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In a 1947 statement to the United Nations, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith summarized its basic principle—the essential oneness of all religion—in one sentence.
The sentence goes like this:
The fundamental principle enunciated by Baha’u’llah, the followers of His Faith firmly believe, is that Religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the non-essential aspects of their doctrines and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society. – Shoghi Effendi, Summary Statement – 1947, Special UN Committee on Palestine.
In the previous essay, we examined the first elements in this deeply meaningful quotation. Let’s continue with this phrase: “… that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines …”
One religion eats meat; another doesn’t. One practices abstinence from food and drinks on certain days; another doesn’t. One observes the sabbath on Sunday, another on Friday, another on Saturday. One allows alcoholic consumption; another doesn’t.
These are physical, not spiritual rules and dictums. Most are interpretations of scripture made by leaders and clergy well after the original prophet’s demise. Can it be found in the Gospels that Christ outlawed eating meat or only eating fish on certain days? Heavens no! Such examples exist in all faiths and compose an endless, empty list. For these rules and laws are empty if they do not draw the believer closer to the knowledge of God. The knowledge of God doesn’t come just from obeying physical laws, but from understanding and learning the spiritual truths behind them, letting those spiritual truths penetrate the heart and soul, and then acting on them in love and kindness toward others.
In each age the laws of the prophet for that era were appropriate for the peoples and conditions of that age. But the temporal laws of the prophets have always been changed by future prophets. That’s why Christ said:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. – Mathew 5:17.
The New Living Translation of the Bible puts that same verse this way:
Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. – Mathew 5:17.
In “accomplishing their purpose,” we can understand that laws necessarily changed in religion, just as civil laws must change with the times.
But the laws of the spirit, mankind’s spiritual life, have not changed with the Baha’i revelation—they have only been expanded. The laws of attraction and love, unity and fairness, honesty and uprightness, have been renewed and updated each time a new prophet of God appeared in the world. Each time a new prophet of God appeared, it was to a new race of humans, with a greater capacity to understand God and His purpose, to implement His plans for humankind.
Finally we come to the end of Shoghi Effendi’s passage: “that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society.”
Baha’is believe that the missions of every great Faith were all prescribed and charted by God. The amount of knowledge they were to impart to humankind was just enough for those in that earlier age to understand and comprehend. All faiths were universal, and their messages meant for all humanity, but time and distance did not allow them to become known by everyone, nor did the efforts of their followers lead to their universal absorption and application.
If you think of the great Faiths as “successive stages” in one common Faith, you’ll begin to recognize that each major religion appeared roughly 1,000 years after the last. You’ll recognize, too, that each prophet praised and highly honored the previous ones. None condemned a prophet or messenger of the past. Although appearing at different times and in different areas of the world, the spiritual teachings of God’s great messengers left out no one, not one soul on Earth. Originally, they welcomed everyone into their folds.
The final words of Shoghi Effendi’s sentence point out “… the spiritual evolution of human society.”
If you believe in evolution, you already know that humanity, and society, have and will continue to evolve. Whether you believe we evolved from the apes or not, everyone realizes men and women have evolved intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. The specious and fallacious thinking of intelligent design has been proven false in myriad ways. So if we evolve physically and mentally , why not spiritually? Is this an extremely hard concept to understand, that we as humans evolve in all ways, not just one or two or a few? We shout with glee when Olympic records are broken with physical prowess. Is it so difficult to believe we can break spiritual records of new understandings and philosophies with the proper education and training?
Baha’is believe the prophets of God are the very best trainers, their teachings all humankind requires to learn how to live in peace and fellowship, harmony and justice, love and unity.