One Common Faith


Freed from the thickets with which theology has hedged religious understanding about, the mind is able to explore familiar scriptural passages through the eyes of Bahá’u’lláh. “Peerless is this Day,” He asserts, “for it is as the eye to past ages and centuries, and as a light unto the darkness of the times.”30 The most striking observation that results from taking advantage of this perspective is the unity of purpose and principle running throughout the Hebrew scriptures, the Gospel and the Qur’án, particularly, although echoes can readily be discerned in the scriptures of others among the world’s religions. Repeatedly, the same organizing themes emerge from the matrix of precept, exhortation, narrative, symbolism and interpretation in which they are set. Of these foundational truths, by far the most distinctive is the progressive articulation and emphatic assertion of the oneness of God, Creator of all existence whether of the phenomenal world or of those realms that transcend it. “I am the Lord,” the Bible declares, “and there is none else, there is no God beside me”,31 and the same conception underpins the later teachings of Christ and Muḥammad.

Humanity—focal point, inheritor and trustee of the world—exists to know its Creator and to serve His purpose. In its highest expression, the innate human impulse to respond takes the form of worship, a condition entailing wholehearted submission to a power that is recognized as deserving of such homage. “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.”32 Inseparable from the spirit of reverence itself is its expression in service to the Divine purpose for humankind. “Say: All bounties are in the hand of God: He granteth them to whom He pleaseth: and God careth for all, and He knoweth all things.”33 Illumined by this understanding, the responsibilities of humanity are clear: “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces towards East or West”, the Qur’án states, “but it is righteousness—to believe in God … to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask.…”34 “Ye are the salt of the earth”,35 Christ impresses on those who respond to His call. “Ye are the light of the world.”36 Summarizing a theme that recurs time and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures and will subsequently reappear in the Gospel and the Qur’án, the prophet Micah asks, “…what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”37

There is equal agreement in these texts that the soul’s ability to attain to an understanding of its Creator’s purpose is the product not merely of its own effort, but of interventions of the Divine that open the way. The point was made with memorable clarity by Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”38 If one is not to see in this assertion merely a dogmatic challenge to other stages of the one ongoing process of Divine guidance, it is obviously the expression of the central truth of revealed religion: that access to the unknowable Reality that creates and sustains existence is possible only through awakening to the illumination shed from that Realm. One of the most cherished of the Qur’án’s surihs takes up the metaphor: “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.… Light upon Light! God doth guide whom He will to His Light.”39 In the case of the Hebrew prophets, the Divine intermediary that was later to appear in Christianity in the person of the Son of Man and in Islám as the Book of God assumed the form of a binding Covenant established by the Creator with Abraham, Patriarch and Prophet: “And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.”40

The succession of revelations of the Divine also appears as an implicit—and usually explicit—feature of all the major faiths. One of its earliest and clearest expressions occurs in the Bhagavad-Gita: “I come, and go, and come. When Righteousness declines, O Bharata! When Wickedness is strong, I rise, from age to age, and take visible shape, and move a man with men, succouring the good, thrusting the evil back, and setting Virtue on her seat again.”41 This ongoing drama constitutes the basic structure of the Bible, whose sequence of books recounts the missions not only of Abraham and of Moses—“whom the Lord knew face to face”42—but of the line of lesser prophets who developed and consolidated the work that these primary Authors of the process had set in motion. Similarly, no amount of contentious and fantastical speculation about the precise nature of Jesus could succeed in separating His mission from the transformative influence exerted on the course of civilization by the work of Abraham and Moses. He Himself warns that it is not He Who will condemn those who reject the message He bears, but Moses “in whom ye trust. For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?”43 With the revelation of the Qur’án, the theme of the succession of the Messengers of God becomes central: “We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ismā‘īl, Isaac, Jacob … and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) Prophets from their Lord.…”44

For a sympathetic and objective reader of such passages what emerges is a recognition of the essential oneness of religion. So it is that the term “Islám” (literally “submission” to God) designates not merely the particular dispensation of Providence inaugurated by Muḥammad but, as the words of the Qur’án make unmistakably clear, religion itself. While it is true to speak of the unity of all religions, understanding of the context is vital. At the deepest level, as Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes, there is but one religion. Religion is religion, as science is science. The one discerns and articulates the values unfolding progressively through Divine revelation; the other is the instrumentality through which the human mind explores and is able to exert its influence ever more precisely over the phenomenal world. The one defines goals that serve the evolutionary process; the other assists in their attainment. Together, they constitute the dual knowledge system impelling the advance of civilization. Each is hailed by the Master as an “effulgence of the Sun of Truth”.45

It is, therefore, an inadequate recognition of the unique station of Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muḥammad—or of the succession of Avatars who inspired the Hindu scriptures—to depict their work as the founding of distinct religions. Rather are they appreciated when acknowledged as the spiritual Educators of history, as the animating forces in the rise of the civilizations through which consciousness has flowered: “He was in the world,” the Gospel declares, “and the world was made by him.…”46 That their persons have been held in a reverence infinitely above those of any other historical figures reflects the attempt to articulate otherwise inexpressible feelings aroused in the hearts of unnumbered millions of people by the blessings their work has conferred. In loving them humanity has progressively learned what it means to love God. There is, realistically, no other way to do so. They are not honoured by fumbling efforts to capture the essential mystery of their nature in dogmas invented by human imagination; what honours them is the soul’s unconditioned surrender of its will to the transformative influence they mediate.

Confusion about the role of religion in cultivating moral consciousness is equally apparent in popular understanding of its contribution to the shaping of society. Perhaps the most obvious example is the inferior social status most sacred texts assign to women. While the resulting benefits enjoyed by men were no doubt a major factor in consolidating such a conception, moral justification was unquestionably supplied by people’s understanding of the intent of the scriptures themselves. With few exceptions, these texts address themselves to men, assigning to women a supportive and subordinate role in the life of both religion and society. Sadly, such understanding made it deplorably easy to attach primary blame to women for failure in the disciplining of the sexual impulse, a vital feature of moral advancement. In a modern frame of reference, attitudes of this kind are readily recognized as prejudiced and unjust. At the stages of social development at which all of the major faiths came into existence, scriptural guidance sought primarily to civilize, to the extent possible, relationships resulting from intractable historical circumstances. It needs little insight to appreciate that clinging to primitive norms in the present day would defeat the very purpose of religion’s patient cultivation of moral sense.

Comparable considerations have pertained in relations between societies. The long and arduous preparation of the Hebrew people for the mission required of them is an illustration of the complexity and stubborn character of the moral challenges involved. In order that the spiritual capacities appealed to by the prophets might awaken and flourish, the inducements offered by neighbouring idolatrous cultures had, at all costs, to be resisted. Scriptural accounts of the condign punishments that befell both rulers and subjects who violated the principle illustrated the importance attached to it by the Divine purpose. A somewhat comparable issue arose in the struggle of the newborn community founded by Muḥammad to survive attempts by pagan Arab tribes to extinguish it—and in the barbaric cruelty and relentless spirit of vendetta animating the attackers. No one familiar with the historical details will have difficulty in understanding the severity of the Qur’án’s injunctions on the subject. While the monotheistic beliefs of Jews and Christians were to be accorded respect, no compromise with idolatry was permitted. In a relatively brief space of time, this draconian rule had succeeded in unifying the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula and launching the newly forged community on well over five centuries of moral, intellectual, cultural and economic achievement, unmatched before or since in the speed and scope of its expansion. History tends to be a stern judge. Ultimately, in its uncompromising perspective, the consequences to those who would have blindly strangled such enterprises in the cradle will always be set off against the benefits accruing to the world as a whole from the triumph of the Bible’s vision of human possibilities and the advances made possible by the genius of Islamic civilization.

Among the most contentious of such issues in understanding society’s evolution towards spiritual maturity has been that of crime and punishment. While different in detail and degree, the penalties prescribed by most sacred texts for acts of violence against either the commonweal or the rights of other individuals tended to be harsh. Moreover, they frequently extended to permitting retaliation against the offenders by the injured parties or by members of their families. In the perspective of history, however, one may reasonably ask what practical alternatives existed. In the absence not merely of present-day programmes of behavioural modification, but even of recourse to such coercive options as prisons and policing agencies, religion’s concern was to impress indelibly on general consciousness the moral unacceptability—and practical costs—of conduct whose effect would otherwise have been to demoralize efforts at social progress. The whole of civilization has since been the beneficiary, and it would be less than honest not to acknowledge the fact.

So it has been throughout all of the religious dispensations whose origins have survived in written records. Mendicancy, slavery, autocracy, conquest, ethnic prejudices and other undesirable features of social interaction have gone unchallenged—or been explicitly indulged—as religion sought to achieve reformations of behaviour that were considered more immediately essential at given stages in the advance of civilization. To condemn religion because any one of its successive dispensations failed to address the whole range of social wrongs would be to ignore everything that has been learned about the nature of human development. Inevitably, anachronistic thinking of this kind must also create severe psychological handicaps in appreciating and facing the requirements of one’s own time.

The issue is not the past, but the implications for the present. Problems arise where followers of one of the world’s faiths prove unable to distinguish between its eternal and transitory features, and attempt to impose on society rules of behaviour that have long since accomplished their purpose. The principle is fundamental to an understanding of religion’s social role: “The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require”, Bahá’u’lláh points out. “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”47

The exigencies of the new age of human experience to which Bahá’u’lláh summoned the political and religious rulers of the nineteenth century world have now been largely adopted, at least as ideals, by their successors and by progressive minds everywhere. By the time the twentieth century had drawn to a close, principles that had, only short decades earlier, been patronized as visionary and hopelessly unrealistic had become central to global discourse. Buttressed by the findings of scientific research and the conclusions of influential commissions—often lavishly funded—they direct the work of powerful agencies at international, national and local levels. A vast body of scholarly literature in many languages is devoted to exploring practical means for their implementation, and those programmes can count on media attention on five continents.

Most of these principles are, alas, also widely flouted, not only among recognized enemies of social peace, but in circles professedly committed to them. What is lacking is not convincing testimony as to their relevance, but the power of moral conviction that can implement them, a power whose only demonstrably reliable source throughout history has been religious faith. As late as the inception of Bahá’u’lláh’s own mission, religious authority still exercised a significant degree of social influence. When the Christian world was moved to break with millennia of unquestioning conviction and address at last the evil of slavery, it was to Biblical ideals that the early British reformers sought to appeal. Subsequently, in the defining address he gave regarding the central role played by the issue in the great conflict in America, the president of the United States warned that if “every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.”48 That era, however, was swiftly drawing to a close. In the upheavals that followed the Second World War, even so influential a figure as Mohandas Gandhi proved unable to mobilize the spiritual power of Hinduism in support of his efforts to extinguish sectarian violence on the Indian subcontinent. Nor were leaders of the Islamic community any more effective in this respect. As prefigured in the Qur’án’s metaphorical vision of “The Day that We roll up the heavens like a scroll”,49 the once unchallengeable authority of the traditional religions had ceased to direct humanity’s social relations.

It is in this context that one begins to appreciate Bahá’u’lláh’s choice of imagery about the will of God for a new age: “Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power.”50 Through His revelation, the principles required for the collective coming of age of the human race have been invested with the one power capable of penetrating to the roots of human motivation and of altering behaviour. For those who have recognized Him, equality of men and women is not a sociological postulate, but revealed truth about human nature, with implications for every aspect of human relations. The same is true of His teaching of the principle of racial oneness. Universal education, freedom of thought, the protection of human rights, recognition of the earth’s vast resources as a trust for the whole of humankind, society’s responsibility for the well-being of its citizenry, the promotion of scientific research, even so practical a principle as an international auxiliary language that will advance integration of the earth’s peoples—for all who respond to Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation, these and similar precepts carry the same compelling authority as do the injunctions of scripture against idolatry, theft and false witness. While intimations of some can be perceived in earlier sacred writings, their definition and prescription had necessarily to wait until the planet’s heterogeneous populations could set out together on the discovery of their nature as a single human race. Through spiritual empowerment brought by Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation the Divine standards can be appreciated, not as isolated principles and laws, but as facets of a single, all-embracing vision of humanity’s future, revolutionary in purpose, intoxicating in the possibilities it opens.

Integral to these teachings are principles that address the administration of humanity’s collective affairs. A widely quoted passage in Bahá’u’lláh’s Tablet to Queen Victoria expresses emphatic praise of the principle of democratic and constitutional government, but is also an admonition about the context of global responsibility in which that principle must operate if it is to realize its purpose in this age: “O ye the elected representatives of the people in every land! Take ye counsel together, and let your concern be only for that which profiteth mankind and bettereth the condition thereof, if ye be of them that scan heedfully. Regard the world as the human body which, though at its creation whole and perfect, hath been afflicted, through various causes, with grave disorders and maladies. Not for one day did it gain ease, nay its sickness waxed more severe, as it fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires and have erred grievously. And if, at one time, through the care of an able physician, a member of that body was healed, the rest remained afflicted as before.”51 In other passages, Bahá’u’lláh spells out some of the practical implications. The governments of the world are called upon to convene an international consultative body as the foundation, in the words of the Guardian, of “a world federal system”52 empowered to safeguard the autonomy and territory of its state members, resolve national and regional disputes and coordinate programmes of global development for the good of the entire human race. Significantly, Bahá’u’lláh attributes to this system, once established, the right to suppress by force acts of aggression by one state against another. Addressing the rulers of His day, He asserts the clear moral authority of such action: “Should any one among you take up arms against another, rise ye all against him, for this is naught but manifest justice.”53

The power through which these goals will be progressively realized is that of unity. Although to Bahá’ís the most obvious of truths, its implications for the current crisis of civilization appear to escape most contemporary discourse. Few will disagree that the universal disease sapping the health of the body of humankind is that of disunity. Its manifestations everywhere cripple political will, debilitate the collective urge to change, and poison national and religious relationships. How strange, then, that unity is regarded as a goal to be attained, if at all, in a distant future, after a host of disorders in social, political, economic and moral life have been addressed and somehow or other resolved. Yet the latter are essentially symptoms and side effects of the problem, not its root cause. Why has so fundamental an inversion of reality come to be widely accepted? The answer is presumably because the achievement of genuine unity of mind and heart among peoples whose experiences are deeply at variance is thought to be entirely beyond the capacity of society’s existing institutions. While this tacit admission is a welcome advance over the understanding of processes of social evolution that prevailed a few decades ago, it is of limited practical assistance in responding to the challenge.

Unity is a condition of the human spirit. Education can support and enhance it, as can legislation, but they can do so only once it emerges and has established itself as a compelling force in social life. A global intelligentsia, its prescriptions largely shaped by materialistic misconceptions of reality, clings tenaciously to the hope that imaginative social engineering, supported by political compromise, may indefinitely postpone the potential disasters that few deny loom over humanity’s future. “We can well perceive how the whole human race is encompassed with great, with incalculable afflictions”, Bahá’u’lláh states. “They that are intoxicated by self-conceit have interposed themselves between it and the Divine and infallible Physician. Witness how they have entangled all men, themselves included, in the mesh of their devices. They can neither discover the cause of the disease, nor have they any knowledge of the remedy.”54 As unity is the remedy for the world’s ills, its one certain source lies in the restoration of religion’s influence in human affairs. The laws and principles revealed by God, in this day, Bahá’u’lláh declares, “are the most potent instruments and the surest of all means for the dawning of the light of unity amongst men.”55 “Whatsoever is raised on this foundation, the changes and chances of the world can never impair its strength, nor will the revolution of countless centuries undermine its structure.”56

Central to Bahá’u’lláh’s mission, therefore, has been the creation of a global community that would reflect the oneness of humankind. The ultimate testimony that the Bahá’í community can summon in vindication of His mission is the example of unity that His teachings have produced. As it enters the twenty-first century, the Bahá’í Cause is a phenomenon unlike anything else the world has seen. After decades of effort, in which surges of growth alternated with long stretches of consolidation, often shadowed by setbacks, the Bahá’í community today comprises several million people representative of virtually every ethnic, cultural, social and religious background on earth, administering their collective affairs without the intervention of a clergy, through democratically elected institutions. The many thousands of localities in which it has put down its roots are to be found in every country, territory and significant island group, from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego, from Africa to the Pacific. The assertion that this community may already constitute the most diverse and geographically widespread of any similarly organized body of people on the planet is unlikely to be challenged by one familiar with the evidence.

The achievement calls out for understanding. Conventional explanations—access to wealth, the patronage of powerful political interests, invocations of the occult or aggressive programmes of proselytism that instil fear of Divine wrath—none have played any role in the events involved. Adherents of the Faith have achieved a sense of identity as members of a single human race, an identity that shapes the purpose of their lives and that, clearly, is not the expression of any intrinsic moral superiority on their own part: “O people of Bahá! That there is none to rival you is a sign of mercy.”57 A fair-minded observer is compelled to entertain at least the possibility that the phenomenon may represent the operation of influences entirely different in nature from the familiar ones—influences that can properly be described only as spiritual—capable of eliciting extraordinary feats of sacrifice and understanding from ordinary people of every background.

Particularly striking has been the fact that the Bahá’í Cause has been able to maintain the unity thus achieved, unbroken and unimpaired, through the most vulnerable early stages of its existence. One will search in vain for another association of human beings in history—political, religious, or social—that has successfully survived the perennial blight of schism and faction. The Bahá’í community, in all its diversity, is a single body of people, one in its understanding of the intent of the revelation of God that gave it birth, one in its devotion to the Administrative Order that its Author created for the governance of its collective affairs, one in its commitment to the task of disseminating His message throughout the planet. Over the decades of its rise, several individuals, some of them highly placed and all of them driven by the spur of ambition, did their utmost to create separate followings loyal to themselves or to the personal interpretations they had imposed on Bahá’u’lláh’s writings. At earlier stages in the evolution of religion, similar attempts had proved successful in splitting the newborn faiths into competing sects. In the case of the Bahá’í Cause, however, such intrigues have failed, without exception, to produce more than transient outbursts of controversy whose net effect has been to deepen the community’s understanding of its Founder’s purpose and its commitment to it. “So powerful is the light of unity”, Bahá’u’lláh assures those who recognize Him, “that it can illuminate the whole earth.”58 Human nature being what it is, one can readily appreciate the Guardian’s anticipation that this purifying process will long continue—paradoxically but necessarily—to be an integral feature of the maturation of the Bahá’í community.

A corollary of the abandonment of faith in God has been a paralysis of ability to address effectively the problem of evil or, in many cases, even to acknowledge it. While Bahá’ís do not attribute to the phenomenon the objective existence it was assumed at earlier stages of religious history to possess, the negation of the good that evil represents, as with darkness, ignorance or disease, is severely crippling in its effect. Few publishing seasons pass that do not offer the educated reader a range of new and imaginative analyses of the character of some of the monstrous figures who, during the twentieth century, systematically tortured, degraded and exterminated millions of their fellow human beings. One is invited by scholarly authority to ponder the weight that should be given, variously, to paternal abuse, social rejection, professional disappointments, poverty, injustice, war experiences, possible genetic impairment, nihilistic literature—or various combinations of the foregoing—in seeking to understand the obsessions fuelling an apparently bottomless hatred of humankind. Conspicuously missing from such contemporary speculation is what experienced commentators, even as recently as a century ago, would have recognized as spiritual disease, whatever its accompanying features.

If unity is indeed the litmus test of human progress, neither history nor Heaven will readily forgive those who choose deliberately to raise their hands against it. In trusting, people lower their defences and open themselves to others. Without doing so, there is no way in which they can commit themselves wholeheartedly to shared goals. Nothing is so devastating as suddenly to discover that, for the other party, commitments made in good faith have represented no more than an advantage gained, a means of achieving concealed objectives different from, or even inimical to, what had ostensibly been undertaken together. Such betrayal is a persistent thread in human history that found one of its earliest recorded expressions in the ancient tale of Cain’s jealousy of the brother whose faith God had chosen to confirm. If the appalling suffering endured by the earth’s peoples during the twentieth century has left a lesson, it lies in the fact that the systemic disunity, inherited from a dark past and poisoning relations in every sphere of life, could throw open the door in this age to demonic behaviour more bestial than anything the mind had dreamed possible.

If evil has a name, it is surely the deliberate violation of the hard-won covenants of peace and reconciliation by which people of goodwill seek to escape the past and to build together a new future. By its very nature, unity requires self-sacrifice. “…self-love”, the Master states, “is kneaded into the very clay of man.”59 The ego, termed by Him the “insistent self”,60 resists instinctively constraints imposed on what it conceives to be its freedom. To willingly forgo the satisfactions that licence affords, the individual must come to believe that fulfilment lies elsewhere. Ultimately, it lies, as it has always done, in the soul’s submission to God.

Failure to meet the challenge of such submission has manifested itself with especially devastating consequences throughout the centuries in betrayal of the Messengers of God and of the ideals they taught. This discussion is not the place for a review of the nature and provisions of the specific Covenant by means of which Bahá’u’lláh has successfully preserved the unity of those who recognize Him and serve His purpose. It is sufficient to note the strength of the language He reserves for its deliberate violation by those who simultaneously pretend allegiance to it: “They that have turned away therefrom are reckoned among the inmates of the nethermost fire in the sight of thy Lord, the Almighty, the Unconstrained.”61 The reason for the severity of this condemnation is obvious. Few people have difficulty in recognizing the danger to social well-being of such familiar crimes as murder, rape or fraud, nor the need for society to take effective measures of self-protection. But how are Bahá’ís to think about a perversity which, if unchecked, would destroy the very means essential to the creation of unity—would, in the uncompromising words of the Master, “become even as an axe striking at the very root of the Blessed Tree”?62 The issue is not one of intellectual dissent, nor even of moral weakness. Many people are resistant to accepting authority of one kind or another, and eventually distance themselves from circumstances that require it. Persons who have been attracted to the Bahá’í Faith but who decide, for whatever reason, to leave it are entirely free to do so.

Covenant-breaking is a phenomenon fundamentally different in nature. The impulse it arouses in those under its influence is not simply to pursue freely whatever path they believe leads to personal fulfilment or contribution to society. Rather, are such persons driven by an apparently ungovernable determination to impose their personal will on the community by any means available to them, without regard for the damage done and without respect for the solemn undertakings they entered into on being accepted as members of that community. Ultimately, the self becomes the overriding authority, not only in the individual’s own life, but in whatever other lives can be successfully influenced. As long and tragic experience has demonstrated all too certainly, endowments such as distinguished lineage, intellect, education, piety or social leadership can be harnessed, equally, to the service of humanity or to that of personal ambition. In ages past, when spiritual priorities of a different nature were the focus of the Divine purpose, the consequences of such rebellion did not vitiate the central message of any of the successive revelations of God. Today, with the immense opportunities and horrific dangers that physical unification of the planet has brought with it, commitment to the requirements of unity becomes the touchstone of all professions of devotion to the will of God or, for that matter, to the well-being of humankind.

Everything in its history has equipped the Bahá’í Cause to address the challenge facing it. Even at this relatively early stage of its development—and relatively limited as its resources presently are—the Bahá’í enterprise is fully deserving of the respect it is winning. An onlooker need not accept its claims to Divine origin in order to appreciate what is being accomplished. Taken simply as this-worldly phenomena, the nature and achievements of the Bahá’í community are their own justification for attention on the part of anyone seriously concerned with the crisis of civilization, because they are evidence that the world’s peoples, in all their diversity, can learn to live and work and find fulfilment as a single race, in a single global homeland.

This fact underlines, if further emphasis were needed, the urgency of the successive Plans devised by the Universal House of Justice for the expansion and consolidation of the Faith. The rest of humanity has every right to expect that a body of people genuinely committed to the vision of unity embodied in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh will be an increasingly vigorous contributor to programmes of social betterment that depend for their success precisely on the force of unity. Responding to the expectation will require the Bahá’í community to grow at an ever-accelerating pace, greatly multiplying the human and material resources invested in its work and diversifying still further the range of talents that equip it to be a useful partner with like-minded organizations. Along with the social objectives of the effort must go an appreciation of the longing of millions of equally sincere people, as yet unaware of Bahá’u’lláh’s mission but inspired by many of its ideals, for an opportunity to find lives of service that will have enduring meaning.

The culture of systematic growth taking root in the Bahá’í community would seem, therefore, by far the most effective response the friends can make to the challenge discussed in these pages. The experience of an intense and ongoing immersion in the Creative Word progressively frees one from the grip of the materialistic assumptions—what Bahá’u’lláh terms “the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy”63—that pervade society and paralyze impulses for change. It develops in one a capacity to assist the yearning for unity on the part of friends and acquaintances to find mature and intelligent expression. The nature of the core activities of the current Plan—children’s classes, devotional meetings and study circles—permits growing numbers of persons who do not yet regard themselves as Bahá’ís to feel free to participate in the process. The result has been to bring into existence what has been aptly termed a “community of interest”. As others benefit from participation and come to identify with the goals the Cause is pursuing, experience shows that they, too, are inclined to commit themselves fully to Bahá’u’lláh as active agents of His purpose. Apart from its associated objectives, therefore, wholehearted prosecution of the Plan has the potentiality of amplifying enormously the Bahá’í community’s contribution to public discourse on what has become the most demanding issue facing humankind.

If Bahá’ís are to fulfil Bahá’u’lláh’s mandate, however, it is obviously vital that they come to appreciate that the parallel efforts of promoting the betterment of society and of teaching the Bahá’í Faith are not activities competing for attention. Rather, are they reciprocal features of one coherent global programme. Differences of approach are determined chiefly by the differing needs and differing stages of inquiry that the friends encounter. Because free will is an inherent endowment of the soul, each person who is drawn to explore Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings will need to find his own place in the never-ending continuum of spiritual search. He will need to determine, in the privacy of his own conscience and without pressure, the spiritual responsibility this discovery entails. In order to exercise this autonomy intelligently, however, he must gain both a perspective on the processes of change in which he, like the rest of the earth’s population, is caught up and a clear understanding of the implications for his own life. The obligation of the Bahá’í community is to do everything in its power to assist all stages of humanity’s universal movement towards reunion with God. The Divine Plan bequeathed it by the Master is the means by which this work is carried out.

However central the ideal of the oneness of religion unquestionably is, therefore, the task of sharing Bahá’u’lláh’s message is obviously not an interfaith project. While the mind seeks intellectual certainty, what the soul longs for is the attainment of certitude. Such inner conviction is the ultimate goal of all spiritual seeking, regardless of how rapid or gradual the process may be. For the soul, the experience of conversion is not an extraneous or incidental feature of the exploration of religious truth, but the pivotal issue that must eventually be addressed. There is no ambiguity about Bahá’u’lláh’s words on the subject and there can be none in the minds of those who seek to serve Him: “Verily I say, this is the Day in which mankind can behold the Face, and hear the Voice, of the Promised One. The Call of God hath been raised, and the light of His countenance hath been lifted up upon men. It behoveth every man to blot out the trace of every idle word from the tablet of his heart, and to gaze, with an open and unbiased mind, on the signs of His Revelation, the proofs of His Mission, and the tokens of His glory.”64

One of the distinguishing features of modernity has been the universal awakening of historical consciousness. An outcome of this revolutionary change in perspective that greatly enhances the teaching of Bahá’u’lláh’s message is the ability of people, given the chance, to recognize that the whole body of humanity’s sacred texts places the drama of salvation itself squarely in the context of history. Beneath the surface language of symbol and metaphor, religion, as the scriptures reveal it, operates not through the arbitrary dictates of magic but as a process of fulfilment unfolding in a physical world created by God for that purpose.

In this respect, the texts speak with one voice: religion’s goal is humanity’s attainment of the age of “in-gathering”,65 of “one fold, and one shepherd”;66 the great age to come when “the Earth will shine with the glory of its Lord”67 and the will of God is carried out “in earth, as it is in heaven”;68 “the promised Day”69 when the “holy city”70 will descend “out of heaven, from … God”,71 when “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it”,72 when God will demand to know “what mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor”;73 the Day when scriptures that have been “sealed till the time of the end”74 would be opened and union with God will find expression in “a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name”;75 an age utterly beyond anything humanity will have experienced, the mind conceived or language as yet encompassed: “even as We produced the first Creation, so shall We produce a new one: a promise We have undertaken: truly shall We fulfil it.”76

The declared purpose of history’s series of prophetic revelations, therefore, has been not only to guide the individual seeker on the path of personal salvation, but to prepare the whole of the human family for the great eschatological Event lying ahead, through which the life of the world will itself be entirely transformed. The revelation of Bahá’u’lláh is neither preparatory nor prophetic. It is that Event. Through its influence, the stupendous enterprise of laying the foundations of the Kingdom of God has been set in motion, and the population of the earth has been endowed with the powers and capacities equal to the task. That Kingdom is a universal civilization shaped by principles of social justice and enriched by achievements of the human mind and spirit beyond anything the present age can conceive. “This is the Day”, Bahá’u’lláh declares, “in which God’s most excellent favours have been poured out upon men, the Day in which His most mighty grace hath been infused into all created things.… Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.”77

Service to the goal calls for an understanding of the fundamental difference distinguishing the mission of Bahá’u’lláh from political and ideological projects of human design. The moral vacuum that produced the horrors of the twentieth century exposed the outermost limits of the mind’s unaided capacity to devise and construct an ideal society, however great the material resources harnessed to the effort. The suffering entailed has engraved the lesson indelibly on the consciousness of the earth’s peoples. Religion’s perspective on humanity’s future, therefore, has nothing in common with systems of the past—and only relatively little relationship with those of today. Its appeal is to a reality in the genetic code, if it can be so described, of the rational soul. The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus taught two thousand years ago, is “within”.78 His organic analogies of a “vineyard”,79 of “seed [sown] into the good ground”,80 of the “good tree [that] bringeth forth good fruit”81 speak of a potentiality of the human species that has been nurtured and trained by God since the dawn of time as the purpose and leading edge of the creative process. The ongoing work of patient cultivation is the task that Bahá’u’lláh has entrusted to the company of those who recognize Him and embrace His Cause. Little wonder, then, at the exalted language in which He speaks of a privilege so great: “Ye are the stars of the heaven of understanding, the breeze that stirreth at the break of day, the soft-flowing waters upon which must depend the very life of all men.…”82

The process bears within itself the assurance of its fulfilment. For those with eyes to see, the new creation is today everywhere emerging, in the same way that a seedling becomes in time a fruit-bearing tree or a child reaches adulthood. Successive dispensations of a loving and purposeful Creator have brought the earth’s inhabitants to the threshold of their collective coming-of-age as a single people. Bahá’u’lláh is now summoning humanity to enter on its inheritance: “That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith.”83

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