Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hey, It’s Masá’il!

My favorite month in the Baha’i calendar! I think the month named “Questions” should be a nineteen-day extravaganza of inquiry. If Questions is an attribute or name of God, then it seems improper for Baha’is to keep their questions tucked away. What would happen if during this month all Baha’is looked inside, into the shadowy corners of their minds and hearts, and coaxed out all unspoken questions . . .?

Why haven’t more of the Bab’s writings been translated? How do we know when the Universal House of Justice is legislating, and has it ever legislated on anything? Why isn’t Khadíjih Bagum one of the Letters of the Living? How much is the salary of the Secretary of the U.S. NSA? Do sexually active gay Baha’is have their administrative rights removed more often than violent abusers? Do violent abusers ever have their administrative rights removed? Are the violations against Iranian Baha’is by the Iranian government the only government abuses of human rights that Baha’is are allowed to speak out about and organize to stop?

Does a paper on which the text of the long healing prayer is printed have magical healing powers, as suggested in the prayer? Does my membership in the Baha’i community hinder or help my spiritual growth? My intellectual growth? Is teaching the Faith proselytizing by a different name? Why are there so few excellent books in the secondary literature of the Faith? Has pre-publication review been in the best interest of the Faith’s development? How can cannabis damage the soul? How can Baha’is resolve feelings of guilt for past actions? If Baha’i houses of worship are supposed to be places we go to hear the word of God recited, why aren’t acoustics the top priority in design instead of appearance? Shouldn’t the Temple of Light be the temple of sound and spoken word?

Diverse, perplexing, and unanswered questions: Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Question: How can “questions” be an attribute of God? God is glory. God is beauty. God is light. God is mercy. God is perfection. God is might. God is knowledge. God is power. God is “questions”? How? I don’t know . . . but I like it. Perhaps “questions” as a divine attribute is a way of naming the divine relationship to our free will, God’s wondering what we will choose, the self-chosen not-knowing of the All Knowing.

When I think about questions as something holy in us, an attribute of God that we are to reflect, I think of curiosity, of openness, of knowing that one doesn’t know. Questions imply a relationship between the asker and the truth, between the questioner and the world. By questioning, the intellect approaches the divine with its own proper need, the need to know, to understand. Is there a God? How do I know? What good is God anyway? The questions of the mind blend with the questions of the heart. And when we bring our questions to each other, something happens. Both by our questions and by our responses to the questions of others we reveal ourselves. Questions can be creative. Questions create community.

Independent investigation of truth is proclaimed as a primary principal of the Baha’i Faith. I wonder, though, is there even such a thing as independent investigation of truth? Can we seek truth without being in conversation? Can we come to the truth without each other? And what if we do? So I’ve come to the truth, all by my lonesome. Great. The truth is, we are not independent. We are always interdependent. And our search for truth is in community, a community of shared language, of shared history, story, and culture, or, at the very least, shared humanity. Nor can the divinity of questions be realized if we are in isolation from each other. The questions need the community and the community needs the questions.

But questions are nothing much if they do not lead to any exploration of possible answers. Or if the answers are predetermined. And if the answers are not predetermined, then they will not be the same for everyone in the community. Do people slip from active participation in Baha’i community, are they marginalized or kicked out, not merely because of this or that hot-button issue—although that is certainly there—but because of a collective and institutional discomfort with questions, their contagiousness, and the diversity and change which an open-ended creative relationship to the truth must yield?

Not only do we reveal ourselves in our responses to our own and other people’s questions, but we also reveal our theology and our relationship to the divine. If a religious community does not allow questions, real questions, open questions, challenging questions, and if it doesn’t want the people who question, who manifest this divine attribute, then I wonder what kind of God that community serves. Aren’t questions an expression of our desire for the unknown? The paradox at the heart of Baha’i faith—that we are created to “know” and “worship” (short obligatory prayer) what “minds cannot grasp . . . nor hearts contain” (Arabic Hidden Words)—is a paradox which, if lived, must yield questions and more questions.

Can the Baha’i Faith be a community that lives its questions? Or is it bound to be a community of quick answers? Are the principles of the Faith ready answers to our troubles, or arrows pointing in the directions where productive questions lie? The unity of humanity: What is unity? Why are we divided? Who is my neighbor? Do I feel heard? Do I listen to others? Is unity necessarily good? How does God want us to live our unity?

Questions lead to other questions. How is it that neither unity nor oneness is among the divine attributes on the calendrical list? How can our Baha’i community collectively manifest those that are, such as mercy, light, honor, dominion, and might? How will we know that the power we manifest is a proper reflection of divine power?

One way is to question the community's exercise of power. Looking at this list of attributes, “questions” seems to me the safeguard of all. A community must question itself as it attempts to reflect the divine in its collective life.

In the Kitab-i-Aqdas (p. 64), Baha’u’llah says:

In the Bayán it had been forbidden you to ask Us questions. The Lord hath now relieved you of this prohibition, that ye may be free to ask what you need to ask, but not such idle questions as those on which the men of former times were wont to dwell. Fear God, and be ye of the righteous! Ask ye that which shall be of profit to you in the Cause of God and His dominion, for the portals of His tender compassion have been opened before all who dwell in heaven and on earth.

This admonition can easily be used to maintain the status quo. If there are questions which the fear of God should keep us from asking—a proposition I’m not ready to affirm—they will likely be suspiciously close to the questions that most need to be asked. The questions “which shall be of profit to you in the Cause of God” may therefore look to some like a threat to the Cause of God. Who will decide which questions can be asked? Faith is a risky affair. If Baha’is err in the direction of checking questions to protect the Cause of God, they may protect themselves from their heart’s desire.

I think allowing questions is closely akin to allowing God, and that is our job, to allow God, to allow the mystery of our own hearts, the uncertainty of our lives, the fragility of our hope. I think it’s possible to live in holiness without answers, but I don’t think it’s possible to live in holiness without questions.

What do you think?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Wait a Momen: Part 2 with Preface

(Part 1 here.)

Oh, poopy—I’m all out of sync with the goings-on in Baha’i cyberspace. While I procrastinated on posting Part 2 of “Wait a Momen,” word of Moojan Momen’s latest article in the academic journal Religion, “Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha’i Community,” hit the Internet and has created quite a stir in some corners, with good reason. You can read the abstract here. He focuses on twelve individuals whom he names as “apostates,” which in his definition are people who have left the Baha’i Faith and dedicated themselves to attacking it. I’ve read the whole article. The only person his argument might fit is Wahid Azal, who has accepted the accusation with pride. His remarks can be read in the comments here. Here are links to some other responses, mostly by persons named or referenced in the article:

Alison Marshall
Karen Bacquet
Umm Yasmin
Steve Marshall
Brendan Cook

Momen’s article is a strange tangle of accurate perceptions, assertions with scant or absent evidence, factual errors, exaggerations, omissions, and underneath all an annoyance that anyone is publicly criticizing the Faith and being heard.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program:


When it comes to traditions of worship, I’m a bit of a slut. I love the silent receptivity of ascetic contemplation. I love the joyful noise and agonized cries of the Black sacred music tradition. I am so smitten by Abraham Heschel’s writing on the meaning of the Jewish sabbath that I have considered observing it myself. And after a few months of reading Anna Dirks’s essays on Islam at her blog, Annalog, I long to hear the muezzin call, to perform wud’u, and to prostrate myself five times a day in prayer. The passive/active dichotomy Moojan Momen uses with its bad/good implication doesn’t seem to me a very useful way to look at religious practice.

Momen draws his model of passivity from the worship and ritual of an imagined, generalized Christianity, but I’d like to take him to the real Episcopal church I attend when I’m up to it, where, in the course of an average Sunday morning service, those gathered sing, stand, kneel, eat, drink, read scripture singly and collectively, greet each other with “The Peace of the Lord,” and listen to a sermon which may be given by a member of the clergy or of the laity, or even by a group of youth with mics, drums and electric guitars. That one kid looks so sweet when he sits with his family in the pews, but he can wail somethin’ good when he goes down on his knees singing, heavy-metal style, “Confess your siiiiiiiiins!” The congregation goes wild.

And we do too many other things to mention. Just recently I watched the children carry to the altar groceries brought by congregants as donations to the local food pantry. Giving to others is giving to God. A one-year-old toddled up with a large box of Life cereal. Depending on the day he came, Moojan Momen might have his feet washed by a member of the congregation and wash the feet of another. On the first Sunday of the month he could receive the hands and prayers of members who have joined together under the rather hokey name “the healing team” and who pray with individuals for their specific needs during communion. I try to go on the first Sunday of the month.

One of these days I will ask that the whole congregation lay hands on me and pray for my healing. It is lovely when it happens, usually when someone is going to have an operation. She sits in a chair and all gather close around her. Those closest place their hands on her head, shoulders, legs, arms, and everyone else places their hands on those in front of them so that we chain together. Then we pray, the priest aloud, the rest in silence. All healers in the name of Christ. I would be happy—and I do not mean this sarcastically—to have Moojan Momen there on the day I receive this gift. Lay and ordained, visitor and member, we all give. And we all receive.

What rubs my heart like 60 grit sandpaper is the way Moojan Momen maligns receiving. He reads it as passive, as the negative opposite of active. In this view, receiving is lazy, it is not doing for yourself. “Each Bahá’í must be his or her own priest.” What a lonely vision. But receiving is not the negative, passive opposite of being active; it is the fulfillment of giving. And is it easy? For me, learning to receive has been both hard—a letting go of pride—and healing. What can you give if you do not receive? A religious community which defines itself as purely active, each member doing for herself in contrast to the supposedly passive receivers of other faiths, will be a collection of exhausted people doing a lot and giving little.

Yes, during the Sunday morning service we “receive” the sacraments. But, Mr. Momen, the sacraments are gifts of God. You do not need to believe in them to find sympathy with this phrase—“gifts of God.” In the post-communion prayer we give thanks for these gifts and, addressing eternal God, say “send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” In other words, to do the work God has given us to do, to love as we have been loved. “Let us bless the Lord,” the deacon says. “Thanks be to God,” the people answer.

Baha’i writings are, in the context of Baha’i faith, gifts of God. Those who meditate on them privately or attend Feast, devotional gatherings, or services in Baha’i houses of worship receive them afresh as they are read, and then, like Christians, go out into the world to love and serve the Lord—as they feel inspired to by the receipt of those gifts.

Or do they? Oh yes, the House of Justice says, some Baha’is have been doing it wonderfully, but not enough Baha’is, not everyone, and, dear me, not in the efficient, systematic, and membership-expanding way the House wants. Speaking of the changes Shoghi Effendi made, Momen says, “the charisma of Bahá’u’lláh and Abdu’l-Bahá needed to be routinized—to be institutionalized.” With the House now dictating what few activities local communities must focus on, how exactly Baha’is should study Baha’i writings, and what can and can’t be discussed during consultation at National Convention and in delegates’ reports to their communities, it seems more likely that the charisma of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha will be banished or simply lost in the commotion than that an egalitarian grass-roots renaissance will sweep the Baha’i world.

The authority and command of the Universal House of Justice peers around every idea and clause of Momen’s prose, lending it a self-conscious awkwardness. These, I think, are the words of a man trying hard not to think his own thoughts. He must conclude that “[t]he direction towards which the Universal House of Justice is pointing the Baha’is is clearly the next logical step in the development of the Baha’i community”: his faith depends on it.

The most remarkable sentences in his essay come near the end. They leave me feeling sad for the Faith, for Baha’is, and for Moojan Momen.

Indeed it may appear strange to some to say that this change of culture is a change that seeks to create communities where individual Bahá'ís are initiating activities and decisions are made at a “grass-roots” level, and at the same time to say that this change is a process that is being initiated by the Universal House of Justice and is thus being directed from the top. However, one has to consider the question: how else would such a change of culture occur in a community that is used to receiving its directions from the top and is prevented, by the concept of the Covenant, from launching a grass-roots rebellion in order to achieve such a change?

Odd, isn’t it, under these conditions, to trace passivity in the Baha’i Faith to other religious communities?

Everyone knows the Faith is supposed to be expanding rapidly. Everyone knows it isn’t. Momen and the House say that it’s because, among other things, Baha’is have been passivated by the religions around them. But I say that blaming other religious groups is just a trick, a trick that exploits our too-common willingness to see the ways of others as inferior without seeking any substantive understanding of them. It sounds quite harsh to name it, but the word for this is prejudice. Prejudice is used by the House and extended by Momen, perhaps unwittingly, as a distraction so that Baha’is will not protest against the real blaming implicit in this discourse: rank and file Baha’is have failed.

I’m not going to replace this fallacious blame with any other; there are other souls in cyberspace who can do that much better than I can. Besides, I’d like to see the whole idea of entry by troops tossed in the dustbin with a hearty laugh. What a liberation that would be. Baha’is and Baha’i institutions need a better purpose than membership-expansion. The real desire of Baha’is to help the world has been too long co-opted by that fantasy. And if Baha’i communities receive, give, and thrive, growth will likely happen anyway.

After years of listening to consultation at Feast in Chicago, which consisted largely of a succession of people saying “I suggest we do this,” “We need to do more of that,” “We’ve got to do much more of this,” “I suggest the Assembly should do that,” “The friends need to,” “The friends must,” I finally stood up one feast and said, “I don’t think we need to do more. I think we need to do less.” I got serious eyes from Assembly members but continued, “We need to do less and show up for each other more.”

Until very recently I had not seen The American Baha’i in five years. Looking through the October 16 edition, which a friend passed on to me, I was at first confused by certain uses of the term “resources” and then aghast. For example: “new resources were identified and Assemblies were informed of trained resources in each of their communities.” We the people are not resources to be trained and exploited, located and utilized. We are gifts of God. If we slacken our will a bit, our drive to achieve—and I am thinking now not just of Baha’is, because we are, after all, in a world-wide pickle together—and turn our attention more to receiving each other, I think we will find ourselves already, to our surprise, where we want to be. And from that place we can give real service to the world.

And we’ll do the hokey pokey and we’ll turn ourselves around, ’cause that’s what it’s all about. Clap clap!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Wait a Momen: Part 1

A change is happening in the Baha’i world. Moojan Momen says it’s a necessary, right, and good change of culture. Or, rather, he says the Universal House of Justice says it’s a change of culture, and Moojan Momen confirms this is so. He says a bunch of other stuff too; you can read Momen’s essay “A Change of Culture” here. But what has me up off my couch of heedlessness to call across the Atlantic, “Momen, honey, please think again,” is this:

Clearly, the Universal House of Justice considers that the Bahá’í community is still tainted by certain characteristics that it considers should not be part of the Bahá’í Faith and that it is these characteristics that are holding back the progress of the Faith. These are, broadly speaking, characteristics which exist in current religious communities and which Bahá’ís have brought with them into the Bahá’í community.

These unwanted traits include the passivity implied by the words “member of a congregation.” Members of a congregation play a receptive role—receiving sermons, sacraments and advice from the priest. They are told what their scriptures mean and how to apply that to their lives. In some congregations, it is even considered to be within the priest’s powers to hear confessions and pardon sins. Bahá’ís can no longer, in the new culture, play such a passive role. They must actively participate in their communities, study and interpret their scriptures for themselves, and work out their own salvation. Each Bahá’í must be his or her own priest.

How’s that for a quick smackdown of the Christian laity? In his elaboration of the opinions of the Universal House of Justice, Momen is talking about Christianity for sure, though he doesn’t say it. Sermons, sacraments, priests, confessions—other communities use some of these terms but no other community uses all of them. And he uses no terms and describes no practices that are specific to Islam or Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism. It’s the infectious Christian passivity that has gotten into the Baha’i community and must be gotten out.

Is there passivity in Christendom, an over-reliance on clergy? Sometimes, yes. But comparing worst Christian practice to Baha’i ideals is not exactly fair; nor is speaking in such breezy generalities about something so diverse as Christianity. Even if Momen’s words are not read as Christian-specific, I object to them no less. Is this how Baha’i individuals and institutions should relate to other faiths—using them as a crutch to prop up the stumbling greatness of the Baha’i Faith?

Baha’is and Baha’i institutions should think critically about how other religious communities function and learn from them, but these generalities don’t qualify. Momen makes his case for the passivity of Christians from worship and ritual, with a little kick to pastoral care on the side. He makes no attempt to understand those practices or to discern their relationship to the functioning of Christian communities and the action of Christians in the world, which would be more relevant points of comparison, since the subject of his essay is not Baha’i worship but the responsibility of individuals in the operation of community. Momen does not seem to be interested in understanding his religious neighbors. He knows they are passive. But, as a scholar of religion, he ought to know better.

The Baha’i metaphor of levels of education, overused to describe the relationship of religions to each other, misleads many minds, perhaps Moojan Momen’s. The Faith is not graduate school to the kindergarten of Judaism and Hinduism, the middle school of Christianity and Buddhism, the high school of Islam. The Faith is more like a stereotype rebellious teen amidst the village elders who have done it all and have a lot of good stories to tell. The Faith has lots of good ideas and a lot of opportunity, but it is also too convinced it has the answers and is going to do things differently. Learn from the worst, the bad, and the not very good of other communities and avoid those mistakes if you can. But also look for the best and be challenged by it.

What I really want to know is exactly what activity in this new Baha’i culture is not already performed by Christian laity all over the place? Does Momen think that only Christian clergy run children’s classes? That Christians never pray together unless they have a priest or a pastor there to lead them? That Christians don’t read, discuss, write about, or meditate on scripture unless someone with a white collar tells them what to think or how to read it? Has he not noticed the abundance of non-ordained Christian theologians, public intellectuals, artists, and writers, not to mention pig-headed crazies? Or that the laity play a large role in church governance in many Christian denominations? Goodness me, has he not noticed the political influence of the Christian right in the U.S. lately? That wasn’t achieved with a limp laity. No, for good and for ill, lay Christians are plenty active.

And what of Baha’is? Momen says, “It is no longer sufficient in the new culture for Baha’is to fit in their Baha’i activities into odd nooks and crannies of their lives.” I guess “Baha’i activities” refers to children’s classes, study circles, devotional gatherings—you know, the core activities—and does not refer to fulfilling the commandments of Bahá’u’lláh to earn a living through the exercise of a skill or trade that is of service to humanity, to raise children and care for elderly parents, to tend to the needs of the body, to pray and meditate alone in the privacy of your home, to be a good friend—you know, all the things around which Baha’is have been fitting in their “Baha’i activities.” This point of view wants the Faith to become more of people’s lives, but is in fact urging people to see it as less of their lives. Attending a cluster meeting is a Baha’i activity, making love with your spouse is not; filling in the blanks in Ruhi Book 2 is a Baha’i activity, managing your finances is not; voting at unit convention is a Baha’i activity, tending a vegetable garden is not. There is something anti-human in this point of view, and Baha’is would do well to resist it. To paraphrase a well-known sage, the Faith was made for humanity, not humanity for the Faith.

But what have actual, living, breathing Baha’is been doing? Have they just been a bunch of couch-of-heedlessness potatoes? Well, here’s a little sample: One of my best friends barely escaped three years ago with her life from an abusive marriage, which in three months had escalated from aggressive nose pinching to attempted strangulation. She has been healing, regaining her strength, learning a new job, supporting other women. The house of another friend burnt down last year. She escaped with her husband, her pocketbook, and their cat, but nothing else. Incidentally, she has also lived with chronic illness for 30 years and raised seven children, fielding much other trouble and tragedy with wisdom and wit. Another friend works to pay for her children’s college education, after having raised them pretty much alone. She’s also exploring a quiet romance with a longtime friend who has suffered from severe mental illness since being severely sexually abused in early adulthood. Needless to say, he hasn’t been the same since, and being intimate with him is complicated, though, she reports, well worth it.

I have a Baha’i friend who, after years of being abused by her husband, separated from him a year ago when she realized he was sexually abusing their son. She is caring for her son on her own, with a greatly reduced income and inadequate support from family and her local spiritual assembly. Two friends have been coming to terms as adults with attention-deficit disorder and learning disabilities. Another friend had to fly to Germany a few years ago to locate her son, who had disappeared after being pulled from military service in Iraq because of psychological breakdown. She has since helped him find his way again.

If this sounds like I know a remarkably afflicted bunch of Baha’is, I would say . . . I think not. This is life. Major difficulties are common, not rare. Baha’i community is healthiest when supporting people in their lives and least healthy when whipping up a more cult-like absorption in community activities and plans of expansion. If Baha’i administration treats Baha’is as if their lives are obstacles to the progress of the Faith, then it risks irrelevance to those lives. People will walk away—and they have been, at a good clip.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Where’s the God?

Once upon a time—about sixteen years ago—I read with intense longing the accounts in The American Baha’i of the amazing numbers of Baha’is in India. I had little desire to visit Haifa but much to experience the swarm of believers I envisioned from these reports. So when I was short-term pioneering in southeast Asia I took my opportunity to fly to Delhi.

After my months of service, a sludge of fatigue filled my limbs, and gravity seemed to have a special affinity for me. I had learned a lot, given a lot. And what was the state of my own heart? I didn’t know anymore. I wrote in my journal that I felt like I needed to sit and sit and sit and do nothing for a long time. When the driver dropped me off inside the front gate of the Baha’i house of worship in New Delhi, I paused a moment to look for the first time at this long-imagined place. Then I began the walk with mindfulness and happy anticipation.

On that ordinary, non-holiday day, there weren’t very great numbers of people, but certainly a steady flow. I checked my shoes before the temple steps, with the men whose heads just stuck up above ground from the room of shelves and shoes below the promenade. These days I don’t even take a shower without shoes on, I have such problems with my feet, and couldn’t walk that short pilgrimage and scale all those steps even with my feet clad. But at the time, this small ritual delighted me. We didn’t do this at the temple in Wilmette. I wasn’t in Wilmette.

Barefoot, I walked the rest of my short pilgrimage and scaled all those steps. Then the strangeness began. The temple guides greeted me like something they had never experienced before—what a novelty, a freak of nature, a never-imagined creature: an individual Baha’i coming to pray and meditate. I was only slightly less rare to the longer-term staff, and they quickly targeted me as possible labor.

I turned down, though, the director’s invitation to scrub the temple floor in the early morning hours with the staff and guides—certainly worthy work—and reiterated my need for rest and contemplation. How is it, I wondered, that prayer and meditation receive so little recognition, here of all places?

Despite the distractions, I did pray and meditate, returning several days. I sat for long stretches listening to the steady passage of people through the temple. Women in brilliant saris with bangles on their ankles and wrists made a gentle music as they walked. The doors opened and closed episodically. Rustle, patter, jingle, whispers, silence. My prayers felt empty and meaningless.

I didn’t expect all or even most of the people visiting the house of worship to be Baha’is, but to be the only one, that was an impossibility in my American Baha’i–fed visions. I arranged my trip specifically to be present for a holy day celebration, and I was—me and the temple staff and guides. Granted, it was the midday commemoration of the martyrdom of the Bab, which fell that year on a weekday. Still.

I thought walking meditation might break the alienation spell that seemed to constrain my encounter with this place. So I walked around the back of the temple. From different angles, especially up close, it looked graceful, lonely, austere. But when I stepped out on one of the paths a guard urgently scurried after me and blew a whistle at me. Alienation successfully confirmed.

The temple director later explained that people had been picnicking and engaging in other unnamed inappropriate activities on the grounds so they had prohibited all freer motion. I sat with him in his underground office and studied his remaining white hair and the odd shape of his head. He worked me over diligently with greedy descriptions of the teaching opportunities in China and extracted a weak commitment from me to serve there next. My fluency in Indonesian didn’t matter or my familiarity with Indonesian culture. I could start over in China. China was the place to go. The opportunities must be seized! I asked my journal: Is the Baha’i Faith just, endless, never-ceasing activity?

I had come seeking to be one of many. I found myself a lonely anomaly. I adjusted my reality-sense and received the experience in a different way, as less of a pilgrimage and more of a truth-telling. I had loved the Indian space in my imagination, inhabited by so many Baha’is. But I didn’t want to feed on an illusion, and I let this one dissipate in the summer heat. I turned my attention instead to understanding what I could of the real state of affairs.

The temple had an air of busy, beautiful futility. All the guides were from other countries and didn’t speak the languages of the temple visitors. I learned from them that, although tens of thousands of Indians visited the Lotus Temple every week, no one could talk to them about the Faith. The overwhelming majority didn’t speak English and couldn’t read their native tongues. So, although some people could buy books in Hindi or other Indian languages and take them away, mostly even that avenue of communication was closed. They entered the Temple through the one door of nine that had been designated the entrance, looked around, wondered where the god was, and exited, awed and baffled, through the door which had been designated the exit.

Attending a gathering at the national center (about twelve people present, including guides from the house of worship) and a feast (about twelve people present, including guides from the house of worship) explained the lack of Indian Baha’is at the Temple. There were no more people at feast there than I would see at feast in Vermont, and the way of doing things was really no different either. The difference was that in Vermont almost all the people at feast actually live there permanently. At this feast most of the people were not from India but had come from other countries to serve temporarily at the house of worship. Supposedly, a great number of Indian Bahai’s lived out in the provinces. Maybe they did. Supposedly, attempts had been made to get them to come and serve at the house of worship but had not succeeded.

One need not suppose anything to see that the Baha’i house of worship in New Delhi was not built by or for a local worshipping community, nor even for a national or regional worshipping community. It wasn’t really built for worship at all—apart from the hoped-for future—but to get attention for the Faith. It was built to attract new Baha’is, to be a silent teacher. As such, it must be among the most resource-inefficient proselytizing efforts ever. When asked, the coordinator of the guides told me of a few stories of individual visitors becoming Baha’is; considering the millions who visit each year, this hardly seems a good take.

I felt uneasy driving away from the house of worship each day past the hundreds of shanties that were its nearest neighbors. People do not only need food, shelter and clothing, but I think building a trophy temple in a community where the Baha’is did not yet need such a large worship space was the wrong way to go. This strategy of preemptive capital investment has not been good for the development of the Faith. It has made the Faith top-heavy and concentrated its resources centrally, where they do little for the vitality of community life. I know—it’s just my opinion.

No doubt the temple has been very important to people. The servant who did the cooking and basic cleaning in the apartment where I stayed with the father of a friend wanted to go with me to the temple one day. She dressed up in her best sari, and we went. Some months later I received a request from my friend for another copy of the picture of Kamala at the temple; Kamala had shown it to another servant who had ripped it up in jealousy.

Indians will make their own meanings of the temple, as Indian culture has done with foreign input for centuries. Baha’is have made this particularly easy. The down side of using a ready-made, high-potency symbol such as the lotus in India without any process of new, specifically Baha’i meaning accruing to that symbol is that Indians need not know anything about the Baha’i Faith to see the temple as meaningful. Of course it’s meaningful. Of course they want to visit it. It’s a lotus! From one angle this is a boon; from another, the undoing of the whole endeavor.

As an example of how Indians are making cultural use of the Lotus Temple, I like particularly the news item I read, thanks to Baha’is Online, of a small-scale copy of the temple built as part of a pandal, a temporary structure constructed in tribute to Durga for the festival Durga Puja. One could hardly complain of this appropriation, since the temple is itself an appropriation. The replica sat atop the boxy structure, looking in the picture like a bright pink, many-pointed hat. And the inside of the pandal was done up right: no baffling void here, but the images, shaped from stainless steel, of many gods and goddesses.

(Note: The Information Center at the temple had not yet been constructed when I visited India.)

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.

Monday, July 16, 2007

I'm a Little Worried

Quite a few friends and acquaintances from my Bahá’í past still don’t know I’ve withdrawn from the Faith. I haven’t withheld anything from them; we are just out of touch. The ones who matter the most to me are in Indonesia. I went there as a high-school exchange student before I’d ever heard of the Faith and went back on a year off from college to do service with the Bahá’í community. Internet connectivity is low there, so maybe I can still evade discovery by hiding behind the access disparity.

I’m afraid they won’t love me anymore, or they’ll love me with baffled pity for my wayward soul. I imagine that if I went back I could jump right into supporting whatever Bahá’í projects they had going. But could I really, even Ruhi? And why do I imagine it anyway? What am I trying to prove, at least in my own head? That I’m not, as one friend protested on my behalf, “a fallen leaf”?

How did it happen? I joined the Bahá’í Faith in part because I felt drawn to its transcendent affirmation that humanity is one people, various and diverse but somehow still one. And I liked working in practical ways to dissolve the boundaries that unnecessarily divide people. But gradually a new division was scored into my own consciousness. Crudely put, it was the division between Bahá’ís—those who get it—and non-Bahá’ís—those you’re trying to recruit, or at least supposed to be trying to recruit. From this point of view, leaving the Faith is becoming the wrong kind of person, someone who doesn’t get it. Or worse, you’re entering a third, rarely mentioned category—those who’ve lost it.

Leaving the Faith was extremely hard, and this Bahá’í/non-Bahá’í division made it feel like I was stepping out of the small circle of light and grace. I don’t know if I would ever have done it or how long it would have taken if I hadn’t had to leave for my own spiritual/psychological survival. Perhaps the remnant of this division in my consciousness is the reason why I fear the possibility of it in those friends from my past.

Me with youth costumed for a holy-day performance. I am fourth from left in front.

I listened recently to a recording made for me as a going-away present by the youth and kids I worked with in Indonesia. Before listening, I wondered how it would feel now, as an outsider to the Faith, to hear all these Bahá’í songs sung by beloved people. I was surprised to find that one song in particular, one of the best, had gained new meaning by the passage of time and my withdrawal from the Faith. It’s called “Karena Bahá’u’lláh,” which means “Because of Bahá’u’lláh.” A loose translation of the part that moved me goes something like this:

Because of Bahá’u’lláh we came together.
Because of Bahá’u’lláh we are family.
Because of Bahá’u’lláh we are one.

The words have more of a ring to them in Indonesian. And the melody—lifted I think from a popular song—is very memorable. I enjoyed the song then, but mostly I loved the people. Listening to it now, the literal meaning of the words is potent for me. It is true that because of this particular 19th-century Persian man who has come to be known as Bahá’u’lláh, I met the particular people who sang this song and gave me a tape of it, and the other Bahá’ís connected to them. (You can hear the audio by clicking the Play button on the MP3 player widget at the end of this post.)

Since discovering the discussions and the resources on the Web related to the Faith, I’ve been absorbed in a critical reexamination of the Bahá’í Faith. It was sweet to have a little respite from that thinky occupation and just give thanks for the very real gift of connection to dear people that I would not have had except for the life of this man called Bahá’u’lláh.

I believe I was good for the people I worked with and for there, and I know they were good for me. It pains me now, though, to reflect that some of them, particularly those who were youth then and are now mostly married with children, might expect me to be disappointed with them, the choices they have made, how their lives have unfolded. There would be grounds in what they knew of me to hope for better, but I’m sorry to say there would also be grounds for such a fear. My time there was the apex of my devotion to the Faith. I gave everything… everything I had, and even what I didn’t, and my body has never been the same since. But I could wish that I had given, particularly to the youth, more room for their doubts and for the uncertainties in their individual lives. I could wish that I and the other adults caring for them had done less of demanding incessant activity from them and had been more ready to receive their ability to just be.

For in this world it is not good to be too eager for the achievement of any, even of the best of ends; and one who knows by experience that God is always present everywhere and always ready to make Himself known to those who love Him, will not quickly prefer the uncertain value of human activity to the tranquility and certitude of this infinite and all-important possession.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 274.

I don’t think I knew by experience then that God is always present everywhere and always ready to make himself known to those who love him, though I’m sure I would have given my verbal assent to the statement. I was still trying to earn God’s love. I hadn’t yet discovered that I could simply open my hands and receive.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Evident and Confirmed Confusion

Two unconscious assumptions underlie most Bahá’í declarations of the harmony of science and religion. One is that other religions would have to change their beliefs to accept this principle, and the other is that the Bahá’í Faith does not, because it is by definition in harmony with science. Yet, without knowing it, the happy souls that habitually deliver to their interlocutors the sloganized wisdom that religion without science is superstition are skipping through life believing something completely incompatible with science's understanding of evolution.

They know everything ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said is true. They know science and true religion are compatible. And they, like most people who believe in evolution, do not know much of anything specific about it.

If someone comes along to challenge this cozy smugness with a few details of natural selection and common descent they may, as one friend has recently done to me, say “I don’t want to talk with you about the Bahá’í Faith any more.” Of course they might also rise to the occasion and say that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was infallible in guiding the Faith, not in speaking on science subjects. This is probably the best that can be done with the situation.

Still, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not seem to see himself this way, and he swatted away evolution like a flea in his panties or a fly in his turban:

We have now come to the question of the modification of species and organic development— that is to say to the point of inquiring whether man’s descent is from the animal. This theory has found credence in the minds of some European philosophers and it is now very difficult to make its falseness understood. But in the future it will become evident and clear and the European philosophers will themselves realize its untruth, for verily it is an evident error.
Some Answered Questions, page 177.

He goes on to say that the world and specifically man are perfect as they are; therefore if they were different from how they are now they would not be perfect. And since existence must have the quality of perfection, it must always have been like this. This kind of merry-go-round logic takes you for a ride but gets you nowhere. And as if he realizes this, he contradicts himself later when he says,
Then it is clear that original matter, which is in the embryonic state, and the mingled and composed elements which were its earliest forms, gradually grew and developed during many ages and cycles, passing from one shape and form to another, until they appeared in this perfection, this system, this organization and this establishment, through the supreme wisdom of God.

Some Answered Questions, page 183.
That sounds a little promising, like there might be grounds for the Bahá’í claim to accept evolution. But ‘Abdu’l Bahá reiterates his rejection of the evolution of species in a letter:
Some of the philosophers of Europe think that one species evolves into another species. For example, that the animal evolved until it became a human being. But the prophets teach that this theory is erroneous, as we have explained already in the book Some Answered Questions.

Má’idiy-i Asmáni 2: 69; quoted in Keven Brown, “Are ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Views on Evolution Original?”, Bahá’í Studies Review 7 (1997), available at
Dance around with ‘Abdu’l Bahá’s other words and a grab bag of philosophical and scientific ideas all you want (as some writers have done), but to reject the evolution of novel species from other species is to reject evolution; that is what evolution is.

‘Abdu’l Bahá confuses the matter by employing human gestation as an analogy to describe the development of the human species, which he says changed without becoming a new species.
[M]an, in the beginning of his existence and in the womb of the earth, like the embryo in the womb of the mother, gradually grew and developed, and passed from one form to another, from one shape to another, until he appeared with this beauty and perfection . . . Thus it is evident and confirmed that the development and growth of man on this earth, until he reached his present perfection, resembled the growth and development of the embryo in the womb of the mother. . . . [M]an’s existence on this earth, from the beginning until it reaches this state, form, and condition, necessarily lasts a long time, and goes through many degrees until it reaches this condition. But from the beginning of man’s existence he is a distinct species.

Some Answered Questions, page 184.
In a blurry sort of way this analogy has been adopted as what most Bahá’ís seem to know as the Bahá’í position on human evolution. We evolved through many forms, but all those forms were in essence already human, like an embryo in a womb starts off as a single cell and ends up a baby, but is never a species other than human. But it is hard to say exactly what ‘Abdu’l Bahá was talking about. What was the original human form? How did it originate? What were the mechanisms of change?

‘Abdu’l Bahá made confused, ungrounded assertions. Evolutionary theory, by contrast, defines specific mechanisms of change that explain the concrete evidence of current life and the fossil record—and it leads to conclusions in conflict with ‘Abdu’l Bahá’s assertions. All species, including ours, descend from other species with modification primarily by natural selection acting on random variation.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a wonderful man, handsome as hell, funny, generous to the point of giving away the pants off his own body. He established a high-water mark for men’s hairdos as well as for flexibility, steadiness and compassion in guiding a neurotic and disorganized band of zealous converts. I’m sorry Shoghi Effendi has become the standard in the Bahá’í world for both men’s hair and administrative and compositional style.

But when it came to the subject of evolution, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was trying to walk with his sneakers tied together. The man didn't know what he was talking about and was very certain that he did. It is not possible to uphold his complete infallibility while accepting the validity of evolutionary biology. But trying to may make you a practiced intellectual contortionist.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sing, Sing a Song

I once won a prize in an Indonesian beauty contest. Yes, I walked the catwalk with my face caked up beyond recognition and my hair sprayed and gelled to a smooth, crisp absurdity. The wide band around my waist, which rose to a sharp point between my breasts, was the sole fashion innovation of my get-up; my gratitude for that additional indignity goes to the host sister for whom I agreed to play pet person when I consented to participate.

The contest was the Pemilihan Puteri Sutera, or “selection of the princess of silk.” The event was kitschy and conventional, but the tradition of silk weaving in the city of Makassar (then Ujung Pandang) which it honored is exquisite. I was the only Westerner competing, to which I attribute my capture of the title “Favorite,” though I doubt a black American would have been so readily cherished. I’m glad I signed up; it makes a great memory—one of those things one gets into early in life due to an over-developed desire to give others what they want and an under-developed self-respect, resulting in infrequent use of the word “no.”

I had my revenge, though I didn’t really intend it that way. I was just trying to survive and be a sport at the same time. There is a tradition in Indonesia of asking people to sing for large groups impromptu. Especially guests. Especially important people. It is assumed that everybody can sing, has a song ready to go on short notice, and will oblige. Someone informed me backstage that I was expected to sing before the announcement of the winners. I am not a singer. I did not think I knew all the words to any single song that I could sing . . . except maybe one:

Down on the banks of the Hanky Panks,
Where the leap frogs jump from bank to bank,
With an eep, op, oop, op,
Eesophagilley and a
[Dramatic slurping noise]

A great American song. I had the words down solid and the tune to match, and I could sing it with confidence and gusto. So after being introduced with the gratuitous misinformation that I was very happy about the recent election of George Bush (senior) as my new president, I took the microphone in hand and, before a crowd of several hundred, did just that. A friend in the audience said my two host sisters were so mortified one almost left the room and the other looked ready to crawl under her chair. I loved them and felt a teeny weenie bit sorry for them. But, hey, my humiliation as a large, light-skinned toy had been on stage and very well lit. Maybe I did have a slight revenge pleasure in my song selection. It was just a hiccup in the contented lockdown of conventionality, a small intrusion of health and personhood. But sometimes a little disruption is appropriate.

I’m glad I signed up for the Baha’i Faith too. It saved my life by giving me much-needed personal structure at eighteen (about a year after the above story). And it continued a process, begun in Indonesia when I was living with a Muslim family, of getting over my atheism and reckoning with my own God-desire. But ultimately the Faith was party to my own near destruction, and getting out was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I don’t think my blog will have much effect on the pageant of the Baha’i Faith, but I’m gonna sing my little song anyway—even if it makes some people I love uncomfortable. There is too much control, certainty, delusion, and group-think in the Baha’i Faith, not enough reality-sense, play, open thought, and transparency. Individuals are too often used as the means to the triumph of the Faith, not cherished enough as the necessary, quirky, and particular revelations of God’s love that we are. Sometimes a little disruption is appropriate.