Thornton Chase: chapter 18 Chapter Eighteen

THE BAHAI REVELATION

      Thornton's effort to describe his pilgrimage helped him conceive an even broader work, one to describe the Bahá'í Faith itself. He mentions the work as a "little book" in a letter written on 17 November 1908. Apparently it appeared in late April 1909, for on 23 April Thornton said in a letter that he planned to send a copy of the book to `Abdu'l-Bahá in a few days.[1]

      Thornton Chase entitled the book The Bahai Revelation. His own criticism of the work is that he had not made it simple enough.[2] `Abdu'l-Bahá evaluated it more positively, saying it was in the "utmost completeness, comprehensiveness and eloquence," and adding, "I entreat from the bounties of the Blessed Perfection [Bahá'u'lláh] that in each day thou mayest attain a new confirmation, deliver an eloquent speech and compose a supreme epistle."[3]

      The Bahai Revelation proved to be the most profound work produced by an American Bahá'í to date. Written to be an introductory book on the Bahá'í Faith, it was also a meditation on love, for Thornton considered love the basic Bahá'í teaching. In Thornton's mind, love represented the essence of religion and living; hence, he believed love had to be the central theme of any book that sought to explain the basics of the Bahá'í Faith. The Bahai Revelation represented the culmination of Thornton's thoughts about love.

      Thornton began the book by asserting his basic assumption:

      The claim of the Bahai (Glorious) Revelation is that it is the Word of God sent to men to remove the antagonism and differences between peoples of various religions and prepare the way for their coming together in harmony and love. . . .

      It is simple, profound, purifying, searching, as is the Word of God always. It is divine in origin, human in presentation, sane, practical and applicable to life in its every phase. In belief, it inculcates naught but truth; in action, naught but good; in human relations, naught but loving service.[4]

      As a result, Chase emphasized that humanity needs the Bahá'í Faith:

A world religion is needed, a solvent of religious differences. . . a platform on which all believers and seekers for God and His truth may meet, from whatever race or training they may come. And that religion must recognize the divine elements which underlie all religions and meet each loyal soul upon his own ground without claiming advantage over him, but rather bringing the light of God's truth to shine upon the truths he already has. . . .[5]

      Most Christians believed that Christianity was such a world religion, but Thornton asserted it was not capable of providing the basis for reformation of human society because it "has endeavored to overthrow the religious conceptions of other nations in favor of its own," and because "the records of Jesus' words" are probably "imperfect." He thus recognized the discoveries of higher biblical criticism. However, Chase added, Jesus' words "have brought comfort, hope and satisfaction to myriads of human souls, and if his pure teachings had been presented, with their doctrines exemplified in the lives of the teachers, the whole world might have received and loved them. . . ." The other religions of the world had suffered from a similar contaminating process: "no religion. . . has remained pure. . . ."[6]

      Thornton believed the Bahá'í Faith offered the pure truth, but he approached the Faith in a different way from any of the other early American Bahá'ís. Ibrahim Kheiralla and his lieutenant Paul Dealy had stressed reason and common sense as the main way to approach religion. Isabella Brittingham, another prominent American Bahá'í, never mentioned common sense or reason in her writings, but stressed faith and love as the principal means for approaching religion. Her approach was based more on Romanticism, a philosophical and literary movement that had touched the East Coast and the more liberal-minded. Chase offered yet another approach, one based on his meditation on Bahá'í scripture:

The truth of any religion can be proved and confirmed only by the heart, by testing its tenets in the life. The Bahai Revelation is unshaken in the arena of the intellect, but powers of reasoning cannot make final decision concerning spiritual truth. . . . no judgment is just, no opinion reliable except that of personal living and decision of the heart.[7]

      Chase did see religion as being rational. But like the great Persian Bahá'í scholar, Mírzá Abu'l-Fal, in his classic work Bahá'í Proofs, Chase demonstrated religion's logic by his arguments, rather than simply asserting its rationality.

      Following his introduction, Thornton explored the religions of the past, their commandments, and their promises. The first chapter of The Bahai Revelation focused on "The Great Commandment," a reference to Christ's call to "love the Lord thy God" (Mark 12:29-31):

Love is attraction; it cannot be forced or commanded; it must be drawn forth by the lovable. The will may direct love's attention toward an object but can never compel its action. The desirability of the object, the longing for nearness and union with it, these are the inspirers of love. How can man love God, the Infinite, whom no one hath seen? No man can comprehend God or know him as he is. How can his whole being, heart, soul, mind and strength, be devoted to the love of the Unknown, the Unseen?[8]

      Thornton's answer was that God had provided the means for knowledge of God: divine revelation, revealed through a human being. Chase's next three chapters discussed the logos or Word of God, as it appeared in the Manifestations of God. He focused especially on Jesus and his words, as recorded in the New Testament. Thornton described the mission of Jesus as one to establish love. He also criticized the stern Calvinism of his youth:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believed on him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3.16).

      What wonderful, what beautiful teaching! God was not angry with mankind, as some have taught. How could they teach so with these words flaming before their eyes? Was not the whole burden of Jesus' teaching--Love, the love of the Father? And that man should love God and love man, his neighbor? How could man love an angry God, a wrathful monarch? No! God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. . . . That representative of Divine Love, whose whole life was love, was not "given" to suffer anguish in the place of man, to be rejected, scorned and crucified, to bear the deserved punishment of men's sins and thus placate an offended father. Truly he suffered all these things because of the sins of men, but it was in the wrath of man, not of God, his father.[9]

      Thornton stressed that belief in Jesus meant primarily belief in Jesus' words, his revelation. In addition to Jesus Christ, God had shown divine love for humankind by sending other revelations. Thornton briefly described the mission of Moses, but noted that the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gathas, and the Avesta were other examples of the Word of God.[10] God chose the method of progressive revelation not only because the conditions and needs of humanity change as society develops but also, Thornton noted, because over time "the waters of life become stained and adulterated by filtering through the brains of men."[11]

      The last time the processes of obsolescence and contamination had reached their height was the nineteenth century. Therefore, Thornton next discussed the "Fullness of Time," the time of the revelation of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh and the developments that occurred during their lifetimes. Among the events occurring in 1844, the year the Bahá'í Faith began, were the rise of the Millerites, the invention of the telegraph, the prediction of the planet Neptune, and the granting of the Edict of Toleration by the Turkish government, which permitted Jews to reside in Palestine again. Thornton also noted that science had attained an unprecedented flowering since 1844, but because of the world's spiritual state science was primarily being turned toward the production of ever more destructive weapons of war. In a startling bit of prescience, Chase noted that unless spirituality entered the "minds and hearts," one could "foretell the extinction of humanity within a few years" because of war.[12]

      Science, however, had potentially ushered humanity into a golden age. It had raised "man from a condition of comparative childhood to a manhood of knowledge." Above all, technology had unified the planet with rapid communication and transportation, spreading knowledge to all the peoples of the world. Even business interests were wedding the planet together through the bonds of trade. Thornton saw all of this as nothing less than the dawn of the millennium:

In a vague sort of way the "Millennium" has been expected to arrive at some possible future sometime; but it is already at the door. Now, in the amazing increase in knowledges, the breaking down of barriers of ignorance, the widening of commercial interests, the closer acquaintance of peoples, in brief--in the acknowledged need of Unity, the first rays of that glorious dawn of human solidarity, universal welfare and prosperity are appearing above the horizon.[13]

      In these developments Chase saw nothing less than the emergence of the "manhood of man." With social maturity would come spiritual maturity: "we are entering upon a human period when the motives of man shall be reversed, when his purpose shall be to serve rather than be served. . . . Instead of oppression, greed and selfishness, the motive powers of man shall be justice, helpfulness and love."[14] Thornton attributed the change to the Word of God, specifically to the leavening power of the revelation of God through Bahá'u'lláh.

      The second part of Thornton's book, "History," was a fifteen-page description of the lives of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, and `Abdu'l-Bahá. He quoted the Orientalists' praise of them and provided a succinct, accurate description of their lives. He also described the bravery and dedication of the early Persian Bahá'ís. In this way Chase carried his description of the history of God's love for humanity up to the present.[15]

      The third part of his book, "Teachings," consisted of a fifty-page compilation from the Bahá'í writings available in English. As the leading editor and administrator of the Bahai Publishing Society and as one of the individuals who had helped to raise the quality of English in the translations of Bahá'í scripture to the highest level possible, Thornton was completely familiar with all the Bahá'í sacred writings available in English. He included statements on the nature of God, the nature of the Manifestations, and the nature of the spiritual path, including all of the "Tablet of the True Seeker," Bahá'u'lláh's summary of the steps that must be taken to follow the spiritual path.[16] Chase also cited a few passages mentioning the Bahá'í social principles and several tablets by Bahá'u'lláh addressed to Christians and to the Pope.

      Having told the reader about God's love of humanity through the Manifestations and their words, Thornton was now ready to answer the question posed in the book's opening pages: How can the individual come to love God? The title of his book's fourth part is "Salvation," but Chase defined it differently than traditional Christianity: "Salvation means attainment of the high destiny which God has made possible for every man." To be saved, one must be "born again." Chase defined the term with a quotation from `Abdu'l-Bahá about the different kinds of spirit: the vegetable, the animal, the human, and the spirit of faith. Thornton said that, according to `Abdu'l-Bahá, acquisition of the last of these was being "born again."[17]

      How does one acquire the spirit of faith? Thornton linked the concept of the spirit of faith with the biblical stress on a faith in God that produces works of righteousness (James 2:28). He saw its origins in a personal craving for God, often sparked by personal suffering. As such, Thornton's answer was autobiographical:

      This kind of faith has its first impulse in the will of man. It often arises from suffering and the sense of need and it always increases consciousness. Faith is not an intellectual yielding to argument through being convinced that certain statements are correct, but it is rather from a hunger of the soul, a knowledge of personal helplessness and the perception of a possible Mighty Helpfulness. Faith cannot rely on any man, but in God only; the required help must come from a higher power than man. The soul is craving that which does not pertain to humanity in itself.[18]

      From the first spark of search, the problem faced by the individual is sacrifice of personal will to the will of God. Human craving for God leads to prayer, which will eventually change the individual's "attitude from self-ward to God-ward." But prayer can be dominated by one's own will and not by acceptance of God's:

No prayer is prayer to God unless it be in God's way, according to his Word, and with a sincere desire for his Will to be done regardless of the personal will. Prayer, in its essence, is the abandonment of the personal will in favor of the Will of God. And such prayer God answers, because it is in agreement with his law and can be answered.[19]

      Thornton saw the "whole question of salvation" as "one of the will of man." God had given free will to the individual and "will not unman him and make him an automaton." Rather, the individual must make a personal struggle to overcome free will. The Word of God provides the guidance to accomplish this victory. From it "he receives instruction of a higher object of devotion, who is Wisdom itself, Knowledge itself, Love itself, and then, in response to the invitation of the Word, he turns his spirit toward that One and sends forth the `wireless' supplications from his heart to the Heart of the universe."[20]

      Thornton wrote as one who had struggled a lifetime to sacrifice his will to God's and had achieved a substantial victory:

      As he does this in all sincerity, there comes to him an assurance, a confidence in a new connection, a new help, a new power, a presence and a strength which are reliable, impregnable and Life-giving. His seeking spirit has been met by a Mightier Spirit, as was the prodigal son by the Father; his spirit has been quickened and impregnated by a Holier Spirit; a new conception, a new birth has taken place within him; his spirit has become the Spirit of Faith and is made alive with the Spirit of Holiness shining forth "from the presence of the Divine Unity on the luminous, light-seeking, human essence" of himself. Then his spirit, being at one with the Holy Spirit of God is "vitalized with the Attributes of their Source, God, who everlastingly was, is, and shall be."[21]

      The final section of Chase's book consisted of a series of chapters on various topics. Usually they are about two pages long and contain an equal mixture of quotations from the Bahá'í scriptures and Thornton's brief commentary on them. The titles of the chapters summarize their contents most eloquently: "The Bahai Revelation is an invitation to Love God"; "The Bahai Revelation is an Invitation to Obedience"; "The Bahai Revelation is of Authority"; "The Bahai Revelation Teaches the Religion of Living"; "This Revelation is a Call to Sacrifice"; "The Bahai Teaching is an Invitation to Service"; "The Bahai Revelation is Needed"; "The Object of the Bahai Revelation is Unity"; "The Bahai Revelation Makes All Things New"; and "The Revelation is Complete in Itself." The book closes with a tablet by `Abdu'l-Bahá and a prayer by Bahá'u'lláh. Thornton's understanding of life and love come through most strongly in his section on "Universal Love":

      The command of Unity requires the cultivation of Universal Love which is the love of God expressed in love of man. All love is given to man to teach him the value of love. . . . Love teaches sacrifice, especially of the personal will. The lover always seeks to learn the wish or will of the beloved, and then to make his own will serve that will. . . .

      The manifestation or proof of love is giving, or sacrifice of self. . . . God, the Generous, the Giver, is Love itself. He gives all that is in existence. Everything that man has is a free gift, his power to think, to know, to live, to work, to enjoy, to be, is all a pure gift of God. What can he offer in payment?. . .

      If love means giving, it may be asked, how can man love God if there is nothing he can give him?

      God has provided for this by endowing man with the consciousness of individuality, independence and will, and then asks man to give up all these great powers for love of him.[22]

      This, to Thornton Chase, is the paradoxical secret of loving God. Loving God is only possible because God has given humanity free will--otherwise humanity's love for God would be automatic, not chosen--but to be a successful love, the individual must give up his or her free will and obey God's will instead.

      Thornton Chase's meditations on the relationship between the individual and God stand alone in early American Bahá'í literature. His work remains the first and only work on Bahá'í "mysticism" written in the English language. It remains one of the greatest literary products of an American Bahá'í. Its secret lies in its view of the Bahá'í Faith as a mode of living, not as just a collection of teachings. In this insight can be found the book's continued relevance to Bahá'ís and to all humanity.

Footnotes

[1]Thornton Chase to Ethel Rosenberg (copy), 17 November 1908, 2, TC; Thornton Chase to Mirza Munir Zayn [Mírzá Munír Zayn] (copy), 23 April 1909, 3, TC.

[2]Thornton Chase to Albert Windust (copy), 16 November 1910, 2, TC.

[3]`Abdu'l-Bahá to Thornton Chase (copy), received 18 August 1909, TC.

[4]Thornton Chase, The Bahai Revelation (Chicago: Bahai Publishing Society, 1909) i.

[5]Chase, Bahai Revelation i-ii.

[6]Chase, Bahai Revelation iii.

[7]Chase, Bahai Revelation v.

[8]Chase, Bahai Revelation 1.

[9]Chase, Bahai Revelation 10-11.

[10]The Vedas and Upanishads are Hindu scriptures; the Gathas and the Avesta are Zoroastrian.

[11]Chase, Bahai Revelation 16-24, 25.

[12]Chase, Bahai Revelation 31-33.

[13]Chase, Bahai Revelation 40, 45.

[14]Chase, Bahai Revelation 46.

[15]Chase, Bahai Revelation 46; 51-61. Orientalists and scholars mentioned by Chase are a Mr. Ussher, [E. Denison] Ross, and Edward Granville Browne.

[16]The "Tablet of the True Seeker" is a popular name for a passage in Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán, The Book of Certitude, trans. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1950) 192-99.

[17]Chase, Bahai Revelation 119-20.

[18]Chase, Bahai Revelation 123.

[19]Chase, Bahai Revelation 124, 125.

[20]Chase, Bahai Revelation 128, 130, 131.

[21]Chase, Bahai Revelation 131.

[22]Chase, Bahai Revelation 154-55.
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