The Bahá'í Faith at present appears as yet another religion, a competitor in the world's religious market place. But I would argue that this is a distortion of its real nature, a result of the present stage in its historical development. This distortion is caused by the fact that up to now, all of the leaders and intellectuals of the Bahá'í community have come from a narrow cultural and intellectual basis (an Iranian-European-North American axis). They have interpreted the Bahá'í teachings in accordance with their cultural perspectives and the result is what we see today.
The Bahá'í Faith is, however, I would argue, in reality, a metareligion. It is not another religion that has come to take the place of the existing religions but rather a way of looking at the religious experience of the whole of humanity. Philip Smith presents an interesting diagramatic view of this in the first issue of the Bahá'í Studies Review, a diagram which, unfortunately, due to the limitations of the Internet, I am unable to reproduce here.
I cannot believe that several thousand years of human religious experience and knowledge are now all redundant because Bahá'u'lláh has come. Are the insights produced by the great philosophers and mystics of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism all going to put aside? No, rather I believe that, in the future, people from other cultures, Hindus, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists, Chinese religionists, and native peoples, will produce their own interpretations and developments of the Bahá'í Faith from their own cultural and religious viewpoints. These new views of the Bahá'í Faith will, I am sure, be scarcely recognizable to us who know only the Bahá'í Faith today. They may in fact possibly be much more recognizably Hindu, Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist, Chinese, and native religionist than what we today call the Bahá'í Faith--in the same way that the Bahá'í Faith in Iran is recognizably close to Shi`i Islam in ethos, when compared with the Bahá'í Faith in America.
Every culture and religion sees the spiritual world in different ways and has its differing emphases on the path to spiritual progress. If, as I have argued in "Relativism: a basis for Bahá'í Metaphysics" (SBBR 5), these are all merely different viewpoints on "the Truth", then the Bahá'í Faith should embrace them all.
What I see the Bahá'í Faith doing is taking the religious traditions of the world and developing these along their own traditional paths of spirituality. What then is the role of the Bahá'í Faith? If each religious tradition is going to carry on its own path, is there any point in the advent of the Bahá'í Faith? The answer to these questions I would see as being three-fold.
1. There is the matter of eliminating religious conflict and prejuduices, and the unity of humanity under the umbrella of the Covenant. Also, although each tradition will in a sense be developing along its own lines, they will be bound in by ties of loyalty to the Centre of the Covenant, the Universal House of Justice.
2. The Bahá'í teaching will act as guidelines to keep the development of these different spiritual paths along the "correct" lines. What I mean by this is that there are certain principles in the Bahá'í teachings, such the abolition of priests and other religious professionals, the equal spiritual station of all humanity, the spiritual equality of men and women, etc. These Bahá'ís principles would act as constraints on the ways in which any particular group could develop. No group would be permitted (by its own members awareness of these Bahá'í principles, if nothing else) to develop in ways that contravened these principles.
3. The world-wide Bahá'í community would act as a medium in which these different spiritual pathways would become globally available. But much more than this, there would be a cross-fertilization of religious ideas and practices such that, for example, Bahá'í mystics from Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and other backgrounds would meet and discuss their experiences and learn from each other. This cross-fertilization of religious experience will be the basis for the further spiritual evolution of humanity. Needless to say that we are at present completely unable even to hazard a guess as to what form this might take.