Understanding Exclusivist Bahá'i Texts
First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #12
December 6–8, 1996
(see list of papers from #12)
There is a series of approaches to apparently exclusivist passages in Bahá'u'llah's writings that minimize their tendency to exclude non-Bahá'is.
Note: this article is a combination of two separate talks Fazel gave, one at session #1 and the second at session #12.
Religions have attempted to find meaning and value in life, and to offer
followers an experience of the transcendent. In pursuing this quest, religions
have often demonstrated an inherent drive to claims of uniqueness and
universality. As Harold Coward, in his study of religious pluralism, puts it,
"Many religions exhibit an inner tendency to claim to be the true
religion, to offer the true revelation as the true way of
salvation or release. It appears to be self-contradictory for such a religion
to accept any expression of ultimate reality other than its own"
(Pluralism vii). Such claims of uniqueness are found from as far afield
as Buddhism, "Other religions have made their founders gods or sons of God;
Buddhism makes its founder into the Ultimate and only Reality, which underlies,
produces, and includes all things" (Humphreys, Buddhism 155), to the
creed contained in Zoroastrian scriptures, "I pledge myself to the
Mazda-worshipping religion which of all faiths which are and shall be is the
greatest, the best, and the fairest" (Boyce, Materials 58). It is not a
major transition from uniqueness to exclusivism--the belief that a particular
religious tradition is unique in the sense of providing the exclusive medium of
salvation for all. However, the pluralism of the modern world has confronted
the world religions with the need to examine their exclusivist claims and
reformulate old doctrines to account for other paths to salvation. This paper
examines how Christianity, possibly the most exclusivist of world religions,
has come to terms with the pluralist dilemma. It aims to review modern
Christian scholarship and offer Bahá'í perspectives on
interpreting exclusivist texts. Finally it will explore whether these
approaches have any bearing on Bahá'í texts.
There are at least four negative consequences of exclusivist attitudes. The
first is disunity: "It divides people into `we' and `they,' those who are
`saved' and those who are `not saved,' those on the `inside' and those on the
`outside'" (Samartha, One Christ 102). Second, it limits the
possibilities of interreligious dialogue and cooperation. A practical example
of this is the experience of the Christian community in India. Stanley
Samartha, a Christian theologian, has argued that it was the exclusivist claims
of Christianity that contributed to their negligible participation in nation
This claim has isolated Christians from their neighbours of
other faiths in India, led to their theological alienation and spiritual
impoverishment, and in a religiously plural society has made it difficult, if
not impossible, for Christians to cooperate with their neighbours for common
social purposes. (One Christ 118)
Third, exclusive claims, combined with economic, political, and military power,
lead to tensions and conflicts in society--tensions which can be
internationalized and potentially threaten world peace. The Roman Catholic
theologian, Hans Küng, has written that peace between the religions is an
essential prerequisite for world peace (Christianity 440-3). "This is
because the religions, with their claims to absolute truth and hence to unique
superiority, function both to validate and to intensify human conflicts. In
order to cease to do so, each must learn no longer to see itself as the one and
only true faith" (Hick, Pluralist 10). `Abdu'l-Bahá contended
that exclusivism--the belief that "their own form of religion is the only one
pleasing to God, and that followers of other persuasion are condemned by the
All-Loving Father and deprived of His Mercy and Grace"--is the "chief cause" of
religious prejudice, and the related "contempt, disputes and hatred" between
nations (Paris Talks 45-6). Finally, exclusive claims crystallize the
major theological differences between the religions, thus making the various
religions appear to be irreconcileable from the perspective of belief. Samartha
believes that "no amount of intellectual juggling or sophisticated exegesis can
resolve" the exclusivist claims of the different religions (One Christ
Christian claims in the exclusivity of Christ are founded in the two New
Testament concepts of incarnation--God becoming physically incarnated in
Jesus--and realized eschatology--that in Jesus sacred history came to an end
(Coward, Pluralism 17). ,The New Testament states that Jesus is the "one
mediator" between God and humanity (1 Tim 2:5), and there is "no other name" by
which persons can be saved (Acts 4:12). Jesus is the "only begotten Son of God"
(John 1:14). No one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). Just as
all died in one man, Adam, so all will be brought to life in one man, Christ (1
Cor. 15:21-22). What took place in Christ was "once and for all"
(epaphax) (Heb. 9:12). Jesus is thus the final prophet, providing the
normative, final word for all who preceded or may follow (Knitter, No
Other 182). The claim is that Jesus Christ is the one name under heaven by
which all must be saved, that the cross of Jesus Christ is the universal means
of salvation, that Jesus is the unique incarnation of the divine, that the
Christian revelation gives definitive access to the divine. There are various
approaches that Christian theologians have outlined to these exclusivist texts.
One approach to exclusivist texts is to question their authenticity and
suggest that they are erroneous, not in the original scripture, but having been
added afterwards. There is a simplicity about this which is appealing. John
Hick, for instance, dismisses biblical claims regarding the exclusiveness of
Jesus on the authority of New Testament criticism, as being additions of the
early Christian community rather than the authentic words of Jesus. Marcus
Braybrooke, another distinguished Protestant theologian, has also argued that
modern critical scholarship has challenged the authenticity of the exclusivist
texts in the New Testament. In relation to John 14:6 ["I am the light, the way
and the truth. No man comes to the Father but by me"], Hick writes,
But it is no secret today, after more than a hundred years of
the scholarly study of the scriptures, that very few New Testament experts now
hold that the Jesus who actually lived ever spoke those words, or their Aramaic
equivalents. They are much more probably words put into his mouth by a
Christian writer who is expressing the view of Christ which had been arrived at
in his part of the Church, probably two or three generations after Jesus's
death. And it is likewise doubted whether the few sayings of the same kind in
the other gospels are authentic words of Jesus. (Second Christianity
The disadvantages, however, possibly outweigh the advantages of this approach.
Monica Hellwig, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, has argued
against this method because of the difficulty in finding a convincing
justification for claiming the authority to stand above and judge the accepted
Christian tradition that accepts the authenticity of the New Testament. This
sort of approach usually necessitates a sharp break, causing a schism with the
community itself, as in the sixteenth-century Reformation. Moreover it tends
not to cause a single split between conservative and liberal groups, but many
different factions each claiming some higher authority for reinterpreting the
traditional positions in their particular way. As an approach to dialogue
between Christianity and the other religions it is unhelpful, "because it
begins with an argument that takes a long time to soften into amicable
conversation within the tradition before there can be any conversation with
those outside the tradition that are other than individual or factional"
(Hellwig, Death 52). It is also worth noting that recent New Testament
scholarship does not uniformly support Hick's position (Coward,
The spirit of Bahá'í dialogue with Christianity does not lend
itself to this approach. At the outset of a discussion with a group of
Protestant priests in Paris, `Abdu'l-Bahá explores the meaning of the
texts rather than their authenticity. He states, "Our belief in Christ is
exactly what is recorded in the Gospels; however, we elucidate this matter and
do not speak literally" (`Abdu'l-Bahá 8). "Here then the
framework is set, a common ground automatically established--two believers in
the Gospels discussing its interpretation" (Fazel, Introduction
Alternatively, some Christian scholars have argued that exclusivist
claims are based on an incorrect interpretation of scripture. This is
highlighted by discussions over the interpretation of John 14:6--the classic
exclusivist New Testament verse. In this verse, Jesus states, "I am the light,
the way and the truth. No man comes to Father but my me." Traditional
Christians thought has understood this to refer specifically to the historical
However, modern Christian scholarship has examined the question of who the "I"
of John 14:6 is refering to. The argument put forward is that it is the
Johannine Jesus who is speaking who is different to the Jesus of the synoptic
gospels: "The Jesus of John is the Jesus of faith, the Jesus of the imagination
of the early church" (Cobb, Dialogue 16), "of spiritual reflection
rather than reliable history" (Carpenter, Jesus 14), a "high"
Christology. The structure of John's Gospel is significant in that it starts
with the incarnation of the Word rather than the story of Jesus' birth. It
describes the appearance in this world of the Word, the divine Logos, that had
been with God from the beginning, "the Word was with God." John Cobb, a
Protestant scholar of interreligious dialogue, has concluded that, "It is this
Word that speaks as `I' in the pages of the gospel."
It is affirmed, then, that the Word who is incarnate in Jesus
is the Way, the Truth, the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except
through that Word. This cannot mean that the Word is present and active
only in Jesus; for in the prologue to the Gospel it is stated that in
the Word that was from the beginning was life, that this life was also the true
light that enlightens everyone (Jn 1:9). (Cobb, Death
John Macquarrie, a professor of religious studies at Oxford, comments on John
14:6 in a similar way. "In John's gospel, let us remember, the words of Jesus
are the words of the Logos, not just of the individual human being, Jesus of
Nazareth. That Word or Logos enlightens every one who comes into the world"
(Jesus Christ 422). Diana Eck writes that she believes that it is "a
world-spanning Christ who speaks this `I'. To see the Logos, the Word, is to
see God. ... Christ is the Logos, the Word, the divine intention to speak, to
disclose, to reveal." Thus, Eck argues that there is no "way" to God as "God
is the Way, the Truth, the Life" (Eck, Encountering 95).
Relevant to this discussion is the nature of the distinction between Jesus and
Christ that is made by a number of theologians. Such a distinction is helpful
from a pluralist position as the focus of exclusivist claims shifts from the
historical Jesus of Nazareth to the eternal Christ who is manifested from age
to age. Raimundo Pannikar, a professor of comparative religion, has long argued
against the exclusive identification of Christ with Jesus. He has written that
"The Christ we are speaking of is by no means the monopoly of Christians, or
merely Jesus of Nazareth" (Unknown Christ 49). Pannikar's
interpretation is that the Father is the Absolute, transcendent, beyond every
name. Jesus taught us to name the unnameable Absolute "Father" and to know this
Father through the Son. The Son is "the Mystery hidden since the world began,
the Mystery of which the Scriptures speak, and which, according to Christians,
was manifested in Christ" (Trinity 42). He adds that Christ stands for
that centre of reality, and that Rama or Krishna are its other names
(Unknown 27). The Report of the Archbishops' Conference on Christian
Doctrine (1922) makes a similar distinction: "The coming of Jesus Christ ... is
the manifestation in history of the Word who `was in the beginning with God and
was God.' ... To assert the pre-existence of the human soul of Jesus, far from
being required of orthodoxy, is inconsistent with it" (cited in Dewick, The
Christian Attitude 94). The Buddhist scholar, Seiichi Yagi, has studied
Jesus' use of "I" in the fourth Gospel and argues that "I" refers to the divine
which was being manifested in Jesus: "The `I' in these words can be the `divine
in him,' which spoke through the empirical ego of Jesus" (Myth 122).
The same interpretive approach can make sense of the statement of the Apostle
Peter in Acts of the Apostles: "In none other name is there salvation" (Acts
4:12). Christian commentators have argued that it cannot refer to verbal form
of the name as this varies from one language to another. Instead, the name can
act as a symbol of the person named. Thus the name of Jesus is an alternative
way of saying the word Jesus itself, which symbolises the qualities of that
person. A related approach is to interpret the name as the word of God, and
thus salvation mediated through "the Eternal Christ, the Word of God" (Dewick,
The Christian Attitude 94). A variety of other names are used for Jesus
Christ including Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince
of Peace (Isa 9:6), Immanuel (Isa 7:14), Adam (1 Cor 15:45), Messiah (Mt 11:3),
Amen (Rev 3:14). Of interest is the name of the eschatological saviour of
Revelations; "his name is called The Word of God" (Rev 19:13).
As an approach in general, arguing for a fresh interpretation of exclusivist
texts, is the Bahá'í method par excellence.
Bahá'u'lláh's polemic against "Leaders of religion, in every age"
in the Kitáb-i-Íqán (15) specifically attacks their
erroneous literal interpretation of scripture:
As they have literally interpreted the Word of God, and the
sayings and traditions of the Letters of Unity, and expounded them according to
their own deficient understanding, they have therefore deprived themselves and
all their people of the bountiful showers of the grace and mercies of God.
This criticism is reiterated in "The Promise of World Peace" which rebukes
religious leaders for imposing "on their votaries erroneous and conflicting
interpretations of the pronouncements of the Prophets of God" (5).
Bahá'í writers have therefore approached exclusivist texts by
interpreting them non-literally. For example, Robert Stockman, in his paper
"Jesus Christ in the Bahá'í Writings," has written that the "I"
in John 14:6 refers to Jesus' reality as a manifestation of God. Knowledge of
God is thus exclusively through the manifestations of God (Jesus 39-40).
Another piece has argued for "the distinction between Jesus (the individual
manifestation of God for his age) and the Christ (the Word of God, the divine
Logos which `lighteth every man that cometh into the world' [Jn 1:9] and is the
`same yesterday, today, and forever' [Heb 13:8])" (Fazel and Fananapazir,
Bahá'í Approach 22).
A third approach is to argue that exclusivist texts are
misrepresentative of the rest of Christian scripture. Many Christian
fundamentalists have extrapolated these texts over the entire Bible and
presumed that the whole of scripture only contains sentences exactly of this
type. Fundamentalism works, as most other Christian traditions do, by a process
of selecting and grading biblical texts, or more precisely by perpetuating and
accepting as definitive the results of such a selection which was carried out a
long time ago. Some biblical aspects are stressed and up-graded, others are
de-emphasized and made subsidiary or figurative. John Barr, professor emeritus
of Hebrew at Oxford, exemplifies this by examining two quotes--the first, "the
passage `All scripture is inspired by God' (2 Tim 3:16) is over-interpreted and
loaded with greatly exaggerated significance, while a comparable verse such as:
`And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and
the powers of death shall not prevail against it (Matt 16:18)' is
correspondingly evacuated of all but the most limited content" (Barr,
Bible commentaries demonstrate how some Christians emphasis the centrality of
exclusivist texts. The Word Biblical Commentary states that John 3:16
("only begotten Son") is "the fundamental summary of the message of this Gospel
and should therefore be seen as the background of the canvas on which the rest
of the Gospel is painted (Bearsley-Murray, John 51). Of John 14:6 ("I am
the Way"), the Expositor's Bible Commentary states "Jesus' reply is the
ultimate foundation for a satisfactory philosophy of life" (Expositor's
A number of Christian scholars have identified non-exclusivist passages in the
Bible and have concluded that these predominate over the exclusivist
alternatives. The Jewish emphasis upon the God of Abraham as the sovereign God
of all peoples is carried over into the New Testament: a loving God and Father
of all people, "the true light which lighteth every man" (Jn 1:9) , who desires
"all men to be saved" (1 Tim 2:4), who "accepted" those who "worketh
righteousness" (Acts 10:35). Furthermore, scholars have argued that Matthew
sees Jesus more as a mediator than a full incarnation, and that Peter's
perspective focuses greatly upon God, the Father of all. There are many
examples of when Jesus is described as portraying a non-exclusive and
proto-pluralist worldview. Many of the exemplars of faith and recipients of
loving mercy in the Gospels are those who might be called "people of other
Faiths": the Roman centurion, the Syro-phoenician woman, the Greek Cornelius.
Jesus told parables in which a man of another religion, a Samaritan, was the
embodiment of true spirituality. His opposition to the Pharisees and Sadducees
was directed not against their religion but against their legalistic and
doctrinal approach to religion that he believed was insensitive to true
spiritual life. He gave dignity and respect to sincere believers whose views
differed from his own (Coward, Pluralism 17).
The Bahá'í writings would appear to endorse this approach.
Bahá'u'lláh's polemic against the Islamic clergy includes a
statement which criticises their selective reading of the Qur'án:
These people [who] with one hand cling to those verses of the
Qur'án and those traditions of the people of certitude which they have
found to accord with their inclinations and interests, and with the other
reject those which are contrary to their selfish desires.
From a Bahá'í perspective, this criticism is extended beyond
Islam to other religions. Therefore, Christians who hold exclusivist beliefs
have misrepresented the teachings of Jesus by selecting and grading a small
number of scriptural passages, and ignoring texts which suggest otherwise. In
order to enable Christians "to obtain a fuller understanding of the religion"
with which they stand identified, the "primary purpose" of the
Bahá'í Faith (Shoghi Effendi, World Order 58),
Bahá'ís can focus on Jesus' interaction with other worldviews,
his proto-pluralism, and consequently uncover a basis for Christian openness to
This approach is to place exclusivist texts in the historical context of
the early Christian community who was in the process of trying to establish its
identity. The first centuries of early Christianity were characterized by
precarious growth. The community faced the danger either of being overwhelmed
by larger groups for whom it was a threat or a nuisance, or of being absorbed
by an all-consuming syncretism. To defend itself against these dangers, the
Christian community needed to arm itself with a clear identity and total
commitment. It did this particularly through its beliefs, notably its
exclusivist christological ones. Paul Knitter, a Catholic professor of
interreligious dialogue, has termed the doctrinal language that arose out of
this process "survival language," as it was necessary for the survival of the
community. "By defining Jesus Christ in absolute terms, by announcing him as
the one and only saviour, the early Christians cut out for themselves an
identity different from that of all their opponents or competitors. Such
language also evoked a total commitment that would steel them in the fate of
persecution or ridicule" (Knitter, No Other 184). Thus, scholars have
concluded that exclusivist beliefs tell us more about the social situation of
the early Church than the ontological nature of Jesus. Wesley Ariarajah, who
heads the dialogue section of the World Council of Churches, has written of the
early Christians, "The community was under immense pressure to justify its
faith in Jesus, the crucified master whom they now experienced as the risen
Lord. As much by the logic of the circumstances as by the strength of their
convictions they were led to make claims for Jesus for which he would not
perhaps have made for himself" (Ariarajah, The Bible 24). The problem,
however, came when "that minority language and exclusive claim got mixed up
with the power and pomp of the Roman Empire under the Constantine, such
attitudes lead to serious ethical consequences in a religiously plural world"
(Samartha, One Christ 100).
The threats confronting the early Christian community have been outlined by
Gerald Vallee. He has identified the following seven dangers:
- Encounter with Judaism -- danger of remaining a sect, of losing its
christological distinctiveness: "The excessive emphasis on only is part of the
early Christian polemics against the Jewish people from whom the Christians
were growing out as a separate community" (Ariarajah, The Bible 24);
- Gentiles -- danger of losing its monotheistic distinctiveness;
- Gnostic groups -- danger of losing its identity as a historical
religion; danger of becoming elitist and esoteric;
- Graeco-Roman cults -- danger of idolatry and syncretism;
- Roman Empire -- danger of playing down its distinctive character;
danger of overadaptation;
- Hellinistic philosophy -- danger of being dissolved into philosophic
doctrines; danger of losing its historical character;
- Roman Law -- danger of losing its prophetic and eschatological
character; danger of structural assimilation. (Vallee, Study
The approach of "survival language" can be extended to analyzing Christian
doctrine. For example, the Athanasian Creed, "Whoever wishes to be saved must
first of all hold the Catholic faith, for anyone who does not maintain this
whole and inviolate will surely be lost," was probably written in early sixth
century when church of Arles when threatened by western Arians. This would not,
however, explain the medieval fascination and emphasis on it when the Christian
Church was the dominant religious institution in Europe. The Creed became part
of the liturgy in medieval period, found a place in the Book of Common Prayer
of the Anglican Church, as well as in modern Catholic worship each Sunday until
the Second Vatican Council. It also recurs in Tridentine Profession of Faith
set out by Pope Paul IV in 1564 and is demanded by the Council of Trent of all
Hellwig has argued that its medieval rediscovery can also be explained by the
"survival language" perspective. The intention of the Creed was to reinforce
the knowledge and belief of the traditional trinitarian teaching among the
clergy. The Catholic clergy were primary targets because of the great fear of
Church authorities that they would be seduced unwittingly by the teachings of
the Reformers. In this case, therefore, the apparent declaration that outsiders
cannot be saved is really a declaration that insiders who let themselves be
seduced from the mainline church are being drawn away from the source of
redemption, the church of Jesus Christ. The Creed also found favour because of
the way in which it lends itself to choral recititation, and articulates much
traditional doctrine (Hellwig, Dialogue 53-4).
There are aspects of Bahá'í thought that can be seen to endorse
the idea of "survival language." Paramount among these is the concept that the
social evolution of humanity which has passed through evolutionary stages
analogous to the stages of infancy and childhood, and now is in its final
period of adolescence before it reaches maturity. "Survival language" is the
language of childhood and adolescence. In childhood,there is a well-documented
phase of sexual differentiation that involves a contempt for members of the
other sex. Boys go through a stage of proving that they are not "sissies," of
not wanting to play with girls or even to acknowledge that they exist, and
something similar happens with girls (Hellwig, Dialogue 52). It is also a time of life in which absolutes
dominate thinking processes. In adolescence, there is a strong tendency to club
together into groups, gangs, and cliques and to show exclusivist behaviour to
individuals not included. Thus, it could be argued that, from a
Bahá'í perspective, "survival language" is a natural but
preliminary stage in the social evolution of religions.
Related to the concept of "survival language" is Rosemary Reuther's work
on the apocalyptic context of New Testament writing (Reuther, To
Change). The world of the first Christians was one of Jewish
apocalypticism--the end of the world was imminent, as was the "second coming. "
Palestine was "soaked in politico-religious apocalypticism" and many
Palestinian Jews to some extent believed in a Messianic solution. Among the
most influential groups were the Essenes, "members of an extremist
apocalyptic-eschatological sect, who expected their triumph to come soon,"
(Johnson, History 19, 18) of which John the Baptist was a prominent
member. Early Christians also believed that the reign of God that Jesus
preached was about to be fulfilled in their lifetime through him. There could
have been no consideration at all about other saviors; there was no time for
them. But when the end of time did not happen, the finality of end-time was
shifted to the centre of history: "Jesus as the final, eschatological prophet
was simply moved to be the center of history: a shift from the apocalyptic to a
classicist worldview" (Swidler, Universal 45). This research has
highlighted the influence of early apocalyptic ideas on exclusive statements
about Jesus; statements which "should be recognized as time-conditioned and
therefore in need of reinterpretation. Jesus need not be the absolutely final
prophet, but a universally meaningful savior who gives promise and power for an
eschatalogical future" (Knitter, No Other 184).
Both approaches of "survival" and "apocalyptic" language are based on the
historicity of the texts; seeing them as statements that are partly explained
by their circumstances and time. Bahá'í theology would appear to
strongly corroborate this approach. `Abdu'l-Bahá's analysis of the two
parts of religion, "essential" and "non-essential," explains that the
non-essentials are relative to time and social circumstances: "These are
subject to change and transformation in accordance with time, place and
conditions" (Promulgation 97-98). Among these non-essentials are the
dogmas of the Church, such as the doctrine of the Trinity which
`Abdu'l-Bahá asserted to a group of Protestant theologians in 1913
(`Abdu'l-Bahá 12). Equally, from a Bahá'í
perspective, the doctrine of the exclusivity of Christ is among these
non-essential dogmas subject to the laws of change and decay, and the
subsequent need for renewal.
Bahá'í scholars have suggested that John 14:6 ("I am the Way")
can be viewed in its historical context. Stockman proposes a novel
interpretation by interpreting at the word "am" in this verse. He proposes that
the universal present interpretation of "am" is incorrect (as one would say
about someone's name, i.e. "I am John"); rather it refers to a finite period of
time. Therefore, Moses was the only way until Jesus, and Jesus the only way
until Muhammad (Jesus 39-40). From a Bahá'í perspective,
exclusivist statements from a Manifestation of God have both a historical and
meta-historical meaning. From a historical perspective, exclusivist verses,
such as in John 14:6, are true and valid until the end of the dispensation. The
meta-historical or eternal meaning, when such words are spoken in the station
of the divine Logos, the mouthpiece of God, is applicable to all time and to
other manifestations of God (McLean, Dimensions 45).
In support of a historical reading of John 14:6 ("I am the Way") is the view
that the primary audience was Jewish. In a recent study of the uses of "I am"
in John's Gospel, Ball suggests that when taking the "I am" statements
together, they identify Jesus with images and concepts from the Old Testament
and Jewish expectation of the time. The Jesus proclaimed in the "I am" verses
"must be understood in the light of the Old Testament and Judaism" and is
presented as the one who fulfils and embodies various Old Testament concepts
("I am" 270, 272). Moreover, the framework for understanding of salvation in
John is "self-confessedly Jewish": such salvation is "from the Jews" (Jn 4:22).
Thus, it is possible to argue that the exclusivist text has is polemical
language implying as it does that Judaism as traditionally understood and
practised is obsolete (Ball, "I am" 282, 273).
The study of how religious language is used in the New Testament has enabled
Christian theologians to reinterpret the exclusivist texts in a number of new
and interesting ways. Prominent among these scholars is Knitter who has argued
that much of the exclusivist writing in the New Testament belongs not to the
language of philosophy or science but rather to the language of confession and
testimony. "In talking about Jesus, the New Testament authors use the language
not of analytic philosophers but of enthusiastic believers, not of scientists
but of lovers. In describing Jesus as `the only,' Christians were not trying to
elaborate a metaphysical principle but a personal relationship and a commitment
that defined what it meant to belong to this community" (No Other 185).
An analogous use of language is that which a husband would use of his wife when
saying, for instance, that, "You are the most beautiful woman in the world, you
are the only woman for me." Such statements are true in the context of their
marital relationship and in intimate moments, but lose their relevance if they
were understood to mean that there is absolutely no other woman in the world as
beautiful as this particular husband's wife or that there is no other woman
that he could possibly love and marry. This would be transforming love language
into scientific or philosophical language. Knitter argues that Christian
exclusivist attitudes, in the way they have been understood and used, have
perhaps done just that to the love language of the early church. "The languages
of the heart and the head are not necessarily contradictory, but they are
different and their differences must be respected" (Knitter, No Other
185). Hick has also argued that Christian exclusivist claims have misused
the language of personal commitment and "turned living religion into dogmatic
exclusiveness" (Second Christianity 32).
Knitter tests this hypothesis on some of the classic exclusivist New Testament
texts. In reading them as confessional statements rather than philosophical
ones, he argues that they sound different, and take on a more spiritually
challenging character to the individual believer. The following is a summary of
Knitter's reinterpretation of three exclusivist texts:
- "there is none other name under heaven by which men can be saved"
Knitter argues that the context of this passage suggests a confessional
interpretation. The apostles have just cured the lame man in the name of Jesus,
and cry out "there is no other name by which we can be saved," not to rule out
the possibility of other saviours, but to proclaim that this Lord Jesus was
still alive and that it was he, not they, who are working such wonders in the
community. The text, therefore, is abused when used as a starting point for
evaluating other religions (No Other 185). In support, Paul Robinson has
written that the question at issue in this passage was "not one of comparative
religions but of faith-healing":
that is, in whose power had Peter and John just healed the
crippled man, and more broadly, in whose power had the disciples undergone the
transformation that was so evident to their Jews? The passage delivers a clear
answer: not Peter and John's own power, but the power contained in the name and
reality of Jesus the Christ. (Robinson, Truth 105)
- "The only begotten Son" (John 1:14, 3:16).
Knitter suggests that the texts that present Jesus as "the only begotten Son"
will also be heard differently. Their primary intent will not be to exclude
anyone else as a possible son or daughter of God, but to challenge all hearers
to take Jesus seriously, as authoritative. These texts are indicating that just
as any son can tell us much about his father, so Jesus is a reliable revelation
of God. The original Greek of these quotes would appear to support this view.
In translating the Greek, uios tou Theou ("son of God"), there is
nothing to suggest that the definite article "the" needs to be included; it
does not appear in the original Greek and the phrase could as well be
translated "a son of God." The descriptive qualifier "only begotten"
would be better rendered according to its Hebrew usage as "firstborn" or
"beloved" (as it is Mark 1:11, 9:7; Matt. 17:5; Luke 9:35). It could then be
understood not to affirm the exclusivity but the reliability and urgency of
Jesus' role as God's instrument. In this sense Israel is also called the
"firstborn" of God (Exodus 4:22; Sirach 36:12; Jer. 31:9) (Knitter, No
- "The one mediator between God and humankind" (1 Tim 2:5).
Here, the adjective "one" should be heard not to imply "absolutely the only,"
but "the one whom we must take seriously," to whom all persons must listen, if
they are truly to understand the God who, as the previous verse reminds us,
"wants all people to be saved and come to know the truth." Like all Christians,
the author of this passage was excited about Jesus; his principal concern was
that all others experience the truth and salvation of this Jesus. The author
was not out to condemn all other mediators or those who did not know Jesus
(Knitter, No Other 186).
- "No man cometh to the Father but by me" (Jn 14:6).
Eck comes to a confessional reading of this passage by focusing on the question
and questioner. It is "the poor uncertain" Thomas who asked that question on
the last night that Jesus spent with his disciples. After he washed their feet,
he spoke to them words of farewell: "I am going where you cannot follow, not
just now. I am going to God's house of many rooms to prepare a place for you,
and you know the way I am going". This is what prompted Thomas to ask his
And what did Thomas ask? Did he ask, Lord, are Hindus to have
a room in God's heavenly household? Did he ask, Lord, will Buddhists make it
across the sea of sorrow on the raft of the Dharma? Lord, when Muhammad comes
six hundred years from now, will he hear God's word? No, on that night of
uncomprehending uncertainty he asked, "Lord, we do not know where you are
going; how can we know the way? And Christ answered, "I am the Way, ..." It was
a pastoral answer, not a polemical one. It was an expression of comfort, not
condemnation. (Eck, Encountering 94)
A related approach to religious language is its ability to motivate
actions--the performative role of language. Knitter has argued in later works
that the intent of the language of Acts 4:12 ["For there is no other name . .
."] "is clearly praxic, performative--to call others to recognize and accept
the power that is available to them in Jesus" (Death 41). He contends
that the biblical context of this passage suggests this interpretation. Earlier
verses state, "In the power of that name this man stands before you perfectly
sound" (Acts 4:10) and "It is his name and trust in this name that has
strengthened the limbs of this man" (Acts 3:16). Knitter asserts that the
implication is evident: if we can trust in the power of Jesus' name, our limbs
can also be strengthened for tasks that presently seem impossible, as
impossible as a crippled man being enabled to walk. Acts 3:23 makes it even
clearer that Peter was talking about the power of Jesus: "Anyone who does not
listen to that prophet [foretold by Moses] shall be ruthlessly cut off from the
"No other name", as performative, action language, is really
a positive statement in negative couching: it tells us that all peoples must
listen to this Jesus; it does not tell us that no one else should be
listened to or learned from. The stress, then, is on the saving power
mediated by the name of Jesus, not on the exclusivity of the name. (Knitter,
Related are views of Ball who sees the point of exclusivist language to
encourage believers: "That some of the promises in the sub-clauses of the `I
am' sayings are made to believers may suggest that the words of the Johannine
Jesus are addressed to members of the believing community who need to be
encouraged in their Faith" ("I am" 275). Borg believes that their voice is
"invitational rather than imperative": "`Consider the lilies of the field'
functions very differently from `these are God's requirements for salvation'"
There are number of passages in Bahá'í scripture to the nature of
religious language that would seem to endorse the importance of "confessional"
and "action" language in understanding religious texts. One of the major themes
of the Bahá'í writings is the power of the "Word of God." The
Bahá'í writings state that the "Word of God" is "endowed with
such regenerative power" (Bahá'u'lláh, cited in Shoghi
Effendi, World Order 107), "creative power" (Shoghi Effendi,
Deepening 34-35), "penetrative power" (Abdu'l-Bahá,
Selections 292), "supreme animating power" (Bahá'u'lláh,
Tablets 73), "compelling power" (Shoghi Effendi, World Order
103), "a power above and beyond the powers of nature" (Abdu'l-Bahá,
Selections 53). It acts as "the divine magnet" (`Abdu'l-Bahá,
Tablets 358), "the most potent elixir, the greatest and mightiest
talisman" (`Abdu'l-Bahá, Tablets 200), to convert "satanic
strength into heavenly power" (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings
200), to cause "the heart of every righteous man to throb"
(Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 295):
Every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God is endowed
with such potency as can instil new life into every human frame, if ye be of
them that comprehend this truth. . . . Through the mere revelation of the word
`Fashioner,' issuing forth from His lips and proclaiming His attribute to
mankind, such power is released as can generate, through successive ages, all
the manifold arts which the hands of man can produce.
(Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 141-2)
Every single letter proceeding from Our mouth is endowed with such regenerative
power as to enable it to bring into existence a new creation--a creation the
magnitude of which is inscrutable to all save God. (Bahá'u'lláh,
cited in Shoghi Effendi, World Order 107)
The words of Bahá'u'lláh and the Master [`Abdu'l-Bahá],
however, have a creative power and are sure to awaken in the reader the undying
fire of the love of God. (Shoghi Effendi, Deepening
It would appear that these Bahá'í quotes strongly support the
idea that language has a performative role, the idea of "action language."
Religious texts, from a Bahá'í viewpoint, are revealed to
transform the character of individuals and society, and to release "the
potentialities in the station of man" (Bahá'u'lláh,
Gleanings 340) in expression through art, science, scholarship and
service to society. Exclusivist texts are part of this process. They are
performative, challenging and urging believers to strive for their own
spiritual development and that of others.
For the early Christians, the religious experience of encountering Jesus
was so different to everyday experience that they used what Leonard Swidler, a
professor of interreligious dialogue, has called "hyperbolic language". This
type of language is metaphorical and poetic, and is used to express
extraordinary feelings and emotions that transcend everyday language. Hence,
Christians began to speak of Jesus of Nazareth as the meeting point of the
divine and the human, and later, in the fourth and fifth centuries, when
Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman empire and had largely
embraced the terminology and thinking of the Hellenistic world, orthodox
Christians began to speak of the God-man. The problem, according to Swidler, is
that this language was no longer understood to be hyperbolic and poetic but as
encapsulating definitive and absolute scientific truths about the nature of
Unfortunately for subsequent Christians, and for the rest of
the world, the profound insight that the first Christians had in their
liberating encounter with Jesus of Nazareth was now translated out of its
poetic, metaphorical language into Hellenistic empirical, ontological language
in a manner that took the original language to also be empirical, ontological.
Not to perceive that almost all the original language of the first Christians
as expressed in the NT was in fact poetic, metaphorical, when speaking in its
most ecstatic terms about the significance and meaning of Jesus of Nazareth,
was a profound misjudgement. (Swidler, Universal
A clear endorsement of "hyperbolic language" has come from the Universal House
of Justice. In answering a question about the meaning of one of its statements,
it has written that the manifestations of God speak in a language replete with
"poetry, analogy, hyperbole and paradox": "we must accept that they are
realities that cannot be defined in a rigourous manner, as one would attempt to
define the terms of mathematics or even of philosophy. This is a realm of
knowledge in which poetry, analogy, hyperbole and paradox are to be expected; a
realm in which the Manifestations themselves speak with many voices" (From a
letter on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, dated 15 October 1992). The
Bahá'í writings themselves are no exception. Shoghi Effendi, to
take one example, has written that `Abdu'l-Bahá "uses the method of
exaggerated emphasis" in order to explain how individuals know God through the
instrument of the manifestations of God:
The Master uses the term "the Divine Reality is sanctified
from singleness" in order to forcibly impress us with the fact that the Godhead
is unknowable and that to define It is impossible; we cannot contain It in such
concepts as singleness and plurality which we apply to things we know and can
experience. He uses the method of exaggerated emphasis in order to drive home
His thought that we know the sun directly though its rays, the Godhead
indirectly through the Manifestations of God. (From a letter on behalf of
Shoghi Effendi, dated 20 February 1950 cited in Bahá'í Canada
To what extent are these approaches relevant to Bahá'í
texts? Although, there is no doctrine of Bahá'í exclusivity,
there are a number of Bahá'í scriptural texts which assert the
uniqueness of the Bahá'í Faith (Stockman, Uniqueness). It
is not impossible to imagine that these texts could rise in prominence in the
Bahá'í dialogue with other religions, as a consequence to the
growing strength and confidence of the Bahá'í community as it
continues to expand and consolidate worldwide, and partly as a reaction to the
theological uncertainties that will be created through a deeper interreligious
dialogue. A notable and recent example is the
experience of the current President of the World Congress of Faiths, Edward
Carpenter, who at an interview said that, "it disturbs me when on occasion I
hear a well-meaning Bahá'í taking the view that it is God's will
that all religions will be absorbed, ultimately, into the Bahá'í
Faith. This is a form of imperialism which, I think, we need to guard ourselves
against" (Gouvion, Gardeners 169). The transition from what Carpenter
calls "imperialism" to exclusivism is a small one. The Bahá'í
community will need to guard itself from both these tendencies which run
diametrically counter to Bahá'í belief.
In the following section, I will analyse some apparently exclusivist texts in
the Bahá'í writings from the approaches outlined in the first
part of this paper.
Bahá'u'lláh's statement in the Súriy-i-Haykal, "The
Holy Spirit Itself hath been generated through the agency of a single letter
revealed by this Most Great Spirit, if ye be of them that comprehend"
(Bahá'u'lláh, cited in Shoghi Effendi, World Order 109),
has been interpreted to assert Bahá'u'lláh's superiority over
other manifestations of God. Adib Taherzadeh has written that the `Most Great
Spirit' "was manifested on this planet for the first time through
Bahá'u'lláh" (Covenant 43), and that in "past
Dispensations God's Revelation had been indirect through the intermediary of
the Holy Spirit" (Revelation IV:134). He concludes that "Never before
had God sent a Manifestation of His `Most Great Spirit' to mankind, His supreme
Manifestation . . . " (Revelation IV:134-5).
I would contend that this would appear to be an example of an erroneous
interpretation as it contradicts the authoritative interpretation of Shoghi
Effendi. Shoghi Effendi has written that the "same" `Most Great Spirit'
manifested itself in previous revelations and is not unique to the
It was on that occasion
[Síyáh-Chál] that the `Most Great Spirit,' as
designated by Bahá'u'lláh Himself, revealed itself to Him, in the
form of a `Maiden,' and bade Him `lift up' His `voice between earth and
heaven,' - that same Spirit which, in the Zoroastrian, the Mosaic, the
Christian, and the Muhammadan Dispensations, had been respectively symbolized
by the `Sacred Fire,' the `Burning Bush,' the `Dove,' and the `Angel Gabriel.'
(Messages to America 100)
The other problem with the assertion that the "Most Great Spirit" is unique to
the Bahá'í revelation is that it does not take into account the
background and semantic history of the term. There is much discussion of the
term in Sufi texts, particularly emanating from the school of Ibn Arabi. In
such literature, the "Most Great Spirit" [Ar. al-rúh al-azam]
corresponds to the Muhammadan reality or Logos (Affifi, Mystical 66).
It is noteworthy that there are a number of places in the Bahá'í
interpretive literature where prophylactic measures have been taken to remove
an exclusivist slant on some Bahá'í scriptural statements. These
interpretations are similar to Bahá'í interpretations of John
14:6 ("I am the Way") where the subject of the verse is universalised and not
understood to refer to person of Bahá'u'lláh. For instance, the
verse, "But for Him [Bahá'u'lláh] no Divine Messenger would have
been invested with the robe of Prophethood" is interpreted by Shoghi Effendi as
refering "to the reality of God found in Him and not to His person " (From a
letter written on his behalf, dated 17 July 1937). Consequently Taherzadeh
writes of this passage, "They represent the Voice of God which speaks to us
through the instrumentality of a human being" (Revelation 134). When
Bahá'u'lláh refers to himself as the voice in the Burning Bush,
Shoghi Effendi explains that "Bahá'u'lláh identifies the glory of
the God-head on that occasion with Himself" (Unfolding 448). Thus
"statements referring to Bahá'u'lláh in such exalted terms as
`the Heavenly Father', `Jehovah', `the Speaker on Sinai', `the One through Whom
all Revelations were sent down', all refer to the Holy Spirit or the Most Great
Spirit which animated Bahá'u'lláh, and not to His Person" (From a
letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, dated 24 May
An alternative approach is to attribute any implied superiority to
Bahá'u'lláh's revelation, itself a consequence of the unique age
in which we live (Shoghi Effendi, World Order 60). Thus, in celebrating
Bahá'u'lláh as "the most precious Being" ever to have lived, the
House of Justice write that this is "as a consequence of being the vehicle of a
Revelation the splendour and magnitude of which eclipses all previous
Revelations" (From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of
Justice, dated 11 December 1992).
The Bahá'í writings prescribe a balanced interpretation of
scripture. Shoghi Effendi, in letters written on his behalf, writes:
We must take the teachings as a great, balanced whole, not
seek out and oppose to each other two strong statements that have different
meanings; somewhere in between there are links uniting the two. (19 March
One may liken Bahá'u'lláh's teachings to a sphere; there are
points poles apart, and in between the thoughts and doctrines that unite them.
We believe in balance in all things; we believe in moderation in all things...
(5 July 1949)
In addition, the House of Justice have noted that, "Bahá'ís, like
other human beings, sometimes have a tendency to cling tenaciously to one Text
or one understanding of the Texts and to overlook the significance of other
passages of the Writings" (From a letter written on their behalf, 24 May 1992).
The texts which appear most exclusivist are those that imply that the
Bahá'í Faith provides the only route to salvation must be
tempered with explicit statements that suggest otherwise. For instance, the
verse, "No man can obtain everlasting life, unless he embraceth the truth of
this inestimable, this wondrous, and sublime Revelation"
(Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 183), if interpreted literally,
would imply that salvation is dependent on recognition of
Bahá'u'lláh. However, in the context of
Bahá'u'lláh's other writings, this interpretation would be
misrepresentative. How could be such an exclusivist stance be reconciled with
other statements in the Baha'i writings that state other religionist are saved:
"Blessed is the man who . . . hath turned towards Him [Christ]"
(Bahá'u'lláh, cited in Shoghi Effendi, World Order 186);
Muhammad is "the Ark of Salvation" (Abdu'l-Bahá, Secret 53); the
Qur'án "the Way of God unto all who are in the heavens and all who are
on earth" (Gleanings 44)? A fascinating passage from `Abdu'l-Bahá
might be used to start an "anonymous Baha'is" theology:
Then as to what thou hast asked me for pious people who died
before they heard the Voice of this Manifestation. Listen: Those who have
mounted to God before hearing the Voice, if they followed the rules of conduct
as laid down by Jesus and always walked in the straight path, they have
obtained this Dazzling Light after their rising to the Kingdom of God. (TAB II,
Cole has argued that the Baha'i writings suggest that salvation is a "spiritual
velocity" rather than a state. Belief in the
most recent Manifestation of God provides a "boost" to one's velocity, an
accelerating impulse. Thus from a Baha'i position, the question is not whether
non-Baha'is are "saved" or not. The question is whether any particular person
has a high spiritual velocity or a low one. The fact that salvation is not a
state that can be attained is clear from the Baha'i writings which state that
the soul does not stop progressing at death
and that there is no original sin. To emphasise the processual nature of
salvation, Baha'u'llah states that the "sinner" can be saved at his last breath
and the "devout believer" "fall to the nethermost fire"
The Baha'i writings also suggest that there are hierarchies of salvation. All
previous religions and spiritual traditions have offered salvation, but some
more than others. Therefore, Christianity compared to Islam is lower in the
hierarchy of salvation, but Christians in absolute terms have attained
salvation. In a commentary by `Abdu'l-Bahá on monist and dualist
concepts of reality, Cole concludes that `Abdu'l-Bahá appears to be
recognising theological positions as different language games in the
Wittgensteinian sense, each of which is internally coherent. But as Cole
states, "his position is not the entirely relativist one that each of these
languages-games is equally valid, but that there is a hierarchy, with some
coming closer to the truth than others (Cole, Concept 27). Thus, the
Baha'i position is relativist and hierarchical at the same time.
Another feature of soteriological language in the Baha'i texts is that
collective salvation is the main emphasis. A civilisation is saved or not based
on the recognition of the representative of the Godhead in the form that It
assumes in their culture. The question of salvation is reframed as a communal
one. Thus, Shoghi Effendi interprets Baha'u'llah as the "Savior of the whole
human race", "in Whose Faith all nations can alone, and must eventually, seek
their true salvation", and whose "aim is the salvation, through unification, of
the entire planet" (Promised Day 114, 111, 116). Baha'u'llah states that
his mission is "the salvation of the peoples and kindreds of the earth"
(Tablets 223, cf. Gleanings 243), and writes to collective
Christendom that he has "borne the misfortunes of the world for your salvation"
(Tablets 10). The argument I am presenting is that Baha'u'llah has no
exclusive claim to individual salvation, but that the social salvation of
humankind does exclusively depend on the adoption of the principles of the
Baha'i Faith, which is "humanity's unique and most effective ark of salvation"
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated 10 September 1933
cited in Compilation of Compilations 1:219).
Shoghi Effendi presents a number of Bahá'í texts in
apocalyptic terms in his extended letter entitled The Promised Day is
Come. The urgency of the message is all the more relevant as it was written
in 1941 during the Second World War. The apocalyptic language is used to warn
people of the dangers that beset the world due to its ignorance of the
"healing, the saving, the pregnant truths proclaimed by
Bahá'u'lláh, the Divine Organizer and Savior of the whole human
race" (Shoghi Effendi, Promised Day 114), specifically not acting on the
principle of the oneness of humanity. The
consequences of "irreligion and its monstrous offspring" are delineated as are
the "three false gods" of nationalism, racialism and communism (ibid.
113-4) in language that is vivid and charged.
A clear example of confessional language is in the writings of Shoghi
Effendi who, on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the passing of
Bahá'u'lláh, "With feelings of profound joy, exultation and
thankfulness" as the Israeli government decreed that the Covenant Breakers
should hand over the outer portion of the Qiblih, describes
Bahá'u'lláh's remains as "the holiest dust the earth ever
received into its bosom" (Messages to the Bahá'í World
122). Similarly, in their tribute to Bahá'u'lláh on the occasion
of the centenary commemoration of his ascension, the Universal House of Justice
assert that, "He, the Most Great Manifestation, appeared in the Most Great Name
and endured the greatest suffering in authoring the Most Great Revelation,
which is the well-spring of the Most Great Peace" (A Wider Horizon
239). Both of these are confessional
statements which are not intended to describe Bahá'u'lláh's
ontological status compared to the founders of other religions, but in solemn
commemoration of his remarkable influence on the world.
The most important collection of quotations on the uniqueness of the
Faith of Bahá'u'lláh is found in Shoghi Effendi's letter entitled
Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh (World Order 100-112).
Shoghi Effendi explains that the purpose of this compilation is to assist the
Bahá'ís "in the effective prosecution of their mighty enterprise"
of constructing the Administrative Order. Furthermore, he explains that this
letter was written to "powerfully reinforce the vigour of our spiritual life
and greatly assist in counteracting the machinations of an implacable enemy"
and so that Bahá'ís "can derive fresh inspiration and added
sustenance" in propagating the Faith (World Order 99, 100). Thus, the
primary texts in the first section of the Dispensation of
Bahá'u'lláh on the sublimity of Bahá'u'lláh's
revelation can be seen as an example of "action language" that is intended to
deepen the spiritual life of Bahá'ís and inspire them to promote
their Faith through building up the Bahá'í administration and
Many other examples of "action language" exist in the Bahá'í
literature. A recent one is the challenging statement of the Universal House of
Justice that Bahá'u'lláh is "the most precious Being ever to have
drawn breath on this planet" (From a letter to the Bahá'í world,
Ridván 1990). The context of this letter was to inspire
Bahá'ís to "emblazon His name" as a preliminary measure in
preparation for the various activities planned for the celebration of the
centenary of his passing in 1992. Thus, the passage is "action language" with
the emblazoning of Bahá'u'lláh's name as its intention. Arguably
an exclusive commitment is being called for. This is important for a small
community, in the face of persecution and ridicule, as it emerges from
- Among the most important texts in the corpus of
Bahá'í scripture that are relevant to this discussion is the
first verse of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Bahá'u'lláh's Most Holy
Book: "The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of
Him Who is the Day spring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws ...
Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived
thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed
An important element in understanding this verse is the nature of the
"recognition" that is called for. The Arabic for "recognition" is
`irfán, a term with rich mystical connotations, implying a
knowledge with a strong experiential and existential content. Juan Cole has
written that it might be best glossed as "mystical insight". He contends that
it is not a prosaic recognition, but a primal recognition in the soul, a
"re-cognition." It might be compared to the Buddhist concept of enlightenment.
Thus, the first duty is not a legal one, not a formulaic creed like "There is
no God but God and Muhammad is His Prophet" of Islam (the shahada or
affirmation). It is not a confession of outward faith but rather "the
attainment of mystical insight into the Manifestation of God." The use of
`irfán is paralleled in the Short Obligatory Prayer, "I bear
witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know [li
`irfánika] Thee and to worship Thee" (Bahá'í
Prayers 4). In this context,
`irfán is the meaning and purpose of life, not a simple
affirmation of belief that leads to salvation, from a static to a dynamic
concept of recognition.
The historical context suggests alternative meanings to a literalist one. After
the death of the Báb, there was an important strain of
Bábí antinomianism. Bahá'u'lláh was arguably
attempting to forestall any similar Bahá'í antinomianism by
asserting that justification by faith alone is insufficient and insisting on
works. But he was also attempting to bring the rest of the Bábís
into the Bahá'í Faith by insisting on recognition of himself as
the fount of revelation. Thus the question remains as to who the verse is
addressed. If it is the Bábís, then it indicates only the
prerequisites of Bahá'í identity. However, if it is the
Bahá'í community that is being addressed, then it is the minimum
standards of Bahá'í identity that are being delineated. It is
difficult to see where the implication is that non-Bahá'ís are
The phrase "hath gone astray" can also be read in different ways. Jack McLean
suggests that the principle of the relativity of religious truth implies an
non-exclusivist meaning. He uses the analogy of archery. An arrow goes astray
if it misses the target, but, relatively speaking, it goes astray if it misses
the bull's eye. As long as the archer continues to fire, there remains the
possibility that the target will be hit (McLean, Dimensions 47). Of
interest is the original Greek for the word "sin" in the New Testament, which
is hamartia, is a term from archery meaning "missing the mark". As one
Christian scholar notes, "The very word itself implies a much more optimistic
view of human volition than `sin' does. With hamartia we are talking
about something essentially correct in human nature, a part of us that want to
do what is good and right, but misses the bull's eye. Our goal is the right
one; but somehow we miss it" (Witterschein, Preface xiv). This is
consistent with the Bahá'í view which rejects the concept of
original sin. So it appears that the phrase "hath gone astray" does not mean
"is not saved" but rather suggests that relative to a continuum, an individual
must continue to grow spiritually.
A personal view is that this verse of the Aqdas is action language. Like Acts
4:12 ("there is no other name"), it says something positive in negative terms:
the eternal challenge of recognition or mystical insight into the manifestation
is that which will lead to spiritual progress, not right action ("though he be
the author of every righteous deed"). In a sense, Bahá'u'lláh has
transcended the right action/right belief dichotomy, and challenged believers
to "right being" as the mode of salvation.
- Bahá'u'lláh's Tablet of Ahmad states, "Be thou
assured in thyself that verily, he who turns away from this Beauty hath also
turned away from the Messengers of the past and showeth pride toward God from
all eternity to all eternity" (Bahá'í Prayers 212).
I would argue that this verse uses a number of languages simultaneously. There
is a "survival language" element to it--Bahá'u'lláh, speaking
through Ahmad to all the followers of the Báb, is urging them to remain
steadfast after the martyrdom of the Báb, the heavy persecution of his
followers, and the apparent lack of leadership among their ranks. On another
level, there is a confessional quality--Bahá'u'lláh expressing
his loyalty to the Báb's Cause: "He is the King of the Messengers and
His Book is the Mother Book did ye but know" (Bahá'í
Prayers 210). . But perhaps, its strongest voice is "action language".
Bahá'u'lláh calls the Bábí community to follow the
laws of the Báb at a time when it was "in such a state of deprivation
and perversity" (Taherzadeh, Revelation II:114): "O people be obedient
to the ordinances of God, which have been enjoined in the Bayán"
(Bahá'í Prayers 210). On another level, it calls Ahmad to
proclaim Bahá'u'lláh as "Him Whom God shall make manifest" to the
Bábís. It clearly worked as it is chronicled that Ahmad changed
his plans from attaining the presence of Bahá'u'lláh in
Adrianople so that he could return to Persia. He travelled extensively and
through his efforts, "a great many recognized the station of
Bahá'u'lláh and became His ardent followers" (Revelation
II:114). In addition, it issues a challenge to believers to strive to be
"steadfast", so much so that "thy heart should be waver, even if ... all the
heavens and the earth arise against thee" (Bahá'í Prayers
211). The arabic for "turning away," i'rád, implies wilful
rejection. On this level, it remains applicable to Bahá'ís who
are reminded of the dynamic of belief in Bahá'u'lláh, the
lifelong challenge of mystical insight, `irfán, into the
manifestation. Thus, the verse would be misinterpreted if understood to refer
to the salvation of non-Bahá'ís.
The phrase "he who turns away from this Beauty" can be interpreted in the light
of progressive revelation as a statement that applies to all the manifestations
of God. The rejection of any one manifestation is tantamount to a rejection of
them all from a Bahá'í perspective. Thus this statement is
applicable to Bahá'ís, as it is to followers of other religions.
It is a way of saying that the latest Manifestation of God embodies "within His
Revelation the essence of all past Revelations" (Taherzadeh, Revelation
II:126). From a historical perspective, it is aimed at the Bábís
whose rejection of Bahá'u'lláh would undermine a primary goal of
the Báb's mission. Of interest is how Bahá'u'lláh, in this
verse, echoes the Persian Bayán of the Báb which states of "Him
whom God shall make manifest", "he who believeth not (even though be believe in
God, and what God hath commanded in former times), it is as though he had not
believed", and "if he has believed in all the previous ones, and not in this,
it is as naught (`scattered dust')" (Browne, Summary 347). Thus,
Bahá'u'lláh, by recalling the Bayán, is using a rhetorical
device to challenge the Bábís to turn their allegiance to him.
- In Bahá'u'lláh's last work, The Epistle to the Son
of the Wolf, it states, "He that entereth therein is saved, and he that
turneth away perisheth" (139). Again this verse resonates with many meanings.
From a historical viewpoint, it has a "survival language" quality to it in that
its intended recipient, Shaykh Muhammad Taqir-i-Najafi, was a persecutor of
Bahá'ís. It has confessional quality to it--"Great is the Cause,
and great the Announcement!" (Epistle 144). But perhaps the performative
nature of the verse is its strongest voice. It aims to bring "that rapacious
priest to repent of his acts" (God Passes By 219), to call people of the
Bayán to accept Bahá'u'lláh, to steel
Bahá'ís in the face of persecution, and to challenge them to
transform themselves spiritually.
A ground-breaking study by Juan Cole is the first to explore the
literary qualities of Bahá'u'lláh's writings. He presents the
view that there are a number of rhetorical techniques that
Bahá'u'lláh's texts use to make the pluralist religious doctrines
of the Bahá'í Faith immediate and plausible to readers. He argues
that Bahá'u'lláh's use of presentation and narrative, of point of
view, and techniques such as apostrophe, metaphor and allegory, fulfil these
goals (Cole, "Poetics" 451). This paper has attempted to build on this by
exploring other "language games" of the Bahá'í writings from a
study of those texts which appear exclusivist in tenor. The polysemous nature
of language, its pluriformity of meanings, is striking in these texts, and the
Bahá'í religion is explicit in this hermeneutic. Beyond these
multiple meanings are the languages of survival, confession and action. I
contend that there is little here which would suggest that they can be used to
develop an exclusivist theology of salvation.
A Bahá'í scholar identifies the challenge with which language
confronts Bahá'í theology: "It is this richer understanding of
language that we should be examining ... to experience those aspects of
language which open us up, as individuals, to new personal and corporate
opportunities - the Bahá'í life" (Parry, "Philosophical Theology"
90). Parry calls for a theology that is "responsive to a better appreciation of
its raw-materials; namely Language. And behind, above, below and within
Language, the speaker of Language" (Ibid., 91). Uncovering the language
of exclusivism has hopefully made a contribution to this enterprise.
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 In support of this view, Marcus Braybrooke,
also discussing John 14:6, writes that,"Critical scholarship has made it clear
that the words of John in the fourth Gospel should not be treated as his words"
(Time to Meet 89), and Marcus Borg, a professor of religion at Oregon
State University, states that "Jesus did not speak of himself with the exalted
titles of John's gospels, now did he speak the great `one way' verse of John
14:6" (Jesus 145). The "Jesus Seminar" of 74 seminary professors,
college teachers and theologians have come to this conclusion (The Five
Gospels: What did Jesus Really Say. NY: MacMillan, 1993).
 A stronger comparison can be made with
patriotism which tends to involve a certain contempt and even hatred for people
of other nations.
 Cf. Eck, Encountering 96.
 For the challenges of interreligious
dialogue for the Bahá'í community, see Fazel, "Interreligious
 For Bahá'í views on religious
pluralism, see Momen, "Relativism" and Cole, "Poetics".
 I am grateful to Christopher Buck for
bringing this quote to my attention.
 Juan Cole, posting to Irfan internet
listserve, August 1996.
 On the eternal challenge of salvation, see
the Báb, Selections 85; Bahá'u'lláh, Prayers and
Meditations 251 and K163.
 The Báb, having proclaimed himself to
be the centre of the Islamic apocalypse in 1844, wrote in a style that has a
number of features common to apocalyptic literature (Lawson, "Structure" 8).
Allied to the expectation in the short-term of a further messianic figure
(termed Man-yuzhiruhu'lláh or "He whom God shall make manifest"),
this would explain some of the exclusivist elements in Bábí
doctrine, such as the destruction of non-Bábí books, forbidding
marriage to non-believers, and the ban on non-believers living in
Bábí states (apart from merchants and others engaged in useful
 Cf. Shoghi Effendi, Promised Day 5-6
where he writes of the "Most Great Justice", "Most Great Peace", "Most Great
Civilization" and "Most Great Name."
 Juan Cole, posting to Talisman internet
listserve, April 1995.