One of the things we often get asked about as Baha’is is our conviction of the principle of the oneness of religion. As it is one of the central teachings laid down by Baha’u’llah, it is of great importance that we are able to understand the implications of seeing the essence of all religions as one. This way we are able to answer common questions we are asked, such as, “How can all religions be true when they appear to disagree in the ways they are practised?” or, “Different religions can get along, but clearly they advocate for different things, no?”
A response to these questions will typically be based upon the concept of progressive revelation, a core concept that suggests that religious truth is, in essence, one, and that it is progressively revealed by God through a series of divine Messengers. Christ, Muhammad, Moses, Krishna, Baha’u’llah and the Bab are some examples of these Messengers that are like perfect mirrors that reflect and manifest the perfections and attributes of God and reveal His Word. Through the lens of progressive revelation we are able to clearly see how all the great religions of the world are divine in origin and regard their founders as divine Manifestations of God.
To gain some clarity on this, it might be helpful to consider an analogy that compares the Messengers of God to teachers, and humanity to a student. Let’s imagine a child as he enters school. The first teacher helps him to do basic math, perhaps how to add and subtract numbers. This capacity is the foundation upon which the second teacher will teach the student how to multiply and divide. The third teacher will teach something else, and so on, until eventually the student is able to master calculus.
In like manner, Baha’u’llah explains how Divine Revelation needs to be a gradual process:
Know of a certainty that in every Dispensation the light of Divine Revelation hath been vouchsafed to men in direct proportion to their spiritual capacity. Consider the sun. How feeble its rays the moment it appeareth above the horizon. How gradually its warmth and potency increase as it approacheth its zenith, enabling meanwhile all created things to adapt themselves to the growing intensity of its light.1
As we understand this, we comprehend that the essential nature of the contribution of the teacher at the earlier stage of the educational process is enabling the student to ultimately reach a later stage and be able to learn more complex things and how to apply them in the world around them. Without the structures that were put into place by earlier teachers, it wouldn’t have been possible for the student to understand the knowledge shared by teachers at a later stage. What the teachers reveal to the student is not proportionate to what or how much they themselves know; rather it corresponds to the student’s capacity in processing and understanding that knowledge. So the first teacher must give the structures in an appropriate way and patiently await, knowing that the seed he has planted will later be manifested as the student’s capacities grow. The Bab says:
…it behooveth man, upon reaching the age of nineteen, to render thanksgiving for the day of his conception as an embryo. For had the embryo not existed, how could he have reached his present state? Likewise had the religion taught by Adam not existed, this Faith would not have attained its present state…2
Just as there are different milestones in school, there are different dispensations within progressive revelation, each dispensation marking the period of influence of a particular Messenger of God.
Although we, as Baha’is, see all Messengers of God to have the same divine purpose, it does not mean we are blind to the differences of specifics teachings between the different religions.
Each [Messenger] expresses the eternal truths of God, but each also addresses a more specific message to the particular people amongst whom he [Messenger of God] appears. Given the diversity of social and historical contexts, these specific messages necessarily differ. Each is suited to the religious and social needs of a particular age. Again, differences also result from the fact that each Manifestation of God is born into a particular human culture and that consequently his words are expressed in the distinctive language and conceptual frameworks of that culture.3
Looking at another analogy might help us to see how these seeming differences between the teachings of the different religions are not contradictory. Throughout history, humanity has been afflicted at different times by different problems. At each stage of its development, a particular disease has afflicted the world. The same happens when a child is growing up and gets sick for different reasons. The doctor, when accompanying the child in his different stages of growth, would not prescribe the same remedy for the different diseases. Similarly, the Messengers of God, when renewing Divine Revelation, reveal the most appropriate teaching and principles for the immediate needs of mankind.
The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require.4
So in order to appreciate the oneness of religion, one must look at the relationship between the religions through the lens of progressive revelation to find their traits coherent. Shoghi Effendi elucidates:
The fundamental principle enunciated by Baha’u’llah, 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 non-essential aspects of their doctrines and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society.5
- Baha’u’llah, Synopsis and Codification of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 4 [↩]
- The Bab: Selections from the Writings of the Bab, p. 89 [↩]
- Peter Smith, The Baha’i Religion – A Short Introduction to Its History and Teaching, p. 15 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, The Tabernacle of Unity [↩]
- Shoghi Effendi, Summary Statement – 1947, Special UN Committee on Palestine [↩]