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Foundations for inter-faith sharing

Posted by Sen on April 18, 2009

symbols39-starBahais have been frequent participants in inter-faith fora, and like all the participants we need to work out what our basic stance is: are we there to protect our interests and have our say; are we counting the other participants as anonymous Bahais and including them into our project; are we there to show what we have to offer that other religions do not have, and so win converts?

In one of the Bahai discussion lists, I had quoted the following words of Abdu’l-Baha:

… the breezes of Christ are still blowing; His light is still shining; His melody is still resounding; … and it is the same with those souls who are under His protection and are shining with His light.
(Some Answered Questions, 152)

And these words from Shoghi Effendi concerning the future of Christianity:

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. For the Faith of Baha’u’llah — if we would faithfully appraise it — can never, and in no aspect of its teachings, be at variance, much less conflict, with the purpose animating, or the authority invested in, the Faith of Jesus Christ.
(The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 185)

Shoghi Effendi uses similar language in relation to the possibility of revival in Islam,

in the field of religion … we have lately witnessed widespread and organized attempts to broaden and simplify the basis of man’s faith, to achieve unity in Christendom and restore the regenerating vigor of Islam
(Baha’i Administration, 145)

One of the friends then asked:

Why would we need a new Revelation from God if Christianity and Islam are to be reformed to their original splendor?

It’s a good question. What is the continuing point of the previous revelations once a new one has come? And if the old religions serve a purpose and are to be revived and restored, why the need for a new one?

synagogueWe can start with the historical fact of religious pluralism. It has never been the way of God to wipe the slate clean and start over. God is not ‘done with’ a religion when he has produced a new one. God, and humanity, have too much invested in the development of the older ‘models’ to stop production. Consider the continuity between Judaism and Christianity, and the contribution that Jews have made (and still are are making) to Christian and Islamic civilizations. They have been one of the most intellectually and artistically productive groups of people in all of human history. What would the world look like had Judaism faded when the temple was destroyed? And what would Christianity look like? I am sure both would be much much poorer. starkchristianityEarly Christianity for example grew to a large extent through the existing synagogue network in the Roman empire, especially among the gentile ‘friends of the synagogue’ who found an ethical monotheistic text-based religion attractive, but did not want to or could not convert to the whole Judaic package. The early churches grew fastest in places where there were already Jewish communities (See Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity).

Moreover, the tradition of Jewish scholarship showed how a religion with a written scripture could work. Classical paganism had no model for that. The Jewish tradition of preserving, transmitting, explaining and teaching the scriptures, which has contributed so much to the Christian-Islamic-Bahai religions, was largely developed AFTER the time of Christ, precisely because the temple was destroyed but Judaism continued. So they had synagogue communities, they inducted young men into them, who had to learn to read Hebrew and learn something of the scriptures and practices. From which we get our catechism classes, maktabs and Ruhi classes.

conductorOr look at the musical tradition of Christianity developed after the arrival of Islam: first Renaissance music, and then increasingly universalised forms eventually resulting in “classical music” which has been adopted in every culture with the necessary infrastructure, and has become fruitful there, so that it is now a global treasure. But it was initially fostered by Christian churches and in Christian courts. Would you want to be without that?

It is precisely because God does not pull the plug on the old religions that we get productive (and sometimes violent) interractions between the religions. Islamic mathematics for example fed into Christian church music and architecture; the Christian and Jewish and Zoroastrian traditions of scholarship (and pagan classical texts) fed into the development of Islamic scholarship, which led to schools and universities and libraries, which came back to Europe …

multicultureA healthy religious ecology is not a monoculture. Religious pluralism is in any case inevitable, but more than that, it is desirable. It can bear its fruit through violent confrontation, through competition and rivalry, or in a spirit of harmony and cooperation. What we as Bahais have to understand is that we come to the table with a new revelation, and a religious culture that is wafer-thin. The older religions have a cultural capital that is many thousands of times greater than our own: their potential contribution to human progress and well-being will therefore be much much greater than the Bahai contribution, at least for our lifetimes and those of our children and grandchildren. Therefore it is vital for humanity’s sake that hinderances to their fruitful contribution should be cleared away. Baha’u’llah prays:golden-shrine

… The affairs of men have been shaken, the nations have become perturbed and Islam has been weakened thereby. The enemies have afflicted it from all sides and it remains encompassed by them. Thus it behooveth the people of God to invoke Him in the morning and the night-season, to beseech Him to graciously aid the Muslims, one and all, to do that which is pleasing and seemly, alhambra to exalt them by His Command and through the power of His Sovereign Might, to make them aware of that which will exalt their stations, to change their abasement into might, their poverty into wealth, their destruction into advancement, their distress into peace of mind and their fear into security and tranquility.

The ‘people of God’ in Baha’u’llah’s writings usually refers to the Bahais; but perhaps it is unimportant whether it is one religious community or all the peoples of God who are asked to pray for the well-being of Islam.

It is in this spirit that the Bahais around the world have engaged in the process of inter-religious dialogue. Not to gain converts, but because the Bahai community and humanity have a vital interest in the health and productivity of the world’s great religious systems, and in harmony and cooperation between them wherever possible. The threats to the Bahais, and to humanity, come from religious communities that are themselves in a distressed condition.

Shoghi Effendi writes:

Let no one, however, mistake my purpose. The Revelation, of which Baha’u’llah is the source and center, abrogates none of the religions that have preceded it, nor does it attempt, in the slightest degree, to distort their features or to belittle their value. It disclaims any intention of dwarfing any of the Prophets of the past, or of whittling down the eternal verity of their teachings. It can, in no wise, conflict with the spirit that animates their claims, nor does it seek to undermine the basis of any man’s allegiance to their cause. Its declared, its primary purpose is to enable every adherent of these Faiths to obtain a fuller understanding of the religion with which he stands identified, and to acquire a clearer apprehension of its purpose.
(The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 57-8)

Shoghi Effendi here repudiates any aim to win converts by weakening people’s commitment to their various religions: indeed he says that our “primary purpose” is not to convert people at all, but rather to deepen the Christian’s understanding of Christianity, the Muslim’s understanding of Islam, the Jew’s understanding of Judaism.

It is true that, in such a healthy religious ecology, the Bahais expect their own communities to flourish and to win converts. But, as in the example of early Christianity, converts will come not from those who understand their own religion, are living in a healthy religious community, and are satisfied with it, but rather from those who are attracted to a scriptural, ethical monotheism that offers a community life and religious practices, but who are unwilling for one reason or other to enter one of the cities already built. They will be the friends and admirers of the church, the mosque and the synagogue, who have the vision and daring to join in building a new city.
wagontrain
The pioneers will not come in great numbers, not for a long time, not until the Bahai community itself has developed a cultural capital that is somewhat comparable to that of other great religions – say one hundredth or thousandth of the cultural and intellectual productivity of the older religions.

In ‘Entry by troops‘ I’ve quoted a passage from the Guardian which says:

…this consummation will … be a gradual process, and must… lead at first to the establishment of that Lesser Peace [This]…will bring in its wake the spiritualization of the masses.

and also another letter from the Guardian’s secretary saying “only when the spirit has thoroughly permeated the world” will people “begin to enter the Faith in large numbers…

So in the Guardian’s vision, conversion “in large numbers” is not going to happen until the Lesser Peace creates favourable world conditions in which the spiritualisation of the masses can begin. He anticipates no ‘critical mass’ followed by a ‘big bang’ but rather a gradual process. That means that we must anticipate living alongside other religious communities. We will win some individual converts from them, and some Bahais will leave the Bahai community and join other religions or become irreligious or settle for a vague spirituality. At the individual level, there is and will continue to be a sort of interchange at the boundaries. But at the population level, the Bahais will be living with the Jews, Christians, and Muslims for a long time to come, and it is in our interests that they should be healthy and productive communities, with believers who understand their own religions, and who are at peace with one another. pope-rabbi

So, finally, to return to the original question:

Q. Why would we need a new Revelation from God if Christianity and Islam are to be reformed to their original splendor?

A. Because the new revelation, and its disciples, have a role in helping Christians, Muslims and others to reform ‘the ancient faith of God.’ We can be the servants of the servants of God.

~~ Sen McGlinn
Short link to this page: http://tinyurl.com/BahaiEcumenics
Even shorter: http://wp.me/pcgF5-nq
Similar: the future of religions
All Bahai?
One morning in Shiraz

Baha’i Administration, 145
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8 Responses to “Foundations for inter-faith sharing”

  1. Arthur said

    I am glad to read a blog that takes a similar thought process to my own.
    http://thoughtsfiveyearplan.blogspot.com/

    I know some of the people involved in interfaith here in Toronto. But I chose to stand a little back from the fray. I am not a public speaker but poetry seems to be my strength.
    http://kingdompoems.blogspot.com/

    I agree that the Faith is a long term project.

    Arthur

  2. Brendan said

    What can I say but what I usually say, which is that this is really good? Or why don’t I say something new and say that it’s beautiful and persuasive? The point is that I enjoyed reading this and agree with it. Anything more is just decoration.

  3. Karen in New Zealand said

    “We can be the servants of the servants of God.” I find this possibility very moving. I am also aware that there are only about 6 million Baha’is. I’m a Christian and I have often seen fellow Christians burn themselves out serving, so may I caution you to be careful here.

    Sen I’m glad you appreciate the cultural capital which Christianity has contributed and I sincerely hope that you and the rest of the Baha’is will continue to draw on this. Actually, I was somewhat relieved to read this, as I’ve grown very fond of some Baha’i prayers recently. So I’m glad to read that you think Christendom has something of value for you and the Baha’i community as the Baha’i prayers have been very comforting and uplifting to me.

    cheers
    Karen

  4. If you are interested in some new ideas on ecumenicism and the Trinity, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your thoughts on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao; involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas indentified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

    For more details, please see: http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

  5. Sen said

    Thanks, I read the site, and tweeted it with a *recommended* tag

  6. Sen… Thanks. If your readers look at the Preview on my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca, they will see that I am merely expanding on what is already inherent (but sometimes obscured or hidden) in the orthodox concept of the Trinity. Despite apparent differences, the underlying similarities among religions suggest the possibility that they may all be merely different facets of the same multi-dimensional reality. The diversity of world religions may be rooted in the diversity of the divine life itself. Thus, a deeper understanding of the Trinity might include a synthesis of all that God has revealed of himself, as contained in the wisdom of all the world’s major religions.

    It is only common sense that the Trinity would reveal itself in three basic religious “attitudes to the Absolute.” Indeed, when we examine world religions, we see in the personalities they portray and the language they use, a reflection of one or other (or some combination) of the three divine psychological personae.

    I think that Genesis 1:26 (in the beginning), where God says “Let us make man in our image,” suggests that later on he might also have said, “Let us help humans make their religions in our image.” It is only common sense that human religions probably reflect the threefold psychology of One God in Trinity expression. On the face of it, maybe God is trying to tell us something about his multi-dimensional self, through the diversity of major religions.

    If the threefold human soul – personality/mind/spirit – is modeled on the Trinity, then individual humans may inevitably have an innate predisposition to worship any one, any combination, or all of the persons of the Trinity. Some toleration is required.

    Christians believe that a spark of the divine spirit of God indwells all humankind, and this is essentially the same spirit that is in the Father, in the Son, and glorified in the Holy Spirit of Father and Son. The Qur’an agrees that “the spirit of Allah is closer to you than your jugular vein.” Hindus call it the “Purusha.” Buddhists refer to it as the “Unconditioned.” Neo-Confucians call it the “Tao.” Spirit is the glue that binds.”

    In a rational pluralistic worldview, major religions may be said to reflect the psychology of One God in three basic personalities, unified in spirit and universal in mind – analogous to the orthodox definition of the Trinity. In fact, there is much evidence that the psychologies of world religions reflect the unity of One God in an absolute Trinity.

    I don’t have to invent anything, because it is readily acknowledged that Allah, Abba or Father (as Jesus called Him), and Brahma are religious representations of the Creator. But the Creator is the first Absolute person of the Trinity of the thrice-personal One God. So, in at least one respect, we can say that a large portion of humankind apparently worship the same God – the Deity Absolute Creator – reflected in three world religions, i.e.: Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. This pluralistic worldview becomes inclusive if you consider that Buddhism, Confucian-Taoism, Shinto, and some other major religions seem to be variations on the third Absolute, while certain others, e.g. Sikh and Baha’i, suggest combinations.

    What do you think?

    Samuel Stuart Maynes
    http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

  7. Sen said

    I think this is a powerful way of looking at the world religious system from a trinitarian Christian background. It will not serve as a grand theory of the religious system, but I am not so keen on grand theories anyway. I would point to other Biblical foundations for a theology of religious pluralism: “In my Father’s house are many mansions” and “… there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God who works all in all.” I have used the later as a text in explaining the diverse orders that make up a postmodern society, based on the idea that the attributes of God are ontologically distinct, and not simply different names humans use. But I agree that, within the trinitarian framework, it is very elegant to start with trinity and imago dei, hence to the trinitarian structure of human personhood, and then to relate that to diverse approaches to God.

  8. Hi Sen, Samuel and All,

    1 You might well see this as additional evidence for the theme in the Baha’i quotations that Sen has assembled above;
    RE ST AUGUSTINE: “The fact, which is now called the Christian Religion,” he boldly says, with the earlier Apologists, “existed among the ancients, and was never lacking from the origin of the human race.” – C C Martindale SJ – SOURCE -Section II 2

    This suggests to me the classic Baha’i understanding metaphorically put as;
    1) God is the sun – unknowable as Godhead, but through the rays of the sun,
    2) The Holy Spirit, mirrored in the lives and Teachings of the Messengers we can feel the warmth of His love and see via the light emanated, mirrored via Christ, Baha’u’llah and all of the other Messengers.
    3) The Son is any one of the endless succession of Messengers of God – and from these Divine ones we have God’s power reflected to us – in a form that can be understood and acted upon.

    The Messengers are each reflectors of the one Holy Spirit and act as ‘transformers’ of the Infinite for the benefit of us the finite. Each Emanation via a Messenger has some distinguishing features but is essentially the One. I came to the conclusion that all religions teach just three things 1) awaken, 2) detach from the egoic self and the ‘world’ and 3) serve your Lord by serving his servants. The aquisition of virtues comes if we strive in these three.

    My view is that Augustine must have been referring to the eternal connection between the Infinite and His creation which we know as the Holy Spirit rather than the geographical-historical Christ – i.e. the Christhood which is the Holy Spirit

    2 We started a different approach to interfaith inspired by a new movement called ‘interspirituality’, a term coined by Bro Wayne Teasdale in his seminal book ‘The Mystic Heart’. We use the metaphor of One Garden for groups and for our approach to interspirituality as a/the 21stC challenge to interfaith.

    In 18 months we have had probably more than 100 people sufficiently interested to attend at least one meeting. Many bounce off because they have different agendas e.g they believe that only nondual experience matters whereas we practice and teach the two wings of 1) unitive experience and 2) dialogue – heart and head etc.

    I always see the broad division in those that are attracted to interspirituality as ‘beyondists’ and freethinkers. The beyondists (silly term but I can’t think of a better one right now) are people who are comfortable in a mainstream religion but who have such a heart-mind as to ‘transcend to Universality’. The freethinkers are those who are spiritually alive and seek nectar from many flowers. We have few of the first type and mostly freethinkers in the One Garden groups.

    On my blog One Garden Resources I am assembling my own articles and handouts, along with others but slowly failing health and lack of the amazing work-crunching abilities of Sen mean it is a slow process. Attempts at explaining simply the field of interspirituality are in the section ABOUT: Basic stuff http://universalistspirit.wordpress.com/about/an-introduction-to-perennial-philosophy/

    Course session handouts are in the right-hand column.

    My general blog called One Garden, started when my main focus was Holistic Education/a Baha’i-inspire model of education and of what it is to be fully & positively human. I recently renamed it as One Garden – it works more as a life-stream around six projects and interspirituality is what makes of the parts a whole. It has lots of videos as well as articles but the other blog One Garden – Resources is concentrated only on interspiritual materials. http://sunwalked.wordpress.com/

    Samuel – I think we can say that a triadic form of being human stands up – my own attempt is here http://sunwalkmodelofholisticeducation.wordpress.com/about/

    All good wishes

    Roger

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