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One Common Faith

  • Author:
  • Bahá’í World Centre

  • Source:
  • Bahá’í World Centre, 2005 edition
  • Pages:
  • 56
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Pages 13-17

“Throughout history, the primary agents of spiritual development have…”

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”, 1 a source of a knowledge that totally 14 embraces consciousness, one so compelling as to endow the sincere with “a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind”. 2 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 15 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 16 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 17 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.
1. Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1993), paragraph 216.   [ Back To Reference]
2. ibid.   [ Back To Reference]