The future of religions
Posted by Sen on January 5, 2009
One of the friends asked:
What is the ideal future envisioned in Baha’i religion? Is it a global order in which the world is composed of many diverse religions, each tolerant of one another, and the Baha’i just one amongst many? Or would the Baha’i be the organizing principle?
I think it is both a pluralist world of diverse religions tolerant of one another and working together, and one new world religious order, whose organising principle is one that is given in the Bahai Scriptures. Tolerance and cooperation between religions is new (although not entirely unknown in history), and it is a Bahai principle, but it is not a monopoly of the Bahais. It’s something the world must learn.
Religious diversity is here to stay. This would not have been obvious to the early American Bahais. America’s domination by Christianity, and its history of revivalism, made it plausible for them to think of everyone converting to the Bahai Faith in a world religious revival. Their concept of progressive revelation was that the Great Magician waves His wand, the old religions vanish in a puff of smoke, and when it clears, the Bahai Faith remains.
We cannot imagine that today. Geographic mobility and the increasing trend for people to leave and join religions of choice mean that every society on earth will, in the near future, become religiously diverse (most already are), and they will stay that way. So long as there is freedom of religion, and free investigation of truth, religious uniformity is simply impossible. Since both of these are Bahai teachings, a religiously uniform world could not be Bahai, and a Bahai world could not be religiously uniform.
Permanent religious pluralism is an obvious fact we can see in the world. How does this relate to the Bahai teaching of progressive revelation?
The Bahai Faith does have a fuller measure of revelation, but that does not mean other religions are simply switched off from the ‘voltage’ of the Holy Spirit. God’s way has been to work through successive revelations at long intervals, but also to keep inspiring and transforming previous religions for thousands of years. Baha’u’llah for instance lived in a world in which Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians were part of the religious scene, so he must have known that the life of a religion does not end quickly when a new religion comes. Rather, the new religion transforms the world, and the old religions are transformed, but not obliterated. Not for thousands of years. Abdu’l-Baha says:
… the breezes of Christ are still blowing; His light is still shining; His melody is still resounding; His standard is still waving; His armies are still fighting; His heavenly voice is still sweetly melodious; His clouds are still showering gems; His lightning is still flashing; His reflection is still clear and brilliant; His splendor is still radiating and luminous; and it is the same with those souls who are under His protection and are shining with His light.
(Some Answered Questions, 152)
and in another place:
“… the body of Christ was crucified and vanished, but the Spirit of Christ is always pouring upon the contingent world, and is manifest before the insight of the people of assurance. (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v1, p. 193)
Not only do the past religions still have their share of the Spirit, their institutions still have a future, although they like all other social institutions have to adapt to a globalising world and a postmodern society. Shoghi Effendi writes:
Such institutions as have strayed far from the spirit and teachings of Jesus Christ must of necessity, as the embryonic World Order of Baha’u’llah takes shape and unfolds, recede into the background, and make way for the progress of the divinely-ordained institutions that stand inextricably interwoven with His teachings. The indwelling Spirit of God which, in the Apostolic Age of the Church, animated its members, the pristine purity of its teachings, the primitive brilliancy of its light, will, no doubt, be reborn and revived as the inevitable consequences of this redefinition of its fundamental verities, and the clarification of its original purpose.
(The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 185)
In The Secret of Divine Civilization, Abdu’l-Baha proposes not just ways to revive the fortunes of Iran and bring peace, but also ways to revive the Faith of God there (Shi’ah Islam) through a Reformation analogous to that instituted by Luther:
Now if the illustrious people of the one true God, … should adopt procedures for spreading the Faith and should bend all their efforts to this end, it is certain that His Divine light would envelop the whole earth.
(The Secret of Divine Civilization, 43)
There and in A Traveller’s Narrative he argues for religious tolerance, so that people of all religions can live side by side.
It seems that Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi look forward to a revival of Christianity, Islam and other religions, which, because they rediscover the universal in their own teachings, will learn to work together. I do not know anywhere where they look forward to the extinction of other religions.
What the world needs is not simply a new religion, that Bahai and only Bahai can provide. The need is for a new kind of religious order, and I think that the new religion of Bahai will help the older religions to create it together. What is needed is a religious order which will foster global unity, rather than creating a lot of separate religious identities that compete with one another or fight.
I think it is important to acknowledge that we leave childhood behind, but we can take some of the things of childhood with us. Much of the past comes with us into postmodernity, but transformed or placed in a wider context. National and cultural identities for example. And Christianity “reborn and revived” as in the quote from Shoghi Effendi above, comes with us into the new world.
This opens the possibility for an explanation of progressive revelation that is not supercessionist. There are revelations throughout history, and their communities and positive effects continue for some thousands of years (but not indefinitely). Humanity passes through climactic changes, such as the end of the classical age, and the current transition to the postmodern, and in such a new age, all of the religious communities have to reinvent themselves in a new world, which is painful and difficult. The religion that is newborn at the time of such a change also has to transform, but it has an easier task, less baggage, so its example of transformation can show the way. A historical example of this is the birth of Christian Faith, and the concurrent transformation of Judaism, to form Pharisaic Judaism centring on the synagogue.
This reading of progressive revelation preserves the special role of the new revelation in shaping the new age, but does not treat all previous revelations, and all the wisdom in their traditions, as simply superseded.
In the Bahai writings, especially those of Shoghi Effendi, the World Order is more than religion alone, and is not created by religion alone. In the postmodern world order (as it will be, with global justice, pluralism, protection of human rights, rule of law etc), there is no place for the old religious order of religions claiming exclusive truth, or their exclusive validity for one people. Given the shape of the World Order, the required religious order has to be tolerant, it cannot give priority to one religion over others, it has to work together for common goals (the well-being of humanity), and so on. For most religions, this will involve quite a large re- think, but for Bahais this is basic scripture. So in some sense Bahai is “best suited” — it has a relative advantage on the ideas front. But it’s at a really big disadvantage so far as numbers and depth of culture go.