At Riḍván 2002, we addressed an open letter to the world’s religious leaders. Our action arose out of awareness that the disease of sectarian hatreds, if not decisively checked, threatens harrowing consequences that will leave few areas of the world unaffected. The letter acknowledged with appreciation the achievements of the interfaith movement, to which Bahá’ís have sought to contribute since an early point in the movement’s emergence. Nevertheless, we felt we must be forthright in saying that, if the religious crisis is to be addressed as seriously as is occurring with respect to other prejudices afflicting humankind, organized religion must find within itself a comparable courage to rise above fixed conceptions inherited from a distant past.
Above all, we expressed our conviction that the time has come when religious leadership must face honestly and without further evasion the implications of the truth that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one. It was intimations of this truth that originally inspired the interfaith movement and that have sustained it through the vicissitudes of the past one hundred years. Far from challenging the validity of any of the great revealed faiths, the principle has the capacity to ensure their continuing relevance. In order to exert its influence, however, recognition of this reality must operate at the heart of religious discourse, and it was with this in mind that we felt that our letter should be explicit in articulating it.
Response has been encouraging. Bahá’í institutions throughout the world ensured that thousands of copies of the document were delivered to influential figures in the major faith communities. While it was perhaps not surprising that the message it contained was dismissed out of hand in a few circles, Bahá’ís report that, in general, they were warmly welcomed. Particularly affecting has been the obvious sincerity of many recipients’ distress over the failure of religious institutions to assist humanity in dealing with challenges whose essential nature is spiritual and moral. Discussions have turned readily to the need for fundamental change in the way the believing masses of humankind relate to one another, and in a significant number of instances, those receiving the letter have been moved to reproduce and distribute it to other clerics in their respective traditions. We feel hopeful that our initiative may serve as a catalyst opening the way to new understanding of religion’s purpose.
However rapidly or slowly this change occurs, the concern of Bahá’ís must be with their own responsibility in the matter. The task of ensuring that His message is engaged by people everywhere is one that Bahá’u’lláh has laid primarily on the shoulders of those who have recognized Him. This, of course, has been the work that the Bahá’í community has been pursuing throughout the history of the Faith, but the accelerating breakdown in social order calls out desperately for the religious spirit to be freed from the shackles that have so far prevented it from bringing to bear the healing influence of which it is capable.
If they are to respond to the need, Bahá’ís must draw on a deep understanding of the process by which humanity’s spiritual life evolves. Bahá’u’lláh’s writings provide insights that can help to elevate discussion of religious issues above sectarian and transient considerations. The responsibility to avail oneself of this spiritual resource is inseparable from the gift of faith itself. “Religious fanaticism and hatred”, Bahá’u’lláh warns, “are a world-devouring fire, whose violence none can quench. The Hand of Divine power can, alone, deliver mankind from this desolating affliction.…” Far from feeling unsupported in their efforts to respond, Bahá’ís will come increasingly to appreciate that the Cause they serve represents the arrowhead of an awakening taking place among people everywhere, regardless of religious background and indeed among many with no religious leaning.
Reflection on the challenge has prompted us to commission the commentary that follows. One Common Faith, prepared under our supervision, reviews relevant passages from both the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and the scriptures of other faiths against the background of the contemporary crisis. We commend it to the thoughtful study of the friends.