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Baha'i Principle of Religious Unity and the Challenge of Radical Pluralism

by Dann J. May

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Chapter 3


The Problem of Religious Pluralism

       The term "religious pluralism" is used in at least two distinct ways by scholars of religion. One meaning expresses the growing tendency toward openness, tolerance and inter-religious dialogue found among many modern religious communities, while a second meaning takes note of the tremendous diversity found both within and among the world's religious traditions.[1] It is especially within the context of this second meaning that one may speak of a theology or even a philosophy of religious pluralism. This chapter will focus on this second aspect of religious pluralism, especially as it pertains to the Bahá'í view of religious unity.

        Over the centuries, a number of distinct theories have been propounded to explain the tremendous variety observed in the world's religious traditions -- what Wilfred Cantwell Smith aptly characterizes as "the arresting diversity of mankind's faith."[2] Such religious diversity is what many historians of religion refer to as the problem of religious pluralism. According to John Hick, "the term religious pluralism refers simply to the fact that the history of religions shows a plurality of traditions and a plurality of variations within each."[3]

Typology of Responses to Religious Pluralism

       In his essay, "Religious Pluralism: The Metaphysical Challenge," the philosopher of religion Raimundo Panikkar presents a typology of six possible options for coming to terms with religious pluralism. Panikkar divides these options into two broad categories: the first five he groups under "monistic options" and the sixth he assigns to what he call the "non-dualistic option."

  1. Monistic Options: All approaches to the problem of religious pluralism in which truth is said to be one: either one for all or one for every single individual.
    1. Exclusivism: Only one religion is true. All the others are, at best, approxi mations.
    2. Inclusivism: Religions refer ultimately to the same truth although in differ ent manners and approximations. They all point to Reality and may all be included in a single world view [the Bahá'í view is often characterized as such].
    3. False Claims: All religions are false because of the falsity of their claims. There is no such ultimate destiny or Reality.
    4. Subjectivism: Each religion is true because it is the best for its adher ents. Truth is subjective.
    5. Historical Process: Religions are the product of history and thus both similar and different according to the historical factors that have shaped them.

  2. Non-dualistic Option:
    1. Radical pluralism / post-modernism: Each religion has unique features and presents mutually incommensurable insights. Each statement of a basic experience is to be evaluated on its proper terrain and merits, because the very nature of truth is pluralistic.[4]

Panikkar finds fault with the first five options and makes a strong case for option six, that of radical pluralism. While the Bahá'í tradition accepts religious diversity, it acknowledges a common source for the world's religions and it recognizes certain underlying patterns and trends that historical and cultural factors both partially obscure and reveal. On the surface, the Bahá'í view of religious unity seems to be inclusivistic, although a more careful examination of the Bahá'í view reveals that it incorporates elements of perspectivism, perennial philosophy, and historical process.

        In the remainder of this chapter I will characterize the Bahá'í view in light of Panikkar's typology. Finally, in Chapter IV, I will briefly examine some contemporary Western theories of religious pluralism that are similar to the Bahá'í view. In doing so, I will also evaluate some of the main criticisms levelled against all such theories.

The Bahá'í Repudiation of Religious Exclusivity
In characterizing the Bahá'í view, three of Panikkar's options can be immediately ruled out. Obviously the Bahá'í principle of religious unity does not assert the falsity of religious claims nor does it deny the existence of a divine or ultimate reality. On the contrary, the Bahá'í view holds that the world's religious traditions originate from the same ultimate reality and consequently, that they all contain certain truths. It should also be obvious that the Bahá'í view cannot be considered subjectivistic, since it holds that religious truths, especially those which concern the nature of ultimate reality, are not simply what I or anyone else make them out to be. Indeed, Bahá'í theology is grounded in the notion that ultimate reality is completely beyond the comprehension of human beings. This universal human limitation is the reason the Bahá'í writings address the need for an intermediary (what Bahá'ís call a "manifestation of God," Ar. mazhar) whose primary function is to reveal religious truths.[5]

        Finally, and most significantly, the Bahá'í view is clearly not exclusivistic. Nowhere in the Bahá'í corpus do we find the claim that one and only one religion is true or correct, to the exclusion of all the rest. Indeed, a central Bahá'í principle related to the oneness of religion is that "religious truth is not absolute but relative," that it is not static but dynamic and that the process of "Divine Revelation is progressive, not final."[6] In fact, according to Shoghi Effendi, Bahá'u'lláh not only repudiated the claim of any religion to be a final revelation, but He also disclaimed the finality of His own revelation:
Repudiating the claim of any religion to be the final revelation of God to man, disclaiming finality for His own Revelation, Bahá'u'lláh inculcates the basic principle of the relativity of religious truth, the continuity of Divine Revelation, the progressiveness of religious experience ...[7]

        The Bahá'í repudiation of religious exclusivism is more fully elaborated by Shoghi Effendi in his essay "The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh." Near the end of this powerfully written essay he unequivocally asserts that
... great as is the power manifested by this Revelation and however vast the range of the Dispensation its Author has inaugurated, it emphatically repudiates the claim to be regarded as the final revelation of God's will and purpose for mankind. To hold such a conception of its character and functions would be tantamount to a betrayal of its cause and a denial of its truth. It must necessarily conflict with the fundamental principle which constitutes the bedrock of Bahá'í belief, the principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is orderly, continuous and progressive and not spasmodic or final. Indeed, the categorical rejection by the followers of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh of the claim to finality which any religious system inaugurated by the Prophets of the past may advance is as clear and emphatic as their own refusal to claim that same finality for the Revelation with which they stand identified. To believe "that all revelation is ended, that the portals of Divine mercy are closed, that from the daysprings of eternal holiness no sun shall rise again, that the ocean of everlasting bounty is forever stilled, and that out of the Tabernacle of ancient glory the Messengers of God have ceased to be made manifest" must constitute in the eyes of every follower of the Faith a grave, an inexcusable departure from one of its most cherished and fundamental principles.[8]

Bahá'í Inclusivism: An Oversimplification

       Several writers of histories of religion have characterized the Bahá'í view as being inclusivist. For instance, Mary Pat Fisher and Robert Luyster, in their new textbook Living Religions, cite the Bahá'í Faith as one of several examples of inclusivism. While Huston Smith does not use the term in The World's Religions, a revised version of his popular textbook The Religions of Man, his discussion of the Bahá'í Faith would clearly place it in this category.[9] There is also what appears to be direct scriptural evidence within the Bahá'í writings to support an inclusivist label. 'Abdu'l-Bahá has written that
The Bahá'í Cause is an inclusive movement; the teachings of all religions and societies are found here.... The Bahá'í message is a call to religious unity and not an invitation to a new religion, not a new path to immortality. God forbid! It is the ancient path cleared of the debris of imaginations and superstitions of men, of the debris of strife and misunderstanding ...[10]

'Abdu'l-Bahá claims that the Bahá'í Faith is not simply another religion, but "the ancient path," which his father, Bahá'u'lláh, describes as "the changeless Faith of God [Ar. dín Alláh], eternal in the past, eternal in the future."[11]

        It is by reading these and other such passages in isolation from the vast and overall context of the Bahá'í sacred writings that one may find superficial support for characterizing the Bahá'í Faith as inclusivistic. However, the inclusivist label is far too simplistic, for it does not adequately describe the complex, subtle and multi-faceted Bahá'í position, especially as it is developed by Bahá'u'lláh in such works as the Kitáb-i- Iqán. Indeed, the Bahá'í Faith continually frustrates such easy and simplistic classifica tions. For example, while Bahá'í theology might be described as liberal or even radical, its strict moral standards might be characterized by some as conservative or even puritanical. To continue, while the Bahá'í view does incorporate what might be seen as inclusivistic elements, these elements must be understood in their relationship with other well known Bahá'í principles such as: the concept of "the relativity of religious truth"; the admonition to foster and preserve "unity in diversity"; and the notion that the religions of the world are involved in a dynamic historical process -- what Bahá'ís refer to as "progressive revelation" (the last two principles will be discussed later in this chapter).

        Modifications of the inclusivist position include perspectivist theories of religious pluralism, of which John Hick's theory, as he presents it in his recent book An Interpre tation of Religion, is typical.[12] Hick's perspectivism, as I understand it, is grounded on the Kantian distinction made between noumenon and phenomenon, between an entity an sich ("in itself") as unperceived by anyone, and an entity as perceived by us. Consequently, Hick makes a distinction between ultimate reality an sich and ultimate reality as experienced and perceived by different religious traditions.[13] Hick categorizes these varying perceptions into two broad categories: one is the Real (Hick's general term for the absolute) understood as a deity or god, and as having a divine persona (e.g. Yahweh, Shiva, Vishnu, Ahura Mazda, Alláh, God the Father, the Great Spirit, and so on) and the other is the Real understood as a non-personal Absolute, or as the ground of being, or as the animating force in the universe (e.g. the Daoist conception of the Dao, the Mahayana Buddhist conceptions of dharma, sunyata, or nirvana, the advaita Vedanta conception of Brahman or the Chinese understanding of Tien).

        Armed with this distinction Hick contends that the various understandings of ultimate reality propounded by the religions of the world are not incommensurate views. Rather they are differing perspectives of the same reality. Accordingly, since reality is understood from a host of differing perspectives, we find among the world's religious traditions, a plurality of perceptions about reality. In summarizing his own position, Hick writes that "the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real or the Ultimate from within the major variant cultural ways of being human ..."[14]

        Having dealt with diverse understandings of ultimate reality, Hick proceeds to explain the apparent differences in metaphysical, cosmological and eschatological conceptions of the world's religions by viewing all such matters as within the domain of what he calls "myth, mystery and unanswered questions."[15] For example, the doctrine of reincarnation, so essential to the religious traditions of India (e.g. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism), is conspicuously absent from the so-called western religions (e.g. Judaism, Christianity, Islám and Bahá'í). Hick accounts for this basic difference by noting that it is the literal understanding of reincarnation that divides these traditions. However, if reincarnation is understood as a powerful metaphor, as myth, the differences between these two great religious traditions collapses. In Hick's words
The doctrine of reincarnation is seen by some as a mythological way of making vivid the moral truth that our actions have inevitable future consequences for good or ill, this being brought home to the imagination by the thought that the agent will personally reap those consequences in a future earthly life.[16]

        Hick makes similar arguments for the Christian doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ. Hick contends that all such exclusive sounding religious doctrines are susceptible to being interpreted metaphorically. This being the case, all such apparent differences which arise from such exclusive sounding doctrines would collapse, according to Hick. The allure of such an approach is indeed appealing.

        On all of these matters the Bahá'í concept of religious unity is essentially the same as Hick's. For this reason, the Bahá'í view is more appropriately characterized as perspectivist. Hick's perspectivism, as I understand it, appears to operate in only one direction -- from human beings to ultimate reality. The Bahá'í view, however, operates in both directions; that is, from human beings to the absolute and from the absolute to human beings. In other words, not only do human beings have different perspectives of God or ultimate reality; but according to the Bahá'í writings, God or ultimate reality also adapts the understanding of Itself to the varying cultures of the world. Thus, implicit in the Bahá'í principle of religious unity is the concept that religious truth is relative, that divine revelation is uniquely suited and adapted to the age, culture, and stage of human development in which it appears. For example, in referring to the various religions of the world, Bahá'u'lláh asserts in two different passages that
... every age requireth a fresh measure of the light of God. Every Divine Revelation hath been sent down in a manner that befitted the circumstances of the age in which it hath appeared.[17]

That [the religions of the world] differ one from another is to be attributed to the varying requirements of the ages in which they were promulgated.[18]

        Thus, the Bahá'í view of religious unity is perspectivism with a twist. The conventional meaning of perspectivism involves various responses to or perspectives of divinity made by the peoples and religious traditions of the world. However, Bahá'í perspectivism also entails the varying responses of divinity to humankind. In other words, a mutual process or hermeneutical circulation exists between religious communities and the divine; between the ever evolving perspectives of divinity and religious truths on the one hand, and the adaptation of those truths by that same source of divinity or ultimate reality to particular societies and traditions on the other. Bahá'í perspectivism incorporates a human-divine interaction that is similar to what Wilfred Cantwell Smith observes about religious communities the world over:
... each of these processes [Islámic, Christian, Buddhist, etc.] has been and continues to be a divine-human complex. To fail to see the human element in any would be absurd; to fail to see the divine element in any would ... be obtuse. (To fail to see the interrelatedness of all is, I suggest, old-fashioned.)[19]

        The Bahá'í approach to religious pluralism further parts ways with Hick over his assertion that the phenomena of religion, in all its worldwide diversity, is best understood from a family resemblance model, after the usage of Wittgenstein.[20] In this conception of religion, there are no essential characteristics, no common principles that every religion must have; there is no collective essence, no essential core, no sure foundation upon which all religions either share, agree in principle, or are founded upon. Instead, according to Hick, there is a continuum of characteristics "distributed sporadically and in varying degrees which together distinguish" the family of religious traditions from other families such as political movements or philosophical schools of thought.[21]

        In contrast, the Bahá'í view asserts the very things that a family resemblance model would deny: namely, that there are certain essential characteristics that all religions share. In this view, the religions of the world are "as differing species of the same genus," to borrow an insightful analogy from Wilfred Cantwell Smith.[22] For example, under the genus Felis falls a wide variety of true cats, including both wild and domestic species. Despite differences in size, geographic distribution, and certain behaviors, all cats share in common a number of characteristic features such as their predatory behavior, carnivorous diet, overall physical appearance -- including that most cat-like of all features -- whiskers, and as any cat-lover well knows, an appealing aloofness. The world's religious traditions are understood in a similar way. While the religions of the world vary greatly, they share, according to the Bahá'í view, certain fundamental features including their common origin and their emphasis on the ability of faith to profoundly transform an individual (see Chapter II for a complete discussion of these topics).

       With the preceding analogy in mind, it should be clear that the Bahá'í principle of religious unity is best characterized as a type of perspectivism similar to the theory advocated by Hick. Bahá'í perspectivism, does not, however, incorporate, as Hick's does, a family resemblance model. On the contrary, the Bahá'í view clearly holds that behind the seeming diversity of the world's religions there exist certain unifying features which they all have in common. For this reason, as I have already argued in Chapter II, the Bahá'í view also shares certain similarities with the concept of the "transcendent unity of religions" which Frithjof Schuon so persuasively argues. The Bahá'í view is also similar to what Huston Smith terms the "primordial tradition," or what Aldous Huxley, after the coinage of Gottfried Leibniz, calls the "perennial philosophy".[23] All of these views have in common the assertion that behind the seeming diversity of the world's religious traditions lie both a common origin and certain universal truths. As Huxley presents it, "Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found among the traditionary lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions."[24]
In pulling together the various lines of my argument so far, it is readily apparent that the Bahá'í principle of religious unity is best characterized as a primordial or perennial philosophy which incorporates a perspectivist understanding of religious pluralism. This analysis is not complete, though, for the Bahá'í view also includes, as a basic component, an historical understanding of the world's religions. It is to this subject that I now turn.

The Bahá'í View and Historical Process

       "The world is in flux, and we know it," affirms Wilfred Cantwell Smith in the beginning of his thought-provoking book The Meaning and End of Religion. It is in this work that he persuasively argues the importance of understanding religion from a dynamic historical context. "Like other aspects of human life," continues Smith, "the religious aspect too is seen to be historical, evolving, in process."[25] For Smith, the religious traditions of the world have been involved in a dynamic process of historical change and mutual influence.

        With the possible exception of Islám, the Bahá'í Faith may well be unique among the world's religious traditions in that it enthusiastically embraces the idea that religion must be understood historically. Indeed, within the Bahá'í corpus the religious traditions of the world are not seen as static and isolated events which sporadically appear. Rather, they are seen as participating in a progressive, dynamic and never-ending process. Smith echoes the Bahá'í view, when he argues that the religious traditions of the world should be seen as active "participants in the world history of religion."[26] Not surprisingly, the Bahá'í conception of religious history is grounded in a process metaphysics. Indeed, in language reminiscent of that found in Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution,27 'Abdu'l-Bahá affirms that
Creation is the expression of motion. Motion is life. A moving object is a living object, whereas that which is motionless and inert is as dead. All created forms are progressive in their planes, or kingdoms of existence, under the stimulus of the power or spirit of life. The universal energy is dynamic. Nothing is stationary in the material world of outer phenomena or in the inner world of intellect and consciousness.[28]

        It follows directly from such an understanding of reality that the phenomena of religion would be subject to the same dynamic process. Thus 'Abdu'l-Bahá continues
Religion is the outer expression of the divine reality. Therefore, it must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be without motion and nonprogressive, it is without the divine life; it is dead. The divine institutes are continuously active and evolutionary; therefore, the revelation of them must be progressive and continuous. All things are subject to reformation.[29]

'Abdu'l-Bahá likens this process to "the progression of the seasons of the year" with the beginning of each religion comparable to the beginning of spring.[30] The Báb and Bahá'u'lláh often use the analogy of the rising and setting of the sun when explaining this same concept.[31] The point of these and similar references, too numerous to men tion, is this: the Bahá'í Faith regards the religions of the world as participants in a dynamic and progressively unfolding process, what Bahá'ís call "progressive revelation."[32] This process both stimulates human civilization and keeps pace with it.

        From what has been argued so far, it should come as no surprise that within the Bahá'í writings the religions of the world are regarded as participants in the successive unfoldment of the "ancient path of God" and that the Bahá'í Faith is only one of the most recent participants, and by its own admission, not the final participant. Indeed, Shoghi Effendi points out that the Bahá'í Faith recognizes the religions of the world "as different stages in the eternal history and constant evolution of one religion, Divine and indivisible, of which it itself forms but an integral part."[33]

        The concept of progressive revelation provides the final ingredient for my analysis of the Bahá'í concept of religious unity. Since the religions of the world have been successively revealed to an ever advancing human civilization, many of the apparent differences between these religions are due to historical and even cultural factors. In other words, they differ because the historical and cultural conditions have differed. Given this view, any discussion of religious pluralism would have to take the changing historical and cultural conditions into account. This is precisely what the Bahá'í Faith does.

The Bahá'í View: Process Perspectivism

       In attempting to synthesize the various strands which make up the Bahá'í principle of religious unity, it becomes apparent that no existing label or categorization is adequate. The Bahá'í view combines elements of perspectivism, perennial philosophy, and historical process ("progressive revelation"). For these reasons, I have characterized the Bahá'í view of religious unity as "process perspectivism" due to its incorporation of such concepts as transcendental unity and perspectivism, and on its placement of the various religions within an unfolding and progressive historical process. It is my hope that coining such a new term will not lead to further confusion, but will instead avoid various misconceptions of the Bahá'í view which a simplistic use of the current terminology perpetuates.


    [1] In his review of Modern Indian Responses to Religious Pluralism, ed. Harold G. Coward (State University of New York Press, 1987), Mark Jurgensmeyer notes that in "the recently revised version of Claude Welch and John Dillenberger's Protestant Christianity, the authors have added a new concluding chapter describing what they regard as the most significant new trend in Protestant thought: theologies of religious pluralism" ("Book Reviews," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 56, no. 4, p. 773).
    [2] The Meaning and End of Religion (New York: New American, 1963), p. 170.
    [3] "Religious Pluralism," Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 12, pp. 331.
    Wilfred Cantwell Smith, in his book Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Compar ative History of Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1981), similarly writes that "Religious diversity is a problem within, as well as among, [religious] communities" (p. 23).
    [4] "Religious Pluralism: The Metaphysical Challenge," in Religious Pluralism, ed. Leroy S. Rouner, Vol. V of Boston University Studies in Philosophy and Religion (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 98. I have slightly modified Panikkar's list by giving his options a name after the usage of John Hick.
    [5] See Chapter 2, note 51, p. 39 for a more complete discussion of the Bahá'í concept of manifestation.
    [6] The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 58.
    [7] Guidance for Today and Tomorrow (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1953), p. 118.
    [8] World Order of Bahá'u'lláh p. 115. The underlined portion of this passage is a quotation from Bahá'u'lláh found in the Kitáb-i-Iqán, p. 137.
    [9] Living Religions (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991), p. 345 and The Worlds's Religions: A Completely Revised and Updated Edition of the Religions of Man (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 385.
    [10] Qtd. in Pritam Singh, "The Scriptures of Different Faiths," in God, His Mediator, and Man (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1958), p. 14.
    [11] Bahá'u'lláh, Kitab-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book (Haifa: Israel: Bahá'í World Centre, 1992), p. 85, #182.
    [12] See "Part Four: Religious Pluralism", in An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1989). Hick also discusses perspectivism in Chapter III of his Problems of Religious Pluralism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985) and Chapter III of God Has Many Names (Philadelphia: Westmin ster Press, 1982).
    [13] Ibid., pp. 240ff.
    [14] Problems of Religious Pluralism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985) pp. 36-37.
    [15] See Chapter 19 of An Interpretation of Religion.
    [16] Ibid. p. 349. Hick cites a number of Buddhists who hold this view, including such notable scholars as Keiji Nishitani (note 9, p. 376).
    [17] Gleanings, p. 81, #34.
    [18] Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 13.
    [19] Towards a World Theology, p. 34.
    [20] An interpretation of Religion, pp. 3ff. See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (1953, rpt: Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963). Hick points out that the term "cluster concepts" is a synonymous term.
    [21] Ibid., p. 4.
    [22] Towards a World Theology, p. 52.
    [23] See Huston Smith's article "Philosophy, Theology, and the Primordial Claim," Cross Currents, Vol. 38, no. 3 (Fall 1988), pp. 276-288 and Chapter III of his Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (New York: Crossroad, 1982). It is in the second work that Smith briefly discusses Huxley's views as they are presented in his book The Perennial Philosophy.
    [24] The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945), p. vii.
    [25] p. 2.
    [26] Ibid., p. 20.
    27 Arthur Mitchell, trans. (1911; rpt. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1983). I realize that the reference to Bergson thought is brief, however I mention his ideas in the hope that such a reference will call attention to an area that needs further study.
    [28] From a public lecture given at the Free Religious Association, Boston, Mass., May 24, 1912, in The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 2d ed. (1939; rpt. Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982), p. 140.
    [29] Ibid.
    [30] Ibid., pp. 126-127, from a talk given at the Church of the Divine Paternity, New York City, May 19, 1912.
    [31] The Báb, Persian Bayan 4:12, in Selections from the Writings of the Báb, p. 106 and Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Iqán, pp. 21-22, 160-161.
    [32] For the specific occurrence of the phrases "progressive revelation," see Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings, pp. 74-75, #31. In this same passage Bahá'u'lláh refers to the world's religions as links in a "chain of successive revelations." In his book, Towards a World Theology, Wilfred Cantwell Smith suggests that the image of a flowing river may help communicate the dynamic and fluid process in which the world's religions are involved (p. 26).
    [33] Shoghi Effendi, The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, in The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh p. 114.
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