Possibilities

The philosopher David Hume held that there is no rational reason to assume that the future will resemble the past. In the main, we do make that assumption, but we do so based on past experience and our sense that on the whole things stay pretty much the same from one day to the next. The sun has risen every morning for as long as humanity has been around, so we assume that it will do so tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. Generally, such an assumption turns out to be correct.

But some days are just not like other days. One day about 66 million years ago, something big slammed into the Earth, and in the aftermath a mass extinction occurred. One day the sun will exhaust its supply of hydrogen, collapse upon itself, begin to fuse helium, and swell up into a red giant, engulfing our planet. There will be no more sunrises then.

Similarly with human affairs. Most days are pretty much like any other. But then one day a new invention changes the way we do things, or a terrorist attack alters the mindset and agenda of an entire nation, or a birth or a death alters the dynamics of a family.

Some two thousand years ago, Jesus spent three short years teaching things so radical that He was put to death in the most cruel fashion, and the world was forever altered. Such an event in the human world is like a significant asteroid strike in the astronomical world: infrequent, but with overwhelming consequences.

On the whole, the appearance of a Person who inaugurates an entirely new religious system only occurs on thousand-year time scales (in the range of, say, 500 to 1,500 years). Baha’is hold that it has happened again, with the advent of the Bab and Baha’u’llah in the mid-1800’s. The Bab’s brief six-year ministry, which culminated in his execution in 1850, unleashed a social upheaval in Persia that echos to this day through the continued persecution of Baha’is. Baha’u’llah, who spent 40 years as a prisoner and an exile, enduring all manner of hardship and suffering over the course of that time, set in motion forces that have encompassed the whole world. His followers are drawn from all nationalities, races, and ethnic groups, and although still numerically small, the Baha’i Faith is the second most widespread religion in the world. It may not be too presumptuous to say that it will, in time, alter the world as radically as Christianity did. That is, the future may resemble the past by becoming something new.

Among the changes foreseen by Baha’u’llah is the union of all of humanity. This involves radical shifts in perspective as well as in how different subgroups of the human family interact. It predicts a realignment of political forces and is fundamentally anchored in the spiritual transformation of individuals. We do not know what this future will look like in any detail; at best, we have some broad outlines. But ‘Abdu’l-Baha often spoke of the world being transformed into a “paradise” (literally “garden”). While this shouldn’t be viewed as a utopian vision, it does indicate the degree of change required. In relative terms, the future world will be a vast improvement over its current state.

Many people laugh off such a vision, assuming that the future must resemble the past. But if something extraordinary has already happened, then it’s reasonable to expect extraordinary things will come of it. This is asteroid-strike time, spiritually speaking.

Moreover, as somebody some might care to listen to once said, “With God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19-25; Mark 10:26; Luke 18:26) Thus, the unification of humanity is not at all impossible. Indeed, if it is God’s will, it is assured.

From Embryo to Infant

Recently a Baha’i of my acquaintance commented on changes that have occurred over time in how a certain subject is viewed. Compared to a statement on the subject by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, he found current Baha’i practice too restrictive and puzzled over the change. This got me to thinking about how people dislike change and, particularly where religion is concerned, prefer stasis. In a Baha’i context, for example, shouldn’t a statement by Baha’u’llah or ‘Abdu’l-Baha stand unchanged?

Actually, no. Central to Baha’i belief is the concept of progressive revelation: God sends us successive Messengers (the Manifestations of God). Each Manifestation of God is empowered to give such teachings as are suited to the needs and capacities of the people of their age. But beyond this, things change over time even within a given revelation.

Know of a certainty that in every Dispensation the light of Divine Revelation hath been vouchsafed unto men in direct proportion to their spiritual capacity. Consider the sun. How feeble its rays the moment it appeareth above the horizon. How gradually its warmth and potency increase as it approacheth its zenith, enabling meanwhile all created things to adapt themselves to the growing intensity of its light. How steadily it declineth until it reacheth its setting point. Were it, all of a sudden, to manifest the energies latent within it, it would, no doubt, cause injury to all created things…. In like manner, if the Sun of Truth were suddenly to reveal, at the earliest stages of its manifestation, the full measure of the potencies which the providence of the Almighty hath bestowed upon it, the earth of human understanding would waste away and be consumed; for men’s hearts would neither sustain the intensity of its revelation, nor be able to mirror forth the radiance of its light. Dismayed and overpowered, they would cease to exist.
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, XXXVIII, p. 87)

This principle was restated via another analogy by Shoghi Effendi:

Feeble though our Faith may now appear in the eyes of men, who either denounce it as an offshoot of Islam, or contemptuously ignore it as one more of those obscure sects that abound in the West, this priceless gem of Divine Revelation, now still in its embryonic state, shall evolve within the shell of His law, and shall forge ahead, undivided and unimpaired, till it embraces the whole of mankind.
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 23)

Think about that term for a moment: embryonic. A human embryo looks nothing like a newborn infant, much less a full-grown human being. It has none of the powers of a one-year-old child, much less those of an adult. Over time, it will change radically, gradually evolving in form and capacity, developing the physical and behavioral characteristics of an infant. The newborn child will then continue to develop physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually over a long period of time before it reaches adulthood. Even then, a person continues to grow in experience and maturity. So when the Guardian called the Baha’i Faith “embryonic,” he asserted that it was in the earliest stages of formation, that it did not yet “look like” what it would some day become. It has a long way to go, a lot of growing to do, a lot of change to experience.

Moreover, Shoghi Effendi divided the broad sweep of Baha’i history into three ages, one past, one present, and one future: the Heroic Age, which saw the inception of the religion; the Formative Age, still ongoing; and the Golden Age, now just a glimmer on the horizon. That the terms “formative” and “embryonic” reflect each other is probably no accident. If the Baha’i Faith is embryonic, then it is in the process of being formed, and vice versa.

Thus, it should be no surprise if many things change as the religion grows. A prime example is the Baha’i marriage law. Some people tie themselves in knots over the fact that the law as revealed allows a man two wives, but ‘Abdu’l-Baha stated that monogamy was the law. (Having multiple wives, He argued, is conditioned upon the ability of the husband to treat both wives equally, but that would be impossible and so monogamy is actually the law.) This is a clear case of “the sun gradually rising to the zenith,” or of embryonic growth, or of formation. There are others.

Returning to the case that started this train of thought, that ‘Abdu’l-Baha made a certain “policy statement” doesn’t necessarily lock in that policy until the coming of the next Manifestation of God. It may be only a starting point. Should the Guardian further develop the matter, that change should be viewed as embryonic growth or formation. Likewise should the Universal House of Justice continue to refine the policy.

The only truly immutable aspects of the Baha’i Faith are those laws and principles directly given to us by Baha’u’llah Himself, and even in those cases there may be some room for clarification by the authorized interpreter (‘Abdu’l-Baha or the Guardian). Nevertheless, Baha’is can rest assured that Baha’u’llah’s Covenant is guiding the growth of this embryo: it will develop over time as directed by its Creator. With that assurance, we can embrace its growth and development and play a constructive role in it.