If the founders and prophets of the world’s great Faiths are the first teachers of the human race, how do we reconcile their seemingly divergent teachings?
Thinkers, philosophers, theologians, ethicists and billions of spiritual seekers have wrestled with this massive question since human history began. Did God send us, they ask, a whole bunch of conflicting messages, only to let them battle it out here on Earth? Or does a common thread run through all of the great Faiths?
Most contemporary philosophers and theologians see the subject of faith as having two opposite poles—syncretism or fundamentalism. Syncretism means the artificial combining of different religions; while fundamentalism refers to the idea that only one religion has any validity. From a modern, syncretistic point of view, many faiths have similar teachings, so to many people it makes sense to blend, merge or assimilate their practices and beliefs. From a traditional, fundamentalist point of view, though, no faith has any truth at all—except the fundamentalist’s particular religion or sect, which has an exclusive claim to all truth, allowing only one literal way to read and interpret scripture.
The Baha’i teachings reject both of those approaches, especially the dogma and bigotry associated with fundamentalism:
This is the cycle of maturity and reformation in religion as well. Dogmatic imitations of ancestral beliefs are passing. They have been the axis around which religion revolved but now are no longer fruitful; on the contrary, in this day they have become the cause of human degradation and hindrance. Bigotry and dogmatic adherence to ancient beliefs have become the central and fundamental source of animosity among men, the obstacle to human progress, the cause of warfare and strife, the destroyer of peace, composure and welfare in the world. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 439.
An artificial, externally-imposed sense of syncretism, the Baha’i teachings say, must ultimately give way to a consciousness of the real underlying unity and oneness of all true religion:
… Baha’is see in the struggle of diverse religions to draw closer together a response to the Divine Will for a human race that is entering on its collective maturity. … interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one. – The Universal House of Justice, April 2002, To the World’s Religious Leaders, p. 6.
So Baha’is believe that the prophets and founders of the world’s Faiths all brought the same essential message:
Know thou assuredly that the essence of all the Prophets of God is one and the same. Their unity is absolute. God, the Creator, saith: There is no distinction whatsoever among the Bearers of My Message. They all have but one purpose; their secret is the same secret. To prefer one in honor to another, to exalt certain ones above the rest, is in no wise to be permitted. Every true Prophet hath regarded His Message as fundamentally the same as the Revelation of every other Prophet gone before Him. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 78-79.
If we look beyond the “cultural expression and human interpretation” of religion, as the Universal House of Justice urges everyone to do, we can start to see the deeper and more central truth of Faith:
Truth is one in all religions, and by means of it the unity of the world can be realized.
All the peoples have a fundamental belief in common. Being one, truth cannot be divided, and the differences that appear to exist among the nations only result from their attachment to prejudice. If only men would search out truth, they would find themselves united. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 129.
Baha’is believe the divergent ideas and practices we perceive in different religions stem from human interpretation, gradually added to the original teachings of God’s messengers over time. Initially pure and clear, those messages—love for others, kindness, compassion, humility and a deep recognition of the divine—flow through every legitimate belief system. But as time passes and human interpretation takes over, the Baha’i teachings say, religion tends to decay and decline:
Alas that humanity is completely submerged in imitations and unrealities, notwithstanding that the truth of divine religion has ever remained the same. Superstitions have obscured the fundamental reality, the world is darkened, and the light of religion is not apparent. This darkness is conducive to differences and dissensions; rites and dogmas are many and various; therefore, discord has arisen among the religious systems, whereas religion is for the unification of mankind. True religion is the source of love and agreement amongst men, the cause of the development of praiseworthy qualities, but the people are holding to the counterfeit and imitation, negligent of the reality which unifies, so they are bereft and deprived of the radiance of religion. They follow superstitions inherited from their fathers and ancestors. To such an extent has this prevailed that they have taken away the heavenly light of divine truth and sit in the darkness of imitations and imaginations. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 179.
The only remedy for such a decline—the renewal of religion—occurs when a new messenger appears and teaches a new Faith.