Throughout history and until virtually this moment, there have been three ways that religion has been conceived and practiced.
The first we can think of as Exclusivist or Fundamentalist. This was how most religion was conceived of for the vast majority of history. This view holds that one’s own religion is right and all others are wrong, that one religious founder is correct and all the others either occupy a station far below him or else are pretenders. Fundamentalism’s essence is “My way or the highway … to hell” (with apologies to AC/DC). It is characterized not only by exclusivity, rigidity, and a hyperliteral reading of scripture, but is disproportionately animated by a reward/punishment model based on heaven and hell. Because Exclusivism feeds an us-versus-them, in-group/out-group mentality, it thrives by stroking the group ego with a sort of self-congratulatory vibe.
The second view, which flourished largely as an understandable reaction to the unyielding nature of Exclusivism/Fundamentalism, is Materialism, or atheism, the motto of which might well be: “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Materialism, holding as it does that there is no non-physical dimension to life or to the universe, dismisses all religion as superstition, as a mere function of individual and group psychology, as a tool for control of the masses, and as the nemesis of science and reason.
The third conception of religion can be called Postmodern Pluralism, and a suitable shorthand for it might be a spiritualized version of “If it feels good do it.” In most instances, we have a positive association with the term “pluralism,” but in this case it refers to a fragmented approach to religion rather than a holistic one, where theology and observance is a la carte, as a salad bar at which one picks and chooses the religious ideas and observances she fancies, instead of the full-meal deal, eaten at the behest of an expert nutritionist. Here, we find those who suspect that there is a higher power and therefore are not comfortable with cold Materialism, but likewise reject Fundamentalism for most of the same reasons Materialists do — its hostility to questioning, its disregard for science, etc.
Though Postmodern Pluralists believe in a higher power, their typical lack of an internally consistent doctrine can lead to a faith that is vague, ever-shifting, somewhat non-committal, and largely a function of cultural preferences and comfort zones. (“I like the music/location/preacher in this church, so I’ll be a ___”) As much as Fundamentalism is closed, Postmodern Pluralists, in their extreme form, can be equally open to every new idea that comes along, and therefore their conception even can be a portal back into superstition. Here we see the “new age” resurgence of astrology, crystals, past lives, etc. Author Nader Saiedi, whose typology I have borrowed here, writes, “Its relativism of truth and value becomes compatible with an eclectic, arbitrary, uncommitted, and fragmented approach to religion.”
Finally, Postmodern Pluralism generally preaches a gospel of affirmation rather than one of transformation. Because its members circulate in a vast marketplace with infinitely varied menus of beliefs and approaches, it typically seeks to reassure, comfort and affirm the views and habits a person already has instead of challenging them to transform themselves through the sometimes uncomfortable process of personal growth and the tough re-examination of assumptions.
Before going further, I want to say that it’s easy to empathize with each conception as a reaction to the extremes of the other two. The Materialist reaction to Fundamentalist fire-and-brimstone judgmentalism and the blind eye to science, and Materialism’s rejection of the woo-woo superstition of much of Postmodern Pluralism’s new age wing, is wholly understandable and even praiseworthy at a certain level.
For her part, the Postmodern Pluralist can be admired for recognizing that the choice between the extremes of Materialism and Exclusivist Fundamentalism is a false one — that God exists but doesn’t necessarily conform to the hyperliteral interpretation of the Bible Belt, the orthodox synagogue, or the madrassa.
And there even is a grudging degree of empathy here for the Fundamentalist, who on one hand is repulsed by the inherent nihilism of the Materialist, and, on the other, equally loathes the Postmodernist’s moral relativism, or fair-weather, soft-focus, affirmation-based theology, or its gradual abandonment of personal morality.
What’s more, all three of these conceptions of religion exist in the East and the West. And every major religion is split between Fundamentalism and Pluralism (conservatism/traditionalism vs. liberalism/progressivism) Think Orthodox vs. Reform Judaism, sharia Muslims vs. Sufi mystics who may have little use for religious law, evangelicals vs. the Christian left, and so on. Every major tradition has felt and is feeling the strain of those pulling in these opposite directions. Indeed, even within tiny religious communities such as single congregations, or even families, one sees the split, as when certain members of a church feel the necessity of upholding the fundamentals of scripture while another faction, instinctively uncomfortable with scriptural anachronisms (like Creationism or stoning), pushes the congregation toward ever more liberal stands.
By identifying three categories, I don’t mean to suggest an over-simplified scheme in which every person or congregation within a given category appears identical. We can picture the phenomenon as a pie divided into three sections (the Mercedes-Benz logo), in which each individual, depending on his or her constellation of views, could be plotted on the graph closer to one of the other two conceptions or farther away, as well as closer to the middle (moderation) or to the edge (extreme). But even taking the subtleties into account, the three basic conceptions held true.
Just when it seemed that there really could be no other conception of religion than these three, and that these views were irreconcilable at the deepest level, Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, introduced a notion that was essentially different from all three of these — answering “None of the Above.” This new conception is known as Progressive Revelation.
In short, Progressive Revelation means that God reveals His will to humanity gradually and through progressive stages. A few metaphors might help illustrate the idea.
The Baha’i conception of the historic religions is not the typical one of competing ideologies, but rather that the world is a schoolhouse, and each of the prophets are teachers, instructing at a different grade level. There is only one principal, God, who is in charge and is directing the teachers, who are given authority in each of their respective classrooms. The fact that the first-grade teacher is covering one topic and the fifth-grade teacher another does not mean that one is right and the other wrong. It merely means that the teachers are dispensing lessons at an age-appropriate level, and with different classroom rules to optimize learning.
Rather than viewing the great religions of history as separate books, Baha’is view them as chapters in one single book, a book that gets more sophisticated as each chapter arrives.
Finally, in our high-tech world, one last analogy might help. The human is like computer hardware. And the Word of God is like the software, or perhaps even the operating system, on which it runs. Over time, the software needs to be upgraded. The old software has gotten buggy, corrupted over time, and besides is not optimized for the tasks that the modern world requires. Think of it as Word of God 4.1, Word of God 8.5, etc.
But if religion is one, why don’t the historic religions agree in all their concepts, let alone in their particulars? Two reasons: their social laws are intended for a specific time and place, and, as mentioned above, their original teachings are corrupted over time, usually by a presumptuous clergy making leaps of logic after the founder is long gone, and often it is the particulars of social law as well as the corruptions — and not the essences — that we are comparing.
Now, strictly speaking, Progressive Revelation is not a new idea. Jews believe that God revealed his will to Abraham, and to Moses after him, and to many prophets after him. Christians believe in the authenticity of all of those Jewish prophets, but then add John the Baptist, Christ, and the apostles after him. Muslims believe in the Jewish prophets, the divinity of Jesus, then add Muhammad. What all of those have in common, of course, is that they all believe their revelation was the final one and all others coming after that, imposters, nevermind that the founders in each case spoke of one who would come in the future.
So the truly unique elements of Baha’u’llah’s Progressive Revelation are that He 1. equalized the station of all of the founders of the major religions, in Baha’i parlance known as Manifestations of God, and 2. said that this was an organic process that had occurred from time immemorial and would continue eternally. He did say that we should not look for another Manifestation before 1,000 years’ time — His medicine has to be given time to work — but he clearly stated that others would come after Him to carry civilization forward yet again.
It’s interesting to consider how Baha’u’llah’s fourth conception of religion, Progressive Revelation, is different from but in a way unifies all three previous conceptions:
- With Postmodern Pluralism it shares the belief that there is not simply one path to God, and in a sense ups the ante on this pluralism, affirming that not only is there more than one path, but indeed ALL the historic religions originated with an authentic revelation from God, with prophets who were equally exalted in their station.
- With Materialism it shares a certain clear-eyed humility about our ability to really know the essence of God. While we believe in God, we also hold that God is an “unknowable essence” (which is why He appointed human messengers that could relate to us through our own language). Additionally, Baha’u’llah affirmed the importance of science, saying that true science and true religion had to be in harmony. And He made the independent investigation of truth, without attatchment to either superstition or tradition, the first prerequisite of a spiritual journey.
- And finally, with Fundamentalism it shares the belief that God has a definite plan for humanity, that there is purpose and direction in that plan, that the ancient prophets were in fact correct (however misinterpreted they might be), and there is indeed one prophet whose message in particular is optimized for us (because it is optimized for this age and the unique problems and complexities of it).
As the Baha’i Faith is the only religion that fully embraces Progressive Revelation as an ongoing, organic process, the Faith is not simply another church, or another denomination, or even just another religion. It is a whole new way of thinking about religion. It is not just its own species of religion, but is a species, genus, family, order, phylum, and kingdom unto itself. While it shares numerous traits with other religions, it in itself embodies a radical new conception of religion — one that makes peace between and unites these three dominant old worldviews.
This essay was inspired by the book Logos and Civilization: Spirit, History, and Order in the Writings of Baha’u’llah, by Nader Saiedi, University Press of Maryland, 2000.