Message of the Universal House of Justice to the World’s Religious Leaders: Panel Discussion Comments

by Jack McLean

Panel Discussion, Association for Bahá’í Studies Annual Conference, Mississauga (August 30-September 2, 2002)

The Nature of the Message

This message is both a challenge and a critique. It is a challenge to the clerics of diverse faiths to assume responsibility for the growing tide of fundamentalism and fanaticism in the world. In several passages, it takes direct aim at clerical attitudes, abuses of power and misinterpretations of religion. It is also a critique of the interfaith movement and implicit to the House’s message is that the momentum of the interfaith movement has basically died out and that it needs to be revitalised by the adoption of a foundational Bahá’í teaching, the oneness of religion.

However, its critique of organised religion, and particularly of the fundamentalist elements within it, should not be taken as a statement of negativity, even less as a violation of spiritual principle, but rather as an epistemological requirement that in order to obtain “the well-being of mankind, its peace and security,” the promotion of truth requires an honest and unsparing diagnosis of those weaknesses in the body politic that require remediation. In other words, in this message the positive and the negative elements stand side by side and must be taken as a balanced whole.

A Historical Fact: The First World Congress of the Great Religions (1884)

Originated and organised by Martin Kellogg Schermerhorn in New York city in January of 1884, called the “Catholic Congress of World-Religions.” Mr. Schermerhorn was the translator and compiler of Sacred Scriptures of World-Religion (1914) based on an earlier edition called Sacred Scriptures of the World which Mr. Schermerhorn claimed was “the first Catholic [universal] Bible of World-Religions ever published.”

The Contribution of the Global Theologians

I find it somewhat ironic that although the oneness of religion is a specifically scriptural teaching in the Bahá’í Faith, and we may feel as if we have invented this teaching so to speak, in my view it is certain enlightened academics in the English-speaking Christian world who have done more to promote the commonality of the world’s great faiths than anyone else.

I would preface these remarks with this comment. I don’t think it comes as news to many comparative religionists and those who support the interfaith movement that there is a oneness of religions. The comparative religionists and global theologians have been writing about this for over a century. But I think it does come as news to many of the traditional clergy, including the R.C. Archbishop of Toronto, who still believe in the exclusivity of their particular faith traditions.

Some Outstanding Comparative Religionists/Global Theologians/Historians of Religion

(1) Friedrich Max Müller

I refer first to the Anglo-German comparative philologist and Hindu scholar Friedrich Max Müller (d. 1900), who has been called the “father of comparative religions,” and who edited the encyclopedic The Sacred Books of the East (51 vols).

Introduction to the Science of Religion (1873) used the term “comparative theology”:

“The true religion of the future will be the fulfilment of all the religions of the past–the true Religion of Humanity, that which, in the struggle of history, remains as the indestructible portion of all the sectarian religions of mankind.” “All here on earth tends toward right, and truth, and perfection; nothing here on earth can ever be quite right, quite true, quite perfect–Christianity, or what is called Christianity included–so long as it excludes all other religions, instead of loving and embracing what is good in each.”

(2) Wilfred Cantwell Smith

Closer to home, we have the distinguished comparative religionist and Canadian Wilfred Cantwell Smith formerly of McGill who founded the Institute of Islamic Studies there. Smith’s influence is so great that comparative religion is sometimes divided into “pre” or “post” Cantwell Smith.

John Hick, himself a remarkable theologian of comparative religion wrote in his influential 1984 essay “A Philosophy of Religious Pluralism” that Wilfred Cantwell Smith was responsible more than any other individual for “the change that has taken place within a single generation in the way in which many of us perceive the religious life of mankind.”

Smith called himself a “historian of religion” and he claims that all of the history of religion should be matter for global theology which he calls “world theology.”

Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion (1981):

“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.” (p. 4)

Recommended Essay: “Theology and the World’s Religious History”

(3) Huston Smith

The other great Smith, who in my view ranks on a par with Cantwell Smith, is Huston Smith, now well into his 80’s and author of The World’s Great Religions which was published originally as The Religions of Man (1965). Huston Smith is a philosopher of religion who has profound insights into a wide variety of religious question including religion and science. He is also a critic of postmodernism. In essay called “Postmodernism’s Impact on the Study of Religion”, Smith raises the pertinent question of the truth-claim and evaluating the truth-claim: “So we pour our departmental energies into features of religion that have objective, empirical grounding–philology, archaeology, historical influences and textual parallels–and bracket the question of whether the beliefs that generated those fallouts were mistaken or true.” Personally, it was Huston Smith who opened my eyes to comparative religion.

(4) Frithjof Schuon

This Swiss Sufi who wrote in French and German is considered by Muslims to be the best exponent of Islam in the western world. His book Comprendre l‘Islam (Understanding Islam) is held in great esteem by Muslims and has been translated into Arabic. His De l’Unité transcendante des religions (The Transcendent Unity of Religions) was called by T.S. Eliot the most “impressive work in the comparative study of Oriental and Occidental religions.” and Huston Smith has written “I know of no living thinker that begins to rival him.” Schuon displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s religions.

Unfortunately, Schuon failed to understand the comprehensive nature of the Bahá’í Faith, “Bahaism” as he called it, and classed the faith of Bahá’u’lláh along with “Mormonism” as showing a “problem of evangelism.” At least, Huston Smith has been more kindly in his remarks about the Bahá’í Faith.

(5) Paul Tillich

I want to include an outstanding theologian here, Paul Tillich. I do so because like Cantwell Smith, I believe that theology and comparative religion should be interdependent. Just as Huston Smith opened up my eyes to comparative religion, it was Paul Tillich who attracted me to the study of theology. Tillich was a massive and profound thinker who had a complete mastery of all questions theological connected with Greek philosophy and the Christian tradition. Interestingly, his secretary Grace Calli was a Bahá’í, and she has written an article some years ago in World Order about Paul Tillich and his exposure to the Bahá’í Faith.

The Endorsement of Comparative Religion by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

“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.”

    (PUP, p. 410) (Eighth Street Temple, Washington. D.C.)

From the Universal House of Justice: On Facing Issues in Interfaith Dialogue

In a letter to an individual dated January 5, 1995, the Secretariat of the Universal House of Justice, after referring to the “liberalization of religious thought” since roughly 1850, identifies two types of attitude which I take are born out of a fear of contention and/or sensitivity to criticism which tends to prevent any meaningfulness or substantive issue being discussed. It writes:

“One is antagonism to any statement which could be held to imply even an oblique criticism of another person’s religion. The other, which is indirectly related to the first, is a progressive dilution of the content of religious belief to a lowest common denominator of uncontentious statement.” The House of Justice goes on to link the gingerly polite world of interfaith dialogue to the paradoxically opposite extreme of the rise of fundamentalism. It writes:

“It is not surprising that in reaction to such an atmosphere, there has been a corresponding increase in the number of those, particularly among the youth who, thirsty for truth, discipline and challenge in religion, gravitate to the opposite extreme of fundamentalism.”

Its follow-up qualifying letter of June 11, 2002 advises Bahá’í spokespersons to “focus attention on the overriding social and spiritual challenges facing our world and avoid being drawn into contention over points of theology.”

However, I would point that the central theme of its April 2002 letter is the oneness of religion in the context of interreligious dialogue. This theme, of course, cannot be considered as anything other than a theological issue and I view it as an invitation to the Bahá’í community to explore by deeper means, academic means, just what this phrase oneness of religion implies. I would also point out that it was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá himself who proclaimed the knowledge of the “fundamental oneness of religion” along with “the knowledge of the oneness of mankind” as the “gift of God to this enlightened age.” in his first public address in the West on September 10, 1911 in Pastor R.J. Campbell’s non-conformist City Temple in London. So while contention is proscribed, diversity of opinion and an earnest seeking after truth on this fundamental question is most certainly welcome by both Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís alike.

From John Hick on Facing Substantive Issues in Interfaith Dialogue

John Hick, one of the outstanding global theologians or comparative religionists, addressed this very issue during a presentation made to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the World’s Parliament of Religions at the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall in Edinburgh on October 2, 1993. Among his remarks, Hick said:

“Returning to the Interfaith movement as whole, I think we may say that in the last hundred years what has come about is a mutual recognition and a mutual respect which makes possible events such as this commemoration today and makes practical co-operation possible; and the major interfaith effort today is rightly directed towards developing this practical co-operation in the face of the pressing need to achieve peace and justice on earth within a sustainable global economy. The most significant development here is the attempt, led by the German Catholic theologian Hans Küng, to formulate a common basic global ethic, about which we shall be hearing more in the coming months. For many involved in dialogue, this practical focus means leaving on one side the thorny question of the conflicting truth-claims of our different traditions. Many hold that we are still not ready to tackle those questions, and should not risk contention by bringing them forward. My own view is that genuine questions of belief cannot be avoided and that we must prepare ourselves to face them–not instead of matters of practical co-operation but, for some of us at least, as well as these.”

To my mind, these sentiments are in close keeping with both the spirit and the letter of Bahá=í teachings. Of course, theological contention is to be avoided, but it is precisely the challenge of those so engaged in interfaith dialogue to conduct themselves with honesty and forthrightness accompanied by a dignity and courtesy and an attitude that is free of dogmatism.

Challenge From the Universal House of Justice to Continue in Interfaith Dialogue on the Oneness of Religion

“We owe it 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 the called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.”

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