The Baha’i is one major world religion that we haven’t really looked at with too much detail here beyond a basic introductory article on its beliefs, customs, and important historical figures. All the more interesting it was then for me to encounter a Baha’i adherent at university. This discussion and critique takes form in the context of this discussion, as I attempt to reflect on what was said.
As one should probably know, the Baha’i are a very inclusive, welcoming, and friendly community of religious people. This is particularly informed by their ideological and theological views which emphasize the concept of unity in terms of the unity of God, man, and religion. But in the form of a respectful challenge posed to my Baha’i friend, I believe that this overemphasis on unity becomes a big problem for the truth of the Baha’i faith.
The Problem of Manifestations and Unity of Religion
One of the core pillars of the Bahá’í faith is that throughout history God (Bahá’í believe in a monotheistic concept of God) has sent divine prophets or educators to humankind. In a way, this makes the Bahá’í faith similar to New Age Spirituality, whose ideologies I’ve challenged here. For Bahá’ís, these divine prophets are referred to as Manifestations (of God) and each are thought to have been a further stage in the revelation of God to human beings. Manifestations have included a number of the major figures behind or inextricably linked to religious movements such as Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus Christ, and the prophet Muhammad, among others. Bahá’u’lláh is considered the latest of these Manifestations of God, and claimed to have taught that all the religions of the world ultimately stem from the same source and that each are successive chapters within the one religion from God. It is from here that Bahá’ís incorporate a strong theme of unity into their theology and teachings.
But it is also here that I presented my challenge to my friend. His claim was exactly as just stated, namely, that all these religious figures and religions pointed to the same divine essence that is God, but not the God or gods of any other religion other than that of the Bahá’í faith. It would only be natural then to push back and suggest that these religions, messages, and teachings of these men (“manifestations”) were incompatible and mutually exclusive. How so? Because there is no way that their teachings could be harmonized with each other into a coherent system without tearing that system down. For example, I argued that there was no way to square Jesus Christ’s message predicated on the notion of a single, all-powerful, creator deity with the Buddha’s teachings which largely neglected appeal to the divine and gods. Similarly, one could bot harmonize the partial God of Muhammad with the all-loving God that is the God of the Jews and the God of Abraham and Moses. But this extends beyond the teachings of these historical persons and into the ideology of the religions themselves. As such, one cannot equate the important, fundamental religious tenets such as the Shahada (one of the five pillars of Islam in which Muslims recite that ‘there is no God by Allah and Muhammad is his messenger’) with the idea of the existence of Vishnu, the principle Hindu god, as taught by the Bhagavad Gita to be incarnated in Krishna. Thus, the teachings of the religious figures and the religions themselves confront the idea of unity.
Social verses Theological Message
My Bahá’í friend pushed back and attempted to distinguish between the theological and social influences. His claim, which is consistent with Bahá’í teaching elsewhere, is that the theological teachings of these religious figures were effectively the same thing (i.e. to draw human beings to their divine creator that is the Bahá’í God) but that these differences between the religions and their teachings were a result of social influences impugning the text recounting their teachings. This was the best way I could understand my Bahá’í friend’s claim. I provide two challenges in response:
1. The most obvious challenge this claim faces is that it is within the theological teachings of Christ, Muhammad, Zoroaster, and Moses that the mutually exclusive claims are made. As such, they are not explainable by social influences of the communities these men left behind. Now, one could argue in favour of this, namely, that words and deeds were attributed to, say, Christ or Muhammad which weren’t original to them. But this is claim of history and would need to be argued for. Further, I am well familiar with historical scholarship and know that historians reasonably conclude that there are sayings and teachings of Christ and Muhammad that, in all likeliness, were original to them. Thus, confronting my friend is that these original teachings confront the Bahá’í concept of unity (for example, Christ taught the parable of the tenants in which he claimed to be the one, true messenger and revelation of God sent to his people. This parable is probably one of the most historically secure teachings of Christ, and it most certainly does not rest peacefully beneath the Bahá’í concept of unity).
2. The second challenge I made to my Bahá’í friend before we had to leave our location (and agree to speak in the future again) was that the differences must, due to their overwhelming number, override the underwhelming similarities. This was my argument, and one I am willing to argue in favour of. As such, I agreed for the sake of the argument that manifestations attempted to draw man to his divine source (God), and that this could be considered a similarity in the teachings of the manifestations (although I did not mention it at the time, this would not account for other commonly perceived religious figures such as the Buddha or Confucius who said little about the gods or God. So, does every religion really provide progressive steps towards the divine source that is God?). Nonetheless, my contention was that the single claim in favour of the Bahá’í concept of unity, namely that of similarity in the teachings of the manifestations of God had to be undermined by the overwhelming differences. If one had to put a penny on a scale for every similarity and every difference between these religious figures, the scale would buckle under the weight of differences which, to me, seems to pose a strong challenge to the Bahá’í concept of unity.
Other Questions, Concerns, and Challenges
There are additional issues with this Bahá’í concept of unity. One is that it suggests God must in same way be incompetent for his manifestations frequently and overwhelmingly contradict each other. Thus, if there really was a God (such as the Bahá’í one) who emphasized unity it thus becomes very difficult to explain the enormous beast that is religious diversity in the world. As stated, the Baha’is try to account for this by locating these differences within social explanations, but as also observed, the likely original teachings of the historical religious figures undermine this argument.
Additionally, in the history of world religions, there have been new religions and religious movements that seem regressive as opposed to progressive if one is to accept the Bahá’í standard. Moses, Muhammad, and Christ were monotheists (thus closer to the Bahá concept of God) , but Joseph Smith (in the 19th century, almost 2000 years after the time of Christ, and 1300 years after Muhammad) was a polytheist (believed in several gods). How then could this be considered a progressive revelation of God? If God is a single entity then why is another, later manifestation of his, namely Joseph Smith, fooling people about God’s true nature and being?
As such, the concept of unity in terms of religion and manifestations poses some strong challenges to the truth of the Bahá’í religion and its prophet Bahá’u’lláh. I hope to pick up this discussion with my friend at another point in the future.