A “Science of Religion” Approach to “Figuring Out Prophecy”

The very first sentence of Shoghi Effendi’s June 1933 letter to the High Commissioner for Palestine (Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope) is this: “The Revelation proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, His followers believe, is divine in origin, all-embracing in scope, broad in its outlook, scientific in its method, humanitarian in its principles and dynamic in the influence it exerts on the hearts and minds of men.” (https://bahai-library.com/writings/shoghieffendi/uncompiled_letters/1930s/1933-06-XX%20The%20World%20Religion.html.) Here, “scientific in its method” probably refers to the well-known Bahá’í principle of the “harmony of science and religion,” which, when expressed as a “dynamic Bahá’í principle” (applied in action) can be rephrased as: “Religion respects science.” (See https://clearwaterbahais.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Buck_2021_Bahai_Faith_The_Basics_Clearwater_Optimized.pdf.)

What does science have to do with religion when it comes to religious texts? Well, it turns out that the “science” of the academic study of religion provides some very useful insights into the nature of prophecy. The study of religion, strictly speaking, is not a science in the widely understood use of the term. But an important German term for the academic study of religion is Religionswissenschaft (“science of religion”). Generally speaking, the Bahá’í teachings say that scriptural interpretation should conform to “science and reason”: “… as the clergy did not grasp the meaning of the Gospels and did not comprehend this mystery (the resurrection of Christ), it has been claimed that religion is opposed to science, for among other things the ascension of Christ in a physical body to the material heavens is contrary to the mathematical sciences. But when the truth of this matter is clarified and this symbol is explained, it is in no way contradicted by science but rather affirmed by both science and reason.” (See ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 119.)

In brief, Bahá’ís may understand prophecies on at least three major levels: (1) historical-contemporary interpretation (“preterist” or “contemporary-historical”interpretation—German: zeitgeschichtlich); (2) the history of interpretation (where various exegetes employ “presentism” to interpret prophecies as pertaining to their own respective times and circumstances); and (3) Bahá’í-focused interpretation (ultimately a matter of faith). All three may happily co-exist. Let me give an example: In the Qur’án, a chapter called the the Súra of Yá Sín tells a story that is often referred to as the “Parable of the City.” (See Qur’án 36:13–29.) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá interprets this parable historically, by referring to an episode in Antioch in early Christian history. (See: “Peter in Antioch—the Wisdom of the First Christians,” https://bahaiteachings.org/peter-antioch-wisdom-first-christians/.) Bahá’u’lláh interprets the very same passage prophetically, where the three “envoys” are interpreted as the Bab, Quddus, and Bahá’u’lláh. (See: “The Cradle of Christianity—and Islam,” https://bahaiteachings.org/cradle-christianity-islam/.) Here, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s interpretation is historical in nature, probably referring to what the Qur’án originally meant. It more or less is consistent with what scholars refer to as the “preterist” or “contemporary-historical” (German: zeitgeschichtlich) interpretation, which most scholars today consider to be the essential starting-point in understanding the Book of Revelation, or other apocalypses, for example. This analysis, moreover, can benefit from a further method: Step 1: If impossible, then not literal. (Ask: “Why is the literal reading not possible here?”); Step 2: If not literal, then figurative. (Ask: “What is the comparison or analogy expressed here?”); Step 3: If figurative, then symbolic. (Ask: “What qualities does this symbol represent?”); Step 4: If symbolic, then spiritual and social. (Ask: “Who (or what) represents those qualities?”)