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Christ and Baha'u'llah

by George Townshend

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Chapter 9

THE RISE OF MODERN EUROPE

      IT is customary to call the civilization of modern Europe par excellence Christian and to think of it as the special trustee of Christian truth among the less enlightened peoples of the East. Yet in the twentieth century when the time of spiritual harvesting had come we find 'Abdu'l-Bahá saying that the West as well as the East had "imagined themselves as having attained a glorious pinnacle of achievement and prosperity, when in reality they have touched the innermost depths of heedlessness and deprived themselves wholly of God's bounteous gifts." Nor can they have imagined the awfulness of the crisis which western civilization would be called upon to face, nor the challenge and the strain to which it would be subjected.

      The true Christian civilization is in fact not that of modern Europe but that of the age of Constantine, which far more perfectly mirrored the teachings of Christ and was inspired by the religious spirit of the early Church. Brief as that civilization was it is described by 'Abdu'l-Bahá as having been the best and most enlightened in the world at that time. Among its good deeds and pious acts it established infirmaries, hospitals and charitable institutions. Most of the believers reached a degree of moral perfection, had no fear of death, longed for wisdom and justice; were ready to forsake their personal profit, seeking instead to please God and spending their lives in


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educating and instructing the people. The Emperor Constantine himself was the first in the Roman Empire to found a public hospital for the treatment of poor people who had no one to care for them. He was the first Roman Emperor to throw himself heart and soul into the Cause of Christ. He resolutely promulgated the principles of the Gospel and brought justice and moderation into the methods of the Roman government which previously had been noted for injustice and oppression.

      But in, and after, the Dark Ages, Christianity showed more interest in rites and doctrines than in moral conduct. Indeed it is said that since the time of St. Francis of Assisi no Christian reform movement has been concerned with reform of Christian conduct but rather with doctrines and rites. Even the Reformation itself, great, deep and enduing as its effects have been, was less concerned with the correction of morals than with the remedying of ritual abuses.

      The whole process of building a new civilization in the West, found itself vigorously opposed by the Christian Church, which for centuries past had adopted a policy of immobility and objected to both the idea and practice of progress. As European culture advanced continuously this stagnant immobility became definite reaction and the whole spirit of the Church became hostile to all forward movement. Before the time of Muḥammad the Church had objected to the scientific spirit as well as to investigation and logic. Muḥammad had taught and encouraged science, learning and reason, and as the Church would not weaken its opposition it found itself more and more estranged from human progress.

      The civilization of the West, resulting from the impact of Islám on Christendom proved to be one of enormous


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and ever-extending material power. Its dominion spread to an unexampled degree over the rest of the world in economic, political and military matters. But it proved quite unequal to spreading its spiritual influence. Even when, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it spent large sums of money and sent out hundreds and even thousands of missionaries, its failure to Christianize the world was as conspicuous as its success in establishing its economic suzerainty. Viewing the whole period from the twelfth to the twentieth century one sees the reason for this contrast. The initiative in producing this wonderful culture was not taken by the Church nor by religious enthusiasm as in the case of the first and real Christian civilization in the time of Constantine. It was a secular movement sprinting from the sudden and thorough emancipation of the human spirit, and originated with the laity. The Church at the beginning of this period was still the Church of the Dark Ages. Worldly-xcminded men had got control of it and were determined to hold that control. Uninfluenced by the changing spirit of the age they found themselves in opposition to the whole progressive movement that was forging a new, eager, active Europe. They would not tolerate the spirit of enquiry or the free use of reason. These they represented as being definitely heretical. Though Peter wrote (I Peter) . . . "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you . . . ;" though Paul likewise wrote "Prove all things: hold fast that which is good" (I Thessalonians v 2I) and acted accordingly himself when "he reasoned in the synagogue every sabbath, and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks" (Acts xviii 4) and again when he "three sabbath days


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reasoned with them out of the scriptures" (Acts xvii 2); and though Jesus Christ Himself definitely taught men to use their reason to support their faith saying “Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith ?" (Matt. vi 30) yet the religious authorities of those days (and many too of these days) regarded logic and investigation as wrong. They laid it down that the deposit of faith was static. It was once and for all delivered to the saints, and was not to be changed or challenged.

      Under the reign of such views no Divine science, which might have balanced physical science and been to it a counterpart and equipoise, was ever able to arise. Verbalisms, sterile dogmas, riddles that might evoke controversy but could not illuminate the mind, took the place of a real search for spiritual truth, a real scrutiny of the deep mysteries of human and Divine nature. So inveterate was the hostility of the religious authorities of Christendom to the spirit of Truth and to the pursuit of knowledge that a careful historian wrote of it:

      "Until the seventeenth century, every mental disposition which philosophy pronounces to be essential to a legitimate research was almost uniformly branded as a sin, and a large proportion of the most deadly intellectual vices were deliberately inculcated as virtues. . . . In a word, there is  . . . . scarcely a rule which reason teaches as essential for its attainment, that theologians did not for centuries stigmatize as offensive to the Almighty."[1]

1. Lecky, History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe, chap. 4, part ii, pp. 87, 88. Longmans, London 1872.


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      The authorities supported their views by the use of persecution, the justification for which was based on the theory of the moral guilt of error.

      'Abdu'l-Bahá once said that Reason was the throne of faith; in another place he likened Reason to a great mirror looking into the heavens but reflecting no image because it was in darkness. Faith, he said, was like sunlight which enabled the mirror to see and to reflect all the heavenly truths that lie before it. These symbols express exactly the Christian and the Bahá'í view of Reason and Faith, but not the view of traditional orthodoxy which is a purely human concept.

      The whole position as regards heresy, dogma, enquiry, reason and the like was supported by the authority of a great institution, but Jesus had revealed no specific institution and all institutions, great and small, old or new, have been deduced by men's reason from this or that phrase or text of Gospel. No church to-day, or in any other day, can point to any statement in the Gospel which indicates its pattern, its rule of succession by which it can silence its critics. The whole system rests on sheer speculation. Not one of the institutions of Christendom can say it is designed and built in direct conformity with an express command of Christ in the Gospel. All are man-made.

      Orthodoxy rather than detachment or moral righteousness has been the shibboleth of religious authorities. Their enthusiasm has been confined largely to insistence on teachings, doctrines, speculations which, like their  own structure were devised by themselves, and around which controversies were raised which none could finally settle. About the main ethical injunctions of Christ and actual obedience to them there was no such insistence.


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No church, for example, has ever adopted the challenging test for membership used by Jesus Himself for His disciples: "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love for one to another." (John xiii 35).

      Europe in consequence has never been tranquil, full of good will, united, but rather full of oppression, misery, strife and turbulence. The cause of Religion has been supported by the most flagrant breaches of Gospel ethics.

      So far did the traditional religion of Europe, in its character and effects, differ from that of the Gospel, that it became the chief cause of unchristian feeling and behavior. It promoted hatred and schism, discontent, strife, cruelty and injustice, suppression of truth and reason. It has conducted persecutions, burnings at the stake, extermination of heretics, suppression of truth by force. 'Abdu'l-Bahá comments on this subject in a talk given at Green Acre, Maine on August 17th, 1912: “Nine hundred thousand martyrs to the protestant cause was the record of conflict and difference between that sect of Christians and the catholics. Consult history and confirm this."[1]

      But now another divergence between the attitude of the Church and that of all progressives took shape and grew steadily more wide. The Church objected to that nation-building which had been the main contribution of Muḥammad to human history and which was to be as important to the building of Western civilization as it had been to Islám.

      The interests of Church and State never were harmoniously combined in Christian history as they had been by Muḥammad. Four types of relationship have been essayed. First, that of Rome in which the Church

1. Promulgation of Universal Peace, Bahá'í Temple Unity, Chicago, 1922 (p. 259).


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is above the State; second, that of Prussia in which the State is above the Church; third, that of England in which Church and State exist side by side as different aspects of one community; and lastly, that adopted in the United States of America where Church is regarded simply as a voluntary association of individuals and has no official relation to the nation at all.

      Not one of these has been satisfactory. It has remained for the Bahá'í Faith alone to develop a structure of national life in which the two can be perfectly united and harmonized.

      The development of the nation state has been in Europe a great modern feat, and its achievement has brought immense advantages to the advancement of science, the promotion of industry, the outlook of the ordinary man, and has given to the national life a freedom and a power not equalled  by any earlier form of social structure. But these advantages have been won in spite of the Church and in our time the final result of the struggle is the humiliation of the Church and very often the secularization of the national life.

      Not only has the prestige and influence of the Church been thus abased but the prestige and influence of religion with it; and at the same time materialism has been strengthened and exalted. The whole progress of our Western civilization has been, therefore, not the intensifying of Christianity but the opposite.


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