Messiah as Man

“the more fallible the mammal, the truer the example.”
—Christopher Hitchens

I wasn’t brought up Christian, but I was brought up to believe in a holy trinity of sorts. I was taught that a certain few men were perfect images of God; that these men, though not God in essence, were perfect reflections of God in the “material world,” and thus they were effectively God so far as mankind is concerned. As images of God in the material realm (i.e., idols), they could be regarded as God incarnate. Hence Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of my parents’ religion wrote, “I am God.”

The metaphor I was given was made of three parts: the sun, the light of the sun, and a mirror. The sun represented God, the sunlight the Holy Spirit, and lastly, the mirror took the place of the incarnation, or as Bahá’ís say, the “manifestation,” a term which spiritualists have long equated with “materialization.” It is effectively equivalent to incarnation.

This theological model implied infallibility on the part of the manifestation, as a “perfect reflection” of God. Though infallibility was implicit, it was made quite explicit by Bahá’u’lláh’s writings. This model of perfect deification of individuals was extended, as it turned out, to various successors of Bahá’u’lláh, though nuance was applied to the notion of infallibility applied to the successors.

The doctrine of infallible succession, entitled “the Covenant,” is considered by Bahá’ís to be an unprecedented, eternal mandate from God that keeps the Bahá’í authorities “free from error.” This covenant that God keeps with Bahá’ís can be stated thus: so long as a Bahá’í is faithful to the authoritative succession, God will provide that Bahá’í with unerring guidance by means of that authority.

The doctrine was first established in Bahá’u’lláh’s last will and testament, entitled “the Book of the Covenant,” wherein he directed his followers to be faithful to his sons. This command was used by the prophet’s eldest son to claim himself to be an infallible exemplar for all Bahá’ís, just as Muhammad is regarded as a perfect example by most Muslims.

Like an abusive husband thrives on the inferiority of a submissive wife, religion often undermines humanity as a means to justifying its own existence. Christianity sees humans as hopeless sinners. Islám sees humans as powerless slaves. The Bahá’í Faith established its mandate upon an image of humans as blind sheep in need of continuous guidance. This the Bahá’í Faith did to an unprecedented degree, inasmuch as its “Covenant” is promised to continue to be manifested in this world in a much more thorough sense than in the case of the Catholic Papacy or the Shí’a Imamate.

I gave up on such divine authoritarianism long ago, chiefly because I found that it stifles independent thought and undermines human dignity; yet, as I look back at the history of the Bahá’í religion, I sometimes wonder whether it might have been originally conceived with more enlightened intentions. This is not to suggest that the Bahá’í religion can be redeemed in its current state of depravity, or even that Bahá’u’lláh was without fault.

Bahá’u’lláh had several of the markings of a reluctant messiah. He was 45 years old and living in exile when he finally declared himself the “promised one of all ages.” He’d recently disappeared for two years, apparently overwhelmed by the infighting amid his religious community. At the time, he claimed that he had been aware that he was a “manifestation” for over a decade. Perhaps he had been waiting for the right timing, perhaps to transform the passage of some number of years into a retroactive prophecy. It’s hard to even guess what might have been going on in his mind.

Bahá’u’lláh claimed to have become aware of his divine station while imprisoned in the “Black Pit” of Tehran at age 35, probably wondering whether he was about to be executed. He said he’d had a divine vision under the unbearable conditions of that former subterranean reservoir.  It should surprise no one that this man saw something remarkable while bent under the weight of heavy chains in a dark, damp, cave. What interests me is how long Bahá’u’lláh’s memory of that experience had to distill before he ever brought it to the attention of his religious community. Bahá’u’lláh’s Black Pit would make a fine analog to Muhammad’s Cave of Hira. The key difference for Bahá’u’lláh was that he was in mortal danger at the time and that he let the memory brew for a decade.

Did Bahá’u’lláh immediately come to believe that he was the world-Messiah? It doesn’t appear to be likely, but I don’t doubt that he convinced himself of it over time. He may have schemed consciously to some degree, but I think it likely that the subconscious mind ultimately took over. Yes, I believe he deluded himself, not that this would have been out of the ordinary. Men commonly delude themselves. It’s the nature of the beast. We may even look upon ourselves as naught but the delusions we craft for ourselves. We are quite adept at self-deception. We craft memories to develop narratives of our pasts. We rationalize. We forget when remembering is inconvenient. This is how the human mind operates.

I don’t think that Bahá’u’lláh’s delusion of grandeur was entirely malignant. There are signs that Bahá’u’lláh might have been something of a Bourgeois humanitarian, and his delusion might have saved a faltering messianic movement from itself and set it upon a progressive course. It’s not a great stretch to suggest that his writings emphasized human harmony, and why not advocate social change through religious revolution? There was perhaps no better forum for social change in the 19th Century Middle East than religion.

Even at his most tyrannical, Bahá’u’lláh often left us hints of a pragmatic purpose. When he spoke of the importance of fearing God, he directed his reasoning toward those whom he regarded as the shameless mass of men. When he wrote his very Muslim, retrograde “Book of Laws,” he said that he did so to satisfy certain elements among his following. He did say that men should be regarded as sheep, but I think he may have left room for exceptions, for the statement is not necessarily false if taken as a statement of sociological fact. Is it not true that most people prefer to live as sheep?

I often criticize Bahá’u’lláh for his undignified depiction of humanity, but perhaps pessimism about human vision is a forgivable failure. I consider this failure of faith in humanity to be the Achilles heel of Bahá’u’lláh‘s cause, but that crippling shortcoming does not necessarily render his efforts meaningless or in vain. Taken in the context of his time and place, we may yet be able to see Bahá’u’lláh as a progressive reformer—though no hero, saint, or messiah—in a religious milieu that was and remains in desperate need of reform.

© 2012 Dan Jensen