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.