This series of articles examines a single seminal question: what makes the Baha’i Faith new? We’ll look at Abdu’l-Baha’s important answer by exploring a speech he gave on the subject in Paris, France a little more than a hundred years ago.
Abdu’l-Baha’s definitive talk in Paris begins when he recounts an introduction he received from an American minister:
One clergyman said before a large congregation, “Baha’u’llah revises the old beliefs but he has brought us nothing new. These truths are already found in the sacred books.”
Then I arose and said, “I am going to quote you some of Baha’u’llah’s instructions for this day and you will show me in which sacred book they are to be found.”
Baha’u’llah exhorts men to free their minds from the superstitions of the past and to seek independently for truth putting aside all dogmas. Religions are one. Let us banish creeds that the reality may become unveiled. In which sacred book do you find this? – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 82-83.
The Baha’i view of religion does something that no other Faith has ever attempted—it balances the idea of the progressive revelation of all religions with the idea that religion is eternal in the past and eternal in the future.
This new teaching means that for Baha’is, religion is more than just a set of dogmatic beliefs, or a single-minded devotion to only one of the messengers of God.
Instead, the Baha’i teachings say that all religion comes from one Creator, and comprises a single system of revelation from different messengers over time. Abdu’l-Baha asks that we “banish creeds” in order to unveil reality. Because God is one, Baha’is believe that religion is one:
The foundation underlying all the divine precepts is one reality… and reality is one. Therefore the foundation of the divine religions is one. But we can see that certain forms and ceremonies have crept in. They are heretical, they are accidental, because they differ, hence they cause differences among religions. If we set aside all superstitions and see the reality of the foundation we shall all agree, because religion is one and not multiple. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 25.
This important realization of the progressive nature of faith, the Baha’i teachings say, has to come to each human being as a result of their own intelligent search for truth:
Discover for yourselves the reality of things, and strive to assimilate the methods by which noble-mindedness and glory are attained among the nations and people of the world.
No man should follow blindly his ancestors and forefathers. Nay, each must see with his own eyes, hear with his own ears and investigate independently in order that he may find the truth. The religion of forefathers and ancestors is based upon blind imitation. Man should investigate reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 24.
This new religious principle, which challenges each of us to seek the truth independently, also does away with any clergy in the Baha’i Faith. Baha’is believe that we no longer have any need for a clerical class—that each human being, in this enlightened and educated age, can discern the truth him or herself. Also, because past history shows us that the clergy has often urged their congregations to interpret religious truth literally rather than symbolically, Abdu’l-Baha taught that literal interpretation has stifled humanity’s spiritual development:
The obstacle which prevents the so-called religious man from accepting the teachings of God is literal interpretation. Moses announced the coming of Christ. The Israelites were awaiting him with the greatest impatience and anxiety, but when he came they called him Beelzebub. “The conditions laid down in the Bible for the coming of the expected one were not fulfilled,” they said. They did not understand that the conditions were symbolical. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 33.
This revolutionary religious call from Baha’u’llah, which unifies all of the great Faiths and abolishes dogma and superstition in favor of an independent investigation of the truth, has never been taught by any religion of the past.