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From the days of Adam until today, the religions of God have been made manifest, one following the other, and each one of them fulfilled its due function, revived mankind, and provided education and enlightenment. They freed the people from the darkness of the world of nature and ushered them into the brightness of the Kingdom. As each succeeding Faith and Law became revealed it remained for some centuries a richly fruitful tree and to it was committed the happiness of humankind. However, as the centuries rolled by, it aged, it flourished no more and put forth no fruit, wherefore was it then made young again.
The religion of God is one religion, but it must ever be renewed.
When it happens, Abdu’l-Baha said in Some Answered Questions, this renewal not only introduces a new messenger of God to humanity—it also abrogates, replaces, alters, and updates the religious and civil laws of previous ages:
… the change and transformation in the conditions and exigencies of the times is the cause of the abrogation of religious laws, for the time comes when those earlier commandments no longer suit the prevailing conditions. Consider how greatly the exigencies of the modern age differ from those of medieval times! Is it possible that the commandments of former centuries could be enforced in these latter times? It is clear and evident that this would be entirely impossible. Likewise, after the lapse of many centuries, that which is called for at the present time will no longer be suited to the needs of that future age, and change and transformation will be inevitable.
In Europe the laws are continually being changed and modified. How numerous the laws that once existed in European systems and canons and that have since been annulled! These changes are due to the transformation of thoughts, customs, and conditions, and without them the well-being of the human world would be disrupted.
For example, the Torah prescribes the sentence of death for whoever breaks the Sabbath. There are indeed ten such death sentences in the Torah. Could these commandments be carried out in our time? It is evident that it would be utterly impossible. Thus they have been changed and transformed, and this change and transformation in the laws constitutes in itself a sufficient proof of the consummate wisdom of God.
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 …
This dynamic and evolutionary way of looking at religion and its principles does two very important things: it avoids fanaticism and fundamentalism, and it creates enough room for meaningful change.
Fundamentalism, as the dictionary defines it, describes a rigid doctrine that relies on a strict, literal interpretation of religion and its scriptures and laws. A person can only be a fundamentalist if they believe that their own religion is the sole legitimate one—the single, permanent, everlasting truth.
The Baha’i concept of religious truth, seeing it as not absolute but relative, rules out fundamentalism and fanaticism, because it allows for progressive changes in religion and its laws as the needs of society itself change over time.
For example: Christ’s teachings on marriage reversed the previous Jewish law, which allowed any man to divorce his wife for any reason. Under Jewish law at the time, wives did not have the same option, because they were considered a man’s property. But Christ abrogated that law when, in Mathew 10:9, he said: “Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The early Christian church, based on that teaching, made divorce illegal. In fact, Christ’s first act in his revelation—blessing the wedding feast at Cana by turning water into wine—sanctified all Christian marriages and made them permanent, according to the Biblical account and early church history.
Would this law be practical or even enforceable today?
In most contemporary societies, definitely not. Divorce has become commonplace, and although the collapse of a previously loving and committed marital relationship is regrettable, any law prohibiting all divorces in contemporary society would be widely ignored and disobeyed.
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From a Baha’i point of view, that’s one of the reasons why the Baha’i laws discourage divorce—but permit it when it becomes necessary, recognizing the fact that no married person should be forced to stay in an estranged, abusive, or loveless relationship. In this passage from Baha’u’llah’s Most Holy Book, the conditions for divorce specify a year of waiting, but then ultimately allow couples to divorce if need be:
Should resentment or antipathy arise between husband and wife, he is not to divorce her but to bide in patience throughout the course of one whole year, that perchance the fragrance of affection may be renewed between them. If, upon the completion of this period, their love hath not returned, it is permissible for divorce to take place. God’s wisdom, verily, hath encompassed all things.
That’s just one of the many, many examples of the evolution of religious law over time. The Baha’i teachings contain ample illustrations of this principle of progressive revelation, which recognizes the legitimacy of the founders and prophets of past religions and reveres their revelations, but also builds in a way for those teachings and laws to change as societal conditions change and old laws become obsolete.
The Baha’i teachings say that the essential, bedrock principles of religion never alter—that every prophet and messenger of God appears to bring love and harmony to humanity. However, while love, compassion, and kindness will always form the foundational basis of faith, Baha’is understand that the secondary laws of religion do change from one dispensation to the next, in order to adjust for the advances in human society and progress according to our degree of collective maturity. Abdu’l-Baha, in a talk he gave in Pennsylvania in 1912, explained it this way:
Each of the divine religions embodies two kinds of ordinances. The first is those which concern spiritual susceptibilities, the development of moral principles and the quickening of the conscience of man. These are essential or fundamental, one and the same in all religions, changeless and eternal – reality not subject to transformation. Abraham heralded this reality, Moses promulgated it, and Jesus Christ established it in the world of mankind. All the divine Prophets and Messengers were the instruments and channels of this same eternal, essential truth.
The second kind of ordinances in the divine religions is those which relate to the material affairs of humankind. These are the material or accidental laws which are subject to change in each day of manifestation, according to exigencies of the time, conditions and differing capacities of humanity.
So rather than adhering to the legal codes of past religions, the Baha’i Faith offers a new set of moral and spiritual ordinances intended for a modern, unified, peaceful world.