One Common Faith Brings New Understanding of Oneness of Humankind, Pitfalls of Modernity and Anachronistic Thinking, and Nuances of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation
Betsey Belvin, a learner living in Bennington, Vermont, and a participant in four Wilmette Institute courses, has a long list of Bahá’í activities to her name: twenty years as the Bahá’í representative to her local Interfaith Council, five years as a co-teacher in a comparative-religion class in a local college, and several years as a representative for Huququ’lláh for the Northeast, the “most precious of gifts,” she says. Her recent completion of the course on One Common Faith brought a number of insights into historical events and ways of looking at humanity and corresponding deeper insights into the Bahá’í revelation. As she dealt with the “genuine sadness at the losses all around brought on by modernity,” she realized that “the losses are one part of the twin processes” of crises and victory. She decided that, for her, it was “a bigger portion of the tapestry of this Revelation” being “unrolled.” Suddenly, as she reflected on what she had learned in the One Common Faith course “(and thinking about the Crimean War, of all things)” she realized the leaders to whom Bahá’u’lláh addressed His Letters were those living at the time of the Crimean War. “That drove” her” to do a “last-minute enrollment” in the course Summons of the Lord of Hosts. We are looking forward to the insights Betsey gains from that course, but now let’s let her tell us about her experiences in studying One Common Faith.
Understanding Modernity and the Enlightenment. “When I first read One Common Faith upon its release [in 2005], I recall being so taken by its eloquence, breadth, and depth, but my reading then was, in light of this course [which began in December 2015], only cursory. This current reading of the text, plus the ancillary readings and Forum discussions plunged me much deeper into the complexities—and simplicities—inherent in the unities of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. This reading required me to wrestle with the meanings and implications of modernity so that I finally understood in my gut something that had been mentioned nearly twenty years ago during a study of several weeks’ duration at our local synagogue of Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era?, which was a compilation of papers delivered at a symposium several years earlier. The thing that has always stuck with me and that I have puzzled over was the observation that the seeds of the Holocaust were sown in the Enlightenment. My Jewish Bahá’í husband, who had been a religion and philosophy major, and the others in the study group, all Jewish, got it. I didn’t. It was matter of fact for most of them. I was clueless. The Enlightenment, as I understood it, had been a breath of fresh air in European (and Colonial American) intellectual history, giving rise to all kinds of new ideas and informing the creation of this new American government. So how could that which inspired Rousseau, Locke, Jefferson, and so on, have resulted in the murder of the six million?
“This study of One Common Faith answered my question, as the text required me to look at modernity, something I thought I understood, but, as it turned out, my understanding was not only pretty superficial but inaccurate. As I digressed from the syllabus and plunged into learning more about ‘modernity’ and the Age of Reason, I finally began to grasp how the elevation of the intellect, of the self, of one’s subjective experience began the long road of the degradation of religion in Europe. I already knew that Darwin had shredded earlier concepts of the nature of humankind, but now the material, mechanistic view of who we are, driven by scientific discovery, reduced each individual being to bundles of various systems, no longer human. Finally, by adding the very oldest hatred in human history, anti-Semitism, to this bleak interpretation of what it means to be human, it was clear how Auschwitz was a logical consequence of the Enlightenment. Finally, I got it, in all its complex horror.
“Early in the twentieth century, a materialistic interpretation of reality had consolidated itself so completely as to become the dominant world faith insofar as the direction of society was concerned. In the process, the civilizing of human nature had been violently wrenched out of the orbit it had followed for millennia. For many in the West, the Divine authority that had functioned as the focal centre of guidance—however diverse the interpretations of its nature—seemed simply to have dissolved and vanished. . . . Humanity had taken its destiny into its own hands. It had solved through rational experimentation and discourse—so people were given to believe—all of the fundamental issues related to human governance and development—One Common Faith 3–4.
“Alas, not much has changed as other genocides continue to break our hearts. Each evening we see the faces of other refugees somewhere in the world risking everything to escape the element that denies them their essential humanity.
The Perils of Anachronistic Thinking. “Another understanding I am taking away from the course is that of the perils of anachronistic thinking that only complicate or even preclude discussing the necessary role of religion today. First, in my experience, most individuals see religion as a negligible or even negative element in our modern world, not only because they see it as discrete units with little relevance one to another and less to contemporary life, but few seem to discern the difference between God’s eternal laws that are renewed with each dispensation and the social laws intended for the betterment of humankind. The consequences, it seems to me, are twofold: Earlier social laws seen through twenty-first century eyes are condemned and, by extension, the religion and its Manifestation, or it is seen that a retreat to strict obedience to those earlier social laws will bring about the expected return of the anticipated Messiah. In either case, we see extremist attitudes toward religion: a rise of secularism or the creation of personal, no-fault ‘spiritual’ practices (dare I say trappings?) or a rise of religious conservatism. And we often see some charismatic individual at the helm of this or that faction whether it is of a secular, ‘spiritual,’ or ultraconservative religious bent—and there is a whole other discussion I won’t walk into in this essay. In short, One Common Faith says all that more eloquently on page 37: ‘Problems arise where followers of one of the world’s faiths prove unable to distinguish between its eternal and transitory features, and attempt to impose on society rules of behaviour that have long since accomplished their purpose.’
A New and Deeper Understanding of the Oneness of Humanity. “I welcomed a new appreciation for the implications of what the ‘oneness of humanity’ means for Bahá’ís and what it means for those who have not yet realized those implications, those for whom the ‘oneness of humanity’ is a Kumbaya experience. As a result of this course on One Common Faith, I have more questions to ask in conversations over what ‘oneness’ means. What does it require? From whom? Why, how, and to what end? If I am a secularist, a humanist, as some might say, how do I have a heart-to-heart with one who is deeply in love with Jesus or Ganesha or Parvati? Can I treat those hearts with more than anthropological dispassion? Where is the language, the grammar, for discourse as we immerse into this new world where humankind is one? And how do we, ‘with words as mild as milk,’ [Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh 173] discuss progressive revelation? As successive documents from the World Center and the Bahá’í International Community have been disseminated with the very vocal statement repeated over and over again of the importance of the life of the spirit being an integral and critical element to most of the world outside of Europe, North America, and most of the Northern Hemisphere, I wonder about the discussion, and I think it’s probably falling to Bahá’ís to bring it up. I do not have a global view, but I suspect the life of the spirit is not a topic high on the list of considerations, beyond that of our senior Institutions. Likewise in our worries about globalization, I see more clearly what global integration signifies, the implications for what we Bahá’ís need to introduce in discussion.
Appreciating the Deeper Nuances of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation. “Finally, what I have taken away from this course is a finer appreciation of the nuances of this Revelation that somehow I was enabled to recognize. The principle that there is only one religion progressively revealed is a profound challenge for many; for me it was a cinch, made so much sense, resolved so many questions. Now I think I am better prepared to talk about this fundamental topic with a lot more patience than I have been hitherto.”