Note: this is an early draft of an article,
submitted by the author, which later appeared in an edited form in the
Journal of Bahá'í Studies 5:1 (1992). Copyright
Theology is intrinsic to the Bahá'í revelation. While community
attitudes have tended to view the discipline of theology somewhat suspiciously,
the term and field of "Bahá'í theology" remain valid and are
indispensable. One can distinguish source theology or revelation theology,
contained in holy writ, from derivative theology (commentary), which is more
relative and subjective. The relativity of religious truth, while it plays a
useful role in deabsolutizing dogmatism and in promoting interreligious
dialogue, is itself relative and currently runs the risk of becoming another
absolute. Bahá'í theology is both apophatic (negative) and
cataphatic (affirmative). An abstruse, apophatic negative theology of a hidden
God is explicit as background to Bahá'í theology. Apophasis
rejects defining God and honors God by remaining silent about the divine
essence. If apophasis does speak of God, it does so by via negativa, by
describing God through a process of elimination of what God is not, rather than
making affirmations about what God is. The main substance of
Bahá'í theology, however, is manifestation theology or
theophanology, that is, a theology calculated upon an understanding of the
metaphysical reality and teachings of the divine Manifestation. This
manifestation theology is cataphatic. Cataphasis dares to speak about God but
recognizes that God transcends the human analogies used to describe divinity.
Bahá'í theology is, moreover, based in faith rooted in the person
of Bahá'u'lláh and his divine revelation, has a strong
metaphysical bias, eschews dogmatism, and welcomes diversity.
26 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
O thou who assumest the voice of knowledge! This Cause is too evident
to be obscured, and too conspicuous to be concealed. It shineth as the sun in
its meridian glory.
Ninety years ago, Cambridge Orientalist E.G. Browne wrote that during his stay
in Persia in 188788 among the "Behá'í Bábís," their
religion consisted mainly of listening to tablets (alwáh
(Browne, Introduction to Phelps, Abbas Effendi
Bábí-Bahá'í teachings were "varying and unfixed,"
he noted, and contained little doctrine "touching on questions of Metaphysics,
Ontology, or Eschatology" (Browne, Introduction to Phelps, Abbas Effendi
While the subsequent decades witnessed a
proliferation in the
1. It was an allusion by Moojan Momen to Browne that first drew my
attention to this passage. Browne "commented on the fact that there is little
in the corpus of works about that [Bahá'í] faith that can be
described as systematic theological or metaphysical writing" ("Relativism"
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 27
translation of Bahá'í sacred scripture which have dealt
precisely with many of Browne's concerns, only recently have we begun to
witness the emergence of Bahá'í theology per se. The last two
decades of the twentieth century particularly have witnessed a gradual but
significant increase in scholarly writings treating diverse themes in
Bahá'í theology and metaphysics. Bahá'í theologian
Udo Schaefer finds, nonetheless, that compared with Islam, which by its
mid-second century had already founded its four schools of law,2
Bahá'í research has thus far focused mainly on history and has
produced, with some notable exceptions, little "on the metaphysical and
theological aspects of Bahá'u'lláh's Revelation," which Schaefer
maintains are "at the core of a religion" ("Challenges" 26).3
Whatever speculation may exist about the causes for the lag in the development
of Bahá'í theology, a consciousness seems to have finally
crystalized around the vital necessity to foster the growth of the scholarly
exploration of the specifically religious teachings of the Bahá'í
'Abdu'l-Bahá exhorted the Bahá'ís to "the advancement of
all branches of knowledge" which he said was "a fixed and vital principle . .
." (Bahá'í Education: A Compilation
This exhortation would naturally include sacred study. We still find, however,
that basic Bahá'í teachings such as the nature of
Bahá'í ethics, progressive revelation, the fundamental unity of
the world religions, and the implications of the old and difficult question of
"the one and the many,"5
which still persists in the
Bahá'í Faith as "unity in diversity," are just some of the
teachings that have received little in-depth treatment in
2. The four legal schools (madháhib; sing. madhhab) are: (1) the
Hanafíte school, founded by AbC Hamfa (d. 767); (2) the Malakite school,
founded by Málik ibn Anas (d. 795); (3) the Sháf'íte,
founded by Sháf'í (d. 820); and (4) the strictest and most
conservative Hanbalite school, founded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855). Actions
that might be considered lawful or unlawful are divided into five categories:
(i) obligatory, (ii) prohibited, (iii) recommended but not obligatory, (iv)
indifferent, and (v) disapproved but not forbidden.
3. To put a more optimistic light on Schaefer's comparison, we have to
bear in mind that demographically the Bahá'í Faith is working
from a very broad base, the entire planet. It has taken longer, therefore, to
lay down its root system of communities.
4. The complete quotation is: "In this new and wondrous Cause, the
advancement of all branches of knowledge is a fixed and vital principle, and
the friends, one and all, are obligated to make every effort toward this
5. Aristotle refers to "the one and the many" in Metaphysics, Book Iota,
in which he says: "The one and the many are opposed in several ways, one of
which is the opposition between the one as the indivisible and the many as the
divisible; anything that is divided or divisible is called a plurality, whereas
the indivisible or undivided is called a unity" (205-6). The source of the
problem of "the one and the many," however, predates Aristotle. The early Greek
philosopher Heraclitus first raised the question of the one and the many.
Parmenides, Melissus, and Zeno also explored the problem.
28 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1.1992
scholarship, a situation that promises to be temporary.6
One also looks forward to the development of a systematic theology (since
Bahá'í theology consists thus far mainly of piecemeal themes) and
to a "world theology,"7
as well as to more existential and
holistic approaches to the field.
This article takes a broad overview of the question of "Bahá'í
theology," and has two basic objectives: (1) to address the more preliminary
question of the concept and validity of Bahá'í
per se; and (2) to help clear the grounda process
already under wayfor the more in-depth examination of a few selected themes.
These two basic objectives will be met more specifically by defining
Bahá'í theology through a discussion of terminology, the
relativity of religious truth, manifestation and negative theology, and
elements of Bahá'í cosmology. These questions lie at diverse
points on the theological spectrum and, other than Bahá'í
theology itself, are not tied together by any one extended theme. It should be
understood that any ideas about Bahá'í theology are put forward
here as tentative theories only and are obviously not meant to be binding on
anyone, including the author.
Defining Bahá'í Theology
There are possibly two great dangers of any theology.
Bahá'í derivative theology (commentary) would be no exception.
One is the risk of idolatry, meant here in the Judaic sense of absolutizing or
worshipping anything but God. The intellectual pursuit of theology, whose
object is the understanding of the divine milieu,9
the risk of becoming a substitute for the truth, revelation, and the spiritual
life, which are all its prime purpose. Following the idolatry leitmotif, Paula
A. Drewek cautions against the danger of idolatry when discussing theology:
Any "God-talk" is prone to idolatry. In discussing forms of God, we had
cognizant of potential dangers.... The images or forms of God cannot be
6. The situation is already changing. Udo Schaefer has written an
instructive article on Bahá'í ethics for the forthcoming
Bahá'í encyclopedia. Dann J. May's master's thesis, entitled "The
Bahá'í Principle of Transcendental Unity and the Challenge of
Religious Pluralism" (1993), defines Bahá'í theology more closely
through an examination of the concept of faith and the two-fold
(spiritual/social) nature of religion. In the light of scholarship, he also
critiques "radical pluralism" and examines the grounds for belief in a unity of
7. See n. 22 below.
8. It is understood by the term "Bahá'í theology," that a
diversity of theologies are possible. I will, however, use the singular
throughout this article.
9. The "divine milieu" is an expression I have borrowed from Le Milieu
divinthe title is usually retained in translation one of the seminal works of
the French Jesuit and vital evolutionist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. By the
"divine milieu," I mean not only God or a doctrine of God but also all human
perceptions of God and the various forms of spirituality.
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 29
with the truth they are intended to convey; the vehicle is not the
essence. ("Divine Spirit and Form" 2)10
In other words, theology is not an end in itself. It should always focus on a
clearer understanding of the teachings of the revelation, its concepts, and the
existential human condition. The epitome of the absolutization of theology is
historically exemplified by the rejection of the Manifestations of God by
theologians. Here we have the supreme tragic irony and paradox of history. The
divine Teacher who is the origin of all theology is rejected by the wayward
pupils. The second danger is that theology become a tool of contention.
Theology in Bahá'í perspective is open to accepting a congenial
diversity of views on the divine milieu, of "letting a thousand flowers
Theology in the past has been not only an instrument of
sectarianism but also a powerful tool of repression and warfare. Christ's
condemnation of the Jewish parties of his time, "Ye blind guides which strain
at a gnat, and swallow a camel" (Matt. 23:24) indicates how theologians can
lose perspective and trivialize the pursuit of the truth, or tempt us to
encompass and define doctrines that are beyond our intellectual capacity to
define. The Universal House of Justice has alluded to the same difficulty:
In past dispensations many errors arose because the believers in God's
Revelation were overanxious to encompass the Divine Message within the
framework of their limited understanding, to define doctrines where definition
was beyond their power, to explain mysteries which only the wisdom and
experience of a later age would make comprehensible, to argue that something
was true because it appeared desirable and necessary. Such compromises with
essential truth, such intellectual pride, we must scrupulously avoid.
(Wellspring of Guidance 87-88)
Like an open window, theology must let in not only statements of truth but also
the spirit of life. It must liberate and somehow contribute to the wholeness of
human life. Further, theology must always be subordinate to revelation,
10. Drewek is echoing in her remark a long-established view of idolatry
dating back to ancient Judaism, Islam, St. Paul, and Luther, among others. In
his article "Idolatry in Comparative Perspective," Wilfred Cantwell Smith, one
of the founders of interreligious dialogue, points out that theologies, which
he defines as "conceptual images of God" (56), can also be idolatrous and
should be distinguished from the transcendence of God: "Thus even for those few
nowadays who do not make the recent error of reifying their religion, it is
nonetheless easy to idolize the conceptual content of a theological position or
tenet.... Some intellectuals would in this fashion absolutizeidolizethe
role of rational propositionsa still lower form of the rational" (60).
Smith's remarks are pertinent to any theologizing, Bahá'í or
11. This poetic phrase appeared in one of the responses to an informal
opinion survey on Bahá'í theology that I conducted. It is similar
to one of Mao Tse Tung's sayings pertaining to the cultural revolution of
"letting a hundred flowers blossom . . ." (speech in Peking, Feb. 27,
30 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1.1992
whose purpose it is to elucidate. The great medievalist Etienne Gilson
(1884-1978) was conscious of this danger of allowing theology to become a
substitute for revelation. Referring to Karl Barth, the systematic theologian
of church dogmatics whose purpose it was to purify liberal Protestant theology
from all natural theology,12
Gilson wrote about the all-too-human
tendency to ignore the divine Word and to idolize its interpreter:
We all know how energetically he [Barth] pursues this aim. God speaks,
says K. Barth: man listens and repeats what God has said. Unfortunately, as is
inevitable from the moment that a man sets himself up as His interpreter: God
speaks, the Barthian listens and repeats what Barth has said. ("Intelligence in the
An understanding of Bahá'í theology depends, as in all
philosophical questions, on working definitions. The word theology
used basically in two ways: narrow and broad. With some limited restrictions,
these usages are quite compatible with the Bahá'í Faith. On the
one hand, the narrow use of the term denotes Christianity and applies to
dogmatic theology, a corpus of theological writings that have been worked out
historically in church council, often through acrimonious theological disputes.
Proponent of "world theology" Wilfred Cantwell Smith rejects, however, the
notion that theology is a specifically Christian term and ascribes a much
larger meaning to the word.13
It is, however, incorrect to
characterize all Christian theology as "dogmatic," since that designation
applies to only one branch of Christian theology, especially in the Church of
Rome, a branch that concerns itself with orthodox pronouncements of
With the exception of fundamentalism, most modern and
theologians write from nondogmatic perspectives. We
are not currently living in the age of the great dogma, but rather, in a
post-dogmatic age. Theology in the narrower sense is also written from a faith
12. That is, purely rational human attempts to understand God outside of
revelation. For Barth, revelation meant the Christian revelation
13. See Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Toward a World Theology. Smith writes:
"Throughout I have spoken of 'theology', never of 'Christian theology'. Indeed,
the phrase 'Christian theology', once one stops to reflect about it, is a
contradiction in terms.... Historically, however, it is the phrase 'Christian
theology' that, rather, is recent, odd and finally untenable. It is virtually
unknown before the nineteenth and rare before the twentieth century" (70).
"There may be an attempt at Christian theology; and indeed there should be. An
attempt at Christian theology, on the other hand, is too narrow a goal; and in
the end, is self-contradictory" (71).
14. The classical expression of dogmatic theology deals preeminently with
the life, works, and person of Christ as expressed in the dogmas of the
incarnation and the trinity, questions that preoccupied the Church for the
first five centuries.
15. Comparative religionist Huston Smith describes post-modernism as a
rejection of all systems and worldviews: "Doubting that a deep structure
exists, it settles for the constantly shifting configurations of the phenomenal
world" ("Postmodernism's Impact" 262).
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 31
which accepts the authority of divine revelationusually, but not
necessarily, from a single sourcethat ordinarily views its own teachings as
"normative," that is, determinative of the truths of other faiths. Here
Bahá'í source theology stands as a close parallel with its
traditional biblical or quranic counterparts: the norm by which other truths
The broad use of the word theology,
on the other hand, refers to any
religious consideration of God or the gods, humanity, the world, cosmology,
salvation, eschatology, etc. Although one can even propose broader definitions
of theology that exclude God or religion, such as nontheistic or so-called
purposes, theological questions usually
16. Comparative religionist Raimundo Pannikar mentions the "surfeit of
opinions" that both Western and Eastern scholars hold about the Buddha's
teachings including that of atheism or agnosticism. Pannikar cites von
Glasenapp (Buddhismus und Gottesidee), Junjiro Takakusa (The Essentials of
Buddhist Philosophy), Haridas Bhattacharaya (The Foundations of Living), and G.
van der Leeuw (Phänomenologie der Religion) as having affimmed the atheism
of Buddhism (Silence of God nn. 6, 14, p. 179). Pannikar treats the Buddha's
"atheism" and "agnosticism" in the chapters entitled "Buddhism: Atheistic
Religion" (16-23) and "Religious Atheism" (92-100). See also "Agnosticism"
(9-10) and "Negation of Being: Atheism" (92-100). Pannikar maintains that the
conviction of agnosticism is more widespread among scholars than that of
atheism (Silence n. 5, p. 179). Far from supporting the notions of the Buddha's
agnosticism and atheism, however, Pannikar maintains that the Buddha cannot
qualify either as an agnostic or an atheist: "But Buddha never stated that he
was an agnostic. On the contrary, his whole comportment was that of the
'Enlightened One', indeed, the one who knows, who has seen, who has 'arrived'.
The Buddha never entertained the least doubt as to his own position and
solution. The Buddha knows. He knows, and makes manifest, the road to
salvation. Nothing could be further removed from the attitude of an agnostic"
(Silence 9-10). On Buddha's so-called atheism, Pannikar states that the Buddha
defended himself against such a charge: "The Buddha has not affirmed God, but
neither has he denied God. On the contrary, as we have seen, he defended
himself against the latter accusation ever more earnestly than against the
former" (174). "God remains obscure, unknown, incomprehensible, mysterious. On
his salvation journey, gakyamuni prescinds [leaves out of consideration] from
God.... The Buddha is silent of God" (175). Further on the basis of the
following passage, one could argue that the Buddha rejected nihilism, one of
several versions of atheism: "Wrongly, basely, falsely, and without foundation
do certain ascetics and Brahmins accuse me, saying that Gautama the ascetic is
a nihilist, and that he preaches annihilation, destruction, and nonexistence.
Such I am not, such I do not assert. Today, monks, as before, I proclaim one
thing alone: sorrow, sorrow's destruction . . ." (Mahihima-nikáya 1:139,
in Fatone, Nihilismo buddhista 30, quoted in Pannikar, Silence 10).
17. The Encyclopedia of Religion states: "The term theology as used here
does not necessarily imply a belief in 'God'" (s.v. "comparative theology").
See also, for example' Paul Ramsey, "Religious Aspects of Marxism." What Ramsey
does here is to take several key Marxist notions such as the function of the
State, materialistic and economic determinism, the passion for social justice,
ideology, the Marxist interpretation of history, and reinterpret them
sociologically in the light of Christian theology, using
32 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
deal with the dimension of transcendence. There is some scholarly
support, however, for the position that the interpretation of atheism and
nihilism in Buddhism was a "later aberration" of the philosophers and was not
part of authentic and original Buddhism (Pannikar, Silence
position that would be congenial to the Bahá'í interpretation of
Buddhists today would prefer "doctrine" to theology
since they shy away from theos
. Even doctrine would be too much for some
in the face of the Buddha's silence. The broad use of theology, moreover, also
extends the meaning of the word to religious experience generally, as perceived
in the psychology of religion or mysticism, and includes the comparative study
It also places a premium on the perspective of
religious pluralism and the historical study of religion.
It is worth noting in passing that while in North America (1912),
'Abdu'l-Bahá specifically endorsed the study of comparative religion as
a means for combating prejudice and superstition and for fostering "fellowship"
and "brotherhood," and recommended the investigation of an underlying religious
unity as a means of abolishing prejudice.20
The broad use of the
word theology does not, however, recognize as normative any one religious
tradition. Even though, from the time of F. Max Müller (1823-1900), one of
"the founding fathers of comparative religion" (Sharpe, Comparative
252), historians of religion or comparative religionists were careful at first
to distinguish their work
such notions as the kingdom of God, biblical faith, the overlordship of
God, and the Christian notion of sin.
18. Pannikar refers to the "numerous works and translations of Caroline
Augusta Foley Rhys Davids" that espouse this point of view The pertinent texts
can be found in G. R. Welbon, "On Understanding the Buddhist Nirvana" quoted in
Pannikar, Silence, n. 30, p. 180. In the Bahá'í perspective, the
Buddha first promoted the belief in one God. 'Abdu'l-Bahá says of the
Buddha, "He established the Oneness of God, but later the original principles
of His doctrines gradually disappeared, and ignorant customs and ceremonials
arose and increased until they finally ended in the worship of statues and
images" (Some Answered Questions 165).
19. Such a comprehensive view of theology is that of F. R. Tennant.
Tennant writes: "It [theology] also includes the comparative study of religions
and the psychology of religious experience" (s.v. "theology," Encyclopaedia
Britannica). Tennant elaborates on his view of theology as a comprehensive
science in his two-volume work Philosophical Theology and in Philosophy of the
Sciences where he writes: "Theology is not an isolated nor an isolable science;
it is an outgrowth of our knowledge of the world and man. Revealed theology
presupposes natural theology, and natural theology has no data other than those
which experience supplies to science" (187). Tennant's view of theology is
somewhat atypical, and it also separates theology from dogmatism and
20. During a talk at Eighth Street Temple, a synagogue in Washington,
D.C., 'Abdu'l-Bahá said: "Praise be to God! You are living in a land of
freedom. You are blessed with men of learning, men who are well versed in the
comparative study of religions. You realize the need of unity and know the
great harm which comes from prejudice and superstition.... This [prejudice]
must be abandoned, and the way to do it is to investigate the reality which
underlies all the religions" (Promulgation 410).
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 33
from theology, which was looked upon as being dogmatic, apologetic, and
orthodox-exclusive, more recently they have reverted to using the word
albeit in a broader sense of simply speaking the truth about
God. This newer understanding of theology has given rise to such phrases and
new enterprises as comparative theology,21
and interreligious dialogue.
All theology, however, begins in some sense as a quest to understand God, or
the gods, through a spiritual and rational interpretation of humanity and the
universe. As such, theology is meant to assist in the discovery of the divine
truths that have been deposited first in God's written revelation and then in
all of creation, the "two books" of which 'Abdu'l-Bahá
At the simplest and most nonthreatening level, theology
can be looked upon simply as "God-talk," an expression that is sometimes used
instead of "theology."24
21. F. Max Müller, in his Introduction to the Science of Religion
(1873), one of the seminal works in comparative religion, used "comparative
theology" to refer to the beliefs of Hinduism and Buddhism as well as to the
gods of Greece and Italy and those of ancient Scandinavia in the light of
comparative philology and the history of religions. Today "comparative
theology" usually refers to a comparative study of the theologies of two or
more of the world's religions. This approach recognizes religious pluralism.
See "comparative theology" in the Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 14.
22. The term "world theology" forms part of the title of Wilfred Cantwell
Smith's Toward a World Theology. Smith posits a unity among the world
religions: "Those who believe in the unity of mankind, and those who believe in
the unity of God, should be prepared therefore to discover a unity of mankind's
religious history" (4). Smith's view of the unity of the religions seems to lie
in the vision that there is a historical interconnectedness among the world
religions, in a larger way than, for example, all Christians share a common
history. He does not affirm that "A equals B, or even resembles it" (5), that
is, that all religions are the same. He looks upon religious unity as some sort
of world history of the religions, in which the religions have "grown out of"
or been "influenced by" one another (5). The tapestry analogy comes to mind. AH
religions are seen as strands that form part of a larger pattern. In part three
of his book, Smith puts forward the view that there cannot be any valid
theology of another religion by an observer, no matter how generous he or she
may be. Only the participant can theologize. It is not valid for one to
objectify another's faith. For Smith, "world theology" would mean that we all
see ourselves as participants in one community. "World theology" would be a
theology of the religious history of humankind. A major obstacle in praxis
persists however. What will induce the adherents of the world faiths to abandon
their absolutist convictions and embrace the new world theology, even if such a
theology were to be satisfactorily worked out? One can certainly concur with
Smith, however, that we attempt to work out a theology of the whole.
23. "The Book of Creation is in accord with the written Book.... The Book
of Creation is the command of God and the repository of divine mysteries"
(Makátib 436 37). Unpublished in English. Cited by Bahíyyih
Nakhjavání in Response 13. The Bahá'í writings even
speak of a third book, that of "man": "Man is said to be the greatest
representative of God, and he is the Book of Creation because all the mysteries
of beings exist in him" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions
24. It hardly needs to be stated that theology (Gk. theos=God,
34 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
Theology, either narrow or broad, requires conscious reflection or critical
analysis of questions about God and religion. If theology were not critical
reflection on the faith experience, it would remain undifferentiated from
"blind faith" or religious practice, that is, an accepted and unquestioned
belief system. As "the science that treats of the divine" (The Penguin
Dictionary of Religions
328), theology is a systematic reflection upon
certain key questions of the faith-state or the given belief system. G. F. van
Ackeren's cogent definition states that theology is: "The methodological
elaboration of the truths of divine revelation by reason enlightened by faith"
("Theology"), a definition that follows St. Anselm of Canterbury's (1033-1109)
teaching of "faith seeking understandingI believe, so that I may understand"
(fides quaerens intellectum
credo, ut intelligam
), a statement
that is congenial to Bahá'í theology.
From both the broad and narrow uses of the word, we can conclude that the
definition of theology would be compatible with the Bahá'í Faith,
with two restrictions: First, the Bahá'í Faith eschews dogma.
Second, while the Bahá'í Faith regards its teachings as
normative, it does not view them as orthodox-exclusive.
Bahá'í theology cannot be dogmatic in the normal sense of the
word, that is, a final and duly perceived infallible doctrine imposed upon the
believers by the institutions of religion. However, the function
dogma, in contradistinction to dogma itself, is preserved in the
Bahá'í notion of "authority," that is, the ipse dixit
teachings of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, and
'Abdu'l-Bahá. These ipse dixit
teachings are perceived
objectively by the community of believers as being statements of truth, and as
such carry binding authority, harking back to one of the original meanings of
dogma, that is, a revealed doctrine.25
Likewise the inspired
interpretations of Shoghi Effendi or the enactments or pronouncements of the
speaking about God. God-talk is not a theological school of thought. It
is simply a way of deflating the more onerous word theology. I, for one,
however, share Wilfred Cantwell Smith's view that the colloquial expression
"God-talk" trivializes theology. In an essay devoted to universal theology
("Theology and the World's Religious History"), Smith asserts that "theology is
speaking the truth about God" ("Theology" 54). Smith also makes the point that
virtually every people on the face of the earth has talked about God, but
relatively few have elaborated theologies which are "systematic" and
"rigorous." He also states that "theology is as much more than talk about God
as logic is more than talk in general" ("Theology" 53).
25. Adolph von Harnack (1851-1930) makes the point that one of the
original meanings of dogma was that of a revealed doctrine: "But the moment in
which the product of theology became dogma, the way which led to it must be
obscured; for, according to the conception of the church, dogma can be nothing
else than the revealed faith itself" (History of Dogma 1: 9). See also p. 15,
where he makes the same point: "But they [Christians] differ from such a school
in so far as they have always eliminated the process of thought which has led
to dogma, looking upon the whole system of dogma as revelation...." Von
Harnack's seven-volume Dogmengeschichte (History of Dogma) is a classic in the
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 35
Universal House of Justice, while they do not have the status of prophetic
divine revelation, carry divine authority that is binding upon believers. The
church, however, claimed for its dogmas not only divine authority but the
status of divine revelation itself, as Harnack's statement (see n. 25)
indicates. Commentary by scholars, moreover, regardless of their status in the
Bahá'í Faith, remains nonauthoritative and nonbinding. Commentary
has strictly a pedagogical function in the Bahá'í Faith. Dogma
is, moreover, arbitrary by nature and eschews any connection with or appeal to
philosophy, while Bahá'í theology is in large part philosophical
theology, or "divine philosophy" in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's phrase, and in many
cases is philosophy as revelation, since specific philosophical concepts and
constructs are taught in Bahá'í sacred scripture. For example, a
fundamental philosophic concept that has been incorporated into
Bahá'í theology is the Platonic idea of the impossibility of
knowing the essence of any thing in itself, Kant's Ding an sich
possibility of knowing its attributes, however, is affirmed (Some Answered
220). 'Abdu'l-Bahá asserts, however, that the knowledge of
God's "true attributes" remains unknown. What we may suppose are God's
attributes are merely human projections that in no way resemble them. In his
letter to Dr. Auguste Forel (God and the Universe) 'Abdu'l-Bahá says,
"It is not meant, however, that that Universal Reality or the attributes
thereof have been comprehended. Neither its Essence nor its true attributes
hath any one comprehended" (Bahá'í World Faith
Dogma, moreover, usually intends only one possible meaning to the teaching
under discussion, whereas in Bahá'u'lláh's hermeneutic, the
divine word has multiple and hidden meanings.26
Bahá'í theology is not viewed by its proponents to be the
exclusive truth. The truths of other divine revelations are specifically
while the many doctrinal accretions in the world
faiths have to be evaluated individually in the light of
Bahá'u'lláh's divinely revealed teachings.
Based on these considerations, one can offer two heuristic definitions of
Bahá'í theology. The first points to revelation as the source of
theology; the second points to theology as commentary on revelation. The narrow
26. Bahá'u'lláh quotes the Islamic tradition: "Every
knowledge hath seventy meanings, of which one only is known amongst the people.
And when the Qa'im shall arise, He shall reveal unto men all that which
remaineth" (Kitáb-i-Íqán 255). And also, "The heart must
needs therefore be cleansed from the idle sayings of men, and sanctified from
every earthly affection, so that it may discover the hidden meaning of divine
inspiration, and become the treasury of the mysteries of divine knowledge"
27. "These principles and laws, [of the world's religions] these
firmly-established and mighty systems, have proceeded from one Source, and are
the rays of one Light" (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 287-88). Also:
"From the days of Adam until today, the religions of God have been made
manifest, one following the other, and each one of them fulfilled its due
function, revived mankind, and provided education and enlightenment"
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections 51).
36 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
refers to the Bahá'í revelation itself, what I call here
or revelation theology,
which is the substance of
Bahá'í sacred scripture.28
source theology refers to the authoritative, objective, and normative truths of
the Bahá'í sacred writings or those elucidated by its duly
appointed interpreters. Authoritative means that the teaching is binding on
believers; objective means that the truths of source theology are commonly
perceived and recognized as true by the community of believers; normative means
that the teaching is recognized by believers as the standard of truth. The
broader definition refers to the commentary of scholars, called here
: Bahá'í derivative theology
(commentary) is the subjective, relative, and nonbinding elucidation of
Bahá'í teachings by competent scholars. Subjective here means
that the commentary is particular to the viewpoint of the writer and becomes
objective only where a common consensus exists as to its validity.
Further, to observe the distinctions in Bahá'u'lláh's writings
made by Shoghi Effendi, we can say that all Bahá'í theology,
whether source or derivative can be subdivided into three categories: the
doctrinal, ethical, and mystical (God Passes By
140). The bulk of
theological writing to date, however, falls almost entirely into the doctrinal
category. Very little commentary exists on the ethical dimension (moral
theology), which predominates, for example, in the religions of China and
Japan, and particularly in Confucianism. Moreover, little has been written by
Bahá'í scholars on mysticism.29
Theology is also
concerned with the processes of history and with God's revelation and final
purpose (eschatology) within history.
28. Since the coined phrase "source theology" could be interpreted in
various ways, I add here a word of clarification. By "source theology" I intend
two basic and familiar ideas: that revelation is the source of theology and
that revelation is theological in content. I fully recognize, nonetheless, the
dependence of theology on revelation and do not infer from "source theology"
that theology is equal to revelation.
29. There is, however, an article on mysticism in the forthcoming
Bahá'í encyclopedia. See also Moojan Momen's "The Psychology of
Mysticism and its Relationship to the Bahá'í Faith." Momen's
views on mysticism appear to be ambiguous. The reader is not sure whether Momen
is simply anticipating criticism from those who would reduce mysticism to
mental pathology, or whether he questions the validity of mystical experience
itself. The research he cites involves psychiatric patients with severe
personality disorders such as schizophrenia, or states of mind induced by such
drugs as L.S.D., mescaline, alcohol, and diazepam. Momen underscores, however,
that he is not saying that mental pathology or drugs can produce genuine mystic
states, but rather that there are some common objective features between
mystical states of mind and those induced by drugs and mental disorders
("Psychology" 11). Further, science can make no value judgment as to the
"truth" of mystical experience ("Psychology" 11). Momen concludes by advocating
a "middle position" between the pro- and anti-mystical positions, somewhere
between "the monist pathway in trances" on the one hand, and "codes of
rationalism and positivism" on the other, which will satisfy our needs for
"creativity, fulfilment and advancement" ("Psychology" 20).
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 37
The Relativity of Religious Truth: Relating to the Absolute30
The notion of the relativity of religious truth is one of the fundamental
questions in Bahá'í philosophical theology.31
Shoghi Effendi names the teaching in conjunction with progressive revelation
and describes it as "the fundamental principle which constitutes the bedrock of
Bahá'í belief . . ." (The World Order
Bahá'í teaching on relativity dates back to the prophetic
insights in the nineteenth century of the founders of the Bahá'í
Faith. The teaching is thus grounded in revelation rather than speculation,
giving it the authority of scripture and ensuring it a lasting place in
Like any concept, relativity has its own history. In Western philosophy,
relativity is usually traced to the first and most renowned humanistic Sophist,
Protagoras (481-411 B.C.) with his well-known proposition, "Man is the measure
of all things."32
Protagoras's view of relativity was based on
his understanding of perception, which seemed to include both sense perception
and opinion. In response to a critique by Plato, Protagoras cites the example
of food that tastes bitter to the sick man but wholesome to the man who is
Protagoras extended this subjective perception to his
theory of truth. All opinions are true, he argued, because they are true for
the one perceiving them. They have no universal validity. This concept led to
both a radical subjectivism in epistemology and an ethical relativism that was
criticized by Plato in the Theaetetus.34
30. The relativity of religious truth is a large question, and
limitations of space exclude an in-depth treatment of the subject. In addition
to giving a brief account of how relativity relates to the Bahá'í
view of progressive revelation, and following Langdon Gilkey's understanding, I
basically address the question of the interplay between the absolute nature of
our religious beliefs and values and how these are relativized in
interreligious dialogue. I have not addressed here certain key parameters of
the discussion. Such questions as the relative and subjective viewpoint of the
observer, the immutability of spiritual truth, the metaphysical unity of the
prophets which Bahá'u'lláh qualifies as "absolute," the whole
question of the nature of God as the Absolute, the relative and absolute nature
of spiritual values and experiences, and the concept of the absolute as a
unified field of reality, have been largely omitted, although there are
references to some of these.
31. Moojan Momen treats the relativity of religious truth in "Relativism:
A Basis for Bahá'í Metaphysics." Following the progressive
revelation line of reasoning, Udo Schaefer also treats relativity in "Die
Relativitat der Offenbarung" (The Relativity of Revelation) 116-20
(untranslated). Nader Saiedi also deals with relativity in order to relate it
to a view of progressive social reality in "A Dialogue with Marxism" 242
32. The above is the more well-known translation. John Mansley Robinson
translates the complete and obscure proposition that is found in Protagoras's
On Truth thus: "Of all things the measure is man: of existing things, that they
exist; of nonexistent things, that they do not exist" (Introduction
33. See Protagoras's response to Plato's critique in Robinson,
34. Reacting to Protagoras's affirmation of the subjectivity of
perception, and through Socrates' voice, Plato makes a personal criticism of
the Sophist, viz. if no one
38 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
Although relativity is currently used as a tool to promote interfaith
understanding by deabsolutizing the perception of one's own truth, it was first
perceived as a threat to official doctrine by the Roman Catholic Church because
it ascribed temporal conditions and subjective limitations to Catholic dogma,
which was held to be immutable. Relativity was condemned by Pope Pius X in his
encyclical Lamentabili Sane
or Lamentabili Sane Exitu
Condemning the Errors of the Modernists) (1907) with its list of sixty-five
modern errors, a syllabus that was modelled upon Pope Pius IX's Syllabus
(Syllabus of Errors) (1864).35
The leader of Catholic
modernism, Alfred Loisy (1857-1949), priest, noted bible scholar, and lecturer
at the Institut Catholique in Paris, was excommunicated in 1908 in part for
relativizing dogmatic theology. Loisy had declared in L'Evangile et
that dogmatic definitions are always relative, variable,
and conditioned by historical circumstances. Loisy, however, had also extended
his concept of relativity to Jesus and declared Jesus to be limited and
fallible in his judgments. Loisy also opposed traditional teaching on the
inspiration of scripture (Livingston, Modern Christian Thought
291, 452). The American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) also treated
relativity in The Meaning of Revelation
(7-38), although he
distinguished it from a radical subjectivism and skepticism.36
opinion is better than another, and if all opinions are true, how can
Protagoras presume to teach other people and to charge them "huge fees"? Plato
also indicated that with his relativity of sensations, Protagoras was making no
distinction between the human being and the animal. Why not, therefore, take
the animal as the measure of all things? (See Robinson, Introduction 246).
Plato maintained, however, that in contrast to mere fluctuating opinion, there
was sure knowledge and fixed concepts authoritative for all his doctrine of
35. "Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists" is not a
translation of Lamentabili Sane Exitu, which translates as "with truly
lamentable results." The titles of papal encyclicals are not always translated,
and they usually bear as their title the first few words of the papal letter.
Even though relativity or relativism is not mentioned by name in the syllabus,
its condemnation is implicit in numbers 58, 59, 62, 63, and 64 of the missive.
No. 58 reads, for example, "Truth is no more immutable than man himself, since
it evolved with him, in him, and through him." No. 59 reads, "Christ did not
teach a determined body of doctrine applicable to all time and all men, but
rather inaugurated a religious movement adapted or to be adapted to different
times and places." No. 59 is almost certainly aimed at Alfred Loisy, whom the
church excommunicated in 1908. The letter was written as a reaction to the
growing and influential conclusions of scholars engaged in scriptural exegesis
and historical research that cast doubt on fundamental Catholic
36. Niebuhr recognized that our spiritual convictions were determined by
historical relativism: "The patterns and models we employ to understand the
historical world may have had a heavenly origin, but as we know and use them
they are, like ourselves, creatures of history and time; though we direct our
thought to eternal and transcendent beings, it is not eternal and transcendent;
though we regard the universal, the image of the universal in our mind is not a
universal image" (Meaning 10). His view of relativity, however, did
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 39
Although the concept of the relativity of religious truth is not new to the
Bahá'í Faith, its use is somewhat novel. The context of Shoghi
Effendi's statement correlates relativity with progressive revelation. Niebuhr
and Nathan Söderblom (1866-1931), Nobel laureate for peace (1930),
comparative religionist and primate of the Church of Sweden, also had their own
concepts of "progressive revelation" and "continued revelation"
Shoghi Effendi's joining of the relativity of religious truth with progressive
revelation yields, however, a first-level meaning of relativity. The
Bahá'í view of dispensational progressive revelation is that
religious truth is relative both to our point in historical evolution and to
the state of our current understanding. According to this view, the
Bahá'í Faith is not the final prophetic revelation. Revelation is
unending, Bahá'í scripture affirms. There will, therefore, be
other revelations. In that sense, the Bahá'í view of religious
truth is not absolute, for truth unfolds progressively and will continue to do
so "to the end that hath no end . . ." (Bahá'u'lláh,
This view can be contrasted with the more
absolute and fundamentalist views of the finality of revelation in
Christocentric Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.
There are, however, other implications for religious relativity. The current
discussion among practitioners of interreligious dialogue and "world theology"
favors a bias toward the relativity pole of the discussion, what Langdon Gilkey
has called "the flood of relativity" ("Plurality" 50). The polar opposite of
relativity, the absolute, has largely been avoided because of its negative
associations with dogmatism and orthodox exclusivism. One of the benefits of
the relativity of religious truth is that it has allowed us to recognize
revelation, truth, salvation, and grace in traditions other than our own. This
has been just one
culminate in unbridled subjectivity and a skepticism that undermine one's
basic convictions: "It is not evident that the man who is forced to confess
that his view of things is conditioned by the standpoint he occupies must doubt
the reality of what he sees" (18).
37. In The Meaning of Revelation, Niebuhr uses the phrase "progressive
revelation" to refer to a continuous working out of the meaning of revelation
in the on-going history of the human community: ". . . by being brought to bear
upon the interpretation and reconstruction of ever new human situations in an
enduring movement, a single drama of divine and human action" (135-36). On the
individual level, it refers to a continuing understanding, reconstruction, and
unity of the self in a dialectic of the ever-widening circle of reason and
experience in understanding "first principles." This understanding of
"progressive revelation" points to a moment of mystical illumination of the
heart that Niebuhr likens to the journey and the mountain ascent during which
there are moments of "new understanding," "wonder," and "surprise" (137).
Söderblom's view of revelation was something he called "continued
revelation." His Gifford Lectures, published as The Living God, held that
revelation was ongoing in the creative genius, in secular history, and in the
regeneration of the individual.
38. The context is Bahá'u'lláh's affirmation that the
Manifestations of God are the greatest sources of the mercy and grace of God,
and the appearance of these "clouds of Truth" has had no beginning and will
have no end.
40 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
inheritance from liberal Protestant theology, an inheritance that has
emancipated Christian theology from doctrinal exclusivism and has driven
Christian theologians and comparative religionists to lead the way in fostering
interreligious dialogue and in making the first tentative theories in "world
However, certain cautions need to be cited in connection with relativity. David
J. Krieger and Raimundo Pannikar, for example, warn against letting relativity
slip into a radical relativism that rejects any criteria of truth as being
universally valid to adjudicate among the various theological conceptual
The teaching has therefore been rightly scrutinized
lest it abolish the domain of the absolute, which has not only a long
philosophical history but also definite implications for grounding one's
personal religious convictions and for the impact of such convictions on the
dynamics of interreligious dialogue. Relativity has also led to an impasse
surrounding the resolution of apparent doctrinal differences and
contradictions. The theories of some perennial philosophy such as Huston
Smith's "primordial tradition," or Frithjof Schuon's "esoteric" mystical heart
of all religions as distinguished from the "exoteric" accidentals seem to be
the more promising proposals as a way out the dilemma.40
Relativity, moreover, should not fall into the trap of absolutizing relativity,
which would be tantamount to an ironic defeat of its own purpose. Relativity
itself is also relative and invites the imposition of some limits on the
concept. To use a literally "down-to-earth" biological analogy, relativity and
the absolute have to live in symbiosis, much like the algae and fungi in the
lichen. As Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) pointed out in First Principles,
one pole of the relativity-absolutism discussion can only be meaningful in the
light of the other. If relativity is pursued exclusively, without defining its
relation to the absolute, it takes on the function of an absolute itself and
results in contradiction:
From the necessity of thinking in relation, it follows that the
Relative is itself inconceivable, except as related to a real non-relative. Unless a real
Non-relative or Absolute be postulated, the Relative itself becomes absolute,
and so brings the argument to a contradiction. (Spencer, quoted in Reck,
Speculative Philosophy 195)
Leonard Swidler, a Catholic ecumenical theologian, summarizes four cogent
arguments for the relativity of religious truth, an approach he labels as
39. Among the practitioners of world theology, the word relativity is
preferred to relativism, which results in skepticism. While David J. Krieger
points to the limitations of relativism, he is also aware of the dangers of
"imperialistic objectivism." See "The Problem of Ideology" and "Objectivism
versus Relativism in Intercultural Understanding" in Krieger, The New
Universalism. For Pannikar, relativism is "a premature renunciation of any
attempt to make valid assertions. Relativism is pessimistic. It surrenders all
possibility of arriving at any criteria of truth" (Silence 134).
40. For an elucidation of the "primordial tradition," see Huston Smith,
Forgotten Truth. See also Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 41
"deabsolutizing truth." Swidler discusses in turn: (1) The historicization
Statements are products of their historical Sitz im Leben
and can only be understood by examining the Sitz.
Statement A will not
have the same meaning in one historical context (Sitz
1) as it will in a
later one (Sitz
2). It will require at least a qualifying or different
statement (Statement B). (2) The sociology of knowledge.
This refers to
a sociological theory of knowledge. All statements are relative not only to a
point in time but also to the standpoint of the speaker and are determined by
that perspective whether cultural, social, religious, etc. The speaker's
worldview determines the truth of the statement. In Karl Mannheim's phrase, it
(standpoint bound). (3) The limits of
Following Wittgenstein, any statement is per force cast in the
limited perspective of the speaker, whether categories, style, method, etc. (4)
Following Hans Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur,
one cannot make claim to the "true" interpretation of a text since the subject
is part of the object, the observer forms part of the observed. All views of
truth deabsolutize truth for they are interpretive and relational (Swidler,
"Interreligious and Interideological Dialogue," esp. 7-13). We could reduce
these statements to a simpler one: Statements of truth are relative to our
ability to understand and express them, relative to the age in which they
appear, and relative to the speaker's viewpoint.
Religious relativity acts then as a bulwark against the one-way interpretation
of dogmatism; implies that religious truth although fundamentally one, is
progressive, dynamic, infinite, and ever-changing; and allows us to accept
various interpretations of metaphysical and theological questions, which would
on the surface appear to be incompatible. It is thus an ally of a more
inclusive view of reality, one that allows for a diversity of approaches. The
relativity of religious truth also has strong implications for reestablishing
some measure of unity between science and religion or philosophy one of the
most meaningful and potentially fruitful questions in our time.
The Function of the Absolute
The domain of the relative invokes that of the absolute. Like so many other
bipolar issues, such as the universal and the particular, fact and value,
spirit and matter, logic and intuition, revelation and reason, the domains of
the relative and the absolute engage us in a dialectic that invites
consideration of both poles of the discussion.
At the outset, there is something chilling in the notion of the Absolute. As a
philosophical concept of God, it would appear not to coexist well with the view
of God as a Being who enters into a personal spiritual relationship with the
believer, although serious attempts have been made to combine belief in a
personal God with the Absolute.41
The Absolute also has
connotations of an
41. See n. 45, reference to American idealist philosopher Josiah
42 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
arbitrariness of will, of unlimited self-determination and power. According to
Karl Popper, the Absolute was applied in Hegel's political theory to justify
absolute power in the rising German nation through a philosophy of State that
led to the devastating effects of nationalism and
In religious praxis, absolutism has led to
narrow dogmatism and orthodox exclusivism, which, in the sacred academy at
least, have gradually given way in the post-World War II years to a growing
relativism that recognizes the validity of the convictions of the faith of
There are, however, aspects to the notion of the absolute that make it
essential to the functioning of our religious beliefs and, when balanced with
an appreciation of the deabsolutizing and limiting aspects of relativity, make
it a congenial ally for both the praxis of interreligious dialogue and the
self-recognition of the limited but ever-expanding nature of our cognitive
The absolute functions as an existential center for our religious convictions.
It is in this center or on this ground that we stand when we interpret the
world in spiritual terms. If we did not stand on the hard ground of some
central beliefs, we should be subject to the drifts of shifting sands created
by the passing of every wind. Gilkey makes the point that our worldview and
religious convictions function as absolutes, as "some fixed or absolute center"
in our interpretation of reality:
42. With memories of World War II fresh in his mind, Popper launched a
particularly and uncharacteristically virulent ad hominem attack on Hegel in
"Hegel and the New Tribalism" passim 27-81. Popper maintained that Hegel's
philosophy of the Absolute deified the State because he wanted to curry the
favor of Prussian emperor Friedrich Wilhelm III who was his employer; that he
favored absolute monarchy above a more liberal constitutional form of
government; that Hegel claimed that the emerging German nation was about to
triumph over other European nations in a coming culmination of the dialectic of
history, and that warfare was the acceptable means of advancing the dialectic;
that his doctrines led to a "new tribalism or totalitarianism" and racialism.
Shoghi Effendi, writing earlier than Popper in 1936, and in strongly worded
language, also presents succinct summary arguments against Hegel, several of
which are substantially identical with Popper's (The World Order 182-83).
Shoghi Effendi, however, portrays Hegel as making a fifth-column attack against
the Christian church, an attack which Shoghi Effendi claims was upheld by
"Christian rulers and governments" (182). Shoghi Effendi also connects Hegel's
doctrine with the materialistic philosophy characteristic of secular modernism,
which also alienates religion from daily life (183). It is difficult to
determine whether Shoghi Effendi's remarks about Hegel were based on his own
reflections on European history and political theory, or whether he was echoing
the views of British anti-Hegelians with whom he may have become familiar while
he was a student at Balliol College, University of Oxford, 1920-21. British
philosopher and sociologist Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse (1864-1929) published
The Metaphysical Theory of the State: A Criticism in 1918, which was the main
British anti-Hegelian critique of its time.
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 43
We need a ground for the apprehension and understanding of realitya
ground that undergirds our choices, our critiques of the status quo, our
policies. We need a ground for the values and eros that fuel and drive toward
justice, and for the confidence and hope necessary for consistent action. We
need criteria for the judgments essential both for reflective construction and
for liberative doing; and we need priorities in value if we would creatively
and actively move into the future. ("Plurality" 46)
While Gilkey's statement does not constitute an attempt at a philosophical
reconciliation of the absolute and the relative, it nonetheless provides a
strong dose of realism as to the actual functioning of the absolute nature of
our spiritual values in the perspective of faith in action or praxis.
Speaking as a Christian engaged in interreligious dialogue, Gilkey states that
he has chosen to remain within the Christian tradition, since one "cannot
escape all particularity" ("Plurality" 4g). For the Bahá'í, and
indeed for the member of any faith, Gilkey's words ring true, for they alert us
to the existential center, to the point of departure. By opting for a spiritual
center, we avoid the "slippery slope" of so-called value neutrality, of being
nowhere by standing everywhere. Interreligious dialogue begins, then, from the
center of our particular faith and sets out in an adventure to discover new and
creative understandings of our own and the other's particular spiritual truth,
in the hope of creating new universals, in Plato's sense of discovering some
fundamental essence to all of the particulars. Our religious convictions are,
then, functional absolutes. They orient us in life, without imposing a claim to
immutability or finality in terms of our understanding of them. Without these
functional absolutes, moreover, we would lack a sense of commitment so
necessary for moving the study of religion out of the purely speculative,
academic, and theoretical realms and putting it more firmly into the camp of
praxis, dialogue, and social action.
It would be too hasty to conclude, therefore, that religious relativity has
done away with the Absolute (absolute), either in its concept of God, or in the
perception of "normative" or irreducible truths in Bahá'í
scripture, or in the absolute nature of the claim to observe ethical conduct.
Bahá'u'lláh's claim to be the prophetic figure for the present
age carries with it an extraordinary apocalyptic certitude, and while affirming
a fundamental oneness in the revealed religions and recognizing the colossal
achievements of these religious systems, Bahá'u'lláh also
maintains that the Bahá'í Revelation is in our age the standard
for determining other truths.43
In this sense,
43. This notion of Bahá'u'lláh's possessing the standard of
truth is a repeated theme in Bahá'u'lláh's writings. He makes
such a weighty but nonetheless unambiguous claim in a tablet addressed
collectively to the leaders of religion: "Say: O leaders of religion! Weigh not
the Book of God with such standards and sciences as are current amongst you,
for the Book itself is the unerring balance established amongst men. In this
most perfect balance whatsoever the peoples and kindreds of the earth possess
must be weighed, while the measure of its weight should be tested according to
its own standard, did ye but know it" (Gleanings 198).
44 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
Bahá'u'lláh's teachings as the ultimate standard for truth in our
dispensation, the metaphysical point beyond which we cannot currently advance,
a kind of speed of light or point of "absolute zero" of spiritual truth. The
Bahá'í belief in Bahá'u'lláh as the ultimate
standard of truth does not betray, however, any narrow dogmatism or
fundamentalism. Arnold Toynbee, just one of several to make a similar
observation, perceived an exemplary spirit of tolerance in the
Bahá'í Faith: "Of all the Judaic religions, Bahá'ísm is the most
tolerant. In its catholicity, it comes near to Mahayanian Buddhism or to
Hinduism" (Christianity among the Religions
Interreligious Dialogue: A Means of Resolving the Tension between the
Relative and the Absolute
If practitioners of world theology and interreligious dialogue have
concentrated on the relativity side of the relativity-absolutism equation, it
is not merely for reasons of deabsolutizing dogma. Andrew J. Reck asserts that
"few categories in the history of philosophy have been intractable to
conceptual specification as the category of the Absolute" (Speculative
167). Reconciling relativity to the absolute remains a challenging
or so it would seem. Ernst Grunwald rejected Karl
Mannheim's notion of "relationism" in the sociology of knowledge
) as a proposed middle ground between relativism and
the absolute, by stating flatly: "Relativism and absolutism are contradictory
opposites with no more 'middle ground' between them than exists between true
and false, yes and no" ("Sociology of Knowledge" 240). Further, if God, as in
Hegelian philosophy, is merely the Absolute or the Absolute Idea, the perfect
resolution of all the contradictions of dialectic in some higher Metaidea, what
remains of the personal God? If God is merely an Idea, albeit the perfect idea,
God remains primarily an object of pure thought alone and is reduced to
How can this Absolute Idea be
reconciled to the concept of God as a Self, who is perceived as a Person and
who relates to other persons or selves in an intimate spiritual relationship
44. Hegel's notion of the Absolute Idea was typically ambiguous.
According to Popper, the Absolute Idea in Hegel is just too big to be
meaningful. It is "all in one, the Beautiful; Cognition and Practical Activity;
Comprehension; the Highest Good; and the Scientifically Contemplated Universe."
Popper adds a note of irony: "But we really need not worry about minor
difficulties such as these" (Open Society 36-37). For further criticism of the
Hegelian view of the Absolute Idea or Absolute Reality, see Bertrand Russell,
"The Limits of Philosophical Knowledge" 82-88. Russell critiques Hegel's
understanding and use of the concept of "nature" to reject Hegel's view that
the universe forms a "single harmonious system" (84). Russell proposes a more
"piecemeal investigation of the world," an approach he claims is "in harmony
with the inductive and scientific temper of our age" (84). Like Popper, he also
notes: "Hegel's philosophy is very difficult, and commentators differ as to the
true interpretation of it" (82).
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 45
love? An attempt to reconcile these concepts has been made by the American
idealist philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1916) who maintained a belief in a
personal God while postulating God as the Absolute, the Universal of
universals, an attempt that historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston regards
as only partially successful.45
Langdon Gilkey sees in the relative-absolute equation a frustrating paradox
that is difficult to resolve, at least theoretically: "The interplay of
absolute and relative of being a Christian, Jew, or Buddhist, and affirming
that stance, and yet at the same time relativizing this mode of existenceboth
stuns and silences the mind, at least mine" ("Plurality" 47). Although the
relativity-absolute paradox appears to be obdurate, Gilkey goes on to propose a
resolution of it, but not one that lies in the realm of speculation. Rather,
this resolution lies in the realm of religious experience and action, that of
Following the pragmatics of John Dewey that what may seem to ratiocination [the
process of reason] a "hopeless contradiction" may become "successfully
resolved" through "intelligent practice" ("Plurality" 46), Gilkey views
dialogue as the framework for relativity as a de facto
the participants remain nonetheless in the domain of the absolute. On the
psychological level, our religious convictions function as absolutes; otherwise
we would not be Christian, Bahá'í, Buddhist, or some other. We
would be that other. Once we enter into dialogue, however, we must abandon our
absolutes; otherwise, there would be no dialogue, only a monologue whose covert
agenda would be conversion. Praxis requires, therefore, that we relativize our
absolute convictions. In interreligious dialogue, we become only one faith
among others, as we stand face to face with the other(s). As we interact in
dialogue, we feel limited. Our absolute convictions (e.g.,
Bahá'u'lláh is the promised
45. Royce pursued the question of reconciling a personal God with the
Absolute in The World and the Individual. Frederick Coplestone sees, however,
an ambiguity in Royce's use of the term "individual" and in his relationship of
the One to the Many. See Coplestone, "The Philosophy of Royce" 42-44. According
to Coplestone, Royce was, however, aware of the ambiguities in his own
position. It remains, however, a matter of dispute exactly how his absolute
idealism changed in later years in an attempt to reconcile previous ambiguities
(Copleston, "The Philosophy of Royce" 8, 44). Royce asserts the paradox of the
one and the many, which is perhaps the only way out of the logical dilemma of
reconciling the one with the many, a kind of coincidentia oppositorum a la
Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), the mystical view in which all contradictions
meet and are resolved: "Simple unity is a mere impossibility. God cannot be One
except by being Many. Nor can we various Selves be Many, unless in Him we are
One" (Royce, The World and the Individual 2:331, quoted in Coplestone, "The
Philosophy of Royce" 8, 42). Royce's personal view of the Absolute is revealed
in passages such as this: "We long for the Absolute only in so far as in us the
Absolute also longs, and seeks, through our very temporal striving, the peace
that is nowhere in Time, but only, and yet Absolutely, in Eternity" (The World
and the Individual 2: 386).
46 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
Manifestation of God) become relativized by the presence of the other(s), with
their equally weighty claims on truth. In dialogue, Gilkey sees an on-going
dynamic tension between the relative and the absolute, "a dialectic or paradox
combining and interweaving . . . a relative absoluteness" ("Plurality" 47):
What to reflection is a contradiction, to praxis is a workable
dialectic, a momentary but creative paradox. Absolute and relative, unified
vision and plurality, a centered principle of interpretation and mere
difference, represent polarities apparently embodiable in crucial practice
despite the fact that they seem numbing in reflective theory. ("Plurality"
Gilkey is calling for a new type of experimental scholarship, one that would
take the scholar out of the refuge of his study into a praxis of colloquia with
other scholars. Following this approach, the solitary individual must engage in
a kind of cooperative learning, a creative participatory approach that bases
its method in dialogue: "Thus reflection must not, because it cannot, precede
praxis; on the contrary, it must be begun on the basis of praxis" ("Plurality"
47). By pursuing such a method, we discover that the One is revealed in the
many, the Absolute appears within the relative, new and creative understandings
of the oneness of spiritual truth are discovered. Gilkey's pragmatic approach
does not preclude, however, a successful theoretical resolution of the relative
and the absolute.
In Search of a Common Terminology: Science of Divinity, Divine Philosophy,
and Bahá'í Theology
While Bahá'ís refer to their sacred scriptures as the
Bahá'í Revelation or the Bahá'í Writings, there is
no common terminology to describe derivative theology.
It would seem
appropriate for Bahá'í scholars to share a common terminology
when referring to commentary. The search for correct terminology in the
Bahá'í Faith is analogous to the search by scholars in the
history of religions to find the correct terminology to describe their
[science of religion], history of
religions, comparative religion, religiology, and the science of religion have
all been proposed, with "history of religions" and
" dominating the field.46
46. Reinhard Pummer explored the question of terminology at length in
"Religionswissenschaft or Religiology?" In a very detailed article examining
the terminology, Pummer defends the traditional German term
Religionswissenschaft against the newcomer "religiology," which such scholars
as R. A. McDemmott, H. Kishmoto, L. Rousseau, and R. Bourgeault claimed was an
equivalent of the German term. Pummer rejects this contention on the basis that
"religiology" has pastoral, philosophical, and ecumenical concerns that are not
part of Religionswissenschaft, which is strictly a historical-philological and
empirical study. Pummer is not opposed to the concerns of religiology, but he
contends that the term itself can not be justifiably equated with
Religionswissenschaft. "Religiology" has not succeeded in becoming part of the
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 47
Comparative religion is, strictly speaking, one of the subdisciplines of the
history of religions on which it is based, although comparative religion is
commonly used in Anglo-Saxon countries to refer to the study of the world's
It is worth having a clearer understanding of the usage of the following terms,
not only for examining their usage in the Bahá'í Faith but more
especially to anticipate how these terms would be understood in interfaith
dialogue in which Bahá'í scholars would, one hopes, participate.
A summary treatment is given below.
The Science of Divinity (Divinity)
Both "the science of divinity" and "divine philosophy" have close associations
with revelation. "Science of divinity" is a term taken directly from
326). Although the phrase is
associated with both Shiite gnosis and Christian theology, 'Abdu'l-Bahá
associates divinity with divine philosophy: ". . . it [divinity] essentially
means the wisdom and knowledge of God, the effulgence of the Sun of Truth, the
revelation of reality and divine philosophy" (Promulgation
Defining it in the negative, 'Abdu'l-Bahá dissociates divinity from its
meaning in Christian dogmatic theology, thus giving the old word a new
Divinity is not what is set forth in dogmas and sermons of the church.
Ordinarily when the word Divinity is mentioned, it is associated in the minds
of the hearers with certain formulas and doctrines.... (Promulgation
He explains that
Divinity is the effulgence of the Sun of Reality, the manifestation of
spiritual virtues and ideal powers. The intellectual proofs of Divinity are
based upon observation and evidence which constitute decisive argument,
logically proving the reality of Divinity, the effulgence of mercy, the
certainty of inspiration and immortality of the spirit. This is, in reality,
the science of Divinity. (Promulgation 326)
This passage establishes a rationalist basis for the science of divinity.
'Abdu'l-Bahá speaks of "intellectual proofs," "observation and
evidence," and "decisive argument." These are all phrases that derive from
dialectics. The passage mentions proofs for the existence of God, as well as
the immortality of the soul and divine inspiration, subjects treated in
medieval scholastic theology, which was also essentialist and rationalist in
Another of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's expressions is "divine philosophy," which
might be taken to mean divinely revealed philosophy or revelation. He states,
for example, "According to divine philosophy, there are two important and
48 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
universal conditions in the world of material phenomena; one which concerns
life, the other concerning death . . ." (Reality of Man
'Abdu'l-Bahá's divine philosophy is used in contradistinction to natural
philosophy and is reminiscent of the ancient Aristotelian distinction between
"physics" (natural philosophy/science) and "metaphysics," or the seventeenth-
and eighteenth-century distinction between "natural philosophy" (today biology
and physics) and "moral philosophy," a distinction that arose because of the
growing prestige of the conclusions of Galileo and the emergence of Newtonian
Philosophy is of two kinds: natural and divine. Natural philosophy
seeks knowledge of physical verities and explains material phenomena, whereas
divine philosophy deals with ideal verities and phenomena of the spirit.
Although 'Abdu'l-Bahá's philosophy takes Muslim Neoplatonism as its
starting point, his mention of "ideal verities" and "phenomena of spirit" is
strongly suggestive of the Western philosophy of idealist metaphysics, a
philosophy that also traces its origins to Plato and which endured in various
forms until the first quarter of the twentieth century.47
Idealism may have some relevance in the establishment of some philosophical
unity between religion and science.48
47. The point is not entirely speculative. Generally, idealism posits at
its basis that reality is spiritual, that is, spirit or Spirit (God) is the
ultimate reality and that the perceptions of the mind or the spirit of ideas
are the essentials in epistemology. Some idealists held that spirit was not
confined alone to nature and to the human mind, but expressed itself in
religion through form, myth and symbol, and the arts. One school of idealist
philosophers posited an ethical theism. Idealism raised the whole question of
monism and plurality, which is very pertinent to Bahá'í theology.
In its various forms of absolute idealism, personal and ethical idealism, and
philosophies of spirit, idealism remains a strong current of philosophy that
can sustain fruitful parallels to Bahá'í teaching.
48. Sir Arthur Eddington (The Nature of the Physical World and Science
and the Unseen World) and Erwin Schrödinger (What is Life? and Mind and
Matter) became the leading philosophical scientists of the New Physics that
emerged between 1900-1930. The main tenet of a group of philosophical
scientists in the 1930s that included Sir Arthur Eddington, Sir James Jeans,
Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead was "the stuff of the world is
mind stuff" (Eddington, Nature of the Physical World). In other words, science
not only is empirically tested matter but also depends on the perceptions of
the mind itself. "Mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience;
all else is remote inference" (Science and the Unseen World). The fact that the
mind has some central role in perception is pure subjective idealism and is not
far removed Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Schrödinger, who created
wave mechanics, also posited that there is only one Self or Mind in the
universe. This one-mind theory is very close to the absolute idealist's one
Absolute Spirit (Mind) and the idealist's claim that reality is based in the
mind: "The overall number of minds is just one. I venture to call it
indestructible since it has a peculiar time-table, namely mind is always now.
There is really no before and after mind. . . . I also grant, should anyone
wish to state it, that I am now talking religion, not
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 49
Although the phrase ''Bahá'í theology" is not used in
Bahá'í sacred scripture, the term remains nonetheless valid. In a
communication to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís
of Germany, the Universal House of Justice endorsed a qualified use of the term
"Bahá'í theology" when they state:
If one understands "theology" to mean "the study of religion" or "the
study of the nature of God," one can certainly use the term
"Bahá'í theology." In the context in which . . . uses it in the
passage you quote, the House of Justice presumes that he means that the
Bahá'í teachings about the nature of God and His relationship to
His creation are related to those of Islam, which is correct. (February 8,
The House of Justice, however, in another communication has left the term's
usage a matter for Bahá'í scholars:
The House of Justice feels that the question of whether or not to use
the term "Bahá'í Theology" is best left to the discretion of
yourself and other Bahá'í scholars, who would make such a
decision in the light of their understanding of the meaning of this term and
the connotations of such usage. (Letter to an individual, 28 May
The House of Justice also adds the proviso that no controversy should arise
about the matter and foresees the possibility of a variety of views on the
It trusts that this matter will not become a source of contention
between Bahá'í scholars and within the Bahá'í
community, and sees no difficulties with Bahá'í scholars coming
to different conclusions about the appropriateness of this usage provided they
do not attempt to compel others to accept their views. (Letter to an
individual, 28 May 1991)
The guidelines on the usage of the term "Bahá'í theology" by the
Universal House of Justice could well serve as a keynote of
Bahá'í scholarship, theological or otherwise: Scholarship should
be noncontentious and diverse.
The adjectival form of the word, theological,
occurs in various
English-language renderings of Bahá'í scripture or its
authoritative interpretation. Shoghi Effendi, for example, uses the term in his
interpretive English translation of Bahá'u'lláh's
. Reference is made to Muslim divines
who "are still doubtful of, and dispute about, the theological
of their faith, yet claim to be the exponents of the subtleties
of the law of God . . ." (83, emphasis added).50
In a talk on
reincarnation, 'Abdu'l-Bahá speaks of the
sciencea religion, however, not opposed to science, but supported by
what disinterested scientific research has brought to the fore" (Mind and
49. I thank Moojan Momen for forwarding this text.
50. Stephen Lambden, referring to the original text, has pointed out that
"the phrase 'theological obscurities' does not directly occur in the Persian.
Rather, it forms part of an 'interpretive paraphrase' intended to highlight the
fact that the Islamic divines (ulamá')
50 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
station of humanity as being at the end of the "arc of descent" (materiality)
and at the beginning of the "arc of ascent" (spirituality) as "an established
and deep theological proposition"
(musallam-i- mudaqqiqín-i- masá'il- i-iláhí
(Questions 285-86). Shoghi Effendi uses the word theological
connection with the importance of the study of the
: "The Íqán deepens the
knowledge of the reader by acquainting him with some of the theological
problems of the Faith" (letter to an individual, 10/1/33, Bahá'í
The term "Bahá'í theology," once viewed with great hesitation,
has become increasingly common with Bahá'í scholars, particularly
with those writing on specifically religious questions. Udo Schaefer referred
in the Bahá'í Faith in his 1957 doctoral
dissertation (Heidelberg) Die Grundlagen der Verwaltungsordnung der
(The Legal Basis of the Bahá'í
Schaefer's recent book
Heilsgeschichte und Paradigmenwechsel: Zwei Beitrage zur
(Salvation History and Paradigm Shift: Two
Contributions to Bahá'í Theology, not yet published in English),
deals specifically with Bahá'í theology, as the title
remain uncertain about concrete ('literalistic') legalistic issues
(shar'íya), yet they claim knowledge of the abstruse aspects of divine
fundamentals. Reference to the shar'íya (='legalistic issues') in the
original Persian in other words seems to be non-literally rendered as '. . .
the theological obscurities of their faith . . .' " (letter to the author).
Bahá'u'lláh indicts the ability of the Muslim divines to fathom
their scriptural tradition adequately in the light of the Prophetic
hadíth: "Verily Our Word is abstruse, bewilderingly abstruse"
51. I thank Dann J. May for drawing this passage to my
52. Schaefer's use of the word theology comes up in his background
discussion of the interface of theological and legal questions in the
Bahá'í administrative order. He argues that any legal
implications of the Bahá'í administrative order can be considered
only in the light of the theological and metajuristische (metalegal) content of
Bahá'í teachings, a perspective that he also considers to be that
of canon law: "Hierbei ist nicht zu vermeiden, dass auch auf theologische und
metajuristische Fragen eingegagen wird. Die juristische Betrachtung und
Erörterung kann vielfach erst einsetzen nach einer vorangogangenen
Klärung der uns auf Schritt und Tritt begegnenden theologischen Fragen....
Ein solches Eigehen auf diese Fragen ist bie unserem Gegenstand umso
unvermeidlicher, als es im westlichen Bahá'ítum zu einer
systematischen, intellektuellen Durchdringung des geoffenbarten Stoffes, d.h.
zur Ausbildung einer Theologie, auf deren Ergebnisse sonst verweisen werden
konnte, noch kaum gekommen ist" (4-5). "In this case it is unavoidable that
theological and 'metalegal' questions will also be considered. The legal
considerations and discussions can only be pursued in their various ways after
a preliminary clarification of the on-going theological questions that we will
encounter.... Such a consideration of this question [the theological one] is
all the more unavoidable with our subject since the Bahá'í Faith
in the West has not yet reached the point of a systematic, intellectual
penetration of the content of the revelation, namely, the framing of a theology
to whose results the reader could otherwise be referred" (translation
53. Schaefer's recent book consists of two major essays in
Bahá'í theology. In the first one Endzeit oder Zeitwende? Versuch
einer Standortbestimmung unserer Zeit (The
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 51
master's thesis is entitled Die metaphysischen und theologischen Grundlagen
der Erziehungslehre der Bahá'í-Religion
(The Metaphysical and
Theological Foundations of Education in the Bahá'í Religion).
Juan R. I. Cole, likewise, made use of the term "Bahá'u'lláh's
theology" in "The Christian-Muslim Encounter and the Bahá'í
Faith." His later "The Concept of Manifestation in the Bahá'í
Writings" uses "Bahá'í theology" and "Bahá'u'lláh's
theology" (3, 23). Cole's use of the term "Bahá'í theology"
points to the narrow use of the word, that is, to source theology (revelation).
Cole uses the phrase in his discussion of the relationship between the divine
essence and its attributes, citing Bahá'u'lláh's "Tablet of the
City of Divine Unity" (Lawh-i- Madínati't- Tawhíd
) in which,
Cole states: "One must understand the nature of these attributes in
Bahá'í theology in order to grasp the concept of the
manifestation of God. Bahá'u'lláh affirms that God's essential
attributes are simply different names for his essence" ("The Concept of
Manifestation" 3). In other words, God is one in essence and attributes. Cole
also speaks of the cosmological infusion of spiritual energies released with
the martyrdom of a prophet as one aspect of "Bahá'u'lláh's
theology" ("The Christian-Muslim Encounter" 22). Cole's usage of the term, at
least on the basis of these few examples, applies to the writings of
Bahá'u'lláh rather than commentary. Moojan Momen also recognizes
that "there are ample passages in the Bahá'í scriptures that
could serve as the basis of theology and metaphysics" ("Relativism" 185).
Michael Sours deals directly with a theological issue in "Seeing with the Eye
of God." Likewise, social scientist Will. C. van den Hoonaard speaks of
"Bahá'í theologians and historians" ("Dilemmas and Prospects"
24). Nader Saiedi also speaks of "Bahá'í theology" in "A Dialogue
with Marxism." These examples are not exhaustive.
A reluctance to use the word theology
is not new to the
Bahá'í Faith. Surprisingly, the word was at first avoided in
Christianity, the faith that is most
End of Time or Turning Point? Determining Where We Stand in Historical
Time), Schaefer deals with the apocalyptic theme in both biblical and
Bahá'í perspective to propose that we live, not in the age of
universal destruction, but at a critical turning point in time that is
characterized by new modes of thinking and new offers of salvation
(Heilsangebote). Comparisons are drawn between the New Age movement and
Bahá'u'lláh's revelation. In "Bahá'u'lláh's
Einheitsparadigma und die Konkurrenz religioser Wahrheitsanspruche"
(Bahá'u'lláh's Unity Paradigm and Competing Truth Claims), and
within the perspectives of pluralism and the history of religions, Schaefer
treats the question of religious unity and diversity. He points out that
although over the centuries there have been claims to uniqueness, exclusivity,
and finality (especially in the Semitic faiths) that have caused suffering and
misunderstanding, there have at the same time always been more liberal-minded
representatives (Vertreter) in these same faiths who have opposed narrow
dogmatism and have promoted an understanding and appreciation of other
religions. Schaefer sees in the perspective of these enlightened souls the
preconditions for the current interreligious dialogue and the starting point of
a new theology characterized by the unity of the religions.
52 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
closely associated with it. Within Christianity, the term theology
used very infrequently in the beginning and even avoided for several centuries
because of the connotations of the word in Greek philosophy. Theologia
for Plato and Aristotle was used polemically against the poets and their
mythologies and theogonies. Plato and Aristotle contrasted these with
philosophy, which sought explanations of things in themselves (Congar,
"Christian Theology" 455). Plato was, moreover, a monotheist, and the poets
were polytheists. The poets were seen as rivals to the philosophers, since it
was widely held that Homer and the tragedians were the masters of technical
knowledge as well as being sound guides of the moral and religious life
322, editor's note). Plato, however, denied the poet's ability
to lead to the knowledge of the essence of things and viewed dramatic art as a
bane to human psychology, and poetry far removed from true knowledge
328-40). He, therefore, excluded the poets from The
The great Origen (d. 254) was the first to use "theologia" to apply to the
knowledge of the God in whom Christians believed, since the word gnosis
(Gk. knowledge) had acquired heretical connotations (s.v., "theology,"
Encyclopedia of Religion
). Peter Abelard (d. 1142) used the word
as the title of one of his works, and by the time of St.
Thomas Aquinas, the angelic doctor (A.D. 1225-1274) the word began to gain
acceptance, although Aquinas himself preferred the term sacra doctrina
(Congar, "Christian Theology" 456). Likewise, the phrase
"Bahá'í theology" has been avoided within the
Bahá'í community because of its negative associations of
intellectual elitism, religious warfare, and odium theologicum,
antipathy caused by theological quarrelling.
There are at least three reasons, however, for looking at the phrase
"Bahá'í theology" favorably: (1) It is the correct term to
describe the nature of the thing itself, since Bahá'í teaching
begins from a faith perspective and has a strong rational, metaphysical, and
theological bias. (2) It is the correct term to use when the
Bahá'í teachings are being cited as normative and authoritative,
or not; that is, it may be used by either Bahá'ís or
non-Bahá'ís for questions relating to the doctrines of the
Bahá'í Faith. Catholic scholar Christian Cannuyer, for exampIe,
refers to the "Bahá'í theology" (theologie Bahá'íe)
of Shoghi Effendi in his favorable review of Peter Smith's groundbreaking
historical-sociological study The Bábí and
Bahá'í Religions: From Messianic Shi'ism to a World Religion.
(3) It is the term that would be most easily understood by
non-Bahá'í scholars either in a discussion of
Bahá'í teachings or in interfaith dialogue, where such terms as
"world theology" and "pluralistic theology" have become part of the current
As systematic theologies of the Bahá'í Faith begin to be written
or as Bahá'í theologies of the world religions are developed,
phrases like "divine philosophy" or "science of divinity," while perfectly
congenial and appropriate for intracommunity dialogue and usage, might seem odd
to scholars in religious
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 53
studies in other traditions, since "science of divinity" might suggest an
exclusively Christian focus and "divine philosophy"a very lofty termmight
also be taken to mean a philosophy of God exclusively. Whereas,
Bahá'í theology is a more inclusive term, one that includes
concepts that have an impact not just on sacred concerns but on secular ones as
well, in such areas as education and moral development, ecological concerns,
economics, women's issues, the treatment of minorities, Third World
development, and international law. Philosophy is also usually understood to be
a secular term and to take reason as its ground rather than God and revelation.
It would seem better, therefore, in the interests of both logic and accepted
usage, to use the phrase "Bahá'í theology," since it is closer to
current terminology, rather than to have to use a new terminology that is out
of synchronization with the current one. This has become all the more true now
that comparative religionists are returning to the word theology
describe their own discipline.
The Hidden and Revealed God: Negative54
In making affirmations about God, Bahá'í theology employs a
manifestation theology, that is, a theology of the metaphysical reality of the
prophet or divine manifestation and his teachings rather than a theology of
God. Bahá'u'lláh, however, makes some abstruse but explicit
references to God in the occult or unmanifest state; to that silence which
precedes God's Word, to that divine darkness from which the holy light radiates
forth. In the mystical, partially cosmological tablet,
Lawh-i- kullu't- ta'ám
(The Tablet of All Food),55
54. Negative here does not imply denial as it does in grammar. It means,
rather, the lack of positive theological affirmations. Manifestation theology
speaks. Negative theology is silent. See further below, pages 54 55.
55. For a provisional translation of the tablet that gives the historical
background and very detailed commentary, see Stephen Lambden, "A Tablet of
Mírzá Husayn 'Alí Bahá'u'lláh." Lambden
reckons that the tablet is fundamentally an esoteric and Bábí
piece of Qur'an commentary, interpreting the verse: "'All food was lawful to
the children of Israel (=Jacob) except what Israel made unlawful to himself
(or, itself) before the Torah was revealed. Say: Bring the Torah and study it
if you are upright persons' (3:87)" (6). According to Lambden, the metaphysical
realms delineated in the tablet and outlined below are "well known in
theosophical Sufism" (40), and treated, for example in Annemarie Schimmel,
Mystical Dimensions of Islam 270. The tablet is, however, far richer than the
summary analysis I give below. Lambden interprets its esoteric and mystical
references drawn from the Qur'an and the writings of both the Báb and
Bahá'u'lláh, references that establish correspondences between
the five grades of paradise and the four elements of earth, air, fire, and
water, on the one hand, and chromatic, numerological and root lingual
configurations on the other hand (40-46). Moojan Momen indicates that the
sources of the tablet are the Neoplatonic, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic. See
"Relativism" 5:189. For the historical background of the tablet, as well as a
summary, see Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh 1:55
54 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
delineates the metaphysical realms of paradise, Bahá'u'lláh
points to the unmanifest God as God-Háhút,
the One who
dwells alone in the realm of "HE." Of this realm of the paradise of the divine
oneness, Bahá'u'lláh says: "None is capable of expounding even a
letter of that verse in that Paradise" (Lambden, "A Tablet" 31). We do not, and
are asked not to, speculate on the nature of this God, for all efforts must end
in futility. "The way is barred and to seek it is impiety . . ."
(Bahá'u'lláh, Seven Valleys
Bahá'u'lláh's negative theology of Háhút
very much in the apophatic tradition. Apophasis (var. apophaticism) maintains
the strictest silence about making any statements concerning the essence of
divinity, which it views as being completely unknowable, and confines itself to
defining God in the negative: whatever is affirmed of God, whether goodness,
love, mercy, justice, perfection, etc., in no way describes God. By using such
designations, it is simply affirmed that God is not lacking these qualities
(negative theology/via negativa
): "We affirm these names and attributes,
not to prove the perfections of God, but to deny that He is capable of
imperfections" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions
affirming this negative theology, 'Abdu'l-Bahá is following a long
well-established theological tradition.56
In Buddhism, we find
the extreme limit of apophasis would be the Buddha's silence about God, which
several scholars have interpreted as agnosticism or atheism but which
comparative religionist Raimundo Pannikar takes as a sublime sign of the
Buddha's reverence for the mysterious and the ineffable.57
Apophasis rejoins the
56. In Christianity there is a strong apophatic tradition particularly
among the Greek founders of the early Church. Selected statements are presented
here. The gnostic Basilides, whose work survives only in fragments, is said to
have taught that we should not even call God ineffable since to do so would be
to make an affirmation about him (Tennant, Philosophical Theology 1:313, n. 1).
Clement of Alexandria: "No one can rightly express Him wholly.... For the One
is indivisiblewithout form and name." Origen: "According to strict truth God
is incomprehensible and inestimable . . . whose nature cannot be grasped or
seen by the power of any human understanding, even the purest and the
brightest." Athanasius: "Although it be impossible to comprehend what God is,
yet is possible to say what He is not." This last statement is pure apophasis.
Gregory of Nyssa: "With regard to the Creator of the world, we know that He is,
but deny not that we are ignorant of the definition of His essence." The
founders of the Roman Church such as Augustine and Hilary of Poctiers (St.
Hilaire de Poitiers) made similar statements, but they seem generally less
impressed by transcendence than the Greek Church founders. See Words about God,
passim 14-18. Although the concept predated him, the expression via negativa
originated with the Neoplatonic philosopher Proclus or Proculus (411 485). It
was also used by Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500), John Scottus Eringena (c.
810 880), Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464). (See
"via negativa," Encyclopedia of Religion).
57. See n. 16 above. As well as the above references, Pannikar also
treats the apophatic dimension as background to the Buddha's silence, in
contradistinction to his
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 55
Mahayana philosophic epithet Neti, Neti
(Sk.=not this, not this) that
indicates both a failure to conceptualize and a profound reverence for the
Absolute. Apophasis can therefore take the belief in the divine unity to limits
that would appear to approach agnosticism since apophasis does not affirm
anything about God. About this hidden God, we can say ultimately nothing at
all, the Bahá'í writings affirm.
By contrast, Christian and Vaishnavite incarnation theology, although not alike
in all respects, define God's essence on the presumption that the divine
essence incarnates itself within the limited human form in an absolute way.
Bahá'í theology, however, eschews such attempts and views them as
being mistaken. Negative theology really begins in Stage One (see Fig.
in the state of the God without attributes,59
the God who is indescribable, the God about whom even the divine Manifestations
have no knowledge. We begin there, with the dark spot of the hidden God, with
the realm of "HE." Although clearly teaching
that God does have attributes, Bahá'u'lláh is also quite emphatic
that God "hath through all eternity been free of the attributes of human
creatures, and ever will remain so" (Seven Valleys
There is a certain parallel between the unmanifest
and the teachings of Hinduism's mystic
philosopher gankaracharya or gankara (c. 788-820), the Advaita (monistic)
A well-known definition of gankara points to
God without attributes, which he views to be a higher
order of being, in contrast to Saguna Brahman,
God with attributes.
Sankara teaches that for the Jivanmakta
or liberated soul, the concept
of a personal Lord (Ishavara
) belongs to Saguna Brahman,
lower order of being,
presumed atheism, in "Ontological Apophaticism" in Silence 101-47.
Pannikar convincingly justifies the Buddha's silence about God. Here is one
brief passage which indicates that the Buddha's silence about God was meant to
indicate that God would not even classify as a "Being" in our normal
understanding of the word, for God's Being would not be our being. Hence the
Buddha's silence: "But there is also an apophatic argument, whose cataphatic
expression translation would say that God is so great that the greatness
precludes existence, and precludes our conceiving the divine essence,
transcending all our thoughts and all our forms of thinking being or even of
being" ( 130).
58. In my explanation of the five stages of Háhút,
Láhút, Jabarút, Malakút, and Násút, I
have used Moojan Momen's commentary on Bahá'u'lláh's "Tablet of
All Food" (Lawh-i- kullu't- ta'ám) (Iraqi period) which he calls a
"cosmology" (189) as my point of departure. Much of the commentary here,
however, is my own. Readers who refer to Bahá'u'lláh's original
tablet will find it quite bald compared with Momen's more elaborate
interpretation. Stephen Lambden calls the same tablet a "mystical commentary"
("Sinaitic Mysteries" 110).
59. Bahá'u'lláh quotes a Muslim tradition attributed to
'Ali: " 'Absolute Unity excludeth all attributes' " (Seven Valleys
60. Vedanta means literally "the end of the Vedas" and refers to that
group of philosophies set forth in the closing portions of the Vedas and the
Upanishads. Sankara's fundamental teachings were three: (1) Brahman alone is
real; (2) the world is illusion; and (3) the individual soul (jiva) is
56 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
God with attributes. At a higher level, Saguna Brahman
is absorbed by
God without attributes is the object of
knowledge; God with attributes the object of love and worship (Deussen,
System of the Vedanta
102). God without attributes is explained
analogically as the stillness of the ocean, while God with attributes is
compared to the ocean stirred up with waves (Smith, Religions
Upanishads also refer to Nirguna Brahman
as the "Unmanifest" (Katha
6:7,8), which is precisely the state of God-Háhút.
Sankará maintains that Nirguna Brahman
is changeless and without
207), and one can also postulate that such a description
would apply to Bahá'u'lláh's unmanifest
In an analogy based on the writer, his pen and ink, 'Abdu'l-Bahá likens
this unmanifest, unknown, and unknowable deus absconditus
to a black spot of inkthe divine darknesson a piece of paper that
potentially contains all letters and words, in short, all possible meanings of
the universe within it (Momen, "Relativism" 190). This "God above
in Tillich's phrase, is the darkest and most impenetrable
of mysteries, the Mystery of Mysteries. There are certain Judaic roots in the
concept of the hidden God, for we read in Isaiah 45:15, "Verily thou art a God
that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour."
Bahá'í theology does not have, therefore, as its point of
departure, a theology of God such as Kant's Ding an sich,
but a theology
about God, a theology of the Word (logos theology), which, like the divine
names, is a common element in the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and
manifestation theology, which has been dubbed theophanology
61. In Mysticism in World Religion, Sidney Spencer takes these points
from Sankara's Vivekochudamani (The Crest-Jewel of Wisdom) based on Char]es
Johnston's translation (39).
62. Tillich sees the "God above God" as "the ultimate source of the
courage to be" in his existential approach to the overcoming of anxiety and
despair in an age of meaninglessness. Although his meaning of the "God above
God of theism" is mystical and somewhat obscure, Tillich views it in the
context of the paradox of the divine-human encounter. The God above God of
theism would not be the objectified conceptualized God of theology but rather a
transcending of that understanding: "They [believers] are aware of the
paradoxical character of every prayer, of speaking to somebody to whom you
cannot speak because he is not 'somebody', of asking somebody of whom you
cannot ask anything because he gives or gives not before you ask, of saying
'thou' to somebody who is nearer to the I than I is to itself" (Courage to Be
181). Bahá'ís will recognize in this last phrase reminiscences of
'Abdu'l-Bahá's prayer, "Thou art more friend to me than I am to myself"
The "God above the God of theism" lies in the mystical longing to reach such a
63. Cole makes the point that logos theology is common to the Christian,
Islamic, and Bahá'í Faiths ("Concept of Manifestation" 8-9). One
could also include Judaism as sharing this logos theology in view of the Jewish
reverence for the holiness (Heb. kadósh) of Torah ("teaching"), as the
word of God. Muhammad refers to the Jews as Ahl-i-Kitáb (People of the
Book). No doubt they see themselves as the first people of the Book.
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 57
Manifestation" 2), is a gloss64
on Shoghi Effendi's description
of the "rise" and "march" of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh as a
(The World Order
97), a phrase that
also has its roots in the Judeo Christian tradition.66
also refer to manifestation theology as the less euphonic epiphanology.
Manifestation theology, however, is cataphatic; that is, it does make use of
human analogies to describe God. Cataphatic affirmations about God are
calculated upon analogies of human experience, qualities that are, in a sense,
projected onto God. Cataphasis is sensitive to the fact that God transcends any
qualities that we apply to God.
In Bahá'í theology, all statements about God apply to the
Manifestation of God (Mazhar-i-lláhí
), both terms being used in the
Consequently, with reference to this plane of existence [God], every
statement and elucidation is defective, all praise and all description are
unworthy, every conception is vain, and every meditation is futile.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions 147)
Theological statements apply only to the person of the divine manifestation:
Therefore, all that the human reality knows, discovers and understands
of the names, the attributes and the perfections of God refer to these Holy
Manifestations. ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Questions 148)
64. The word gloss has several meanings. I use it here to mean a
technical or particular usage of a word.
65. Shoghi Effendi explained that he used the word theophany to mean
Dispensation: "Theophany is used in the sense of Dispensation" (quoted in the
first edition of Lights of Guidance n. 251, p. 82).
66. The word theophany, from the Gk. theophania "to make shine" or "to
show God," has two meanings that indicate the divine-human encounter in
prophetic religion: (i) The transient, supernatural non-human manifestations of
the divine, such as the Mosaic flame of angelic annunciation in the burning
bush, or the pillar of cloud, or fire on Mount Sinai. (ii) More permanent human
theophanies, such as the manifestation of God in Christ. See "Theophany" in The
Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. See also E. Jacob, "Manifestations of
God." The Bahá'í understanding of the word suggests the permanent
outpouring of spiritual guidance to humankind through the Word of God, in the
person of the divine Manifestation.
67. The phrase Mazhar-i-lláhí is taken from Twelver Shiism
(See Cole, "Concept" 15-17). One cannot, however, use the term "Manifestation
of God" to refer exclusively to the major prophets (Abraham, Moses, Krishna,
Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad, the Báb, and
Bahá'u'lláh) or to distinguish them from the minor prophets.
Although this would be convenient, it is not really justified.
Bahá'u'lláh does not restrict his usage of "Manifestation of God"
to refer exclusively to the revealers of new sacred scripture and laws. He also
retains the traditional words Prophet and Messenger (nabí, rasúl)
to refer to the higher prophets, as well as the minor ones. The same was true
of Muhammad, who was referred to in the Qur'an as both nabí and
58 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
Figure 1. The Realms of Being
Note: Bahá'u'lláh's use of the names of the realms of being is
identical to the terminology
of the Sufi Path. See J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 59
Manifestation theology really begins in Stage Two, as God-Láhút,
God Manifest, here called simply the first Manifestation of God. The divine
Manifestation is called variously the Primal Will, Logos, the divine Word, the
divine nous (mind), etc. God Manifest is also expressed more poetically as "the
Tongue of Grandeur" and "the Most Exalted Pen." Here the divine Word takes on
the character of the paradox, for it stands revealed within the Godhead as the
sum of all the divine names but is not yet revealed to humanity and thus
remains occulted within the Godhead. 'Abdu'l-Bahá also affirms that the
"First Will" (Questions
203) or "Primal Will"68
agent of creation. The same is also affirmed of the Manifestation or Word of
God (Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets
140). It would appear,
therefore, that the Primal Will originates with or is present in the
Manifestation of God, and in this sense they are identical. 'Abdu'l-Bahá
defines the stations of existence as three only: God, Kingdom
(Manifestation/Word), Creation (Questions
295). This definition would
appear to identify the Primal Will with the Kingdom, which is in turn
synonymous with the divine Manifestations. The Primal Will, therefore, should
not be seen above or existing independently of the Manifestation of God. The
two appear to be synonymous.
Further, manifestation theology is essentialist. Its starting point is the
definition of God as an "unknowable essence" (Bahá'u'lláh,
167). The philosophy of essence as the source of all
contingent beings has a long history stretching back to the
Plato, and Aristotle, through to Aquinas and the
school of Islam. Essentialism is a realist
philosophy and a unified system of theology and philosophy since it is at the
same time a theology, a cosmology, an epistemology, and an ontology. It deals
with the most basic of questionsthe nature of God, the nature of Reality
(Being), God's revelation, the origin of both Spirit and
and what constitutes true knowledge. In
Bahá'í perspective, the philosophy of essence includes the
perception that the Manifestation of God and God's divine names are at the
origin of all other things in the universe, realities that are absolute and
immutable, that is, persist unchanged through time. In this view, it is only
these divine names and attributes that are worthy of our attention as objects
of true knowledge.
The doctrine of the divine names or attributes, however, is not only a major
question in Islamic theology and in the Bahá'í Faith. It is also
treated by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed
; by Dionysius, the
Christian Neoplatonist, in his "Divine Names"; by Aquinas as the "divine names"
or "transcendentals" ("Divinis Nominibus" [On the Divine Names], Question
68. For a fuller discussion of the Primal Will, see Brown, "A
Bahá'í Perspective" 22-26.
69. Brown restates Theo Gerard Sinnige's view in Matter and Infinity in
the Presocratic Schools and Plato that the views of the Presocratic
philosophers were first coherently stated in Plato's Timaeus (Brown, "A
Bahá'í Perspective" 18).
70. Brown develops the Bahá'í view that spirit is the
origin of matter in "A Bahá'í Perspective."
60 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
); and by Spinoza in classical philosophy in
the Ethics. It also has other implications for Western philosophy with strong
resemblances to Plato's doctrine of forms. To what extent Plato's Form of the
Good can be identified with the Manifestation remains as yet unexamined.
Consequently, the divine names and attributes are one of those major questions
that link at the same time the Semitic faiths and certain schools of Western
Stages Three and Four of manifestation theology are those of the realms of
respectively; that is, the
angelic realms of the divine names and attributes, the realms of power
), command (amr
), and execution. Islamic and
Bahá'í beliefs in angels are based on the preceding Jewish and
Christian traditions. Even though the Archangel Gabriel is depicted as
commanding Bahá'u'lláh to speak (Gleanings
archangels do not rank above the Manifestation of God, for
Bahá'u'lláh states that the Seraph of the Day of Judgment has
been ordained by the word of Muhammad (Kitáb-i-Íqán
116). In Old Testament theology there is a tradition that the prophet is an
angel (Heb. Mal'akh
=messenger) since the high prophets never mention the
angels and since the prophet Haggai (1:13) is called "the angel of the Lord"
(Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament
77). The Báb's forerunner
Siyyid Kazim Rashti (d. 1843) would appear to have adopted the more ancient
Hebrew tradition of angelology, since in his Sermon of the Gulf
referred to Imam Ja'far-i-Sádiq's tradition of a proto-Shi'ih Cherub as
being identical to the "Self" (an-nafs
) of the prophet (Lambden,
"Sinaitic Mysteries" 91-92).
Whether there is a rank ordering of the angelic beings of the realm of
and the higher Jabarút
is a matter of
speculation. The realm of Malakút
is referred to as the "Abha
kingdom" (heaven), while the realm of Jabarút
suggests the higher
state, "the all-highest paradise." Further, in Jabarút
decree or command (amr
) is proclaimed. We might identify the realms of
with the angelic realms of the
seraphim and the cherubim respectively in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic
traditions, for the seraphim and cherubim are "continually in the immediate
presence of God, nearer than all others to Him, reflecting, without
intervention of any other created being, the direct effulgence of his glory"
("Angels and Archangels" 86). In Dionysius' "Celestial Hierarchy," reputed to
have been based on apostolic tradition, there are three orders of angels, each
having a triple gradation making nine orders or choirs. Of the first order are
the "thrones," which are likewise identified with the seraphim and cherubim
("Angels and Archangels" 86). In Judaism, God directs Moses to place two gold
cherubim facing one another on the "mercy seat," also of pure gold, which
covered the ark (Exod. 25: 17-21). One of the seraphim commissions the Prophet
Isaiah by touching his lips with a burning coal (Isa. 6:2). In Hebrew
scripture, there would appear to be a ranking of the seraphim (angels of love)
above the cherubim (angels of knowledge), if we are justified in inferring that
the number of wings and the veiling of the face are symbols of power. The
seraphim have six
Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology 61
wings, and their faces are veiled by two of them, and attend the divine throne
from above (Isa. 6:2); whereas, the cherubim have four wings and stand under
the throne (Ezek. 10:1). It is not clear in Bahá'í theology
whether or not there is a ranking of the seraphim and cherubim.
The vision of Ezekiel's wheel accompanied by the angels cherubim would appear
to be a vision of the divine unity, which Bahá'ís would perceive
esoterically as a prefigurement of Bahá'u'lláh's revelation,
since Ezekiel's vision is attended by a manifestation of the glory of God
(Ezek. 10:8), the name of Bahá'u'lláh. Bahá'u'lláh
likewise speaks of the cherubim and the seraphim, and has the cherubim standing
"behind the throne" (Kitáb-i-Íqán
79), while the
seraph (Pers. Isráfíl
) Bahá'u'lláh depicts
as the angel of the Judgment Day: "Hath not the Seraph himself, the angel of
the Judgment Day, and his like been ordained by Muhammad's own utterance?"
116). Muhammad adopted the Jewish and
Christian traditions of angels in which Gabriel and Michael figured prominently
as angels of revelation, protection, and mercy. According to the traditions,
Isráfíl, the angel of the Judgment Day, whose name can probably
be traced to the Hebrew seráfím
"Isráfíl," Encyclopedia of Islam 4: 211) also commissioned the
first revelations at Mecca but disappears after the fitra, the three years of
silence observed by Muhammad, after which Gabriel assumes the on-going and
predominant role (Gaudefroy-Demombynes, Mahomet
Finally God's names and attributes are manifest as Násút,
his manifestation in the physical world. All kingdoms in the physical world are
expressions of the Manifestation of God as the divine names. The believer whose
life expresses fully the divine names lives in both the realms of
not only as a physical
creature living in the elemental world of the senses but also as an angelic
In its simplest terms, theology is the knowledge of God, or, following W. C.
Smith, an attempt to be truthful when speaking about God. In the
Bahá'í community, the discipline of theology as a form of
scholarship would appear, ironically, to have been seriously underrated. There
is currently a pressing and on-going need for theological works by scholars to
make Bahá'í theology not only credible in the eyes of those
academics engaged in religious studies but also an intellectual enrichment for
those members of the community who would like to explore Bahá'í
teachings in greater depth. The fundamental teaching of the oneness of
religion, for example, which 'Abdu'l-Bahá declared in 1911 in his first
public talk in the West to be "the gift of God to this enlightened age"
('Abdu'l-Bahá in London
19) and progressive revelation, which are
both linked to the metaphysical paradigm of unity and the relativity of
religious truth, have received almost no scholarly exploration after the
passage of some eighty years.
Bahá'í theology necessarily will evolve beyond its present
piecemeal treatment of metaphysical themes until systematic theologies are
62 THE JOURNAL OF BAHÁ'Í STUDIES 5.1. 1992
Beyond that point, however, it is likely that truly universal theologies will
emerge and will synthesize the religions of East and West, theologies that will
be viewed as the epitome of sacred study for the age. For if, as Shoghi Effendi
has written, the Kitáb-i-Íqán
"has laid down a
broad and unassailable foundation for the complete and permanent
reconciliation" of the followers of the world's great religions (God Passes
139), Bahá'í scholars will be required to bend their minds
to the development of theologies that are able to reconcile the spiritual
teachings of the Orient and the Occident.
Finally, the following statement of Raimundo Pannikar, the noted comparative
religionist, which could be read almost as a supplication for the intervention
of a prophetic figure in our time as a way out of the tragic dilemma in which
we find ourselves, will strike at the same time a responsive chord and a note
of pathos for members of the Bahá'í Faith:
Great perceptive, prophetic figures and thinkers have appeared, yes,
but scarcely any of the stature of a Sakyamuni, a Zarathustra, of a Confucius,
any of the stature of a representative of the whole course of the age, any in a
position to guide, "sublimate," cause to "precipitate" (in the chemical sense
of the word), or at least to assist at the birth of, the "new mankind" still in
gestation.... What is needed today is a force that, in the old traditional
schema, could be defined as "prophetic"in order to search out, with the
authority of the fully lived personal experience, a path to the altogether
human assimilation and vanquishing of the new, dehumanizing positions imposed
by contemporary civilization.... (Silence 93)
A Persian nobleman proclaimed in the last century to be such a one. His person,
life, teachings, and community provide us with more than adequate proof of his
mission. We have only to wonder why Bahá'u'lláh's voice has not
yet been heard in the sacred academy of the proponents of world theology.
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