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.