A clash of histories

In paragraph 23 of the Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, the Universal House of Justice says,

From its [religion’s] counsels the rational soul has derived encouragement in overcoming limits imposed by the world and in fulfilling itself.

I’m not sure what exactly this sentence is talking about. I mean, I agree with it, but when I think about it, it could mean almost anything. Not only that, but the wording could just as easily apply to things besides religion. Try it. Replace the word religion with something else, like science for example, or poetry. The sentence is just as meaningful.

Baha’is are trying to overcome the barriers that divide the human race. For that, I applaud them. But there is a grave problem in how they’re going about it. There is a built-in contradiction in the Baha’i Faith.

On the one hand, Baha’is insist there is a common ground uniting all religions, and they believe that by emphasizing this common ground, they can help to overcome religious divisions. The problem is that reducing religion to a lowest common denominator just empties it of any real meaning. It becomes nothing more than vapid platitudes.

But then on the other hand, the Baha’i Faith is a whole belief system unto itself, different from any other (although bearing a striking resemblance to Islam). It has beliefs that are uncompromising, like the oneness of God, or that the human being is fundamentally a spirit, or that the afterlife involves progressing through the worlds of God. People came to Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha and asked them specific questions, and got specific answers.

It sometimes happens that people join the Faith thinking it allows them to do and believe anything they want. Then they suddenly find out they’re not supposed to believe in reincarnation anymore, or they can’t drink beer, or they can’t worship Ganesh, or any of a hundred thousand other things that followers of other religions do or believe. So religion isn’t just the vapid cloud portrayed in some Baha’i teaching material (like this Letter). Religion, true religion, is the Baha’i Faith, and everything else is a pale copy of that.

The Universal House of Justice goes on to say,

As the name implies, religion has simultaneously been the chief force binding diverse peoples together in ever larger and more complex societies through which the individual capacities thus released can find expression.

When I was a Baha’i, there were two timelines of world history in my head. One was the timeline of Manifestations, each revealing a succeeding chapter in God’s eternally unfolding religion. The other was the gradual rise of civilization through successively more complex stages: family, tribe, city-state, nation-state, and culiminating in world unity.

What was never explained to me was how these two timelines fit together. Which Manifestation caused which advancement in civilizational complexity? Granted not every Manifestation has to have brought one about, but clearly some of them had to. Can anyone give me an answer? I mean an informed answer, involving reference to specific historical or archaeological evidence.

There have been two significant changes in social complexity in human history. One was the Neolithic “Revolution”, when agriculture was adopted in the late Stone Age. I use inverted commas because it was a centuries-long process, but it was revolutionizing all the same. The second one was the Industrial Revolution, a much more rapid event. Between these two events lots of things happened. Millions of people were born and died, empires rose and fell, cities were built and fell into ruin – but there was no significant change in the overall complexity of human life. And it was during that period that all the Manifestations of God listed in your Baha’i pamphlet lived, except for the Bab and Baha’u’llah.

In other words, the idea that the Manifestations of God motivated this process – from family to tribe to city-state to nation – is a fiction. These stages all pre-date the earliest Manifestations on the Baha’is’ list. The transition from family to tribe happened many tens of thousands of years ago. Towns start to appear during the Neolithic period. State societies first formed in the Middle East in the third millenium BC, and in India, China and Greece in the following millenium.

On the other hand, the nation-state as we know it today – that is, a state society based on the national or ethnic identity of its members – is comparatively recent. It emerged in the nineteenth century. That conveniently coincides with the Twin Manifestations of the Baha’i Era – the only time the two timelines coincide in real life. Er… that is, it would be convenient, except they weren’t supposed to usher in the nation-state.

Now let’s remember that the UHJ is telling the leaders of the other religions that they need to put aside their differences and unite on what they have in common. Presenting this vision of world history does not help their case. How can they hope to persuade non-Baha’is if the evidence they present cannot be verified through historical evidence, and can only be believed if you have the faith of a Baha’i.

Finishing the paragraph,

The great advantage of the present age is the perspective that makes it possible for the entire human race to see this civilizing process as a single phenomenon, the ever-recurring encounters of our world with the world of God.

No, the present age doesn’t give us this perspective. The Baha’i Central Figures do.

There’s nothing special about the modern age in making such a perspective possible. People have always travelled around and met foreigners with strange customs. To hear Baha’is talk you’d think everyone before 1844 lived under a rock. And suddenly everyone became aware that there are other religions besides their own. Jews awoke one day to learn there’s such a thing as Muslims. Buddhists were surprised to find that the world was not entirely composed of Buddhists.

This notion would be patronizing if it weren’t so naive. There’s nothing new about the Baha’i perspective on religions. People have always been aware that there were religions other than their own. And the mental strategies for dealing with this diversity have always been the same. You either regard all religions as essentially talking about the same thing, or you see your religion as true and all others as false, or you fall somewhere in between.

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