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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 17-24

“The dilemma is both artificial and self-inflicted. The world order, if…”

The dilemma is both artificial and self-inflicted. The world order, if it can be so described, within which Bahá’ís 18 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 19 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.” 1 The 20 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.” 2
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.” 3 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 21 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….” 4
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.” 5 As humanity’s purpose includes the carrying forward of “an ever-advancing civilization”, 6 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.” 7 22
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”. 8 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.” 9 Apart from encouraging humility, this fact should serve also as 23 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 24 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.” 10
1. ibid., paragraph 104.   [ Back To Reference]
2. ibid., paragraph 106.   [ Back To Reference]
3. Gleanings, section XXII.   [ Back To Reference]
4. Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1987), page 311.   [ Back To Reference]
5. Gleanings, section XXVII.   [ Back To Reference]
6. ibid., section CIX.   [ Back To Reference]
7. ibid., section LXXXI.   [ Back To Reference]
8. Julian Huxley, cited by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (London: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1959), page 243. See also Julian Huxley, Knowledge, Morality, and Destiny (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), page 13.   [ Back To Reference]
9. Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: Selected Letters (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1991), page 35.   [ Back To Reference]
10. Gleanings, section LXXVIII.   [ Back To Reference]