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The Baha’i teachings offer a completely new way of understanding religion: progressive revelation.
The Baha’i writings identify two purposes for religion: building a perpetual spiritual relationship between God and humanity; and adapting to the exigencies of each era in human history.
The first purpose—the perpetual relationship between God and humanity—impels the spiritual growth process in which humankind, by the recognition of him who is the object of all knowledge, learns to actualize its inner potentialities. This first purpose of religion is universal and eternal in its direction and cumulative in its content.
The second purpose of religion causes change and renews social conditions within the context of a given culture and within the scope of human knowledge. The second purpose of religion is relative, temporary, and subject to change according to the exigencies of time and place. The Baha’i writings explain both purposes in these short summary passages:
The divine religions embody two kinds of ordinances. First, there are those which constitute essential or spiritual. These are faith in God, the acquirement of the virtues… This is the fundamental aspect of the religion of God… This is the essential foundation of all the divine religions, the reality itself, common to all… Second, there are laws and ordinances which are temporary and non-essential. These concern human transactions and relations. They are accidental and subject to change according to the exigencies of time and place. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 403.
God’s purpose in sending His Prophets unto men is twofold. The first is to liberate the children of men from the darkness of ignorance and guide them to the light of true understanding. The second is to ensure the peace and tranquility of mankind, and provide all the means by which they can be established. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 79-80.
The two purposes of religion are interrelated and interconnected. Each new revelation adds more knowledge to the overall spiritual growth process of humanity, which in turn creates a new framework for the organization of human society. For example, Baha’u’llah proclaims that in this day the spiritual principle of love has found a universal meaning and wider scope. At one time the love of one’s country was an element of spirituality, but now the love of humanity constitutes the highest spiritual aspiration:
…it is not his to boast who loveth his country, but it is his who loveth the world. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 95.
Consequently, as the meaning of love comprises broader constituencies, its corresponding social expression also needs a universal framework. In that sense, if the love of country required the social framework of sovereign states and nation-building, by the same token, the love of the world requires world unity and the establishment of a global order.
Baha’u’llah taught that the great world religions, as the revelations of God’s purpose for the spiritual development and social progress of humanity, have a common thread underlying their basic nature, values, and purpose; they are all divine in origin and together constitute one perennial religion. The successive revelations represent a progressive process similar to sequential steps of learning. In fact, the Baha’i writings use the terminologies of “teacher” and “educator” in referencing the prophets and manifestations of God, and emphasize that there are no differences in stature between the manifestations of God. Differences in the claims of the various messengers reflect only various levels of the spiritual maturity of the people of that era, and different requirements of the age in which the revelation occurred:
We have… assigned two stations unto each of the Luminaries arising from the Daysprings of eternal holiness. One of these stations, the station of essential unity, We have already explained. ‘No distinction do We make between any of them.’ The other is the station of distinction, and pertaineth to the world of creation and to the limitations thereof. In this respect, each Manifestation of God hath a distinct individuality, a definitely prescribed mission, a predestined Revelation, and specially designated limitations. Each one of them is known by a different name, is characterized by a special attribute, fulfils a definite Mission, and is entrusted with a particular Revelation. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 176.
It is clear and evident to thee that all the Prophets are the Temples of the Cause of God, Who have appeared clothed in divers’ attire. If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith. Such is the unity of those Essences of being, those Luminaries of infinite and immeasurable splendour. Wherefore, should one of these Manifestations of Holiness proclaim saying: “I am the return of all the Prophets,” He verily speaketh the truth. – Ibid., pp. 153-154.