Speaking at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur J. Parsons of Washington, D.C., on 25 April 1912, Abdu’l-Bahá (son of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith and the appointed interpreter of His teachings) stated the primary teaching of Bahá’u’lláh in this way:
The first teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the duty incumbent upon all to investigate reality. What does it mean to investigate reality? It means that man must forget all hearsay and examine truth himself, for he does not know whether statements he hears are in accordance with reality or not. Wherever he finds truth or reality, he must hold to it, forsaking, discarding all else; for outside of reality there is naught but superstition and imagination. — Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p 62
We human beings rely on hearsay. We seem to accept it almost without blinking, in many facets of our lives. “Did you know…?” a friend says, and we acquire their information and often pass it on. Social media such as Facebook has made this stupid-easy, to use the vernacular. Today alone, my Facebook news feed was littered with photoshopped posters that proclaimed any number of things as “fact”. Some of us seem to accept, uncritically, whatever we see written in large white letters.
We may do the same thing with authority figures in various areas of life: political and historical information, scientific fact, religious knowledge. When we are young we really have no option but to accept what authorities such as our parents or teachers or clergymen tell us. As adults we find ourselves being asked to accept the authority of doctors, managers, clergy, scientific or other experts.
Realistically, the wisdom of such acceptance comes down to whether we can trust those authorities to have good information and have our best interests (individually or collectively) at heart. A child trusts that when his mother says, “Get out of the street!” with urgency in her voice, she perceives a danger (the car that has just sped around the corner) and has his safety in mind. If the child has observed that his mother puts his well-being before all else, the child does not question his mother’s instructions.
Abdu’l-Bahá also illustrates this principle in his talk at the Parsons’, but produces an example from the realm of faith.
For example, during the days of Jesus Christ the Jews were expecting the appearance of the Messiah, praying and beseeching God day and night that the Promised One might appear. Why did they reject Him when He did appear? They denied Him absolutely, refused to believe in Him. There was no abuse and persecution which they did not heap upon Him. They reviled Him with curses, placed a crown of thorns upon His head, led Him through the streets in scorn and derision and finally crucified Him. Why did they do this? Because they did not investigate the truth or reality of Christ and were not able to recognize Him as the Messiah of God. Had they investigated sincerely for themselves, they would surely have believed in Him, respected Him and bowed before Him in reverence. They would have considered His manifestation the greatest bestowal upon mankind. They would have accepted Him as the very Savior of man; but, alas, they were veiled, they held to imitations of ancestral beliefs and hearsay and did not investigate the truth of Christ. They were submerged in the sea of superstitions and were, therefore, deprived of witnessing that glorious bounty; they were withheld from the fragrances or breaths of the Holy Spirit and suffered in themselves the greatest debasement and degradation. (ibid.)
Back to that kid standing in the street. If, instead of understanding the urgent instructions of his mother through his own firsthand experience of her, he chooses instead to filter them through the story of Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, in which the mother figure pretends sweetness but intends harm to the child, or he has taken to heart a schoolmate’s angry assertion that “Mom’s just want to ruin your fun,” he might remain standing in the street with a speeding car bearing down on him. (I draw this from real life, by the way.)
Abdu’l-Bahá is saying, here, that we must do due diligence when it comes to our view of reality. In the face of repeated accusations that religion requires that one avoid reality at all costs, it would be tempting to say that this is a new principle. That Bahá’u’lláh was the first to teach it. This is not the case.
It is fitting that Abdu’l-Bahá uses Christ as the example case for Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching on the independent investigation of reality, because Christ, Himself, recommends such recourse to reason. He does this in a number of places in the Gospels, but perhaps nowhere so clearly as the Sermon on the Mount when He observes that a person or a thing is known by the fruit it produces. (Matthew 7:14-16) It should come as no surprise that we find the practice of “testing” something against a given criterion in the epistles of Paul and other apostles.
Still, it is significant that Bahá’u’lláh and Abdu’l-Bahá stress reason so much in their own writings. We live in an age in which there are a chorus of voices trying to convince us of this and that. An age in which many people seem to feel that it is not enough to simply have a personal opinion based on known facts, but to literally have their own facts, as well. As Adam Savage of the Mythbusters has put it, “I reject your reality and substitute my own”.
What Mr. Savage meant as sarcasm seems to be a rallying cry for those who wish to create their own reality. Media and social media—those discussion forums where people meet and often clash—suggest an epidemic in our society: people with opposing views who don’t simply have opposing opinions, they have opposing facts as well.
Obviously there are times when facts are in dispute and there can be honest debate about which facts actually pertain. Ideally, this spurs investigation of reality, which is essential to establishing facts, and thereby establishing the truth of a situation. If there is honest disagreement and honest investigation, then we can arrive at the facts of a situation. That does not mean we will be in agreement, for even if the facts are known, there may yet be a diversity of opinion about what those facts mean.
There is a difference between holding differing opinions and insisting on a different set of facts. An atheist friend of mine was certain of the fact that no religion had ever taught racial unity. When I told him that racial unity and elimination of racial prejudice was a core tenet of the Bahá’í Faith (and actually had been a key teaching of Muhammad, as well), he simply invoked the Adam Savage gambit (I reject your reality and substitute my own). Of course, I was able to show him the many passages in the words of the Prophet, Himself, where racial equality and unity is taught. Eventually, he had to adjust his reality because he applied reason and recognized that Baha’u’llah’s teachings on the matter of racial unity were a fact.
Some folks suppose that this desire to possess one’s own facts and statistics to support a particular world view is a necessary component of religion. For example, some religionists famously insist that we did not evolve through different phases of existence, but were created just as we are now roughly 7,000 years ago. Thia assumes a set of facts that are not in alignment with what scientific investigation tells us about our reality. Some insist that the earth is very young and that features such as the Grand Canyon, the Laurentian Abyssal or that new chasm discovered recently under Iceland are the signs of violent catastrophe and that the signs of erosion and the various fossils and transitional lifeforms we have found are the work of the Devil or liberal scientists rather than the clear evidence of ancient processes. (By the way, the image above is not meant as a literal illustration of evolution.)
I would suggest that, instead, the impulse to hold onto these “theories” about how we came to be here, in the face of the growing body of science that says otherwise, are the product of fear, not faith. Possibly this is what happens when we come to believe that our opinions about reality are reality, itself.
Next time: Part 2—Faith and Reason