Foundations for inter-faith sharing
Posted by Sen on April 18, 2009
Bahais 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?
We 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. Early 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.
Or 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 …
A 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:
… 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, 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.
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.
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.