I can see that a lot of people are clicking on the “Post-monotheism” tab of my blog. The concept is sure to be controversial, especially among some of my Baha’i readers, so I should spend a few words explaining what the concept is, what it meant to me when it was first developed, and what it means for me now as a practicing Baha’i. I should also emphasize that it is just my concept and not an actual tenet or interpretative doctrine of the Baha’i Faith.
Post-monotheism is a concept to which my name has been attached for a year and a half now among my circle of friends, colleagues, and readers; it’s even got its own Wikipedia entry. It has come to mean two things for me — a very personal moment of spiritual and intellectual clarity during a deep twilight, and a possibly useful way of understanding the historical and theological visions of the Baha’i Faith.
On the one hand, it was originally an historiographical-spiritual sensibility which I developed during my first Master’s degree program, which was in history. I laid out the principles in a July 2008 essay entitled, The Historian’s Theodicy. By the way, if you’re not feeling up to the task of reading the essay, then there’s a brief summary at the bottom of the “Post-monotheism” page that was originally written at the same time as the essay.
For me, The Historian’s Theodicy was and remains an imperfect masterpiece. It’s bold, if not hyperbolic, and also very forthright. Yet, although it was never intended for publication in an academic journal, it too often rings of a manifesto, which was not precisely my intention. Yes, like any scholar I want to be agreed with, but post-monotheism was not an ideology or program.
More importantly, though, the essay represents a moment in my life in which an intellectual and spiritual struggle crystallized. I was writing my first Master’s thesis at the time, about the Apostasy Wars of early Islamic history. My long, difficult romance with Islam, had left me thoroughly burned out, and many tenets of Muslim faith had become tattered.
When I look back at the essay, I see it as my “Ecclesiastes moment” before I discovered (or, more accurately, re-discovered) the Baha’i Faith — the searching, groping darkness before the dawn. Indeed, the axioms I developed therein laid the groundwork for not only the dawnbreak.
The axioms also established an articulate foundation and philosophical scope for the development of my spiritual-intellectual framework. Not only this, but the analogy to Hamlet and the idea of God as an author, although it was an idea I had been developing long before the essay, also gained formal clarity and set the tone for later meditations.
Thus, the essay left a living legacy that continues within my being to this day. For all its flaws, I’m proud of it. Indeed, I’m glad that I wrote it, for it set the tone for the kind of the thinker I wanted to become and still strive to achieve.
On the other hand, the term “post-monotheism” remains potentially useful to describe my religion, the Baha’i faith. However, it needs some significant reconstruction and disentanglement from The Historian’s Theodicy.
To begin with, if by “monotheism” we understand the traditional monotheistic religions that existed before the nineteenth century, then the Baha’i faith, which has very much a revisionist historiography concerning its predecessors, would indeed be “post“-monotheistic. I should note that I’m using these terms in very specific technical and material senses:
- Regarding “revisionism”, the Bab and Baha’u'llah not only expanded the nature and scope of sacral history into an all-embracing vision, but in their writings, especially The Hidden Words, they deconstructed the traditions of the past, digging down to the traditions’ essences so as to re-unleash the underlying oasis of spiritual and civilizational resurrection whence all the great religions flowed.
- Regarding “predecessors”, we Baha’is believe that the phenomenon of religion is both extratemporal and greater than the individual religions that claim the title, including our own. In a sense, the Baha’i faith is Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. Nevertheless, in strict material terms, we are also chronologically later than them, the next step in evolution, so to speak.
Secondly, our vision of God as a Being so transcendent that She is beyond both transcendence and immanence and all other duality and description would be, in a very literal sense, post-monotheistic – the One True God is beyond the One True God, and hence, beyond monotheism. Perhaps for some readers feel I’m just playing with words, but I’m deadly serious when I say that God is greater than God.
The post-monotheistic thrust of the Baha’i theological vision does two things. First, it is an evolution of the logic of the monotheisms which preceded it, and perhaps also hints at the logical-conceptual space in which the doctrines of the next Manifestation of God will be formulated in nigh a millennium from now according to Baha’i prophecies. I quote Shoghi Effendi, who writes,
[We are now in a] Dispensation which, as the Author of the Faith has Himself categorically asserted, must extend over a period of no less than one thousand years, and which will constitute the first stage in a series of Dispensations, to be established by future Manifestations, all deriving their inspiration from the Author of the Baha’i Revelation, and destined to last, in their aggregate, no less than five thousand centuries…
Secondly, the Baha’i vision of divine post-monotheism may be one way of framing why our faith’s teachings emphasize the personage of the Manifestation of God. I’ll now conclude these remarks and lead you onto the promised summary of The Historian’s Theodicy with the following quote from Baha’u'llah, who writes,
The door of the knowledge of the Ancient Being [God] hath ever been, and will continue to be, closed in the face of men. No man’s understanding shall ever gain access unto His holy court. As a token of His mercy, however, and as a proof of His loving-kindness, He hath manifested unto men the Day Stars of His divine guidance, the Symbols of His divine unity, and hath ordained the knowledge of these sanctified Beings to be identical with the knowledge of His own Self.