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Common Ground: A Conversation


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A dialogue between three composite characters—two representing common views from the poles of the faith and reason "debate" and one representing a Baha'i attempt to bridge the divide. This was presented at the 2010 Association of Baha'i Studies conference by members of Common Ground

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Common Ground: A Conversation

  1. 1. Common Ground a conversation
  2. 2. Proposition: Progressive revelation reconciles the problems raised by the diversity of religiousexperience—revelation, dogma, effects on humanity, etc—for secular humanists and religionists alike.
  3. 3. The Left The Secular Humanistspeaks: Might not God bebetter found in a modern scientific journal than in religious doctrine?
  4. 4. Argument for Science❖ Science is natural. ❖ It does not indulge in magical thinking.❖ It explains the existence & order of the universe & ❖ It deals with human reality, human consciousness. which is the material world.❖ It is rational, fact-based, objective & non-dogmatic. ❖ It is progressive, evolving as we evolve.❖ It is antithetical to sectarianism, dogmatism, ❖ It is self-correcting, intolerance & violence. acknowledges its mistakes & moves on.
  5. 5. Argument Against Religion❖ It was invented by man. ❖ It indulges in magical thinking.❖ It misrepresents the origins of man & cosmos and ❖ It combines servility & represses human intellect. solipsism.❖ It is irrational, dogmatic, ❖ It represents an subjective. anachronistic, Bronze Age philosophy.❖ It gives rise to sectarianism, disunity, intolerance, repression & violence.
  6. 6. This is the sum of duty: do naught to otherswhich if done to thee would cause thee pain. — Krishna, The Mahabharata
  7. 7. The RightThe Evangelical Christian speaks: Isn’t God foundonly in the Bible, therebymaking all other religions false, and science an illusion at worst and the product of human intellect at best?
  8. 8. Argument for Religion❖ Religion was created by ❖ It recognizes that material God. reality is an illusion & a test.❖ It explains the creation of ❖ It puts the human spirit in the Universe & human touch with reality, which is consciousness. the spiritual world.❖ It is antithetical to ❖ It is absolute—it doesn’t materialism & immorality. change.❖ It teaches us to love others ❖ It rejects “progress” that is as we love ourselves. detrimental to the human spirit.
  9. 9. Argument Against Science❖ Science misrepresents the ❖ It encourages the denial of origins of man and cosmos God’s existence and & derails human therefore, the need to obey development. His laws.❖ It is amoral, illusory & ❖ It is grounded in hubris. misleading. ❖ It combines arrogance &❖ It gives birth to materialism, solipsism. repression of the human spirit, & glorification of the ❖ It has become disconnected creation over the Creator. from human reality & from history.
  10. 10. Argument Against Other ReligionsEvangelical: The Bible tells usthat the master of deceit, Satan,will do anything to stop soulsfrom going to Heaven. So if hecan prevent you from having arelationship with Jesus bydistracting you with a falsereligion, he’s achieved his goal!That is why you see so manyreligions—the more there arethe better the chance Satan canconfuse people and keep themfrom seeing the Truth.
  11. 11. What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men.That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary. —Hillel, The Talmud
  12. 12. Continuing the Conversation Humanist: But religion is archaic. It’s an artifact from mankind’s childhood and represents an absolute and not a relative way of looking at the universe. It can’t be progressive by its very nature, and so, it can’t guide mankind’s ethical evolution. We must be guided by our “ethical intuitions”—an inherent moral compass— that evolves as we evolve.
  13. 13. Allow me to quote an expert:“Religion spoke its lastintelligible or noble or inspiringwords a long time ago ... or itmutated into an admirable butnebulous humanism. We shallhave no more prophets or sagesfrom the ancient quarter, whichis why the devotions of todayare only the echoing repetitionsof yesterday.” — ChristopherHitchens, God is Not Great, p 6
  14. 14. Continuing the ConversationEvangelical: Religion is ancient,absolute and infallible. It can’t beprogressive and there’s no roomfor diversity of belief. Themessage that can change theworld hasn’t changed—God hasspoken through Christ once for alltime. I’m sure He’ll make someprovision for non-believers, but itmust involve Christ in some way.Allow me to quote an expert: “Iam the Way the Truth and Life, noman comes to the Father but by me.”— Jesus Christ
  15. 15. The Center The Bahá’í speaks:You’ve found a point ofunity: you both say thatrevelation is at an end. But is it?
  16. 16. Humanist: It has to be because religion is manmade and itscreation relies on myth-making. That takes time.Evangelical: It has to be because God spoke to mankindonce and for all time through Jesus Christ 2000 years ago.
  17. 17. Bahá’í: We’ll get back to the idea that revelation has ended. But if man has aninherent moral compass that evolves as we evolve, why didn’t it guide us tocreate an evolving, inclusive religion? Why does religion deteriorate? Why doesdogma get more exclusive and irrational as the religion ages instead of moreinclusive and rational?Humanist: That’s just the nature of religion. It’s inherently evil. Look at all the evilthings it’s done—the Crusades, the witch burnings, terrorism, even thepersecution of your own faith in Iran.
  18. 18. Bahá’í: But science and secular politics have perpetrated evils too—atomic weapons, eugenics, Social Darwinism, communism,Nazism—yet you’re not saying that the manmade institutions ofpolitics and science are “inherently evil.” Isn’t that a doublestandard?Humanist: No comment.
  19. 19. Bahá’í: And, Evangelical, if religion is absolute, why do theteachings of the Old Testament differ from the teachings inthe Gospel?Evangelical: But they don’t differ. God is always the same, soHis teachings are always the same.
  20. 20. Bahá’í: What about the law of divorce? Moses gave one law and Christchanged it, saying: “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts,permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was notso.” (Matthew 19:8) Isn’t Christ showing that God gives us His lawsaccording to our capacity to understand them?Evangelical: No comment.
  21. 21. Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not dounto others. —Zoroaster, Shayast-na-Shayast
  22. 22. Humanist: So what’s your solution, Bahá’í? What explains theunique position of religion among human institutions? Whataccounts for its “deterioration,” as you call it?Evangelical: Yeah, and how do you explain the changes Christmade in Mosaic law? Why do you think His laws would change?
  23. 23. Applying the New Paradigm
  24. 24. ProgressiveRevelation
  25. 25. Bahá’í: Let’s look at the Bahá’íconcept of progressive revelation—each Founder of a revealed religionbrings a message that reflectsGod’s will for that age.The message is consistent with thecapacity of the audience; theTeacher asks the believers to stretchjust a bit to take in new ideas—forexample, as Christ asks Hisfollowers to change the way theyunderstood marriage and divorce.
  26. 26. Humanist: But aren’t these “Teachers” just men? They may bewise or enlightened, but they’re still just human beings, right?Evangelical: Yeah, aren’t they just men? They may be wise orenlightened, but they’re not divine like Christ.
  27. 27. Bahá’í: If these Teachers are going totell us anything about God that wecan’t figure out by ourselves, thenThey must have capacities beyondours.Try this metaphor on for size: Eachdivine Mediator is like a perfectlypolished Mirror capable of reflectingthe full glory of the Sun (God) in away that we can comprehend.So, yes, Humanist, They’re human.And yes, Evangelical, They’re divine.
  28. 28. Bahá’í: These Mediators restate the eternalprinciples of religion—the sort of principlerepresented by the Golden Rule, for example—and give social teachings that suit the age.In its growth period—its spring and summer—religion flourishes as its teachings takeroot. It begins to absorb artifacts from theculture around it. In its autumn and winter—it deteriorates as those artifacts begin toovershadow the original message.Sometimes this results in changes indoctrine. Sometimes it results in newdenominations. And sometimes it results inviolent conflict. That’s why God continues tosend His Messengers … in every age.
  29. 29. Do not impose on others what you yourself donot desire. —Kung-fu-tse, Analects
  30. 30. Humanist: So, you’re saying God Evangelical: No, she’s saying thatcreated religion and man “edited” God created all the religions andit. And you’re saying God has that He’s revealed Himself to usrevealed Himself to us within the through someone other thanlast 2000 years. Please explain. Christ! How can that be?
  31. 31. Bahá’í: Well, think about it. If thepoint of God speaking to us is tobring us into a closer relationship toHim—to give life to our souls—thendoes it make sense that He’d speakone time, then fall silent?If He’s the God revealed by Christ(among others), then won’t Hebehave as the loving Parent thatChrist revealed? What good humanparent would speak to his child oncewhen he was ten, say, then refuse tosay another word until the child wason his death bed?And if He’s a rational God, won’t heeducate us in a similar fashion to theway we educate our children—inkeeping with each child’s capacity?
  32. 32. Bahá’í: Let me quote from myown expert:“Religion must be living,vitalized, moving andprogressive. If it be non-progressive it is dead. Thedivine institutes areevolutionary; therefore[their] revelation must beprogressive andcontinuous.” —Abdu’l-Bahá
  33. 33. Bahá’í: To put the pieces together...❖ There is one God who manifests Himself in many ways.❖ One of those ways is through the observable universe, which we study scientifically.❖ Another is through religion, which represents our spiritual education, and which must be ongoing.❖ This education is given to us through the teachings of God’s Manifestations, i.e., Krishna, Christ, and Bahá’u’lláh.❖ These teachings evolve as we evolve.❖ So, each religious system represents a stage in our evolution.
  34. 34. Humanist: Okay, maybe that explains the dogmatism, but what aboutthe magical thinking? Science and religion are like oil and water. Thetwo don’t mix.Evangelical: Yeah, what he said … about science and religion, anyway. Imean, evolution? Give me a break. Liberal scientists planted thosedinosaur bones to throw doubt on the Bible.
  35. 35. Bahá’í: Funny I was going to saythat science and religion were likethe two wings of a bird. In fact,that’s the metaphor the Bahá’íwritings use. Abdu’l-Bahá, theBahá’í expert I quoted just now,says that “Material and spiritualscience are the two wings of humanuplift and attainment. Both arenecessary...”Necessary, not optional. Bahá’ísbelieve—and this is straight fromour scripture—that scientificknowledge is the highestattainment in the human world,because science—whether materialor spiritual—informs the way weinvestigate our reality.
  36. 36. Hatred does not cease by hatred; hatred ceases bylove. This is an eternal law. —Buddha, Dhammapada
  37. 37. Humanist: But there is no “why”—reality just is. Reality is entirelyphysical. Reality is what science explains. Religion is just humanimagination because it doesnt explain things the same way that sciencedoes.Bahá’í: Is reality entirely physical? Tell me, what do you think aboutmost of the time? What do you talk about with others? What do youinteract with most of the time?
  38. 38. Humanist: I suppose you’re going to tell me.Bahá’í: Don’t we interact mostly with our own intellect and consciousnessand the intellect and consciousness of others? Certainly we take physicalinput through our senses, but we always filter it through our intellect.After all, in the last half-hour, Humanist, have we once discussed anythingphysical except as a metaphor for an intellectual concept?
  39. 39. Evangelical: Wait just aminute! It’s my turn.Look, Bahá’í, science isclearly in conflict with theBible record. The Bible sayswe were created; science sayswe just happened byaccident through the processof evolution.There’s a huge differencebetween a creation and anatural process.
  40. 40. Bahá’í: Yes, evolution is a process. But isn’t creation also a process?A sculptor would say it was. The Biblesays God molded us like clay. If youwatch a sculptor work, you’ll see thatthe form the finished piece takesevolves slowly through a series ofstages until it reaches its finished state. The path from conception to birth is also a process. At one time each one of us looked more like an amoeba than a human being … but we were always human beings. Right?
  41. 41. All things whatsoever ye would that men shoulddo to you, do ye even so to them: for this is thelaw and the prophets. —Christ, The Gospel of Matthew
  42. 42. Bahá’í: Look around at natureand at our own intellect. Both areproducts of a process—whetheryou call it creation or evolution.We’re surrounded by processes.The birth and growth of suns andplanets, of life on this planet, ofideas and inventions … ofcivilization itself—all these areprocesses. Our own intellect is ina constant state of evolution—sois our understanding of it.Would either of you argue thatour intellect hasn’t changedsince, say, the time of Christ?
  43. 43. Humanist: No, I certainly wouldn’t make that argument.Evangelical: Okay, no. I think we’ve changed too. We’vegrown. But in some ways, haven’t we grown away fromGod?
  44. 44. Bahá’í: In some ways we have.Maybe we should listen to theman who said that if we’d only Humanist & Evangelical:put the teachings of the Sermon Thomas Aquinas?on the Mount into practice, we’dhave a transformed world.
  45. 45. Bahá’í: Wrong. That would beBertrand Russell, Welsh earl,philosopher, logician,mathematician, historian, co-founder of analytic philosophyand most prominent 20thcentury atheist.Though he decried religion assuperstition based in fear, heunderstood on some level thatits beneficial effects were limitedby humanity’s choice not to liveby the religions they professed.
  46. 46. Bahá’í: In suggesting that religiousprinciples are only beneficial if wefollow them, Bertrand Russell stands incomplete agreement with religiousscripture.“The well-being of mankind, itspeace and security, areunattainable unless and until itsunity is firmly established. Thisunity can never be achieved solong as the counsels which the Penof the Most High hath revealed aresuffered to pass unheeded.Through the power of the wordsHe hath uttered the whole of thehuman race can be illumined withthe light of unity...” — Bahá’u’lláh
  47. 47. No one of you is a believer until he desires for hisbrother that which he desires for himself. —Muhammad, Hadith
  48. 48. Humanist: But this raises akey issue. In order to believein any religious doctrine,you have to have faith. Faithis irrational. It’s believing insomething without anyevidence or proof.In a word, it’s blind.
  49. 49. Evangelical: What’s wrong with that?The Bible says: “Now faith is thesubstance of things hoped for, theevidence of things not seen. For by itthe elders obtained a good testimony.By faith we understand that theworlds were framed by the word ofGod, so that the things which are seenwere not made of things which arevisible.” —Hebrews 11:1-3See what it says about “a goodtestimony?” We have faith because ofthe testimony of Christ and Hisapostles. We have faith because ofwhat the Holy Spirit does in our ownlives.
  50. 50. Humanist: Aha! But that’snot real faith, is it? You Evangelical: What? No—believe because of what wait a minute. Did I sayyou’ve “seen,” not what that?you haven’t seen!
  51. 51. Humanist: Yes, that’sBahá’í: Hold on, Humanist exactly what I’m saying. I—are you saying you never believe in reason. Havingexercise faith? faith is unreasonable.
  52. 52. Humanist: A neutrino? Of Bahá’í: Have you ever course not. Neutrinos areseen a neutrino? too small to see.
  53. 53. Humanist: I don’t believeBahá’í: But you believe they exist. I know theythey exist. exist because scientists have measured them.
  54. 54. Bahá’í: So you trust the authorityof the scientists who have Humanist: No, I don’t have faith.measured neutrinos—you have I simply base my assumption thatfaith that these scientists are neutrinos exist on the facts thatdoing their work properly and these scientists have ascertained.coming to the right conclusions.
  55. 55. Bahá’í: Then, you’re saying that you’veorganized your feelings about theexistence of something—in this case, Humanist: Yes. That’s what I just said.neutrinos—around the assumption that What’s your point?an authority on the subject hasexperienced them in some way.
  56. 56. Bahá’í: Only that that’s how I’d define“faith.”So would a great many other people,including philosopher and mathematicianWilliam S. Hatcher, a Bahá’í scholar. I thoughthe put it very succinctly when he wrote:“We need a good word to sum up this processof organizing our emotions around ourassumptions, and religion has provided uswith the word: faith. We can define anindividual’s faith to be his total emotionaland psychological orientation resulting fromthe body of assumptions about reality whichhe has made (consciously or unconsciously).”He also noted that: “Every human being hasfaith just as surely as he has a mind and abody. We are not free to choose not to havefaith any more than we can choose whether tobe born.”
  57. 57. Evangelical: No, it’s not silly.Humanist: That’s silly. And it’s just That’s exactly how I feel. Faith insemantics. You’d call it faith. I’d God is a natural response to whatcall it … He’s done for us and what we’ve observed in His universe—just as… something else. you believe in neutrinos because of what scientists have observed.
  58. 58. Bahá’í: So, what you’re both saying isthat through experience, observation,what the Bible calls testimony—that is,the expert opinions of people whosejudgment, experience and expertise wetrust—we gather a body of evidencearound which we organize our beliefs.You, Humanist, primarily consider thetestimony of scientific literature.You, Evangelical, consider primarily thetestimony of scripture.As a Bahá’í, I consider both.What I’m asking you both to do isquestion your assumptions—to be open-minded about the validity of the other’sexperience and “testimony.”
  59. 59. Evangelical: And I alwaysHumanist: I always do try to try to observe truth andbe open-minded. reason as we’re instructed by the Apostle Paul’s example.
  60. 60. Bahá’í: Another point of unity. So, Would you Humanist: Well, of course I’d have to agreeagree, Humanist, that to be reasonable and with that. It would be hypocritical of me notjust, you’d judge religion and faith by the to. After all, it wouldn’t be fair to judgesame standards you’d like others to use when science solely by the behavior of scientists.they judge science and scientific thought? BUT...And would you agree, Evangelical, that to be Evangelical: Okay, I agree. Christ did ask usjust (and obedient to Christ) you’d judge both to judge others by their fruits. And I’dscience and “other” religions by their fruits— certainly not want Christ judged solely by therather than the behavior of their worst behavior of Christians. BUT...“adherents?”
  61. 61. And if thine eyes be turned towards justice,choose thou for thy neighbor that which thouchoosest for thyself. —Baháulláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf
  62. 62. BUT... Thereby hangs a dialogue. We invite you to continue the conversation onyour own forums, in your own neighborhoods, with your collegial groups.
  63. 63. “Shoghi Effendi has for years urgedthe Bahá’ís ... to study history,economics, sociology, etc., in order tobe au courant with all the progressivemovements and thoughts being putforth today, and so that they couldcorrelate these to the Bahá’í teachings.What he wants the Bahá’ís to do is tostudy more, not to study less. Themore general knowledge, scientificand otherwise, they possess, thebetter. Likewise he is constantlyurging them to really study the Bahá’íteachings more deeply.” — Universal House of Justice, Compilation on Scholarship, p. 18