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The Coming Synthesis:
Bahá'í Scholarship in an Age of Conflict and Controversy

by Rick Harmsen

     Reason and science receive the highest accolades in the Bahá'í writings, and their use is enjoined upon whomsoever would call him or herself a believer. Nevertheless it is evident that at the beginning of this third millennium of the Julian calendar society and the scientific community are still ill equipped to take advantage of Divine revelation. This reality is at least partially the result of the culmination of a process that was born centuries ago, most often associated with the ill-fated censure of such notable scientific figures as Copernicus and Galileo by the Medieval Catholic Church. In succeeding ages and centuries the authority of scientists and philosophers eventually eclipsed that of religious and scriptural authority in the West.

     The ascendancy of reason over revelation had two primary causes: the prowess of science and technology on the one hand, and religious sectarianism, dogmatism and bigotry on the other. Every new invention reinforced the prestige of scientific rationality, while centuries of religious hypocrisy, oppression and strife made the apparent potency and purity of secular reasoning difficult to deny much less resist. The great delusion of the Enlightenment however, of which there was a light and a dark side, was the idolatry of reason, the belief that mundane reason could replace rather than complement inspired writ and divine revelation. The compensatory process of injecting reason and scientific thinking into the life of society had long passed a balancing point in the second half of the twentieth century–-when the two were literally cloven asunder. Science and reason has since dominated Western society while scriptural authority has been relegated to mystical and liturgical discourse.

     The Bahá'í writings propose that divine revelation is rather more comprehensive than conventional wisdom will currently allow, and certainly more relevant to worldly affairs than society has tolerated in recent decades. These writings further suggest that unadulterated divine revelation on the one hand,and authentic scientific enterprise on the other, are–-and have always been–-complementary processes that will eventually be harmonized and integrated. Needless to say an upsurge in religious fanaticism and the accelerating mixture of cultures and religions throughout the globe has only ramified an already challenging—yet promising—prospect.

     That the world is in the throws of a universal epistemological revolution, or perhaps counter-revolution, was made abundantly evident by the title of the Nobel Foundation 1990 conference, "The End of Science?"; the only program outside Sweden and Norway sanctioned by the Foundation. John Horgan, senior writer for Scientific American, published a book by the same name in 1996. The theme of both these inquiries was the growing concern that science–-in its present form–-is often more an ideology than an objective methodology.

     The ideological underpinnings of scientific models are nowhere more apparent than in the current cosmological debate originally ignited  by Brandon Carter in 1973 when he unveiled the 'anthropic principle'. The 'anthropic principle' implicitly insinuates predestination and thus a Creator, and therefore threatens to overthrow the previously reigning 'random universe' model. In its essence the 'anthropic principle' explicates in classic Aristotelian 'final cause' form–-that the more materialistic cosmologists view with suspicion–-what constitutes a large number of coincidences involving constant values within the known Universe. As Carter explains, these coincidences must necessarily "be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers"("Large Number Coincidences..."291). In other words, as the root meaning of the word 'anthropic' suggests, recent discoveries affirm that the so-called 'coincidental' constants–-that unanimously conform to the incredibly specific requirements of human life–-were set in place from the very first nano-seconds of the known Universe. In one sense this takes us full circle back to a pre-Copernican homocentric and theistic world-view–-theologically speaking; Carter's reference to "our presence as observers" suspiciously recalling a perennial scriptural theme concerning God's wish to "reveal Himself". Humanity was apparently created to know and to love God; that is, the God's Manifestation on earth. [1]

     A number of scientists, such as Richard Hawkings and Hugh Everett, have proposed alternative hypotheses apparently intended to rescue the "random universe" from the homocentric (or theistic) implications of the anthropic principle. On the one hand this is predictable, as John Gribbin and Paul Davies have pointed out: "many scientists prefer these alternatives to supernatural design"(234). On the other hand, it's a truly ironic preference for scientists given the purely speculative and absolutely undetectable nature of these hypothesized other universes (whether reference is to "baby universes", "multiple imaginary universes", "bubble universes", or "parallel universes"). These alternatives constitute a "kind of mysticism" according to the famous American scientist John Wheeler (quoted in Brown, Ghost 60), and consequently make apparent the ideological underpinnings of science to a far greater extent than has typically been apparent. "Gone forever were the images of a mechanical universe...," says an official publication of the Bahá'í International Community, Who is Writing The Future?, summarizing this recent history. It goes on to say that "theoretical science now begins to address the possibility that purpose and intelligence are indeed intrinsic to the nature and operation of the universe"(11).

     Similar challenges have overtaken nearly every other discipline, including medicine, biology, historiography, and so on. The revolution that shook cosmology is now undermining the foundations of the biological sciences, though scientists such as Francis Crick continue to argue that consciousness is completely accountable through neurological explanations. [2] The various expressions of this epistemological disruption are incredibly diverse, having flooded the popular media in various forms. In regards to psychology, to give one more illustration of the magnitude and extent of this revolution, the research findings of the closing decades of the twentieth century have dramatically confirmed that "a purely secular view of human mental life has been shown to fail not just at the theoretical, but also at the practical level"(God 78) according to Patrick Glynn, director and scholar in residence at the George Washington University Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies. Glynn goes on to point out that "psychology's [earlier] outright rejection of God [is now seen as] an intellectual error even within the terms of the discipline"(74). But even more encouraging is that the "views of the nature of human consciousness derived from modern psychology and from religious revelation have tended to converge [rather] than diverge over the past twenty years"(74). [3]

     These revelations, representing so many disciplines, appear to share a common underlying skepticism about the ability of current models and methodologies to transcend their now acknowledged limitations. Theodore Schick in a Skeptical Enquirer essay also entitled "The End of Science?" summarized what scholars such as Horgan and Feyerabend have now made popular: that conventional views of science cannot continue to "legitimately claim to have a corner on reality"(36). Even skeptical defenders of established science, such as Norman Levitt [4] and Peter Monaghan, admit that fundamental changes are at hand. "No," says Monaghan, "science shouldn't be 'left alone'," but significantly adds that "...producing an intelligent and valid critique of science is an incredibly tough chore that should really be reserved for grownups..."("Verbatim" A26). Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy and zoology at the University of Guelph, similarly admits that these "science wars"–-as these dichotomous debates are sometimes called–-are not conducted exclusively by humanities and social science professors, but have been promoted and affirmed by those in the hard sciences as well (Mystery of Mysteries 3). [5] Indeed, we see as far back as 1952 that Gerald Holton's textbook, Introduction to Concepts and Theories in Physical Science, stated categorically that so called objective "facts" are useless without some interpretation "which is invariably linked to metaphysical preconceptions"(quoted in Brush 1166). This was not a new sentiment among scientists even in 1952, even if it did set a precedent for a science textbook. As early as 1926 Albert Einstein made his position known when he replied to a colleague (i.e. Heisenberg) who complained that his earlier statements tended to affirm the conventional view of scientific theory as arising exclusively from objective hard data. "Possibly I did use this kind of reasoning," Einstein replied, "but it is nonsense all the same"(quoted in Brush 1167). He went on to say that it is "the theory that determines what we can observe," affirming the validity of at least one dimension of Thomas Kuhn's more recent contribution to the debate.

     For some Bahá'ís these epistemological upheavals directly reflect one of the consequences of Bahá'u'lláh's metaphorical depiction of a Revelation through which "the mountain of knowledge has been crushed..." and "scattered in dust" (Epistle 134). Recent developments have gone a long way to "shaking the very foundations of a world view that had dominated scientific thinking for centuries"(Who is Writing the Future? 11). It appears that the Spirit of the age, through a host of ways and means–-not the least being 'postmodern thought' and a multitude of recent scientific discoveries—has brought the world to the threshold of a 'post-secular' era of synthesis, to borrow a term used by Patrick Glynn and scientist-theologians John Polkinghorne and Robert Russel. "The first rudimentary steps taken into interdisciplinary studies [that we are seeing today]," writes Peter Khan in his recent JBS essay "Some Aspects of Bahá'í Scholarship," "are no more than a beginning toward a unification of knowledge..."(62).

     It is this writer's view that an acute awareness of this universal epistemological counter-revolution (i.e. of the current convulsions and synthesis within secular and mundane knowledge) is a necessary prerequisite to sorting out the tensions that naturally exist between some of the underlying assumptions of the scientific and academic worldview on the one hand, and some of the wide-ranging statements in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá on the other. What is self-evident is that this is in reality very natural and quite predictable.

     In a letter dated 16 February 1998 to an individual believer the Universal House of Justice offered some perspective on this issue, as well as a good point of reference for any would be scholar of the Faith in this age of transition:

Among the challenges confronting the Bahá'í community is a need to incorporate a proper regard for Bahá'u'lláh's station within a methodological framework informed by the highest standards of intellectual rigor. In view of the chasm which seems to have developed in the West between reason and revelation, there is a great deal of work that needs to be done in this area. Such development will occur organically, however, and cannot be forced. Scholarship, in common with the arts, will doubtless mature over the course of years as humanity comes more fully to appreciate and internalize the Teachings. By taking the long view, one is better able, perhaps, to see these challenges as being among the natural growing pains of an unfolding, new civilization. In time, we are confident, questions in this area which today seem urgent and muddled will take on a more natural proportion and clarity. [6]

     Although it will probably take generations to fully address these issues, it is doubtful that Bahá'í scholars can afford to ignore recent appeals for the development of new models of scholarship by the Universal House of Justice. Going with the flow of conventional secular wisdom or waiting for those outside the Faith to forge new directions in scholarly thinking is clearly not what is expected. It is rather the development of new models of scholarship capable of honoring the station of Bahá'u'lláh, the House of Justice has said, that will "in the long protect the reputation of the Cause from whatever immediate misunderstandings and criticisms it may encounter" (December 10, 1992: Issues Related to the Study of the Faith). The importance of this work cannot apparently be overstated. The House of Justice has gone on record as saying that "both Bahá'í institutions and Bahá'í scholars are called on to exert a very great effort, of heart, mind, and will, in order to forge the new models of scholarly activity and guidance that Bahá'u'lláh's work requires" (Letter dated December 10, 1992 to an Individual believer cited in "Issues Related to the Study of the Faith").


Bahá'í International Community. Who is Writing the Future?: Reflections on the Twentieth Century. Sidney: Bahá'í Publications Australia, 1999.

Bahá'u'lláh. Kitab-i-Aqdas. (Etc.)

__________. Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. Trans. By Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, IL.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1969.

Brown, J. R., and P. C. W. Davies. The Ghost and the Atom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Brush, Stephen G. "Should the History of Science be Rated X?: The way scientists behave (according to historians) might not be a good model for students. Science. vol. 184, 22 March 1974, 1164-1172.

Carter, Brandon. "Large Number Coincidences and the Anthropic Principle in Cosmology," in M. S. Longair, ed., Confrontation of Cosmological Theories with Observational Data. Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1974, pp. 291-298.

Davies, Paul and John Gribbin. The Matter Myth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Glynn, Patrick. God-The Evidence: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World. Rocklin, CA: Forum-Prima Publishing, 1997.

Khan, Peter. "Some Aspects of Bahá'í Scholarship." The Journal of Bahá'í Studies. Volume 9, number 4, December, 1999; 43-64.

Monaghan, Peter. "Verbatim." Chronicle of Higher Education. December 17, 1999, A26.

Ruse, Michael. Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction? Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Schick, Theodore Jr., "The End of Science?", Skeptical Inquirer. 21: 2 (1997) 36-39.


[1]       There are many allusions to this in the Bahá'í writings, such as in Bahá'u'lláh's Hidden Words, as well as within Islamic traditional utterances.

[2]       See for instance Robert Sylwester's A Celebration of Neurons.

[3]       Written in 1997.  Anjam Khurhseed's Universe Within and H. B. Danesh's The Psychology of Spirituality offer similar insights on this emerging view of psychology.

[4]         See Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the Contradictions of Contemporary Culture, Rutgers University Press,1999.

[5]       Mark Woodhouse refers to this polarization as 'paradigm wars', as in the title of his 1996 book by the same name. Ruse's Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construction? constitutes a response to the more extreme relativists, defending nominal objectivity in science, while offering an historical and philosophical analysis of his own.

[6]       This guidance came in response to a concern expressed by this writer about what seemed to him to be a somewhat cavalier attitude among some Bahá'í email discussion list participants toward selected passages in the Bahá'í writings.

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