ideals and disciplines cultivated over the centuries were now reliably fixed and enduring features of human nature. They needed merely to be refined by education and reinforced by legislative action. The moral legacy of the past was just that: humanity’s indefeasible inheritance, requiring no further religious interventions. Admittedly, undisciplined individuals, groups or even nations would continue to threaten the stability of the social order and call for correction. The universal civilization towards the realization of which all the forces of history had been bearing the human race, however, was irresistibly emerging, inspired by secular conceptions of reality. People’s happiness would be the natural result of better health, better food, better education, better living conditions—and the attainment of these unquestionably desirable goals now seemed to be within the reach of a society single-mindedly focused on their pursuit.
Throughout that part of the world where the vast majority of the earth’s population live, facile announcements that “God is Dead” had passed largely unnoticed. The experience of the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific had long confirmed them in the view not only that human nature is deeply influenced by spiritual forces, but that its very identity is spiritual. Consequently, religion continued, as had always been the case, to function as the ultimate authority in life. These convictions, while not directly confronted by the ideological revolution taking place in the West, were effectively marginalized by it, insofar as interaction among peoples and nations was concerned. Having penetrated and captured all significant centres of power and information at the global level, dogmatic materialism ensured that no competing voices would retain the ability to challenge projects of world wide economic exploitation. To the cultural damage already inflicted by two centuries of colonial rule was added an agonizing disjunction between the inner and outer experience of the masses affected, a condition invading virtually all aspects of life. Helpless to exercise any real influence over the shaping of their futures or even to preserve the moral well-being of their children, these populations were plunged into a crisis different from but in many ways even more devastating than the one gathering momentum in Europe and North America. Although retaining its central role in consciousness, faith appeared impotent to influence the course of events.
As the twentieth century approached its close, therefore, nothing seemed less likely than a sudden resurgence of religion as a subject of consuming global importance. Yet that is precisely what has now occurred in the form of a groundswell of anxiety and discontent, much of it still only dimly conscious of the sense of spiritual emptiness that is producing it. Ancient sectarian conflicts, apparently unresponsive to the patient arts of diplomacy, have re-emerged with a virulence as great as anything known before. Scriptural themes, miraculous phenomena and theological dogmas that, until recently, had been dismissed as relics of an age of ignorance find themselves solemnly, if indiscriminately, explored in influential media. In many lands, religious credentials take on new and compelling significance in the candidature of aspirants to political office. A world, which had assumed that with the collapse of the Berlin Wall an age of international peace had dawned, is warned that it is in the grip of a war of civilizations whose defining character is irreconcilable religious antipathies. Bookstores, magazine stands, Web sites and libraries struggle to satisfy an apparently inexhaustible public appetite for information on religious and spiritual subjects. Perhaps the most insistent factor in producing the change is reluctant recognition that there is no credible replacement for religious belief as a force capable of generating self-discipline and restoring commitment to moral behaviour.
Beyond the attention that religion, as formally conceived, has begun to command is a widespread revival of spiritual search. Expressed most commonly as an urge to discover a personal identity that transcends the merely physical, the development encourages a multitude of pursuits, both positive and negative in character. On the one hand, the search for justice and the promotion of the cause of international peace tend to have the effect of also arousing new perceptions of the individual’s role in society. Similarly, although focused on the mobilization of support for changes in social decision-making, movements like environmentalism and feminism induce a re-examination of people’s sense of themselves and of their purpose in life. A reorientation occurring in all the major religious communities is the accelerating migration of believers from traditional branches of the parent faiths to sects that attach primary importance to the spiritual search and personal experiences of their members. At the opposite pole, extraterrestrial sightings, “self-discovery” regimens, wilderness retreats, charismatic exaltation, various New Age enthusiasms, and the consciousness-raising efficacy attributed to narcotics and hallucinogens attract followings far larger and more diverse than anything enjoyed by spiritualism or theosophy at a similar historical turning point a century ago. For a Bahá’í, the proliferation even of cults and practices that may arouse aversion in the minds of many serves primarily as a reminder of the insight embodied in the ancient tale of Majnún, who sifted the dust in his search for the beloved Laylí, although aware that she was pure spirit: “I seek her everywhere; haply somewhere I shall find her.”1
The reawakened interest in religion is clearly far from having reached its peak, in either its explicitly religious or its less definable spiritual manifestations. On the contrary. The phenomenon is the product of historical forces that steadily gather momentum. Their common effect is to erode the certainty, bequeathed to the world by the twentieth century, that material existence represents ultimate reality.
The most obvious cause of these re-evaluations has been the bankruptcy of the materialist enterprise itself. For well over a hundred years, the idea of progress was identified with economic development and with its capacity to motivate and shape social improvement. Those differences of opinion that existed did not challenge this world view, but only conceptions as to how its goals might best be attained. Its most extreme form, the iron dogma of “scientific materialism”, sought to reinterpret every aspect of history and human behaviour in its own narrow terms. Whatever humanitarian ideals may have inspired some of its early proponents, the universal consequence was to produce regimes of totalitarian control prepared to use any means of coercion in regulating the lives of hapless populations subjected to them. The goal held up as justification of such abuses was the creation of a new kind of society that would ensure not only freedom from want but fulfilment for the human spirit. At the end, after eight decades of mounting folly and brutality, the movement collapsed as a credible guide to the world’s future.
Other systems of social experimentation, while repudiating recourse to inhumane methods, nevertheless derived their moral and intellectual thrust from the same limited conception of reality. The view took root that, since people were essentially self-interested actors in matters pertaining to their economic well-being, the building of just and prosperous societies could be ensured by one or another scheme of what was described as modernization. The closing decades of the twentieth century, however, sagged under a mounting burden of evidence to the contrary: the breakdown of family life, soaring crime, dysfunctional educational systems, and a catalogue of other social pathologies that bring to mind the sombre words of Bahá’u’lláh’s warning about the impending condition of human society: “Such shall be its plight, that to disclose it now would not be meet and seemly.”2
The fate of what the world has learned to call social and economic development has left no doubt that not even the most idealistic motives can correct materialism’s fundamental flaws. Born in the wake of the chaos of the Second World War, “development” became by far the largest and most ambitious collective undertaking on which the human race has ever embarked. Its humanitarian motivation matched its enormous material and technological investment. Fifty years later, while acknowledging the impressive benefits development has brought, the enterprise must be adjudged, by its own standards, a disheartening failure. Far from narrowing the gap between the well-being of the small segment of the human family who enjoy the benefits of modernity and the condition of the vast populations mired in hopeless want, the collective effort that began with such high hopes has seen the gap widen into an abyss.
Consumer culture, today’s inheritor by default of materialism’s gospel of human betterment, is unembarrassed by the ephemeral nature of the goals that inspire it. For the small minority of people who can afford them, the benefits it offers are immediate, and the rationale unapologetic. Emboldened by the breakdown of traditional morality, the advance of the new creed is essentially no more than the triumph of animal impulse, as instinctive and blind as appetite, released at long last from the restraints of supernatural sanctions. Its most obvious casualty has been language. Tendencies once universally castigated as moral failings mutate into necessities of social progress. Selfishness becomes a prized commercial resource; falsehood reinvents itself as public information; perversions of various kinds unabashedly claim the status of civil rights. Under appropriate euphemisms, greed, lust, indolence, pride—even violence—acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value. Ironically, as words have been drained of meaning, so have the very material comforts and acquisitions for which truth has been casually sacrificed.
Clearly, materialism’s error has lain not in the laudable effort to improve the conditions of life, but in the narrowness of mind and unjustified self-confidence that have defined its mission. The importance both of material prosperity and of the scientific and technological advances necessary to its achievement is a theme that runs through the writings of the Bahá’í Faith. As was inevitable from the outset, however, arbitrary efforts to disengage such physical and material well-being from humanity’s spiritual and moral development have ended by forfeiting the allegiance of the very populations whose interests a materialistic culture purports to serve. “Witness how the world is being afflicted with a fresh calamity every day”, Bahá’u’lláh warns. “Its sickness is approaching the stage of utter hopelessness, inasmuch as the true Physician is debarred from administering the remedy, whilst unskilled practitioners are regarded with favour, and are accorded full freedom to act.”3
In addition to disillusionment with the promises of materialism, a force of change undermining the misconceptions about reality that humanity brought into the twenty-first century is global integration. At the simplest level, it takes the form of advances in communication technologies that open broad avenues of interaction among the planet’s diverse populations. Along with facilitating interpersonal and intersocial exchanges, general access to information has the effect of transmuting the cumulative learning of the ages, until recently the preserve of privileged elites, into the patrimony of the entire human family, without distinction of nation, race or culture. With all the gross inequities that global integration perpetuates—indeed intensifies—no informed observer can fail to acknowledge the stimulus to reflection about reality that such changes have produced. With reflection has come a questioning of all established authority, no longer merely that of religion and morality, but also of government, academia, commerce, the media and, increasingly, scientific opinion.
Apart from technological factors, unification of the planet is exerting other, even more direct effects on thought. It would be impossible to exaggerate, for example, the transformative impact on global consciousness that has resulted from mass travel on an international scale. Greater still have been the consequences of the enormous migrations that the world has witnessed during the century and a half since the Báb declared His mission. Millions of refugees fleeing from persecution have swept like tidal waves back and forth across the European, African and Asiatic continents, particularly. Amid the suffering such turmoil has caused, one perceives the progressive integration of the world’s races and cultures as the citizenry of a single global homeland. As a result, people of every background have been exposed to the cultures and norms of others about whom their forefathers knew little or nothing, exciting a search for meaning that cannot be evaded.
It is impossible to imagine how different the history of the past century and a half would have been had any of the leading arbiters of world affairs addressed by Bahá’u’lláh spared time for reflection on a conception of reality supported by the moral credentials of its Author, moral credentials of the kind they professed to hold in the highest regard. What is unmistakable to a Bahá’í is that, despite such failure, the transformations announced in Bahá’u’lláh’s message are resistlessly accomplishing themselves. Through shared discoveries and shared travails, peoples of diverse cultures are brought face to face with the common humanity lying just beneath the surface of imagined differences of identity. Whether stubbornly opposed in some societies or welcomed elsewhere as a release from meaningless and suffocating limitations, the sense that the earth’s inhabitants are indeed “the leaves of one tree”4 is slowly becoming the standard by which humanity’s collective efforts are now judged.
Loss of faith in the certainties of materialism and the progressive globalizing of human experience reinforce one another in the longing they inspire for understanding about the purpose of existence. Basic values are challenged; parochial attachments are surrendered; once unthinkable demands are accepted. It is this universal upheaval, Bahá’u’lláh explains, for which the scriptures of past religions employed the imagery of “the Day of Resurrection”: “The shout hath been raised, and the people have come forth from their graves, and arising, are gazing around them.”5 Beneath all of the dislocation and suffering, the process is essentially a spiritual one: “The breeze of the All-Merciful hath wafted, and the souls have been quickened in the tombs of their bodies.”6
Throughout history, the primary agents of spiritual development have been the great religions. For the majority of the earth’s people, the scriptures of each of these systems of belief have served, in Bahá’u’lláh’s words, as “the City of God”,7 a source of a knowledge that totally embraces consciousness, one so compelling as to endow the sincere with “a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind”.8 A vast literature, to which all religious cultures have contributed, records the experience of transcendence reported by generations of seekers. Down the millennia, the lives of those who responded to intimations of the Divine have inspired breathtaking achievements in music, architecture, and the other arts, endlessly replicating the soul’s experience for millions of their fellow believers. No other force in existence has been able to elicit from people comparable qualities of heroism, self-sacrifice and self-discipline. At the social level, the resulting moral principles have repeatedly translated themselves into universal codes of law, regulating and elevating human relationships. Viewed in perspective, the major religions emerge as the primary driving forces of the civilizing process. To argue otherwise is surely to ignore the evidence of history.
Why, then, does this immensely rich heritage not serve as the central stage for today’s reawakening of spiritual quest? On the periphery, earnest attempts are being made to reformulate the teachings that gave rise to the respective faiths, in the hope of imbuing them with new appeal, but the greater part of the search for meaning is diffused, individualistic and incoherent in character. The scriptures have not changed; the moral principles they contain have lost none of their validity. No one who sincerely poses questions to Heaven, if he persists, will fail to detect an answering voice in the Psalms or in the Upanishads. Anyone with some intimation of the Reality that transcends this material one will be touched to the heart by the words in which Jesus or Buddha speaks so intimately of it. The Qur’án’s apocalyptic visions continue to provide compelling assurance to its readers that the realization of justice is central to the Divine purpose. Nor, in their essential features, do the lives of heroes and saints seem any less meaningful than they did when those lives were lived centuries ago. For many religious people, therefore, the most painful aspect of the current crisis of civilization is that the search for truth has not turned with confidence into religion’s familiar avenues.
The problem is, of course, twofold. The rational soul does not merely occupy a private sphere, but is an active participant in a social order. Although the received truths of the great faiths remain valid, the daily experience of an individual in the twenty-first century is unimaginably removed from the one that he or she would have known in any of those ages when this guidance was revealed. Democratic decision-making has fundamentally altered the relationship of the individual to authority. With growing confidence and growing success, women justly insist on their right to full equality with men. Revolutions in science and technology change not only the functioning but the conception of society, indeed of existence itself. Universal education and an explosion of new fields of creativity open the way to insights that stimulate social mobility and integration, and create opportunities of which the rule of law encourages the citizen to take full advantage. Stem cell research, nuclear energy, sexual identity, ecological stress and the use of wealth raise, at the very least, social questions that have no precedent. These, and the countless other changes affecting every aspect of human life, have brought into being a new world of daily choices for both society and its members. What has not changed is the inescapable requirement of making such choices, whether for better or worse. It is here that the spiritual nature of the contemporary crisis comes into sharpest focus because most of the decisions called for are not merely practical but moral. In large part, therefore, loss of faith in traditional religion has been an inevitable consequence of failure to discover in it the guidance required to live with modernity, successfully and with assurance.
A second barrier to a re-emergence of inherited systems of belief as the answer to humanity’s spiritual yearnings is the effects already mentioned of global integration. Throughout the planet, people raised in a given religious frame of reference find themselves abruptly thrown into close association with others whose beliefs and practices appear at first glance irreconcilably different from their own. The differences can and often do give rise to defensiveness, simmering resentments and open conflict. In many cases, however, the effect is rather to prompt a reconsideration of received doctrine and to encourage efforts at discovering values held in common. The support enjoyed by various interfaith activities doubtless owes a great deal to response of this kind among the general public. Inevitably, with such approaches comes a questioning of religious doctrines that inhibit association and understanding. If people whose beliefs appear to be fundamentally different from one’s own nevertheless live moral lives that deserve admiration, what is it that makes one’s own faith superior to theirs? Alternatively, if all of the great religions share certain basic values in common, do not sectarian attachments run the risk of merely reinforcing unwanted barriers between an individual and his neighbours?
Few today among those who have some degree of objective familiarity with the subject are likely, therefore, to entertain an illusion that any one of the established religious systems of the past can assume the role of ultimate guide for humankind in the issues of contemporary life, even in the improbable event that its disparate sects should come together for that purpose. Each one of what the world regards as independent religions is set in the mould created by its authoritative scripture and its history. As it cannot refashion its system of belief in a manner to derive legitimacy from the authoritative words of its Founder, it likewise cannot adequately answer the multitude of questions posed by social and intellectual evolution. Distressing as this may appear to many, it is no more than an inherent feature of the evolutionary process. Attempts to force a reversal of some kind can lead only to still greater disenchantment with religion itself and exacerbate sectarian conflict.
The dilemma is both artificial and self-inflicted. The world order, if it can be so described, within which Bahá’ís today pursue the work of sharing Bahá’u’lláh’s message is one whose misconceptions about both human nature and social evolution are so fundamental as to severely inhibit the most intelligent and well-intentioned endeavours at human betterment. Particularly is this true with respect to the confusion that surrounds virtually every aspect of the subject of religion. In order to respond adequately to the spiritual needs of their neighbours, Bahá’ís will have to gain an in-depth understanding of the issues involved. The effort of imagination this challenge requires can be appreciated from the advice that is perhaps the most frequently and urgently reiterated admonition in the writings of their Faith: to “meditate”, to “ponder”, to “reflect”.
A commonplace of popular discourse is that by “religion” is intended the multitude of sects currently in existence. Not surprisingly, such a suggestion at once arouses protest in other quarters that by religion is intended rather one or another of the great, independent belief systems of history that have shaped and inspired whole civilizations. This point of view, in turn, however, runs up against the inevitable query as to where one will find these historic faiths in the contemporary world. Where, precisely, are “Judaism”, “Buddhism”, “Christianity”, “Islám” and the others, since they obviously cannot be identified with the irreconcilably opposed organizations that purport to speak authoritatively in their names? Nor does the problem end there. Yet another response to the enquiry will almost certainly be that by religion is intended simply an attitude to life, a sense of relationship with a Reality that transcends material existence. Religion, so conceived, is an attribute of the individual person, an impulse not susceptible of organization, an experience universally available. Again, however, such an orientation will be seen by a majority of religiously minded persons as lacking the very authority of self-discipline and the unifying effect that give religion meaning. Some objectors would even argue that, on the contrary, religion signifies the lifestyle of persons who, like themselves, have adopted severe regimens of daily ritual and self-denial that set them entirely apart from the rest of society. What all such differing conceptions have in common is the extent to which a phenomenon that is acknowledged to completely transcend human reach has nevertheless gradually been imprisoned within conceptual limits—whether organizational, theological, experiential or ritualistic—of human invention.
The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh cut through this tangle of inconsistent views and, in doing so, reformulate many truths which, whether explicitly or implicitly, have lain at the heart of all Divine revelation. Although in no way a comprehensive reading of His intent, Bahá’u’lláh makes it clear that attempts to capture or suggest the Reality of God in catechisms and creeds are exercises in self-deception: “To every discerning and illumined heart it is evident that God, the unknowable Essence, the divine Being, is immensely exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress. Far be it from His glory that human tongue should adequately recount His praise, or that human heart comprehend His fathomless mystery.”9 The instrumentality through which the Creator of all things interacts with the ever-evolving creation He has brought into being is the appearance of prophetic Figures who manifest the attributes of an inaccessible Divinity: “The door of the knowledge of the Ancient of Days being thus closed in the face of all beings, the Source of infinite grace … hath caused those luminous Gems of Holiness to appear out of the realm of the spirit, in the noble form of the human temple, and be made manifest unto all men, that they may impart unto the world the mysteries of the unchangeable Being, and tell of the subtleties of His imperishable Essence.”10
To presume to judge among the Messengers of God, exalting one above the other, would be to give in to the delusion that the Eternal and All-Embracing is subject to the vagaries of human preference. “It is clear and evident to thee”, are Bahá’u’lláh’s precise words, “that all the Prophets are the Temples of the Cause of God, Who have appeared clothed in divers attire. If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold Them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith.”11 To imagine, further, that the nature of these unique Figures can be—or needs to be—encompassed within theories borrowed from physical experience is equally presumptuous. What is meant by “knowledge of God”, Bahá’u’lláh explains, is knowledge of the Manifestations Who reveal His will and attributes, and it is here that the soul comes into intimate association with a Creator Who is otherwise beyond both language and apprehension: “I bear witness”, is Bahá’u’lláh’s assertion about the station of the Manifestation of God, “…that through Thy beauty the beauty of the Adored One hath been unveiled, and through Thy face the face of the Desired One hath shone forth.…”12
Religion, thus conceived, awakens the soul to potentialities that are otherwise unimaginable. To the extent that an individual learns to benefit from the influence of the revelation of God for his age, his nature becomes progressively imbued with the attributes of the Divine world: “Through the Teachings of this Day Star of Truth”, Bahá’u’lláh explains, “every man will advance and develop until he … can manifest all the potential forces with which his inmost true self hath been endowed.”13 As humanity’s purpose includes the carrying forward of “an ever-advancing civilization”,14 not the least of the extraordinary powers that religion possesses has been its ability to free those who believe from the limitations of time itself, eliciting from them sacrifices on behalf of generations centuries into the future. Indeed, because the soul is immortal, its awakening to its true nature empowers it, not only in this world but even more directly in those worlds that lie beyond, to serve the evolutionary process: “The light which these souls radiate”, Bahá’u’lláh asserts, “is responsible for the progress of the world and the advancement of its peoples.… All things must needs have a cause, a motive power, an animating principle. These souls and symbols of detachment have provided, and will continue to provide, the supreme moving impulse in the world of being.”15
Belief is thus a necessary and inextinguishable urge of the species that has been described by an influential modern thinker as “evolution become conscious of itself”.16 If, as the events of the twentieth century provide sad and compelling evidence, the natural expression of faith is artificially blocked, it will invent objects of worship however unworthy—or even debased—that may in some measure appease the yearning for certitude. It is an impulse that will not be denied.
In short, through the ongoing process of revelation, the One Who is the Source of the system of knowledge we call religion demonstrates that system’s integrity and its freedom from the contradictions imposed by sectarian ambitions. The work of each Manifestation of God has an autonomy and an authority that transcend appraisal; it is also a stage in the limitless unfolding of a single Reality. Because the purpose of the successive revelations of God is the awakening of humankind to its capacities and responsibilities as the trustee of creation, the process is not simply repetitive, but progressive, and is fully appreciated only when perceived in this context.
In no sense can Bahá’ís profess to have grasped at this early hour more than a minute portion of the truths inherent in the revelation on which their Faith is based. With reference, for example, to the evolution of the Cause, the Guardian said, “All we can reasonably venture to attempt is to strive to obtain a glimpse of the first streaks of the promised Dawn that must, in the fullness of time, chase away the gloom that has encircled humanity.”17 Apart from encouraging humility, this fact should serve also as a constant reminder that Bahá’u’lláh has not brought into existence a new religion to stand beside the present multiplicity of sectarian organizations. Rather has He recast the whole conception of religion as the principal force impelling the development of consciousness. As the human race in all its diversity is a single species, so the intervention by which God cultivates the qualities of mind and heart latent in that species is a single process. Its heroes and saints are the heroes and saints of all stages in the struggle; its successes, the successes of all stages. This is the standard demonstrated in the life and work of the Master and exemplified today in a Bahá’í community that has become the inheritor of humanity’s entire spiritual legacy, a legacy equally available to all the earth’s peoples.
The recurring proof of the existence of God, therefore, is that from time immemorial He has repeatedly manifested Himself. In the larger sense, as Bahá’u’lláh explains, the vast epic of humanity’s religious history represents the fulfilment of the “Covenant”, the enduring promise by which the Creator of all things assures the race of the unfailing guidance essential to its spiritual and moral development, and calls on it to internalize and give expression to these values. One is free to dispute through historicist interpretations of the evidence the unique role of this or that Messenger of God, if that is one’s purpose, but such speculation is of no help in accounting for developments that have transformed thought and produced changes in human relationships critical to social evolution. At intervals so rare that the known instances can be counted on one’s fingers, the Manifestations of God have appeared, have each been explicit as to the authority of His teachings and have each exerted an influence on the advance of civilization incomparably beyond that of any other phenomenon in history. “Consider the hour at which the supreme Manifestation of God revealeth Himself unto men”, Bahá’u’lláh points out: “Ere that hour cometh, the Ancient Being, Who is still unknown of men and hath not as yet given utterance to the Word of God, is Himself the All-Knower in a world devoid of any man that hath known Him. He is indeed the Creator without a creation.”18
The objection most commonly raised against the foregoing conception of religion is the assertion that the differences among the revealed faiths are so fundamental that to present them as stages or aspects of one unified system of truth does violence to the facts. Given the confusion surrounding the nature of religion, the reaction is understandable. Chiefly, however, such an objection offers Bahá’ís an invitation to set the principles reviewed here more explicitly in the evolutionary context provided in Bahá’u’lláh’s writings.
The differences referred to fall into the categories of either practice or doctrine, both of them presented as the intent of the relevant scriptures. In the case of religious customs governing personal life, it is helpful to view the subject against the background of comparable features of material life. It is most unlikely that diversity in hygiene, dress, medicine, diet, transportation, warfare, construction or economic activity, however striking, would any longer be seriously advanced in support of a theory that humanity does not in fact constitute one people, single and unique. Until the opening of the twentieth century, such simplistic arguments were commonplace, but historical and anthropological research now provides a seamless panorama of the process of cultural evolution by which these and countless other expressions of human creativity came into existence, were transmitted through successive generations, underwent gradual metamorphoses and often spread to enrich the lives of peoples in far distant lands. That present-day societies represent a wide spectrum of such phenomena, therefore, does not in any way define a fixed and immutable identity of the peoples concerned, but merely distinguishes the stage through which given groups are—or at least until recently have been—passing. Even so, all such cultural expressions are now in a state of fluidity in consequence of the pressures of planetary integration.
A similar evolutionary process, Bahá’u’lláh indicates, has characterized the religious life of humankind. The defining difference lies in the fact that, rather than representing simply the accidents of history’s ongoing method of trial and error, such norms were explicitly prescribed in each case, as integral features of one or another revelation of the Divine, embodied in scripture, their integrity scrupulously maintained over a period of centuries. While certain features of each code of conduct would eventually fulfil their purpose and in time be overshadowed by concerns of a different nature brought on by the process of social evolution, the code itself would lose none of its authority during the long stage of human progress in which it played a vital role in training behaviour and attitudes. “These principles and laws, these firmly-established and mighty systems”, Bahá’u’lláh asserts, “have proceeded from one Source, and are the rays of one Light. That they differ one from another is to be attributed to the varying requirements of the ages in which they were promulgated.”19
To argue, therefore, that differences of regulations, observances and other practices constitute any significant objection to the idea of revealed religion’s essential oneness is to miss the purpose that these prescriptions served. More seriously, it misses the fundamental distinction between the eternal and the transitory features of religion’s function. The essential message of religion is immutable. It is, in Bahá’u’lláh’s words, “the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future”.20 Its role in opening the way for the soul to enter into an evermore mature relationship with its Creator—and in endowing it with an ever-greater measure of moral autonomy in disciplining the animal impulses of human nature—is not at all irreconcilable with its providing auxiliary guidance that enhances the process of civilization building.
The concept of progressive revelation places the ultimate emphasis on recognition of the revelation of God at its appearance. The failure of the generality of humankind in this respect has, time and again, condemned entire populations to a ritualistic repetition of ordinances and practices long after these latter have fulfilled their purpose and now merely stultify moral advance. Sadly, in the present day, a related consequence of such failure has been to trivialize religion. At precisely the point in its collective development where humanity began to struggle with the challenges of modernity, the spiritual resource on which it had principally depended for moral courage and enlightenment was fast becoming a subject of mockery, first at those levels where decisions were being made about the direction society should take, and eventually in ever-widening circles of the general population. There is little cause for surprise, then, that this most devastating of the many betrayals of trust from which human confidence has suffered should, in the course of time, undermine the foundations of belief itself. So it is that Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly urges His readers to think deeply about the lesson taught by such repeated failures: “Ponder for a moment, and reflect upon that which has been the cause of such denial.…”21 “What could have been the reason for such denial and avoidance…?”22 “What could have caused such contention…?”23 “Reflect, what could have been the motive…?”24
More detrimental still to religious understanding has been theological presumption. A persistent feature of religion’s sectarian past has been the dominant role played by clergy. In the absence of scriptural texts that established unarguable institutional authority, clerical elites succeeded in arrogating to themselves exclusive control over interpretation of the Divine intent. However diverse the motives, the tragic effects have been to impede the current of inspiration, discourage independent intellectual activity, focus attention on the minutiae of rituals and too often engender hatred and prejudice towards those following a different sectarian path from that of self-appointed spiritual leaders. While nothing could prevent the creative power of Divine intervention from continuing its work of progressively raising consciousness, the scope of what could be achieved, in any age, became increasingly limited by such artificially contrived obstacles.
Over time, theology succeeded in constructing in the heart of each one of the great faiths an authority parallel with, and even inimical in spirit to, the revealed teachings on which the tradition was based. Jesus’ familiar parable of the landowner who sowed seed in his field addresses both the issue and its implications for the present time: “But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way.”25 When his servants proposed to uproot them, the landowner replied, “Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.”26 Throughout its pages, the Qur’án reserves its severest condemnation for the spiritual harm caused by this competing hegemony: “Say: The things that my Lord hath indeed forbidden are: shameful deeds, whether open or secret; sins and trespasses against truth or reason; assigning of partners to God, for which he hath given no authority; and saying things about God of which ye have no knowledge.”27 To the modern mind it is the greatest of ironies that generations of theologians, whose impositions on religion embody precisely the betrayal so strongly denounced in these texts, should seek to use the warning itself as a weapon in suppressing protest against their usurpation of Divine authority.
In effect, each new stage in the progressively unfolding revelation of spiritual truth was frozen in time and in an array of literalistic images and interpretations, many of them borrowed from cultures which were themselves morally exhausted. Whatever their value at earlier stages in the evolution of consciousness, conceptions of physical resurrection, a paradise of carnal delights, reincarnation, pantheistic prodigies, and the like, today raise walls of separation and conflict in an age when the earth has literally become one homeland and human beings must learn to see themselves as its citizens. In this context one can appreciate the reasons for the vehemence of Bahá’u’lláh’s warnings about the barriers that dogmatic theology creates in the path of those seeking to understand the will of God: “O leaders of religion! Weigh not the Book of God with such standards and sciences as are current amongst you, for the Book itself is the unerring Balance established amongst men.”28 In His Tablet to Pope Pius IX, He advises the pontiff that God has in this day “stored away … in the vessels of justice” whatever is enduring in religion and “cast into fire that which befitteth it”.29