Teaching Christians about Christianity

To resume discussion of the Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, The Universal House of Justice quotes Baha’u’llah (paragraph 15):

There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed. All of them, except a few which are the outcome of human perversity, were ordained of God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose. Arise and, armed with the power of faith, shatter to pieces the gods of your vain imaginings, the sowers of dissension amongst you. Cleave unto that which draweth you together and uniteth you.

The House goes on to say,

Such an appeal does not call for abandonment of faith in the fundamental verities of any of the world’s great belief systems.

What are the “fundamental verities” of each religion? How do we know what they are?

The Resurrection, by Giovanni BelliniIf you were to ask a bunch of Christians what the fundamentals of Christianity are, you’d get a lot of answers. But almost all of them would revolve around three essential points: the Incarnation (when God became a human being), the Crucifixion (when Christ died for our sins), and the Resurrection (when Christ rose bodily from the dead). You might call these the Three Pillars of Christianity. Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians all agree on these fundamentals.

All three of these fundamentals are denied by the Baha’i Faith.

So what does the Universal House of Justice mean when it says, “Such an appeal does not call for abandonment of faith in the fundamental verities of any of the world’s great belief systems”? How can it say that when it (and all Baha’is) call for Christians to abandon three of the most fundamental verities of their faith?

Easy. It redefines the fundamental verities. It tells Christians, “you’ve got Christianity all wrong. Let us educate you about Christianity.” Take this excerpt for example, from a letter dated May 28, 1984:

Concerning the Resurrection of Christ you quote the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, where the account stresses the reality of the appearance of Jesus to His disciples who, the Gospel states, at first took Him to be a ghost. From a Baha’i point of view the belief that the Resurrection was the return to life of a body of flesh and blood, which later rose from the earth into the sky is not reasonable, nor is it necessary to the essential truth of the disciples’ experience, which is that Jesus did not cease to exist when He was crucified (as would have been the belief of many Jews of that period), but that His Spirit, released from the body, ascended to the presence of God and continued to inspire and guide His followers and preside over the destinies of His dispensation.

The Universal House of Justice says the Christian belief about the Resurrection is “not reasonable.” Are the Christians who believe it also unreasonable? It’s as if Christians are blockheads, while Baha’is are smart enough to know that no reasonable person would believe such a silly tale. Greek Orthodox icon of the Descent into HadesI thought Baha’is wanted to promote religious understanding, not flippantly dismiss others’ beliefs.

And why, by the way, is the Christian belief unreasonable? Is it unreasonable for God to bring bodies back to life? Why? Is he not powerful enough? No, it couldn’t be that. He is Almighty, after all. Or is it that he’s too sophisticated? Maybe bodily resurrection is something that would only appeal to those rubes in the trailer park who watch TBN. Spiritual resurrection is so much more refined. Naturally God is nice and bourgeois, like me.

Moreover, the Universal House of Justice’s objection that it’s “not reasonable” would seem to fly in the face of their own faith. Consider what Baha’u’llah says in his tablet Ishraqat:

O thou who hast fixed thy gaze upon the Dawning-Place of the Cause of God! Know thou for a certainty that the Will of God is not limited by the standards of the people, and God doth not tread in their ways.

So according to Baha’u’llah, God can do whatever he pleases, regardless of whether we think it’s reasonable.The Universal House of Justice goes on to say that not only is a bodily resurrection not reasonable, but it is also not “necessary to the essential truth of the disciples’ experience.”Says who? The disciples themselves report a physical resurrection, and seemed to think it was important. Later generations of Christians also felt that way. But apparently we’ve all been wrong this whole time. Luckily for us, the Baha’is are on hand to tell us what the essential truth of their experience really was:

Jesus did not cease to exist when He was crucified (as would have been the belief of many Jews of that period), but that His Spirit, released from the body, ascended to the presence of God and continued to inspire and guide His followers and preside over the destinies of His dispensation.

So the unity of religions Baha’is talk about only exists because Baha’is redefine what other religions teach. They dismiss what the believers themselves regard as the fundamental verities of their religion. The substitute them with new fundamental verities, while dismissing the real ones as “not reasonable.” Anyone who talks to Christians this way is simply being patronizing. Remind me again how this promotes world peace?

“The Indians should not be in any way enslaved”

The following is the full text of the encyclical Sublimus Dei, issued by Pope Paul III on May 29, 1537. In it he condemns the enslavement of the natives of America, declares any act of enslavement null and void, and says the notion that they are not fully human is inspired by the devil.

Pope Paul III

Pope Paul III

Paul III Pope. To all faithful Christians to whom this writing may come, health in Christ our Lord and the apostolic benediction.

The sublime God so loved the human race that He created man in such wise that he might participate, not only in the good that other creatures enjoy, but endowed him with capacity to attain to the inaccessible and invisible Supreme Good and behold it face to face; and since man, according to the testimony of the sacred scriptures, has been created to enjoy eternal life and happiness, which none may obtain save through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, it is necessary that he should possess the nature and faculties enabling him to receive that faith; and that whoever is thus endowed should be capable of receiving that same faith. Nor is it credible that any one should possess so little understanding as to desire the faith and yet be destitute of the most necessary faculty to enable him to receive it. Hence Christ, who is the Truth itself, that has never failed and can never fail, said to the preachers of the faith whom He chose for that office ‘Go ye and teach all nations.’ He said all, without exception, for all are capable of receiving the doctrines of the faith.

The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God’s word of Salvation to the people: he inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.

Columbus landing on Hispaniola

Columbus landing on Hispaniola

We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. Desiring to provide ample remedy for these evils, We define and declare by these Our letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, to which the same credit shall be given as to the originals, that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.

By virtue of Our apostolic authority We define and declare by these present letters, or by any translation thereof signed by any notary public and sealed with the seal of any ecclesiastical dignitary, which shall thus command the same obedience as the originals, that the said Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living.

When inclusiveness is exclusive

In response to the post Religious prejudice in the Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, Bill made the following comment. I hope he doesn’t mind my addressing it here.

When a person asserts that there should be moderation in all things, that statement cannot logically be termed immoderate. Likewise, an assertion that the religions are one and that God progressively revealed them cannot logically be considered an exclusivity.

I can see why this would appear to be true. At one time I would have agreed with Bill, but I no longer do. Yet I’m not sure how to explain why. I’m still struggling with how to articulate this. So will try to in this post, but please bear with me because this may not appear quite clear.

I agree that there should be moderation in all things, but moderation only makes sense when it is measured against an objective standard. For example, it is proper that we eat moderately, which means eating enough to sustain health but not more than necessary to sustain health. The objective standard is the constraints of human physiology. This is also what we mean when we speak of moderate sleep and moderate exercise.

When we consider the beliefs of others we should also be moderate. Let’s use my car as an example. I just had the radiator fluid changed. Let’s suppose that two people disagree as to what kind of fluid to put in my radiator. One of them wants to put antifreeze (properly diluted) because it is what the car requires to run well, and the other wants to put 100% tap water because it’s cheaper. What is the moderate course of action? Depends on my standard. If my standard is to optimize the performance of the car, then I have to say that the moderate choice is to do what the first guy says and not what the second one says.

When we evaluate other religions, we are also necessarily applying a standard of some sort. So while I agree that Baha’is are moderate (in their way) in their approach to other religions, I disagree with the standard they use by which they judge themselves moderate. Which brings me to the second part of Bill’s quote:

Likewise, an assertion that the religions are one and that God progressively revealed them cannot logically be considered an exclusivity.

At first glance, there are several exclusive statements here. (a) There is a God, (b) God reveals himself, (c) God reveals himself through religions, (d) God reveals himself progressively. These assumptions (or perhaps we should call them axioms) exclude all beliefs that contradict them. These constitute a standard by which Baha’is judge other religious beliefs and decide whether they are right or wrong.

So from a Baha’i standpoint, if an animist or Buddhist does not believe in God, he is wrong. His belief is excluded. Likewise a Deist or pantheist who doesn’t believe in a personal God, or anyone who rejects organized religion as a way to relate to God. All these perspectives are wrong.

There’s another point that might be a little more subtle. It is that although Baha’is believe their faith encompasses all other faiths, this is not quite the case. Consider Christianity. Baha’is believe (in all sincerity – i.e. this is not intended maliciously) that almost all Christians are wrong in how they understand the Gospel. The Gospel is actually what the Baha’is say it is.

From a Baha’i perspective, Baha’is are inclusive and Christians are exclusive. But again, like I said above about moderation, that depends on one’s standard. The Baha’i standard is the Baha’i Faith and the Baha’i concept of progressive revelation. So naturally if you go by that standard, the Baha’is can’t help but be inclusive. On the other hand, if you use Christianity as a standard, then Christians appear inclusive while Baha’is appear exclusive.

According to the Catholic Church, for example, God can work in the lives of non-Christians, and non-Christians can be saved. How is this any less inclusive than what Baha’is say? We both believe that God loves all people and desires that all should be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). We both believe that our belief system is true and all others less than true to the extent they differ from ours. So why do Baha’is believe that their religion is more inclusive?

“We implore those in whose hands are placed the fortunes of nations to hearken to our voice.”

From the encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, by Pope Benedict XV, November 1, 1914

Pope Benedict XVOn every side the dread phantom of war holds sway: there is scarce room for another thought in the minds of men. The combatants are the greatest and wealthiest nations of the earth; what wonder, then, if, well provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised, they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror. There is no limit to the measure of ruin and of slaughter; day by day the earth is drenched with newly-shed blood, and is covered with the bodies of the wounded and of the slain. Who would imagine as we see them thus filled with hatred of one another, that they are all of one common stock, all of the same nature, all members of the same human society? Who would recognize brothers, whose Father is in Heaven? Yet, while with numberless troops the furious battle is engaged, the sad cohorts of war, sorrow and distress swoop down upon every city and every home; day by day the mighty number of widows and orphans increases, and with the interruption of communications, trade is at a standstill; agriculture is abandoned; the arts are reduced to inactivity; the wealthy are in difficulties; the poor are reduced to abject misery; all are in distress. …

We implore those in whose hands are placed the fortunes of nations to hearken to our voice. Surely there are other ways and means whereby violated rights can be rectified. Let them be tried honestly and with good will, and let arms meanwhile be laid aside. It is impelled with love of them and of all mankind, without any personal interest whatever, that We utter these words. Let them not allow these words of a friend and of a father to be uttered in vain. …

Our Lord Jesus Christ came down from Heaven for the very purpose of restoring amongst men the Kingdom of Peace, which the envy of the devil had destroyed, and it was His will that it should rest on no other foundation than that of brotherly love. These are His own oft-repeated words: “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another (John 14:34) … He teaches all men, without distinction of nationality or of language, or of ideas, to pray in the words: “Our Father, who are in Heaven” (Matt. 6:9); nay, more, He tells us that our Heavenly Father in distributing the blessings of nature makes no distinction of our deserts: “Who maketh His sun to rise upon the good and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). He bids us be brothers one to another, and calls us His brethren: “All you are brethren” (Matt. 23:8) … And finally, as He was hanging from the cross, He poured out His blood over us all, whence being as it were compacted and fitly joined together in one body, we should love one another, with a love like that which one member bears to another in the same body.

Far different from this is the behaviour of men today. Never perhaps was there more talking about the brotherhood of men than there is today; in fact, men do not hesitate to proclaim that striving after brotherhood is one of the greatest gifts of modern civilization, ignoring the teaching of the Gospel, and setting aside the work of Christ and of His Church. But in reality never was there less brotherly activity amongst men than at the present moment. Race hatred has reached its climax; peoples are more divided by jealousies than by frontiers; within one and the same nation, within the same city there rages the burning envy of class against class; and amongst individuals it is self-love which is the supreme law over-ruling everything.

You see, Venerable Brethren, how necessary it is to strive in every possible way that the charity of Jesus Christ should once more rule supreme amongst men. That will ever be our own aim; that will be the keynote of Our Pontificate.

Religious prejudice in the Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders

In the past two posts on the Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, I looked closely at sentences from the first two paragraphs. Now I’d like to consider one of the larger themes of the document.

Seat of the Universal House of Justice, Haifa (Israel)In paragraphs 3-6, the Universal House of Justice notes that society has made great progress in overcoming prejudice based on gender, nation, race and ethnicity. It goes on to put religious prejudice in the same category as these other prejudices. At first glance this seems reasonable. After all, there’s no justification in bearing prejudice against someone just because they follow a religion.

But look at how the Universal House of Justice defines religious prejudice. It doesn’t spell it out, but you can see it in the overall thrust of the document. In paragraph 9, the UHJ suggests that to have religious prejudice is to deny “that all of the world’s great religions are equally valid in nature and origin.” In paragraph 10, the UHJ says that most organized religion is holding up progress in achieving the oneness of mankind because it is gripped by “dogmas and claims of privileged access to truth.” In other words, the faithful believers in the world’s religions are obtructing progress because they believe their own religions’ truth claims.

In paragraphs 11-16, the Universal House of Justice’s argument goes like this: Claims that one religion is more true than another have caused horrific warfare and have stifled the life of the mind. Note (the UHJ says), we’re not saying religion causes these things. Religion has inspired people to love and forgive, and has been the impetus for every advance in civilization. Rather, what causes these things is the belief that one religion is more true than another. Thus, the way to solve this problem is for everyone to concede that one religion is just as good as another. When people do that, then followers of different religions will finally get along, and spiritual life can finally flourish unhindered.

This is not reasonable. The Universal House of Justice is making a number of assumptions in this line of reasoning that it is not justifying. It doesn’t justify them, and there’s no reason why we should take these assumptions for granted.

1. It assumes that religious wars occurred because people made exclusive truth claims. Is that really true?

2. It assumes that claims to exclusive truth hinder intellectual activity. Should we take this idea for granted? There’s also a double standard here, because to assert that all religions come from God is an exclusive truth claim, excluding all possible interpretations of a religion that don’t allow for this dogma.

3. The UHJ says religion “has awakened in whole populations capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to dare greatly, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good and to discipline the impulses of animal instinct” (paragraph 13). What is religion? What is this common thing we call religion, that is doing all this motivating among the various religious adherents of the world? The UHJ doesn’t say. I’m left wondering if religion is supposed to be nothing more than a vague spirituality. How a vague spirituality could motivate someone to make sacrifices and discipline their animal impulses is beyond me.

4. It goes on to say, “it would be difficult to think of any fundamental advance in civilization that did not derive its moral thrust from” religion (paragraph 14). What does the House of Justice mean by “civilization”? What does it mean by “advance”? And how exactly has religion done the thrusting? It might seem like I’m being nit-picky, but we need to think about these things. This is a seductive argument. If religion has advanced civilization throughout the world, then there must be some common denominator underlying all religions. This argument is seductive, that is, until you realize there’s no substance to it. The words “advance” and “civilization” are not referring to anything real.

The purpose of religion?

This is the second in a multi-part series on the UHJ’s Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders.

The second paragraph opens with

Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path…

This line puzzled me for a while. I thought, “Are they saying the reason religion exists is to serve the cause of brotherhood and peace?” Fortunately, they’re not. It always pays to reread.

The key word is entails. Religion’s reason for being entails service to… etc. What is under the surface is this: Religion has a purpose. It isn’t stated here, but in the light of other Baha’i writings, the UHJ probably has in mind the purpose of bringing humanity into communion with God. This purpose entails promoting brotherhood and peace.

I’ll buy that. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the cause of brotherhood and peace are not themselves the reason for religion. The UHJ is not saying that, and anyone who does say that has just undermined religion altogether. Because in a desire to serve the cause of brotherhood and peace, people are tempted to empty their religion of all distinctive content. Once you’ve done that, people lose their motivation to make sacrifices for that religion, so then no one will make sacrifices for the sake of brotherhood and peace. People might still work for those goals, but religion won’t have anything to do with it.

If a religion lacks substance, it lacks the power to motivate people to do good.

The Faith on the radio

George Wesley at Baha’i Views has a post about song lyrics, and how every song can sound like it’s about Baha’u’llah. That was certainly true of me when I was Baha’i.

I remember especially the summer of 1998 when Semisonic’s “Closing Time” was a big hit. It’d come on the radio as I drove home from a fireside or from Feast, and I’d sing along and think about Baha’u’llah.

Closing time
Open all the doors and let you out into the world
Closing time
Turn all of the lights on over every boy and every girl

Naturally this is about the new dispensation ushered in by the Twin Manifestations, opening the doors of knowledge and emblazoning the light of divine illumination.

Closing time
One last call for alcohol so finish your whiskey or beer
Closing time
You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here

“You can’t stay here,” Baha’u’llah says, “in the old mindset. You have to leave that behind and embrace the new Day that’s dawning.”

I know who I want to take me home
I know who I want to take me home
I know who I want to take me home

Baha’u’llah, that’s who.

Thanks for bringing back some old memories, Mr. Wesley.