Saturday, August 18, 2007

Unity—As We See It

On January 9, 1985, the Rev. Tom Hansen, a Unitarian Universalist minister—I do not use his real name—wrote to the spiritual assembly of the Bahá’ís of Wilmette, Illinois, to express his feelings of frustration and offense. First he had been invited to read at a World Religion Day service at the Bahá’í House of Worship. Later he was told that his reading selection was not acceptable and that, as he put it in his letter to the Assembly, he must read from “a world scripture such as the Holy Bible, or Koran, etc., or not at all.”

“How would you like,” he wrote, “to be asked to participate in a world religion day and then be told that the host required you to read what he defined to be your scriptures, rather than you being able to read from what you felt represented your holy writings?”

The letter is a page-and-a-half of single-spaced type. It is pointed, challenging, and painful.

I wonder if in clinging to decisions of Bahá’í leadership of decades ago you realize that you are denigrating other faiths in holding a world religious [sic] day and then not permitting your guest faiths to designate their readings to be what they call holy scriptures rather than going by your outmoded past? You are denying our beliefs, heritage, and scriptures, in saying, “We Bahá’ís have decided what is scriptural for you. We deny you the right, in our setting, to call scripture what you say is holy. You cannot read what is a true representation of your thinking in our world religious [sic] day. You are limited to what we Bahá’ís, or other authorities of the past century, call holy scripture. If you don’t agree that we are right about what is scriptural for you, and read from those books we limit you to, then you are excluded from our service.”

The letter passed from the Wilmette spiritual assembly to Bruce Whitmore at the Bahá’í House of Worship. Whitmore contacted Rev. Hansen by phone and sent a follow-up letter of apology with a copy of his own book on the building of the House of Worship as a gift. Whitmore wrote in his letter, “Although it may not be possible for us to change the directives which govern our devotional services, be assured that we will make certain that neither we nor Bahá’í communities planning programs at the House of Worship offend any other religious community, even inadvertently.”

Rev. Hansen read the book and delivered a sermon entitled “How the Bahá’ís Built their Temple.” Then he wrote back to Mr. Whitmore on February 7. He quoted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Rúhíyyih Khánum from Mr. Whitmore’s book to “suggest that your whole movement reexamine their position about limiting the readings allowed in the main room of the temple.” He added his own emphasis to the quotes by underlining words and phrases such as unity, every, agreement, unfettered, all creeds, Unity of His Prophets, and Unity of Mankind. “Are you willing to hear from a Unitarian Universalist prophet,” he challenged, “or are we for some reason not included in that unity. And are we a part of the unity of mankind, or not?” He closed the letter with a minor factual correction to Mr. Whitmore’s book and thanks for Whitmore’s “big spirited attitude.”

I found this correspondence while doing research at the U.S. Bahá’í National archives in Wilmette. It originally interested me because it illustrates, I believe, the dissonance between the public image of the Bahá’í Faith and the more insular, restrictive, and conservative practice of the Faith. The former understandably led Rev. Hansen to believe that “in truth there is no faith in this community closer to yours than the Unitarian-Universalist religion” (first letter, to Assembly); the latter leads me to think that beneath the surface the two are more opposite than alike.

The dissonance I want to look at now, though, is that between the feeling of accepting all faiths that the doctrine of progressive revelation gives so many Bahá’ís and the meaning which that doctrine has when expressed or acted on in an interfaith context.

In his book Music, Devotions, and Mashriqu’l-Adhkár (1987), R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram documents the transformation in American Bahá’í consciousness of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár from a place for Bahá’ís to worship locally, as envisioned originally in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, to its role as “silent teacher.” Armstrong-Ingram does not discuss the early American Bahá’ís’ understanding of progressive revelation and how it influenced that process. But I suspect it did, because the House of Worship has come to be understood primarily as a physical and public means of relating to non-Bahá’ís religiously—naively so, I would say.
In the last chapter of his book, Armstrong-Ingram quotes Hatcher and Martin:

At the present time, the houses of worship are not principally used for Bahá’í community services. Rather, they are opened as places where individuals of all religious backgrounds (or those professing no particular faith) meet in the worship of the one God. Services are nondenominational and consist of readings and prayers from the scriptures of the world’s faiths, with no sermons or other attempts to cast these teachings in a mold of a specifically Bahá’í interpretation.

This passage deserves its own essay to unpack its multi-dimensional naiveté and self-deception; I quote it here simply as an example of the disappearance of the doctrinal assumptions underlying devotional practices at the House of Worship behind a claim of non-denominationality.

Progressive revelation is not just a belief in the shared divine origin of the world’s religions, which is the aspect of the teaching that is built into the temple. The general scheme of architecture that all Bahá’í houses of worship share—nine doors and nine sides—symbolizes unity. And the Wilmette House of Worship, in particular, sports the symbols of other major world religions cast into its decorative concrete exterior. The doctrine also includes the conception that God communicates episodically with humanity through perfect teachers. Their revelations have become the scriptures which are now the only accepted readings in the auditoriums of Bahá’í houses of worship. There is nothing neutral or nondenominational about this point of view; it is particularly Bahá’í, though some other faiths have related doctrines. How could Rev. Hansen and his rejected twentieth-century Unitarian writings fit into this scheme? As part of the human corruption and decline of the revelation of Christ and its disintegration into schism?

So we find Mr. Whitmore caught between the directives for worship in the auditorium, which have their roots in this specifically Bahá’í concept of progressive revelation, and the desire to experience fellowship and unity with people of other faiths. How, I wonder, did he think they would avoid offending “any other religious community, even inadvertently”? By not holding interfaith services in the Auditorium? By not inviting Unitarians? Making the rules clear up front might have helped. But the offense seems almost bound to have been repeated in some form, so long as the building continued to be seen by Bahá’ís as a place for all to worship—on Bahá’í terms.

I imagine the Bahá’ís involved were startled by Rev. Hansen’s response. But the invitation they had issued was not really one to come together as equals and peers—it couldn’t be, because the rules governing the use of the auditorium had, and still have, a specific bias. It was an invitation to participate in a Bahá’í conception of the oneness of religion. The Bahá’ís involved stumbled into this awkward situation because they believed they were doing one thing when in fact they were doing another. Progressive revelation is not a bright, universally obvious umbrella under which all religions can happily gather; it is a doctrine of one particular religion. Bahá’ís need to recognize its limitations as a basis for interfaith relationships.

Seven years ago I moved away from the vicinity of the House of Worship, so I can’t speak for any recent developments, except to praise the presence of Van Gilmer as music director. I do know, though, that there has been a long history of frustration and dissatisfaction with devotional activity at the House of Worship. I think that both Bahá’ís and people of other faiths will find more pleasure in worship there when the understanding of the place reverts to that originally intended by Bahá’u’lláh—a place for Bahá’ís to worship, though one with open doors.

Also, judging at least from Armstrong-Ingram’s book, a fresh engagement with Bahá’u’lláh’s and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s writings on the subject might yield a devotional practice more various and engaging than the one which has dominated the House of Worship’s history.

It would also be more distinctively Bahá’í than the historical one. I think that would be a good thing.


Anonymous said...


Well done. I've thought about this issue too, and I'm delighted to hear you write about it. I've got to say, we're really of one mind on this one. Naturally, I didn't know the great illustrative story about the minister, but I'm afraid I could have anticipated that sad affair.

The problem is that there's a lot of confusion about this issue. Some Baha'is believe one thing, some believe another, but I believe most haven't even sorted out which they think. Because as you say, there are really two distinct positions.

1. All religions are of God.
2. The infallible founders of certain 'legitimate' religions *were* of God.

People are often confused because they don't think about the difference between these two statements. Many believe (2, a few believe (1, but most haven't sorted the different perspectives out. I certainly hadn't until a few months ago. Two things put me onto it.

The first was reading *One Common Faith*. If you take the time, and have the stomach, you will see that this naseous little sermon implies that while Baha'is respect other world religions, other world religions no longer exist. There is no Islam, no Christianity, the authors explain, only scattered sects. It's a great way to say you respect other faiths in theory, but to disrespect their present-day embodiments.

The second thing was a conversation I had with one of the various Baha'i big-shots who have crossed my path. This fellow understood his position better than most, and he knew that one consequence was that only the words of manifestations mattered to him. Because that's really what they believe, isn't it? Not that truth can be found in all religions, but that it's confined to a couple of men called manifestations who know everything and can do no wrong.

This gentleman made the consequences of his attitude quite clear during our discussion by swatting down anything I said that didn't come from a manifestation. I quoted St. Thomas More, and he told me that Thomas More wasn't a manifestation, as if that made my point irrelevant. During the long hours of talk I quoted St. Francis of Assisi, Rumi, St. Paul, and Euripides, but I was told that none of these people were manifestations of God either -- as if I didn't know that -- with the obvious implication that we should disregard whatever they said.

So I saw that day another consequence of the doctrine you're talking about. It's only the manifestations who carry any truth. The rest of us, even those exceptionally inspired individuals who rise to the level of saints and poets and mystics, the rest of us don't know squat. The only people whose words have any truth, any validity, or convey any spiritual insight are the manifestations. The rest of us have nothing to do but hang on their every word.

Which is not to say I don't think the words of Baha'u'llah or Jesus or Mohammed aren't incredibly important and meaningful. But I'd love it if we'd make some room for Erasmus of Rotterdam, for Publius Vergilius Maro, for Guru Nanak, or St. Vincent de Paul, or just for the average person who has some spiritual insight to share. But that's exactly the concept that the Baha'i notion of revelation, as currently understood, won't tolerate.


Abdul said...

Hmmm... Very interesting. You bring up a good point in terms of the Baha'i claim that we, as Baha'is recognize all Religions, and then so no to the Reverend.

But, as a Baha'i, I'm cool with that. I do believe that God realized we could use a little help, so he chose some people to speak to us through. And since it was really God talking, the points really were infallible. And, that's what such services in the House of Worship should really be about.

Priscilla, when a Baha'i, or anyone for that matter, states that certain individuals could be infallible Manifestations of God, do you disagree?
Is it really about the principle of claiming "nondenominational" when there are restrictions that need to be stipulated?
Or do you disagree the core of the matter being who is a manifestation of God?

El Loco said...


As a former Baha'i and current Unitarian Universalist, I couldn't agree more with the substance of your post that the Baha'i concept of "nondenominational" is denominational since only those religions Baha'is consider "true" may participate.

Case in point, abdul's comment:

But, as a Baha'i, I'm cool with that. I do believe that God realized we could use a little help, so he chose some people to speak to us through. And since it was really God talking, the points really were infallible. And, that's what such services in the House of Worship should really be about.

That illustrate the point that if you have a different concept of the universe, e.g., one where "creator" and "creation" aren't separate and distinct but part of a greater, transcendental whole, what are manifestations? And what are they for?

In Buddhism, the concept of "God" and "creator" really don't make any sense at all. There is enlightenment and the pursuit of Nirvana. If a person shares these beliefs, what is one to do with "God" and "manifestations" and "infallibility"?

Baha'is are better off calling themselves some-denominational, since not every denomination is indeed welcomed to participate in their services.

Anonymous said...

The Baha'i Faith is not Unitarian Universalism. It has specific beliefs about the nature of revelation. The oneness of religion is within the context of progressive revelation, while recognizing the fundamental unity of the religious impulse coming from many additional sources.

I wonder what gives someone who is not a Baha'i the right to lambaste Baha'is for the specific requirements for the auditoriums of the houses of worship. I doubt a Baha'i would write such a critical letter to any other church if it asked for some specific limitation in a service it was conducting IN ITS OWN PREMISES. Should musicians also slam the Baha'i community because Baha'u'llah specified that only the human voice be heard in the temples? We use instrumental music all over the place, but not in the sanctuary of the house of worship.

You may be unaware that in any other Baha'i building, in the basement of the house of worship, and in personal devotionals at homes, many quotations are read, including those from philosophers, poets, and religious leaders. I suspect that will make little difference to your already developed feelings about the Baha'i Faith.

Brendan Cook said...

"I wonder what gives someone who is not a Baha'i the right to lambaste Baha'is for the specific requirements for the auditoriums of the houses of worship. I doubt a Baha'i would write such a critical letter to any other church if it asked for some specific limitation in a service it was conducting IN ITS OWN PREMISES."

Dear Anonymous,

You're forgetting an an obvious difference between the Baha'is and other religions, one that makes this analogy considerably less tidy. Other religions, at least most of them, are upfront about their dogmatic limitations. We KNOW that you don't recite the Koran at a Catholic service, and that you don't generally say Baha'i prayers in a synagoue. But this also misses the poiny ENTIRELY.

You work yourself into a fine dudgeon about what a religion can tolerate "ON ITS OWN PREMISES," by neglecting that it was WORLD RELIGION DAY being celebrated. Of course the fellow thought he could choose his own scriptures, a free celebration of all faiths ought be what such a day is all about! And think for a moment if the tables were turned! What if a Baha'i were invited to an interfaith gathering at say, a Unitarian church, and was told he couldn't say any prayers by the Bab or Abdu'l-Baha? What right would those inviting a Baha'i to a multifaith event have to dictate to that Baha'i appropriate Baha'i scripture? And yet this is PRECISELY what was done to this Unitarian minister.

But there's another reason here for the minister's reaction as well, this one closer to the purpose of Priscilla's post. The reason that minister was so upset, the reason he wrote the angry letter, was that he was confused, and rightly so. Because while other religions, as you observe, are often restrictive about what prayers can be said on their grounds, the Baha'i Faith isn't another religion. Or at least it isn't supposed to be.

Unlike other religions, Baha'is profess a belief in all faiths, we say we cherish all religions. This poor fellow was unfortunate enough to believe it. He was naive enough to trust utterances like this one from Rainn Wilson in a recent Time Magazine interview: "as a Baha'i, I believe in all the the spiritual beliefs, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity." This minister heard Baha'is say they embrace all religions, he thought they would embrace his, they didn't, and thus his disappointment. Not so hard to understand, really. Not as long as you don't deliberately disable your sense of empathy for anyone who discovers the Baha'i Faith is still a work in progress, that we don't always live up to the high ideals we preach.


Baquia said...

is there an explicit injuction from the Baha'i Writings which outlines such limits? If so, could you point me to it? I never imagined that one could only read from certain texts in the House of Worship.

What were you doing rooting around in the archives anyway? And what else did you ferret out?


Priscilla Gilman said...

Thanks to all for posting comments.

Anonymous: I’m not criticizing the Baha’i Faith for not being Unitarian Universalism, or for having specific beliefs and guidelines regarding worship in the House of Worship. I was trying to describe the difficulties that can arise when those beliefs and guidelines are thought to be all-embracing.

Brendan: Thanks for responding to Anonymous --- I was hoping someone would take that up, and you make good points. I wonder, do you think it is possible for any point of view to be truly universal? Even the most inclusive theology would necessarily exclude, at least, all exclusive theologies! So I wonder if the problem is not that the Baha’i community is not living up to its ideals, but that there is a belief that the Faith is, or should be, something no faith really can be.

Baquia: You ask, “is there an explicit injunction from the Baha'i Writings which outlines such limits?” This is a most excellent question and one that should always be asked. In the Aqdas, Baha’u’llah speaks of the believer who “directeth his steps to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar and, entering therein, seateth himself in silence to listen to the verses of God” (par. 115). I think this has been interpreted to imply what shouldn’t be read as well as what should. It would be a good project for someone to pull together all directives on this matter from Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l Baha, Shoghi Effendi, and the House and trace the lineage of interpretation --- maybe you’ll do it? I don’t know if these letters address this particular issue, but a letter I have from the House to the NSA of the US (from the archives) references letters mentioning the House of Worship from Shoghi Effendi, one to a Chicago believer in 1931 published in Baha’i News No. 55, p. 4 and one to the American Baha’i community on Oct. 25, 1929. By the way, I was in the Archives doing preliminary research for a dissertation on Black sacred music in the Baha’i Faith. I had to drop out of my graduate program for medical reasons, so that research was never completed. I do have some other things which may yield blog posts, but most of it is not that sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

I think Baha'is often have an old-fashioned understanding that folks who style themselves ministers are mainly about promulgating the Bible, but it just ain't so. I recall being caught off guard once by a Unitarian minister who wouldn't acknowldge a belief in Jesus Christ in the traditional sense. I understood him to say that, for him, Christ was little more than a wise man. (I do realize that that point of view may or may not be representative of Unitarians generally. I've met other Unitarians who were "devout believers" in Christ, in a more traditional sense.) For those liberal adherents who object to traditional interpretations of religion, as many do, I am sure that the very idea that some Texts enjoy a privileged status is objectionable on its face. I've known folks regard the assertion that the Sermon on the Mount enjoys a different status from, say, a talk ascribed to Chief Seattle, as being patently offensive. It's easy to forget that even men of the cloth can sometimes hold that sort of position. I think it's fair to say that many who do hold such positions see their position as not only logical but perhaps even therapeutic. Is it possible that the this friend may have offered to read a text that was far outside the boundaries of what might tradtionally be regarded as a religious text? Knowing the answer to that question would be interesting to me at least; albeit, I can already hear the objections on the part of those who share the idea that the content of religion should be bounded only by the tastes and preferences of the individual. Who was it that wrote that in the 20th Century aesthetics would come to displace ethics?

Polychrysos said...

"For those liberal adherents who object to traditional interpretations of religion, as many do, I am sure that the very idea that some Texts enjoy a privileged status is objectionable on its face. I've known folks regard the assertion that the Sermon on the Mount enjoys a different status from, say, a talk ascribed to Chief Seattle, as being patently offensive. It's easy to forget that even men of the cloth can sometimes hold that sort of position."

But this isn't the only option. It isn't a simple choice between A)saying that only the words of Manifestations matter and B)the words of everyone are of equal value. This is a false choice that we're often presented with, and I think it's worth remembering that we don't have to make it.

We need to keep in mind that both of these positions represent an extreme. On the one hand there is the view of very liberal believers, including many Unitarians, that the Quran, the Sermon on the Mount, and the words that you or I write about God are of equal value. Then there is the position taken by extreme conservatives, including many Baha'is, that says that only the Word of God as embodied in a very select body of scripture has any value whatsoever. In this understanding the Manifestations are everything, we are nothing.

But what about the middle position? Isn't it possible feel that some individuals and some scriptures are more important than others without saying that everything else is worthless? I don't object to someone saying that Baha'u'llah, for example, has a deeper spiritual insight than St. Francis, for example. I don't mind if someone says that a poem by Rumi doesn't rise to the same level as a surah from the Koran. What I mind is the notion, which we saw at play at the Wilmette temple incident, that the words of someone who is not a Manifestation have *no* value. What I mind is that when I quote Euripides or Paul or Dante, I'm told that because they weren't Manifestations their words carry no weight. We don't have to believe that every person has equal religious insight to be offended by the suggestion that a few people know everything about God and the rest of humanity knows nothing.


kaweah said...

Hey Priscilla,

Excellent story. Killer journalism! Too bad we don't still have you at the archives digging up more muck.

Sorry. That was very selfish of me. :-/

There's plenty of juicy stuff I'd like to see the Baha'is recite from the infallible Qur'an, Avesta, and Bible that would raise the hair on the necks of their guests.

If those old books are exclusively authorized for recitation, shouldn't all verses be equally eligible for the honor?

Better yet, maybe they should try reciting the entirety of the Kitab-i-Aqdas and Epistle to the Son of the Wolf if they really want to draw a crowd.

Keep up the great blogging.


Anonymous said...

Here are some House of Worship-sanctioned, Baha'i-approved "official" scriptures that might make for an interesting worship service on the Equality of Men and Women:
"Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to their beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. God is high, supreme." Quran,Surah of Women, 4:34 (trans. N.J. Dawood, Penguin Books, London, 1956.)

"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." Exodus 22:18

"Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law." 1 Corinthians 14:34

"The House of Justice, however, according to the explicit text of the Law of God, is confined to men; this for a wisdom of the Lord God’s, which will erelong be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon. " 'Abdu'l-Baha in a 1902 letter to Corrine True

Priscilla Gilman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Priscilla Gilman said...


Reading your comment I had a vision of just such a service. Collect all those passages and read them aloud til we all weep, testify, beat our chests, and roll in the dust grieving for what has been and still is.