Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Achieving Reconciliation in a Conflicting World

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Achieving Reconciliation in a Conflicting World

Article excerpt

As the nineteenth century approached its term, Nietzsche's madman was pondering the death of God, and coming face to face with the awesome puzzle of its aftermath: "Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun? Wither is it moving now? Wither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left?" (142).

His lone, demented voice had in fact vis ione d the shape of things to come: "For some time now we have realized it," Italo Calvino adverts,

[T]he storeroom of humanity's accumulated materials - mechanisms, machines, merchandises, markets, institutions, documents, poems, emblems, photograms, opera pietà, arts and trades, encyclopedias, cosmologies, grammars, topoi and figures of speech, ties of kinship, tribe and enterprise, myths and rituals, operational models - no way remains to keep them in order. ... all the parameters, the categories, the antitheses, that had served to imagine, classify, and project the world, are up for discussion. And not only those closest to historic attributions of values: the rational and the mythic, to work and to exist, masculine and feminine, and even the poles of more elementary topologies, like affirmation and negation, the tall and the short, the living and the thing.

It should not surprise that such conditions should have had a profoundly destabilizing effect not only on our societies but on our very notions of self, engendering what Appadurai describes as a "new order of instability in the production of modern subjectivities" (4). Bahá'u'lláh Himself had prefigured this development, declaring with the tongue of prophecy in richly symbolic language: "The heaven of every religion hath been rent, and the earth of human understanding been cleft asunder. . . . The mountains have passed away, and the heavens have been folded together. . . . Every woman that hath had a burden in her womb hath cast her burden. We see men drunken in this Day, the Day in which men and angels have been gathered together" (Gleanings 45).

On the one hand, such processes, such collapses, such implosions of seemingly reified schémas, disclose possibilities for more inclusive and harmonious interpretations of the grand narratives that ordered for centuries our sense of ourselves and of others, enabling unprecedented degrees of cross-cultural insight and participation in shared meaning. On the other hand, the selfsame speed and nature of these changes furnishes fresh incentives for cultural conflict, for entrenchment in ever-hardening identities to serve as barricades to hold the tide of cultural relativism, "where meanings, in a chaotic pattern rather than neatly ordered, are of necessity relativized to one another."1 This is perhaps nowhere more so than in the religious sphere, as the Universal House of Justice most recently highlighted, "The greater part of organized religion stands paralyzed at the threshold of the future, gripped in those very dogmas and claims of privileged access to truth that have been responsible for creating some of the most bitter conflicts dividing the earth's inhabitants. The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion" ("Religious Leaders").

Faced with such politics of difference, grounded and legitimated in the religious sphere on the basis of conflicting claims and narratives that the attentive reader soon discovers within and between the sacred texts of the world's religions, it becomes clear that a full reappraisal of the doctrinal and philosophical underpinnings of interreligious conflict is a matter as challenging as it is urgent. "What cannot be morally justified," in the words of the Universal House of Justice, "is the manipulation of cultural legacies that were intended to enrich spiritual experience, as a means to arouse prejudice and alienation. …

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