Revelation

Revelation: A Common Theme Across All Religions

Tuesday, November 8 is Guru Nanak Jayanti, celebrating the birth of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, who introduced a new form of religious revelation to the world. 

Revelatory experiences can be potent and transformative. Religions gently nudge all followers to prepare themselves to be like receptive vessels. At their core, the revelations of most religions are not so different. The common message of religious revelations is one that celebrates our common humanity and calls for action and service that promotes love, compassion, and peace in the world. Most often, this gets misinterpreted by the practitioners. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber says, “The encounter with God does not come to man in order that he may henceforth attend to God but in order that he may prove its meaning in action in the world. All revelation is a calling and a mission. But again and again man shuns actualization and bends back toward the revealer: he would rather attend to God than to the world.”

In the Baha’i faith, “progressive revelation” refers to the central belief that all great prophets from the various religions throughout human history are messengers of the same God who reveal teachings that are suited to the particular times and places in which they have appeared. 

In the Abrahamic traditions, revelation refers to how God speaks to us, through his prophets, with the sacred books—known as revealed texts—codifying these revelations. 

While the great revelations of human history have created communities and catalyzed entirely new ways of understanding the world, most religious traditions recognize the capacity that every individual has for revelatory experiences. In Hinduism and Buddhism, revelation refers to the inward process of self-realization and the attainment of enlightenment. In fact, Taoism and Confucianism do not regard revelation as much as they do their teachings.

We are all searching for answers—how great it would be if we could be graced with revelation from some booming voice above, clearing up all our confusion. Alas, these events are rare, but the insights left to us through the words of prophets and scriptures can be just as valuable. 

The problems arise when sacred revelatory texts are held to be the literal infallible and unfiltered words of God, for then the members of the religious community resist efforts to reinterpret the meaning of the texts, which fail to adapt with the times, causing the religion to stagnate and become rigid. Instead, revelation should be seen as an evolving process of constantly applying the teachings of wise prophets and sages to new times and cultural contexts. 

Christianity

“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.’”

—The New Testament (1 Revelations 1:8), Christian text

“While the soul is very far from thinking that anything will be seen, or having the thought even pass through its mind, suddenly the vision is represented to it all at once and stirs all the faculties and senses with a great fear and tumult so as to place them afterward in that happy peace.”

—Teresa of Avila, Christian saint

Islam

“We sent them with clear signs and scriptures. We have sent down the message to you too [Prophet], so that you can explain to people what was sent for them, so that they may reflect.”

The Qur’an (16:44), Muslim text

Judaism

“The powerful revelations that stand at the beginnings of great communities, at the turning-points of human time, are nothing else than the eternal revelation […]The revelation that then appears seizes the whole ready element in all its suchness, recasts it and produces a form, a new form of God in the world.”

—Martin Buber, Jewish philosopher

Baha’i

“There is a fundamental difference between Divine Revelation as vouchsafed by God to His Prophets, and the spiritual experiences and visions which individuals may have. The latter should, under no circumstances, be construed as constituting an infallible source of guidance, even for the person experiencing them.”

—Shogi Effendi, Baha’i leader

“Bahá’u’lláh's Revelation is vast. It calls for profound change not only at the level of the individual but also in the structure of society. ‘Is not the object of every Revelation,’ He Himself proclaims, ‘to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself, both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions?’.”

 —Universal House of Justice, Baha’i governing body

Hinduism

“It is extremely difficult to obtain the vision you have had; even the gods long to see me in this aspect. Neither knowledge of the Vedas, nor austerity, nor charity, nor sacrifice can bring the vision you have seen. But through unfailing devotion, Arjuna, you can know me, see me, and attain union with me.”

The Bhagavad Gita (11:52-54), Hindu text

“Behold, Arjuna, a million divine forms, with an infinite variety of color and shape. Behold the gods of the natural world, and many more wonders never revealed before. Behold the entire cosmos turning within my body, and the other things you desire to see. But these things cannot be seen with your physical eyes; therefore I give you spiritual vision to perceive my majestic power.”
The Bhagavad Gita (11:5-8), Hindu text

Buddhism

“Wisdom is something which will come out of your mindfulness. So the point is to be ready for observing things, and to be ready for thinking. This is called the emptiness of your mind.”

—Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist monk and teacher

Confucianism

“A man is worthy of being a teacher who gets to know what is new by keeping fresh in his mind what he is already familiar with.”

—The Analects (2:11), Confucian text

Daoism

“The Tao as a thing

Waxes and wanes

It waxes and wanes […]

But inside is an essence

An essence that is real

Inside which is a heart

Throughout the ages

Its name hasn’t changed”

—Tao Te Ching (ch 21), Taoist text