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          Relativism and the Bahá’í Writings

                                      by Ian Kluge




 

Published in Lights of Irfan, Volume 9, 2008.  

 

1. Introduction


Relativism is a philosophical outlook that denies the existence of absolutely valid or universal truth-claims of any kind including the scientific, of absolute ethical or legal standards, of religious revelation, of any universal point of view, of universal customs and of rationality or reasoning. In other words, the validity of all claims to any absolute or universal ‘knowledge’ can be reduced and limited to statements applicable only in a particular time, place and situation and to a particular point of view. Moreover, there is no ‘ultimate’, i.e. Archimedean[1] standpoint outside all human views from which we can adjudicate among conflicting truth-claims. Such a standpoint would be ‘privileged’ over others and relativism rejects such privileging. This paper focuses especially on epistemological or cognitive relativism in relation to the Bahá’í Writings, but the principles enunciated above are found in all forms of relativism.

 

Thus, truth, beauty, the nature of reality (ontology), legality, human nature and all truth-claims are “relative to the standpoint of the judging subject.”[2] In other words, truth depends on the observing subject and is not independent of the observer. Indeed, relativism rejects the notions of ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ altogether.[3]  Truth-claims are no more than personally or culturally held opinions or conventions. Some relativists like Nietzsche, Lyotard and Foucault, maintain that truth-claims are expressions of the will to power and simply a way to dominate other people, while thinkers such as Derrida hold that a truth-claim is merely an arbitrary point at which we stop deconstructing our interpretations. Rorty maintains truth-claims are simply the “consensus” and “solidarity” of the recognised experts. What all these understandings have in common is the belief that truth-claims and ‘knowledge’ are disguises or masks for something else, like power-plays or mere consensus; there is nothing inherently true about them, i.e. relativism asserts that no truth-claim can be objectively true, universally true or foundationally true. We shall explore this in greater depth below.

 

It is the contention of this paper that the Bahá’í Writings manifest not relativism but relationalism,[4] an outlook that is often confused with relativism. In a nutshell, relationalism holds that all things exist in relationship to other things but it  rejects the idea that the existence or reality of things is dependent on the perceiver; that there is no neutral, privileged Archimedean standpoint from which to make judgments among competing knowledge claims[5]; that all knowledge claims are equally valid, that error is impossible; that partial knowledge is incorrect knowledge and that no knowledge/truth whatever can be universal (true for all people at all times and/or from all possible standpoints), objective (independent of the perceiver) and foundational (not susceptible to further analysis). Thus relationalism leads to a position which may broadly be described as ‘evolutionary Platonic perspectivism.’ It is ‘evolutionary’ because our knowledge progresses over time, i.e. becomes more precise, wider in scope and more effective in explanation. The Writings are ‘Platonic’ because there are “eternal verities”[6] true for all times and places and continuously “restate[d]”[7] by the succession of Manifestations. The Writings are ‘perspectivist’ because there may be many perspectives on the truth although not all perspectives are necessarily valid. The “eternal verities” as formulated by the Founding Figures for each age constitute the Archimedean standpoint from which other positions may be judged. The doctrine of progressive revelation is an example of such ‘evolutionary Platonic perspectivism.’ For example, through successive revelations we have adopted various perspectives as we learn more and more about the relationship between the various Manifestations and their role in human evolution. Thus, our knowledge is evolutionary and perspectivist. However, there are some absolute truths involved as well, such as the “station of unity.”[8] Any perspective which denies this station no matter how passionately or sincerely, is in error.  

 

This change from ‘relativism’ to ‘relationalism’ is more than a cosmetic change in terminology. As we shall demonstrate below, ‘relativism’ is not an accurate description of the philosophy embedded in the Writings. This is important because if we do not use terminology correctly and accurately, we will inevitably raise misunderstandings about philosophical nature of the Writings and lead own thinking astray. Consequently, it becomes more difficult to teach, explicate, defend the Faith and engage in meaningful inter-faith dialogue at the philosophical level. In addition, as we have seen, and shall see again below, relativism has a lot of philosophical baggage, i.e. brings with it a considerable number of philosophical problems that weaken any explication of the Writings that involve relativism, and leave the Writings open to all kinds of attacks and misrepresentations. This, too, makes teaching, explicating, defending and engaging in inter-faith dialogue needlessly difficult and inefficient.

 

Relativism is an important issue because of the tremendous consequences for ethics, epistemology, ontology and metaphysics, law, anthropology, religion, cultural studies and politics. For example, in international relations and law, cultural relativism prevents us from legislating in favour of universal human rights since our advocacy of such rights is merely a reflection of our particular political legal and cultural situation. Because human rights are merely cultural and not universal, we have no obligation let alone right to insist that other countries and other cultures abide by our views. Thus, relativism can serve as a convenient handmaid for justifying dictatorial practices. It renders all complaints about human-rights violations futile or worse, a form of imperialist bullying to impose one’s own standards on others. Quite obviously, the practice of international politics is dramatically affected by the adoption of a relativist outlook. All too easily hard-heartedness and/or political cynicism can be the result. Relativism also undermines such Bahá’í teachings as the unqualified obligation to provide equal education to girls and boys, to provide equal rights for women and to end the extremes of wealth and poverty. Who, after all, has the right to insist that these teachings set the standards by which the world should abide?

 

Relativism also has enormous implications in regards to epistemology and the subject of truth. For example, if all scientific truth claims are limited to a particular point of view, culture and situation, then there can be no universal scientific truth claims of any kind, and, conversely, there can be no erroneous ones. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions prepared the way for the acceptance of such radical relativist conclusions. According to Kuhn, all scientific theories and facts are relative to the cultural paradigm – the assumptions, techniques and theories – which is being employed. While there are changes in the history of science, these changes do not involve an increase or clarification of improvement of knowledge because different paradigms are “incommensurable.” They employ different concepts, change the meanings of terms as well as the standards for what are real ‘facts’ and real ‘explanations. Scientific theories change not because they are more ‘true’ but because of power relations, social-cultural customs and other interests at play in society. Kuhn’s protests that he was not a relativist notwithstanding, there can be little question that his book supported a radical epistemological or cognitive relativism. Indeed, the full fruit of his relativist views became evident in Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method which says that science has no claim to superiority over astrology or voodoo, that science is nothing less than a system of mythology like any other and should be taught as such in schools and that other approaches to knowledge such as magic should also be taught.  “All methodologies have their limitations and the only 'rule' that survives is ‘anything goes.’”[9]

 

Kuhn’s and Feyerabend’s relativism has received additional philosophical support from some of the most influential postmodern philosophers such as Frederich Nietzsche, Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty to name only the most prominent. By various paths they all come to agree that there are no facts, only individual or collective viewpoints, or “solidarities,” that no single all-inclusive perspective exists, that all these viewpoints are equal and none “privileged” above any other, and that there is no transcendental or Archimedean standpoint from which to judge among competing viewpoints.[10] The influence of postmodern philosophy reaches throughout virtually all branches and levels of academia. Some subjects, such as literary studies, have been radically transformed by the encounter to the point where ‘theory’ to swamp the subject of literature itself. Philosophy has felt its very legitimacy and usefulness as a subject challenged[11] not to mention basic concepts such as knowledge, rationality and truth as well as the whole notion of metaphysics.[12] History has been touched by, among other things, the struggle over the whole notion of grand narratives versus small or local narratives,[13] the knowability of the past, as well as the uses of history.[14] Women’s Studies, though not in themselves part of postmodernism, have been affected by the entire deconstructionist project, by postmodernism’s analysis of power relations and, more controversially, by its antipathy to essentialism. Psychology feels the influence of postmodern thinking in its handling of gender and political science in discussions of marginalization and the workings of power.[15] Cultural Studies have opened new vistas for exploration through the study of simulations and simulacra.[16] Postmodernism has also re-shaped and revised Freudian psycho-analysis[17]

 

  Because of its apparent intellectual egalitarianism and tolerance of all views as acceptable and equally valid, as well as its apparent ability to solve alleged contradictions in the Bahá’í Writings, relativism has attracted the favourable attention of a number of Bahá’í writers. These often take their cue from Shoghi Effendi’s statement that:

Its [the Bahá’í Faith’s]  teachings revolve around the fundamental principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final. Unequivocally and without the least reservation it proclaims all established religions to be divine in origin, identical in their aims, complementary in their functions, continuous in their purpose, indispensable in their value to mankind.[18]

 
Shoghi Effendi also writes that:

the fundamental principle which constitutes the bedrock of Bahá'í belief, [is] the principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is orderly, continuous and progressive and not spasmodic or final.[19]


These statements in conjunction with the teachings of the essential oneness of all religions have led some Bahá’ís to adopt relativism as a means of resolving philosophical, ethical and religious differences between the Bahá’í Faith and other religions. We shall explore these options below.

 

This paper contends that these solutions are highly problematic: there are philosophically less problematic ways to understand the Bahá’í Writings and to explicate their teachings on religious unity and diversity than by adopting relativism. It holds that the most accurate and least problematic terms to describe the Writings are “relationalism” and “evolutionary Platonic perspectivism.”

 

2. A Theoretical Framework for Relativism

All forms of relativism implicitly or explicitly reject three positions: universalism, objectivism and foundationalism. Universalism in its ontological and “discursive”[20] variants asserts that certain ideas, truths, situations, natures and states-of-being are found everywhere and at all times. Ontological universalism asserts that there are “entities (classes of existents) which exist for all persons.”[21] “Discursive”[22] universalism maintains there are statements and beliefs which are valid in all contexts, at all times and all places and for all peoples.

 

Relativism also rejects objectivism according to which certain beliefs and truths as well as certain things, situations, states-of-being are what they are independently of an observer or a world-view. Ontological objectivism means that “there are entities (classes of existents) which exist independently of the point of view, corpus of beliefs or conceptual scheme held to or employed by any particular person or society.”[23] “Discursive” objectivism says there are beliefs that are true regardless of viewpoint, beliefs, or explanatory frameworks, an assertion which obviously conflicts with the idea that man, not the object of perception, is the measure of things, of truth and falsity.

 

Relativism also denies foundationalism according to which there are certain truths as well as existing things and states-of affairs that are fundamental, i.e. not susceptible to further breakdown and analysis. Ontological foundationalism asserts that there is “a common ontology or set of basic existents, incapable of further analysis out of which all other existents are constructed.”[24] The “discursive” version of foundationalism asserts there are basic statements or propositions incapable of further analysis which serve not only as a foundation for other statements but also as an Archimedean point from which to make objective judgments.

           

Cognitive or epistemological relativism, which is the focus of this paper, maintains that what is considered ‘true’ either by individuals and by cultures/societies will vary and that ‘knowledge’, or so-called ‘facts,’ are culture and/or theory laden and reflect only particular societies and individuals. There are no objective ‘truths’ since all truths are expressed from a specific individual and/or cultural point of view. In other words, the truth-value of a statement is relative to its context, and, therefore, no statement or standpoint is privileged over any others. No possible Archimedean standpoint, or universal i.e. ‘transcendental’ viewpoint can be found to frame all forms of enquiry or to make objective judgments among different truth claims, world-views or paradigms. In a word, objectivity, including scientific objectivity, is impossible – a view we have already encountered in the work of Kuhn and Feyerabend.  Cognitive relativism also asserts that reason, rationality and logic are culturally determined and not objective, foundational or universally applicable. Reason is not an avenue to true knowledge because reason itself is a cultural product.  

 


 At this point it is important to distinguish among three distinct but closely related concepts: scepticism, relativism and subjectivism. The boundaries among these three positions are fluid and one easily slides into the other. Scepticism refers to a complex of views that deny “that knowledge or even rational belief is possible, either about some specific subject matter (e.g. ethics) or in any area whatsoever.”[25] Sceptics often maintain that we must permanently suspend judgment because none of our beliefs is certain, none is reasonable in itself, none is more reasonable than its contrary.[26] Scepticism may be limited to certain areas, but [g]lobal scepticism casts doubt on all our attempts to seek truth.[27] Sceptics deny that any knowledge can be universal, objective and foundational. No knowledge can ultimately be affirmed except as an act of arbitrary preference.

 

For its part, relativism says that all truth claims are only ‘true’ from one individual or cultural standpoint and that there is no Archimedean point from which to choose the true one or even merely the ‘truest’ from among competing views. This can easily lead to scepticism about all truth-claims since suspending judgment is one of the most obvious responses to this situation. However, a relativist need not necessarily become a sceptic, since the relativist may also say that all truth-claims are equally valid and, thereby, instead of suspending judgment, may accept them all. The rationale is simply that all truth-claims reflect certain standpoints and that each one captures a part of the truth.[28] Of course, no viewpoint is objective, universal or foundational.

 

Subjectivism maintains that there is no reality existing independently from the consciousness of a subjective observer who constitutes reality as s/he experiences it. Already evident in the Greek relativist philosopher, Protagoras, subjectivism is an extreme application to the individual of the relativist principle that all truth-claims or ethical claims depend on standpoint or context. What we pass off as apparently objective statements are really the expression of our (often emotive) preferences.[29] Reality just isn’t perceived differently by various individuals or cultures but actually is different for them in the deepest ontological sense.

 

2.1. Other types of Relativism
 
 Having examined the basic principles of relativism, we shall briefly examine various applications of these ideas.


 Ethical relativism asserts that all ethical principles and norms are viewpoint dependent and that none is inherently ‘true’ or ‘better’ or ‘more ethical’ than any other, which implies, of course, that Archimedean standpoint from which to judge among alternatives. Ethical choices are no more than preferences for reach individually or collectively selected purposes, expressions of sympathy or momentary impulses. This position is best summed up by Shakespeare in Hamlet: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.”[30]  


Legal relativism is, of course, a subtype of ethical relativism insofar as it concerns distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable behavior and speech. According to legal relativism, laws do not reflect an objective, universal and foundational human nature or human situation and are entirely local to a particular time, place and culture. For this reason, laws and legal standards such as human rights and the definition of persons cannot be applied across cultures. There is no sense to the claim that one legal system is better or worse, or more or less progressive than any other.

 

Anthropological relativism affirms that what is called ‘human nature’ is infinitely malleable and that there is no specifically definable human nature to study. In Sartre’s words, existence and freedom precede essence[31] – indeed, there is no human nature or essence that is given to us. Because there is no pre-given, pre-constituted human nature, we cannot argue that certain practices are ‘unnatural’ or counter to ‘natural law’, or that there are certain standards that all individuals and/or cultures ought to adopt. All human behaviors are ‘natural’ simply by virtue of being performed by human beings.  

 

 Closely associated with anthropological relativism is cultural relativism according to which every culture organises the flux of impressions from the internal and external environment into their own version of reality and work out the associated values, their own protocols for discovering and assessing knowledge or truth and their own criteria by which to determine human nature. As a result of this organising or constructing of reality, all so-called  ‘facts’ and truth-claims are value-laden, shaped and limited by certain biases inherent in every construction. These biases prevent us from obtaining an objective viewpoint independent of all observers, from obtaining a universal viewpoint true of all human beings and a foundational view necessarily true for all.

 

A notable sub-type of cultural relativism might be called linguistic relativism. This kind of relativism, known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, argues that different languages with different grammars and vocabularies require people to constitute/create the world variously because languages focus attention on different things, present time and space differently and condition the thought and behavior patterns of its speakers. Consequently, language does not represent the world objectively  i.e. ‘as it really is’; universally i.e. for all; or foundationally, i.e. beyond further analysis and/or challenge. Because no language is ‘more valid’ than any other, no world-view is ‘more valid’ than any other and there is no way to judge among the variously linguistically constructed world-views and their resulting truth-claims.

 

Ontological relativism contends whatever things are deemed to exist or constitute reality is determined by individual and/or cultural beliefs and that all statements about the existence of things is context-dependent. The existence of any ‘reality’ is entirely dependent on the individual or collective subject; there is no viewer-and-standpoint independent world. It is possible to take this quite literally by arguing in a manner reminiscent of Kant  (on whom more below) that we humans take the raw materials presented by the universe and by means of our concepts and choices of the boundaries of each thing construct the actual universe we live in.[32] Physics, painting or the writing of history or sociology are all ways of ‘world-making.’ Thus, there is no such thing as ‘one world’ and there is no Archimedean standpoint from which to decide which world is superior in any way. We can only adopt the pragmatic position that a particular world lends itself to our purposes more readily than other worlds. 

 

Aesthetic relativism asserts that all judgments about beauty or aesthetic sensibility in general  are relative to individuals, cultures, particular time periods, social class, political ideology and a wide variety of other factors. Accordingly, there are no universal standards of beauty. This belief is perhaps best summed up by Shakespeare’s line, “Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye.”[33] The sheer variety of artistic expression seems to support aesthetic relativism, though some, such as philosopher Denis Dutton have begun to challenge it with concrete analysis of artistic activities in numerous cultures.[34]

 

3. Advantages of Relativism

What, we may ask ourselves, does relativism have to recommend it, especially in the modern world? The answer that comes most readily to mind is that relativism helps make us aware of and sensitive to differing contexts and standpoint and, thereby, encourages not only a willingness to be open-minded but also the intellectual discipline of studying issues from new and unexpected viewpoints. This in turn, forces us to examine our own beliefs critically and to test their adequacy in regards to other candidates. These advantages, though apparently easy to state succinctly, can have an enormous impact on our intellectual culture and the way we approach knowledge-claims both our own and others’. Relativism is one way of making sense of the bewildering variety of human customs, beliefs and practices without feeling the need to impose one particular belief or culture on others. We can embrace the various facets of truth (if there is such a thing) of each viewpoint. In other words, relativism can prevent a hasty rush to judgment about different or even outlandish beliefs.

 

Becoming more aware of the diversity of contexts we learn of the tremendous diversity of human cultures, thoughts, legal and social systems, bodies of knowledge and art forms. Because it rejects the claim that there exists any Archimedean standpoint from which to evaluate human constructs and activities, relativism is non-judgmental, open-minded, tolerant and understanding. In a world plagued by all kinds of prejudices and animosities, relativism seems to foster attitudes and modii operandi that answer the world’s needs for mutual appreciation and respect.

 

Thus, relativism seems useful as a way of encouraging positively desirable attitudes in people, a ‘live and let live’ outlook that today’s world needs more of. In other words, its primary virtue is psychological in nature; it shapes a frame-of-mind that is open to and tolerant of difference and, thereby, forms a basis for mutually respectful social relationships among a wide diversity of people. For this reason, relativism also has a social or ‘political’ dimension since it is capable of altering not only attitudes, but also the resulting behaviors. Of course, the question remains whether or not we need relativism in order to develop an open-minded and tolerant attitude. There may be other, less philosophically complicated ways to achieve the same goal. For example, we may achieve tolerance by clearly distinguishing persons from their views and maintaining respect for other human beings as free agents who have a ‘right to be wrong’ without necessarily accepting their views as valid.

 

Relativism also has, at least on the surface, the advantage of solving – or at least ridding ourselves – of various problems in epistemology, ethics, ontology, anthropology etc by showing them to be non-problems. If there are no objective, universal or foundational truths, if there is no Archimedean point, then we do not have to worry about what is or is not really true or ethically right, since all alternatives are equally valid from their unique perspectives. There is an eloquent simplicity about relativism – like Alexander’s cutting the Gordian knot – that some philosophers and contemporary individuals in our time find attractive.  

 

4. Background to Relativism

To gain a better understanding of relativism and why it is not compatible with the  Bahá’í Writings, we shall engage in a cursory survey of some of its chief contributors and their ideas. The first explicit relativist is Protagoras, a philosopher in the 5th century B.C.E. Athens, who declares “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not."”[35] He also said that “things are to you as they appear to you and to me such as they appear to me.”[36] In these statements that Protagoras already strikes most, if not all, the major relativist themes in regards to epistemology, ethics and ontology. Epistemologically, he means that man, not the object of knowledge, determines what is true or false about what is perceived. The nature of an object as well as all of its attributes are governed by man, i.e. all attributes are relative to the perceiver. Ethically, Protagoras’ statement means that whatever is good or bad is decided by man. Ontologically, it is man who determines whether something or some situation or state of affairs is or is not. Protagoras also introduces the theme of subjectivism which accompanies relativism by saying that things are as they appear to us as individuals, which is to say, you and I have different truths simply because we are different individuals with different points of view. In the last analysis “knowledge is only [personal] perception”[37]

 

 Protagoras’ pronouncements are paradigmatic for relativism. Though he did not exhaust the subject, he certainly outlined most of its essential themes. First, there is the rejection of universalism both in its ontological and “discursive”[38] variants. Ontological universalism asserts that there are “entities (classes of existents) which exist for all persons.”[39] “Discursive” universalism maintains there are statements and beliefs which are valid in all contexts, at all times and all places and for all peoples. Second, Protagoras also rejects objectivism. Ontological objectivism means that “there are entities (classes of existents) which exist independently of the point of view , corpus of beliefs or conceptual scheme held to or employed by any particular person or society.”[40] When Protagoras says things are, i.e. exist because we think they are, he denies ontological objectivism, and, in effect, prefigures some ideas from postmodernist constructionism. “Discursive” objectivism  says there are beliefs that are true regardless of viewpoint, beliefs, or explanatory frameworks, which obviously conflicts with the idea that man, not the object of perception, is the measure of things, of truth and falsity. Finally, Protagoras beliefs reject foundationalism which follows as an implicit consequence of his earlier statements. Ontological foundationalism asserts that there is “a common ontology or set of basic existents, incapable of further analysis out of which all other existents are constructed.”[41] This violates Protagoras’ dictum that man decides “things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.”[42] The “discursive” version of foundationalism asserts there are basic statements or propositions incapable of further analysis which serve not only as a foundation for other statements but also as an Archimedean point from which to make objective judgments.

 

 In Protagoras’ thought we can discern explicitly and implicitly, the three trade-mark attributes of relativism: the denial of  universalism (no truth applies everywhere), of foundationalism (there are only viewpoints, no final truths) and of objectivism (reality is only what it is to me or to you).

 

4.1. David Hume (1711 – 1776)

After Protagoras, the next major development in the history of relativism was Hume, a British philosopher whose work does not espouse relativism but nevertheless provides it with two of main ideas. According to Hume, facts and values are completely unconnected with another; we cannot (in his view) logically reason our way from a fact to a conclusion about value. Just because something is the case does not mean that it ought to be the case. Mortal judgments, therefore do not deal with empirically verifiable facts but rather are matters of sentiment and emotion which are not subject to rational tests: we feel what we feel. As Hume writes,  “Moral distinctions [are]  not deriv'd from reason.”[43]

Since morals, therefore, have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be deriv'd from reason; and that because reason alone, as we have already prov'd, can never have any such influence. Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality. therefore, are not conclusions of our reason.[44]

By separating ethics and morality from reason, by showing how we cannot derive values from facts, and by asserting that values are fundamentally no more than emotional preferences, Hume opened to door to an all pervasive relativism about values. After all, how can we prove that anyone’s emotions are better than anyone else’s?  (Hume, of course believed that all human beings had a similar emotional nature and would be repelled by or attracted to similar things but that is a different issue.) The message of Hume’s texts was clear: we cannot reason about morals; our ethical choices are simply the expression of emotions and sentiments and the idea of  rationally‘ proving’ our moral choices right was simply absurd.


Hume also contributed to the development of relativism is his denial of causality, i.e. the belief that one object or event in any way creates a subsequent event:
 
In reality, there is no part of matter, that does ever, by its sensible qualities, discover any power or energy, or give us ground to imagine, that it could produce any thing, or be followed by any other object, which we could denominate its effect. Solidity, extension, motion; these qualities are all complete in themselves, and never point out any other event which may result from them.[45]

 

In short, there is no causality but only succession. It takes little reflection to realise that denying causality undermines the entire project of explaining the world scientifically by reference to causal forces. Scientists can still work with the concepts of causality, but they must admit that their causal explanations are ad hoc, assumed, adopted as a matter of faith without any empirical or rational support. Thus, other, equally valid viewpoints are possible and a ‘scientific’ explanation is only one among many, equally valid competitors which are correct in relation to their own explanatory principles and frameworks. In other words, we see here a denial of foundationalism (causality is not a sure foundation), universalism (causality works everywhere) and objectivism (causality works regardless of how we think).

 

4.2. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) 

 Immanuel Kant made two major contributions to the development of modern relativism. The first, which Harre and Krausz call the “constructivist insight”[46] is the theory of categories according to which our perceptions of the world do not arrive in the form in which we actually experience them. Rather they arrive as ‘raw data’ which the mind processes and shapes by means of the categories which are the conditions on which having an experience depends. “These categories therefore are also fundamental concepts by which we think objects in general for the phenomena, and have therefore a priori objective validity”[47] They organize raw data according to time, space, causality, necessity, contingency, subsistence and accidence among other things, that is, constitute, or create our experience of the phenomenal world. Thus, our mind shapes or constructs the raw data of our perceptions into a coherent world which becomes the object of our experience. In short, we construct our world, both as individuals and as collectives.

 

It is also follows clearly from Kant that the perceiving subject cannot be taken as a mirror reflecting a pre-existing reality, which is to say, the subject cannot access reality and deliver accurate reports about it. There is no pre-existing reality to access and reflect in the first place. Indeed, the subject may well be regarded as “an obstacle to cognition”[48] and as something that cannot be trusted. Because we cannot gain an Archimedean point from which to make universally valid judgments of our various world-constructs, we cannot distinguish true constructs from false. All are valid relative to the principles by which they were constructed. In other words, because reality is a human construct, there can be no objective knowledge or representation of reality; all we have are various constructions or stories none of which is privileged over others in terms of its truth value. This ontological relativism in which all world constructs are equal readily lends itself to a profound epistemological relativism that challenges the scientific project of discovering the truth about reality. It is impossible to discover the truth because there is no one truth about anything. What we have here is the denial of universalism, objectivism and foundationalism that characterises relativist thought.

 

Kant’s second contribution to the development of modern relativist thought are his antinomies, i.e. demonstrations of the limitations of reason. He showed how with some questions show equally possible but rationally contradictory results i.e. demonstrate “discord and confusion produced by the conflict of the laws (antinomy) of pure reason.”[49] In other words, on some subjects – the limitation of the universe in space and time; the concept of a whole cosmos made of indivisible atoms; the problem of freedom and causality; the existence of a necessarily existing being – reason can come to opposite but equally rational conclusions. There is simply no way to break the deadlock. Thus, “reason makes us both believers and doubters at once”[50] leaving us with grounds to believe and disbelieve in God and reason itself. This scepticism about reason makes it easy to reject reason as the arbitrator among various world-constructs. We can either become sceptics and doubt them all or relativists and accept them all as being true in their own way.

 

4.3. Frederich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

 Frederich Nietzsche is the pivotal figure in the history of modern relativism given his role as the chief source and inspiration of postmodernism. Nietzsche’s special contribution to modern relativism is his attack on the concepts of truth as understood by most Europeans, as well as his attack on the Greek conviction that reason and rationality could provide an Archimedean standpoint from which to judge all statements, beliefs and truth-claims. With ‘reason’ and ‘truth’ swept aside, the way was open to open-mindedly examine standpoints and explanations that were outlandishly different from their European counterparts. Thus, his virulent scepticism about science and logic made it possible for western thinkers to – at least temporarily – abandon their usual standpoints and to entertain others.

 

Nietzsche’s attack on reason and knowledge is plainly evident when he writes, “Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live. The value of life is ultimately decisive.”[51] Here we observe that Nietzsche himself has a standpoint – life and the enhancement of life – from which he critiques knowledge and reason so vigorously that he slides over into radical scepticism.  For example, what is essential about truth is not that it is true but that it serves life: “[t]he criterion of truth resides in the enhancement of the feeling of power.”[52] (Later, with Rorty, ‘truth’ would be that which serves “solidarity.”) Truth is not what is actually the case but what meets our needs in the struggles of life – a view of truth that also exemplifies subjectivism and which allows there to be as many truths as there are individuals with needs. Elsewhere he says that truth is “Inertia; that hypothesis which gives rise to contentment; smallest expenditure of spiritual force.”[53] In a similar vein, he writes, “The biggest fable of all is the fable of knowledge,”[54] thereby expressing his doubts about the existence of knowledge, something he had already done in The Birth of Tragedy by calling science a myth.

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.[55]

Nietzsche’s radical attack also includes the idea that truth is made, not discovered, that the “will to truth”[56] and the “will to power”[57] are one and the same.

 
Will to truth is a making firm, a making true and durable, an abolition of the false character of things, a reinterpretation of it into beings. “Truth” is therefore not something there, that might be found or discovered – but something that must be created and that gives a name to a process, or rather to a will to overcome that has in itself no end – introducing truth as a processus in infinitum, and active determining –not a becoming conscious of something that is itself firm and determined. It is a word for the “will to power”. [58]

 

It is fairly obvious that when truth is reduced to power, then, in effect, we no longer have a belief in truth at all, especially since every individual and/or culture makes his own truth. According to Nietzsche,  “There exists neither "spirit," nor reason, nor thinking, nor consciousness, nor soul, nor will, nor truth: all are fictions that are of no use.”[59] Whether his position is best characterised as relativism – he still adopts the viewpoint of ‘life’ enhancement  as decisive – or scepticism is a matter for further debate.

 

Nietzsche also influenced the development of modern relativism through his doctrine of perspectivism, i.e. all truth-claims depend on a particular perspective or standpoint. There is no neutral, ‘Archimedean point’ from which reality can be ‘objectively observed.’ The unbiased, objective quest for truth as such is a willow-the-wisp; every claim to know truth is an expression of personal interest, of the will-to-power. According to Nietzsche, “facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact "in itself": perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing.”[60] Nietzsche accepted the consequence that if interpretations are all we have, then we are unable to determine which view is true or better in any way:

 

The world with which you are concerned is false, i.e. it is not a fact but a fable and `approximation on the basis of a meagre sum of observations.; it is “in flux,” as something in a state of becoming, as a falsehood always changing but never getting near the truth: for – there is no “truth.”[61]

 The ‘truth-game’ is not worth the candle.

 

4.4. Jean-Francois Lyotard

 

 Jean-Francois Lyotard (1924 – 1998), one of the premier philosophers of the postmodern movement, is best known for his book The Postmodern Condition which not only brought the term ‘postmodern’ into common usage but also explicitly established postmodernism as a relativist philosophy. This book provides on of the most frequently quoted definitions of postmodernism: “I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”[62] By “metanarratives,” (also called “grand narrative[s]”[63]), Lyotard means those ‘stories’ or intellectual frameworks by which we interpret the world and our activities and thereby provide meaning for the whole and give certain data the status of being facts, truths  or real knowledge. For example, Marxism supplied revolutionaries around the world with a metanarrative encompassing the behavior of matter i.e. dialectical materialism, as well as the nature, direction and future outcome of human history, i.e. historical materialism. The Enlightenment metanarrative concerned the gradual triumph of reason over irrationality and the progress of humankind not only in scientific knowledge but also in the progress towards rational freedom and a tolerant society. The Bahá’í metanarrative is “progressive revelation” according to which God sends successive Manifestations to guide humankind through its evolutionary development.

 

All of these metanarratives offer a complete or total vision by which all possible human action as well as other metanarratives may be interpreted and/or judged and for this reason Lyotard describes them as a “project of totalization.”[64] The connotation of ‘totalitarian’ is fully intended by Lyotard who even describes metanarratives as “terrorist”[65] because they can be used to “eliminate[] or threaten[] to eliminate, a player [point of view, culture] from the language game one shares with them.”[66] In the terms provided by Harre and Krausz, metanarratives are universalist, i.e. applying to all peoples at all times and places, they are objective and foundational.

 

One of the tasks of a metanarrative is the “legitimation of knowledge,”[67] which is to say that the metanarrative provides the foundational principles by which to distinguish ‘real knowledge’ or objective knowledge from error, folklore, myth or the babblings of the insane. Thus, the metanarrative becomes the gatekeeper of knowledge – and, by extension, the guardian of crucial binary oppositions necessary for a system of thought or social system to maintain itself. Examples of such binary oppositions are order/disorder; sane/insane; noumenal/phenomenal; true/untrue; primitive/civilized competent/incompetent; knowledge/superstition, and rational/irrational. By means of these oppositions, metanarratives take on a prescriptive function not only for individuals but for entire societies who must conduct themselves personally and/or collectively to its standards which are enforced not just by institutions but by all those who accept the metanarrative. Lyotard (like Foucault) of course believes this prescriptive function imprisons us and the “incredulity toward metanarratives”[68] is a means of freeing ourselves from their rule. For Lyotard, this means freeing ourselves from modernity which “is identified with modern reason, Enlightenment, totalizing thought and philosophies of history.”[69] Lyotard “rejects notions of universalist and foundational theory as well as claims that one method or set of concepts has privileged status.”[70] He also rejects the notion that one metanarrative is more objectively true than the rest.

 

Metanarratives can only be evaluated on their own terms and within the context they provide; we must not import concepts or procedures from other metanarratives to appraise other metanarratives. Like Kuhn’s paradigms, metanarratives are incommensurable, each one being a universe to itself, and therefore, each one can be assessed only in relationship to itself. There is no objective, universally valid and necessary or foundational Archimedean point from which to judge.

 

4.5. Jacques Derrida

 Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) is the originator of deconstructionism, perhaps the most influential version of postmodernist philosophy developed so far. According to Jonathan Culler, one of deconstruction’s foremost expositors:

 To deconstruct a discourse [text] is to show how it undermines the philosophy it asserts, or the hierarchical oppositions on which it relies by identifying in the text the rhetorical operations that produce the supposed ground of argument, the key concept or premise.[71]


 It is important to note that this subversion occurs from within. As Derrida says:

 The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective nor can they take accurate aim except by inhabiting those structures . . . Operating necessarily from the inside, borrowing all the strategic and economic resources of subversion from the old structure . . . [72]

 

The text subverts or works against itself through its choice of words and phrases, the ambiguity of some words and phrases, rhetorical devices and/or imagery. Perhaps the best known example of this procedure is “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in which Derrida explores Plato’s “”Phaedrus”:

 
The word pharmakon [remedy] is caught in a chain of significations. The play of that chain seems systematic. But the system here is not, simply, that of the intentions of an author who goes by the name of Plato.[73]

 
However, as Derrida points out, pharmakon means not only ‘remedy’ but also ‘poison’ not to mention ‘spell’  or ‘drug’ (as in hallucinogen) and this “chain of significations” serves to destabilise any simplistic, final or so-called objective interpretation of the text. Writing, which Thoth had introduced as a remedy for humankind’s poor memory, is also a ‘poison’ that weakens memory, and may cast a ‘spell’ over us by making us think we have understood an idea when we have not.

 
 If the pharmakon is “ambivalent,” it is because it constitutes the medium in which opposites are opposed, the movement and the play that links them among themselves, reverses them or makes one side cross over into the other (body/soul, good/evil, inside/outside, memory/forgetfulness, speech/writing, etc). . . The pharmakon is the movement, the locus and the play: (the production of) difference.[74]

 

Each reading of ‘pharmacy’ evokes another, often contrary meaning; we recognize the difference (observe the spelling) between ‘remedy’ and ‘poison’ and in choosing one even if only for a moment, we ‘defer’ the other meanings which, despite being deferred, help complete our understanding of the text. These other meanings are referred to as ‘supplements,’[75] This process of recognizing difference and deferring Derrida calls differance’ and in his view every text is an endless play of ‘differance’as we defer, or momentarily push into the background, the meanings of various words. Each of these deferred meanings helps complete the full meaning of a word and for that reason, “The play of the supplement is indefinite.”[76]  Derrida makes the same point by stating that “writing structurally carries within itself (counts-discounts) the process of its own erasure and annulation. . .”[77] By “erasure” Derrida does not mean that one meaning of a word is absolutely excluded but rather that we read a word with awareness of all its other potential meanings instead of privileging one, usually conventional, meaning over all the others. We read the word with all of its meanings, aware of the ambiguity this causes in our understanding of the text itself.

 

It takes only minimal reflection to see how Derrida’s deconstructionism supports relativism. If, as Derrida asserts the play of differance (note spelling) and supplement is “indefinite,” then it follows logically the no interpretation can be foundational – since opposite readings are possible as we have already seen in “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Furthermore, no interpretation can be objective since there is no standpoint from which we can see the text ‘as it really is.’ Of course, no interpretation can be universal simply because any claims to universality are challenged by the existence of other, possibly contradictory interpretations. Finally, interpretations can only change – there is no progress from one to the next.

 

Derrida’s deconstruction provides relativism with a particularly potent method of attack – each interpretation is shown to fail on its own terms, shown to undermine itself and lead to its opposite. This (apparently) undercuts any attempt to assert the existence of an absolute, i.e. of a proposition claiming objectivity, universality and foundationalism. With this method (it is a method Derrida’s objections notwithstanding) relativism can go on the offensive against all absolutist claims.

 

4.6. Michel Foucault  (1926 – 1984) 

Like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault has been enormously influential in fields outside of his specialities of philosophy and social history. His writings cover such diverse topics as the social construction of madness[78] and sexuality[79], methods in historiography[80],  penology[81], the nature of power and discourse. He has had an incalculable effect on cultural studies, political theory, feminism and sociology.[82]  While there may be some debate about whether or not Foucault is really postmodernist,[83] there is no debate about his standing as a thorough-going relativist.

 

Like Lyotard, Foucault rejects the concept of “grand narratives”, i.e. he does not believe that any global metanarrative can explain all aspects of a civilization. He writes,


the theme and possibility of a total history begins to disappear  . . . The project of a total history is one that seeks to reconstitute the overall form of a civilization, the principle – material or spiritual – of a society, the significance common to all the phenomena of a period, the law that accounts for their cohesion . . .[84]

 

Rather, he proposes what he calls “the new history”[85] which pays more attention to “discontinuity”[86], to the “series, divisions, limits, differences of level, shifts, chronological specificities, particular forms of rehandling, possible types of relation.”[87] Just as Derrida proclaims the necessity of subverting any authoritative reading of a text, Foucault believes that “the tranquility with which they [the usual historical narratives driven by grand themes] are received must be disturbed”[88] by renounc[ing] all those themes whose function is to ensure infinite continuity of discourse.”[89] Historical discourse must be broken up into what Lyotard calls “little narratives” or petits recits because only when the glossed over differences become apparent will new fields of research be visible and available for investigation. We will become aware of discrepancies and differences that have been covered up by large sweeping unifying concepts and no longer lose sight of subtle but important shifts in meaning and usage. Each concept, person and event must be understood in terms of its exact specificity in time, place and culture. There are no bridges between epistemes.[90]

 

Thus, Foucault’s historiography not only stresses breaks and discontinuities rather than grand similarities, changes in ideas and practices rather than extended homogeneities, but also what he calls the “episteme” which is the ‘soil’ from which ‘vegetation’ of ideas, behaviors, experiences, customs and beliefs grows; it makes all these things possible and, at the same time, establishes their character and limitations. Epistemes are “the fundamental codes of a culture.”[91] According to Foucault, an episteme:

 in a given period delimits in the totality of the experience a field of knowledge, defines the mode of being of the objects that appear in the field, provides man’s everyday perception with theoretical powers, and defines the conditions in which he can sustain a discourse about things that is recognised to be true.[92]

           

Thus, an episteme determines truth, meaning, identity, value and reality at a specific time and place. People need not even be consciously aware of the episteme or its power in their lives though it creates the environment or context in which individuals think and speak; it controls what can be said and understood as meaningful. Great social, cultural and intellectual changes are the result of changes in the underlying episteme.  Archaeologies study these epistemes strictly for themselves without drawing any universal conclusions about ‘humankind’ or other epistemes.

 

For our  purposes, it is clear that Foucault’s theory of epistemes disallows an universalist claims, any foundational claims and any objectivity claims by any episteme.  All episteme’s are just interpretations with none possessing primacy in any way. This includes
the episteme of western science and particularly, that of medicine. Because episteme’s are incommensurable (like Kuhn’s paradigms) there is no progress from one to the other but only change.

 

5. Richard Rorty (1931 – 2007)


Richard Rorty is one of the most influential philosophers in contemporary North America, Though relativism is a label he strenuously rejects, as we shall see, his denials are not very convincing. He attempts to distinguish his views from relativism by saying , “[T]here is a difference between saying that every community is as good as every other and saying that we have to work out from the networks we are, from the communities with which we presently identify.”[93]  After admitting that relativism is logically self-refuting, he clearly identifies his own position with the latter, supposedly non-relativistic view.  To prove that he does not think all views are equally good, he asserts that a pragmatist like himself “thinks his views are better than the ‘realists,’ but he does not think his views correspond to the nature of things.”[94] Basically, he thinks his views are better because he is a “liberal” and, therefore, “more afraid of being cruel than anything else.”[95]

 

Rorty’s denials notwithstanding, it is difficult to take his claim that he is not a relativist at face value. Given his belief that statements cannot correspond to reality (and, therefore cannot be tested by reality), that rationality is simply a local cultural bias without general validity and that truth itself is a chimera, on what ground other than sheer dogmatic assertion can he claim that his philosophy is better? (Unless of course he relies on revelation which he does not.) He is also prepared to give up the quest for truth: “A scientist would rely on a sense of solidarity with the rest of her profession, rather than picture herself as battling through the veils of illusion, guided by the light of reason.”[96] If language games are incommensurable, if there is no rational or empirical way of ‘proving’ one view or another, then the alleged superiority of one view comes down to a dogmatic assertion of preference, i.e. of Nietzsche’s will-to-power. He wants to replace the whole idea of truth “with the desire for solidarity with that community”[97] In other words, he has replaced the quest for knowledge and truth with the ‘politics of knowledge’, i.e. the quest for consensus and solidarity. Most tellingly however, Rorty is unable to justify his beliefs in these reformed goals with anything more than a plea for us to recognise that his is a nicer way than its the supposed alternatives. In the last analysis Rorty’s liberalism has nothing more than his preference to recommend it. Ironically, it is precisely such dogmatic assertion that his much recommended “edifying conversation” is supposed to replace. Judged by his own standards, Rorty’s views exemplify a thorough-going, i.e. radical relativism both in epistemology and ethics.

 

6. General Problems With Relativism

Before specifically examining relativism in regards to the Bahá’í Writings, we shall examine six serious philosophical problems with relativism.


The first of these problems is that if relativism is true, then it is impossible for anyone or any society/culture to be in error. Plato already pointed this out in the Theaetatus. Even if we show that a view lacks self-consistency, a relativist might claim it is simply our view that consistency is a not requirement for viable positions. The problem with this necessary conclusion of relativism is that it is so contrary to our experience: we humans make all kinds of small and momentous mistakes on an on-going basis, and these mistakes indicate that at least for some things, there is a right and a wrong way, or more or less effective or efficient way. Moreover, some contentions are simply untrue: Franklin Roosevelt was not the dictator of the Soviet Union during the Great Terror of the 1930’s[98]. As a former teacher, I can’t help wondering what would happen to education if this idea was applied in education. What would it mean to mark a test?  


The second problem is that relativism is self-undermining and self-refutation. The statement “all truth is relative” is either absolutely true or it is relatively true. If the first, then it refutes itself because it is an example of an absolute truth. If it is relatively true, it undermines itself – because that opens the possibility that at least some truths might be absolute. The same type of problems faces the proposition that we cannot know anything for sure, i.e. there can be no certain knowledge. If we can know that proposition for sure, then it refutes itself, and if we can’t, then it is possible that we can know something for sure after all. The same problem bedevils the claim that there are no absolute truths. If this claim is meant absolutely it refutes itself, and if it is not meant absolutely, then at least some claims may be absolutely true. The same problem undermines the claim that there is no Archimedean standpoint. How could one prove this except by implicitly appealing to Archimedean point above and beyond our perceptions? In short, relativism is a dogmatic assertion, not a provable contention. 

 
The theories of Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard illustrate the self-undermining and self-refuting problems of relativism. According to Derrida, no interpretation of data can be “privileged” over any other – yet this interpretation of the data about literature, history and the like is itself an interpretation subject to further deconstruction to show the opposite, i.e. that some interpretations are “privileged.” Furthermore, this interpretation “privileges” itself by claiming universal validity for all possible interpretations. Similarly, Foucault declares that epistemes are incommensurable, i.e. that there is no neutral or objective Archimedean point from which we can judge between conflicting epistemes (or Kuhn’s paradigms). However, that judgment itself is only possible if we implicitly assume that we have a neutral standpoint that allows us to judge all other standpoints. In other words, Foucault “privileges” itself. Lyotard of course, has the same problem. The declaration that there can be no “grand narratives” drawing universal conclusions about history is a universal statement about history, and thus refutes itself. These serious problems in the arguments of major philosophers, make it clear that it is impossible to develop a version of relativism that does not undermine and refute itself. Without that there is no reason – other than dogmatic assertion – to be convinced by it.

 

 The third problem also concerns the declaration there are different truths: what’s true for you is not true for me. In other words, there are no universal, foundational and objective truths. This may be true for some truth-claims but can this really be applied for all truth-claims? To do so would be highly counter-intuitive. How can there be a valid contradiction to ‘The sun appeared to rise in the east this morning’ or ‘Elephants are not rose bushes’? At a deeper philosophical level, can any human being even imagine a context in which things do not exist? Even if the whole world is an illusion, then things exist, albeit not in the usual way, but as illusions. This, of course, was Augustine’s[99]  and Descartes’[100] great philosophical discovery: the illusory manner of existence of things cannot undo the fact that they do, in fact, exist. Nothing that we can think of can be denied ‘being.’ In other words, the concept of ‘being’ can provide an objective, universal, foundational which is to say, Archimedean standpoint on which to begin our thinking. Most important for our purposes is the fact that `Abdu'l-Bahá agrees with this position:

This theory [ that the external world is an illusion, is nothingness] is erroneous; for though the existence of beings in relation to the existence of God is an illusion, nevertheless, in the condition of being it has a real and certain existence. It is futile to deny this.[101]

 

In other words, even illusions exist – as illusions but that is enough to give “a real and certain existence.” At first, this may not sound promising, but anyone familiar with the works of Thomas Aquinas and his successors in modern neo-Thomism will know how much can be built on this.[102]

 

 The fourth problem with relativism is existential and ethical, not logical. It is difficult to accept the suggestion that the self-sacrifice of a Mother Theresa and the actions of a Dr. Mengele[103] are morally equal and that our condemnation of one and admiration for the other are simply expressions of personal taste and preference. Who, other than a psychopath or a “wrangler,” a person who argues for argument’s sake, would contend that the actions of these two are morally on par? Intellectually it may be possible to do so, but who, except a psychiatrically disturbed person would aspire to actually follow in Mengele’s footsteps – or want a child to do so? Applied to law, the impracticality of relativism is just as glaring. Imagine a lawyer defending a serial killer on the ground that his client’s view that murder is a fine hobby is just as valid as society’s view that it is a heinous crime! Such a defence would rightly be laughed out of court. In other words, relativism has a fatal existential weakness: we can talk the talk but don’t want anyone to walk the walk.

 

 The fifth problem of relativism concerns its implicit anthropology, viz., its denial of a universal, objective and foundational human nature. If there is no human nature and humankind is infinitely malleable by environmental and social forces, then there can be no truth about human beings as such and therefore, no basis for a universal human moral code or a universal code of law such as the declaration of human rights, or a world-unifying religion or any basis for the unification of humankind. There is diversity but no unity. Such a view, promulgated by Boas, Benedict and Mead to name only the best known, suffers from two weaknesses. First, the human body, although subject to some minor variations is universally alike, and this includes brain functions. The body and the brain thus represents an objective, measurable substratum which constrains, shapes, and directs human responses to environmental and social influences. In short, human physiological functions – including brain functions – are universal. This is the physical basis for the unity of humankind. Second, contemporary anthropological studies such as Donald E Brown’s Human Universals (as well as various successors) show that there exist well over one hundred[104] universal human traits  such as facial expressions for happiness, fear , disgust and anger (basic emotions); anthropomorphization; use of metaphors and metonymies; systems of taxonomy; systems of counting; rituals and the self distinguished from others. In other words, there is a basic human nature which pre-disposes human beings to deal with the world and ourselves in similar ways. In the specific field of aesthetics, Denis Dutton and others have presented strong evidence for universal traits in aesthetic preferences.[105] The relativist claim is not as self-evident or as unchallengeable as it appears at first glance.

 

 The sixth problem is that relativism is powerless to solve the problem of conflicting religious diversity because relativism has no answer to the conflicts among religions except to let them continue since all viewpoints are true from their own standpoint. There is no possible way to resolve their differences on the basis of relativist philosophy because a relativist philosophy encourages the perpetuation of these differences and sees no need to bring them together. It is a one-sided emphasis on ‘diversity’ with a corresponding neglect of ‘unity.’ There is no need to bring them into harmony because conflicting differences are not seen as problematical in the first place. Why should they be seen as difficulties if everyone is right? And on what basis could we unify them? After all, choosing any such basis, would, in effect, be choosing an Archimedean standpoint from which to evaluate other beliefs – and that leads to all sorts of difficulties relativism seeks to avoid.

 

The problem with relativism’s tolerance of all truth-claims as equally valid is that some truth-claims are so virulently incompatible – a rigorous materialism and theism for example – that a difference in viewpoint seems inadequate to explain and resolve the conflict. It is difficult to imagine that there is a little patch of reality in which God plays no part from any standpoint whatever, and another part of the universe where God is omnipresent. Sooner or later, the friction between these viewpoints will force us to analyse them in regards to rational/logical and experiential adequacy in order to resolve the conflict.  The same holds true with the various conflicting subjectivist claims: ‘true for me’ and ‘true for you’ seems an inadequate response to views about female circumcision for small girls or the willingness to accept poverty and destitution on a large scale. However, it is not difficult to see how relativism can easily merge into a subjectivist attitude.

 

7. Shoghi Effendi’s Statements on Relativism

 

Superficially at least, some statements by Shoghi Effendi appear to support the view that the Bahá’í Writings advocate relativism. It is our contention that such is not actually the case. Here is one of the Guardian’s key statements:

“The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá'u'lláh ... is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society....”[106]

 

The statement that “religious truth is not absolute but relative” cannot have its seemingly obvious meaning since that would deny the statements that immediately follow about revelation being a “continuous and progressive process,” that “all the great religions are divine in origin,” that  “they differ only in nonessential aspects of their doctrines” and so on. These claims – which are integral to the identity or essence of the Bahá’í revelation – are obviously intended as absolute truths which are foundational to the Bahá’í Faith, universal in scope and objectively true. They are not relative statements in the sense that their opposites are equally true or valid. In the philosophy embedded in the Bahá’í Writings, deconstructing these statements will not bring us to equally valid counter-truths; the denial of these claims is simply false. There is no way a Bahá’í can reject any of them and/or accept their opposites and remain consistent with Bahá’í teachings. Of course, Bahá’ís accept the fact that non-Bahá’ís may reject some or all of these claims, but this is regarded as error,  rooted in the failure to take the next step in humankind’s religious evolution.

 

As we have seen earlier, one of the consequences of relativism is that error is impossible since it is “[107] the standpoint of the judging subject” who decides what is or is not true. However, the Writings clearly indicate that just  because we are all divine creations of God does not mean that all our opinions and views are correct. As `Abdu'l-Bahá’s says: 

The divine Manifestations have been iconoclastic in Their teachings, uprooting error, destroying false religious beliefs and summoning mankind anew to the fundamental oneness of God.[108]


The fact that Manifestations have been “iconoclastic” means that They have evaluated various truth claims, found them wanting and swept them aside as erroneous. He also says:

 

‘And shouldst destroy them which destroy the earth’ means that He will entirely deprive the neglectful; for the blindness of the blind will be manifest, and the vision of the seers will be evident; the ignorance and want of knowledge of the people of error will be recognized, and the knowledge and wisdom of the people under guidance will be apparent . . .[109]

 

There is no suggestion in this passage that somehow the blind are correct, although they themselves might subjectively think so. However, objectively, from the Archimedean standpoint of God’s Manifestation, the “infallible Physician”[110], they are incorrect and ignorant. Unlike relativism, the Writings do not conflate and confuse subjective and objective truth claims. To emphasise this, we might examine the following words from  Bahá'u'lláh:

"Twelve hundred and eighty years have passed since the dawn of the Muhammadan Dispensation, and with every break of day, these blind and ignoble people have recited their Qur'an, and yet have failed to grasp one letter of that Book! Again and again they read those verses which clearly testify to the reality of these holy themes, and bear witness to the truth of the Manifestations of eternal Glory, and still apprehend not their purpose. They have even failed to realize, all this time, that, in every age, the reading of the scriptures and holy books is for no other purpose except to enable the reader to apprehend their meaning and unravel their innermost mysteries. Otherwise reading, without understanding, is of no abiding profit unto man.[111]

 

For his part, Shoghi Effendi writes:

He [Bahá'u'lláh] insists on the unqualified recognition of the unity of their purpose, restates the eternal verities they enshrine, coordinates their functions, distinguishes the essential and the authentic from the nonessential and spurious in their teachings, separates the God-given truths from the priest-prompted superstitions[112]

 

It is quite possible for God’s children to be blind and in error, a fact which clearly indicates that truth is not determined by “the standpoint of the judging subject.”[113] In other words, these statements undermine any assertion that the Writings espouse a simple relativism allowing virtually any viewpoint to claim validity by appealing to its own special standpoint. This allows not only errors to persist by claiming the subjective validity of their standpoint, but also denies the ‘progressive’ aspect of progressive revelation since ‘progress’ means, among other things, the replacement of error by truth, or the replacement of a less adequate view by a more adequate view, the replacement of blindness by sight and ignorance by knowledge.[114] It is precisely in order to effect these replacements that each new Manifestation arrives with His own solutions.[115]

 

 It almost goes without saying that any simplistic reading of “religious truth is not absolute but relative” falls into the trap of self-refutation and self-undermining. If this statement of “religious truth” is meant to be taken absolutely, then it obviously refutes itself by violating its own message. If, however, it is meant to be only relatively true, then the door is open to the possibility that at least some religious truth may be absolute, that is, universal, objective and foundational. That, too, would defeat the entire purpose of the statement. Thus, there are good logical reasons for rejecting any simplistic reading of Shoghi Effendi’s declaration.

 

If Shoghi Effendi’s statement about religious truth being relative cannot mean that religious truth is relative in the sense of all possible viewpoints on an issue being equally valid, what does it mean? If we read the Guardian’s entire statement, we find that it discusses progressive revelation, the historical changes of presentation undergone by their essentially unified principles. In other words, what changes are the surface, historical, “the nonessential and spurious”[116]  aspects of the divine teachings but the essential teachings, the “eternal verities,”[117] the “God-given truths”[118] remain the same. In other words, what changes and is relative is the adapted, phenomenal form of religions but not the “eternal verities they enshrine,”[119] which are true for all time i.e., under all conditions past and future and for all humans, or, in philosophical terms, they are universal, objective and foundational.

 

 From this we conclude that relativism does not apply to the “eternal verities” (universal, objective and foundational)  but only to the way they may be expressed outwardly, or historically. Because they are “eternal,” they are absolute, i.e. true at all times and in all circumstances, which is to say, true independently of the standpoints, beliefs, hopes and fears of any individuals or collectives. (Though they are objectively true, i.e. true independent of all standpoints, this does not prevent some from denying them for subjective reasons.)  The historical or, as we may call it, outer, worldly, existential expression of the infinite potentials inherent in the “eternal verities” is what varies, and not the essential teachings or the “eternal verities” themselves. These remain constant and actualise their implications for humankind through our evolution.  It is obvious, of course, that the Bahá’í  model of absolute,  essential and constant truths given various existential expressions throughout human history cannot be accommodated by a concept of relativism according to which no perspective is essential or foundational, no concept is universal or applicable to all peoples at all times and no concept is objective, or true for all standpoints. Moreover, in violation of relativism, the Bahá’í Faith “distinguishes the essential and the authentic from the nonessential and spurious in their teachings, separates the God-given truths from the priest-prompted superstitions.”[120] Making these distinctions assumes that there is an Archimedean standpoint from which such judgments can be made – a  notion flatly denied by relativism.

 

 Although the Bahá’í position is not relativist but absolutist on some issues –  for example, Bahá'u'lláh  is  the Manifestation for this age – it rejects as contrary to the doctrine of progressive revelation the absolutist suggestion that religious truth is revealed once and for all in full by any Manifestation. In regards to epistemology, the Bahá’í position may be described as ‘evolutionary Platonic perspectivism.’ The reason for calling it ‘Platonic’ is because there are “eternal verities” which obviously do not change and are true from all possible standpoints. Because they are eternal and unchanging,  universal, objective and foundational, they resemble the Platonic ideas.  This is the “changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.”[121] Of course, it is evident that we do, in fact, have some knowledge of these “eternal verities” or other absolute truths but what and how much we know depends on our perspective or standpoint in history,  on our spiritual, social, cultural development and what we learn from the Manifestations throughout human evolution. Thus, throughout history, we attain partial glimpses of the essential truths, the “eternal verities” as their various previously hidden potentials become known to us. That is why this position is described as evolutionary and perspectivist.  

 

It is also important that we not confuse and conflate ‘partial’ knowledge with ‘incorrect’ knowledge. If we only know plane geometry, our knowledge of geometry is partial, but what we know about it is certainly correct: the interior angles of any plane triangle have always added up to 180 degrees and we have no reason to expect a change; Roosevelt was not the Soviet dictator during the Great Terror. In a more directly Bahá’í context, we know that Bahá'u'lláh is the Manifestation for this age, but we have not by any means discovered all the implications of that fact. Moreover, because the Bahá’í Faith has privileged, divinely appointed interpreters who occupy an Archimedean standpoint, it is possible to know that certain religious and philosophical claims are correct, though not fully understood by us.

 

Moreover, the existence of privileged interpreters also allows us to rule out particular perspectives and claims as untenable. For example, `Abdu'l-Bahá makes it clear that a materialist approach to science and reality is inadequate[122] and that pantheism[123] and reincarnation[124] are untrue beliefs. This limits and constrains how Baháís may understand the Writings, i.e. these perspectives are ruled out of bounds. On the positive side, “although human souls are phenomenal, they are nevertheless immortal, everlasting and perpetual.”[125] This truth, however partial or perspectival our understanding of it may be, is nonetheless true universally i.e. from all perspectives, foundationally and objectively. A contrary perspective is simply an error, both in the factual sense and existentially insofar as it contributes to human “degradation.”[126]

 

8. Relativism versus Relationalism

Whereas in regards to epistemology, the Bahá’í position may be described as ‘evolutionary Platonic perspectivism,’ in regards to ontology, i.e. the theory of reality, it is best described as ‘relationalism.’ Relationalism is based on the belief that all things exist in relationship to one another:

 For all beings are connected together like a chain; and reciprocal help, assistance and nteraction belonging to the properties of things are the causes of the existence, development and growth of created beings.[128]

 

Speaking specifically of humankind, the Master says, the existence and perfection of humankind is due to the composition of the elements, to their measure, to their balance, to the mode of their combination, and to mutual influence. When all these are gathered together, then man exists.[129]

 

In other words, things exist relationally to each other, but this must not be confused with ontological relativism according to which: 

what exists for human beings is relative to the concepts they possess and the procedures of enquiry with which their culture equips them  . . . Ontological relativists are not saying that it is just what people believe exists [that would bring us back to epistemological relativism] that varies from culture to culture, but something much stronger, that what exists can only be said to exist for this or that culture.[130]

 

The logical consequence of this immediately makes its untenability clear: what we don’t know doesn’t exist – and, therefore, according to this view, shouldn’t be able to hurt us. But we know this is false. The world’s Aboriginal Peoples, for example, who knew neither gunpowder nor measles and had no concept of either, were very seriously hurt by both. Here we have historical proof that neither individual or collective human perception constitutes reality, that regardless of how we may constitute reality, factors not included in our construction may well be at work and able to affect us whether we recognise them or not.

 

Let us examine relationalism more closely. Unlike any form of relativism, it does not mean that there are standpoints from which real relationships can be validly denied and said not to exist. Doing that would make the nature of reality itself dependent on the perceiver – which is a form of ontological relativism. For relationalism, relationships are real whether or not they are perceived by anyone; for example, the relationship between fire and gunpowder has always been such that one should be extremely careful introducing them to each other. In other words, relationalism is a form of ontological realism, i.e. the belief that reality  and relationships are independent of our ontological conceptions and schemes. Relationalism recognises that because things exist in relationship to one another, they may exhibit different characteristics in regards to different things. Indeed, they can even display opposite attributes with different thing.  Sea water, for example, allows ocean plants to thrive whereas it kills land plants. Exercise that may be valuable stimulation for one person’s heart may kill another person. However, it is important to realise that relationalism still allows us to say that certain statements are absolutely true, e.g. that sea water is deadly for daisies, that there is no viewpoint from which this is not true. We may not completely understand all the details about why this is true, but the assertion of the opposite is simply false. Thus, relationalism is able to retain the concept of truth and of distinguishing among a bewildering plethora of images/perspectives. It is able to accommodate the idea that at least some statements are universal, objective and foundational, and that others are in error.

Thus, it is plain that relationalism and relativism are not the same and must not be confused and conflated. The Bahá’í Writings are relationalist and not relativist.
          

Let us observe ontological relationalism in the following statement by `Abdu'l-Bahá:

This dust beneath our feet, as compared with our being, is nonexistent. When the human body crumbles into dust, we can say it has become nonexistent; therefore, its dust in relation to living forms living forms of human being is as nonexistent, but in its own sphere it is existent, it has its mineral being. Therefore, it is well proved that absolute nonexistence is impossible; it is only relative.[131]

 

The statement says that in its relationship to human being, dust is non-existent although, “in its own sphere”, in relationship to itself, dust exists. It is important to notice that it is not merely a matter of opinion whether or not dust is dead in relationship to or relative to the human being – this is presented as an ontological fact. There is no cognitive relativism about this; no matter what standpoint we choose to observe this fact, it will be the same, i.e. it is universal, objective and foundational. From this example, `Abdu'l-Bahá’ draws a general ontological conclusion: “absolute non-existence” does not exist, “it [non-existence] is “only relative.” Here, too, we have a universal claim that is not standpoint dependent but is offered as a principle of universal ontology. That our understanding of this principle will grow and expand throughout our evolutionary history is not in question, but the basic insight reflects an abiding truth on which we have one true perspective. This brings us back to the ‘evolutionary Platonic perspectivism’ where we may get various successive perspectives on the “eternal verities” or unchallengeably true propositions, as, for example that “nonexistence is only relative and absolute nonexistence inconceivable.”[132] Nonexistence is always non-existence in relationship to something and existence is always existence in relationship to something.

 

 What follows is another statement which illustrates the difference between relationalism and relativism:

 

Therefore, though the world of contingency exists, in relation to the existence of God it is nonexistent and nothingness. Man and dust both exist, but how great the difference between the existence of the mineral and that of man! The one in relation to the other is nonexistence. In the same way, the existence of creation in relation to the existence of God is nonexistence. Thus it is evident and clear that although the beings exist, in relation to God and to the Word of God they are nonexistent.[133]

 

Again we observe that in these statements the attributes of existence and nonexistence are not simply matters of opinion or viewpoint in the relativistic sense of our being able to hold the opposite view with equal validity. There is, for example, no standpoint from which creation is not contingent and dependent upon God, nor is there a standpoint from which God Himself depends on creation. (This should not be confused with the claim that humans may devise various concepts of God; the concepts, but not God Himself are dependent on man.)  This is true even of the “First Mind” or “First Will”[134]: “for the existence of the universal reality in relation to the existence of God is nothingness.”[135] This ontological principle also applies at the most humble level “the life of the nail in relation to the life of the eye is nonexistent.”[136] The failure to adequately consider the relational nature of existence causes some thinkers to conclude that the world is an illusion.

 

This theory [that the external world is an illusion, is nothingness] is erroneous; for though the existence of beings in relation to the existence of God is an illusion, nevertheless, in the condition of being it has a real and certain existence. It is futile to deny this.[137]

 

Aside from the characterization of a particular view as “erroneous” – which implicitly denies epistemological relativism – this passage shows that things are involved in two kinds of relationship, a relationship to others or not-self (in this example, God) and a relationship to itself, its own “condition of being.” All things thus have a double nature; more importantly they can have apparently opposite attributes in different relationships. Furthermore, each of these particular relationships is absolutely true. In respect to God, the world does not exist – and there is no alternative standpoint from which to validly assert the opposite. In regards to itself, the world exists – and as Augustine and Descartes know, there is no logically defensible standpoint from which to assert the opposite. `Abdu'l-Bahá’s statement that it is “futile” to deny what he says demonstrates the universal, objective and foundational nature of his claim, and thereby illustrates a vital difference between relationalism and relativism.

 

Relationalism can also be applied to the human soul after death.:


In the same way, the souls who are veiled from God, although they exist in this world and in the world after death, are, in comparison with the holy existence of the children of the Kingdom of God, nonexisting and separated from God.[138]

 

Here, too, we observe the double-relation: in regards to themselves as well as the world and “the world after death”, these veiled souls exist, but in regards to the “children of the Kingdom”, they are nonexistent. Each statement is true, and not subject to equally valid contradiction as it would be with relativism; together these relations constitute the being of those particular souls. There is no standpoint from which a soul could be “separated from God” and still exist “in comparison with the holy existence of the children of the Kingdom of God.”[139] since that would assert the independence of the created from the Creator. Nor is there any standpoint that could validly assert the nonexistence of a soul “in the world and the world after death” while still existing for God, because that would be to declare the world more powerful than God.

 

Relationalism also applies to ethics according to `Abdu'l-Bahá:

a scorpion is evil in relation to man; a serpent is evil in relation to man; but in relation to themselves they are not evil . . . The epitome of this discourse is that it is possible that one thing in relation to another may be evil, and at the same time within the limits of its proper being it may not be evil. Then it is proved that there is no evil in existence; all that God created He created good. This evil is nothingness; so death is the absence of life.[140]

 

Once again, we note how the relationship to not-self/other is distinguished from relationship to self along with the assertion that nothing is evil “within the limits of its proper being.”[141] This relationship to itself is the ontological foundation for the teaching that God’s creation is good; all things are good in and of themselves. In addition, this passage also reinforces the distinction between relationalism and relativism because there is no standpoint from which we may correctly say that the scorpion is evil in regards to itself because that would be to deny the inherent goodness of God’s creation. In other words, we know this truth from a privileged standpoint from which we may reject the contrary view as false. Here is another example of relationalism applied to morality. `Abdu'l-Bahá says:

The sin in Adam is relative to His position. Although from this attachment there proceed results, nevertheless, attachment to the earthly world, in relation to attachment to the spiritual world, is considered as a sin. The good deeds of the righteous are the sins of the Near Ones.[142]

 

This statement exemplifies relationalism not relativism: it is not a matter of questioning Adam’s sin – which is flatly asserted to be sin and not subject to contrary perspectives  – but it is only a matter of stating that what is factually a sin in relationship to Adam is not necessarily a sin in relationship to other beings. This is consistent with relationalism because, as already explained, an entity may exhibit different qualities in relationship to different things because it interacts differently with each. Thus, what is good in the “righteous” is “sin” for the “Near Ones.” The statement that “The good deeds of the righteous are the sins of the Near Ones” is not dependent on perspective but is offered as a truth that is universal, objective and foundational. There is no perspective that could prove `Abdu'l-Bahá wrong.

 

Another example of relationalism can be found in The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys:

Although a brief example hath been given concerning the beginning and ending of the relative world, the world of attributes, yet a second illustration is now added, that the full meaning may be manifest. For instance, let thine Eminence consider his own self; thou art first in relation to thy son, last in relation to thy father.[143]

 

Here, too, we find no suggestion that the claim “thou art first in relation to they son, last in relation to thy father” is subject to equally valid contradictory claim, which is to say that this statement is universally, objectively and foundationally true. In other words, this statement implicitly assumes there exists a neutral, Archimedean standpoint from which its claim can be made, thereby ruling it out of consideration as an example of relativism.

 

The passage goes on to declare that “first” and “last” as well as “outward appearance” and “inward being” are “four states” that are “true of thyself.” [144] If we allowed a truly relativistic reading instead of a perspectivist reading, the truth of this passage would no longer be universalist, objectivist and foundational – and thus would lose its value as a guide in the quest for religious truth.

 

Continuing this passage, we read:

These statements are made in the sphere of that which is relative, because of the limitations of men. Otherwise, those personages who in a single step have passed over the world of the relative and the limited, and dwelt on the fair plane of the Absolute, and pitched their tent in the worlds of authority and command--have burned away these relativities with a single spark, and blotted out these words with a drop of dew. And they swim in the sea of the spirit, and soar in the holy air of light. Then what life have words, on such a plane, that "first" and "last" or other than these be seen or mentioned! In this realm, the first is the last itself, and the last is but the first.[145]

 

Here Bahá'u'lláh reminds us that we live on a “relative” ontological plane where everything exists in relation to other things and thus suffers the problem of being limited by particular perspectives  i.e. of relating to one thing in one way and to something else in another. However, it is possible to surpass this relational plane – to “burn[] away these relativities” – to transcend the differences of words and attain a plane where first and last are one and the same, where things do not exist relationally as on this earthly plane. What precisely this mode of existence is we are powerless to say because the words have been blotted out “with a drop of dew.” We have reached the limit of rationality. An adherent of philosophical relativism must, of course, claim that this may be true from a particular perspective but that the direct contrary view is equally possible – and there is no Archimedean standpoint from which to judge between the alternatives. The problem is that nothing here suggests this is what Bahá'u'lláh means.

 

9. A Test Case


We will now apply our understanding of relativism and relationalism to a challenging test case. Can relativism be used to reconcile two fundamentally opposite ontological positions, i.e. reconcile an ontological dualism, which claims that there is an absolute and unbridgeable difference between man and God, and ontological monism which claims that there is no such unbridgeable difference? Initially, it seems this proposal is  given a clear negative answer this question in  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s explicit rejection of pantheism in Some Answered Questions wherein he emphases the absolute ontological distinction between God and creation.

 

Briefly, the superior reality does not descend nor abase itself to inferior states; then how could it be that the Universal Reality of God, which is freed from all descriptions and qualifications, notwithstanding Its absolute sanctity and purity, should resolve Itself into the forms of the realities of the creatures, which are the source of imperfections? This is a pure imagination which one cannot conceive.

 

On the contrary, this Holy Essence is the sum of the divine perfections; and all creatures are favored by the bounty of resplendency through emanation, and receive the lights, the perfection and the beauty of Its Kingdom, in the same way that all earthly creatures obtain the bounty of the light of the rays of the sun, but the sun does not descend and does not abase itself to the favored realities of earthly beings.[147]

 

If God and creation are ontologically distinct i.e. incommensurate in their modes of being, then man cannot rise to become divine and God would not “abase” Himself to the condition of His creatures. This precludes both pantheism and monism, since in both these views, the Creator and the created are ontologically one. Since these are the only two available ontological positions – one is either the Creator or the created but not both – there is no conceivable standpoint from which this fundamental distinction can disappear from sight, be alone be invalidated.

 

These logical difficulties have not prevented the argument that relativism can, indeed, reconcile ontological dualism and ontological monism. [148] The strongest case is based on Abdu’l-Bahá’s “Commentary on the Islamic Tradition: ‘I Was a Hidden treasure,’ ” which has been interpreted as resolving the conflict between the views that there is, or is not, a foundational irreconcilable distinction between the human soul and God. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s “Commentary” has been taken as paradigmatic in solving the apparent problem between the teaching of the essential unity of all religions and humankind’s conflicting religious beliefs since it suggests the explaining and resolving religious differences by means of differing viewpoints.

 

This paper contends that the use of relativism as a solution to the monism/dualism conflict in the Writings is a supposed ‘solution’ to a non-existent problem. There is, as we shall see, no monist position in the Writings.

 

After his exposition of both the monist and dualist views, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’ says:

But to this servant all these expositions and questions, stations and states are complete in their own station without defect or flaw. For although the object being viewed is the same, nevertheless the viewpoints and stations of these mystic knowers is different. Each viewpoint, with respect to the person who is in that station is perfect and complete.[149]

 

Analysis shows that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá strictly confines his remarks to the subjective criteria for truth: given their own presuppositions and criteria, the advocates of each viewpoint reason correctly and attain a conclusion that is consistent with their spiritual conditions as “knowers.” In other words, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s argument is subjectively epistemological – concerned with the “knowers” and not with what is objectively known and the quality of their knowledge, with the perceiver and not with the perceived. He is not talking about what actually is the case but rather about what the viewer thinks is the case because of his presuppositions, nature and spiritual condition. Once this distinction is noted, it becomes clear that his judgment about the two viewpoints has no ontological implications at all.[150] In other words, the “Commentary” is concerned with their ‘knowing’ and not their ‘being’ i.e. their mode or state of being or the actual being of the object of perception. What each knower perceives may be an accurate reflection of his station, but this does not mean that what he sees is correct, appropriate or adequate to that which is perceived. These are two different issues.  

           

Consequently, seeing ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words as a relativist reconciliation of ontological monism and dualism is to confuse and conflate an epistemological statement about what a person sees, with an ontological statement about the mode of being of the perceiver and/or the object of perception. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s pronouncement is epistemological in character and, therefore, and, therefore, cannot be read as ontological – yet dualism and monism are ontological doctrines about the mode of being of the perceiver and the perceived. His comments are, at best, rather studiously neutral statements about two kinds of viewers rather than an endorsement of both their opinions.

 

At first glance, the following declaration from The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys also seem to support relativism in the Writings:

It is clear to thine Eminence that all the variations which the wayfarer in the stages of his journey beholdeth in the realms of being, proceed from his own vision. We shall give an example of this, that its meaning may become fully clear: Consider the visible sun; although it shineth with one radiance upon all things, and at the behest of the King of Manifestation bestoweth light on all creation, yet in each place it becometh manifest and sheddeth its bounty according to the potentialities of that place. For instance, in a mirror it reflecteth its own disk and shape, and this is due to the sensitivity of the mirror; in a crystal it maketh fire to appear, and in other things it showeth only the effect of its shining, but not its full disk. And yet, through that effect, by the command of the Creator, it traineth each thing according to the quality of that thing, as thou observest.[151]

 

What is evident in this passage is that while there are many viewpoints or perspectives on the sun, not all of them are equally adequate to the object of perception. Bahá'u'lláh says, “in a mirror it [the sun] reflecteth its own disk and shape, and this is due to the sensitivity of the mirror.” In other words, the mirror reflects the sun more accurately, faithfully, adequately than other things which show “only the effect of its shining, but not its full disk.” Each reflects “according to the quality of that thing” but nowhere is it claimed that the quality is everywhere equal, the same or interchangeable. In other words, epistemologically each viewpoint “proceed[s] from [the seeker’s] own vision”, and in that sense is subjectively true, these viewpoints are not the same or interchangeable objectively speaking, in regards to their adequacy to the object of perception. Indeed, their inequality is emphasised, as is the ontological differences between the mode of being or a mirror and that of a “crystal” and other entities that only reflect “the effect of its [the sun’s] shining.” There is no suggestion here of epistemological equality of vision or of ontological equality of being. Furthermore, in this very passage Bahá'u'lláh suggest an Archimendean standpoint from which to judge the reflections: the more one is sensitive like a mirror, the more closely we will reflect the light, “disk and shape” of the sun. Since not all reflections of the sun are equal  – which rules out relativism – the passage rather supports a perspectival or relationalist reading.

 

In other words, a relativist reading of this passage from The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys suggests the spiritual condition, nature and understanding of the believer are by themselves sufficient to determine the objective correctness or truthfulness of a belief. However, as we have shown with the foregoing passage, the Writings do not espouse such a subjectivist theory of truth.[152] If They did, they would be maintaining that standpoint and spiritual condition is sufficient to establish objective truthfulness – which in turn would prevent Them from dismissing some beliefs as “vain imaginings,”[153] “error,”[154] and “the lowest depths of ignorance and foolishness”[155].

 

There are a number of passages in the Writings which seem susceptible to monist interpretations. If this understanding is sustainable, the strength of the case for relativism would be augmented since relativism would permit a simple resolution with the clearly dualist sections of the Writings. However, our contention is that these allegedly monist passages are not actually monist at all.

           

For example, Bahá’u’lláh’s injunction, “Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee”[156] is not really monist. Because we can find God’s universal presence or light reflected in the mirrors of our hearts[157] does not mean that we have become ontologically one with God’s Being. Of equal importance is the maintenance of the distinction between the perceiver (man) and the perceived (God) – a fact which effectively precludes a monist interpretation because monism forbids any difference between perceiver and what is perceived. Ultimately the two are supposed to be one.  

 

Another passage that seems to support a monist interpretation of the Writings is found in The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys. Some wayfarers behold various colors, but “some have drunk of the wine of oneness and these see nothing but the sun itself.”[158] A careful reading of this passage shows that its concern is epistemological – visionary – and not ontological, it is about perceiving not about the being of that which is perceived. To be ontologically monist, this passage would have to assert that “the place of appearance”[159] and the sun itself are actually one, that the person who gazes is one with what he gazes upon. Moreover, this passage also preserves the distinction between the perceiver and the perceived and, therefore, cannot serve as an example of a monist tendency in the Writings.  Indeed, it is explicitly dualist.   

 

 The following may also be quoted to support a monist tendency in the Writings: “Yea, all he hath, from heart to skin, will be set aflame, so that nothing will remain save the Friend.”[160] The idea of the monist interpretation is that when the individual subject is annihilated, only God, “the Friend” will remain and the two will, in a sense, be one. However, there is no suggestion here or in immediately subsequent statements, that the seeker actually becomes ontologically one with God since the passing away or annihilation of the world or self does not imply an actual, ontological one-ness of the subject with the Divine. The annihilation of the seeker is not the same thing as his apotheosis. Those are two separate issues. Nor does the loss of awareness of self or the world as separate entities imply such an ontological union; it implies only a certain epistemological condition in the seeker. We must not confuse and conflate an epistemological condition of unawareness of any difference between the perceiver and the perceived with an ontological condition of a lack of difference between the being of the perceiver and the perceived.

 

Consequently, we may conclude this passage is not really ontologically monist – and therefore, we do not need relativism to reconcile it with dualism.  Furthermore, we should recall Bahá’u’lláh’s condemnation of those who,” deluded by their idle fancies, have conceived all created things as associates and partners of God.”[161] There is no way that the monist vision can be true without erasing the ontological distinctions between God and man – a concept that requires us to become one of God’s ‘partners.’ This statement and others like it irrevocably invalidate any monist views regardless of our sincerely they might be held. Sincerity is not a measure of truth, since erroneous views can be sincerely held.

 

Finally, it may be claimed that monism is found in he Bahá’í teaching that only God has absolute existence and that in comparison to God’s unconditional existence, human existence is really nonexistence.[162] This position is not sustainable. The fact that only God possess absolute existence means only that creation has lesser degrees of being, not that all things are ontologically one with God. `Abdu'l-Bahá reminds us that though the existence of beings in relation to the existence of God is an illusion, nevertheless, in the condition of being it has a real and certain existence. It is futile to deny this.[163]

 

In other words, in relation to God’s absolute existence, things do not exist – though they have real existence in their own degree – but this lack of existence in relation to God does not make them ontologically one with God which is what monism requires. How could nonexistence be ontologically one with absolute, unconditional existence? Obviously it cannot.

 

Moreover, an assertion of ontological one-ness with God also gives rise to another problem: such ontological one-ness means not only that the created is ontologically present in the Creator, but also that the Creator is ontologically present in the created. The latter means that the Creator is somehow present – albeit in different forms – in His creation. This would be an example of “appearance through manifestation”[164] which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá categorically rejects as “quite impossible”[165] for God. In addition, the first possibility, the presence of the created in the Creator, would require the human soul to become one with God i.e. to leave its own condition as human, and this is categorically rejected by `Abdu'l-Bahá:

but it [the human soul]  never leaves its own condition, in which it continues to develop.  For example, the reality of the spirit of Peter, however far it may progress, will not reach to the condition of the Reality of Christ; it progresses only in its own environment.  Look at this mineral. However far it may evolve, it only evolves in its own condition; you cannot bring the crystal to a state where it can attain to sight. This is impossible.[166]

 

This statement makes it clear that there can be no standpoint from which the soul can alter its essentially human condition and attain the same ontological state as God.

 

To become one with God, also violates Baha’u’llah’s injunction not to “transgress the limits of one's own rank and station.”[167] This, too, re-emphasizes the dualist position: man is always man and God is always God. In other words, we always remain in one of the three stations of existence: “Know that the conditions of existence are limited to the conditions of servitude, of prophethood and of Deity.”[168] Man is always in the (ontological) condition of servitude and nothing can change that, either in this life or the life to come. All of the considerations we have examined rule out any monist interpretation of the Writings.

 

Furthermore, in the “Commentary on the Islamic Tradition, ‘I was a HiddenTreasure . . .’ ”,  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá categorically states his own position that “the path to knowing the innermost Essence of the Absolute is closed to all beings . . .  How can the reality of non-existence ever understand the ipseity of being?”[169]  The reason that humankind cannot know the essence of God is that the ontological gulf between the Creator and the created – a difference of kind, not of degree – is so great that we lack the capacity or power to comprehend a being so infinitely superior to us. On this issue, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states, that “everything which is lower is powerless to comprehend the reality of that which is higher.”[170] If humankind cannot even understand the essence of God, how could we even hope to attain unity with God’s (ontological) state of being? The mere idea of it seems preposterous.

 

 Because of the vast ontological gulf between the two,[171] it is impossible for God to become man or vice versa as held by some mystics and Christian theology.[172]  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes this view, which he identifies with the Sufis but which also applies to Christian incarnationism, as “evident error.”[173] There is no way that “the Preexistent should confine itself to phenomenal forms.”[174] Conversely, he also rejects the view that man may become God, asking  rhetorically, “[H]ow can the phenomenal reality embrace the Preexistent Reality?”[175] Bahá’u’lláh makes the same point when He says, “no soul hath ever found the pathway to His Being . . . every saint hath lost his way in seeking to comprehend [contain, encircle] His Essence.”[176] He re-enforces this point by asking rhetorically, “How can utter nothingness gallop its steed in the field of preexistence, or a fleeting shadow reach to the everlasting sun?”[177] In other words, the ontological difference between the Creator and the created is too great to be overcome by humankind.

 

Reflection also shows that ontological monism further undermines Bahá’í theology by making Manifestations superfluous as mediators between God and humankind. If we can become ontologically one with God, why are Manifestations needed to explain God’s Will to impart the guidance appropriate to this age? If everyone can get this guidance directly from God Himself by becoming ontologically one with Him, why would a Manifestation be necessary? Indeed, such a claim violates a key Bahá’í ontological principles, i.e. there are only three stations of existence: “Know that the conditions of existence are limited to the conditions of servitude, of prophethood and of Deity.”[178] Monism would, in effect, remove the station of “servitude,” i.e. the station shared by all created beings, or at least make it ‘optional’ and dependent upon the seeker. Nothing in the Bahá’í Writings supports such a position even as a supposed ‘truth’ from a particular standpoint.

It may be ‘true’ for a perceiving subject, but the Writings clearly indicate that this perception does not reflect reality.    

 

The monist view also ignores logic by setting up a several logical conundrums. First, in the order of time, if man truly becomes one with God, the Creator of all other beings, then the claimant, in effect, becomes his own creator, which is to say, he exists before he exists because, as God, he logically precedes all other beings including himself. This is simply not tenable. Moreover, the same would be true in the order of reason where the monist assertion violates the principle of sufficient reason. An entity cannot be its own necessary and sufficient reason for being since it would have to pre-exist itself in order to be the condition for its own existence. This is not logically possible. Third, it is logically impossible to merge, unite or identify the dependent and the independent since they are mutually exclusive categories of thought and being without violating the principle of identity, i.e., the principle that at any given moment a thing is what it is and not something else.

 

Our survey of some of the major problems inherent in monism leaves little choice but to conclude that the Bahá’í Writings are incompatible with any suggestion that monist views are tenable. Given the distinction between the Creator and the created, there is no possible viewpoint

from which the primordial relationship of dependence on God is invalidated, or effectively negated in some way. Nor is there any standpoint from which a being can precede its own existence either in the orders of time or reason. To claim otherwise – as ontological monism does – is to ignore Baha’u’llah’s warning that “He hath assigned no associate unto Himself in His Kingdom . . .[179] The one-ness alleged by monism ignores this far-reaching ontological guidance. From our preceding investigations, two conclusions may be drawn. First, the Bahá’í Writings espouse an ontological dualism that clearly and irrevocably distinguishes between the Creator and the created. Second, in light of this, it seems evident that the monism/dualism dichotomy simply doesn’t exist in the Writings, and, therefore, requires no solution. , i.e. requires no recourse to relativism to resolve the apparent disharmony. Bahá’í scholars will have to find other ways to harmonise monist views with the Writings.[180]

 

10, Relativism: A Basis for Metaphysics?

We are still left with the question of whether relativism be “a basis for Bahá’í metaphysics”[181] or ontology.  Analysing this issue in light of the serious philosophical problems entailed in espousing relativism leads us to the conclusion that basing a Bahá’í metaphysics on relativism is not a tenable proposal. As we have already seen, in addition to its difficulties with the Writings themselves, relativism involves too many ontological or metaphysical, epistemological, logical and ethical problems to be a viable interpretation of the Writings. Ontologically and metaphysically it denies the distinction between the Creator and the created and denies the possibility of making any kind of positive assertions about the metaphysical nature and structure of existence. The problem is, the Writings are full of such apodictic assertions to guide our metaphysical and ontological investigations.  Ethically, it undercuts the very possibility of any normative morality, in effect, reducing morals, vice and virtues, the praiseworthy and the blameworthy to a matter of personal taste and preference without any possibility of adjudicating among them. Epistemologically, it denies the very possibility of knowledge by reducing all truth-claims to statements of opinion from a particular standpoint and by making error impossible. It also denies the possibility of progress in human intellectual, scientific, technological and spiritual knowledge and understanding, reducing such progress to mere change. It rejects as well the bedrock idea that some cultures are more advanced than others, as pointed out by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in various statements.[182] Without this belief that some stages of culture or cultures are more advanced than others, there would be no rationale for progressive revelation. Thus, relativism denies one of the foundational Bahá’í doctrines, since, according to relativism, there can be no progress or improvement in human knowledge or understanding but rather, only change.[183] If there is no progress in the human condition, why would we need new and “fuller Revelation[s]”[184] throughout our historical evolution?

If truth is determined not by correspondence to realty but by “the standpoint of the judging subject”[185] is metaphysics even possible? Philosophy in general and metaphysics and ontology in particular are more than free-style expression of opinions and viewpoints: “metaphysics [is] most generally the philosophical investigation of the nature, constitution and structure of reality.”[186] There are questions of logical correctness and internal consistency to consider, not to mention the use, analysis and critiquing of factual evidence and its interpretation as well as consistency with the explicit guidelines about metaphysical subjects in the Writings. If all opinions are correct from their perspectives and subsequently immune from any sort of evaluation, how could we ever reach even the simplest conclusions about ‘Bahá’í metaphysics’ i.e. about the allegedly ‘Bahá’í’ understanding of the “constitution and structure of reality”? Under those conditions, metaphysics as the exploration of the nature of reality becomes impossible. However, given the vast amount of explicit and implicit metaphysical guidance they contain, the Writings do not intend for us to abandon metaphysical investigations.

As we have seen, for relativism, there are no errors – a conclusion contradicted by the Writings; there is only an infinite number of equally valid ‘realities’ which can be constructed by human beings, individually and/or collectively. These will not always be reconcilable because of their origin in different standpoints; one cannot, for example, reconcile atheism with theism or a strict materialism/physicalism with a belief in spiritual beings. In the last analysis, there cannot be a common world-view or reality uniting the majority of people – and this makes the entire Bahá’í project impossible. The Bahá’í Writings aim at providing a common, world-embracing[187] and world unifying intellectual, cultural and religious vision on the basis of which humanity can progress in the development of a global civilization and Commonwealth. Specifically, it concentrates on religion but it does so with the understanding that intellectual, cultural and scientific achievements rest on religious foundations. In the Bahá’í view, all the religious dispensations can find their place and be elevated to a new level,[188] in which the dream of a unified world order can be achieved. Such unity requires that to a considerable degree we share a common understanding of reality – such as the threefold structure of reality as consisting in the conditions of servitude, prophethood or deity[189] - and that at least a sufficient number of people agree the nature of man and the world we live in. The lack of such a common viewpoint or framework is precisely what plagues the world today and prevents cooperative action. Among other things, the Bahá’í Faith
proclaims its readiness and ability to fuse and incorporate the contending sects and factions into which they have fallen into a universal Fellowship, functioning within the framework, and in accordance with the precepts, of a divinely conceived, a world-unifying, a world-redeeming Order.[190]



Relativism, which has no way of distinguishing true from false, or the useful from the counterproductive or simply irrelevant, is, by its very nature, incapable of developing such a unifying vision and framework and thus fails to meet the desperate need of humankind for unity. “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements,”[191] says Bahá'u'lláh, and thereby provides us with at least one criterion by which we can distinguish among contending viewpoints. This allows us to escape the quicksand of competing views and – unlike relativism – start the process of selecting among them.



11. Specific Problems with Relativism and the Bahá’í Writings

Previously we have engaged in a general examination of the problems inherent in relativism. Let us now examine them specifically in regard to the Bahá’í Writings.
                      

The first problem with relativism and the Writings is that if there are an infinite number of ‘realities’ and theories of ‘reality’ then there is no common reality or ‘world’ for all people, no one theory of reality is universally valid. While this may appear as an abstruse problem for epistemology and ontology, it does in fact have tremendous practical ramifications insofar as the Writings are committed to the establishment of a common, “world-embracing Order enshrining the ultimate fruit of God's latest Revelation to mankind, a fruit whose maturity must signalize the establishment of a world civilization.”[192] In a similar vein, Shoghi Effendi writes that the Bahá’í Faith is “laying the foundations of that world-embracing Administrative system designed to evolve into a World Order which posterity must acclaim as the promise and crowning glory of all the Dispensations of the past.”[193] It is fairly obvious that the establishment of a “world-embracing Order” requires at least a certain minimal unity of vision, understanding, purpose and goals, modi operandi, not to mention basic agreement on such issues as the nature of reality, the meaning of human existence, ethics and legalities and other major spiritual, intellectual, social and economic issues. In other words, there must be at least a minimal common theory of reality that joins people together into a global community. Without such a unifying theory, we will have no more than pieces in a kaleidoscope randomly tossed around by various events. For the Writings, with their emphasis on unity, this is unacceptable – indeed, it is precisely the problem we are trying to overcome. For this reason, the relativist advocacy of an infinite number of ‘realities’ without anyone being common to all people i.e. universal, is in clear conflict with the Bahá’í Writings. From the relativist view, the Bahá’í dream of uniting humankind within the parameters of a single unifying world-vision is impossible or even pernicious because it requires the disappearance, or at least de-emphasising of competing versions of reality.

 

Furthermore, the Bahá’í plan to adopt a universal auxiliary language causes difficulties. According to relativist theory, there can be no universal language adequate to expressing the truths of all ‘realities’ since each language expresses the particularities of a certain world-view unique to a certain culture. Thus, the adoption and privileging of one language and its inherent view of reality weakens diversity and perhaps even threatens the existence of other languages and other world-views especially the smaller ones. Hence the adoption of an auxiliary universal language may be seen as achieving unity at the expense of diversity. It might, of course, be argued that the Writings propose “unity in diversity”[194] not a monolithic unity, but, at the very least, there are some very serious issues that need to be worked out between the Bahá’í proposal for a universal auxiliary language and relativist philosophy.

 

The second problem between relativism and the Bahá’í teachings concerns the unity of truth, of which ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, says “truth is one, although its manifestations may be very different”[195] and “No one truth can contradict another truth.”[196] The same idea underlies the teaching of the harmony of religion and science, i.e. that a certain truth may have material and spiritual expressions, and may be approached in different ways but is, nonetheless, a single truth. The idea that there is only one truth, albeit appearing in different forms, is unacceptable to relativism since such a truth would be objective, universal and foundational and would be an Archimedean standpoint from which to judge competing truth-claims.

 

A third difficulty with relativism and the Bahá’í Faith is that there can be no universally valid ethical prescriptions since ethical prescriptions are matters of individual and/or collective choice: there is no common ethical world for all people. However, it is precisely the aim of the Bahá’í Faith to provide a common spiritual and ethical framework within which all of humanity can live and work together. That is why the Faith promulgates teachings on the importance of justice, human rights, honesty, truthfulness, loyalty, moderation, knowledge, spirituality and so on. These are not just matters of opinion according to the Writings; they are real objective, universal and foundational virtues reflecting the highest ethical potentials of our specifically human nature. “The Prophets come into the world to guide and educate humanity so that the animal nature of man may disappear and the divinity of his powers become awakened.”[197] There is no suggestion the “eternal verities”[198] They teach are limited to a particular time, place or culture. Nor is there any question about the equal validity of opposing viewpoints: “The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy.”[199] In other words, the Manifestation is diagnosing  the illness and prescribing the remedy, not initiating a debate in which the ignorant may claim equality for their views. Here, too, we find that relativism is out of step with the goals of the Bahá’í Faith.

 

 A fourth problem is that relativism makes the Bahá’í concept of progressive revelation impossible along with the Bahá’í Faith’s belief in scientific, social, economic and political progress. To assert that a certain development is ‘progressive’ requires that we attain a universal, objective and foundational Archimedean point from which to make such a judgment among competing viewpoints and assertions. Some will be judged to be regressive and others, progressive. Relativism, of course, denies that such an Archimedean standpoint exists and that such judgments can be made; we can only assert that things change, not that they ‘progress,’ i.e. improve, become more accurate or more appropriate. Indeed, relativism must also recognise as equally valid the view that progressive revelation is false, and a ‘triumphalist’ and ‘imperialist dogma’ for the conquest or subjugation of other religions. Such a position, of course, cannot be harmonized with the Bahá’í  teachings since undermining progressive revelation undermines one of the essential identifying features of the Faith, the eternal verities.

 

  Fifth: we cannot escape the fact that relativism makes the concept of a divine Manifestation untenable because a Manifestation has a privileged, universal, objective and foundational Archimedean standpoint which make His pronouncements infallible and normative for all of humankind and all cultures at this time.[200] In other words, His pronouncements are universal, objective and foundational and, therefore, the test, the Archimedean standpoint, by which the truth and appropriateness of other views are judged. Relativism is simply incapable of recognizing the existence of such a being – though by its own principles it cannot rule out His existence. Because what is revealed by the Manifestation is universal, objective and foundational not to mention essentially infallible, there is no room for equally valid but contrary viewpoints. If contradictory viewpoints were just as valid, why would we need the Manifestation in the first placed? Everyone can be his or her own manifestation! Bahá'u'lláh makes it clear that this solution is not acceptable for the simple reason that only one genuine Physician exists for the world’s ills.

 

At one time it [the world] hath been agitated by contentions and disputes, at another it hath been convulsed by wars, and fallen a victim to inveterate diseases. Its sickness is approaching the stage of utter hopelessness, inasmuch as the true Physician is debarred from administering the remedy, whilst unskilled practitioners are regarded with favor, and are accorded full freedom to act. ..[201].

 

This passage makes it clear that there is no alternative to the remedies prescribed by the “unerring Physician,”[202] that there is only one Physician whose viewpoint ultimately matters.  Baha’u’llah’s “Book itself is the "Unerring Balance" established amongst men,”[203] the one by which all other viewpoints are to be judged. This absolute “epistemic privilege” of the Manifestation conflicts with all forms of relativism.

 

A sixth problem undermining relativism was already pointed out by Plato in the Theatetus: relativism makes it impossible for anyone to be wrong, misled or simply perverse in their thinking. Maintaining that everyone is correct from his own unique standpoint is tantamount to saying that people cannot err, and, in effect, have essential infallibility. Not only does this violate common life-experience, but it also leaves us unable to explain statements such as the following:

 

from time immemorial even unto eternity the Almighty hath tried, and will continue to try, His servants, so that light may be distinguished from darkness, truth from falsehood, right from wrong, guidance from error, happiness from misery, and roses from thorns.[204]

 
The Writings clearly acknowledge the existence of “error”[205], “idle fancies and vain imagining,”[206] “ignorance,”[207] “heedlessness and superstition,”[208] “futile”[209] and even “absurd.”[210] Furthermore, Bahá'u'lláh advises us to “meditate profoundly  . . .so that light may be distinguished from darkness, truth from falsehood, right from wrong, guidance from error, happiness from misery, and roses from thorns.”[211] There is a clear distinction here between truth and falsehood, right and wrong which is to say, there is no attempt made to salvage all views by attributing them to differing standpoints. The identification of various views with error is in conflict with relativism in all its forms and makes it evident that relativism is not an accurate description of what we find in the Writings.  

 

A seventh difficulty is that the Writings reject epistemological conclusions that follow from relativism. Relativism confuses and conflates two distinct propositions: (a) knowledge is relative to standpoint and (b) all viewpoints are equally correct. The second does not necessarily follow from the first, i.e. it is possible to maintain that truth-claims are relative to a standpoint without admitting that all standpoints and their truth-claims are equally valid. Consider a team a team of doctors with various viewpoints on a particular medical problem. They suggest various solutions but they are not all necessarily correct in their diagnosis or prescriptions. Indeed, some of them may be flatly wrong and some only partially right. We decide which diagnosis and prescription are correct by observing the effects on the patient; that which leads to recovery most effectively is considered correct or more correct than competing positions. In this situation, we have an Archimedean standpoint – the patient’s recovery – from which to judge among alternative diagnoses and treatments. However, relativism implicitly rejects the concept of an Archimedean standpoint from which to judge among conflicting views and, thereby, prevents us from ever deciding on the merits of various viewpoints. We can either suspend judgment on all truth-claims – and become pyrrhonian sceptics – or we can accept them all as equally valid – and become relativists.[212] However, the problem is that Writings show no sign of encouraging a sceptical attitude towards all knowledge, especially given their emphasis on acquiring knowledge of the truth; nor do they accept that all views are correct.

 

  Some might argue that `Abdu'l-Bahá’ himself lays the ground work for a relativistic understanding of the Writings by pointing out that the four methods of seeking knowledge – the senses, reason, tradition. and inspiration”[213] – are subject to error and therefore, not absolutely reliable. However this position is logically incompatible with relativism. If these methods of acquiring knowledge can be wrong, then error exists, i.e. some truth-claims are wrong; if error exists, then the judgment that truth-claims are erroneous requires not only that we possess the capacity to judge certain truth-claims to be fallacious but also that we possess an Archimedean or transcendental standpoint from which to make that judgment. Yet, as shown above, relativism, which says that truth is determined “by the standpoint of the judging subject,” cannot accept the fact that any truth-claim is erroneous because all truth-claims may be made from their own unique standpoints. If relativism were exemplified in the Writings, `Abdu'l-Bahá’ would not be able to say that the senses, reason, tradition or inspiration are sources of error, nor would the Writings be able to reject certain views such as the world is an illusion as mistaken and even “futile.”[214]

   It should also be noted that if these statements about the senses, reason, tradition and inspiration are taken in isolation, one might  that the Writings are ‘relativistic’ in nature, but of course, they must be read in the context of the rest of the Writings. There mere existence of numerous passages – alluded to previously in this paper –  referring to “error”, “superstitions,” “vain imaginings” and the like as well as references to the “truth”, “discovery of the truth”, “knowledge,” “discovering realities,” “comprehension” and “reason” demonstrates that the Writings recognise the distinction between truth and error, and, therefore, cannot be harmonized with relativism. Indeed, the doctrine of progressive revelation, as well as the privileged position of the Manifestation would be, as we have seen above, negated by a relativist epistemology.

 A further note is necessary about knowledge and the Writings. While they recognise that our knowledge may be erroneous, they do not thereby completely deny the possibility of discovering truth. Even in a passage focussed on the fallibility of our knowledge, `Abdu'l-Bahá’ says:

The mind and the thought of man sometimes discover truths, and from this thought and discovery signs and results are produced. This thought has a foundation. But many things come to the mind of man which are like the waves of the sea of imaginations; they have no fruit, and no result comes from them.[215]

Thus, the Writings are distinguished from scepticism and relativism by admitting the possibility of discovering truth and differentiating between truth and error. We may also attain acquire certainty: since according to `Abdu'l-Bahá:

But the bounty of the Holy Spirit gives the true method of comprehension which is infallible and indubitable. This is through the help of the Holy Spirit which comes to man, and this is the condition in which certainty can alone be attained.[216]

In general terms, the following passage reflects the same idea:

Consequently, it has become evident that the four criteria or standards of judgment by which the human mind reaches its conclusions are faulty and inaccurate. All of them are liable to mistake and error in conclusions. But a statement presented to the mind accompanied by proofs which the senses can perceive to be correct, which the faculty of reason can accept, which is in accord with traditional authority and sanctioned by the promptings of the heart, can be adjudged and relied upon as perfectly correct, for it has been proved and tested by all the standards of judgment and found to be complete When we apply but one test, there are possibilities of mistake. This is self-evident and manifest.”[217]

We observe the message that certainty is attainable even though this passage does not answer the technical philosophical questions about how that certainty may be achieved. Our knowledge may be mistaken but is not necessarily so; thus, we are not obliged to permanently suspend judgment about all truth-claims as in scepticism or accept them all as in relativism.

The most obvious conclusion we can draw is that the Writings are not relativist insofar as they recognise the possibility of certain knowledge in distinction from error. How, then, may we characterize the nature of the epistemology exemplified in the Writings? The best available answer would be to say that the Writings espouse a form of reliablism, i.e. the position that “a belief can be justified if formed as the result of a reliable process even if the believer is unaware of what makes it justified.”[218] In other words, reliablism demands that belief be “the result of some reliable process of belief-formation.”[219] We observe this in the previous two quotations. The first says that if the Holy Spirit is involved in “the process of belief-formation,” then certainty can be attained. The Holy Spirit is the guarantor of the process. The second passage says that if we rely on the correct use of the senses, reason, tradition and the “promptings of the heart” – which may be understood as intervention by the Holy Spirit – then we can attain knowledge and certainty.  The Writings do not, of course, provide detailed explication of their position since they are not primarily technical philosophical texts but they do point us in the right direction.

 

Eighth: there is also no evidence for and, as we have seen, much evidence against the idea that the Bahá’í Writings reject an Archimedean standpoint from which to judge among truth-claims. The Writings certainly regard Bahá'u'lláh’s revelation as the unchallengeable Archimedean standpoint from which to view the world and all truth-claims in this dispensation. Without this foundational belief, the Bahá’í Faith would lose its very rationale for being which is that in this period of human evolution, the revelation of  Bahá'u'lláh is the most accurate analysis of mankind’s intellectual, material and spiritual needs and the most effective means of meeting those needs. This does not necessarily mean other religions have no role, but the Bahá’í dispensation has a certain special appropriateness insofar as its teachings are specifically tailored for this age:“[e]very community in the world findeth in these Divine Teachings the realization of its highest aspirations.”[220]

 

 Without such an Archimedean standpoint, the Writings would be in no position to make any absolute claims about reality. Relativism, of course, denies that any absolute statements about reality are possible but the Writings certainly maintain the truth of such metaphysical propositions as “God exists.’ For Bahá’ís, “the existence of God” [221] cannnot be anything less than absolute, i.e. universal, objective and foundational, since ‘Abdu’l-Bahá himself provided “proofs and evidences of the existence of God”[222] without any conditions or limitations on that belief. It is affirmed absolutely as true from all possible viewpoints and nothing can be added to make it more true than it already is. In addition, from God’s absolute existence, we can make indisputable ontological deductions. For example, God’s existence puts Him at the head of a hierarchy of being whose other members are existentially dependent on Him This dependence is true from all possible viewpoints within creation. Denying or relativizing this dependence or suggesting that from some viewpoints it may not be true irreparably undermines the foundations of the Bahá’í theology.

 A ninth difficulty runs as follows: if we argue that the statements of the Manifestations are privileged, but human interpretations of these statements are not, we face the problem of vacuousness. When all readings are equally true, then – because some readings contradict others – none are. Consequently, it becomes impossible to teach the Writings since – all interpretations being equally accurate – no one knows what the Writings actually say. What is the point of becoming a Bahá’í or offering the Faith’s teachings as a solution to a wide variety of world problems if no one knows what the Writings ‘really’ mean? How can the Writings be explicated or defended if what opponents of the Faith says is as true as what the proponents say?  Obviously, the very raison d’être of the Bahá’í Faith is removed by an epistemological relativism.

 The tenth problem with relativism is the interpretation of Shoghi Effendi’s statement that Bahá’í Faith’s “teachings revolve around the fundamental principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final.”[223] This must not be understood as a blanket relativism applicable to all subjects. The context of this statement is progressive revelation in regards to which we must recall Abdu’l-Baha’s statements that “every one of the divine religions contains essential ordinances, which are not subject to change, and material ordinances, which are abrogated according to the exigencies of time.”[224] It is the “material ordinances” not the “essential ordinances” or “golden core”[225] which are relative. Because these “essential ordinances”[226] of religion are not relative, but “eternal; verities” seen from various perspectives by successive ages, we have earlier in this paper described this view as evolutionary Platonic perspectivism.

The eleventh problem is that relativism is that the Bahá’í Writings do not accept the belief that reality is dependent on, i.e. constituted by the observer. This is the key principle of ontological relativism as formulated by Kant and his successors. However, on the basis of the Writings, we must be careful to distinguish two things. There is the reality created by God Who alone constitutes reality and the universe; humankind merely finds itself placed in that pre-existing creation in which the natural order and all the laws of nature are already in place when we arrive on the scene. Traditionally this was known as ‘first nature.’ There is also a ‘second nature’ or culture which is in part a human creation insofar as it is how man interprets and/or what he makes with the materials provided by first nature. Of course, first nature still places constraints on cultural activity – we are not free to reject the laws of nature though we may make use of them.

 

If ontological relativism is asserted vis-à-vis first nature, as for example in some variations of Kant’s philosophy, then the Writings complete reject the notion that reality is dependent on us. As already pointed out, first nature is created by God, “the Maker of all Names and the Creator of earth and heaven,”[227]  and given to humankind, pre-made with all its attributes and laws and pre-existing. We have no role in this creation Hence the Writings’ emphasis on the discovery and perception of reality, or the realities (essences) of things:

God has created man in order that he may perceive the verity of existence and endowed him with mind or reason to discover truth.[228]
 

Here is another example: 

Man is able to resist and to oppose Nature because he discovers the constitution of things, and through this he commands the forces of Nature; all the inventions he has made are due to his discovery of the constitution of things.[229]

 

It is worth pointing out that humankind discovers, i.e. does not create, the constitution or nature of things but discovers or finds it after the natural world has been created by God. Much the same idea is expressed in the following quote which links this power of discovery to the rational soul:


The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence.[230]

 

In the Master’s letter to Dr. Forel he says:

 Minerals, plants and animals are bereft of the mental faculties of man that discover the realities of all things, but man himself comprehendeth all the stages beneath him.[231]


The contradiction to ontological relativism is obvious: if reality, if the realities (essences) of things are discovered, they have not been created or constituted by man. They pre-exist us; we are only their perceivers or discoverers not their creators.

 

If ontological relativism is asserted vis-à-vis second nature, it is partly true, since what humankind does to constitute cultures and societies is considerably constrained by the pre-made and given attributes and necessities of first nature. However, we do, indeed, interpret first nature, build societies, create customs and systems of law, develop concepts, for example, and these are certainly part of our real world, i.e. are a human-made reality,  but they are the superstructure built on the foundations of first nature itself with the guidance of the Manifestations. To the extent that this human-made reality is not constrained by first nature, it is dependent on humans who both perceive and create it. It is the realm of human freedom, of free will. To the extent we have free will, ontological relativism vis-à-vis second nature harmonizes with the Writings.

 

The fact that we are able to control second nature to a certain degree according to our free choices forms the basis of our ability to improve societies and cultures and to help them evolve to new forms. For this reason education is so important since it is one of the chief means by which new social realities are created and established in society. Politics, too, is important since through it, laws and the culture of governance are established; its importance is precisely why it should not become the plaything of factions and parties with their own private interests. Ultimately, of course, our control over second nature is why the guidance of the Manifestation is decisive; only with it can we actually live up to the best potentials within us.

 

The twelfth problem lies in the rejection of reason. Relativism has a strong tendency towards irrationalism insofar as relativism cannot admit that reason has any special place, i.e. is ‘privileged’ in the quest for knowledge. Reason is simply another standpoint amongst the others, a social-cultural construct subject to the limitations of time and place; it has no validity beyond the standpoints of those using it. In other words, it is not objective, universal or foundational. The problem is that this conflicts with the Writings.

 

According to `Abdu'l-Bahá,’ rationality is what distinguishes the human species from all others:

The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names--the human spirit and the rational soul--designate one thing.[232]

And: 

This human rational soul is God's creation; it encompasses and excels other creatures; as it is more noble and distinguished, it encompasses things. The power of the rational soul can discover the realities of things, comprehend the peculiarities of beings, and penetrate the mysteries of existence. All sciences, knowledge, arts, wonders, institutions, discoveries and enterprises come from the exercised intelligence of the rational soul. There was a time when they were unknown, preserved mysteries and hidden secrets; the rational soul gradually discovered them and brought them out from the plane of the invisible[233]

 

All of the characteristically human activities are attributed to the rational soul. Thus, it would be impossible for the Writings to accept that rationality and reason are simply another  standpoint amongst all the others – since it is our distinguishing trait. Furthermore, the Writings put an enormous emphasis on reason (its fallibility by itself notwithstanding) telling us that “in this age the peoples of the world need the arguments of reason,”[234] and that “If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.”[235]

 

Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance . . . If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test[236].

 

As shown here, one of the foundational teachings, the harmony of science and religion, depends precisely the privileged position of reason both in science and religion. Quotations like this are plentifully scattered throughout the Writings. Whatever its shortcomings may be, reason is still superior to superstition, “vain imaginings” and “imitations.” Thus it is clear that the Writings privilege reason in a way that cannot be acceptable to relativism. 

 

The thirteenth problem with relativism and the Writings is that relativism is powerless to solve the problem of conflicting religious diversity because relativism has no answer to the conflicts among religions except to let them continue since all viewpoints are true from their own standpoint. There is no possible way to resolve their differences on the basis of relativist philosophy because a relativist philosophy encourages the perpetuation of these differences and sees no need to bring them together. It is a one-sided emphasis on ‘diversity’ with a corresponding neglect of ‘unity.’ There is no need to bring them into harmony because conflicting differences are not seen as problematical in the first place. Why should they be seen as difficulties if everyone is right? And on what basis could we unify them? After all, choosing any such basis, would, in effect, be choosing an Archimedean standpoint from which to evaluate other beliefs – and that leads to all sorts of difficulties relativism seeks to avoid. Thus relativism could never agree to `Abdu'l-Bahá’s claim that “[e]very community in the world findeth in these Divine Teachings the realization of its highest aspiration”[237] because that claim implies that the Bahá’í Faith is the Archimedean standpoint in relationship to which all other religions may be unified.

 

Finally, the Bahá’í Writings do not agree that there is no such thing as human nature.  The first line of evidence in this regard are the passing references to human nature in the writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá. These passing references show that the Master takes the existence of human nature for granted, as a given, self-evident fact. For example, he tells us that the abuse of religion makes “that which was a factor in the sublimity of human nature” into an instrument for its “degradation.”[238] He states, “divine philosophy”:


has for its object the sublimation of human nature, spiritual advancement, heavenly guidance for the development of the human race, attainment to the breaths of the Holy Spirit and knowledge of the verities of God-[239]

 

According to him, Christ’s disciples:

were delivered from the animal characteristics and qualities which are the characteristics of human nature, and they became qualified with the divine characteristics . . .[240]

 

None of these statements would make sense if there were no such thing as human nature since that term would not refer to anything. 

 

The Writings also tell us a great deal about human nature, that is, they identify certain human traits and/or predispositions as universal, objective and foundational. For example, “his [man’s] nature is threefold: animal, human and divine. The animal nature is darkness; the heavenly is light in light.”[241] In other words, human nature is constituted by animal capacities or potentials, specifically human capacities or potentials and divine capacities or potentials. Sometimes these divine capacities are called our “spiritual susceptibilities” which must be awakened “in the hearts of mankind, to kindle anew the spirit of humanity with divine fires and to reflect the glory of heaven to this gloomy world of materialism.”[242] The specifically human capacity or potential is our abstract reasoning power:

 

The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names--the human spirit and the rational soul--designate one thing. This spirit, which in the terminology of the philosophers is the rational soul, embraces all beings, and as far as human ability permits discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings.[243]

 

The animal capacities, of course, are based on humankind’s bodily needs as well as its instinctual nature. Speaking specifically in regards to morality, `Abdu'l-Bahá says that our moral nature is constituted by two capacities, a lower and a higher:

In man there are two natures; his spiritual or higher nature and his material or lower nature. In one he approaches God, in the other he lives for the world alone. Signs of both these natures are to be found in men. In his material aspect he expresses untruth, cruelty and injustice; all these are the outcome of his lower nature. The attributes of his Divine nature are shown forth in love, mercy, kindness, truth and justice, one and all being expressions of his higher nature. Every good habit, every noble quality belongs to man's spiritual nature, whereas all his imperfections and sinful actions are born of his material nature. If a man's Divine nature dominates his human nature, we have a saint.[244]

 

A survey of the Writings indicates that the Writings accept these attributes as universal, that is, applicable to all human beings regardless of time and place; as objective, that is, as not dependent on standpoint or, conversely, true from all standpoints; and foundational, that is, not susceptible to further breakdown and analysis. In other words, the Writing’s view of human nature is not relative.

 

The third line of reasoning that shows the Bahá’í Writings do not have a relativist view of human nature can be found in `Abdu'l-Bahá’s remarks about human evolution: “But from the beginning of man's existence he is a distinct species”[245] and “For the proof of the originality of the human species, and of the permanency of the nature of man, is clear and evident.”[246] Here, too, we observe, that humankind is credited with a nature that makes it identifiable and “distinct”, in addition to being permanent, that is, “his species and essence undergo no change.”[247] Thus, human nature has always been essentially what it is, which is to say, universal in time in addition to universal in space, i.e. planetary.

 

It is obvious why the Bahá’í Writings would insist on the universality and absoluteness of human nature: without this basis, its teaching about the eventual unification of humankind into a single global commonwealth would lack a proper foundation. How could the human race be unified if all peoples did not have something in common, if there were no objectively real, foundational and universal capacity for rational thinking and decision making, for actualizing “spiritual susceptibilities”, for freeing themselves from ancestral imitations and for adopting a global religion and loyalty? Indeed, the whole concept of progressive revelation for all of humankind makes no sense: without an essential and basic human nature actualizing its latent potentialities, there would simply be change and not progress since progress requires some continuity to build on over time. In the cased of humankind this means that the historical appearances of human rationality can vary from place to place and time to time, but that the basic capacity for rationality remains the same and  expresses itself in ever more insightful and sophisticated ways. This in turn sets the stage for the appearance of new Manifestations.  The Bahá’í Writings show that on the subject of human nature they are not relativist.

 

12. Conclusion

To see the Bahá’í Writings as exemplifying relativism is, in our view, a misunderstanding of their philosophical nature. This issue is important because the claim that the Writings represent relativism directly and/or indirectly associates the Writings with a certain group of philosophers and, more seriously, imports major philosophical conflicts into our understanding of the Writings especially in regards to Archimedean standpoints and the universality, objectivity and foundational nature of its teachings. Importing such problems is a distinct hindrance in regards to teaching and explication as well as in regards to apologetics and dialogue with other religions.

 

A more accurate description of the Bahá’í Writings philosophical nature would be relationalism and/or evolutionary Platonic perspectivism. They are ‘relationalist’ because, as we have seen, all created things exist in relation to all others and must always be understood in this light. The Writings are ‘evolutionary’ because they see our knowledge of truth advancing in scope, accuracy and effectiveness throughout the process of human development. They are Platonic because they believe the existence of universal truths, or “eternal verities” that do not change and are true for all people at all times. Finally, there are ‘perspectivist’ because humankind’s view of the eternal truths may be different according to standpoint and/or evolve through time, though this does not imply that any and all views are necessarily correct. 

 

Thus, the Bahá’í Writings occupy a middle ground between relativism on one hand and a static absolutism on the other. There are eternal truths, there are varying viewpoints on these truths, but not all such viewpoints are equally valid. In other words, there is room for diversity of viewpoint as well as development and refinement of viewpoints but not so much that ‘anything goes.’ Furthermore, there are explicit guidelines for metaphysical and ontological investigations which promulgate certain views and reject others as false.



 Selected Bibliography

`Abdu'l-Bahá                                     Paris Talks. London: The  Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1995.

                                                            Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá., Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1957

                                                            Some Answered Questions. Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1981.                                                            

                                                            The Promulgation of Universal Peace. Second Edition. Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982..

Robert Audi, ed.                               The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 

Bahá'u'lláh                                         Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh. Wilmette: Bahá’í.  Publishing Trust, 1976

                                                             The Kitab-i-Iqan. Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust,   1974. `

                                                             The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys.
Trans. by Marzieh Gail and Ali-Kuli Khan. Wilmette: Bahá’í                                                                      Publishing Trust, 1975.

                                                             Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, Haifa: Bahá’í  World Centre,                                                    1978.

                                                            The Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh (Arabic). Kuala Lumpur: Bahá’í  Publishing Trust, 1985.

Baudrillard, Jean.                              Simulations. Trans by P. Foss, P Patton, P. Beitchman. N.p. Semiotext(e), 1983                                                  

Beckworth, Francis J; Koukl, Gregory          Feet Firmly Planted in Air. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006.

Blackburn, Simon, ed.                      The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford  University Press, 1994.

Derrida, Jaques.                                 Of Grammatology. Trans by Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University press, 1977.

Effendi, Shoghi.                                The Promised Day is Come. Wilmette:Bahá’í Publishing Trust

                                                             The World Order of  Bahá'u'lláh .Wilmetter: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1980.

Foucault, Michel.                              Madness and Civilization.

Feyerabend, Paul.                            Against Method. London: New Left Books, 2002.

Goodman, Nelson.                           Ways of World-Making.Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978.

Hare, Ro; Michael Kraucz.              Varieties of Relativism. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishing, 1996

Harris, James. F.                                Against Relativism. Peru, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 1997.

Honderich, Ted., ed.                         The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press,1995.

                                                            The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Kluge, Ian.                                         “The Aristotelian Substratum of the Bahá’í Writings.” Lights of Irfan, Volume 4, 2003.

                                                            “Faith and Reason in the Bahá’í Writings.” Ian Kluge’s Bahá’í Philosophy Page,                                                                                                                http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Den/4944/bahai_philosophy.htm                                                                                            
Lyotard, Francis.                               The Postmodern Condition. Trans. by G. Bennington and B Massumi. Minneaplois: University of                                                                            Minnesota Press, 1993.

Momen, Moojan.                               “Relativism: A Basis For Bahá'í Metaphysics” http://bahai-library.com/articles/relativism.html


                                                             The Modern Theme. Trans. by James Cleugh. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.   


Plato.                                                   Theaetetus. Trans by B Jowett in The Dialogues of Plato Vol. 2. New York, Random House, 1937.

Rorty, Richard                                    Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambrdige University Press, 2005.

                                                              Objectivity, Relativism and Truth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

                                                               Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Terry, Peter.                                       “The Oneness of Reality: A Response to Relativism.” 2004.
                                                               http://bs.ericwil.nl/modules.php?op=modload&name=UpDownload&file=index&req=getit&lid=142.

 

Compilation on Relativism

 
1- “Although a brief example hath been given concerning the beginning and ending of the relative world, the world of attributes, yet a second illustration is now added, that the full meaning may be manifest. For instance, let thine Eminence consider his own self; thou art first in relation to thy son, last in relation to thy father. In thine outward appearance, thou tellest of the appearance of power in the realms of divine creation; in thine inward being thou revealest the hidden mysteries which are the divine trust deposited within thee. And thus firstness and lastness, outwardness and inwardness are, in the sense referred to, true of thyself, that in these four states conferred upon thee thou shouldst comprehend the four divine states, and that the nightingale of thine heart on all the branches of the rosetree of existence, whether visible or concealed, should cry out: "He is the first and the last, the Seen and the Hidden...."

 

These statements are made in the sphere of that which is relative, because of the limitations of men. Otherwise, those personages who in a single step have passed over the world of the relative and the limited, and dwelt on the fair plane of the Absolute, and pitched their tent in the worlds of authority and command--have burned away these relativities with a single spark, and blotted out these words with a drop of dew.

Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys 27-28

 

2- “Furthermore, consider the signs of the revelation of God in their relation one to another. Can the sun, which is but one of these signs, be regarded as equal in rank to darkness? The one true God beareth Me witness! No man can believe it, unless he be of those whose hearts are straitened, and whose eyes have become deluded. 

-- Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh 188.

 

3- “Therefore, death is only a relative term implying change. For example, we will say that this light before me, having reappeared in another incandescent lamp, has died in the one and lives in the other. This is not death in reality. The perfections of the mineral are translated into the vegetable and from thence into the animal, the virtue always attaining a superlative degree in the upward change. In each kingdom we find the same virtues manifesting themselves more fully, proving that the reality has been transferred from a lower to a higher form and kingdom of being. Therefore, nonexistence is only relative and absolute nonexistence inconceivable.”

`Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace 88.

 

4- “his dust beneath our feet, as compared with our being, is nonexistent. When the human body crumbles into dust, we can say it has become nonexistent; therefore, its dust in relation to living forms of human being is as nonexistent, but in its own sphere it is existent, it has its mineral being. Therefore, it is well proved that absolute nonexistence is impossible; it is only relative.”

`Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace 89.

 

5- “The sin in Adam is relative to His position. Although from this attachment there proceed results, nevertheless, attachment to the earthly world, in relation to attachment to the spiritual world, is considered as a sin. The good deeds of the righteous are the sins of the Near Ones.”

`Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions 126.

 

6- “The second proposition is that existence and nonexistence are both relative. If it be said that such a thing came into existence from nonexistence, this does not refer to absolute nonexistence, but means that its former condition in relation to its actual condition was nothingness. For absolute nothingness cannot find existence, as it has not the capacity of existence. Man, like the mineral, is existing; but the existence of the mineral in relation to that of man is nothingness . . .”

`Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions 281. (See also SAQ 281)

 

7- “Therefore, though the world of contingency exists, in relation to the existence of God it is nonexistent and nothingness. Man and dust both exist, but how great the difference between the existence of the mineral and that of man! The one in relation to the other is nonexistence. In the same way, the existence of creation in relation to the existence of God is nonexistence. Thus it is evident and clear that although the beings exist, in relation to God and to the Word of God they are nonexistent.


8- “Though the "First Mind" is without beginning, it does not become a sharer in the preexistence of God, for the existence of the universal reality in relation to the existence of God is nothingness, and it has not the power to become an associate of God and like unto Him in preexistence.”

`Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions 203.


9- “This emanation [First Mind or First Will] in that which concerns its action in the world of God, is not limited by time or place; it is without beginning or end--beginning and end in relation to God are one.”

-- `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions 203.

 
10- “Though the stone exists, in relation to the existence of man it is nonexistent.”

`Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions 242.

 

11- “For example, the eye and the nail are living; but the life of the nail in relation to the life of the eye is nonexistent. This stone and this man both exist; but the stone in relation to the existence of man is nonexistent; it has no being; for when man dies, and his body is destroyed and annihilated, it becomes like stone and earth. Therefore, it is clear that although the mineral exists, in relation to man it is nonexistent. 

In the same way, the souls who are veiled from God, although they exist in this world and in the world after death, are, in comparison with the holy existence of the children of the Kingdom of God, nonexisting and separated from God.”

`Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions 243.

 

12- “Yes, a scorpion is evil in relation to man; a serpent is evil in relation to man; but in relation to themselves they are not evil, for their poison is their weapon, and by their sting they defend themselves. But as the elements of their poison do not agree with our elements--that is to say, as there is antagonism between these different elements, therefore, this antagonism is evil; but in reality as regards themselves they are good.


The epitome of this discourse is that it is possible that one thing in relation to another may be evil, and at the same time within the limits of its proper being it may not be evil. Then it is proved that there is no evil in existence; all that God created He created good. This evil is nothingness; so death is the absence of life.

`Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions 263 – 264.

 

13- “This theory [ that the external world is a delusion, is nothingness] is erroneous; for though the existence of beings in relation to the existence of God is an illusion, nevertheless, in the condition of being it has a real and certain existence. It is futile to deny this. 

`Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions 278.

 

14- “Then it is evident that although beings in relation to the existence of God have no existence, but are like the mirage or the reflections in the mirror, yet in their own degree they exist.

That is why those who were heedless and denied God were said by Christ to be dead, although they were apparently living; in relation to the people of faith they were dead, blind, deaf and dumb. This is what Christ meant when He said, "Let the dead bury their dead."

`Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions 279 – 280.

 

15- “Now this world of existence in relation to its maker is a real phenomenon. As the body is sustained by the spirit, it is in relation to the spirit an essential phenomenon. The spirit is independent of the body, and in relation to it the spirit is an essential preexistence.

`Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions 280.

 

16- “An intermediary is needed to bring two extremes into relation with each other. Riches and poverty, plenty and need: without an intermediary power there could be no relation between these pairs of opposites.

So we can say there must be a Mediator between God and Man, and this is none other than the Holy Spirit, which brings the created earth into relation with the `Unthinkable One', the Divine Reality.”

`Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks 58.

 

17- “In dealing with people who are still backward in relation to our civilised standards, and in many cases guided by a tribal system which has strong orders of its own, he feels that you should be both tactful and forbearing.

Shoghi Effendi, Unfolding Destiny 334.

 

18- “There is no contradiction between Gleanings p. 66 and p. 262. In one place He says the mirror will never be free from dross, in the other place He says it will be "so cleared as to be able" etc. It is a relative thing; perfection will never be reached, but great and ever greater, progress can be made.”

Shoghi Effendi, Unfolding Destiny 453.

 

19- “The fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá'u'lláh ... is that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is a continuous and progressive process, that all the great religions of the world are divine in origin, that their basic principles are in complete harmony, that their aims and purposes are one and the same, that their teachings are but facets of one truth, that their functions are complementary, that they differ only in the nonessential aspects of their doctrines, and that their missions represent successive stages in the spiritual evolution of human society....”

The Promised Day is Come. See also World Order of Bahá’u’lláh58; Bahá’í Administration 185.

 

20- “"Concerning the Manifestations that will come down in the future `in the shadows of the clouds,' know verily that in so far as their relation to the source of their inspiration is concerned they are under the shadow of the Ancient Beauty. In their relation, however, to the age in which they appear, each and every one of them `doeth whatsoever He willeth.'"

Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh 111.



 Footnotes

[1] The term originates with the geometrician Archimedes’ alleged remark, “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the world.” He claimed he could move the world with a single lever with the right standpoint.

[2] The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Simon Blackburn, p. 326; see also The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[3] Richard Rorty, Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, p.27 and 32.

[4] Relationalism is generally associated with the process philosophy of Whitehead and his successors. It is supported by the Writings, e.g. Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.178 – 179;  See also Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá 160

[5] The Archimedean standpoint refers to the geometer Archimedes who say, in regards to levers, ‘Give me a place to stand on and I will move the earth.” This is also called a ‘transcendental’ standpoint, i.e. one that is above or transcends all other particular viewpoints.

[6] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 14; p.108.

[7] Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 114.

[8] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, XXII,  p.51.

[9] Paul Feyerabend, Against Method, p.5.

http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/feyerabe.htm

[10] For a full discussion of this subject see Ian Kluge, “Postmodernism and the Bahá’í Writings,” forthcoming publication in Lights of Irfan 9, 2008.

[11] Rorty

[12] Derrida Of Grammatology.

[13] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.

[14] Foucault, Madness and Civilization;

[15] Foucault

[16] Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra.

[17] Lacan; Deleuze and Guattrari

[18] Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p.58.

[19] Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p.115.

[20] Rom Harre and Michael Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p.4.. The identification of universalism, objectivism and foundationalism as pivotal concepts for studying relativism is based on this book.

[21] Rom Harre and Michael Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p.4.

[22] Rom Harre and Michael Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p.4

[23] Rom Harre and Michael Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p.5.

[24] Rom Harre and Michael Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p.5.

[25] Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 340.

[26] Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, p. 795.

[27] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. by Ted Honderich, p.794.

[28] How a relativist can actually know that all views have part of the truth is a perplexing question.

[29] The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Robert Audi, p. 885.

[30] Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2.255-256.

[31] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 30.

[32] See Nelson Goodman in Ways of World-Making (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978).  Goodman, unconvincingly tries to dissociate himself from more radical consequences of his views.

[33] William Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 2, Sc.1, l.15.

[34] Dennis Dutton, “Aesthetic Universals” in Gaut and Lopex ed. The Routledge Compnaion to Aesthetics.

[35] Plato, Theaetetus,

[36] Plato, Theaetetus.

[37] Plato, Theaetetus.

[38] Rom Harre and Michael Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p.4.

[39] Rom Harre and Michael Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p.4.

[40] Rom Harre and Michael Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p.5.

[41] Rom Harre and Michael Krausz, Varieties of Relativism, p.5.

[42] Plato, Theaetetus, emphasis added.

[43] David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Section 1, p. 278.

[44] David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, Section 1, p. 279.

[45] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Book I, Sect. VII, Part I, p.32.

[46] Varieties of Relativism, p. 20.

[47] Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, Book I, Chp. 2, Section II, Subsection IV.

[48] Stephen R.C. Hicks, Explaining Postmodernism, p. 37.

[49] Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, Book I, Chp. 2.

[50] Ammittai F. Aviram, “Asking the Question: Kant and Postmodernism?”

[51] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, #493.

[52] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, #534.

[53] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, #537.

[54] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, #555.

[55] Nietzsche, Of Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense.

[56] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, I,1.

[57] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, # 552.

[58] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, # 552; emphasis added.

[59] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, # 480.

[60] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, # 481.

[61] Nietzsche, The Will to Power, #616.

[62] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p.xxiv.

[63] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p.xxiii.

[64] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p.34.

[65] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p.63.

[66] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p.63.

[67] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p.31.

[68] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, p.xxiv.

[69] Best and Kellner, “The Postmodern Turn in Philosophy: Theoretical Provocations and Normative Deficits”

[70] Best and Kellner, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations, p.146.

[71] Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction, p.86; italics added.

[72] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 24; italics added.

[73] Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Disseminations, p. 95.

[74] Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Disseminations, p. 127.

[75] Derrida who is very inventive in coining new terms for his concepts and often has several terms for identical concepts.

[76] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, p.298; also p.281.

[77] Jacques Derrida, Positions, p.58.

[78] Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization.

[79] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality.

[80] Michel Foucault,  The Order of Things and The Archaeology of Knowledge.

[81] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish.

[82] Andrew Thacker, “Michel Foucault”, The Literary Encyclopedia.

[83] Scott H. More, “Christian History, Providence and Foucault”, Fides et Historia, XXIX:1 (Winter/Spring 1997): 5-14

[84] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, p.10.

[85] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, p.11.

[86] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, p.23. 

[87] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, p.11.

[88] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, p.28; emphasis added.

[89] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, p.28. 

[90] J.G Merquior, Foucault, p.50.

[91] Best and Kellner, Postmodern Theories: Critical Interrogations, p.41.

[92] Michel Foucault, interview in La Quinzaine Literature, quoted in J.G. Merquior, Foucault, p.36.

[93] Richard Rorty, “Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism :” in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, p.202.

[94] Richard Rorty, “Solidarity or Objectivity:” in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, p.23.

[95] Richard Rorty, “Solidarity” in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, p.192.

[96] Richard Rorty, “Science as Solidarity” in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, p.44.

[97] Richard Rorty, “Science as Solidarity” in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, p.39.

[98] Someone might claim such was the case in an alternative world, but that does not make it true in this world. There simply is no viewpoint from which such a claim is true for the world we live in.

[99] Augustine, The City of God, 11:26.

[100] Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation IV.

[101] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.278.

[102] I do not intend to suggest Thomism is the last word in philosophy but its beginning with the concept of ‘being’ certainly puts it on solid philosophical ground.

[103] Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death” at Auschwitz, infamous for his experiments on live and often conscious human subjects, especially twins.  

[104] See also Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, for more.

[105] Denis Dutton, “Aesthetic Universals” in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics.

[106] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come., p.2.  See also The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p.58, 111; Bahá’í Administration, p. 185.

[107] Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 326.

[108] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.154; emphasis added.

[109] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.59.

[110]  Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CVI, p.213.

[111] Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p.172.

[112] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p.108; emphasis added.

[113] Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 326.

[114] Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p.172.

[115] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 213.

[116] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p.108.

[117] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p.108.

[118] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p.108

[119] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 108.

[120] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p.108.

[121] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, LXX, p. 136.

[122] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 262.

[123] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 290.

[124] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.282.

[125] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 151 – 152.

[126] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 89.

[127] The term is mainly associated with Whitehead’s process philosophy and its later developments.

[128] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.178 – 179;  See also Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá 160

[129] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.179; emphasis added. 

[130] Varieties of Relativism, p.111. See Nelson Goodman’s Ways of World-Making for example.

[131] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 89; emphasis added.

[132] Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 88.  

[133] Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 281; emphasis added.

[134] Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 203.

[135] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.203.

[136] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.243.

[137] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.278; emphasis added.

[138] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.243.

[139] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.243.

[140] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.263 – 264.

[141] ‘Proper’ here is meant more in its traditional sense of ‘belonging to itself.’

[142] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.243.

[143] Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, p. 27-28.

[144] Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, p. 27-28.

[145] Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, p. 27-28

[146] Peter Terry’s article, “The Oneness of Reality: A Response to Relativism” focuses specifically on the religious/theological difficulties with the assertion that the Writings are relativist.

http://bs.ericwil.nl/modules.php?op=modload&name=UpDownload&file=index&req=getit&lid=142.

[147] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, 297.

[148] Moojan Momen, “Relativism: A Basis for Bahá’í Metaphysics” http://Bahá’í-library.com/articles/relativism.html . Posted with permission of author and publisher (Kalimat Press 1988.)

[149] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá , “Commentary on the Islamic Tradition: ‘I Was a Hidden Treasure’ ”; emphasis added.

[150] A similar conclusion was reached by Keven Brown  in “‘Abdu’l-Bahá ’s Response to the Doctrine of the Unity of Existence” in The Journal of Bahá’í Studies, Vol. 11, Number 34, September-December 2001.

[151] Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, p. 18 – 19.

[152] In fact, the Writings hold to a correspondence theory of truth. See Ian Kluge, “The Aristotelian Substratum of the Bahá’í Writings” for detailed documentation about the correspondence theory of truth in the Writings.  Published in Lights of Irfan, Vol.4, 2003.

[153] Tablets of  Bahá’u’lláh 41.

[154] Tablets of  Bahá’u’lláh 10.

[155] Some Answered Questions 137. This rejection of a subjective theory of truth is illustrated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s  denial of the geocentric theory of the solar system. He says, “The eye sees the sun and planets revolving around the earth, whereas in reality the sun is stationary, central, and the earth revolves upon its own axis.” “Relativism: A Basis for Bahá’í  Metaphysics.”

[156] The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh (Arabic) #13, 7.

[157] Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá  108

[158] The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys 20 – 21.

[159] The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys 20.

[160] The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys 36 – 37.

[161] Gleanings from the Writings of  Bahá’u’lláh, LXXXIV, p.166; see also 187.

[162] Momen, “Relativism: A Basis for Bahá’í Metaphysics.”

[163] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 278; emphasis added.

[164] Some Answered Questions, p. 203.

[165] Some Answered Questions, p. 203.

[166] Some Answered Questions , p. 233; emphasis added.

[167] Gleanings from the Writings of  Bahá’u’lláh XCIII, 188.

[168] Some Answered Questions , p. 230.

[169] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá , “Commentary on the Islamic Tradition: ‘I Was a Hidden Treasure’ ”; emphasis added.

[170] Some Answered Questions, p. 147.

[171] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá , of course, reveals a three-fold division of existence – the stations of Creator, Manifestation and the rest of creation. (Some Answered Questions 295.) However, unaided natural reason, can, by itself, only identify two stations, Creator and created. The station of Manifestation requires revelation by the Manifestations of God.  Moreover, the first fundamental division is between Creator and created.

[172] Very few Christian denominations reject the doctrine of the incarnation of God in Christ. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are probably the best known of these.

[173] Some Answered Questions 195

[174] Some Answered Questions 195

[175] Some Answered Questions 221.

[176] The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys 23 (“The Valley of Unity”); emphasis added; 

[177] The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys 23 (“The Valley of Unity”).

[178] Some Answered Questions , p. 230

[179] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh XCV, 192; emphasis added. 

[180] However, we must remember that the denial of ontological union or oneness with God does not preclude an ethical oneness in which man submits to or harmonizes his personal will with the will of God. This ethical monism is not only allowed but even encouraged by the Writings as an essential human goal. Nevertheless, we must not misinterpret this ethical harmonization as an ontological union.

[181] Moojan Momen, “Relativism: A Basis for Bahá’í Metaphysics.”

[182] For example, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 119; The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 86.

[183] This is the same problem that undermines the views of Kuhn and Feyerabend.

[184] Shoghi Effendi, Unfolding Destiny, p. 432.

[185] Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p. 326.

[186] The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Robert Audi, p. 563.

[187] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XLIII, p. 94.

[188] “Verily I say, in this most mighty Revelation, all the Dispensations of the past have attained their highest, their final consummation.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CLXI, p. 340.)

[189] Some Answered Questions , p. 230.

[190] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 100.

[191] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CVI, p.213.

[192] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 324.

[193] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 329.

[194] Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 42.

[195] ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p.128.

[196] ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 137.

[197] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.41.

[198] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 108.

[199] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CVI, p. 213; emphasis added.

[200] Some Answered Questions, p. 171.

[201] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, XVI, p. 39 – 40.

[202] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, XXXIV, p. 81; emphasis added. 

[203] The Kita-i-Aqdas 13.

[204] Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 8.

[205] Some Answered Questions, p. 149.

[206] Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 15.

[207] Some Answered Question, p. 6.

[208] Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh, p.95.

[209] Some Answered Questions, p. 278.

[210] Abdu'l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, p. 18

[211] Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 8.

[212] Some, like Rorty, have suggested a pragmatic compromise in which we ignore ‘truth’ and focus simply on ‘usefulness’ as a way of avoiding the horns of this dilemma, but such a compromise is really a surreptitious introduction of an Archimedean standpoint – even if only temporarily – in order to make a judgment among competing options.

[213] `Abdu'l-Bahá’, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 22; see also Some Answered Questions, p. 297.

[214] Some Answered Questions, p. 278.

[215] Some Answered Questions, p. 253; emphasis added.

[216] Some Answered Questions, p. 299; emphasis added.

[217] The Promulgation of Universal Peace p.255; emphasis added.

[218] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, ed. Ted Honderich, p.759.

[219] Simon Blackburn, The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, p.327.

[220] Abdu'l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, p. 26.

[221] Some Answered Questions, p. 5.

[222] Some Answered Questions 5. Of course, it is important to distinguish the absolute assertion that God exists from particular descriptions of God; the latter may well be limited by our personal perspectives, but the former is an absolute truth. There is no perspective from which it is not true.

[223] The World Order of  Bahá’u’lláh p.58; see also the Preface to The Promised Day is Come; Bahá’í Administration p.185. 

[224] The Promulgation of Universal Peace p.106; emphasis added.

[225] Alexander Skutch, The Golden Core of Religion.

[226] The Promulgation of Universal Peace p.106.

[227] Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 40.

[228] The Promulgation of Universal Peace p.287.

[229] Some Answered Questions, p. 3-4.

[230] Some Answered Questions, p. 217; emphasis added.

[231] Abdu'l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, p. 15; emphasis added.

[232] Some Answered Questions, p. 208.

[233] Some Answered Questions, p. 217.

[234] Some Answered Questions, p. 7.

[235] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 181.

[236] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107; emphasis added.

[237] Abdu'l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, p. 26.

[238] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.179.

[239] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 326 – 327.

[240] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 224.

[241] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 465.

[242] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.7.

[243] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.208; see also The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.241.

[244] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 60.

[245] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.184.

[246] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p.184.

[247] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions p.184.