One Religion?

The concept of unity is central to the Baha’i Faith.  Its key teachings are unity of God, unity of religion, and unity of humanity.  If there were a “Cliff’s Notes” to the Baha’i Faith, these three unities might constitute the bulk of the content.  At a basic level, they are all easy to explain, and most people grasp them without trouble.  Or rather, they grasp two of the three without trouble.  One, however, seems to boggle a lot of minds.

Unity of religion is the troublemaker, and it’s not hard to understand why. Even a cursory look at the various religions shows how different they all are.  How can anyone seriously talk about them as though they were all one and the same? Can one really lump together polytheistic religions, monotheistic religions, and (as many regard Buddhism) atheistic religions?  Even among monotheistic religions, of which the Baha’i Faith is one, there are seemingly irreconcilable differences.

The short answer is: that’s not what unity means.  Uniformity is sameness.  Unity is the combination of parts into an organized whole.  Think of the different organs and limbs that make up the human body.  Each component is very different, with differing characteristics and functions.  Nobody would mistake the brain for the big toe, yet they exist in unity because each is part of a whole larger than itself.

Or think of the human race. Each person is an individual, with varying physical, mental, and emotional characteristics.  Differences of ethnicity, culture, and religion exist, yet all are united in a single species.

Religion works the same way, in the Baha’i view.  Although specific religions differ in many ways, all are aspects of a single phenomenon that serves a common purpose: the advancement of humanity, both individually and collectively.  Religion evolves with humanity, changing according to the needs and capacities of people at different times and in different places.  Just as it would be impossible for a doctor to treat all of her patients in exactly the same way regardless of age, physical condition, and state of health, so it would be impossible for religion to achieve its purpose without regard for the state of human development and the challenges facing civilizations.  Or as Baha’u’llah wrote:

That the divers communions of the earth, and the manifold systems of religious belief, should never be allowed to foster the feelings of animosity among men, is, in this Day, of the essence of the Faith of God and His Religion. These principles and laws, these firmly-established and mighty systems, have proceeded from one Source, and are 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.
(Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 13)

A still deeper thread unites all religions, too: all true religions are grounded in divine revelation.  If we could know the origins of every religion–which except in a few cases we unfortunately cannot–we would find they are rooted in a single person, a Manifestation of God in Baha’i parlance, through whom the divine teachings are revealed to humanity.  These Manifestations of God present themselves to us in differing ways.  Some may appear as prophets, others as enlightened teachers, others even as God among us.  As with what they teach, how they present themselves is according to our needs and capacities.  Baha’u’llah states:

These attributes of God are not and have never been vouchsafed specially unto certain Prophets, and withheld from others. Nay, all the Prophets of God, His well-favoured, His holy, and chosen Messengers, are, without exception, the bearers of His names, and the embodiments of His attributes. They only differ in the intensity of their revelation, and the comparative potency of their light…. That a certain attribute of God hath not been outwardly manifested by these Essences of Detachment doth in no wise imply that they Who are the Daysprings of God’s attributes and the Treasuries of His holy names did not actually possess it.
(Baha’u’llah, Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 103)

Understood in this way, it is indeed easy to grasp the unity of religion, but it requires a willingness to broaden one’s horizons, to envision a growing, advancing humanity with changing needs and changing capacity, and a God who provides for us at each step of the way.  This is the view that Baha’u’llah lays before humanity in this age.

Proving God

Over the years, I’ve read several works dealing with logical proofs of God’s existence, including a survey of the history of such proofs and William Hatcher’s Minimalism, the chief Baha’i entry into the field. My most recent foray into the subject is New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy by Catholic philosopher Robert Spitzer, which I finished a couple of weeks ago.

Proofs of God’s existence typically begin by demonstrating that there must be a singular precursor to everything in existence. In past times, going back to Aristotle, this singular precursor was thought of as a “first cause.” After the concept of causation fell into disrepute among philosophers, different terminology was introduced to make essentially the same point. Spitzer speaks in terms of conditions for existence. For example, two of the conditions for table salt to exist are that sodium atoms and chlorine atoms must exist. For atoms of any kind to exist, protons, neutrons, and electrons must exist. Without much difficulty, it can be shown that for anything to exist, there must be a singular reality that exists unconditionally.

Although Spitzer includes some scientific discussion, he does so primarily to show that science and philosophy converge in certain ways. But logical proofs of this sort do not require scientific input. Instead of using empirical evidence to develop models of physical reality, as science does, philosophy seeks to determine which of a finite set of mutually exclusive statements representing all possibilities happens to be true. In the above case, either there is no unconditioned existence, there is one unconditioned existence, or there is more than one unconditioned existence. There are no other possibilities. If the first or last of these is true, it can be proven that nothing else can exist. Thus, there must be exactly one unconditioned existence, because that is the only possibility that doesn’t lead to contradiction.

‘Abdul-Baha mentioned that logical proofs are important to people today and gave a few examples of His own to demonstrate God’s existence, the reality of the Manifestations of God, and various aspects of human nature. That said, people are very good at finding fault with logical proofs, particularly when they don’t like the conclusions. Moreover, logical proofs are not sufficient, because although they may be able to show what is, they don’t offer any insights into what to do about it. And that, really, is the heart of religion: not to merely know that God exists, but to know God, to enter into a loving relationship with Him and live one’s life accordingly. Logic, therefore, can be no more than a starting point.

Some even get along nicely without it. They don’t need a logical proof of God’s existence because they have experiential proof. Such proof may not satisfy either the logician or the empiricist, but it can’t be so easily discounted. Baha’u’llah stated:

He Who is everlastingly hidden from the eyes of men can never be known except through His Manifestation, and His Manifestation can adduce no greater proof of the truth of His Mission than the proof of His own Person.
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, XX, p. 49)

The life and teachings of Jesus or the Buddha or Muhammad or Baha’u’llah or of any other Manifestation of God speak for themselves, and the experience one has through accepting and following them likewise speaks for itself.

Even so, most of us have moments when we doubt our own experience, and in those times it may be of value to know that logic backs up our intuitions, at least generally. It shows that at the very least the foundation is firm. We still have to build on that foundation, but so long as we know it can’t fall apart under our feet, we can have the confidence to build.

Embracing Tribulations

My family and I have lived through a lot of misfortune in the past few years. Among other things, my wife was hospitalized with a very serious condition, my son suffered a severe infection in one of his feet, one of my daughters is dealing with an as-yet undiagnosed medical issue, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and I lost my job due to funding issues and went through a period of unemployment. Sometimes it seems we go from one disaster to the next with very little time to draw a breath.

All Baha’is are familiar with passages in their Holy Writings that speak about how tests and difficulties are blessings in disguise. They can help us to develop our spiritual nature and refine our character. Even if only grudgingly, I think most of us can see the point.

But in numerous passages, Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha speak of the trials they faced as causes of exaltation and joy. That point is harder to grasp for most of us. At least it generally has been for me. I can see how, for example, financial hardship can lead one to greater detachment from the material and increased reliance upon God, but I can also grumble about how I just don’t know where the money will come from for some necessary expenditure.

Recently, though, something I read–I think it was in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, but I can’t find the exact passage now–led to one of those “aha!” moments we sometimes have. Whatever the passage said, it caused me to realize that the hardships in our lives are not merely chances to develop spiritual qualities but chances to demonstrate our love for and faith in God.

Think of it this way.  It’s easy to be thankful when things are going well. It’s easy to speak of love and faith when nothing puts us to the test. But how true are those qualities? When things get rough, they may prove a mirage. Then there is no doubt: we either show true thankfulness, true love, true faith, or we don’t. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, speaking of a time when His trials abated, wrote this:

And yet, from one point of view, this wanderer was saddened and despondent. For what pain, in the time to come, could I seek comfort? At the news of what granted wish could I rejoice? There was no more tyranny, no more affliction, no tragical events, no tribulations. My only joy in this swiftly-passing world was to tread the stony path of God and to endure hard tests and all material griefs. For otherwise, this earthly life would prove barren and vain, and better would be death. The tree of being would produce no fruit; the sown field of this existence would yield no harvest. Thus it is my hope that once again some circumstance will make my cup of anguish to brim over, and that beauteous Love, that Slayer of souls, will dazzle the beholders again. Then will this heart be blissful, this soul be blessed.
— ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, #190, p. 278)

Although I’m certainly no master at it, I think that peace, contentment, and even happiness during times of trial springs from love of God, faithfulness to God, being open to His will regardless of how hard it may be. The joy of which ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke is the joy of demonstrating to our Creator that we don’t merely pay lip service to Him, that we truly love Him, hold faith with Him, and rely upon Him.

Dying Vitality

The vitality of men’s belief in God is dying out in every land; nothing short of His wholesome medicine can ever restore it. The corrosion of ungodliness is eating into the vitals of human society; what else but the Elixir of His potent Revelation can cleanse and revive it?
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, XCIX, p. 199)

Sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century, Baha’u’llah penned these words. On the surface, they seem to speak of a growing disaffection with religion and a rise in atheism. Lately, however, I’ve been pondering a subtlety in the phrasing: it is not belief that Baha’u’llah says is dying out, but rather the vitality of belief.

Vitality is the energy, the vigor, the life of something. To be sure, a lack of vitality in belief can equate to the death of belief and thus the growth of irreligion. But it may also signify belief reduced to a shell, the outward appearance of belief with nothing living at the core. What would that be like? It’s actually an old question, answered this way in the Epistle of James:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
(James 2:14 -17, KJV)

The terms “faith” and “belief” are not the same. Faith is trust, loyalty, and fidelity. Religious faith involves both knowing and doing, for religion calls us to action. Thus, faith without works is indeed dead, being without any result. Belief, although today often regarded as a conviction that something is true, has an older, deeper meaning that is particularly applicable to religion: to hold dear. The word is identical in form to the archaic “belove,” which today is only used in the form “beloved”.

When Baha’u’llah writes, “The vitality of men’s belief in God is dying out in every land,” in one sense it can be seen as saying that we are increasingly distanced from God, that we no longer hold God dear whether we say we “believe in God” or not, that even if we say we “believe in God” we do not act as though we do. In other words, He may be saying that increasingly whatever faith and belief people profess is “dead.”

I think we can see this in the world around us. Irreligion is indeed on the rise in some countries, with some embracing a “spirituality” devoid of religion and others professing atheism or agnosticism. Even where this is not happening, materialism engulfs all societies, resulting in a hollow faith which reduces religion to a weakened shell of its former self, having at best marginal connection to real life.

People who care about religion and understand that something is going horribly wrong fight this trend, but it seems a losing battle. The forces of materialism and irreligion overwhelm their efforts, and they find themselves despised and marginalized. Interestingly, Baha’u’llah foresaw this development, too, when He proclaimed that human effort was insufficient revitalize religion. Only God’s “wholesome medicine,” He states, “can ever restore it.”

It might be worth taking a swig of it.