My personal reflections on this blog take inspiration from the Bahá’í teachings.

Tuesday, 6 February 2007

One God, One Word, One World

Religion’s true purpose is to serve as the ark of salvation; not as a stronghold of superstition. But, for at least two centuries, and increasingly over that time, it has lost credibility because of its association with irrational beliefs and sectarian conflict. Beginning in the West and now affecting the whole planet in varying degrees, a secular world-view has been taking over as the ideology on which the leading institutions of society base their plans and on which individuals depend when deciding on their goals and conduct. Religious groups have responded to the erosion of their creeds’ traditional authority in diverging ways, which might be summed up in three broad tendencies. An inward-looking stream has retreated into a backwater of piety that hankers for the past; an aggressive troop has gone on the offensive, assailing bastions of the modern world in debate or even with violence; and a cultured school has devised various accommodations with modern ideas. None of these responses has shown any real ability to restore the voice of religion to a central role in human affairs. Strategies of retreat only increase the gap between faith and everyday life. Attacking modern science and social structures, head on, is an absurd struggle that is doomed to fail repeatedly, causing public revulsion for doctrines that inspire acts of stupidity and wanton destruction. Accommodation, especially in its more extreme forms, tends to water down the essential truths that religion must champion, so as to exercise spiritual influence and attract devotion.


And yet, alongside the many inadequate reactions, a response with much more promise is emerging. This response is seen in growing endeavours by religious believers to understand more deeply the Holy Books they revere, in the light of modern knowledge and conditions. This response combines acceptance of the undeniable realities of modern life with reverence for the wisdom of age-old, timeless sacred teachings, enabling the discovery of insights that may turn out to have surprising significance for people everywhere. It is a response that celebrates the sacred without retreating from the world, combats materialism without promoting fanatical attitudes, and accommodates modern knowledge without betraying essential principles. The endeavour to understand anew the narratives, parables and precepts contained in Sacred Scriptures, if pursued courageously, will surely bring more of the oxygen of truth into a religious vacuum that is presently stifling the human spirit. A growing effort to develop enlightened interpretations of the Holy Books is restoring to religion a truly effective means for strengthening its voice in society. By this means, which consists of great spiritual truths expressed intelligibly, the guidance that religion offers will become more convincing and inspiring. And there is no doubt that the people of the world desperately need dependable guidance, if we are to solve the bewildering problems we face.


Many severe conflicts are raging around the globe, in which religious differences play a major part. A fuller understanding of the true nature of religion throws light on the deep causes of these conflicts and contributes to resolving them. But more than this, releasing religious commitment from the shackles of superstition, and thereby attracting people to centre their lives on spiritual ideals, releases a powerful source of constructive energy. Genuine religious commitment generates a selfless motivation that is fulfilled in striving to better the lives of others. By nature it detests conflict, poverty, environmental degradation, crime, illiteracy, ethnic hatred, and the gamut of ills the world suffers. When it has gained enough support, it will seek to eradicate these evils from the planet. Religion will then be meeting its true purpose as the ark of human salvation.


What is religion?


True religion is the basis of divine civilization”, wrote ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, seeing religion as a force which profoundly affects the whole range of human experience and activity that civilization involves. A secular mindset has difficulty in appreciating such a positive and all-encompassing concept of religion. As an American commentator on the “Islam Today” website, “Yahya M.”, observes: “the materialism of the modern world has put all religions on the defensive, trying harder and harder to justify their existence in the face of skepticism and indifference.” He notes a trend among some of his fellow Muslims as well as among the followers of other faiths, including Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and Christians, to describe their particular faith as a “way of life”, rather than a religion. He perceptively writes:

Something must have gone wrong with the whole concept of “religion” in the modern world! It is as though people have decided to dump all the negative associations of religion into the word “religion” and drive it out of their fold, as the “scapegoat” was used by the ancient Israelites. Each of them redefines “religion” as The Other and therefore inferior. The positive side of their faith that they wish to emphasize is then blessed with the phrase “way of life,” which must now be thought of as preferable, more appealing to the Zeitgeist.i

From another perspective, all the religions are indeed “ways of life”, for one of the primary concerns of religion is to mould those values and habits of individuals and communities that form their ways of life. Religion operates in the realm of thought and action where concepts on how we should live are developed, shared, and carried out. An idea of religion along these lines was adopted by Albert Einstein in a lecture he gave in 1941, in which he called on clerical leaders to take religion in a new direction.ii In his view, the “doctrine of a personal God interfering in natural events” was outdated, but religion was still needed for nurturing “those forces which are capable of cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself.” According to Einstein, “science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary. Religion, on the other hand, deals only with evaluations of human thought and action: it cannot justifiably speak of facts and relationships between facts.”1 In other words, he suggested that religion helps us to select our goals, while science shows us how to accomplish them. By the same token, “science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration towards truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion.”


Einstein had a view of revealed religion that has definite drawbacks, but as he knew as well as anyone what science is about, his perception that religion performs a necessary function for humankind—one that science is unable to perform—is persuasive. It gives a good starting point for further reflection. The function of establishing values, performed by religion, is evidently necessary because it arises from the freedom of the human conscious mind to choose from a range of possibilities, rather than being bound by animal instinct. When faced with choices, the conscious mind inevitably must ask what it should do (as well as what it can do). This is the essence of the human condition. Therefore, in guiding our actions, religion gives direction to capacities that are intrinsic to human nature. It deals with issues that somehow, must be dealt with. Responding to this need, particular religions and sects offer specific answers to questions that arise in developing a way of life. They explain the purpose of the universe, signpost the way to salvation or enlightenment, and establish ethical guidelines governing interaction between people. For centuries the great religions, collectively, have convinced the vast majority of humankind of the cogency of their visions of what it means to be human and how to go about living a good life. Only in relatively recent times have secular ideologies claimed to offer alterative world views, independent of religion. Such ideologies appeal mostly to the intellect, but religion’s historic effectiveness shows that its comprehensive approach, reaching into the heart and soul as well as convincing the mind, should not be dismissed. Religion creates a rich temple of meaning. When it is in a sound state, individuals and communities vibrantly live out their whole existences within its benevolent framework. If it is currently showing signs of decay, we should not suppose it is going to finally collapse, for it is built from eternally renewable resources.



Returning to Einstein, he urged the clergy of existing religions to engage in a “refining process” that would develop a kind of religion free from allegiance to a “personal God”. Did he have the right idea of the way forward? From the point of view of monotheism, it is a highly doubtful proposal. The monotheistic religions would not find it viable to abandon their central premise that God speaks to humankind. The very heart of their authority would evaporate. Those who, like Einstein, reject this foundational premise of monotheism, expect that any form of religion which claims to communicate the will of God to humankind will soon fade from the scene.2 But, before rejecting an idea that has been influential for at least 4,000 years, it seems wiser to explore the meaning of belief in God and to consider the possibility of understanding it in ways that make sense to the modern mind. Just as modern philosophy rests on the foundations built by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, modern religion needs to grow from its roots in the past. The idea of a “natural religion”, which supposedly can be invented by eminent thinkers without resort to divine inspiration, is a conceit with no hope of success, for it makes a total break with what religion has always been. Religion is a much more mysterious phenomenon, springing from a far more exalted Source, than what is apparently imagined by the promoters of such naturalistic theories.


As a starting point for reconsidering the roots of religion, here is a lightening-sketch of the history of monotheism. In ancient times, Abraham heard the Voice of God commanding Him to leave His homeland, and to set out on a migration that was to become a symbol of faithful obedience to generations of believers after Him. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” (Bible, Hebrews 11:8.) Passing over Jacob and Joseph, the next colossal Figure to advance the cause of the “God of Abraham” was Moses, who transformed a people enslaved into a nation emancipated by its devotion to divine law. A series of Prophets followed in Moses’ shadow, interpreting to the people of Israel the duties implied by their role as a “chosen people”, culminating in the appearance of Jesus. In just a few years of ministry, Jesus transformed the Mosaic religion. He brought to light its inner animating spirit, giving it a new universal form which could, and eventually did, spread throughout the world. A little over six centuries later, in Arabia, the Prophet Muhammad founded Islam, announcing guidance that the One God was revealing once again to humankind, as recorded in the Qur’an. Islam lifted monotheism to a new level of sophistication in its concepts, exalting God far above popular anthropomorphic images, and producing philosophical and practical achievements in the Islamic world that were to become highly influential in the West as well. Then, in nineteenth century Iran, the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh launched another Movement in the monotheistic line: the Bahá’í Faith, which has in a short time gained enthusiastic followers in every country of the globe, demonstrating once more the inexhaustible vitality of “the ancient faith of God”.


In this stream of history, how was the Voice of God known to be heard? Abraham’s encounter with God is described in the Biblical book of Genesis in words such as these: “… the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ … [the LORD] brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’” (Genesis 15:1 & 15:5.) Regarding Moses, the book of Exodus states: “The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” (Exodus 24:16–18) Concerning Jesus, the Gospel of Mark states: “
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:10-11.) And this is the testimony given by Muhammad on the Source of His inspiration, from the Qur’an, Surah 53 (“The Star”):

By the Star when it setteth, your comrade erreth not, nor is deceived; nor doth he speak of (his own) desire. It is naught save an inspiration that is inspired, which one of mighty powers hath taught him, one vigorous; and he grew clear to view when he was on the uppermost horizon. Then he drew nigh and came down till he was (distant) two bows’ length or even nearer, and He revealed unto His slave that which He revealed. The heart lied not (in seeing) what it saw. Will ye then dispute with him concerning what he seeth? And verily he saw him yet another time by the lote-tree of the utmost boundary3, nigh unto which is the Garden of Abode. When that which shroudeth did enshroud the lote-tree, the eye turned not aside nor yet was overbold. Verily he saw one of the greater revelations of his Lord.


On each of these decisive occasions, a cloud of mystery “enshrouds” the event. It is accompanied with signs and depicted in symbols. In each instance, what took place was a direct experience of the Prophet’s, which took place: “in a vision”, in “the cloud”, “suddenly”, when perceiving “an inspiration that is inspired”. This is plainly so in Muhammad’s case, the Qur’an having brought down to us an authentic record of His own description of it—as something that His “heart” saw. The tenor of the various accounts shows that their significance is not to be understood with a narrow and literal mindset. They are potent with meaning. The Voice which guided Abraham on His way disclosed extraordinary secrets in a manner that provokes wonderment, especially when reading the whole story. The “devouring fire” that the people of Israel witnessed on Mount Sinai signified not just light and heat, but within it, “the Glory of the LORD”. Mark’s simile of the descent of the Spirit on Jesus “like a dove”4, suggests a multitude of thoughts, starting with associations with flight, freedom, and peace. Further advice against a literal approach comes from scholars who caution that the accounts given in Genesis and Exodus did not necessarily originate from the Prophets themselves, but were perhaps made up by others, long after the Prophets’ passing, for the purpose of elucidating the meaning of what happened. A sophisticated approach drawing on scholarship and applying literary skills yields essential insights, but a certain mode of analysis goes too far. Skeptics are inclined explain away these reports as mere fabulous tales, or as descriptions of ecstatic psychological states, not unlike madness. They overshoot the mark. In the allusive language of metaphor, these accounts point to the origin that religions have sprung from, in the minds of those who founded them. And in justice, we need to admit the extraordinary achievement that constitutes the founding of a religion, which is, after all, a movement destined to lead millions, for centuries. The Prophets succeeded because their teachings had convincing authority. Hence, the accounts of their “meetings” with God represent a profound reality. Although it seems utterly beyond the reach of our minds to gain any glimpse of the means, the reasonable conclusion is that the Intelligence which orders the universe also somehow “speaks” to us through the divine genius of the Prophets. As Muhammad declared: “The heart lied not (in seeing) what it saw.”


There is a close link between the Message and the Messengers. The picture that emerges from the lives of the Prophets is that these were individuals of exceptional moral qualities, who seemed to possess a penetrating insight into the underlying reality of things. They displayed this insight not only on occasions of wonder and awe like Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai, but also in the midst of everyday life. Accounts of their wondrous meetings with God are apparently intended to dramatically emphasize the exceptional closeness that the Prophets had to the Source which inspires the insight they displayed. Moses proceeded alone into the cloud on Mount Sinai. Jesus heard a Voice from heaven saying, “You are My Son, the beloved”. Muhammad saw “One of mighty powers” approach to within “two bows length” of Him. These images are all strikingly expressive of the special intimacy the Prophets had with the divine Spirit; paradoxically combined with an overwhelming sense that the ultimate Source of the experience they had was totally ungraspable, even for the Prophet Himself. It is instructive that the revelation Muhammad saw (from which his “eye turned not aside”), was described enigmatically as something that enshrouds. This contradictory image is reminiscent of the bewildering marvel that Moses saw on Mount Horeb: “There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” (Exodus 3:2.) Recounting what they “see”, the Prophets transmit the inscrutable wisdom of heaven in earthly words. From a human standpoint, these words are those of the Prophet himself, uttered in His mother tongue, bearing traces of His individual personality, making reference to events in His particular location and time, and expressed in conceptual terms familiar to the society which He belongs to. But the words of the Prophets, and their actions, overpower the limitations of time, place and culture. Their teachings convey world-shaking truths, and their lives demonstrate these truths in archetypal achievements, like leading Israel from the clutches of Pharaoh.


The Gospel of John identifies the divine Word directly with Jesus. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:10) “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14) Jesus is quoted by John as saying: “‘Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” (John 12: 44–46) Jesus says to His disciples at the Last Supper: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.” (John 14:10) The declaration by Jesus that he had come “as light into the world”, echoes the report of Exodus of the light that shone from the face of Moses. “Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.” (Exodus 34:29–30) Muhammad is told by God in the Qur’an: “[This] book have we sent down unto thee, that thou mayest lead men forth from darkness into light, by the permission of their Lord, into the glorious and laudable way.” (Surah 14:1) Concerning Muhammad (the Apostle of God), the Qur’an says: “Ye have in the apostle of God an excellent example, unto him who hopeth in God, and the last day, and remembreth God frequently.” (Surah 33:21) What these varying perspectives have in common is an understanding that the light of God comes to humankind through the lives and teachings of the Prophets. Through them, the pre-existent Word, which gave being to the universe before time began, emerges from timelessness and becomes manifest in the human world.


‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote: “religion is the teachings of the Lord God, teachings which constitute the very life of humankind”.iii On another occasion he said that the Word of God “gives forth the light of religion and bestows the life of the spirit, imbues humanity with archetypal virtues and confers eternal splendors. This Sun of Reality, this center of effulgences is the prophet or Manifestation of God.”iv The historical experience of religion is that it has been created by the Prophets, but this fact often seems to be overlooked. Religion is thought of as something invented and maintained by priests, or as a type of organization that adheres to certain beliefs, or as humankind’s attempts to explain matters of ultimate concern. These views are not entirely wrong, but they are inadequate. The nature of religion becomes much clearer when the central role of the Prophets, who were inspired by God, is acknowledged and upheld.


To be continued...



Footnotes

1 Regarding the assertion that religion “cannot justifiably speak of facts…”, we will come back to this later.

2 The discussion here leaves out non-monotheistic religions, such as (branches of) Hinduism and Buddhism, etc., so as not to introduce another level of complexity to the argument.

3 “Lote tree of the utmost boundary”— “This is used as a symbol in Islam, for example in the accounts of Muhammad’s Night Journey, to mark the point in the heavens beyond which neither men nor angels can pass in their approach to God, and thus to delimit the bounds of divine knowledge as revealed to mankind.” From a note to the official English translation of Bahá’u’lláh’s Kitab-i-Aqdas, note #128

4 “The phrase like a dove is a descriptive comparison. The Spirit is not a dove, but descended like one in some sort of bodily representation.” — Translators footnote to Mark 1:10 in the NET Bible, see www.bible.org/netbible/

i www.islamfortoday.com/islamisareligion.htm

iii Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 52

iv Abdu'l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 10

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