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Fundamental Truths...

Robert Blecher

January, 2020

This entire adventure in podcasting, writing, and community has been inspired by a vision of beauty, our natural attraction to fundamental truths that organically unfold within the active cultivation of human intellectual and spiritual capacities when we view reality from the highest possible vantage point, from perspectives wide and open enough to elevate our beings toward whole new paradigms of understanding. I try to be as inclusive as possible. I seek to consider questions, understandings -- and more questions -- that follow logically from sources of every conceivable nature, from what I’ve internalized so far through my study of philosophy, history, theology, science, literature, poetry, music and the arts, as well as through episodes drawn from my own life experience. Still, a specific problem continues to gnaw at my heart. The norms of society today accept, even encourage, the study of science, literature, the arts, history, and philosophy -- all widely accepted as valid means of intellectual progress. Stories culled from everyday experience also are allowed, indeed, even embraced, as perhaps the most valid of all resources for self-help: Who knows more about prejudice than a victim with personal stories to tell? Yes, I agree. Each of these sources can in fact become vehicles through which we might be lifted, upward, transcendent above the conflict and division which characterizes so much of public and private discourse today. But, I must ask, almost apologetically, what about religion and theology? Where might these sources fit, if at all, in our personal lives or in the life of society? I’m not sure whether, now, in our modern world, these resources command the same level of respect.

I’m pretty sure, in fact, knowing what I do from my study of history -- I did earn a college degree in history after all, plus there’s more than twenty years of classroom experience teaching history -- that fewer and fewer people worldwide respect religion or theology as legitimate sources to guide the progress of human life, collectively or individually. I know from my studies that the exclusion of religion from public life first took hold during the era of Enlightenment in eighteenth-century Europe. It was then, after much of the continent had been locked for more than a century in sometimes violent religious conflict between the followers of western Christianity’s two main sects, Catholics and Protestants, and as the methods of modern science gradually started to gain credibility -- especially after Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of the universal law of gravitation -- that more and more people in Europe began to embrace the empiricism of science as the best method available to discover what is true and useful for mankind. Once the scientific method eventually gained traction as the #1 source for material progress (particularly in its agricultural and military applications), religious and theological sources have gradually been effectively discredited as legitimate sources of truth by the elite moderns who grasp tight the reigns of economic and political power. Indeed, over the past three-plus centuries, those entrenched in secular power have largely succeeded in almost wholly excluding from public discourse virtually every religious and theological source of knowledge.

I also know about this discrediting of religion from my own experience. I remember my father telling me, time after time, that religion was the principal cause of every war in the history of the world. He could not even be sure, Dad sometimes continued, whether such a being as “God” could logically or actually exist. After five years of Hebrew school, ending (thankfully!) with my Bar Mitzvah, I managed to learn how to read the Hebrew language well enough, but, for reasons I still struggle to understand, I was never taught how to translate Hebrew words into English! I recall friends and classmates who seemed to lose all belief in God after they learned about the Holocaust: “How could there be a God,” I’ve heard again and again, “who would allow the extermination of more than six million Jews?” In public school, year after year I was informed of the “fact” that it was only through science that truth can be discovered, which, for me, implied that it would be nothing less than pure folly to give credence to religion as a valid source of truth -- unless and until the existence of God could be supported with conclusive material evidence and proven through physical laws of nature expressed, logically, in mathematic terms. If there was ever a single meaningful discussion of religion during all of my years of public schooling, I do not remember it. Friends and family openly discuss almost every conceivable subject, but almost never does religion come up directly and explicitly in conversation -- except to be criticized. At their best, media accounts of religion seem to mostly be aired during the holiday season and center on the giving of gifts -- the more, and more expensive (Santa, is there a Lexus under the tree for me this year?), the better -- which always has seemed to me, then and now, to have absolutely nothing to do with understanding or honoring the great spiritual truths revealed through the Messengers of God over the course of history. Indeed, since that fateful Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I cannot count the number of times that, explicitly and impliedly, Islam has been discredited by mass media and government as the instigator of “holy” wars brought to our doorstep under the “evil” axis of “religious” extremism. “See what religion is and does?”… I seem to be told again and again: If my will becomes so weak that I do succumb to the superstitions of Islam, religious belief will transform me from someone civilized, respected, and rational into a fanatical extremist who (my life now aligned with the guidance of Muhammad) will anxiously, and, if not stopped, eagerly commit mass murder after mass murder. Honestly, I cannot remember ever receiving a positive message –- in my private life, public school, or through corporate media –- to the effect that religion offers constructive perspectives of reality which can benefit either my own development or that of society as a whole and, thus, merits any real honor or respect.

This is the problem. To live within the infinite beauty that exists in the universe, the world, and inside ourselves, we need to open the lens through which we view reality to the widest possible aperture. Such a broad perspective, to my understanding, must include history, philosophy, science, literature, poetry, music, and the arts, most definitely. It must also, I submit, include the spiritual perspectives revealed to humanity through the world’s religions. I’m afraid that, unless and until this exclusion of religion is openly and honestly confronted, head on, many will continue -- following the now familiar cultural indoctrinations of modernity -- to blindly dismiss out of hand -- un- or semi-consciously -- all that religion can do to illuminate our path toward growth, intellectually and spiritually, and lead humanity in the direction of its full maturity. It is to this end, restoring world religion to its proper place of honor and respect in our quest for those truths which provide human life with genuine meaning and purpose, that I write this essay. My claim is that, unless and until we openly and actively embrace every perspective of reality, including the intellectual and spiritual perspectives offered by the religions and theologies of the world, our capacities to witness the full beauty of existence will remain immeasurably diminished, and, with it, so will the quality of our lives be left impoverished.

In an effort to restore the religions of the world to their place as valued perspectives in our search for what is true, the body of this essay will address three fundamental questions:

1) True Religion?!?… How can a true religion be distinguished from what is false? The labeling of a set of beliefs as “religion” does not necessarily make it so. Think of the nation-state today: Many governments now claim to be democracies, but how many, in actuality, truly function as democracies? Fewer and fewer! The same logic applies to religion. Thus, our first task must be to distinguish what is true in religion from what is false. Is there anything more relevant today, I might ask, than developing our capacity to tell the difference between true and false? Not much, I would say!

2) Religionsss: How many religions exist, really? Remember, there is one Creator and one Creator only, so… my next question: How can it be that this one God created thousands of different religions, many of which seem constantly to be divided against each other, in conflict that sometimes turns violent? Another way of putting this might be, “how can we better understand the relationships that exist between the world’s religions over the long course of history?” I hope you can see this question as relevant, engaging spiritually and intellectually, and important for there to be genuine human progress. I do!

3) Religion, Today?!?... The third section of this essay will address the relevance of and need for religion in the world today. Now that we know the reality of what in fact does qualify as true religion, and we also understand that, historically, there has ever been only one religion, one common faith, here’s our final question: What spiritual reality is most fundamental, in the world today, to guide the progress of individual and collective life on earth? I look forward, as always, to walking this path with you.

The sacred Writings of the Baha’i Faith will serve as our sole resource on this journey. One simple reason explains my exclusive reliance upon this singular resource: To the best of my knowledge, no other revelation in history has ever openly, explicitly, and this directly considered any one of these fundamental questions. The Baha’i Faith is the most recent of the world’s independent religions. In fact, the current international governing body of the Faith, the Universal House of Justice, did not come into existence until the second half of the twentieth century, in 1963. Members of the Baha’i Faith follow the Teachings of Baha’u’llah (1817-92), Who is understood by Baha’is as the Manifestation of God for today and the Promised One of all Ages. The traditions of almost every people include the promise of a future when peace and harmony will be established on earth and humankind will live in prosperity. Baha’is believe that the promised hour is come and that Baha’u’llah is the great Personage Whose Teachings will enable humanity to build a new world. The purpose of the Baha’i Faith is to unite all the races and peoples of the world in one universal Cause and one common Faith, a single global civilization governed in accordance with the highest spiritual truths. I owe a debt of gratitude to the “The Baha’is,” published under the auspices of the Baha’i International Community in 2017, from which much of what follows has been excerpted and edited into the form of this essay.

True Religion

“True religion … transforms the human heart and contributes to the progress of society.”

Baha’I International Community (2017)

Religion that’s true has animated civilization throughout history. True religion opens the door to experience the spiritual dimensions of life. It cultivates love and compassion, and it brings forth the noblest qualities and aspirations of the human being. What is true in religion promotes the cooperation necessary for civilizations to advance. The systems of shared belief brought about by the world’s religions have enabled people to unite, cooperate, and create bonds of trust at ever-higher levels of social organization — from the family, to the tribe, to the city-state and, today, to the nation.

True religion is revealed to humanity by Manifestations of God. These Figures have, over the course of history, awakened in whole populations the capacities to love, to forgive, to create, to overcome prejudice, to sacrifice for the common good, and to discipline the impulses of humanity’s baser instincts. These uniquely endowed individuals include Krishna, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and the Bab[1]. The most recent in this series of Manifestations Who have guided humanity from age to age is Baha’u’llah, whose title means “the Glory of God.” Baha’u’llah, Founder of the Baha’i Faith, has proclaimed that humanity is now approaching its long-awaited stage of maturity, unity at the global level of social organization.

Two core ideas delineate the heart of Baha’u’llah’s message

a) Oneness of Humanity,... the truth that humanity is one. Baha’u’llah calls upon us to recognize our common humanity, to see ourselves as members of one family, and, accordingly, to end all forms of estrangement and prejudice. All peoples and every social group can then become protagonists, active agents, in shaping the future and, ultimately, in the establishment of one just and peaceful world civilization.

b) Oneness of Religion,... the understanding that the qualities of humanity arise from one common Source and that all faiths, throughout history, constitute expressions of one unfolding religion. All the Founders of the world’s religions, Baha’u’llah explains, proclaim one and the same faith: “the purpose of religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men.

Baha’u’llah expressed deep concern regarding the corruption and abuse of religion that periodically characterize human societies. This decline, He explained, sets in when the noble and pure teachings of the moral luminaries Who founded the world’s religions are corrupted by selfish human ideas, superstition, and the worldly quest for power. Humanity will need to shed harmful conceptions and practices that masquerade as religion before what is true can once again exert its vital influence on the progress of civilization. How to understand the true nature of religion, distinguishing what is true from what is false in religion, therefore constitutes a fundamental question that confronts humanity today.

Abdu’l Baha, Baha’u’llah’s eldest son, clarified when a religion is true: “If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act… Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion.” The true nature of religion can, thus, best be understood in terms of the Cause of God for this day and age, unity, that is, the unification of all humankind into one worldwide civilization ruled in accordance with universal spiritual principles. This world-embracing vision of unity includes the following elements:

a) Progressive Revelation. True religion unfolds, progressively, over time. The great religious systems that have guided humanity over thousands of years can be regarded in essence as one unfolding religion that has been renewed from age to age, evolving as humanity has moved from one stage of collective development to another. Religion can thus be seen as a system of knowledge and practice that, together with science, has propelled the advance of civilization throughout history. Religion today cannot be exactly what it was in a previous era. Much of what is regarded as religion in the contemporary world, Bahai’s believe, must be re-examined in light of the foundational truths revealed for this age: the oneness of God, the oneness of religion, and the oneness of the human family.

b) Transformation. The test of true religion is its fruits. Religion should demonstrably uplift humanity, create unity, forge good character, promote the search for truth, liberate human consciousness, advance social justice, and, indeed, promote the betterment of the world. True religion provides the moral foundations that harmonize relationships among individuals, communities, and institutions. What is true in religion fosters an upright character and instills forbearance, compassion, forgiveness, magnanimity, and high-mindedness. Religion prohibits harm to others and invites souls to the plane of sacrifice, that they may give of themselves for the good of others. What is true imparts a world-embracing vision and cleanses hearts from self-centeredness and prejudice, inspiring souls to strive for the material and spiritual betterment of all, to see their own happiness in that of others, to advance in learning and science, to be an instrument of true joy, and to revive the body of humanity. True religion, more simply put, transforms the human heart and contributes to the progress of society.

c) Science and Religion. There is no conflict between science and religion. When understood as complementary, science and religion provide people with powerful means to gain new and wondrous insights into reality and to shape the world around them, each system benefitting from an appropriate degree of influence by the other. Science, when devoid of the perspective of religion, can become vulnerable to dogmatic materialism detrimental to the progress of humankind. Religion, when devoid of science, falls prey to superstition and blind imitation of the past that, too, can harm human progress. The Baha’i teachings state: “Put all your beliefs into harmony with science; there can be no opposition, for truth is one. When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles — and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God.” True religion is, has always, and will forever remain, in harmony with science.

True religion provides insights about the nature of humanity and sets forth principles which guide the advance of civilization. At this critical juncture in history, when humanity faces the limits of a social order inadequate to meet the needs of a world that has virtually shrunk to the level of a neighborhood, the foundational spiritual principle of our time is the oneness of humankind. This simple statement represents a profound truth that, once accepted, invalidates all past notions of the superiority of any race, sex, or nationality. This conception of “oneness” involves more than a call for mutual respect and feelings of goodwill between the diverse peoples of the world. Carried to its logical conclusion, the spiritual reality of the “oneness of humanity” necessitates an organic change in the very structure of society itself.

Religion is One

“This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.” Baha’u’llah

Called by different names throughout history -- Yahweh, the Holy Spirit, Allah -- God, Himself, stands alone and above all, without limitation. He is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving. Each religion originates with God: “The peoples of the world, of whatever race of religion,” Baha’u’llah revealed, “derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God.” Today we live in the era of history when all religions will be reconciled, the age when the whole of humanity will gather beneath the shelter of one world-embracing faith. Baha’i Writings teach that the religion of God is one: “This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.

Religion has the power to elicit extraordinary qualities of heroism, sacrifice, and self-discipline. The power of religion has inspired breathtaking achievements in all fields of human endeavor, producing universal codes of law and institutional systems that allow people to live together in ever-larger and more complex societies. Nonetheless, strife between religions has been the cause of innumerable wars and conflicts, creating divisions that have presented major barriers to human progress. These conflicts and divisions, ostensibly carried out in the name of religion, are in fact contrary to the true nature and purpose of religion: “If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act…. Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity,” Abdu’l Baha acknowledged, “is no religion.”

If all religions originate from the same God, being one in essence, how can the differences between religions, particularly regarding social practices, be understood? Baha’u’llah likened the Founders of the world’s religions to skilled physicians: “The Prophets of God should be regarded as physicians whose task is to foster the well-being of the world and its peoples, that, through the spirit of oneness, they may heal the sickness of a divided humanity…. Little wonder, then, if the treatment prescribed by the physician in this day should not be found to be identical with that which he prescribed before. How could it be otherwise when the ills affecting the sufferer necessitate at every stage of his sickness a special remedy? In like manner, every time the Prophets of God have illumined the world with the resplendent radiance of the Day Star of Divine knowledge, they have invariably summoned its peoples to embrace the light of God through such means as best befitted the exigencies of the age in which they appeared….” Each Messenger of God throughout history has a central mission, complete and total grasp of the nature of the body of humanity, and each divine Messenger is endowed with the capacities to prescribe appropriate remedies for the ills of the world at the time and place in which He appears.

The Baha’i writings compare the appearance of the Messengers of God to the annual cycle of the seasons. The appearance of the Prophet is, like the springtime, a season of renewal and rebirth. The spiritual power released by His appearance is similar to the sun’s effect in the natural world, creating fresh impetus for growth. Gradually the sun moves to its zenith, and the world of nature matures in full summer splendor. There is, then, the gradual decline of autumn, followed by the latency of winter, but eventually spring does return, and the cycle of seasons begins anew. Similarly, each divine Manifestation infuses the human world with fresh spiritual capacities. In time His teachings begin to show their full effects in the world, usually long after His own lifetime. This initial freshness and energy will gradually begin to fade, and the time comes for another Messenger. Baha’u’llah explicitly stated that after the passage of one thousand years, another Manifestation will appear to carry forward the Will of God.

Although many of their names and teachings have been lost to history, we do know something about the divine Messengers, among them Krishna, Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and, in more recent times, the Bab and Baha’u’llah. Each Manifestation of God initiates the release of potent spiritual forces into the world, spiritual forces that, over time, increasingly permeate the whole of society, providing the main impulse for the further development of human consciousness. Baha’u’llah states, “The Word of God is the king of words and its pervasive influence is incalculable. It hath ever dominated and will continue to dominate the realm of being. The Great Being saith: The Word is the master key for the whole world, inasmuch as through its potency the doors of the hearts of men, which in reality are the doors of heaven, are unlocked…. It is an ocean inexhaustible in riches, comprehending all things. Every thing which can be perceived is but an emanation therefrom.” This process, through which Messengers of God have continuously provided the guidance that humanity needs for its social and spiritual evolution, is understood as “progressive revelation.”

School provides an analogy to understand the “progressive” nature of divine revelation. Humanity, progressing from one grade to the next, receives different Teachers who deliver different lessons. Each grade, or stage of progress, rests upon the previous one, affirming what has already been learned. New lessons are also introduced, lessons that might appear to differ from what was taught previously. In one grade it might be necessary for students to undertake specific exercises and drills, where at a later time such exercises are no longer necessary. Similarly, each Messenger of God, while affirming certain spiritual truths already revealed by previous Manifestations, brings specific laws and teachings that are necessary for the time in which He lives. While each Manifestation of God has a distinct individuality and a definite mission, Baha’u’llah explained that each Manifestation is part of the ongoing process of humanity’s education: “The purpose of the one true God in manifesting Himself is to summon all mankind to truthfulness and sincerity, to piety and trustworthiness, to resignation and submissiveness to the Will of God, to forbearance and kindliness, to uprightness and wisdom. His object is to array every man with the mantle of a saintly character, and to adorn him with the ornament of holy and goodly deeds.”

The mission of Baha’u’llah, God’s Messenger for today, is to spiritually re-awaken and unite the peoples of the world. Baha’u’llah speaks of peace as “the supreme goal of all mankind,” and sets forth the spiritual principles that will guide humanity to universal and lasting peace. The international body that governs the Baha’i Faith, the Universal House of Justice, explains this peace as the most great peace that has been promised by all previous Manifestations of God: “The Great Peace towards which people of goodwill throughout the centuries have inclined their hearts, of which seers and poets for countless generations have expressed their vision, and for which from age to age the sacred scriptures of mankind have constantly held the promise, is now at long last within the reach of the nations. For the first time in history it is possible for everyone to view the entire planet, with all its myriad diversified peoples, in one perspective. World peace is not only possible but inevitable.” The purpose of Baha’u’llah is nothing less than to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth, the kingdom wherein all of humanity will forever live in peace, justice, and unity.

One Humanity

“O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.” Baha’u’llah

The principle of the “oneness of humanity” is the very center of the Baha’i Faith. A sense of reciprocity often defines the human expression of love: we love friends because they love us; we love family because of the love they have shown to us; we may sometimes make sacrifices for others, even for a greater good of society, but usually even these expressions of love are accompanied by the hope of receiving some benefit in return. The Messengers of God teach that the highest form of love -- of the Holy Spirit -- transcends reciprocity. Truly spiritual love is selfless and indiscriminate, seeking neither reward nor recognition, inspiring the love of strangers and enemies as well as that of friends. This spirit of love arises from the love of God, from conscious awareness of the unconditional expression of HIs love for the whole of humanity, a principle known to Baha’is as the “oneness of humanity.” In practice, the principle of “oneness” involves the human effort to emulate the love of God in this world, here and now, through our thoughts and deeds. The time has come, Baha’u’llah revealed, for the “oneness of humanity” to be universally understood, embraced, and practiced.

Acceptance of this fundamental spiritual principle necessitates the abandonment of prejudice and discrimination of every kind -- race, class, color, gender, creed, nationality, age, culture, material wealth -- everything ever invoked to consider a person superior or inferior to others. In this connection Baha’u’llah emphasizes the spiritual truth of equality: “Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness … may be made manifest.” Baha’u’llah explicitly called for the removal of each and every cause of conflict and division that might lead people to see themselves as either superior or inferior to others, of any way that might lead people to view humanity in terms of “us” and “them.”

Prejudice contributes to the process of disintegration that humanity witnesses in the world today. Racism retards the development of its victims, corrupts its perpetrators, and blights the progress of human society. There are no grounds -- moral, practical, or biological -- upon which denying the equality of the sexes can be justified; gender prejudice perpetrates injustice against women as it promotes harmful attitudes and habits in men that carry over from the family to the workplace, to economic and political life, and ultimately to relations among countries. Unbridled nationalism and its associated prejudices, Abdu’l Baha acknowledged, must give way to a wider loyalty, to the love of humanity as a whole: God has created the world as one—the boundaries are marked out by man. God has not divided the lands, but each man has his house and meadow; horses and dogs do not divide the fields into parts. That is why Bahá’u’lláh says: ‘Let not a man glory in that he loves his country, but that he loves his kind.’ All are of one family, one race; all are human beings. Differences as to the partition of lands should not be the cause of separation among the people.”

Prejudice blinds us to the truth, that each person is most fundamentally a spiritual being with a unique set of potentials and capacities, a “mine rich in gems of inestimable value” according to Baha’i teachings. Every person, having been created in the image and likeness of God, is a noble being who was born with the ability to emulate the spiritual qualities of God: “Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing,” Baha’u’llah states, “He hath shed the light of one of his names, and made it a recipient of the glory of one of His attributes. Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self. Alone of all created things man hath been singled out for so great a favor, so enduring a bounty.” Eliminating prejudice in all its varied forms, the Baha’i Writings make clear, recognizes the inherently noble station of each and every human being.

The “oneness of humanity” implies a basic reordering of societies, away from structures grounded on competition and to the creation of new institutional structures grounded on the most fundamental principles of cooperation. Baha’i teachings see parallels between the health of the whole body of humanity and the health of the individual human body. Millions of cells, diverse in form and function, play their part in maintaining the health of the individual human body. It is cooperation, explains Abdu’l Baha, that ultimately will lead to peace and unity for all humankind: “The body politic may be likened to the human organism. As long as the various members and parts of that organism are coordinated and cooperating in harmony, we have as a result the expression of life in its fullest degree. When these members lack coordination and harmony, we have the reverse, which in the human organism is disease, dissolution, death. Similarly, in the body politic of humanity dissension, discord and warfare are always destructive and inevitably fatal…. As long as there is affinity and cohesion among these constituent elements, strength and life are manifest; but when dissension and repulsion arise among them, disintegration follows.” The various parts of a healthy body do not compete for resources; in a healthy human body, each cell plays its role in a continuous process of giving and receiving. So it is, too, with the whole body of humankind in today’s interconnected world: genuine love, fellowship, and cooperation are now requisites for the realization of peace and unity in the world of humanity.

One humanity can be pictured as many varieties of flowers within a single garden. While endless differences exist in individual human capacities, this diversity must come to be understood as a source of beauty, unity, and strength. Here, Abdu’l Baha explains the tremendous power inherent within unity that honors and embraces human diversity: “As difference in capacity exists among human souls, as difference in capability is found, therefore, individualities will differ one from another. But in reality this is a reason for unity and not for discord and enmity. If the flowers of a garden were all of one color, the effect would be monotonous to the eye; but if the colors are variegated, it is most pleasing and wonderful. The difference in adornment of color and capacity of reflection among the flowers gives the garden its beauty and charm. Therefore, although we are of different individualities, different in ideas and of various fragrances, let us strive like flowers of the same divine garden to live together in harmony. Even though each soul has its own individual perfume and color, all are reflecting the same light, all contributing fragrance to the same breeze which blows through the garden, all continuing to grow in complete harmony and accord.” The image of such a garden, unified in diversity, illustrates what lies ahead when each person is encouraged and inspired to develop his and her own capacities to the fullest possible extent, a single human race that will be united with such power, such strength, as has never been witnessed in the entirety of history.

The world today remains divided, filled with more conflict than at any time in history, disintegration that seems only to increase at a pace both astonishingly rapid and overwhelming. Baha’u’llah explicitly acknowledged that the unification of humankind can come to fruition only when humanity turns in the direction of God. Abdu’l Baha writes, “... when diverse shades of thought, temperament and character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest. Naught but the celestial potency of the Word of God, which ruleth and transcendeth the realities of things, is capable of harmonizing the divergent thoughts, sentiments, ideas, and convictions of the children of men. Verily, it is the penetrating power in all things, the mover of souls and the binder and regulator in the world of humanity.” The only true solution to the ills of the present, then, involve the turning of ourselves and all of humanity toward God, whose Word alone has the power to transform human hearts and achieve the unity for which the world is becoming increasingly desperate.

Continuing the Conversation…

“[W]hen the [brain’s] left hemisphere was less cultivated than it is today, what we call ‘God’ was neither a ‘spirit’ nor a‘being.” God was, rather, Reality itself.” Karen Armstrong

Nothing here is meant to transform you into someone who identifies as religious. That’s not the point. The point, rather, is to begin actively questioning the indoctrinations of our modern secular culture – the systematic effort of elite corporate and state power to discredit religion as irrelevant at best and, at worst, destructive and violent – in order that we can open further the aperture of our hearts to include more of what in existence is beautiful, a whole reality that encompasses the profound spiritual truths revealed throughout the ages by the religions and theologies of the world. Yes, science, history, philosophy, literature, music, and the arts all have a place, an important place, in elevating our consciousness to more closely align human life with the endless beauties of truth. And, yes, here’s the point, an equally valuable role in this process can be played by our acceptance of religion and theology -- both rigorous intellectual disciplines endowed with virtually limitless abilities to illumine foundational spiritual realities that, alone, permit our ascent toward the highest paradigms of understanding. Indeed, as I understand it, without the embrace of religious truth in our studies and conversations, both, we will be rendered less able to reach the full potential of our human being.

What, then, would be the most appropriate place for religion within our conversations? This is a question, I believe, that must be considered and discussed openly, starting here and now, if we hope to maximize the progress of life on earth. In an effort to ignite within hearts the desire for contemplation and dialogue, our longing to actively engage with one another in ongoing conversation about the place that religion should hold in human life, I would like to leave readers with a few short passages from a book by religious scholar Karen Armstrong, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, about the limitations of our biological selves to discern true from false and the transcendent power of religious belief in overcoming such limitations:

“[N]eurologists tell us that in fact we have no direct contact with the world we inhabit. We have only perspectives that come to us through the intricate circuits of our nervous system, so that we all – scientists as well as mystics – know only representations of reality, not reality itself. We deal with the world as it appears to us, not as it intrinsically is, so some of our interpretations may be more accurate than others. This somewhat disturbing news means that the ‘objective truths’ on which we rely are inherently illusive. The world is there; its energy and form exist. But our apprehension of it is only a mental projection. The world is outside our bodies, but not outside our minds. ‘We are this little universe,’ the Benedictine mystic Bede Griffiths (1906-93) explained, ‘a microcosm in which the macrocosm is present as a hologram.’ We are surrounded by a reality that transcends – or ‘goes beyond’ – our conceptual grasp (1-2)….

The American scholar Frederick Streng has this working definition of religion: ‘Religion is a means of ultimate transformation … An ultimate transformation is a fundamental change from being caught up in the troubles of common existence (sin, ignorance) to living in such a way that one can cope at the deepest level with these troubles. That capacity for living allows one to experience the most authentic or deepest reality – the ultimate.’

The myths, rituals, sacred texts and ethical practices of religion develop a plan of action ‘whereby people reach beyond themselves to connect with the true and ultimate reality that will save them from the destructive forces of everyday existence’ [quoting Streng]. Living with what is ultimately real and true, people have found that they are not only able better to bear these destructive tensions, but that life itself acquires new depth and purpose (6-7).

These passages stay with me, embedded deeply within my heart. Whenever I read them, (again and again,) my whole being comes to a stop. I pause, and my soul fills with wonder. These transcendent understandings provide me and all of us, I believe, with a genuinely substantive base upon which to continue this conversation, honestly and authentically, from the heart, about the place that religion, spirituality, and theology should hold, here and now, in individual and collective human life.

[1] Baha’u’llah’s coming was heralded by the Bab (1819-1850), meaning “the Gate.” The Bab proclaimed His divine mission in 1844, the beginning of the Baha’i Era – a new cycle of human history and social evolution.

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