Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Bahá’i Religion: Theological Problems

The Bahá’i religion is based on the monotheistic teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, the nineteenth-century prophet whom Bahá’i’s maintain is the prophet even for the twenty-first century. The monotheism dovetails with the religion’s earthly goal of unity even in diversity.[1] At the same time, the religion is universalistic in that it holds that truth can come out of various religions, including non-deism Buddhism and polytheistic Hinduism. Bahá’i aims to be a tolerant religion in principle, although it seems to me that the monotheistic religions would naturally be favored. Although Hindu and Buddhist teachings and prayers are incorporated, Bahá’i does seem to emphasize Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yet this does not absolve Bahá’iism from the tension in being both monotheist and inclusive of truth from non-monotheist religions. Even within Bahá’i’s grasp of the three monotheist religions an underlying tension can be found. Specifically, although Bahá’iism aims to accurately represent all three of the Abrahamic religions, the desire to emphasize what those religions have in common comes at the expense of taking each in its own, distinct terms. In particular, Bahá’i teaching treats Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed similarly even though they are different types in their respective religions. The imposed isomorphism enables Bahá’iism to claim Bahá’u’lláh as the fourth is a series of the same prophet-type. This type stresses the divine-connection of the prophet at the expense of his human nature. Meanwhile, the goal of unity—the Kingdom of God—is also portrayed in distinctly earthly terms, albeit idealized, as the unity possible around the world of different peoples in “a civilization founded on justice, equality and unity in diversity.”[2] Viewing the Kingdom of God in such concrete, even partisan terms can arbitrarily narrow and even skew the divine into terms that are human, even all too human.
According to Bahá’i teaching, a series of prophets has provided mankind with God’s teachings on how to take the next step as religion has progressed through human history.[3] Although the progression has been toward monotheism, a non-deity religious sect such as Theravada Buddhism and a polytheistic religion such as Hinduism are still drawn on in Bahá’i prayer, given the religion’s belief that truth can come from many religions.
Looking back, we see a line of prophets ending with Bahá’u’lláh. “In every era of history, God has opened the gates of grace to the world by providing us with one of His Manifestations charged with providing the moral and spiritual stimulus that human beings need to cooperate and advance.”[4] Although Bahá’u’lláh is “the One Whose teachings will bring the maturation of humanity, ushering in the long-promised time when all the peoples of the world will live side by side in peace and unity,”[5] all of the previous prophets, or Manifestations, are of the same type; or, more to the point, the claim is that Bahá’u’lláh is on par with Krishna, Siddhartha, Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, but is Moses on par with Jesus?—the former being a man asked by Yahweh to lead God’s people out of Egypt and the latter being the Son of God, fully human and fully divine. Is Siddhartha, the Buddha (enlightened one), on par with Krishna, a Hindu God? The Buddha insists he is not a deity, or even a prophet; he teaches his insight as a way to end suffering. What exactly is Bahá’u’lláh on par with? The capitalization of Manifestation connotes a unique relation to God. In Christianity, the Son of God is qualitatively different that the sons or children of God. What, then, of Siddhatha, Moses, and Mohammed who do not claim to be more than human beings? Is Bahá’u’lláh like them, or is he like the divine Krishna and Jesus Christ? The reference to Manifestations may suggest that every figure in the line is sinless—more divine than merely human.
The 2019 Grassroots Teaching Conference of the Four Corners Region in the U.S. states that the prophets were “social visionaries, stainless mirrors of virtue” who “set out teachings and truth that answered the urgent needs of the age,”[6] which could last hundreds of years until the next prophet comes along even if the teachings have to cover very different contexts from that in which they sprouted. This raises the question of whether teachings from the nineteenth century are readily translatable in even the first two decades of the twenty-first century, which, like the preceding century, was so transformed by technology. If not, then Bahá’u’lláh would not be the final, definitive prophet.
Even the contention of a line of prophets is controversial. To label a Hindu deity as a prophet or even manifestation of God is project the Abrahamic religions onto Hinduism rather than be faithful to the distinctiveness of the latter. So too, the prophet figure is foreign to Buddhism. Even within the Abrahamic line, the claim of a future prophet after Jesus would not be accepted in Christianity, and likewise after Muhammed in Islam. The Bahá’i claim that Bahá’u’lláh is the last of the prophets thus conflicts with the claim that the religion is consistent with Christianity and Islam.
The prophet figure is based in Judaism, where the prophets speak truth to power used as a vice. How well does the Bahá’i notion of prophet fit with the original? Moses is not even considered a prophet in Judaism, though he is portrayed as a social visionary—but his role in freeing the Hebrews is preeminent. Does not a religious vision transcend society? Is it not rather presumptuous to claim that certain social structures are sacred? Also, is Moses a stainless mirror of virtue? Yahweh bars Moses (not a prophet anyway) from entering the promised land for having taken credit for water coming out of a rock even though Yahweh has accomplished the miracle, yet Moses is heroic in going back to Egypt to free the Hebrews enslaved there. In regard to the Hebrew prophets, they are usually pointing out God’s displeasure at another person for not being virtuous rather than being virtuous themselves. When David displays a lack of virtue with regard to Bathsheba and her husband, Nathan, a prophet, informs David that Yahweh is not pleased with David’s lack of virtue. Does this imply or necessitate that the prophet is himself (or must be) virtuous? 
Moreover, are all of the prophets recognized by the Bahá’i religion perfect reflections of virtue? Would they not have to be divine in some special way (e.g., Krishna and Jesus)? The extinct Greek deities show us, however, that to be divine is not necessarily to be virtuous. Siddhartha, Moses and Mohammed do not even consider themselves divine. Is Mohammed virtuous? If so, should we apply the standards of his own time, when he was regarded as quite progressive, or ours?
Five of the Ten Commandments are moral or normative, and God as omnipotent (all-powerful) cannot, by definition, be limited to human moral principles. Can we know that the moral commandments are divine commands rather than projections of a culture’s normativity? Bahá’iism holds that “God is unknowable in His essence and that we cannot understand the nature of God.”[7] If God is unknowable, then how can we be certain that a virtue is divine-sourced and revealed as such? Faith is of belief, and thus falls short of the certainty of knowledge. Moreover, if we cannot understand God, how can we be sure that we understand God’s message in its pristine form? The messenger and subsequent copy-editors, being human, may have their own perspectives and agendas.
God transcends the limit of human cognition (and perception), and thus human concepts, according to pseudo-Dionysus, a Christian theologian and saint of the sixth century. Even the concept of the Trinity is to be transcended. As the twentieth-century religious scholar, Joseph Campbell said, the mask of eternity becomes the final obstruction to the religious experience.[8] The message that reaches us mere mortals may, in Nietzschean coinage, be human, all too human. In David Hume’s theory, the message could be said to be so anthropomorphic (misapplying human characteristics to non-human objects) that the quality of divine simplicity is obscured like a black hole in the middle of a galaxy.
As with the kingdom of God in Christian liberation theology, the societal ending point in Bahá’i can be criticized for being human, all too human, albeit in a good way as far as ideals go. Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation “contains laws, principles and truths which make possible the unification of the human family and the construction of a world which is both materially and spiritually prosperous.”[9] The promise of material riches is rather earthly (as opposed to heavenly). Although Yahweh promises the Hebrews that Israel will have material wealth if the they faithfully keep the Covenant and the Christian Prosperity Gospel maintains that God will reward people who have true belief (i.e., that Jesus Christ is the Son of God) with material (and spiritual) wealth, treasure on Earth has generally been contrasted with spiritual wealth by religions, including Christianity.[10]
Encroachments of religion onto other domains has been endemic since antiquity; bolstering particular political and economic theories, structures, and related ethical principles by christening them in a Kingdom of God can be thought of as self-idolatrous in that certain human artifacts are deemed sacred. A religion espousing such a kingdom can actually exacerbate divisions at the expense of unity because the selection of particular artifacts can have a partisan, or partial, quality. In contrast, a Kingdom of God not of things from our world—an other-worldly Kingdom—can more easily be associated with a divine source.
The Bahá’i goal is a Kingdom of God on Earth that includes a relatively equal distribution of wealth. Both the degree of politico-economic specification and the “leftward” ideological tilt render that Kingdom much like that in Liberation Theology, and thus vulnerable to the same criticism. Although unity is highly valued in the Bahá’i teachings, the religion fails to eschew political partisanship in rendering the religion’s ideal society wherein people can be transformed such that religion is fulfilled. Interestingly, members of the religion are discouraged from discussing and participating in partisan politics because doing so is divisive rather than unifying, whereas discussion of political and economic ideals is actually encouraged under the rubric of a Kingdom of God.
Generally speaking, when a religion extends to other (related?) domains, the unique or distinctive native fauna in the religious garden can easily be overlooked. For example, transcendent experience, which transcends the limits of our concepts, thinking, perceiving and even emotions, can be clouded over by concerns that are properly of other domains, grabbed by religion as if the distinctive element of religion—transcendent experience—were not legitimate or worthy enough in itself.[11] Even within religion, fights about whether a religious founder or prophet is divine or merely human or over the nature of the divine entity, being, or object (which transcends our cognition anyway) can keep us from stepping into religious experience—beyond even the divine masks—even during worship services!

For more, see: God's Gold: Beneath the Shifting Sands of Christian Thought on Profit-Seeking and Wealth and Spiritual Leadership in Business: Transcending the Ethical. Both are available at Amazon.

1. This is similar to Schopenhauer’s ethical theory of compassion being based on Plotinus’s (a second-century Christian philosopher) notion of the One.
2. From the 2019 Grassroots Teaching Conference of the Four Corners Region.
3. This notion of religion progressing through history is close to David Hume’s theory in The Natural History of Religion. Yet for Hume, the human brain can only go so far in holding onto the pristine, uncorrupted idea of divine simplicity (i.e., pure monotheism) without projecting more comfortable human attributes. Friedrich Nietzsche found a vice—that of vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord—among the other anthropomorphic divine attributes. He argues that vengeance is in conflict with omnibenevolence (perfect goodness), thus the concept of God has been discredited even as news of this has not reached the culprits and their enablers yet. Bahá’iism maintains in contrast to Hume that the last prophet’s teachings can bring mankind to construct the Kingdom of God on Earth, completing the world-historical progression of religion. I contend that even Hume underestimated the ways in which the human brain is incompatible with a fruition of religion here on Earth. Denial, for instance, is a strong force holding internal contradictions within a given religion in place—even hiding them from the culprits themselves!
4. Universal House of Justice, October 2017.
5. Ibid.
6. From the 2019 Grassroots Teaching Conference of the Four Corners Region.
7. Ibid.
8. Campbell makes this statement in the PBS miniseries, The Power of Myth (episode Masks of Eternity).
9. Ibid.
10. On the shift toward accepting wealth in Christianity, I have written the academic treatise, Godliness and Greed, published by Lexington, following which I wrote the non-fiction (i.e., dictionaries not needed) book, God’s Gold. I argue that the Commercial Revolution and the Italian Renaissance as being bench-marks for the transition from a dominant anti-wealth stance to a pro-wealth stance—the latter making the Prosperity Gospel possible. In other words, Christian social ethics were pro-wealth before the Calvinist work ethic came around in the Reformation.
11. On distinguishing the religious domain from stuff grounded in other domains, and on the primacy of transcendent experience, see my book, Spiritual Leadership in Business: Transcending the Ethical. Available at Amazon.