The changing faces of God

When a person first encounters the Baha’i Faith and is overwhelmed by its complexity, a natural question to ask is, “Where does the Baha’i Faith begin?” I am not thinking of the historical origin - that it began in Persia in the mid-19th century. I am thinking of what Baha’u’llah taught - that is, where do we begin in order to understand what Baha’u’llah taught? Of course, there are infinite possible beginnings, but perhaps the best way to begin is where Baha’u’llah began. He used the same beginning in at least two of his major works, the Book of Certitude and Gems of Divine Mysteries, which he wrote in the early part of his ministry in response to questions about resurrection and salvation.

Baha’u’llah’s beginning is a question: why are the prophets of God always rejected by their contemporaries?

In Gems of Divine Mysteries, this question takes the following form:

“Know then that it behoveth thine eminence to ponder from the outset these questions in thy heart: What hath prompted the divers peoples and kindreds of the earth to reject the Apostles whom God hath sent unto them in His might and power, whom He hath raised up to exalt His Cause and ordained to be the Lamps of eternity within the Niche of His oneness?” (Gems para 3)

In the Book of Certitude, this question takes the following form:

“Ponder for a moment, and reflect upon that which hath been the cause of such denial on the part of those who have searched with such earnestness and longing… Not one single Manifestation of Holiness hath appeared but He was afflicted by the denials, the repudiation, and the vehement opposition of the people around Him.” (Iqan para 4)

In fact, Baha’u’llah says that, to be a person of true faith, a believer must understand the “mysteries” associated with the denial and persecution of the prophets. (Gems para 4)

To begin answering this question, Baha'u'llah creates a dramatic narrative that incorporates the essential elements of the lives of the prophets and the responses of the people to the prophets’ message. That is, from the different stories of, primarily, the lives of the principal Abrahamic prophets, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, the Bab and Baha'u'llah, he creates one meta-story whose elements are common to all. Using the elements of this story, he builds a framework from which all religion can be viewed. An outline of this meta-story goes like this:

The meta-story of religion

The religious community that lives at the time a new prophet appears on earth is steeped in an established religious tradition, which forms the backdrop of that community’s moral, spiritual and legal worldview. A religious hierarchy administers the affairs of the religious community, maintains orthodoxy and protects its own interests.

The community lives in expectation that a prophet, Prophet A, promised to them in their scriptures will appear. Passages in the scriptures use metaphorical language to tell of catastrophic and supernatural events that will take place when Prophet A returns and restores justice to the world. The community’s expectations of how this event will happen are based on literal interpretations of these passages and these interpretations are embedded in tradition. They tell that the new prophet will:

  1. Be the return of the old prophet and proclaim the same teachings and laws; for example: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Matthew 24:35
  2. Perform superhuman actions; for example, subject the people worldwide to a divine judgement where unbelievers are punished and the righteous are rewarded. For example: “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Matthew 25:32

A person, Person X, arises and claims to be Prophet A and invites the people to believe. But Person X is not like the old prophet. Person X has a different name and teaches different things. Also, Person X shows no supernatural abilities and is certainly not in any position to effect a global victory over unbelievers. Person X is obviously a fraud. Despite this, a number of people accept that Person X is Prophet A and their views unexpectedly and alarmingly gain in influence. The religious leaders become concerned about the new threat and take action to maintain orthodoxy. They incite the community to rise up in opposition and persecute Prophet A and the prophet’s followers. Prophet A lives a difficult life and is, perhaps, killed.

Despite this, over time, the whole community comes to bear allegiance to Prophet A and establishes a new religious tradition, based on Prophet A’s teachings, and a new set of institutions to administer the affairs of the community and maintain orthodoxy. The people live in expectation that a prophet, Prophet B, promised to them in the scriptures of Prophet A, will appear. A person arises and claims to be Prophet B but does not live up to the expectations of the people. The people rise up in opposition, incited by their religious leaders. Prophet B lives a difficult life and is, perhaps, killed. But, over time, the people come to bear allegiance to Prophet B, establish a new religious tradition and organise their community around Prophet B’s teachings.

And so the meta-story continues without end.

From the meta-story, we can see that Baha'u'llah views religion as a phenomenon that goes beyond the specifics of one prophet and one religion to a progression of prophets and religions through time. The prophets are different individuals who appear on earth at various intervals to further an eternal divine purpose that stretches over the entire past and future of humankind. The time when a new prophet lives on earth and introduces a new religion to the world is known as a ‘resurrection day’ and each new prophet is viewed as a resurrection of the previous ones.

For details on how a person goes about recognising the latest prophet in the meta-story of religion, see The need to see with one's own eyes.