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Progressive revelation is a core teaching in the Bahá'í Faith that suggests that religious truth is revealed by God progressively and cyclically over time through a series of divine Messengers, and that the teachings are tailored to suit the needs of the time and place of their appearance. Thus, the Bahá'í teachings recognize the divine origin of several world religions as different stages of in the history of one religion, while believing that the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh is the most recent (though not the last--that there will never be a last), and therefore the most relevant to modern society.
This teaching is an interaction of simpler teachings and their implications. The basic concept relates closely to Bahá'í views on God's essential unity, and the nature of prophets, termed Manifestations of God. It also ties into Bahá'í views of the purpose and nature of religion, laws, belief, culture and history. Hence revelation is seen as both progressive and continuous, and therefore never ceases.
Bahá'ís believe God to be generally regular and periodic in revealing His will to mankind through messengers/prophets, which are named Manifestations of God. Each messenger in turn establishes a covenant and founds a religion. This process of revelation, according to the Bahá'í writings, is also never ceasing, which is contrary to many other belief systems that believe in a finality of their prophet/messenger. The general theme of the successive and continuous religions founded by Manifestations of God is that there is an evolutionary tendency, and that each Manifestation of God brings a larger measure of revelation (or religion) to humankind than the previous one. The differences in the revelation brought by the Manifestations of God is stated to be not inherent in the characteristics of the Manifestation of God, but instead attributed to the various worldly, societal and human factors; these differences are in accordance with the "conditions" and "varying requirements of the age" and the "spiritual capacity" of humanity. These differences are seen to be needed since human society has slowly and gradually evolved through higher stages of unification from the family to tribes and then nations.
Thus religious truth is seen to be relative to its recipients and not absolute; while the messengers proclaimed eternal moral and spiritual truths that are renewed by each messenger, they also changed their message to reflect the particular spiritual and material evolution of humanity at the time of the appearance of the messenger. In the Bahá'í view, since humanity's spiritual capacity and receptivity has increased over time, the extent to which these spiritual truths are expounded changes.
Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, explained that the appearance of successive messengers was like the annual coming of Spring, which brings new life to the world which has come to neglect the teachings of the previous messenger. He also used an analogy of the world as the human body, and revelation as a robe of "justice and wisdom".
Whenever this robe hath fulfilled its purpose, the Almighty will assuredly renew it. For every age requireth a fresh measure of the light of God. Every Divine Revelation hath been sent down in a manner that befitted the circumstances of the age in which it hath appeared.
Bahá'u'lláh mentioned in the Kitáb-i-Íqán that God will renew the "City of God" about every thousand years, and specifically mentioned that a new Manifestation of God would not appear within 1000 years of Bahá'u'lláh's message.
Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Zoroaster, and Krishna were all named by Bahá'u'lláh as being among the establishers of religion, termed Manifestations of God, as well as himself, and his forerunner the Báb. Bahá'u'lláh also expressly or implicitly referred to Adam, Noah, Saleh, Húd, and an unnamed prophet of the Sabians as messengers of God.
In addition to the idea of religion being progressively revealed from the same God through different prophets/messengers, there also exists in Bahá'í literature, the idea of a universal cycle, which represents a series of dispensations, and is used to categorize human history and social evolution in a number of ways. It is viewed as a superset of the sequence of progressive revelations, and currently comprises two cycles.
The Adamic cycle, also known as the Prophetic cycle is stated to have begun approximately 6,000 years ago with a Manifestation of God referred to in various sacred scriptures as Adam, and ended with the dispensation of Muhammad. In this cycle, Bahá'í belief is that Manifestations of God continued to advance human civilization at regular intervals through progressive revelation. The Abrahamic religions and Dharmic religions are partial recognitions of this cycle, from a Bahá'í point of view.
In Bahá'í belief, the Bahá'í cycle, or Cycle of Fulfillment, began with the Báb and includes Bahá'u'lláh, and will last at least five hundred thousand years with numerous Manifestations of God appearing throughout that time. It is stated in Bahá'í literature that the Manifestations of God in the Adamic cycle, in addition to bringing their own teachings, foretold of the Cycle of Fulfillment.
Each religion, and the cycle of religions as a whole, is compared in the literature of the Bahá'í faith with a daily and seasonal cycle.
For the daily cycle you have dawn/morning, noon/afternoon, evening/night . The appearance of the Manifestation of God is here likened to the rise of the great spiritual Sun. The teachings of this Prophet then extend and deepen towards noon and afternoon but the shadows of our nature grow long and eventually we have only the spiritual moon and stars to guide our night until a new sunrise.
For the seasonal cycle you have the divine springtime when the ice of winter cold begins to loosen its grip and the first blooms appear while others still hibernate. The season continues to warm until all the plants and animals have awakened and stirred with the heat of summer and its rains. But the light seems to fade, a layer of growth gets set and leaves fall. Finally winter stills most motion, and coldness grips all until the next divine springtime.
Religion as a school
The earliest forms of religion are seen, in many of the Bahá'í Writings, to be like early school. Concepts which may have been appropriate at an earlier time, then, might be quite inaccurate when one has sufficient context. Bahá'ís would not say that these earlier beliefs were wrong, since they were sufficient to the capacity of humanity at the time.
These views allow Bahá'ís to resolve many of the apparent conflicts between the differing theologies and cosmologies of the world. Each different religion may have had truth explained differently according to the needs of the recipients of the teaching. Bahá'u'lláh was asked several questions about the nature of differences in religions, God's messengers, and religious laws. His response was a reference to progressive revelation:
The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.
- "O ye children of men! The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men. Suffer it not to become a source of dissension and discord, of hate and enmity. This is the straight Path, the fixed and immovable foundation. Whatsoever is raised on this foundation, the changes and chances of the world can never impair its strength, nor will the revolution of countless centuries undermine its structure. Our hope is that the world's religious leaders and the rulers thereof will unitedly arise for the reformation of this age and the rehabilitation of its fortunes. Let them, after meditating on its needs, take counsel together and, through anxious and full deliberation, administer to a diseased and sorely-afflicted world the remedy it requireth."
- Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 215. 
Religious truth is of two kinds
Bahá'ís believe that religious teachings are of two varieties: essential spiritual truth, and ephemeral social constructs. The latter may include laws of conduct, diet, institutions, ceremonies, etc. These may change dramatically from Manifestation to Manifestation. The former, however, are essential and do not change, except perhaps in their cultural presentation.
A good example of this is the prohibition on the consumption of cloven-hooved animals in Judaism, which is seen by Bahá'ís as a sound teaching necessary for public health at the time. Modern hygiene and medical knowledge has given us better abilities to ward off the parasites and other harmful aspects of such consumption, and so such restrictions are not part of the Bahá'í Faith.
So the Manifestation of God is seen as at once restoring the essential truth, returning the faithful to the correct practice. Simultaneously, the Manifestation eliminates redundant or corrupt social structures and creates such social organization as will support the improvement of mankind.
Bahá'ís see Bahá'u'lláh as the most recent teacher, the most recent Manifestation.
Types of religions and religious founders
Bahá'ís accept the founders of the "major world religions" as Manifestations of God, as well as some who are not well known, or whose religions have all but disappeared. The usual list Bahá'ís commonly refer to include: Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster (Zarathustra), Abraham, Moses, Christ, Muhammad, the Báb, and Bahá'u'lláh. Others are referred to in Bahá'í Writings or confirmed from Islamic and other sources, including Joseph, Noah, Hud, Salih, and the founder of the "religions of the Sabeans", a religion which, according to Shoghi Effendi, was widespread in Chaldea at the time of Abraham.
Furthermore, the existence of unnumbered previous religions of which we have no modern knowledge is confirmed by the Guardian:
- "These religions are not the only true religions that have appeared in the world, but are the only ones still existing. There have always been divine Prophets and Messengers, to many of whom the Qur'án refers. But the only ones existing are those mentioned above."
- Shoghi Effendi, quoted in the compilation Lights of Guidance, p. 414.
Additionally, Bahá'ís are taught that some worthy religions are not revealed by Manifestations of God. These were founded by spiritual leaders who were members of the great faiths and were religious teachers "sensitive to the spiritual currents flowing" at the time of the appearance of a new Manifestation of God. These religions, while not authoritative, are nevertheless a reflection of divine teachings and are treated with respect.
Finally, Bahá'í teachings allow for the existence of dangerous and destructive religious groups which are either distortions of true faith, or "the outcome of human perversity." The Bahá'í sacred writings and Bahá'í leadership makes no attempt to explicitly identify these, though the common understanding is that this refers to personality cults, political hijacking or subversion of legitimate religions, or money scams and the like.
With the exception of the above mentions, the Bahá'í Faith tends to stay aloof from discussions of which faith or denomination is legitimate or "closer to the truth". Given that they see Bahá'u'lláh as having offered the most recent revelation from God to mankind, such distinctions are seen as somewhat redundant, and ultimately unhelpful to the goal of uniting humanity.
'Kitáb-i-Íqán' ('The Book of Certitude')
Bahá'u'lláh's seminal Kitáb-i-Íqán (in English, The Book of Certitude) is probably the best original description of the Bahá'í view of Progressive Revelation. In it Bahá'u'lláh describes the relationships between several Abrahamic prophets and how each accepted the previous, but was rejected by the previous prophet's followers. He uses these examples to highlight the legitimacy of the Báb to the reader, since the book was written in answer to some questions from the Báb's uncle. The work, however, establishes the core teaching of the Bahá'í Faith and is seen as being of more general applicability.
The Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh
A variety of Bahá'u'lláh's letters to rulers and religious leaders of the day, as well as some general epistles are collected in the book Summons of the Lord of Hosts. Several of the declarations include exhortations to lay down arms, conflicts, and divisions and to promote unity. In particular, religious prejudice is targeted in various places as being, not only a cause of disunity, but unjustified in fact.
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- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Smith, Peter (2000). "Progressive revelation". A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pp. p. 276-277. ISBN 1-85168-184-1.
- ↑ Effendi, Shoghi (1974). Bahá'í Administration. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. p. 185. ISBN 0-87743-166-3. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/se/BA/ba-169.html#pg185.
- ↑ `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 378. 
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Lundberg, Zaid (1996-05). Baha'i Apocalypticism: The Concept of Progressive Revelation. Department of History of Religion at the Faculty of Theology, Lund University. http://bahai-library.com/?file=lundberg_bahai_apocalypticism. Retrieved 2006-11-25.
- ↑ Gleanings, pg. 81.
- ↑ The Kitáb-i-Íqán, pg. 199.
- ↑ McMullen, Michael D. (2000). The Baha'i: The Religious Construction of a Global Identity. Atlanta, Georgia: Rutgers University Press. p. 7. ISBN 0813528364.
- ↑ The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, gr. 37.
- ↑ `Abdu'l-Bahá (1990). Some Answered Questions (Softcover ed.). Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. p. 160. ISBN 0-87743-162-0. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/ab/SAQ/saq-41.html?query=cycle&action=highlight#gr3.
- ↑ Universal House of Justice. Messages 1963 to 1986. Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. p. 738.
- ↑ Effendi, Shoghi (1938). The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. p. 163. ISBN 0-87743-231-7. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/se/WOB/wob-41.html#pg163.
- ↑ Letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, March 13, 1986. Published in Effendi, Shoghi; The Universal House of Justice (1983). Hornby, Helen (Ed.). ed. Lights of Guidance: A Bahá'í Reference File. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, New Delhi, India. p. 500. ISBN 81-85091-46-3. http://bahai-library.com/?file=hornby_lights_guidance.
- ↑ 13.0 13.1 Taherzadeh, Adib (1977). The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, Volume 2: Adrianople 1863-68. Oxford, UK: George Ronald. p. 352. ISBN 0-85398-071-3. http://www.peyman.info/cl/Baha%27i/Others/ROB/V2/p337-369Ch16.html#p351.
- ↑ Effendi, Shoghi (1938). The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. p. 102. ISBN 0-87743-231-7. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/se/WOB/wob-37.html#pg102.
- ↑ Effendi, Shoghi (1944). God Passes By. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. p. 100. ISBN 0-87743-020-9. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/se/GPB/gpb-7.html#pg100/.
- ↑ The Eternal Quest for God, Chapter 10, The World of The Kingdom
- ↑ Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá section 16
- ↑ Springtime metaphors and spring-related imagery by Bahá'u'lláh, Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi Compiled by Eric Joseph Hadley-Ives.
- ↑ Gleanings, pg 116.
- `Abdu'l-Bahá (1981). Some Answered Questions. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. ISBN 0-87743-190-6. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/ab/SAQ/.
- Bahá'u'lláh (1976). Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. ISBN 0-87743-187-6. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/GWB/.
- Bahá'u'lláh (2003) . Kitáb-i-Íqán: The Book of Certitude. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. ISBN 1-931847-08-8. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/KI/.
- Bahá'u'lláh (1991). The Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh. Haifa, Israel: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. ISBN 0-87743-065-9. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/PB/.
- Effendi, Shoghi (1981). The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. ISBN 0-900125-46-2. http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/se/WOB/wob-37.html.