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[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of a six-part essay. Click here to read from the beginning.]
If you agree God exists and that God is “personal,” then it is a relatively short step to believe that God would desire, and therefore create, a means to that end — a way to establish a “personal” relationship with humanity. But the nature of God appears to be such that no direct contact between Creator and creation can occur. Perhaps the sun and the earth make a good example. The sun is too powerful to directly contact the earth without destroying or subsuming it. For creation to exist, it seems to require a remove, a distance, or in Baha’i parlance, a “tree beyond which there is no passing.”
It seems many things — perhaps even most things — exist in the universe simply because it is impossible for them to be otherwise. This inability to scientifically prove God’s existence to humanity appears to fall into that category. More importantly, proof would obviate the need for faith and free will — both critical in our development. Often a parent must simply ask a child for trust and faith and also, for his own good, demand his obedience.
But if humans are as children to this spiritual parent, then the parent naturally wants to provide for a teacher to help them advance. We see education as a fundamental and universal human right in the material world. And it stands to reason that if a personal God exists, then, motivated by love, He would desire our growth — and therefore need to create a process to foster that growth.
And when we study the sweep of civilization we see just such a process has played out. The rise of humanity has not been a smooth, ascending line. Indeed, when you really put civilizations under a microscope, you see a remarkable thing: that the greatest ones sprang into being as the result of a single person.
Hebrew civilization traces itself to Abraham, and, as a second, solidifying force, to Moses. Christendom traces itself to the appearance of Jesus Christ. Islamic civilization, which most scholars agree ushered Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance and in turn the Enlightenment, traces back to the Prophet Muhammad. The vast and predominately peaceful and compassionate Buddhist civilization sprang into being because of a single person. And so it goes. Is this merely coincidence, or is something more profound at work here?
Baha’is believe this highly significant pattern comes from God. We call each of the Founders of those world faiths Manifestations of God. If we’re trying to discover the way in which God tries to reach humanity, we don’t have to look farther. Humans need teachers they can understand, who speak their language and live among them. These teachers need to share enough of the people’s culture so that they can find an audience — use the common vocabulary, wear the clothing, tell the stories and reference the texts — but also challenge those cultures.
Indeed, these Manifestations usually challenge people’s existing beliefs in ways that land them in jail or get them executed. Indeed, these few messengers across the ages constitute a special class of souls, and in their own individualized ways, they are each perfect reflections of God’s attributes. They are not God, and are not gods, but rather humans employed by God as His educators, to teach His children. Each time one of these Manifestations appears, He renews civilization. Through them, God “dispenses” His next round of lessons for humanity. God appears to send them strategically to certain places at certain times to have the greatest impact and to teach human populations in an age-appropriate way.
So have we learned everything? If you believe the prophet or founder of your religion is the last that will ever appear to humanity, then you must also believe that we have done all the learning we can, that humanity is as advanced as it will ever be, and that civilization is in its final form. All I can say when I look around is — I certainly hope not!
Baha’is believe that God has led humans to increasingly advanced stages of civilization over the years through the appearance of these great teachers, an idea known as “progressive revelation.” Many religions have an implicit belief in progressive revelation. For example, in Judaism, believers hold Abraham as the patriarch of the Jewish people, but later, revere Moses as the founder of the religion itself. And after Moses, a whole series of prophets who they believe brought the Word of God to the Israelites through different eras. Christians believe in the divine authority of all of those prophets, but then of course add John the Baptist and, in a class of His own, Jesus Christ. Muslims hold all of those figures in reverence and add Muhammad.
What all of these world religions have in common, though, is that they believe their prophet or prophets were the last — despite another shared tradition of another messenger in the future, who will unite humanity in a golden age or kingdom of heaven on earth.
To me, it just seems unlikely on its face that a loving God would tell us, “Okay, that’s it! That’s all I’m saying! You people can figure out the rest on your own!”
And even if you hold that illogical position, it seems painfully obvious just by looking around that we haven’t figured it out on our own. To the contrary, it appears it’s high time God sent someone to give us the keys to success in this strange and new world we call the modern age.
Read the next article in the series: Who is The Teacher for Today?
Read the previous article in the series: Why Baha’i? Question #2: Is God “personal”?