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A Brief Essay on Bahá'í Soteriology and Alethiology

An Application of Structurization Theology

Mark A. Foster

In my view, Bahá'í soteriology, the theology of salvation (naját) incorporates elements of universalism and inclusivism, but not particularism (exclusivism). However, it is, in my view, primarily inclusivist.

i. Universalism

I prefer to take a broad view of divine Revelation. As I see it, and I am only expressing my own perspective, folks like Meher Baba and Ramakrishna could be termed "inspired seers." I can even accept Meher Baba's claim to be an avatar. However, here, I would take his use of "avatar" to be merely a nominal designation for what I would call a "seer." Moreover, Meher Baba, Ramakrishna, Rev. Moon, Aleister Crowley, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, etc. could, in the context of their own narrative, paradigm, or taxonomy, be regarded as prophets, messiahs, and avatars.

In other words, I may or may not accept that person as a seer, admittedly a subjective judgement, but I would acknowledge that the leader, if any, of that religious organization had whatever status she or he or claimed in the context of her or his paradigm. That is my approach both as a sociologist of religion and as a human being.

I do not take `Abdu'l-Bahá's seasonal analogy as evidence He believed that the force of a Revelation could be exhausted. When a person goes from third to fourth grade, the energy of third grade is not depleted. However, just as the child would normally move on (while still benefiting from the knowledge gained in the previous grade), there is a need for further Revelation. Previous divine Revelations can still inspire, and transform, human lives.

Bahá'u'lláh, for His part, was speaking in the context of His Own paradigm, and His statements would not be true in the contexts of all, or even most, other religious paradigms. Indeed. they might not even be true with respect to the paradigms of many previous divine Revelations. Similarly, different Bahá'ís, or groupings of Bahá'ís, have their own paradigms. There is no truth apart from these paradigms.

Hikmat-i iláhí, a term which can be translated divine philosophy, divine wisdom, or theosophia (theosophy), is merely a name for ideas which a particular Prophet considers to conform to the principles of hikmat. Consequently, the divine philosophy is a nominalization made by a particular Prophet (which may differ from those of some other Prophets), not a perennial essence.

In short. I would include anyone, no matter how notorious they may be regarded in the minds of some others, as proponents of an individual or collective paradigm of truth. Indeed, truth is merely a name for axioms based on, or relative to, a particular paradigm. Without a paradigm, any paradigm, there is no truth.

ii. Inclusivism

I admire Alvin Reines concept of polydoxy which he develops in, Polydoxy: Explorations in a Philosophy of Liberal Religion. Reines, a Reform ("Liberal" outside the U.S.) Jew, argues that there can be many different, but beneficial, constructions of Judaism.

Just as there are various Christianities, Islams, Judaisms, Hinduisms, etc., there are, and should be, a multitude of Bahá'í faiths (polydoxy). What unites us as Bahá'ís, and gives us our shared identity, is not our orthodoxy, our universal acceptance of doctrines, but our orthopraxy, our firmness in the collective center of the Covenant (the Will of God). A Bahá'í can be heterodox but not heteropraxic. As Paul wrote (Gal 3:28 in The English Standard Version), "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." That is to say, these categories are nominal and accidental, not essential, and were, to Paul, dissolved upon becoming a Christian.

iii. Particularism

Bahá'í soteriology is not particularist (exclusivist). That is because the particularity of the Bahá'í primary sources admits the possibility of redemption for those who are not Bahá'ís. It is difficult to make a similar case, although some have tried, from the texts incorporated into the New Testament.

"It is even possible that the condition of those who have died in sin and unbelief may become changed - that is to say, they may become the object of pardon through the bounty of God, not through His justice - for bounty is giving without desert, and justice is giving what is deserved."
-- `Abdu'l- Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.232

"Question. - What is the condition of children who die before attaining the age of discretion or before the appointed time of birth? "Answer. - These infants are under the shadow of the favor of God; and as they have not committed any sin and are not soiled with the impurities of the world of nature, they are the centers of the manifestation of bounty, and the Eye of Compassion will be turned upon them."
-- `Abdu'l-Bahá: Some Answered Questions, p.240

"... in a place where the commands of a Prophet are not known, and where the people do not act in conformity with the divine instructions, such as the command of Christ to return good for evil, but act according to the desires of nature - that is, if they torment those who torment them - from the point of view of religion they are excused because the divine command has not been delivered to them. Though they do not deserve mercy and beneficence, nevertheless, God treats them with mercy and forgives them."
-- `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.267

He should forgive the sinful, and never despise his low estate, for none knoweth what his own end shall be. How often hath a sinner attained, at the hour of death, to the essence of faith, and, quaffing the immortal draught, hath taken his flight unto the Concourse on high! And how often hath a devout believer, at the hour of his soul's ascension, been so changed as to fall into the nethermost fire!
Bahá'u'lláh, Gleaning from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p.264

How often hath a sinner attained, at the hour of death, to the essence of faith, and, quaffing the immortal draught, hath taken his flight unto the Concourse on high! And how often hath a devout believer, at the hour of his soul's ascension, been so changed as to fall into the nethermost fire!
Bahá'u'lláh, Gleaning from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p.266

What did Jesus reportedly teach on the subject?

And that servant who knew his master's will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.
Luke 12:47-48 (English Standard Version)

iv. Conclusion

Bahá'ís should avoid the temptation to create an established orthodoxy or systematic theology. It is preferable to focus on the cultivation of a theologically diverse community of souls who, in their behaviors, conform to the Covenant of God.

Salvation does not come from religions, faiths, and paths. Salvation is only from God. The religions of God's Prophets are Revelations of God's Will. It is by following those religions or, perhaps in some other way conforming to God's Will and receiving His mercy, that we may obtain some degree of salvation. Moreover, evangelical Christians and others who assert that one must believe in, or know, the right things in order to be saved (a Trinity, a bodily resurrection, etc.), are actually promoting gnosticism a species of gnosticism - a salvation through knowledge.