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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 24-29

“The objection most commonly raised against the foregoing conception…”

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, 25 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 26 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.” 1
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”. 2 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 27 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….” 3 “What could have been the reason for such denial and avoidance…?” 4 “What could have caused such contention…?” 5 “Reflect, what could have been the motive…?” 6
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 28 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.” 7 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.” 8 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.” 9 29 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.” 10 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”. 11
1. ibid., section CXXXII.   [ Back To Reference]
2. Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1993), paragraph 182.   [ Back To Reference]
3. Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán, paragraph 4.   [ Back To Reference]
4. ibid., paragraph 8.   [ Back To Reference]
5. ibid., paragraph 13.   [ Back To Reference]
6. ibid., paragraph 14.   [ Back To Reference]
7. St. Matthew 13.25, Authorized King James Version.   [ Back To Reference]
8. ibid., 13.29–30.   [ Back To Reference]
9. Qur’án, surih 7, verse 33, Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation, third edition, (n.p.: 1938).   [ Back To Reference]
10. Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, paragraph 99.   [ Back To Reference]
11. The Summons of the Lord of Hosts: Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 2002), paragraph 126.   [ Back To Reference]