Thornton Chase, the First Western Baha'i, in his Study
Copyright © 2010 Baha'i National Archives, Wilmete, Used With Permission

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Relativity of Religious Truth

From time to time people say that the Baha'i Faith teaches that "all truth is relative."  I would like to address this, and see what the Baha'i Writings actually say on the subject. Let's begin here, with Shoghi Effendi's enunciation in 1947 of the basic teachings of the Baha'i Faith, to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine:

"The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá'u'lláh, the followers of His Faith firmly believe, is that Religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the non-essential aspects of their doctrines and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society."
(Shoghi Effendi, Summary Statement - 1947, Special UN Committee on Palestine)

We will return to this passage, but first please observe that he writes that *religious* truth is relative. What religious truth? We can determine what Shoghi Effendi means, by looking at two of the passages where he uses this term. 

First, while writing of the Baha'i House of Worship, Shoghi Effendi writes:

"To them will the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar symbolize the fundamental verity underlying the Bahá'í Faith, that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is not final but progressive."  (Shoghi Effendi, Baha'i Administration, p. 185)

In what sense does the Baha'i House of worship symbolize that religious truth is relative? Can it mean that the House of Worship symbolizes that truth is relative to each person, to each person's education, each person's perspective? How does the Baha'i House of Worship symbolize so ambiguous a principle?  Please call to mind that we are looking for a principle that is "the fundamental verity underlying the Baha'i Faith."

It will help us to find Shoghi Effendi's meaning of the term if we continue to read his sentence:

"To them will the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar symbolize the fundamental verity underlying the Bahá'í Faith, that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is not final but progressive."

Is not the second phrase a restatement of the first? Is it not clear that when he writes that the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar symbolizes that truth is relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, he is speaking of this? Is it not clear from looking at the symbols of Progressive Revelation on this edifice - seen here the Star of David, the Cross of Jesus Christ, the Crescent of Islam -  that this is what he means?

We see his intent again in Shoghi Effendi's statement that this principle is found in Baha'u'llah's greatest doctrinal work, the book of Certitude:

"Within a compass of two hundred pages it [the Book of Certitude] proclaims unequivocally the existence and oneness of a personal God, unknowable, inaccessible, the source of all Revelation, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent and almighty; asserts the relativity of religious truth and the continuity of Divine Revelation..." (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 139)

If we search the two hundred pages of the Book of Certitude do we find anywhere that truth is relative to the individual person, to his or her understanding or opinion, or that "all truth is relative"?  Or rather, do we find the unfoldment of Progressive Revelation, the fundamental principle of the greater revelation of divine truth by each successive Manifestation of God?

We see this yet again, how Shoghi Effendi uses "the relativity of religious truth" as a synonym for Progressive Revelation in another of his great letters:

"Repudiating the claim of any religion to be the final revelation of God to man, disclaiming finality for His own Revelation, Bahá'u'lláh inculcates the basic principle of the relativity of religious truth, the continuity of Divine Revelation, the progressiveness of religious experience."  (Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 108)

Each of those - the relativity of religious truth, the continuity of Divine Revelation, the progressiveness of religious experience - is restating the same principle: Progressive Revelation.

Rather than inferring our own particular view of the term "relativity of religious truth" into the Guardian's phrase, and call it a Baha'i teaching, it is rather for us to see how he uses the term, to be faithful to his intent, and to neither narrow nor broaden his meaning - but to squarely address it.


  1. I agree that the relativity of religious truth is a synonym for progressive revelation. I don't think a reference to the exterior ornamentation is an adequate explanation of why the Mashriq should symbolize progressive revelation, first, because this ornamentation is not a necessary attribute of the Mashriq, and second because it is a superficial point and if Shoghi Effendi had meant to refer to the ornamentation rather than the Edifice, he could have said "its ornamentation" rather than "the central Edifice." But the weightiest reason he is not likely to be referring simply to the ornamentation is that it would not fit his argument to reference the ornaments in Wilmette. Earlier in the same passage, he writes :

    "... the central Edifice of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar … should be regarded … as a House solely designed and entirely dedicated to the worship of God in accordance with the few yet definitely prescribed principles established by Bahá'u'lláh in the Kitab-i-Aqdas. It should not be inferred … that the interior of the central Edifice itself will be converted into a conglomeration of religious services conducted along lines associated with the traditional procedure obtaining in churches, mosques, synagogues, and other temples of worship. Its various avenues of approach, … will not serve as admittance to those sectarian adherents of rigid formulae and man-made creeds, each bent, according to his way, to observe his rites, … within separately defined sections of Baha'u'llah's Universal House of Worship. … [T]he central House of Baha'i worship, enshrined within the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, will gather within its chastened walls, … only those who, discarding forever the trappings of elaborate and ostentatious ceremony, are willing worshipers of the one true God, as manifested in this age in the Person of Baha'u'llah."

    He is arguing against a meta-temple concept. Because Shoghi Effendi habitually called the Mashriq “the universal house of worship,” and because Baha'u'llah writes, in the Ketab-e Aqdas “O people of the world! [Not, “people of Baha”] Build ye houses of worship throughout the lands in the name of Him Who is the Lord of all religions,” some have thought that the Mashriq was conceived as a common place of prayer where people of all faiths could worship according to their own rites. This is linked to the idea that Baha'u'llah did not intend to create one more religious community that would exist alongside others, but rather a meta-religion that would be common ground for people holding to many different traditions.

    But the exterior ornamentation - designed when he wrote these words, and in process of installation - with its multiple religious symbols such as the cross and crescent and star of David, would encourage people in the community and outside it to think that the Mashriq was to be a common home for the rites of every religion. Reference to it would not make the point Shoghi Effendi is arguing, about the nature of the Mashriq ~ Sen

  2. Sen, thank you for your comment. Are we also in agreement that when Shoghi Effendi writes that the Book of Certitude asserts the relativity of religious truth that he is referring to progressive revelation?