The Chain of Prophecy:
Progressive Revelation as a Theory of Relativity
First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #18
Trent Park Campus: London, England
August 21–24, 1998
(see list of papers from #18)
published in Lights of Irfan, volume 3, pages 59-82
under new title
"From Adam to Bahá'u'lláh: The Idea of a Chain of Prophecy"© 2002, Irfán Colloquia
From a scientific perspective, the 19-20th centuries witnessed unprecedented paradigm shifts with the emergence of the theory of evolution and the quantum and relativity theories. Today, these three highly successful theories are well established, but in combination, they have radically altered the scientific understanding of man and nature. The theory of evolution dramatically shifted the Christian conception of man as static and disconnected to a more dynamic and connected paradigm. With the theories in physics, diverse phenomena, which had been previously seen as separate and irreconcilable, were gradually and systematically unified. If the theory of evolution contributed with concepts of dynamism and connectedness, the theories of physics aspired for an underlying unity amidst a perplexing diversity of entities.
The nineteenth century also witnessed the emergence of the scientific study of religion, which was greatly influenced by the nascent theory of evolution. Attempts were made which tried to encompass religions in grand evolutionary schemes. Such attempts have, however, been gradually and systematically discredited. With the rise and popularization of modern physics, certain attempts have also been made to understand religion from both quantum theory and relativity. Yet, from a scientific perspective, no theory of religion has had similar success, nor has it contributed to any paradigm-shift in our understanding of man and religion. Still, however, attempts, since the Parliament of Religions (1893) and similar subsequent endeavors, work for religious dialogue and aim to reconcile religious diversity.
From a Bahá'í perspective, the nineteenth century is especially interesting, not only because the Bahá'í Faith is concurrent with the above mentioned scientific paradigms and sciences, but because it is seen as a new religious paradigm in the history of world religions. The Bahá'í Faith not only stresses a highly evolutionary and dynamic perspective of religion, but also emphasizes an underlying unity of religious diversity. Moreover, it ultimately aspires to unify seemingly irreconcilable religions, nations and peoples.
In this context, it is particularly the" bedrock of Bahá'í belief" the doctrine of progressive revelation which is significant, since it is this doctrine that contains principles of both evolution and unity. Further, one of the most basic features of this doctrine is the idea of a chain of prophecy.
It is argued that the idea of a chain of prophecy can be approached from two opposite, and, seemingly, contradictory points of view: a via positiva a scientific and exoteric approach which recognizes religion as a highly dynamic and diverse phenomenon, and a via negativa a religious and esoteric approach which recognizes religion as a highly static and unified phenomenon. The purpose of this paper is to show that the Bahá'í Faith can reconcile a via positiva and a via negativa. Although seen as opposite, they may rather be seen as complementary. In other words, the Bahá'í Faith advocates-as one of its fundamental principles-that science and religion are two different, but complementary, approaches to reality.
Similar to the theory of evolution, which recognizes that all biological life is fundamentally connected and dynamic, the Bahá'í doctrine of progressive revelation emphasizes religious unity and dynamism. Similar to the theory of relativity of physics, which recognizes the speed of light as absolute, and time and space not only as relative and related, but that they form an underlying continuum (the "spacetime continuum"), the Bahá'í doctrine of progressive revelation recognizes God as the absolute, and the various world religions and religious truths are not only seen as relative and related, but they are seen as successive, continuous, and complementary (the "chain of prophecy").
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