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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 4


       The greatest philosophical challenge to the Bahá'í principle of religious unity originates from the diverse group of current trends in philosophy and literary criticism that fall under the general heading of "post-modernism." Radical pluralism may be seen as one such trend in the post-modern movement. Radical pluralism, as it applies to the study of religion, holds that even after one employs the kind of perspectivism advocated by the Bahá'í Faith, there remain "irreducible aspects," "mutually incommensurable insights" and stubbornly different doctrines and world views in every religious tradition that cannot simply be reduced to some "monolithic unity," intellectual abstraction, or ultimate reality.[1] Wilfred Cantwell Smith expresses this sentiment well when he writes
I find the religious diversity of the world almost bewilderingly complex. The more I study, the more variegated I find the religious scene to be. I have no reason to urge a thesis of unity among 'the religions of the world'. As a matter of fact, I do not find unity even within one so-called 'religion', let alone among all.... It is not the case that all religions are the same. The historian notes that not even one religion is the same, century after century, or from one country to another, or from village to city.... I repeat: it is not the case that all religions are the same. Moreover, if a philosopher asks (anhistorically) what they all have in common, he or she either finds the answer to be 'nothing', or finds that they all have in common something so much less than each has separately as to distort or to evacuate the individual richness and depth and sometimes grotesqueness of actual religious life.[2]

What Smith and others argue is that such differences are either largely ignored, viewed as relatively unimportant secondary or non-essential aspects; or worse, that such differences represent corrupt degenerations from some supposed pure or essential core of truth.

The Charge of Misinterpretation

       Radical pluralists make at least three important criticisms against views which advocate a perennialist or primordial philosophy (usually some form of perspectivism or inclusivism based on the presumed existence of some ultimate reality or transcendent unity). First, it is held that such views must misinterpret every religion in order to uncover some presumed unifying factor. Langdon Gilkey makes this point in his criticism of the general approach towards religious pluralism of Frithjof Schuon, Huston Smith, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, John Hick, and Paul Knitter
[The single 'essence of religion' which this approach seeks] represents -- try as it may to avoid it -- a particular way of being religious... Thus it has to misinter pret every other tradition in order to incorporate them into its own scheme of understanding. In the end, therefore, it represents the same religious colonialism that Christianity used to practice so effectively: the interpretation of an alien viewpoint in terms of one's own religious center and so an incorporation of that viewpoint into our own system of understanding.[3]

In this process of misinterpretation, certain presumed truths or essential teachings are often extracted out of their cultural contexts and displayed as universal principles. Cultural anthropologist Michael Fischer makes an argument typical of this type of criticism. Upon visiting the Bahá'í House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, where he afterwards attended a Bahá'í prayer meeting featuring readings from various religious texts, Fischer observed that
This was, perhaps, the syncretism that the Bahá'í Faith claims to foster: when one becomes a Bahá'í, one does not reject one's previous faith but adds to it, one learns to distinguish what is eternal morality and what are historically conditioned instruments of that morality. As an anthropologist, however, I was somewhat disappointed: what was read from each text destroyed the particu larity of the tradition from which it was drawn, leaving, seemingly, but banal platitudes.[4]

       A Bahá'í response to these very real and serious criticisms is two-fold. First, the Bahá'í writings frequently make a distinction between the admittedly high ideals of the Faith and the behavior of its adherents. For example, Shoghi Effendi suggests that the greatest test an individual Bahá'í ever encounters is from other Bahá'ís.[5] Thus, while the observations that Fischer makes about a particular Bahá'í prayer meeting are undoubtedly true -- for I have personally experienced similar situations -- his criticism is appropriately aimed at the behavior of individual Bahá'í's and not Bahá'í theology. Nowhere in the Bahá'í sacred writings is such activity either encouraged or condoned. Indeed, Shoghi Effendi even expressly denies that a list of fundamental teachings derived from the various religions can even be made.
The fundamentals of all Divinely-instituted religions cannot be rigidly classified. No definite or exhaustive list of them can be set up, as we have no means of ascertaining that what we consider to be those fundamentals are common to all religions.[6]

Be this as it may, individual Bahá'ís and the Bahá'í community as a whole need to take Fischer's criticism of their behavior to heart. With this in mind, I encourage the Bahá'í community to avoid the temptation of a "Bahá'í-centric" approach to the world's religions, which would include, among other things, ripping quotations out of their particular contexts.

       Secondly, and more to the point, the criticism is made that in advocating a perspectivist view of the world's religions one must inevitably misinterpret them in order to fit their disparate doctrines and beliefs into some grand unity. Let me concede at the onset, that it is often the case that individuals misinterpret an alien culture or religion, often grossly so. While this is indeed a serious charge, it raises some important questions. First, it presumes that a correct interpretation exists or that it can only be made by the adherents of the particular tradition in question. This brings up the whole question of whom one can trust to give the definitive view, if such a view even exists? Secondly, religious diversity is not only a phenomenon which exists between the various religious traditions, it also exists within any one religious tradition, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith has so convincingly shown in his provocative book The Meaning and End of Religion. This being the case, a perspectivist interpretation may be just as easily made outside of any particular tradition as it is made within. This raises an interesting question. If a Sikh interprets her own faith from a perspectivist standpoint, does she misinterpret it?

       The sacred writings of the Bahá'í Faith are very clear about its relationship with other religions. For instance, Shoghi Effendi in a powerfully worded statement, makes the Bahá'í position on other religions unambiguously clear:
The Faith standing identified with the name of Bahá'u'lláh disclaims any intention to belittle any of the Prophets gone before Him, to whittle down any of their teachings, to obscure, however slightly, the radiance of their Revelations, to oust them from the hearts of their followers, to abrogate the fundamentals of their doctrines, to discard any of their revealed Books, or to suppress the legitimate aspirations of their adherents.[7]

Statements such as these clearly prohibit Bahá'ís from misinterpreting other religions, even in the name of promoting Bahá'í ideals or principles. Again, I can only repeat that the Bahá'í community must seriously heed such words and must actively avoid ethnocentric and superficial understandings of other religions. Taking his que from the so-called golden rule, Wilfred Cantwell Smith suggests that: "In the comparative study of religion, I have found it a good rule to suggest for the interpretation of others' religious affairs only such theories and principles of interpretation as may be applicable, or at the least intelligible, for one's own case."[8]

       Finally, there remains the contention that Bahá'í perspectivism will rob other religious traditions of their richness and unique differences. The Bahá'í principle of "unity in diversity" is relevant to this discussion. Briefly stated, the Bahá'í Faith, while advocating unity among diverse groups, seeks, through this principle, to protect, foster and even promote such diversity. In fact, members of the Bahá'í community seem to delight in the experience of encountering diversity -- in all its multifaceted forms. The challenge of this concept is to recognize unity where it truly exists, while respecting and appreciating diversity. Characteristically, Shoghi Effendi is very clear in his statement on the Bahá'í position on diversity:
[The Bahá'í Faith] does not ignore, nor does it attempt to suppress, the diversity of ethnical origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples and nations of the world. It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration than any that has animated the human race. It insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world. It repudiates excessive centralization on one hand, and disclaims all attempts at uniformity on the other. Its watchword is unity in diversity ...[9]

'Abdu'l-Bahá, on the other hand, often employs the analogy of a beautiful flower garden in His explanations of this important principle. For example, He writes
Consider the flowers of a garden. Though differing in kind, color, form and shape, yet, inasmuch as they are refreshed by the waters of one spring, revived by the breath of one wind, invigorated by the rays of one sun, this diversity increaseth their charm and addeth unto their beauty. How unpleasing to the eye if all the flowers and plants, the leaves and blossoms, the fruit, the branches and the trees of that garden were all of the same shape and color! Diversity of hues, form and shape enricheth and adorneth the garden, and heighteneth the effect thereof. In like manner, when divers shades of thought, temperament and character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest. Naught but the celestial potency of the Word of God, which ruleth and transcendeth the realities of all things, is capable of harmonizing the divergent thoughts, sentiments, ideas and convictions of the children of men.[10]

       Passages such as these indicate the Bahá'í attitude towards diversity. The attitude is one where differences are not merely respected and promoted, but enjoyed as well. In summary, the Bahá'í view of religious unity nowhere seeks to diminish either the uniqueness or even the particular views of any religious tradition or culture.

The Charge of Unnecessary Abstraction

       Related to the first criticism of misinterpretation is one that challenges the abstract nature of perspectivist theories. Not even the most outspoken critics of religious perspectivism deny that it carries explanatory power. In fact, even Panikkar, one of Hick's many critics, admits that he is "prepared to believe that most of the discrepancies among religions are complimentary and supplementary views coming from a multiperspectival approach."[11] Nor is there a problem with the general observa tion that religious share certain structural affinities. For example, all religions recognize some transcendent or ultimate reality, they all make a distinction between the sacred and the profane -- both in theory and in practice, and they all have rituals, holidays, myths and sacred narratives. Nevertheless, as Panikkar points out
Humankind is not a skeleton. As medicine is not anatomy, so religion is not a formal structure. It all depends on the flesh and life we put into these structures[12]

       As I discussed in Chapter II, religion encompasses the lived experience of people whose lives are transformed by faith, and as Wilfred Cantwell Smith reminds us, this transformation can be for better or worse. Structural abstractions like those noted above seem far removed from the day to day and personal experiences of those who actually live their religion. It is also at this level that religion is clothed with particular doctrines that seem to defy any attempt to place them within a scheme of transcendent unity. There are two responses to this criticism: one of a more general nature, and one specific to the Bahá'í tradition.

       First, the more general response. Frithjof Schuon grounds his argument for a "transcendent unity of religions" on the distinction between what he calls the "esoteric" and "exoteric" dimensions of religion.[13] This distinction, as we shall soon see, takes away much of the force of this criticism. Schuon identifies the esoteric dimension as the inherently more mystical of the two. This level is characterized by a monistic realization of an inclusive, absolute, undifferentiated unity or supreme identity which can only be spoken of through symbols and myths, allegories and metaphors. It is at the esoteric level that the concept of the unity of religions is realized. According to Schuon, while this realization is potentially available in any tradition or culture, only a small minority of people in any given tradition ever achieve it. In contrast, the exoteric dimension is concerned with doctrines and dogmas, outward forms, logical proofs and concrete images. The exoteric level is characterized by a monotheistic or dualistic exclusivism which recognizes, as correct, one concrete form or expression over others. At the exoteric level, for example, Islám is proclaimed to be the only true religion. It is at this level that the world's religions are perceived to be both bewilderingly diverse and mutually exclusive.

       Schuon sees the esoteric and exoteric dimensions as embodied in two distinct personality types found within all religious traditions, with the majority of religious adherents being exoteric. This is very similar to T. Patrick Burke's discussion of the "popular" or "devotional" (exoteric) and "reflective" (esoteric) aspects of religion.[14] Like Schuon, Burke argues that the reflective (esoteric) personality type has more in common with their counterparts in other religious traditions than they do within their own tradition. The same is true for the popular (exoteric) personality. In other words, these distinctions cut across religions traditions.

       Schuon's analysis of the esoteric and exoteric dimensions of religion provides for an unexpected point of agreement and unity between the religions of the world. Furthermore, while esoterics are admittedly a minority in any religious tradition, their faith is no less immediate or moving. Indeed, for esoterics, recognition of an all-embracing transcendent unity is not mere abstraction, but the core of their belief. Not surprisingly, Schuon holds that the esoteric dimension is the essential mystical core, without which, a religion would lose its very life blood.

       Secondly, the principle of religious unity is, for Bahá'ís, no mere ethereal abstraction remote from the day to day experience of life. On the contrary, this is one of the most basic and fundamental of all Bahá'í beliefs. Even at the exoteric level, the principle of religious unity is one that every Bahá'í, the world over, cares deeply about. In fact, in many cases, this principle alone was the leading cause of their conversion to the Bahá'í Faith.

The Problem of Initial Assumptions

       A third and more serious criticism arises from certain metaphysical considerations. According to this criticism, all theories which advocate religious unity assume the existence of some ultimate reality, some privileged absolute which lurks behind the "rightly" interpreted cultural and historical manifestations of this supposed truth. Such theories seem to naively ignore the post-modern contention that all conceptions of the truth are hopelessly entangled in their respective linguistic, cultural and historical contexts. "The challenge in the 'post-modern' human condition," as Purusottama Bilimoria so aptly puts it, is the suggestion
that there is neither one "absolute" or "decisive" truth content (logos, presence) in religion (contrary to the exclusivist presupposition), nor a plurality of expressions or articulations inscripting the same deep truth-content (contrary to the inclusivists assumption). Indeed, it argues that all conceptions of truth are equally constructed artifacts, which have thus to be contextualised and understood in the horizons of disparate and possibly unique experiences, tradition and aspirations of each cultural group."[15]

       An even more serious threat to religious perspectivism is raised by Panikkar. He argues against the perspectivist position which posits the existence of some ultimate truth seen through a plurality of perceptions. He advocates instead, the notion that truth itself is pluralistic. Obviously he does not hold "a plurality of truths" for he insists that this would be contradictory. Instead, Panikkar holds what he calls a non-dualist position which contends that reality is fundamentally irreducible to some ultimate unity or monism.

       Obviously, whether an ultimate truth exists or not, or whether truth is unitary or pluralistic, are questions not open to being proven through the appeal to empirical evidence or conclusive arguments. Each view has gathered around it certain lines of reasoning which support its own perspective. It is clear to many that those who favor one view over the other do so not on the basis of any incontrovertible line of reasoning. Rather they do so on the basis of certain presuppositions that bias them in one direction or the other. As Huston Smith simply puts it, "Everything turns on which foot one comes down on."[16] Consequently, this debate seems to be, at least, partly a matter of emphasis. To be more specific, on the one hand, for those who emphasize differences, diversity is granted a privileged position and any unitary features are seen as less important or superficial. On the other hand, for those who presuppose the existence of some underlying universal truth, unitary principles are given a privileged position while any differences that may be encountered are considered secondary or non-essential.

       As I understand Schuon, this debate may have less to do with philosophical issues and more to do with the tension that exists between esoteric and exoteric perspectives. If this is true, radical pluralism belongs more to the exoteric dimension, while views which advance religious unity belong more to the esoteric dimension. Since for Schuon, these two dimensions of religion represent deeply felt approaches to religious life, it is doubtful whether the debate between radical pluralism and perspectivist views will ever be resolved. In its favor, the Bahá'í concept of process perspectivism does have the advantage of fostering, at least among Bahá'ís, a deep appreciation and love for the world's religious traditions. Bahá'u'lláh even encourages His followers to "Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship."[17] This attitude follows directly from the Bahá'í doctrine of religious unity, for the adherents of the world's religious traditions are one's brothers and sisters in an ancient and progressively unfolding process of which the Bahá'í Faith is only the most recent, and certainly not the last, development.

       Resolving this issue is clearly beyond the scope of this thesis. Instead I will close with Huston Smith's conclusion from his own defense of primordialism (his defense of primordialism certainly applies to what I have called the process perspectivism of the Bahá'í Faith):
Some thinkers are so occupied with these differences [among religious traditions] that they dismiss claims of commonality as simply sloppy thinking, yet identity within difference is as common an experience as life affords. Green is not blue, yet both are light. A gold watch is not a gold ring, but both are gold. Women are not men, but both are human....

... Blue is not red, but both are light. Exoterics can be likened to people who hold that light isn't truly such, or at least that it is not light in its purest form, unless it is of a given hue. Meanwhile academicians have become so fearful that a hue will be overlooked or that some that are known will become victimized -- marginalized is the going word -- that they deny the existence of light itself. There is nothing that hues instance and embody; nothing, in deconstructionist language, that texts signify. All that exists is an endless stream of signifiers.

       The primordialist believes there is such a thing as light in itself -- pure white light that summarizes all the wave-lengths -- and that it is the Light of the World.[18]

Smith's closing sentence echoes the words of Bahá'u'lláh when, in referring to the religions of the world, He writes "These principles and laws, these firmly-established and mighty systems, have proceeded from one Source, and are rays of one Light."[19]


    [1] This initial definition is largely taken from Raimundo Panikkar's essay "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), pp. 97-115.
    [2] Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion. Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1981., pp. 4-5.
    [3] "A Retrospective Glance of My Work," in The Worldwind in Culture, ed. by David W. Musser and Joseph L. Price (Bloomington: Meyer Stone, 1988) and qtd. by Michael LaFargue in "Radically Pluralist, Thoroughly Critical," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 60, no. 4 (Winter 1992), p. 694.
    [4] "Social Change and the Mirrors of Tradition: The Bahá'ís of Yazd," in Heshmat Moayyad, ed. The Bahá'í Faith and Islam, Proceedings of a Symposium, McGill University, March 23-25, 1984 (Ottawa, Canada: Association for Bahá'í Studies, 1990), pp. 25-55.
    [5] Excerpts from the Writings of the Guardian on the Bahá'í Life, comp. by The Universal House of Justice (n.p.: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada, n. d.), p. 12.
    [6] From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, 7/10/1939, in Hornby, Lights of Guidance, #1702.
    [7] The Promised Day is Come (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980), pp. 108. For similar references see The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 57-58, 114.
    [8] Towards a World Theology, pp. 33-34.
    [9] The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 41, underlining mine.
    [10] Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá (Haifa, Israel: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978), p. 291, #225, underlining mine.
    [11] "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. 109.
    [12] Ibid., p. 108.
    [13] The Transcendent Unity of Religions, pp. 7-60.
    [14] Fragile Universe (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979), pp. 79-92.
    [15] "A Problem for Radical (onto-theos) Pluralism," Sophia, Vol. 30, No. 1 (1991), p. 31.
    [16] Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (New York: Crossroad, 1982), p. 35.
    [17] Lawh-i-Dunya, in Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 87.
    [18] Beyond the Post-Modern Mind (New York: Crossroad, 1982), p. 35; and "Philosophy, Theology, and the Primordial Claim," Cross Currents, Vol. 38, no. 3 (Fall 1988), p. 288.
    [19] Epistle to the Son of the Wolf (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976), p. 13.
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