Lessons on Baha'i-Christian Dialogue from a Muslim
September 19, 2004
As an active Bahá'í on campus in the mid-to-late 90's, I often found myself engaged in intriguing but sometimes pointless discussions with various Christians. The Bahá'í Faith, progressing from an Islamic milieu, shares a good deal of religious worldview with that faith. Thus in "A note on Muslim-Christian dialogue" one could almost directly substitute the Bahá'í Faith for Islam.
It is well worth reading the entire, well-informed treatment. Thebit (the author), himself commenting on other comments about Muslim-Christian dialogue ( 1, 2, 3), notes "The assumptions which exist on both sides conducting comparative religious analysis, stifle discussions to the point where they are talking over each other" (that's what I mean by "pointless"). He goes on to make a basic — but crucial — point about the difference between Muslims and Christians in understanding the concepts of "revelation" and "prophet."
"For the Muslim, "revelation" is an experience which only a prophetic figure undergoes. ... This revelation between the Divine and the individual (through whatever 'mechanism') produces a principal "text" (the "Word of God"); as well as, according to various Muslim authorities, his other deeds and sayings (usually classified under his sunnah). In this way the prophet is the vehicle of the revelation; but his own activity, though distinguished from the actual revelation, is still strongly bound up with the it."
"'revelation' is different for most Christians. 'Revelation' can imply a form of inspiration under Divine guidance limited not just to prophetic figures. Any — religious or pious — individual can receive "revelation" in this way."
On prophets or messengers:
"From this follows the flip-side of the dialogue which is often pushed heavily by certain Christian missionaries: that Jesus is comparable to Muhammad (pbut). But this must be a Muslim understanding. For, in the eyes of the Christian, Jesus (p) must be more than merely human. To the Muslim, however, Muhammad is only human (despite the high esteem he is held in by Muslims), and this he believes is the same for Jesus (p)."
These very problems I had noted during my days of "dialogue" on the West Mall at UT, but I was never able to recognize or state them so well, nor was I able to find a way for my dialogue partner and I to mutually explore these divides in a constructive manner.
Naturally it was always my view that I was working to bridge the gap and the other person was being completely inflexible. But then again, I was refusing to see Christ as "Godhead," which became a singular point of contention — a point I don't recall trying very hard to circumnavigate.
Thebit, however, offers some ideas for using this problem as a positive point of dialogue, instead of a point of debate. Further, I have a feeling that a distinctive Bahá'í approach could be found to help bridge this gap.
On the one hand, Bahá'u'lláh makes a clear statement about the fundamental reality of God and His independent, peerless nature:
"The Person of the Manifestation hath ever been the representative and mouthpiece of God. He, in truth, is the Day Spring of God's most excellent Titles, and the Dawning-Place of His exalted Attributes. If any be set up by His side as peers, if they be regarded as identical with His Person, how can it, then, be maintained that the Divine Being is One and Incomparable, that His Essence is indivisible and peerless? Meditate on that which We have, through the power of truth, revealed unto thee, and be thou of them that comprehend its meaning." (Gleanings, XXVIII)
However, Bahá'u'llá also makes a clear statement about the distinct status of the Manifestations (prophets, messengers). While many passages attest to this stature, the very next section in Gleanings gives it thusly:
"It should, however, be borne in mind that God and His Manifestation can, under no circumstances, be dissociated from the loftiness and sublimity which They inherently possess. Nay, loftiness and sublimity are themselves the creations of His Word, if ye choose to see with My sight not with yours." (Gleanings, XXIX)
Proceeding through the Gleanings…
"... We recognize in the manifestation of each one of them, whether outwardly or inwardly, the manifestation of none but God Himself, if ye be of those that comprehend. Every one of them is a mirror of God, reflecting naught else but His Self, His Beauty, His Might and Glory, if ye will understand. All else besides them are to be regarded as mirrors capable of reflecting the glory of these Manifestations Who are themselves the Primary Mirrors of the Divine Being, if ye be not devoid of understanding." (Gleanings, XXX)
Thus it was that, while I may have tried to introduce this concept as a point of dialogue, perhaps it would have been more constructive to try moving the conversation forward by saying "I'll grant, for now, the divinity of Christ, if you'll grant that I believe Bahá'u'lláh occupies a similar station. Now, how can we build a constructive reality together? Are there points of disagreement that will keep us from working together? This point will clearly keep us from converting each other, so let us acknowledge it and set it aside."
Of course this is but one approach to stepping around this point in dialogue. Another statement could be made about the equivalence of these two these two Prophets, i.e. second coming, but my experience is that this idea throws up a lot of veils and can be an insurmountable statement in a sincere attempt at dialogue (note "dialogue," not "conversion").