Religion: boon or bane, blessing or curse? Source of good or ill? Cause of peace, or war? God-sent or hellbent? It all depends on what the purpose of religion is — or is not.
In this continuing series of essays on some of the distinctive principles of the Baha’i Faith — which have been anticipated in past prophecies and which have precipitated some prophecies of the future as well — we now focus on a fundamental social purpose of religion.
According to the Baha’i teachings, religions should unify people.
If religion does the opposite, then it defeats its own purpose – and serves no social good. In such cases, the world would be better off without religion. After all, who needs religion if it is a source of religious prejudice, disagreement, contention, or, worse still, of civil war, or war between nations, or a source of terrorism?
The previous article dealt with the Baha’i principle and prophecy of the oneness of religion — sometimes referred to as the “unity of religion” in the Baha’i writings. This idea and ideal considers the nature or essence of religion. A related Baha’i principle has to do with the purpose of religion. So what is the primary purpose of religion, according to the Baha’i teachings?
The answer is this: Religions should unify, not divide.
One of the great purposes of the Baha’i Faith is to promote unity among religions and within religions. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, described it as a “Faith which is at once the essence, the promise, the reconciler, and the unifier of all religions.” This applies to the Baha’i Faith itself as well. Baha’is must practice what they preach, or else, as Baha’u’llah cautioned:
Every eye, in this Day, should seek what will best promote the Cause of God. He, Who is the Eternal Truth, beareth Me witness! Nothing whatever can, in this Day, inflict a greater harm upon this Cause than dissension and strife, contention, estrangement and apathy, among the loved ones of God. Flee them, through the power of God and His sovereign aid, and strive ye to knit together the hearts of men, in His Name, the Unifier, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.
Here, Baha’u’llah lists one of the “Names” or attributes of God as “the Unifier.” If God is the “Unifier,” then religions that profess to be from God, or based on “Reality,” as is Buddhism, should promote unity as faith communities and among humanity as a whole. This, too, is a relatively new principle brought by Baha’u’llah, according to both of these parallel statements from Abdu’l-Baha:
Religion must be the cause of unity and good fellowship. If it is productive of enmity, hatred and rancor then it is better to abandon it and be without any religion at all. In which one of the sacred books do you find such a statement?
… religion must be the cause of unity, harmony and accord amongst men. If religion be the cause of inharmony, or leads to separating men one from the other, and creates conflict amongst them, then irreligion is better than that religion.
The principle that religions should unify is represented and characterized as a special teaching brought by Baha’u’llah which cannot, at least in its explicit form, be found in any of the sacred books of other world religions.
So how best to promote and achieve the harmony of religions, from a Baha’i perspective? The following proposal, ascribed to Baha’u’llah by Abdu’l-Baha in this talk given in Chicago in 1912, operates both as a formula for enhancing ecumenicity – interfaith harmony – and as a future scenario or prophecy:
Inasmuch as the essential reality of the religions is one and their seeming variance and plurality is adherence to forms and imitations which have arisen, it is evident that these causes of difference and divergence must be abandoned in order that the underlying reality may unite mankind in its enlightenment and upbuilding. All who hold fast to the one reality will be in agreement and unity. Then shall the religions summon people to the oneness of the world of humanity and to universal justice; then will they proclaim equality of rights and exhort men to virtue and to faith in the loving mercy of God. The underlying foundation of the religions is one; there is no intrinsic difference between them.
Therefore, if the essential and fundamental ordinances of the religions be observed, peace and unity will dawn, and all the differences of sects and denominations will disappear.
Abdu’l-Baha’s interfaith plan for peace among religions is followed, in the same talk, by this unifying ecumenical prayer:
O Thou kind Lord! Thou hast created all humanity from the same stock. Thou hast decreed that all shall belong to the same household. In Thy Holy Presence they are all Thy servants, and all mankind are sheltered beneath Thy Tabernacle; all have gathered together at Thy Table of Bounty; all are illumined through the light of Thy Providence.
O God! Thou art kind to all, Thou hast provided for all, dost shelter all, conferrest life upon all. Thou hast endowed each and all with talents and faculties, and all are submerged in the Ocean of Thy Mercy.
O Thou kind Lord! Unite all. Let the religions agree and make the nations one, so that they may see each other as one family and the whole earth as one home. May they all live together in perfect harmony.
O God! Raise aloft the banner of the oneness of mankind.
O God! Establish the Most Great Peace.
Cement Thou, O God, the hearts together.
O Thou kind Father, God! Gladden our hearts through the fragrance of Thy love. Brighten our eyes through the Light of Thy Guidance. Delight our ears with the melody of Thy Word, and shelter us all in the Stronghold of Thy Providence.
Thou art the Mighty and Powerful, Thou art the Forgiving and Thou art the One Who overlooketh the shortcomings of all mankind.
This issue is of such paramount importance to the peace and prosperity of the world that, in April 2002, the Universal House of Justice addressed an open letter To The World’s Religious Leaders, which concludes this way:
Inspired by this perspective, the Baha’i community has been a vigorous promoter of interfaith activities from the time of their inception. Apart from cherished associations that these activities create, Baha’is see in the struggle of diverse religions to draw closer together a response to the Divine Will for a human race that is entering on its collective maturity. The members of our community will continue to assist in every way we can. We owe it to our partners in this common effort, however, to state clearly our conviction that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.
With every day that passes, danger grows that the rising fires of religious prejudice will ignite a worldwide conflagration the consequences of which are unthinkable. Such a danger civil government, unaided, cannot overcome. Nor should we delude ourselves that appeals for mutual tolerance can alone hope to extinguish animosities that claim to possess Divine sanction. The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind. At this greatest turning point in the history of civilization, the demands of such service could not be more clear. “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable”, Baha’u’llah urges, “unless and until its unity is firmly established.”