Revisit the Wilmette Institute’s Web Talk by Steven Phelps on The Nature of Revelation and the Manifestations of God in the Bahá’í Writings
If you missed Steven Phelps’ Web Talk on Mother’s Day, May 8, you can now listen to it on the Wilmette Institute’s YouTube channel. Steven entitled his talk “‘I am the Mystic Fane’: The Nature of the Manifestation of God in the Bahá’í Writings,” In it, he set out to share his personal reflections on the nature of the Prophets of God and the nature of divine Revelation. The result, at least for this listener/writer, was an interesting, informative, and thought-provoking experience.
Steven began by showing a photograph of a stunning stained-glass window at Yale University. On the right side of the window are depictions of characters representing religion, reverence, and inspiration. On the left are depictions of other characters representing science, search, and intuition. The scene is a happy one, suggesting that an amicable dialogue between science and religion is taking place. Unfortunately, Steven says, the last few centuries have not been graced with such amity and agreement. Instead, humankind has experienced great disagreement about the nature of reality and how we understand reality. These two strands of thought, Steven said, can be symbolized by two cities: Jerusalem, standing for religion, and Athens, for science.
On the one hand, Jerusalem represents the stream of thought that believes the world is in the grasp of God, that information about the universe is revealed by a pantheon of Gods through their intermediaries. One the other hand, Athens represents the stream of thought that believes in rationalism and in the exercise of reason for coming to understand the universe; it has no appeal to a designated authority. Science and religion are the heirs of Athens and Jerusalem. Unlike the depiction of amiability in the stained-glass window at Yale, for centuries there has been tension between the two. Steven, then, sets out to discuss a small part of that tension: the nature of the Prophet and the nature of Revelation and what makes them unique.
Before talking about two ways in which one can understand Revelation, Steven turned to the Bahá’í writings. In Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (49: 102), Bahá’u’lláh says that when He looks at himself as a man, he finds Himself “the most insignificant of all creation,” but when He considers Himself as a Manifestation of God “that self is transfigured before Him into a sovereign Potency permeating the essence of all things visible and invisible.” One way of understanding of Revelation, Stephen said, is that it comes from the outside, as the black obelisk that appeared to pre-humans in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another way of looking at revelation is found in Bahá’u’lláh’s statement in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (No. 182): “This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.”
Then Steven took his listeners on a journey that requires some rethinking of what Revelation is: Is it changeless before writing? Before books? Before civilization? In early premodern societies? Before we were human beings? In the primordial age? Before there was a planet? Bahá’u’lláh says (The Dawn 5, no.13 [192–]: 1), translated by Shoghi Effendi): “Know that in every age and cycle, all laws and ordinances have been changed according to the requirements of the time, except the law of love which, like a fountain, ever flows, and whose course never suffers change.”
Steven said that the Bahá’í writings differ from evolutionary science, which would not say that the law of love is manifest in every stage of evolution. For Bahá’ís, the law of love operated as the universe solidified; it extends to animals, vegetables, and minerals; it operates at all levels; it is the arrowhead moving in the direction of expanding circles of consciousness, aiming at self-consciousness, which enables the pondering of the meaning of existence.
At this point in his talk Steven raised a question about the difference between a philosopher and a Manifestation of God. He chose Marcus Aurelius (112–180 BCE), the last of the five good Roman emperors, who is known for his Meditations, written while he was on a military campaign. He said that man should direct his endeavors to “a right mind, action for the common good, speech incapable of lies, a disposition to welcome all that happens as necessary, intelligible, flowing from an equally intelligible spring of origin” (Meditations IV.33). He further advised that “In this world there is only one thing of value, to live out your life in truth and justice, tolerant of those who are neither true nor just (Meditations VI:47). Compare Marcus Aurelius’ moral admonitions to Bahá’u’lláh’s admonitions about purity of heart, service, truthfulness, and contentment and resignation. As far as is known, Marcus Aurelius was not directed by any known Manifestation of God, but he was influenced by Greek stoicism. How is it that he came to same ethical teachings as are found in divine Revelation?
Turning to the Bahá’í writings, and admitting that he is biased in favor of religion, Steven then asserted that divine Revelation does not come out of nowhere and that a Manifestation of God does not have a message whispered in his ear. He further stated that the Bahá’í position about Revelation is fundamentally different from those of Judeo-Christian and Islamic philosophy in that Manifestations have innate understanding. In Some Answered Questions (40.8: 180), ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states that “the universal Manifestations of God are aware of the truths underlying the mysteries of all created things, and thus They found a religion that is based upon, and consonant with, the prevailing condition of humanity. For religion consists in the necessary relationships deriving from the realities of things.” Bahá’u’lláh writes (Gleanings 34: 80) about the deep understanding of the Prophets of God: “The Prophets of God should be regarded as physicians whose task is to foster the well-being of the world and its people, that, through the spirit of oneness, they may heal the sickness of a divided humanity.”
Furthermore, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in Some Answered Questions 40.9: 181, collapses the categories of Science (Nature) and Religion: Religion, He says, derives “from the reality of things. In Tablet to Auguste Forel 12, He says that Nature is “those inherent properties and necessary relations derived from the reality of things.” In Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá 12.1: 30, He says that love is “the vital bond inherent . . . in the realities of things. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá goes on to discuss how divine law operates in the political order: “These rules and relationships that constitute the basis of human happiness . . . are none other than the divine law and the social order that ensure the felicity, the integrity and the security of the human race” (Siyasiyyih, par. 43, provisional translation). In the end, Nature (Science) and the Primal Will (the Prophets of God) are the same thing.
Finally, Steven asked, “What makes divine Revelation different from the ideas of philosophers?” The answer, he said, lies in the fact that the moral ideas expressed by philosophers may influence the lives of a few, but they do not encourage a depth of devotion and self-sacrifice, with, perhaps, the exception of Socrates. Revelation, however, encourages devotion and self-sacrifice. Philosophers have penetrating insights, but divine Revelation understands where the human race is headed. That is the key differentiation between a philosopher and a Prophet.
Steven ended with a quotation from One Common Faith (23), a book prepared under the supervision of the Universal House of Justice: “Bahá’u’lláh has not brought into existence a new religion to stand beside the present multiplicity of sectarian organizations. Rather has He recast the whole conception of religion as the principal force impelling the development of consciousness.”
After Steven ended his presentation, he entertained many questions for almost thirty minutes.
These few paragraphs are meant only to whet your appetite. For it is very hard, if not impossible, to capture the breadth and depth of Steven’s presentation, nor to transcribe the spirit of humility evinced in his search for answers. Here, again, is a link to the talk.
Steven Phelps received Bachelor’s degrees in physics and philosophy at Stanford University and a PhD in physics from Princeton University. He worked for thirteen years at the Bahá’í World Center in its Research Department, directing the cataloging, collation, and translation of the Bahá’í writings. During that time he concurrently held positions in the Physics Department at the Technion University in Haifa and pursued original research in the field of theoretical cosmology. He now lives near Portland, Oregon, with his wife Katharine and three daughters.