Outwardly, the Baha’i notion of the oneness of religion is the furthest thing from the present babel of creeds competing to win the hearts and minds of mankind. It would be folly to deny that the belief systems and religious observances today represent a discordant cornucopia of theologies and rites.
Outward observance and formal theology is one thing. The actual living faith of billions from different religious backgrounds is an entirely different thing. The latter is usually far less defined and often has a lot in common across cultures and faith traditions. In my travels I’ve become completely sold to the notion that ordinary believers the world over, irrespective of faith tradition, have much more in common than theologians and so-called scholars. Intuitively these sincere ordinary folks possess a pure idea of the Divine.
The remote tiller of his barren field in Nepal or Afghanistan, bent by a life of toil, humbly caring for his family, sustained only by the mountain-breeze and an ancient tradition, occasionally befriended by the crow or the nightingale, may be more spiritual than most trained theologians and self-styled gurus preaching about spirituality, Allah and the Brahman. Their hardship-impelled posture of humility usually translates into a spiritual orientation of subservience and resignation to a Greater Power and Will that is beyond their ken and forever veiled in mystery.
How many a time have I felt spiritually impoverished next to humble villagers whose formal beliefs I sincerely find to be in evident error. What a valuable lesson it has been: realizing that sometimes one may be more right in theory whilst less spiritual in reality than the meek masses of the world. I am reminded of these powerful words:
He must never seek to exalt himself above anyone, must wash away from the tablet of his heart every trace of pride and vainglory, must cling unto patience and resignation, observe silence, and refrain from idle talk.1
Sometimes it is the best of poetry, rather than the smartest academic argument, that has the greatest power to convey a gripping and lasting sensation of Truth. This poetic truth-conveying quality is of course also found in the most inspiring verses of most scriptures. These awe-inspiring verses are more similar than they are different between faith traditions. It is the noblest moral ideals and the deepest mystical verses of these vastly different faith traditions that impart to mankind one universal truth. It is there where the oneness lies.
The disunity of formal beliefs and even scriptural verses is also a fact that cannot be swept under the carpet. The world today seems to offer roughly two mutually contradictory types of formal belief in the Divine within which a virtual catalogue of conflicting theologies and belief-systems are featured. Both types of faith teach us invaluable truths which are preserved and affirmed in the Baha’i Faith. In the same vein we, as Baha’is, may sometimes import aspects of earlier religious traditions that Baha’u’llah came in fact to reform, and in some verses, to openly challenge.These two types of faith traditions are as follows (disclaimer: the following contains deliberate simplifications of a far more nuanced reality):
Type 1: Faith traditions focused on direct divine revelation to oneself. A direct personal enlightenment resulting from purity of heart, disciplined meditation and virtuous life. The emphasis is on self-reliance, effort to become a better person, independent use of our intelligence, covert or overt assertion of one’s own Divinity and non-communal religious practice. This type of faith is more prominent amongst far-eastern and South Asian religiously learned (Dharmic traditions) as well as in mysticist or monastic undercurrents of the great monotheistic faiths (Abrahamic traditions).
Type 2: Faith traditions focused on an indirect divine revelation through an earthly mouthpiece of the Divine (Prophet, Messenger, Guru or a God-Incarnate). The emphasis is on other-reliance, obedience, downplaying of human reason, humble assertion of one’s imperfection and emphasis on communal worship and fellowship. This type of faith is more prominent in mainstream Abrahamic religious traditions as well as in the lay practice of Dharmic traditions.
A type 1 faithful may also hold the words of selected prophets or teachers in high regard, but he will never commit himself to a particular Book. A type 2 faithful may also believe in direct personal revelation, but he will always regard it secondary to a Book. In the event of a discrepancy, the Book prevails.
Type 1 faith sometimes entails an underlying confusion and uncertainty about the true will of the Divine for oneself. One can never be quite sure if the ‘inner voice’ isn’t in fact one’s own whim, imagination, wishful thinking or selfish desire. The inner voice may tell you rather confusing and silly things on different occasions. It may also miss out on the benefits of belonging to a genuine fellowship of like-minded faithfuls. We are cautioned:
They should in no wise allow their fancy to obscure their judgment, neither should they regard their own imaginings as the voice of the Eternal.2
Type 2 faith occasionally involves an under-utilization of human reason and intuition as gifts of the Divine. It is often also more conformist and doesn’t give much room for personal, individual and eccentric expression of one’s faith. You might find conflicts and contradictions in the Book and to follow it without question seems unreasonable or impossible. Baha’u’llah tells us:
The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice. […] By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.3
In the Baha’i Faith the Book is the authority. Indisputably. But the Book is accepted only after it is discovered, after a sincere and unbiased search, to be in agreement with your God-given rational faculty (reason) and if it speaks to your heart (inspiration). The Book itself encourages the maximum use of human reason and insists that religious truth, in its purest form, never runs counter to reason. The Book itself sees both independent effort and the humble acknowledgement of one’s limitations before the Divine, as key to enlightenment and spiritual progress.
The Book itself recognizes the validity of diversity in religious expression, and the significance of spiritual inspiration arising out of pure-hearted meditation and the disciplining of one’s carnal desires. Our most uplifting and enlightening spiritual inspirations are regarded as authentic spiritual experiences whilst not to be confused with direct revelation of the Divine. Our conscience, when informed by the Word of God and cleansed of selfish attachment, kindly alerts us to the truth. The Faith is well-grounded in solid principles and cautions against superstition, fanaticism and the over-emphasis on one’s inner voices and whisperings.
The Book ultimately prevails. But not as a statement of blind belief. As an honest recognition of its power, wisdom, majesty, beauty and love, far exceeding ours.