What an amazing time we live in! What extraordinary discoveries are being made! Only at some time in the distant future will it be possible to fully estimate what a remarkable age we—the world citizens of the 21st century—are living in.
In contrast to our past, when we human beings were mostly concerned with our collective capacity at the level of our family, tribe or nation, in this present age we are able to consider ourselves as “international beings”—and thanks to advances in space travel, we are even on the way to becoming “universal beings.”
Advances in science and communications have resulted in exposure to new thoughts, ideas and values. However, as a result, we are seeing many clashes of religion, culture and customs, that are challenging many traditional and dearly held belief systems. Widespread material education has in many cases had the effect of discrediting past understandings of religion and instilling a view that science and religion are somehow incompatible. On this theme, the Universal House of Justice wrote:
It has become customary in the West to think of science and religion as occupying two distinct—and even opposed—areas of human thought and activity. This dichotomy can be characterized in the pairs of antitheses: faith and reason; value and fact. – Messages from the Universal House of Justice, 1963-1986, pp. 388-389.
These apparent dichotomies between faith and reason, and value and fact, were presumably not commonly experienced in our earlier period of tribal living, and the essential unity of these different values remains unchanged today among many indigenous people who have much to teach those of us who are not. Unfortunately, over time our growing material capacity, progress and accomplishments has led to a situation in which the view that life is primarily about material matters has overwhelmed our spiritual nature. To move into a better future, it is essential that we challenge that imbalance.
In the Western world today, religion is viewed by some as a hangover from humanity’s more primitive stage, a manmade idea that is now disproved by reason, or an unfashionable product of fallible humans striving after the truth, reflecting the limitations of human thought and social conditions.
The result of this view of religion is often, sadly, a total denial of the reality, or even the possibility, of the existence of a human channel capable of sharing God’s teachings with humanity. However, I believe that true religion is entirely compatible with, rather than in conflict with, scientific inquiry.
For me as a Baha’i, a deep understanding of Baha’u’llah’s writings and teachings requires that I “take the step of search in the path leading to the knowledge of the Ancient of Days [God].” – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 192. A few important principles of the Baha’i Faith are: that all children in the world should receive an education; that each person should independently investigate the truth for themselves, rather than blindly following what others say is true; and that science and religion are essentially in harmony with each other.
Many who have studied the teachings of Baha’u’llah have become convinced of the truth of his claim to be a messenger of God for this day and age, and have arrived at this conclusion through a rational thought process. For example, many have come to this conclusion because they’ve seen his teachings at work, the way they have brought about transformation in their own daily lives or in the lives of others. This transformation becomes part of the evidence used to rationally confirm the truth claims made by Baha’u’llah.
Thus, instead of viewing religion as the limited product of humans striving after truth, in this case we can see that the creative word of God—sacred scriptures containing spiritual guidance and teachings—is in fact something that transcends the human being and operates in consonance with divine power to transform human thought and action.
On this theme, the Universal House of Justice wrote:
The principle of the harmony of science and religion means not only that religious teachings should be studied with the light of reason and evidence as well as of faith and inspiration, but also that everything in this creation, all aspects of human life and knowledge, should be studied in the light of revelation as well as in that of purely rational investigation. – Messages from the Universal House of Justice, 1963-1986, pp. 388-389.
For example, I believe it is important to distinguish between Christianity—the divinely revealed message given by Jesus—and the subsequent development of Christendom—the history of what men have done with that message in the following centuries. This distinction often became obscured in the resulting Christian theology.
Impartial investigation requires that, in searching after the facts of any matter, the seeker of truth must maintain a balance of being entirely open-minded and considerate of the scientific facts, while also interpreting those in the light of the spiritual teachings given to us in the divinely revealed scriptures—which for me means the sacred writings of the Baha’i Faith. This concept of openly investigating the truth with an unbiased mind, was addressed by Baha’u’llah in these words:
A true seeker… must, before all else, cleanse and purify his heart… from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. – The Book of Certitude, p. 192.
Later on, in the same passage, Baha’u’llah wrote:
Our purpose in revealing these convincing and weighty utterances is to impress upon the seeker that he should regard all else beside God as transient, and count all things save Him, Who is the Object of all adoration, as utter nothingness. – Ibid., p. 195.
One insight I derive from these passages is that the teachings of God themselves also become a standard by which we measure truth, a metric with which to assess claims made. When searching after the facts of any matter we must, of course, be entirely open-minded, and approach it scientifically, and yet, in our interpretation of the facts and our evaluation of evidence, we should also weigh different spiritual principles and divine teachings as part of our reasoning process:
The sundering of science and religion is but one example of the tendency of the human mind (which is necessarily limited in its capacity) to concentrate on one virtue, one aspect of truth, one goal, to the exclusion of others. This leads, in extreme cases, to fanaticism and the utter distortion of truth, and in all cases to some degree of imbalance and inaccuracy. A scholar who is imbued with an understanding of the broad teachings of the Faith will always remember that being a scholar does not exempt him from the primal duties and purposes for which all human beings are created. All men, not scholars alone, are exhorted to seek out and uphold the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. – Compilation on Baha’i Scholarship: Statements from the Baha’i World Center, published in Baha’i Studies Review, 3:2, London, 1993.
As we understand more about the complementary nature of science and religion, new modes of human existence will be created. The unimaginable resources that exist within our great human family will become progressively realized, and the way forward will be clarified. Then, when the harmony of science and religion is acknowledged and established, humanity will look to the future with increasing optimism.