"Native Messengers of God in Canada?: A test case for Bahá'í universalism"
Author: Christopher Buck
Publisher: The Bahá'í Studies Review 6 (1996), pages 97-133
Commentary by: William Collins
In his article, Christopher Buck suggests that Bahá'í universalism is tested by whether the Bahá'í community can officially acknowledge native Messengers of God. I grew up in Chenango County in the state of New York, no more than 50 miles (as the eagle flies) from the homeland of the Onondaga nation, the central point of the Iroquois Confederation, located just south of Syracuse, NY. There is something about the land in North America that seems to communicate the spirit of the native peoples. Although America's indigenous inhabitants were seemingly defeated by European conquerors, there is another sense in which indigenous spirituality exercised its own ineffable power over the invader, achieving a kind of back-handed triumph. Native spirituality now plays a prominent part in "new age" beliefs, as well as influencing, by osmosis, the generality of Europeans who now call themselves Americans. Long before I - an American of English and German descent - heard of Bahá'u'lláh, I knew of Deganawida ("the Peacemaker") and believed him to be a Messenger of God. It is therefore no surprise that I, as a Bahá'í, also personally believe him to have been one of God's Messengers to peoples of North America.
Buck raises some interesting points regarding the Bahá'í approach to indigenous spirituality. He identifies several concerns that he thinks are potentially controversial: (1) that there is a paradox or even a conflict between "official" and "popular" criteria for designating who is a Messenger from God; (2) that the Bahá'í Faith has a tension between its universalism on the one hand, and its "semiticentrism" on the other.
The creation of a stark contrast between "official" and "popular" forms of religion more often than not obscures a much more complex phenomenon. Religious belief within a given tradition is on a long continuum from the highly orthodox to the loosely understood "folk" beliefs that are a mix of ideas from many sources along with pieces of the orthodox. One need only study David Piff's recent doctoral dissertation for confirmation that even the most knowledgeable believers also have a reservoir of personal notions that may consist of hearsay and partially-understood orthodoxies.(1)
It is certainly true that Shoghi Effendi wrote: "We cannot possibly add names of people we (or anyone else) think might be Lesser Prophets to those found in the Qur'án, the Bible and our own Scriptures. For only these can we consider authentic books."(2) Buck, I think, generalises this quotation too far. It is important to note that there is an additional sentence in Shoghi Effendi's letter, not published in the source from which Buck took the quotation. The continuation is: "Therefore, Joseph Smith is not in our eyes a Prophet." It is essential to recognise this context. The Guardian was dealing with a specific question regarding whether Joseph Smith was a lesser prophet.
Can we generalise from this that (1) there were no Manifestations of God or lesser prophets beyond those in the Bible, Qur'án, and Bahá'í scriptures; or that (2) there cannot be a consensus of belief regarding indigenous Messengers? Buck clearly establishes from the Bahá'í writings themselves that there must have been other lesser prophets and Manifestations whose names are not known. What, then, about a consensus of belief among Bahá'ís regarding other Messengers? Rather than seeing Shoghi Effendi's stricture on adding names as a limiting of belief, why not see it in a different light? Shoghi Effendi limited what can be claimed "officially," particularly with regard to others, such as Joseph Smith, who were contemporary with the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh. Perhaps what he did was free the Bahá'í community to understand and accept other possible divine representatives on the basis of criteria established elsewhere in the Bahá'í writings. At the same time he limited a kind of excess of claims that would inevitably arise if the community started having official lists of prophets and messengers that would include with those mentioned in the Bahá'í writings the hundreds of contemporary religious leaders who make personal claims to such stations. I see this less as "semiticentrism" than as good management of the human tendency to stretch these categories to the breaking point. Shoghi Effendi made it easy by limiting the official lesser prophets to those named in certain religious texts.
Buck clearly has found a key in the statement by 'Abdu'l-Bahá that in America "the Call of God must have been raised in ancient times." We must surely accept Shoghi Effendi's limitation on the listing of lesser prophets and 'Abdu'l-Bahá's statement on divine revelation (Manifestations or Greater Prophets) among the indigenous people of America, without placing the two in opposition to one another. The Bahá'í writings contain, after all, indications of the criteria that distinguish Manifestations of God, including the nature of the claims made, the claimant's perseverance in the face of opposition, willingness to face death and persecution, his demonstration of God-like attributes and submission to the divine will, his revelation, the creation of a new civilization and spiritual community, the transformation of souls, and the like.
From such a perspective, whether or not Deganawida was specifically named in "authentic" scripture is rendered moot. Authentic scripture states that the call of God was raised in America. Deganawida fulfills for many Bahá'ís the criteria established in the Bahá'í writings for a Manifestation of God. We neither need convincing, nor do we require that he be listed in official Bahá'í publications. When I was attending Syracuse University in 1973 and again in 1989-1994, I learned that Deganawida was always referred to as "the Peacemaker." To utter his name - Deganawida - was to call upon his power, and thus to cause him literally to return. His name was not uttered lightly. I am comfortable, therefore, at the absence of his name from "official" lists, even as I feel comfortable putting his name in this commentary, because to call upon his name is to recognise his return in Bahá'u'lláh, the Peacemaker of our age.
Following upon the creation of the Iroquois League by Deganawida, the Iroquois Nations became the most powerful native people in North America. Through an incredibly adept diplomacy with the French and English, the Iroquois Nations maintained their independence from European conquest for over two centuries, and achieved complete domination over all of their native enemies(3) - ruling from just west of Albany, NY nearly to the Mississippi, and from the Great Lakes as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina. The British maintained relations with the Iroquois as they did with European states, and honoured native independence until the defeat of the French in Canada. The road to the American Revolution was partly paved with the insatiable desire of English colonists to cross into Iroquois territory to settle. Yet, Buck notes, there is a tradition ascribing the American articles of confederation and their successor constitution to the influence of the Iroquois Confederation upon America's founders. A Bahá'í could think that such influence only arises from a Manifestation of God, and not simply from a mythical culture hero.
Buck proposes a listing of Messengers as follows:
Messengers of God to First Nations
Just as there is not a "definitive" listing of Bahá'í principles ('Abdu'l-Bahá listed them variously, and in recent years others have been added), so it would seem that there is not a "definitive" listing of Messengers of God. In his Kitáb-i-Íqán, Bahá'u'lláh also appears to include Adam, Noah, Húd, Sálih, Joseph, and others among these Messengers. Why are they not listed in Buck's schema, let alone in the earlier ones mentioned by Shoghi Effendi? The question of names of Messengers is thus in itself complex, even when looked at "officially." Rather than rigidly define an official list, it might be more helpful to consider a different schema, in which holy souls variously referred to as Manifestations, Messengers, Prophets (greater and lesser), Imams, Holy Ones, etc. are seen as actors in a larger sacred drama on the stage of history. Deganawida, Quetzalcoatl and Viracocha would definitely be among them. Should they be called Manifestations, or Messengers, or Prophets, or something else? Perhaps it simply does not matter. What does matter is the evidence that the Iroquois and other native peoples of North America received some kind of divine revelation, perhaps uncategorisable, but recognisable by Bahá'í criteria as fulfilling certain requirements for consideration as "true."
Whenever I have driven past the Onondaga Reservation on Interstate 81, I have remembered Deganawida combing the snakes from Atotarho's head, bringing him to a knowledge of the Great Peace. Whenever I have entered the boundaries of the Onondaga, the modest European-style homes only partly disguise the sacred nature of the central place, where the council fire of the Iroquois Nations burns. It is no less powerful than what I experienced entering the Bahá'í shrines in the Holy Land. One cannot deny any Messenger's truth. Learn the story of Deganawida and the Great Peace, learn the story of Bahá'u'lláh and the Most Great Peace. They are one.
- David M. Piff, "The Book of Hearsay: Unofficial Lore in the Bahá'í Community" (unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Copenhagen, Department of Sociology of Religion, Institute of History of Religions, 1996). Also see article by Piff on page 45 in this issue.
- From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated 13 March 1950, Lights of Guidance: A Bahá'í Reference File, comp. H. Hornby, 3rd rev. ed. (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1994) 504 (No. 1696).
- See especially Stephen Saunders Webb, 1676, the End of American Independence (New York: Knopf, 1984).