From Embryo to Infant

Recently a Baha’i of my acquaintance commented on changes that have occurred over time in how a certain subject is viewed. Compared to a statement on the subject by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, he found current Baha’i practice too restrictive and puzzled over the change. This got me to thinking about how people dislike change and, particularly where religion is concerned, prefer stasis. In a Baha’i context, for example, shouldn’t a statement by Baha’u’llah or ‘Abdu’l-Baha stand unchanged?

Actually, no. Central to Baha’i belief is the concept of progressive revelation: God sends us successive Messengers (the Manifestations of God). Each Manifestation of God is empowered to give such teachings as are suited to the needs and capacities of the people of their age. But beyond this, things change over time even within a given revelation.

Know of a certainty that in every Dispensation the light of Divine Revelation hath been vouchsafed unto men in direct proportion to their spiritual capacity. Consider the sun. How feeble its rays the moment it appeareth above the horizon. How gradually its warmth and potency increase as it approacheth its zenith, enabling meanwhile all created things to adapt themselves to the growing intensity of its light. How steadily it declineth until it reacheth its setting point. Were it, all of a sudden, to manifest the energies latent within it, it would, no doubt, cause injury to all created things…. In like manner, if the Sun of Truth were suddenly to reveal, at the earliest stages of its manifestation, the full measure of the potencies which the providence of the Almighty hath bestowed upon it, the earth of human understanding would waste away and be consumed; for men’s hearts would neither sustain the intensity of its revelation, nor be able to mirror forth the radiance of its light. Dismayed and overpowered, they would cease to exist.
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, XXXVIII, p. 87)

This principle was restated via another analogy by Shoghi Effendi:

Feeble though our Faith may now appear in the eyes of men, who either denounce it as an offshoot of Islam, or contemptuously ignore it as one more of those obscure sects that abound in the West, this priceless gem of Divine Revelation, now still in its embryonic state, shall evolve within the shell of His law, and shall forge ahead, undivided and unimpaired, till it embraces the whole of mankind.
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 23)

Think about that term for a moment: embryonic. A human embryo looks nothing like a newborn infant, much less a full-grown human being. It has none of the powers of a one-year-old child, much less those of an adult. Over time, it will change radically, gradually evolving in form and capacity, developing the physical and behavioral characteristics of an infant. The newborn child will then continue to develop physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually over a long period of time before it reaches adulthood. Even then, a person continues to grow in experience and maturity. So when the Guardian called the Baha’i Faith “embryonic,” he asserted that it was in the earliest stages of formation, that it did not yet “look like” what it would some day become. It has a long way to go, a lot of growing to do, a lot of change to experience.

Moreover, Shoghi Effendi divided the broad sweep of Baha’i history into three ages, one past, one present, and one future: the Heroic Age, which saw the inception of the religion; the Formative Age, still ongoing; and the Golden Age, now just a glimmer on the horizon. That the terms “formative” and “embryonic” reflect each other is probably no accident. If the Baha’i Faith is embryonic, then it is in the process of being formed, and vice versa.

Thus, it should be no surprise if many things change as the religion grows. A prime example is the Baha’i marriage law. Some people tie themselves in knots over the fact that the law as revealed allows a man two wives, but ‘Abdu’l-Baha stated that monogamy was the law. (Having multiple wives, He argued, is conditioned upon the ability of the husband to treat both wives equally, but that would be impossible and so monogamy is actually the law.) This is a clear case of “the sun gradually rising to the zenith,” or of embryonic growth, or of formation. There are others.

Returning to the case that started this train of thought, that ‘Abdu’l-Baha made a certain “policy statement” doesn’t necessarily lock in that policy until the coming of the next Manifestation of God. It may be only a starting point. Should the Guardian further develop the matter, that change should be viewed as embryonic growth or formation. Likewise should the Universal House of Justice continue to refine the policy.

The only truly immutable aspects of the Baha’i Faith are those laws and principles directly given to us by Baha’u’llah Himself, and even in those cases there may be some room for clarification by the authorized interpreter (‘Abdu’l-Baha or the Guardian). Nevertheless, Baha’is can rest assured that Baha’u’llah’s Covenant is guiding the growth of this embryo: it will develop over time as directed by its Creator. With that assurance, we can embrace its growth and development and play a constructive role in it.