Religion, Ethics & Spirituality

The Continuity of Religion

Tuesday April 21, 1936


In this essay, first published in The Bahá’í World Volume VI, 1934-1936, Stanwood Cobb describes how religion does not come about by chance, but is part of a continuous plan for the spiritual evolution of humanity. Photo by Nabil Sami

By Stanwood Cobb

1.

Religious bigotry and prejudice are chiefly due to religions being viewed as historical rather than as functional events. The followers of every great world religion tend to look upon their own revelation and the institutions built around it as unique in the history of the planet and consequently to deny the authenticity of other world religions. Hence a bitter rivalry has arisen between religions making such monopolistic claims.

When, however, we take a scientific view of a religion as functional in the development of humanity we are able to look not only with tolerance but with sympathy at other religions than our own. Wherever a sincere spiritual force is effective in the lives of a people, there we see a religion which we may respect. When, however religious expression degenerates into institutionalism either at home or abroad, we may know that religion is no longer performing its normal function.

The function of religion is: first, to make humanity God-conscious; second, to make humanity obedient to the Divine Will (this implies today the unifying of humanity); and third, to bring to each human being the understanding of how to make use of prayer and guidance and thus take advantage of the inestimable privileges offered man by the Divine Power in the way of communion and help.

 

2.

Religions do not come into being by accident. No great historic epoch and no section of the world has been deprived by Destiny of the opportunity to acquire the priceless treasures of true religion. The spiritual evolution of the human race is as much a part of the majestic plan of the Creator as is the evolution of solar systems. Were it not for the instructive, stimulative and inspirational power of religion upon the heart and conscience of humanity, men would remain morally on a level with animals. In other words they would be unmoral, without the refined conscience which spiritual man possesses. They would be creatures of impulse and of instinct, following the law of the herd but not recognizing that as the only law outside themselves to be obeyed.

Religion brings to man a new conscience, instructing him in the higher laws of living which make for harmony, happiness and prosperity both in an individual and a collective sense. Through religion man is enabled to transcend to himself to become nobler than his biologically inherent animal qualities would permit. Through religion he is trained to sublimate all of these animal qualities – qualities perfectly legitimate in their own field but obstructive to the development of a catholic and harmonious human society.

Through religion man is made aware of his spiritual potentiality. He learns that his soul can aspire in the realm of spirit and need not be dragged and weighted down by all the heavy burdens of carnality. Like a young child learning to walk, he begins to realize powers which he can put into practice. In the use of faith, prayer and spiritual guidance he becomes more and more proficient, growing daily nearer to the full stature of spiritual manhood for which he is destined.

Can any one deny that these are the purposes and these the effects of religion? Any unbiased scientific study of the history of religion as a moral, social and spiritual force in the life of humanity will substantiate the foregoing statements.

 

3.

But whence does religion spring? Here we come to a much mooted question. We are told by the Founders of the world’s great religions that the truth which they teach is revealed to them from the Divine Source itself; that they are but channels for the Divine instruction and power to flow through; and that their word is, indeed, the Word of God.

Such is the claim of all the great Revelators. But the attitude of science during the last century has been to disparage such super-human claims. From the scientific point of view there seems little chance of objectively proving the claims of revelation. The scientific mind can investigate everything in the phenomenal universe, but it cannot investigate the Mind and Ways of God. Here is a field distinctly barred to the scientific approach. There is only one standpoint from which the claims of revelation might be investigated, appraised and corroborated. This standpoint is the field of actual religious achievement.

When we study the force which inheres in every great world religion – a force definite and unique, a force which, while its sources may be beyond our investigation, as regards its workings and effects lies clearly within the field of scientific investigation – what do we see? History shows that every great religion in the days of its purity – before institutionalism and human dogma begin their taints – exerts a terrific force upon human conduct and human character, a force unparalleled in the history of human morals as regards its contagiousness, its miraculous power to change character, and its quality of sustained application to the art of living on the part of the individual adherent. This force of religion is indeed mysterious – as mysterious as is the force of electricity.

Can we reasonably conceive that such a force can emanate from a source no higher than human mentality? Are these Founders of religion simply spiritual geniuses who are but a few degrees loftier in moral and spiritual insight than their fellows? If so, how could they produce these magical effects upon human nature, both individually and collectively? Effects which last not for a day, but for milleniums. Effects which no founders of schools of philosophies, not even the greatest, have ever been able even in the slightest degree to approximate. Secondly, we should have to assume that in their claims of revelation the Founders of the great world religions were either using deliberate falsehood or suffering under hallucinations. Both of these points of view have been taken. Previous to the religious tolerance of the twentieth century it had been the custom for earnest adherents of Christianity to accuse the founders of other world religions as being hypocrites, falsifiers or emissaries of evil. The theological doctrine of the uniqueness of Christianity induced this attitude. But as scientific liberalism made inroads into Christian theology and the history of religion came to be studied without prejudice of sectarianism, it became apparent to scientific historical observation that such characters as Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster and Muhammad were not uttering deliberate falsehoods when they claimed to be channels of Divine communication to humanity. They were at least sincere, there could be no question about that. Ergo – assuming the impossibility of substantiating this claim of divine revelation – certain materialistically inclined scholars of comparative religion, abnormal psychologists, and other secularists were led to the conclusion that these claimants to divine revelation were suffering from hallucinations.

Has not science, in its materialistic scepticism, brought itself here into a ridiculous dilemma? Those beings so pure and sinless in character, so noble in their self-sacrificing lives that no other humans can even be put in the same category; those beings who have expressed lofty truths which humanity has intuitively accepted as a perfect pattern for human behavior; those beings the power of whose exemplary lives and exalted teachings has influenced humanity more than any other force, – can it be that these great souls were merely insane? That their conception of the nature of their mission and the source of their wisdom was not only fallacious but the expression of psychologically diseased natures? Marching these Revealers of noble faith and living against opinions of modernistic secularists, I cannot see how the verdict of thoughtful people can be cast in favor of the materialistic psychologist.

 

4.

Is the idea of revelation, then, so impossible from the scientific point of view? The painter, the poet, the composer feel that their inspirations come from some source greater than themselves. Plato, the greatest creative thinker and literary artist the world has ever produced, had a definite theory as to where his inspirations came from. The artist, he states, is but a channel for images and truths which come to him from the World of the Ideal. The soul of the great artist is able to contact this higher archetypal world where perfection already exists, and thus bring to earth artistic revelations, creative ideas, and discoveries in the realm of truth. Since Plato was himself such a colossally creative thinker, we must acknowledge at least some importance to this theory of his regarding the nature of inspiration and creation.

Many a great artist, thinker, and inventor since the day of Plato has felt this same way about the nature of inspiration. Their greatest works have seemed to them not so much the manufacture of their own limited mentality as a projection, through the sensitivity of their being, of truth or beauty from some world outside themselves.

In fact, so disparate from their creator are the greatest achievements of the creative soul that he must look with a feeling of awe upon these creations emanating through him and enjoy them in a purely impersonal relation, receiving from them an inspiration as from a force totally and miraculously outside of his own personality.

Now if it is a possibility for any creative person to receive all inspiration from some mysterious source outside himself, it is certainly possible for the prophetic soul of a great world Saviour to become a channel for those Divine Forces which seek to guide and stimulate this planet into higher spiritual evolution.

Not only do these Teachers of religion proclaim a truth greater than they themselves could originate, but they are born into the world already destined for such a mission. Their station is above that of ordinary mortals, as the station of the ambassador of a great emperor is peerless in whatever country he may officially abide. “They are the Treasuries of divine knowledge, and the Repositories of celestial wisdom. Through them is transmitted a grace that is infinite, and by them is revealed the light that can never fade.”1Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán. Available at www.bahai.org/r/077907308

 

5.

These great messengers of God are an essential part of the Divine plan for the evolution of humanity. Biological evolution has gone as far as it is able to go when it has produced “homo sapiens” – man with the power of thought. The further evolution of man in the way of development of his creative intelligence and his spiritual progress depend upon forces from a higher plane. Religion is this force absolutely essential to man’s spiritual evolution, to the awakening and training of potential qualities which elsewise would never come into active expression.

Evolution now ceases to be a something which operates on man apart from his own conscious effort. Progress beyond primitive man he can make only by voluntary conscious effort. It is to awaken and aid this effort toward higher spiritual self-development of humanity that these great Teachers come to earth. Without the inspiration of their teachings and the dynamic stimulus to spiritual progress which they give to man by means of a tremendous outpouring of that cosmic, spiritual, creative force which has been called the Holy Spirit, man would remain on the moral and mental level of the animal.

“Further evolution, if it takes place,” says P. D. Ouspensky in his “Tertium Organum,” “cannot be an elemental and unconscious affair, but will result solely from conscious efforts toward growth. Man, not striving toward evolution, not conscious of its possibility, not helping it, will not evolve. And the individual who is not evolving does not remain in a static condition, but goes down, degenerates. This is the general law.”

 

6.

An important point to consider here is that the revelations of religion do not come by chance. They are part of a continuous plan for the spiritual evolution of humanity. They are a special communication and dispensation of that great creative and guiding Force of the universe which we call God, and they are revealed through spiritualized beings who are special channels for the flow of this creative force.

Humanity, like a battery which has to be recharged, is under the necessity of fresh spiritual impulse at stated intervals. Fortunately for the spiritual evolution of humanity, at every epoch when one religion has been outgrown a new religion has magically arisen – a religion full of vital hope and promise and charged with the power to remold and to remake the lives of its communicants.

“In their essence all these religions are one. Spiritual Truth cannot, indeed, be different and conflicting. The aims of all the great prophets were one: to bring human beings into the Divine Consciousness, to advance their spiritual development, and to effect better conditions of organized living.

“Nor can the great Founders of religions be supposed to exist in any sort of rivalry one to the other. Their purpose is one. Their devotion to Divinity is one. Their devotion to humanity is one. There can be no possibility of rivalry between these great Souls whose first requisite is abnegation of self, whose words and deeds are guided by divine inspiration, and whose lives serve no other purpose than to mirror Divinity to man.”2Cobb, Security for a Failing World.

From this point of view it will be seen that no religion is final. As humanity develops, it acquires capacity for new and higher revelations. At the same time that its capacity to comprehend is constantly increased, its ability to lead a spiritual life periodically diminishes (as has already been shown), thus necessitating a regular and definite reoccurrence of spiritual revelation.

Each Founder of a great religion gives warning of this to His followers. He speaks of a Return, and warns them to be open and receptive to Truth when it returns again, as return it must when the gradual crystallization and degeneration of established religion takes place through institutionalism and the natural carnal proclivities of man.

7.

Today it is apparent that all over the world religion is in great need of renewal. The spiritual consciousness of humanity is suffering eclipse. This is true not only of Christianity but also of every other great world religion – Confucianism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Muhammadanism. With the normal restraints of religion removed, with man’s spiritual conscience obscured as his scientific intelligence is accentuated, we see taking place a rapidly growing chaos and a threatened disintegration of world civilization.

Clearly the time is ripe for a renewal of man’s spiritual consciousness, and that renewal is already offered the world in the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. Here we find not only a renewal of all the spiritual beauty and dynamic force of previous revelations, but also pronouncements especially adapted to the advanced needs of this day. We have not only general moral laws, but their definite application to individual and collective living. We have a comprehensive set of principles upon which the establishment of a great world order is predicated, and a great world civilization of a perfection such as the past has hardly ventured to dream of.

8.

Of all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, perhaps none is so needed as the clear enunciation which He gives regarding the continuity of religion. As we have pointed out at the beginning of this article, the lack of such realization has been the cause of the crystallization of religious thought and expression and its disintegration into religious rivalries and hostilities never intended by the Divine Power from whose great Purpose for humanity all religions emanate.

Bahá’u’lláh makes clear not only that His Revelation is a renewal of spiritual truth and potency necessitated by the decline of spiritual consciousness throughout the world; but also that, just as other religions have faded and declined, so the religious expression built around His message is also destined to decadence, in the course of time. Thus He definitely prepares His followers and safeguards them against the dangers of bigotry, of religious smugness, and of blindness to the just and verifiable claims of a new Revelator when His day arrives.

How refreshing is this view of religion, which is now seen as a part of the normal functioning of our planetary life, as necessarily recurrent as are the seasons. Indeed each religion passes through its phases of growth comparable to the seasons – its springtime of blossoming and rejuvanescence, its summer of growth, its autumn of rich fruitage, and its winter of crystallization and decline.

And now again a spiritual springtime has appeared, and the Holy Spirit is pouring down Its rays upon this planet with a potency that is stirring everything to rapid motion and renewed growth. And as in the springtime old forms of vegetation, which in their sear and withered stiffness have lingered through the winter, become broken up by the actinic force of the sun and give way to marvelous new growths whose nourishment they help to furnish by their own decay, so today ancient institutions are falling and every old form is yielding ground to a marvelous newness, which, however disconcerting it may be to unprepared minds, is the breath of life and hope to those who can see beyond the present moment.

“…when the holy Manifestation of God, Who is the Sun of the world of creation, casts His splendour upon the world of hearts, minds, and spirits, a spiritual springtime is ushered in and a new life is unveiled. The power of the matchless springtide appears and its marvellous gifts are beheld. Thus you observe that, with the advent of each of the Manifestations of God, astonishing progress was attained in the realm of human minds, thoughts, and spirits. Consider, for example, the progress that has been achieved in this divine age in the world of minds and thoughts—and this is only the beginning of the dawn! Erelong you will witness how these renewed bounties and heavenly teachings have flooded this darksome world with their light and transformed this sorrow-laden realm into the all-highest Paradise.”3Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions. Available at www.bahai.org/r/726404644. Note that the original text has been modified to reflect the newest translation of this work.