Posted on May 28, 2012
Reflection by Li Jia, a friend of the Faith and student at the University of Cambridge
Someone once said to me that if one were to invent a religion for the 21st century, it would be the Bahá’í Faith. It is easy to understand why. Many Bahá’í beliefs and practices embrace familiar ‘modern’ concepts that are norms of our society today: equality between genders, the celebration of ethnic diversity, the need for peace and unity among all races and religion, and the importance of education. My curiosity and desire to learn more about this youngest world religion has led me into a study circle at Milly Farid’s house and facilitated by Bobak Tavangar and Nabil Wilf.
Reflecting on my learning in the last few months, the most intriguing topic for me is the oneness of religion. Many religions in the world proclaim they are the one ‘true’ religion. Few are like the Bahá’í Faith which believes that different faiths are founded on revelations revealed according to the needs of the time and even place. Revelations, however different, are from the same source of truth.
I was very excited at the idea and saw it as a foundation to explain the diversity yet commonality of religious thoughts. Oneness of religions means differences should be celebrated rather than denied or corrected, respected rather than crucified. All religious wars and conflicts are therefore meaningless because ultimately, according to the Bahá’í Faith we are worshipers of the same God regardless of our faith. I feel this is among the most important contributions of the Bahá’í Faith to religious thought and world peace.
However, this rejoice soon encountered a major setback. A Christian friend challenged me while I shared my new learning by pointing out major differences between Christian and Muslim beliefs, and laughed at the idea that the two can be the same. Frustrated and in doubt, I turned to my study circle friends to discuss this matter of importance. Milly and I searched among the Bahá’í Writings for a possible explanation. And we found our most convincing argument in the Book of Certitude (The Kitáb-i-Íqán).
Every discerning observer will recognize that in the Dispensation of the Qur’án both the Book and the Cause of Jesus were confirmed. As to the matter of names, Muḥammad, Himself, declared: “I am Jesus.”
He recognized the truth of the signs, prophecies, and words of Jesus, and testified that they were all of God. In this sense, neither the person of Jesus nor His writings hath differed from that of Muḥammad and of His holy Book, inasmuch as both have championed the Cause of God, uttered His praise, and revealed His commandments. Thus it is that Jesus, Himself, declared:
I go away and come again unto you.
The book went on to explain different faiths are revelations of the same ‘sun’. All of them are true and their differences should be accommodating rather than excluding each other. Then, how do we explain the seemingly vastly different doctrines in different religions? I quote the below paragraph that I love most on this subject.
The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá’u'lláh, the followers of His Faith firmly believe, is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society.
I think the concept of progressive truth is key to explaining how religious teaching responded to requirements of different eras. Some find comfort in the concept of absolute truth and they are frightened at the prospect of such free interpretation of truth. Understandably we are all looking for a corner stone for our beliefs and it is sometimes assuring to know that stone has been unchanged throughout human history. Yet this reminds me of the famous Chinese story of “Notching the Boat to Find the Sword” (ke zhou qiu jian), in which a man marked the side of his boat on the spot where his sword fell into water and believed he could find the sword later when the boat reached the shore. He was to be disappointed, as would many strict believers in the superficial teaching of ‘truth’, for the boat has moved on a long way.
For centuries, religion has been one of the main sources of wisdom for human societies. There is no use to deny that there are many interpretations of what we perceive as truth, as exemplified by the number of faiths we have today. The role for religious teaching is not to decide for their believers which one is ultimately right or wrong. It is more important to help people in cultivating their capacity of critical thinking and make their evaluation of truth and follow it faithfully. This is what the Bahá’í Faith encourages everyone to do: to get on a spiritual journey of seeking ultimate answers. It might be a long and lonely journey during which confusion, doubts and challenges are the norms, but it is promised to be a rewarding one.