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Revisioning the Sacred: New Perspectives on a Bahá'í Theology, ed. Jack Mclean:
Review

by David Piff

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 9
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1999
Revisioning the Sacred: New Perspectives on a Bahá'í Theology
Editor: J. A. McLean
Publisher: Kalimat Press, Los Angeles, 1997, xix + 231 pages
Review by: David Piff


Revisioning the Sacred is an anthology of essays by seven Bahá'í academics treating various approaches to and aspects of Bahá'í theology. Jack McLean introduces the book as the "first multi-authored volume dedicated to the understanding of Bahá'í theology per se as a free-standing discipline within Bahá'í studies."[1] It is, of course, impossible for an introductory volume, such as this one, to provide anything like a comprehensive coverage of Bahá'í theological issues, but the articles address a number of intriguing and germane topics. A common concern of the various authors appears to be an interest in broadening and deepening present Bahá'í understandings of the theological implications of the religion's sacred scriptures, and bringing some intellectual rigour to bear on prevalent understandings of Bahá'í teachings.

Dann May's essay, "The Bahá'í Principle of Religious Unity: A Dynamic Perspectivism", is illustrated by a schematic chart (from the pamphlet One Universal Faith) showing the Bahá'í concept of progressive revelation. Many readers will have seen the chart or something like it: God (in the upper left hand corner) communicates with man (in the lower right hand corner) via the holy spirit, mediated by a series of divine revelators, here presented in a table of two columns. The left column identifies the religion, the right the founder. The juxtaposition of this popular portrayal with May's essay is appropriate to the entire tenor of the volume, as, inevitably Bahá'í theological positions when examined systematically are a good deal more complicated and potentially problematic than their conventional representations. The "oneness of religions" is a fundamental Bahá'í teaching, but it is obvious that doctrines and practices vary widely among the world religious traditions. Further, which religions and prophets are actually mentioned in the Bahá'í corpus? May's essay helps clarify some of these issues, but its main purpose is to develop an appropriate characterisation of the Bahá'í position regarding religious unity. May rejects the assertion that the Bahá'í Faith is simply "inclusivist", a position which posits that all religions refer ultimately to the same truth (albeit in approximations) and may be represented within a "single world view" (17). The Bahá'í view is better characterised as perspectivist, in that it suggests that religious doctrines differ according to the historical and cultural contexts in which they were formulated. According to the Bahá'í model, perspectivism operates in two directions – from man to God and also from God to man, in that "ultimate reality also adapts or accommodates the understanding of Itself to the different historical periods and cultures of the world" (22). "Bahá'í doctrine," writes May, "combines elements of perspectivism and transcendent unity, while situating the various religious traditions within an unfolding and progressive historical process" (26). May concludes his essay with a brief discussion of "radical pluralism" or post-modernism, the view that each religion contains irreducibly unique features and incommensurable insights – that they can never be reconciled as expressions of a single truth because the very nature of truth is pluralistic (17). May believes this position presents the greatest philosophical challenge to the Bahá'í principle of religious unity. In a few paragraphs he sketches some lines of response to this "threat". A lengthier, more pointed and detailed treatment of this important topic would be a significant contribution to Bahá'í discourse.

Stephen Lambden's "The Background and Centrality of Apophatic Theology in Bábí and Bahá'í Scripture" is an historical survey of the doctrine of the unknowability of God, a foundational Bahá'í teaching. In Bahá'í theological discourse, rather than being able to describe the Supreme Being, "one can only say what God is not or use negative theological (apophatic) language when referring to God" (38). The Bahá'í scriptures are replete with passages expanding on this theme. A key adjunct to this doctrine is that of the Manifestation of God, which in the Bahá'í view constitutes a source of indirect knowledge of God. Lambden writes, "The Bábí-Bahá'í doctrine of the unknowability of God is not a bloodless theological abstraction emphasising cold remoteness, but rather one which points to and celebrates the truth of the fact that through the Messengers an intimate nearness to God can be realised. Through God's divine representatives, the Manifestations, God is closer to human beings than their 'jugular vein'" (38). An apophatic theology is thus not incompatible with the concept of a "personal God", a crucial point for Bahá'í devotional practices and the community's religious thought generally. Lambden's discussion provides an historical account summarising references to a transcendent, unknowable God in Jewish, Christian and Islamic scriptures and in the writings of religious thinkers within these traditions, and cites specific examples of apophatic theological statements from Bábí and Bahá'í sacred writings and commentaries. The evidence Lambden marshals convincingly establishes the commonality of apophatic thought in the theological systems of Abrahamic religions, and underlines its importance in Bahá'í theology. Lambden concludes by suggesting that worshipping God for His transcendence can be a profoundly mystical experience.

Juan R. I. Cole's "Bahá'u'lláh and Liberation Theology" discusses scriptural sources for a Bahá'í theology of liberation – "a theology," in Cole's words, "that is grounded in a special commitment to the poor and the workers…, that includes their perspectives in the consideration of scriptural meaning, and that underpins reformist thought and social action by them and by others in solidarity with them" (81). Cole draws attention to passages from Bahá'u'lláh's writings that praise the spiritual station and virtues of the poor, insist on human equality and instruct the rich as to what they must do to reduce the suffering of those less fortunate, decry inequalities of wealth, exhort self-renunciation and charity, point to the need for governmental reform and link the issues of poverty and world peace; Cole further suggests that Bahá'u'lláh's special relationship with and sympathy for the poor may help explain the historical and contemporary predominance of the downtrodden among the world Bahá'í community. It is obvious that a major thrust of the Bahá'í scriptures is to encourage and bring about a just and equitable social and economic order, and Cole has eloquently and for the most part persuasively called attention to this important strand of Bahá'u'lláh's message. Unfortunately, Cole's readings are at times tendentious. For example, following citation of several of Bahá'u'lláh's Hidden Words, Cole suggests that "if being rich is a drawback on the path [of spiritual progress], being poor is an asset" (83). But Bahá'u'lláh's warnings against the temptations of gold apply equally to rich and poor. Nor is it clear that Bahá'u'lláh really means us to understand from his writings that the poor are "spiritually superior to the rich" (84). It is also not entirely clear what Cole sees as an appropriate Bahá'í response to the present deeply flawed and iniquitous world order. He notes that "as a Bahá'í" he cannot advocate "any way of thinking that sanctions violence or class warfare, or indeed, entanglement in the petty squabbles of party politics" (81). He concludes his essay by a call to active engagement. "What is needed is not choirs singing to one side as corporate union busters intimidate on the shop floor or as the shock troops of an excessive industrialism murder Yanomamo Indians in order to despoil the Amazon rain forest" (95). Cole challenges readers to "listen to the poor… and join with them in radically critiquing the conditions of our collective existence" (95-96). One suspects that present-day Bahá'í activities in the realm of social and economic development, moral education and the promulgation of training institutes may not embody the radical critique that Cole has in mind.

Anjam Khursheed's "The Spiritual Foundations of Science" portrays science as an enterprise grounded in the intrinsic spiritual nature of human beings. Khursheed sketches a philosophical context for his position – an ongoing if unresolved critique (represented in the work of Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn and others) of the strictly empirical approach to science articulated by logical positivism. Despite this critique, in the mind of the educated public and of many scientists, scientific objectivity is still equated with the "application of formal methods and procedures, whether as observation, hypothesis or experiment." Khursheed argues that "from a Bahá'í point of view, science is not founded on methodology, but is perceived to be founded on a spiritual faculty of human nature" (106). For Bahá'ís, science, as one of the creative activities of the human mind, is not separate from other areas of intellectual or artistic activity (108). Science, like religious reflection, is linked to consideration of profound cosmological mysteries. In a section devoted to "scientists and their experiences," Khursheed briefly, and perhaps selectively, refers to the work of various noted scientists and mathematicians whose findings or writings point to the inadequacy of strictly empirical and logical scientific methods or in other ways lend support to the conception of scientific investigation as a spiritually based enterprise. By providing a critique of particular tenets of positivist science, exploring facets of a spiritual view of scientific investigation, and propounding connections between this view and the work and writings of major scientific innovators, Khursheed has helped elaborate and support the Bahá'í view of the harmony of science and religion. In my view he has not, however, fully engaged the philosophical foundations, tenets, perspective and methods of empiricist science, nor has he provided a clear picture of what an alternative to such science would be.

In "Interreligious Dialogue and the Bahá'í Faith: Some Preliminary Observations" Seena Fazel presents a cogent, forthright, and economical introduction to the topic of discourse between religions. Bahá'u'lláh enjoined his followers to "consort with all religions with amity and concord" (quoted by Fazel, p. 130); 'Abdu'l-Bahá, in his talks in North America, also often referred to this theme. Knowing one must undertake such discourse does not render the activity unproblematic – as Fazel notes, "declarations of commonality [among the world's religions] can be maintained only at a superficial level"; they "start to lose meaning as one goes deeper into the inner landscape, the experience, beliefs and practices of the different religious traditions" (130). Fazel describes the contributions such discourse can make to Bahá'í self-understanding and to various fields of Bahá'í endeavour. Dialogue has transformative potential, for both Bahá'ís and for other religious traditions. Reciprocity, "the challenge to mutual transformation and change", is integral to dialogue. "Bahá'ís," writes Fazel, "naturally are not immune from the need for self-renewal" (136). One possible area of transformation is in the very concept of religion Bahá'ís present to the world. Dialogue between Bahá'ís and other religious communities can help further the Bahá'í peace program and reinforce the public perception of the status of the Bahá'í Faith as an independent world religion. At the same time such dialogue presents challenges – one being the relative lack of development of Bahá'í theology and secondary literature when compared to that of other religious communities. There is also the potential that dialogue could be manipulated into a "soft-sell" approach to proselytising. A further challenge is that interreligious dialogue can lead participants to alienation from their community of origin, as "dialogue brings about a growth in understanding and an extension of religious experience not shared by those who have not participated" (141). Fazel concludes by examining three bridges, the "ethical," the "intellectual,"and the "mystical-spiritual," that provide avenues along which interreligious dialogue can progress.

Keven Brown's "Hermes Trismegistus and Apollonius of Tyana in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh" is perhaps more a specialist's piece than other offerings in the volume. The two figures, about whom traditional accounts and historical sources differ, are associated in Bahá'u'lláh's Lawh-i-Hikmat (Tablet of Wisdom), in which Hermes is named as the "first person who devoted himself to philosophy...who...set forth in every branch of philosophy thorough and convincing statements" (quoted by Brown, p. 154). Of Apollonius of Tyana (Balinus), Bahá'u'lláh states, "Balinus derived his knowledge and sciences from the Hermetic Tablets and most of the philosophers who followed him made their philosophical and scientific discoveries from his words and statements" (154). Brown briefly dissects the various strands of legend and historical tradition surrounding the two figures, noting that Bahá'u'lláh's statements clearly follow Islamic sources concerning them. Brown is interested in two questions: "what relevance does the Hermetic legacy in Islam have to Bahá'í thought in general, and what attitude should Bahá'ís take toward these references in view of the declared infallibility of Bahá'í scripture?" (154). In answer to the first question, Brown discovers parallels between concepts and statements in Hermetic and Bahá'í literature regarding cosmological questions. There is also a close parallel between statements in one of Bahá'u'lláh's Tablets of the Elixir and the Emerald Tablet of Hermes as cited in an Arabic source. In both cases it seems to Brown that Bahá'u'lláh, at least in part, quoted or paraphrased the Hermetic source and implicitly, at least, confirmed it as authoritative. Brown suggests that the close parallels between Hermetic and Bahá'í texts in these and other areas will provide fruitful ground for future comparative studies. Brown goes further than this. The Hermetic writings refer to a "craft of nature", a "hidden craft" by which the "alchemical elixir" can be produced. "Bahá'u'lláh," states Brown, "believed in the truth of the hidden craft" (173). Brown suggests that Bahá'u'lláh chose to keep the reality of the "hidden craft" concealed from all but a few of his followers. Readers will be aware of tantalising references in Bahá'u'lláh's writings to the alchemical transmutation of substances, and of Bahá'u'lláh's metaphoric use of alchemical processes to describe spiritual transformation, but may be uncomfortable with the notion of occult elements in a religion supposed to be compatible with science and reason. The alchemical strand in Bahá'u'lláh's teachings deserves a more thorough discussion than Brown has provided here; I came away from the article somewhat unsure of the status and importance of the hidden craft in the general corpus of Bahá'í thought.

The discrepancy between the Hermetic tradition as reflected in the Islamic sources cited by Bahá'u'lláh, and the findings of modern scholarship relating to Hermes and Apollonius brings Brown's second question into focus. The issue is similar to that explored by Juan Cole some twenty years ago in his article "Problems of Chronology in Bahá'u'lláh's Tablet of Wisdom".[2] In light of the Bahá'í belief in the infallibility of Bahá'u'lláh's writings, Brown sees two alternatives for Bahá'ís: "the first," he suggests, "is to accept a non-metaphorical statement given in revelation as factually true, by virtue of the authority invested in the Manifestation of God, even though by the standard of current academic scholarship it is considered improbable" (176). Despite their being unverified, Brown sees no reason why Bahá'ís could not accept Bahá'u'lláh's historical statements in regard to Hermes and Balinus as factual. The second alternative is to see the statements more broadly and contextually – an instances of Bahá'u'lláh adopting a local tradition in order to make more important points. This remains an open issue for Bahá'í scholarship.

J. A. McLean's "The Possibilities of Existential Theism for Bahá'í Theology" assesses potential contributions of "believing" or theistic existentialism to Bahá'í theology. One significant contribution, for example, drawn from the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, is to restore an engagement between academic studies and the crucial issues of religion as experienced by the individual. "We may … well ask" writes McLean, "where [does] such a vital reality as divine love fit into the philosopher's schemes?" (190). McLean argues that the "annihilation of the religious subject in the objective question" is a concern pertinent to contemporary Bahá'í studies of religion (191), and that "Bahá'í theology should retain as one of its major tasks… the provision of meaning or insight into the 'real life' of the individual" (192). McLean discusses a number of "defining points" of existential theism from a Bahá'í perspective: the "engaged subject" in the "search for truth"; living-in-the-world; overcoming "alienation from God"; "the personal mode in divine subjectivity"; existential and "epiphanic" moments; and the "realism of confronting self" (194) and concludes his essay with a consideration of existential meanings in Bahá'í history and scripture. Summary of McLean's presentation of these various themes is beyond the scope of the present review but I confess to having found McLean's essay an accessible and persuasive example of the values of scholarship he advocates.

In summary, this volume is diverse and rich with ideas, and repays careful reading and reflection. Editor McLean, the authors, and Kalimat Press deserve thanks for producing an important contribution to contemporary Bahá'í scholarship.


End Notes
  1. This claim may not, strictly speaking, be accurate. Soundings: Essays in Bahá'í theology, a small, multi-authored collection of essays edited by Sen McGlinn, appeared in 1989 (Christchurch, NZ: Open Circle Publishing).
  2. World Order 13.3 (1979): 24-39.
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