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Religion and Exclusivism, a Bahá’í Perspective

Religion and Exclusivism, a Bahá’í Perspective

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Published by: BVILLAR on Jun 02, 2010
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Religion and Exclusivism: a Bahá’íPerspective
Julio Savi
The term ‘exclusivism’ has been adopted in interfaith dialogue todenote the attitude of those who maintain that only their religion istrue and that the others are false. In the past almost all organizedreligions were mostly exclusivist, and even today several peoplemaintain that exclusivism is an intrinsic feature of religion.However, a number of factors have created serious doubts about therational and moral legitimacy of exclusivism. In a Bahá’í perspective,exclusivist ideas “today raise walls of separation and conflict in anage when the earth has literally become one homeland and humanbeings must learn to see themselves as its citizens.”
(OCF 29)
Weoffer a preliminary examination of the Bahá’í teachings bearing onexclusivism, according to our understanding of the open letteraddressed by the Universal House of Justice “To the World’sReligious Leaders,” and of the commentary of this lettercommissioned by the Universal House of Justice itself published as abooklet entitled
One Common Faith
Oneness of religion: a pivot of the Bahá’í Faith
Despite those who maintain that exclusivism is an intrinsic featureof religion, Bahá’í Scriptures convey the opposite. Shoghi Effendisummarizes the Bahá’í attitude towards other religions as follows:. . . religious truth is not absolute but relative . . . DivineRevelation is a continuous and progressive process . . . all thegreat religions of the world are divine in origin . . . their basicprinciples are in complete harmony . . . their aims andpurposes are one and the same . . . their teachings are butfacets of one truth . . . their functions are complementary . . .they differ only in the non-essential aspects of theirdoctrines and . . . their missions represent successive stages inthe spiritual evolution of human society. (
OCF 6)
 This statement recapitulates the basic components of the Bahá’íconception of the oneness of religions. Before examining each ofthem we will suggest a provisional definition of religion in the lightof the Bahá’í teachings. Religion is the body of “
the teachings of the Lord God 
(SWAB 52)
revealed to humankind through a “PerfectMan,” whom Bahá’í Scriptures call a Manifestation of God, becauseas a “
clear and polished mirror 
” he manifests the “
Essence of Divinity 
(SAQ 114)
. Those teachings, mainly expounded in a body
222 Religion and Exclusivism
of Scripture, are both old and new. They are old because they areconnected with other messages previously sent by God. They arenew, because they signalize the beginning of a new age in the DivineRevelation. On the one hand, they describe “
the essential connectionwhich proceeds from the realities of things
(SAQ 158)
and thereforethey are “
the essence and the fundamentals of philosophy 
(TB 145)
 and “
in conformity with science and reason
(SAQ 299)
. On theother, they are “
a reflection of . . . [God’s] Will 
(GWB 338)
, whose
fundamental basis is love
, and therefore they are
the channel of love unto all peoples
(SWAB 36)
. At the personallevel, those teachings have the power to guide whoever puts inpractice them to the acquisition and praxis of the divine virtues,especially that of love with its consequences of unity, fellowship andpeace among human beings. Therefore they lead any sincere believerto the highest possible level of spirituality
in that period of humancollective development. At the collective level, they are “
the causeof oneness among men, and the means of unity and love
(SWAB 28)
.Therefore they also are “
the chief instrument for the establishmentof order in the world and of tranquility amongst its peoples
(TB 63-4)
One Common Faith
synthetically states that religion is “
the principal force impelling the development of consciousness
discerns and articulates the values unfolding progressively through Divine revelation . . . [and] defines goals that serve theevolutionary process
(OCF 33)
.This definition underlines three basic elements of religion: a foun-dational Figure, characterized by a special relation with the Divine;his teachings, which creatively generate spirituality in human beings,with its consequences of unity and peace among human beings; andScripture, that is, one or more Books containing those teachings. Itis offered only as a possible description, in the light of the Bahá’íteachings, of “all the great religions of the world”
(OCF 6)
, giving tothe word “great” not certainly worldly connotations of numericalstrength, geographical diffusion or earthly power, but a connotationof spiritual greatness worthy of a teaching capable of leading humanbeings to spirituality. According to the Bahá’í teachings thesereligions are “Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christ-ianity, Islam, and the religion of the Sabeans,” as well as the Bahá’íand the Bábí religions.
The foundational Figures of these religionsmay be best described, in the words of One Common Faith, “as thespiritual Educators of history, as the animating forces in the rise ofthe civilizations through which consciousness has flowered” (OCF 34).
“Religious truth is not absolute but relative”
This proposition does not imply that the Manifestations of Godare not endowed with “omniscience,” but that they reveal to human-kind only that part of their knowledge which humankind is able to
Lights of ‘Irfán Book Seven 223
understand in that stage of its evolution on earth. It can be put intoperspective in the light of two fundamental Bahá’í conceptions. Thefirst is that conception whereby “
[w]hatsoever in the contingentworld can either be expressed or apprehended, can never transgressthe limits which, by its inherent nature, have been imposed upon it
. The second is Bahá’u’lláh’s principle of “
the continuity of Divine Revelation
(GWB 151)
and “
the progressiveness of religiousexperience
, which will be now explained.
“Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process”
This concept is known among the Bahá’ís as “progressiveRevelation”
(GWB 75)
. Bahá’í Scriptures mention a pre-eternalCovenant between God and humankind, established by God Himselfout of His bounty. This Covenant provides that God pledge to lookafter the spiritual development of human beings and human beingspledge to do His will on earth. Therefore God periodically revealsHis will through His Manifestations. They reveal to humankind “anever-increasing measure of His truth, of His inscrutable will andDivine guidance”
, according to ever-evolving humancapacities of understanding and accomplishment. Human beings arerequired to make a good use of their “
,” which hasbeen given to them so that they may “
discern the truth in all things
,”be lead “
to that which is right
” and “
discover the secrets of creation
(GWB 194)
. They will thus be enabled to recognize the divine stationof the Manifestations of God, to understand and accept their divineverities, to abide by their divine guidance and to accomplish thedivine will as they manifest it. Thus they obtain personal andcollective spirituality.The concept of progressive revelation explains the multiplicity ofreligions and of their teachings. It is in contradiction with the claimsof “uniqueness” or “finality” of other religions, but it does not“dwarf the admitted magnitude of their colossal achievements,” nor“detract one jot or one tittle from the influence they exert or theloyalty they inspire.” On the contrary, it contributes to “widen theirbasis . . . [and] to reconcile their aims”
(WOB 114)
, in the awarenessthat their followers abide by the teachings of historically differentPersonages, who are, however, all united to one another in theircommon mission as “
Educator[s] of mankind 
(KI 58)
. The conceptof progressive revelation also implies that the content of the veritiesrevealed by each Manifestation depends on the maturity whichhumankind has attained through the education it received from allpast Manifestations and because of passing time, and not on anyintrinsic superiority of any one among the Manifestations over theother. Therefore this concept implies that no religion has “a superiormerit”
(WOB 60)
than the other ones, because its features onlydepend on the receptivity of the age in which it was revealed.

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