Mike’s note: Here’s an excerpt from the Speakeasy book review selection, The Story of Our Time. In these pages, Dr. Robert Atkinson offers a deeply thoughtful narrative of conscious evolution drawn from the cumulative wisdom of the world’s religions. The Story of Our Time traces love’s unifying power throughout history to love’s presence in our midst. Don’t be distracted by seeming setbacks, Atkinson encourages; the big-picture of conscious evolution and human progress points toward the promise of peace on earth. Unity is our ultimate destination. How we get there depends upon the stories we live by and the action we take. I really appreciate hearing this from his Baha’i perspective, a faith-path I don’t really have much experience with. I choose to put this perspective into curious dialogue with my own path as an aspiring Jesus-follower; to me, life is too short and the Great Work is too vital for us to approach different and challenging paradigms with anything but respect and wonder. I may not always agree, but I can always learn. Without further ado, here’s ‘Re-Visioning Religion’!
There are two ways we can view religion: as consisting of multiple, separate, and independent entities; or, as one evolving knowledge system with many branches. If we view reality as a whole, we also have to see Divine truth as relative, progressive, and unfolding gradually, all the while coming from the same Source. Truth is not known and fixed for all time, but is rather revealed little by little. When more is needed, more follows. If reality is one, truth has to be one.
A long-standing paradox in the comparative study of religions has been: How could there be one Creator and so many religions? This question has perplexed the keenest minds for centuries. Yet, the Messengers of the one Creator have each accepted the prophets before and acknowledged that there would be others to follow.
The continuing nature of divine Revelation has been expressed by Krishna, a principal founder of Hinduism, as: “Whenever dharma declines and the purpose of life is forgotten, I manifest myself on earth. I am born in every age to protect the good, to destroy evil, and to reestablish dharma.” In the Bible is written, “And thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name.”
Buddha taught that Brahman is continually manifested in the world: “I am not the first Buddha who came upon earth, nor shall I be the last. In due time another Buddha will arise in the world, a Holy One, a supremely enlightened One… He will reveal to you the same eternal truths… such as I now proclaim.”
Christ also took an eternal perspective on the progressive nature of revelation: “I have many things to tell you, but ye cannot bear them now… when the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth…and he will show you things to come.”
Muhammad also looked ahead to the “day unto which mankind shall be gathered together” as “a time appointed,” adding, “To each age its Book.”
As earlier prophets did for their time, Baha’u’llah, in this age, fulfilled the promises of previous Revelations, reaffirming the progressive nature of religion. In The Book of Certitude, Baha’u’llah tells the story of the prophets from Abraham, the “Friend of God,” to Moses, “He Who held converse with God,” to “the Manifestation of Jesus,” and to “the Day-star of Muhammad.” They, and the other major prophets (including Krishna, Zoroaster, and Buddha), are all “Treasuries of divine knowledge,” each a clearly polished mirror reflecting the light of one sun, each central to the Creator’s promise to never leave humanity alone.
“The paradox of many religions and one Creator can now be seen holistically. No longer do we need to see the world’s religions as separated from each other; rather, they can be seen as joined in purpose and origin. The story of the prophets is the story of the Creator sending a never-ending message to humanity, piece by piece.
In these trying times, we cannot afford to lose sight of the many individual and social benefits humanity has reaped from religion. Within the world’s religious and spiritual traditions lie the seeds for rebuilding a tired and worn world.
However, misconceptions still linger about the nature of religion and the way the Creator interacts with an ever-evolving creation; these need to be addressed in public and interfaith discourse in order to ensure the progress of humanity.
Religion needs to be re-envisioned as built upon a dynamic, interconnected sequence of divine Messengers who manifest the attributes of an inaccessible Divinity and convey divinely-inspired Revelations that guide and educate humanity from age to age. As Abdu’l-Baha has put it, “Religion is the outer expression of divine reality. Therefore, it must be living, vitalized, moving, and progressive.”
“With this perspective, we can see that the founders of the world’s major religions (including Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and Baha’u’llah) each brought messages representing a stage in the limitless unfolding of a single reality which has gradually yet purposively awakened humanity to our true nature, empowered us to serve the evolutionary process itself, and made us the first example of “evolution become conscious of itself,” as Huxley noted.
As one universal law governs the entire creation, the same law governs the evolution of religion. How different would our sense of meaning and purpose in life be if we actually saw religion as part of evolution?”
“It wasn’t until the mid-19th century, with the “work of Darwin, that evolution even entered popular discourse. We now understand that everything evolves: life, society, cultures, civilization, and especially science and technology. Teilhard de Chardin indicates that evolution itself may be tied to the greatest force of all: “Is evolution a theory, a system or a hypothesis? It is much more: it is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow and which they must satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow.”
About the only area of human consciousness we haven’t yet accepted as evolving is humanity’s relationship to the Creator, or religion itself. The idea that all religions could be seen as pieces of the same puzzle, or the same evolutionary whole, is missing from leading definitions of religion; this idea might even be seen as disrespect for religion itself. Prevailing views of religion try to keep the branches separate from the trunk of the tree they have emerged from.
Re-visioning religion for our time would mean recognizing religion as one, just as we see science as one, though both science and religion have their many branches. Rather than religions having popped up here and there, now and then, at the deepest level religion is religion, as science is science.
Religion has taught us how to love on greater and greater levels over time. The Baha’i writings say, “The purpose of the successive revelations of God is the awakening of humankind to its capacities and responsibilities as the trustee of creation.” This process rests upon the progressive unfolding of a single reality.
Baha’u’llah, in his 19th-century revelation, continuing from where the revelation of Muhammad left off some twelve centuries earlier, extended, expanded, and renewed our understanding of ethics, values, and spiritual relativity. He also recast religion as one evolutionary process, one system of knowledge, and as the most compelling force guiding the unfolding of consciousness. He identified the oneness of humanity as the primary spiritual principle of our time; one people occupying one planet. This could not have been envisioned in any of the previous revelations.
Referring to his own revelation and all those preceding and following, Baha’u’llah said, “This is the changeless faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.” This concept, crucial to understanding the evolution of religion, is eloquently, yet mysteriously, expressed in the Gospel of John (1:1-10), “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was God… There was a man sent from God… He was not that Light, but he was sent to bear witness of that Light. He was in the world, and the world was made by him.”
Praise for The Story of Our Time
“Robert Atkinson’s The Story of Our Time is a thoughtful, balanced, and gracious contribution from the Baha’i perspective, introducing a stream of unitive evolutionary wisdom that has been ahead of the curve for a long time and deserves to be more widely known.”
– Cynthia Bourgeault, author of The Wisdom Way of Knowing; The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three; and The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice
“Good news! For all the divisive shadows rising across the landscape of the global community these days, there is an answering and much more potent luminosity. Human consciousness is unfolding toward its essential unity—not only with other humans but also with all Life. This lucid book both celebrates that evolutionary trajectory and guides our full and empowered participation.”
— Mirabai Starr, author of Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss & Transformation, and God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity & Islam
“What makes this book a classic is its profound stretch across the philosophical, metaphysical, scientific, and spiritual panorama of existence, all wrapped in the universal language of connectivity that unites all sentient beings: Love. It is a must-read by the widest of global audiences.”
— Michael Bernard Beckwith, author of Life Visioning
“As Muhammad said, ‘To every age its own book.’ Atkinson’s The Story of Our Time aptly summarizes today’s story of emergent conscious unity across our species. Organizing the scientific, spiritual, and myriad other elements of this story into seven binding principles only further enhances the value of this book.”
— Kurt Johnson, organizer of The Interspiritual Network, and author of The Coming Interspiritual Age
“With clarity and insight, Atkinson describes this pivotal moment in our collective evolution. Here are the guidelines for the shift in consciousness humanity needs to make if we are to survive and transform, if we are to make the transition from ‘the love of power to the power of love.’ Here is real hope grounded in the deep understanding of life’s essential unity and our innate capacity for love.”
— Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Sufi teacher and author of Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth
Robert Atkinson, Ph.D., is an internationally acknowledged authority in helping people tell their life stories. He is a pioneer in the development of the life story interview methodology and among the first to apply Joseph Campbell’s classic work on the mythological journey of the hero to contemporary personal mythmaking. His books in these areas, The Gift of Stories: Practical and Spiritual Applications of Autobiography, Life Stories, and Personal Mythmaking, and The Life Story Interview, and Mystic Journey: Getting to the Heart of Your Soul’s Story have been translated into Japanese, Italian, and Romanian and are widely used in personal growth and life review settings. His latest book, The Story of Our Time: From Duality to Interconnectedness to Oneness, is excerpted here.