A little more than 10 years ago, I decided to become a Baha’i. It was a momentous event in my life, yet one I did not see coming. I was not friends with any Baha’is at the time, and had only met two in my life.
For having no personal tie to this religion, it was a decision that seemed to come suddenly, as if it were an inescapable fate. But when I search my past for early signs that I might have landed in this theological place, I wind up with a startling realization. More than anyone else, my decision to become a Baha’i might be attributable to … C.S. Lewis. Yes, I’m referring to the most celebrated Christian theologian of modern history.
I say this primarily for one reason, which is that when I was about 27, I read his masterwork of popular theology Mere Christianity, in which he asserted the following:
“Religion involves a series of statements about facts, which must be either true or false. If they are true, one set of conclusions will follow about the sailing of the human fleet: if they are false, quite a different set.”
When I reread Lewis today, there is a great deal with which I disagree. (This is not the place to catalogue those divergences.) But the statement above I found to be not only self-evident but supremely valuable and underappreciated. Though I may not have realized it, I clenched this nugget of truth tightly as the sometimes stormy events of my life rolled by and my circumstances changed. Truth is not relative. Not everything is a matter of perspective or semantics or psychology.
Over time, the questions I had about God, spirituality, and religion gelled into five, each of which, if answered in what I believed to be the sensible way, compelled me on to the next question, and finally, inescapably, to my embrace of the Baha’i Faith.
It might seem odd that five questions could compel someone anywhere on or off the religious spectrum to such a specific association. It’s sort of like saying I could get from my office in downtown Austin, Texas, to Moxie’s Classic Grill at the Intercity Mall in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with only five turns. But as it happens, I could do just that. You see, it’s not the distance travelled, but making the right decisions at the right junctures that leads you to that classic grill. And if it still seems odd or unlikely, C.S. Lewis himself might have said it best:
“Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd… Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed….”
Question 1: Is there a God?
In my analogy of getting from downtown Austin to Thunder Bay, Ontario, with five turns, the trick, of course, is that the vast majority of the drive is on a single road, Interstate 35. The most important turn I make, then, is getting going the right direction on I-35 once I get there. If I get there and somehow enter the highway going south instead of north, then virtually no number of turns will get me to Moxie’s Classic Grill. So it pays to take our time and really nail that first crucial decision; it’s the foundation for everything that comes after it.
First, we have to say upfront that there can be no proof of God nor disproof of God; God is both unprovable and nonfalsifiable, so if you’re looking for proof you can skip the rest of the essay. Of course, this is far from saying there is no evidence of God. Indeed, He has left His fingerprints on everything. The incomparable interdependent genius of nature is often presented as Exhibit A that there is some kind of intelligence at work in whatever force is continuously creating the universe — a force far, far beyond our own intelligence. This may be affirming for those who already believe, but skeptics may counter that this is not in and of itself proof of anything more than that nature’s laws can produce amazing results.
What cannot be so easily batted away, in my opinion, is how and why human beings are inspired by that nature, and by many other parts of life that would not seem to be necessary for our biological survival, as nature would dictate. Science can explain the optics of a fiery sunset, but it cannot explain why that sunset can also bring tears to the eyes of the viewer. The meaning with which we imbue our world is inexplicable in purely evolutionary terms. Group psychology, evolutionary psychology, and brain chemistry can explain many behaviors, but deep and spiritual love one for another? Sacrifice and even martyrdom to an ideal? Passion for art? I think not. These simply do not appear to be the province of the material world, and at the very least are not qualities found anywhere outside ourselves. To try to reduce all human experience to the cold calculations of natural law simply seems a stretch, let alone to assign the love and inspiration one feels in her own life to mere calculations — no matter how complex — seems to be a contortion designed merely to relieve oneself from considering the ramifications of a non-material plane.
Our old friend C.S. Lewis masterfully points out the contradiction in nihilism:
“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”
This deserves meditation.
I empathize with those who don’t believe in God, for many reasons, not least on grounds that the universe often appears to be coldly indifferent to us. Disease and starvation beset innocent children. Those who eat right and exercise keel over from a heart attack, while the greedy, not the meek, appear to inherit the earth. A deeper reading however shows that the vast majority of humanity’s wounds are self-inflicted and more often than not because we have stubbornly ignored the advice of God’s messengers. For those few wounds that are not, we can conclude that volatility in the universe must exist for free will to exist. This volatility can come at a harsh price. We can also conclude that, while there may be a life after death, in this life God seems to place a premium on collective progress, often at the expense of individual welfare.
Is it rational to believe in something for which there is no proof? For some people, the answer is no, though I suspect if one scratched the surface he would find they apply this logic selectively. For me, it is entirely rational to proclaim belief in something for which there may be no conclusive proof but for which the cumulative evidence is not only sufficient but overwhelming. For me, God is squarely in this category.
Question 2. Is God “personal”?
If you believe that God exists, the next split on the decision tree seems to be whether you believe God is “personal” or a creative but blind force. Most religions agree that God is personal, for quite a logical reason:
If God exists, then by definition He must be vastly superior to anything in His creation. Since we are a part of that creation, and we know a thing or two about ourselves, we can assume that God must contain all the capacities of the human (plus infinitely more). Therefore, if one human capacity is the ability to love, then God must have that ability, and more. If one human capacity is to discern and value justice, then God must know and value justice. If another human capacity is compassion, then God must also contain that, and so forth. Carried to its logical conclusion, if one capacity of humans is to discipline their children out of love, then God too must have this capacity and to an even greater degree. Carefully applied, this line of logic gives motive and rich texture to humanity’s ongoing relationship with its Creator.
As a corollary, God could not contain negative traits of humans as those are clearly the absence of the good. Rage is the absence of patience. Boastfulness, the absence of humility, etc. Dark is not an extant thing but rather the absence of light.
This is not anthropomorphizing God… “Humans do X so God must do X because we’re obviously very close to gods.” Rather, it’s simple logic: any being contains the capacities of any lower being. Vegetables have the capacity of minerals, yet more. Animals have the capacities of vegetables, yet more. Humans have the capacities of animals, yet more. And so forth.
Another frequent corollary to this distinction of God as “personal” is that God can and does intervene in human affairs. This belief is the basis for prayers of supplication. For me, God by definition has two qualities: omnipotence and will. By definition, God does what He wants. That’s what it means to be God. And if He does what He wants, it stands to reason He would want to interact with His creation in all sorts of ways, just as a loving parent wants to interact with her child.
And just as a loving parent teaches her child to use its words and ask for what it wants as opposed to demanding, complaining, or merely suffering, it seems God has encouraged us similarly to use words and thoughts to ask for what we want and need — a crucial link in the developmental process be it for an individual or a sentient species.
Question 3. How would a “personal God” interact with us?
If you agree God exists and that God is “personal,” then it is a relatively short step to believe that God would desire, and therefore create, a means to that end — a way to establish a “personal” relationship. But the nature of God appears to be such that there can be no direct contact between Creator and creation. Perhaps it’s like the sun and the earth. The former is too powerful to directly contact the latter without destroying or subsuming it. For creation to exist, there seems to need to be a remove, in Baha’i parlance, a “tree beyond which there is no passing.”
If omnipotent, then God could prove His existence to us if He wanted to. The fact that He doesn’t points to His unwillingness to do so. The likely reason for this is that proof would obviate the need for faith, and a close reading of the scriptures of the world reveals the critical role of faith. There must be something about faith that is critical to the process of growth. To survive, let alone to grow, a child must have faith in the parent.
But if humans are as children to this spiritual parent, then it is natural that the parent hire a teacher to help them advance. We see education as a fundamental and universal right in the material world. And it stands to reason that if God is personal, then, motivated by love, He would desire our growth and therefore need to concoct a process to stimulate that growth.
And when we look at the sweep of civilization we see just such a process has played out. The rise of humanity has not been a smooth ascending line. Rather, advancement in civilization comes in sudden and erratic fits and starts. This is one of the great mysteries of our own history — how, in the space of about 6,000 years, within a species timeframe of perhaps 1 million years, civilizations all over the world blossomed seemingly spontaneously.
Certainly, their progress was not precisely uniformed, and heaven knows that civilization is still very much a work in progress. But viewed in the full scope of history, everything around us that we enjoy has sprung into being in the relative blink of an eye. Indeed, when you really put civilizations under a microscope, you see a remarkable thing: that the greatest ones sprang into being as the result of a single person. Hebrew civilization traces itself to Abraham, and, as a second, solidifying force, to Moses. Christendom traces itself to the appearance of a single figure, Jesus Christ. Islamic civilization, which most scholars agree ushered Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance and in turn the Enlightenment, traces back to the Prophet Muhammad. The vast and predominately peaceful and compassionate Buddhist civilization sprang into being because of a single person. And so it goes. Is this merely coincidence, or is something more profound at work here?
In my faith we believe this phenomenon is no coincidence, and we call each of the Founders of those world faiths “Manifestations of God.” If we’re trying to discover the way in which God tries to reach humanity, we don’t need to look farther than these Figures. Humans need teachers whom they can understand, who speak their language, and for the most part live among them. These teachers need to share enough of the people’s culture so that they can find an audience — use the common vocabulary, wear the clothing, tell the stories and reference the texts — but also challenge those cultures.
Indeed, they usually challenge them in ways that land them in jail or get them executed. Indeed, these few people down the ages are thought to constitute a special class of souls, and in their own individualized ways, they are each perfect reflections of God’s attributes. They are not God, and are not gods, but rather are humans employed by God to be His messengers, to teach His children. The side effect is that each time one appears, he renews civilization. Through them, God “dispenses” His next round of lessons for humanity. They appear to be sent strategically to certain populations at certain times to have the greatest impact and to teach human populations in an age-appropriate way.
I was speaking at a Unitarian Universalist church recently when, after my talk, an earnest gentleman approached me and, with furrowed brow, asked, “Now… I want to know … deep down in your heart of hearts, do you really believe that a man can be the mouthpiece of God?” I said, “I get the gist of your question, and I understand the hesitance. But I think nature gives us the model of what is happening here. To create a new human body, we don’t need all the cells of the body contributing equally. Indeed, it only takes one sperm cell out of millions to fertilize the egg and bring that new body into existence, to be that primal cause. I think that’s what’s happening with these Manifestations.” He nodded, furrowed his brow again, deeper in thought, shook my hand, and strolled away.
Another question within this larger question of how God would interact with us is, are we done learning? If you believe that the prophet or founder of your religion is the last that will ever appear to humanity, then you must also believe that we have done all the learning we can, that humanity is as advanced as it will ever be, and that civilization is in its final form. All I can say when I look around is, I certainly hope not!
Baha’is believe that God has led humans to increasingly advanced stages of civilization over the years through the appearance of these great teachers. It’s an idea known as “progressive revelation.” Many religions have an implicit belief in progressive revelation. For example, in Judaism, believers hold Abraham as the patriarch of the Jewish people, but later, revere Moses as the founder of the religion itself. And after Moses, there appears a whole series of prophets they believe brought the Word of God to the Israelites through different eras. Christians believe in the divine authority of all of those prophets, but then of course add John the Baptist and, in a class of His own, Jesus Christ. Muslims hold all of those figures in reverence and add Muhammad. What all of these world religions have in common, though, is that they believe their prophet or prophets were the last, this despite another shared tradition among them all that claims there will be another in the future who will unite humanity in a golden age or kingdom of heaven on earth.
To me, it just seems unlikely on its face that if God were a loving God, He would say, “Okay, that’s it! That’s all I’m saying! You people can figure out the rest on your own!” And even if you hold that position, it seems painfully obvious just by looking around that we haven’t figured it out on our own. To the contrary, it appears it’s high time God sent someone to give us the keys to success in this strange and new world we call the modern age.
Question 4. Who is the teacher for today?
If you believe that God exists, accept that God is personal, extrapolate that a personal God would want to teach us, and can see that human civilization is obviously far from having learned all it’s capable of, the next logical question is, who is the teacher for today?
There have been scads of people who have raised their hands and claim to be the spokespersons for God for today. David Koresh, Jim Jones, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and many others have claimed this. Indeed, in the mid 19th century, following the appearance of a Persian prophet known as The Bab, no fewer than 24 men claimed to be the fulfillment of The Bab’s prophecy.
With the luxury of more than a century and a half between then and now, it is fairly plain to see that only one of them was correct. His name, for which the Baha’i Faith takes its name, was Baha’u’llah.
I was on Baha’i pilgrimage in Haifa, Israel, and had just finished answering my Jewish American roommate’s questions about the Baha’i Faith, when he grinned and said, “It takes a lot of chutzpah to claim you’re a messenger from God.” I thought about his comment for a long time, and when I returned home, I sent him an e-mail, and said, “You may have been right about that, but as we say in Texas, it ain’t bragging if it’s true.”
There are myriad reasons that I believe Baha’u’llah’s claim to be God’s teacher for today. But here are the biggest:
- The power of His words. It was common in the time of Baha’u’llah for people to expect miracles from those who professed divine authority. And while accounts of Baha’u’llah’s life are replete with miraculous happenings, Baha’u’llah Himself discounted the ability of these events to convince anyone not “in the room.” Instead, He said, the most convincing evidence of an authentic Messenger of God is the power of His words. This is for the reason that they are not really His words at all, but the words of God. This is something that cannot be explained or conveyed by a third party like myself. All I can do is point you to the words. If they touch your heart and mind the way they touch mine, then that is all I can do.
- Layer upon the power of His words the testament of His life story. That story is beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say for now that the history of the Faith, and in particular the history of this figure, reads like the story of a real religion. There is drama upon a sweeping historical stage here that is not like religious “fan fiction” that sometimes crops up in modern times seemingly as a sort of cheap imitation of historic religions of the past. Here, in this history, still so accessible to us though little realized by wider society, is the dawning of a new age, the sacrifice of tens of thousands, and stories that fill books and testify to the authenticity of this great new religion.
- As part of that life story, we must look at and admit that the effect He had on those around Him was astonishing. We can only appreciate this at a remove, but reading accounts written by so many different people leaves little doubt that the force of Baha’u’llah’s personality was miraculous in its effect. Political oppressors, jailers, and even would-be assassins transformed into among His most devoted followers.
- Baha’u’llah fulfilled the messianic prophecies of every world religion. This is a somewhat more esoteric area of study, one that takes effort and discernment, but for those of us who put stock in the writings and prophecies of the world’s great religions, it is an area of abundant confirmation.
- Finally, He was the one who articulated the very idea of progressive revelation. If we’re looking for the successor to this great chain of teachers, who better than the one who pointed out that there was a chain at all?
Question 5. Where is the teacher’s classroom?
We’re almost to Moxie’s Classic Grill, but let’s not get lost inside the mall! For there is one last critical step, or turn, to make.
It’s well and good to admire the ideals for which Baha’u’llah stood and the way in which He lived His majestic life. But how do we know that the Baha’i Faith, as it exists today, is really what He had in mind? In other words, if Baha’u’llah is God’s teacher for today, then how do we know the Baha’i Faith is His classroom?
Perhaps Jesus said it best when He said, according to Matthew 7:15:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”
By their fruits, you will know them. Today, we have a luxury, almost 170 years by which to judge the intentions and the efficacy of the Baha’i Faith. Not every soul who has entered this Faith has been committed to keeping it unified. But those who have tried to create splinter groups within the Baha’i Faith have come to utter nothingness.
Meanwhile, the institution that has remained faithful to the line of authority set in motion by Baha’u’llah — namely that after His passing, His followers should follow His son Abdu’l-Baha, and then His great-grandson Shoghi Effendi, and then the elected body called the Universal House of Justice — this institution has flourished in a breathtaking display of what happens when the work of women and men is aligned with the intention, protection, and confirmation of God.
In seventeen decades, the Baha’i Faith has become the second-most geographically widespread religion in the world, with a dazzling array of ethnicities and former members of every world religion bolstering its ranks day by day. In my mind’s eye, I see the timeless and monumental architecture and gardens of the Faith’s holy places — the Shrines of the Bab and Baha’u’llah in the Holy Land, and the magnificent Baha’i Houses of Worship now on nearly every continent — as the outward manifestation of the beauty, robustness, and permanence of this profound spiritual planetary germination.
* * *
To sum up, we can articulate this theological chain of inference this way:
- If the universe, then God.
- If us, then a personal God.
- If a personal God, then Messengers.
- If Messengers, then Baha’u’llah.
- If Baha’u’llah, then the Baha’i Faith.
Why am I a Baha’i? That is why.