Who Decides What a Religion Teaches?

Recently I represented my Baha’i community as part of an interfaith panel on the topic of how to deal with new interpretations of scripture. 

Each panelist, all from different religious traditions, gave a brief presentation of how their Faith verified that new interpretations or teachings came from a spiritual source or inspiration.

This is a crucial question because interpretation of scripture has, over the millennia, resulted in much schism and even violence, not just between different Faiths, but within single religions, as well. 

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I opened my presentation with these words of Baha’u’llah, the founder and prophet of the Baha’i Faith:

The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men. Suffer it not to become a source of dissension and discord, of hate and enmity. This is the straight Path, the fixed and immovable foundation. Whatsoever is raised on this foundation, the changes and chances of the world can never impair its strength, nor will the revolution of countless centuries undermine its structure.

In this passage, the Baha’i teachings echo Christs assertion that we must build our faith upon the word of God. 

In 1863, in Baghdad, Baha’u’llah claimed to be the most recent in a line of divine educators that goes back to the dawn of human awareness and will continue eternally. Unity of the human race, he wrote, “… can never be achieved so long as the counsels which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed are suffered to pass unheeded.

The source of the faith of every Baha’i is the word of God, whether uttered by Baha’u’llah or Buddha, Krishna or Christ, Muhammad or Moses. The foundation laid by the words of those divine messengers, in holy books as diverse as the Torah and the Bhagavad Gita, is Gods eternal covenant with His creation. That covenant is expressed in the assurance that God will always guide humanity – a profound agreement between each of Gods messengers and their followers, and in the promise of holy messengers to come. 

Each party to this divine contract has a duty defined by the purpose of religion to unify, not divide; to love, not hate. Ultimately, we are created to know and love God and each other, and, in Baha’u’llah’s words, “… to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization.

This mandate carries with it the promise of organic and evolutionary change. A core Baha’i teaching – the oneness of religion and the progressive revelation of the Faith of God through the ages – means that humanity receives the successive revelations of religion according to our capacity to learn.

Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor or Baha’u’llah put it this way:

Religion must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead. The divine institutes are evolutionary; therefore revelation must be progressive and continuous. 

Here is the balance: While social teachings change, the spiritual truths enshrined at the heart of every revelation of God remain fixed and immovable.

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While Baha’is regard the writings of Baha’u’llah as the word of God, we also revere and study the sacred texts of earlier revelations. Baha’u’llah explicitly commanded that the Faith have no clergy, so each Baha’i has a responsibility to study Gods word and write it upon their own heart. We can no more impose our interpretation of scripture on another soul than we can force them to see through our eyes. 

Baha’u’llah exalted this independent investigation of truth, linking it to justice:

O Son of Spirit! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice … By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.

History has shown how differing interpretations of sacred texts can shatter a Faith community. To preserve the unity of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah established a written covenant, expressly appointing his eldest son Abdu’l-Baha as the sole interpreter of his teachings and the perfect exemplar of a Baha’i  life. This covenant has held the Baha’i community together for 180 years. 

Baha’u’llah charged Abdu’l-Baha with laying the foundations of a global Baha’i administrative order that he, himself, designed — with democratically-elected local, national, and international institutions. It was Abdu’l-Baha who oversaw the creation of the first Baha’i  Local Spiritual Assemblies in Europe and North America. 

In his Will and Testament, Abdu’l-Baha designated his grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as the Guardian of the Faith, and passed on the work of building the institutions that would support the global administrative body Baha’u’llah prescribed — the Universal House of Justice.

In 1963, on the 100th anniversary of Baha’u’llah’s first public declaration of his mission, the members of the world’s Baha’i National Spiritual Assemblies cast ballots at the Baha’i World Centre on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel to elect the first Universal House of Justice. While that institution cannot override Baha’u’llah’s explicit laws and teachings, he authorized it to give guidance in new areas as needed. It does this through a study of Baha’i scripture and prayerful and loving consultation among its elected members.

Baha’is believe that when we pray we are speaking to God, when we study God’s word in the sacred texts we are listening to His answers, and when we consult together on what we hear, we are building community. Guidance and inspiration comes to Baha’is continually through prayer and meditation, the study of the Baha’i writings, regular communication with the institutions of the Faith, and in consultation with each other. This communication flows between the Baha’is and the Baha’i institutions, informing how we apply the principles of the Faith to the social issues that affect everyone. 

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In this way, the Baha’i Faith grows and evolves, guided by the divine teachings and the institutions Baha’u’llah created to embody Gods eternal covenant. Baha’is who serve on those institutions are elected without campaigns, nominations, or electioneering. As members of those bodies, they have no individual or personal authority – it is the institution that guides, not the individual members.

Through this organic process, the Baha’i community strives to pursue the purpose of faith in an ever-changing world, and to evolve our understanding of how material reality can be brought into harmony with the spiritual.

I’ll close with a passage from a letter written by Baha’u’llah to a Zoroastrian scholar who demanded he answer ten questions. This, Baha’u’llah told him, was the answer to all of them:

The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.

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