And the Secret to Life Is …

[This essay was originally published in four parts on BahaiTeachings.org as “The Universal Secret to Success.”]

Many people have floated theories about the secret of life: Woody Allen said that 80 percent of life is just showing up. James Taylor sang that the secret to life is enjoying the passage of time. Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, proposed that the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, was … 42. Unfortunately no one knows what the question is, and so an enormous planet-sized organic supercomputer was designed to ferret out the question over a period of 7.5 million years, and the computer was named “Earth.”

On some level, I could get behind all of those theories. But I now have one that, after my own forty-something years, I’m completely convinced of. I hasten to add that I have not discovered it in the way that Newton discovered gravity or Einstein relativity. Rather I am claiming this in the way I also claim to have once discovered that stoves can be hot. That is, I have now discovered for myself something that many, many others discovered before me. And here it is …

Success in life, whether at the individual level or at the collective, comes from honoring, above all else, process. Now, “process” is not a word that gets our blood pumping. It conjures bureaucrats at their desks stamping files and consulting thick binders of regulations, hardly the stuff of inspiration. But hear me out.

The history of humanity is largely the story of people striving for goals and, naturally enough, striving for them in what they see as the most efficient way possible: “Our goal is to have more food. That tribe over there has more food. Therefore the most efficient way for us to get more food is to move over there and kill them.” Instead of “food” we can substitute the words “gold,” “silver,” “horses,” “oil,” “land,” “stock,” “votes,” and we can substitute the word “kill” with “defeat,” “marginalize,” or “disadvantage.” But the pattern is all the same: we’ll get what we want in the most efficient way, and usually that is at someone else’s expense.

This wouldn’t surprise an alien observer of our species, as we evolved up through nature and this ruthless efficiency is the way nature works: in nature, the end always justifies the means. Nothing in nature would even consider the means and the ends to be separate things, and so neither did we until relatively recently.

Most people, when pressed, now will concede that there are some areas in which the end does not justify the means: the end of gaining food, would not justify the means of stealing it.

The radical position I have come to over many years and as the result of having my nose bloodied many times by life is this: that not only does the end sometimes not justify the means, but that the end never justifies the means. And what the Universe is trying to teach us throughout history over and over again until we get it, is that there are no caveats to this, no end-runs, no short-cuts. It’s a spiritual law that is as hard and fast as any physical law.

Here’s a framework for understanding this idea. Think of all of our actions as the product of both ideas and processes, each of those falling into good or bad categories, like this:

  • Bad idea + wrong process = bad outcome

  • Good idea + wrong process = bad outcome

  • Good idea + right process = good outcome

And finally — and this is the kicker:

  • Bad idea + right process = good outcome

In other words, process is king. Process is all.

But if process is all, then we’d better have a good way of discerning what constitutes right process. How do we know when we’re adhering to right process and when we’re not? Because in this scheme, that’s the key to everything, the key, as it were, to the kingdom.

After many years of thinking about this (and many failed attempts to be happy using other more popular ideas) it seems irrefutable to me that the Universe rewards humans for only one thing in the long run: acting in the spirit of unity. This is the grand unifying theory (not coincidentally) of spirituality and therefore of ultimate success. And of course, it is the central theme and whole purpose of the Baha’i Faith.

This might all sound reasonable enough, as we all project our own thoughts and preferences on what it means to strive for this all-important “unity.” But before we nod in agreement and wave this off as just garden-variety common sense, let’s run the idea through a few case studies.

We can begin with the most blatant example of ends used to justify means: war. In war we seek the destruction of an enemy for some supposed greater good. But there is inevitably a problem, and Gandhi put his finger on it when he famously said, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” Understanding both our human myopia and amnesia is key to getting this. In the short run, war can appear to fix all sorts of things. But in the long run it inevitably either creates more problems than solves, or delays the solving of the real problem. At the other end, we tend quickly to forget the horrors of war, while we glorify its trappings in parades, ceremonies, air shows, and reenactments. (The Baha’i Faith is not a pacifist religion; the Founders do prescribe military action in the interest of collective security. But the world political unity under which such action would be desirable is so distant that the Faith’s teachings do not support waging war under any current scenario.)

But war is only the most extreme example. Politics as currently practiced is war less the physical violence (usually). So while vastly preferable to war, it is hardly the best we can do. Politics offers a vivid example of the end-justifies-means mindset. Again and again we see the pattern: a young, idealistic person enters the world of political involvement to “make a difference,” a praiseworthy and virtuous motive. She ran for office in her high school and was elected. In college she got involved by volunteering in a presidential campaign, and now that she’s out of law school, has a fire in her belly to run for office and right wrongs she sees all around her.

To the immense pride of her parents and former teachers, she gets elected. Now, at last, she is in a position to start making those changes for which her soul has longed. But first, she quickly comes to the realization that she cannot change the world if she doesn’t stay in office. So if Day One was a celebration of her first election, Day Two begins her next campaign. Unless she possesses superhuman virtues, the pressures of office and frustration with process lead her inexorably toward cutting corners. Moreover, to get reelected, she must fight, and fighting involves bragging about her own accomplishments and belittling the views and accomplishments of her competitors — hardly spiritually uplifting activity. In some cases, slowly, almost imperceptibly, corruption follows.

Multinational corporate practice or any practice that subjugates one people in the world to another falls under the heading of marginalization, which is against the spirit of unity. Lavish spending on luxury items when millions go without essentials shows in yet another way how far we are from unity. The Baha’i fix to these gross inequalities and the pooling of wealth is meaningful profit-sharing for every worker in the hierarchy.

So right out of the gate we have three topics — war, politics, and greed — that dominate our news cycle, and all, as practiced today, are rigorously working against the idea of unity.

But we also see the process play out in less obvious ways. Take the idea of transcendence. Transcendence is good idea, but when we try a shortcut to attain the sensation of transcendence, like drugs, we’ve selected the wrong process, and that yields a bad outcome. Good idea + wrong process = bad outcome. On the other hand: Transcendence (good idea) + prayer and meditation (right process) = good outcome.

Sex, most would concede, seems like a pretty good idea on any given day. But process matters. When we follow right process — getting married first — we run a better chance of getting the ideal outcome: children raised in a well-supported home, as well as the sex (although, granted, the presence of the former is not always conducive to the latter). When we dismiss that process, we usually get bad outcomes: disease, abortion, dysfunctional relationships, greater poverty, greater stress, disjointed society.

The passage of time can deceive us into thinking that good ideas alone equal progress. Something will be erected that is seemingly indestructible, but there is a bug in its operating system, there is a corruption hidden deep inside it that dooms it from the start.

An ancient Egyptian would have gazed on the pyramids and reasonably assumed that their civilization would stand just as long as these magnificent structures. The machine ran for centuries, but was doomed to conk because something in it did not honor unity (much to the contrary, it relied on slavery).

The Roman Empire outwardly was majestic in every way, but the process was corrupt: slavery, blood games, hedonism, corruption, oppression. The machine ran, but was doomed to conk.

For its part, the lasting success of the United States, I believe, has been achieved in direct proportion to its unity and its unifying work in the world. I do not mean this in the way the world currently measures power and success, but in the legacy it will leave to the world. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, it has achieved an astonishing pluralism and, as the oldest republic in the world, has been a critical crucible of democracy and rule of law in the modern world. The United Nations, likewise, will be only as successful as is its members’ authentic commitment to unity.

As mentioned, many people smarter than me came to this conclusion long ago, and I will now put a name to this idea. It is called deontological ethics, and it stands in opposition to consequentialism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was the main purveyor of this idea in modern times, though, of course, the ancient Greeks got to it first as they did almost everything else.

If there is a poster boy for the other side, it is Machiavelli, who gave us: “It  is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both,” and, “Men  should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot,” as well as “It is much more secure to be feared than to be loved.”

The poet Paulo Coelho wrote “…the ends do not justify the means. Because there are no ends, there are only means…”  He goes beyond Kant’s simple dichotomy and recognizes the timelessness of existence. If you consider your existence as eternal, then process becomes all.  If there is truly no end to the life of the human soul – something every great faith tells us – then the concept of “ends” becomes somewhat meaningless.

When we think of the equation “bad idea + right process = good outcome,” we can think of Abdu’l-Baha’s guidance for governance: “…I swear by the one true God, it is better that all should agree on a wrong decision, than for one right vote to be singled out, inasmuch as single votes can be sources of dissension, which lead to ruin. Whereas, if in one case they take a wrong decision, in a hundred other cases they will adopt right decisions, and concord and unity are preserved. This will offset any deficiency, and will eventually lead to the righting of the wrong.”

So in addition to unity attracting divine confirmations, there also is a sort of divinely protected numbers game in which by casting our lot with unity, we will come out way ahead purely in terms of the massive increase in productivity that unified action results in.

We get another glimpse of the phenomenon of mistakes being righted in a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an aggrieved community member having a dispute with his Local Spiritual Assembly: “As you know, you are free to request the Assembly to reconsider its decision. However, you may wish to weigh this course of action against the reaction it could produce, and which may cause you further stress. In some cases, it is preferable if one accepts humbly the view of the Assembly in a spirit of sacrifice, and without further dispute. Then, any wrong decision will eventually be set right. When the believers act submissively and in a spirit of self-effacement it attracts the good pleasure of God, which in itself serves as a consolation to their hearts.” (From a letter dated 12 September 1988)

Understanding the primacy of unity is the key to understanding Baha’i teachings on every topic. The Faith can hold that a certain practice is wrong, but how that wrong is righted is just as important as the wrong itself. For example, the Baha’i Faith teaches that the soul associates with the body at conception, and therefore it follows that abortion is wrong. But we are told, almost in the same breath, that we should not make this subject the cause of divisiveness and that we should scrupulously avoid becoming entangled in the political controversy.

This aversion to divisiveness extends across all matters. If we seek to fix a problem through any sort of divisive action, we’ve created a situation in which the “cure is worse than the disease.” Accordingly Baha’is might march in a demonstration “for race unity” but would not be tempted to participate in a “protest against racism.” Mother Teresa captured this idea. When once she was asked if she would participate in a Vietnam War protest, she said, “No, but if you hold a march for peace, I will be there.”

Baha’u’llah wrote, “Beware lest ye contend with any one, nay strive to make him aware of the truth with kindly manner and most convincing exhortations.” And again, “Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 279, p. 216)

Being “for race unity and peace” instead of “against racism and war” might seem like simply playing games with words, but it is not. The difference is profound. If we are to change the world in a lasting way, we must change it through the power of attraction. The planet will be saved by a great joining, an ingathering, by, in modern parlance, a glorious “opt in” — and not by the means that fill our history books — the overpowering of one group by another.

Why Baha’i? It Comes Down to Five Questions

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:

  1. If the universe, then God.
  2. If us, then a personal God.
  3. If a personal God, then Messengers.
  4. If Messengers, then Baha’u’llah.
  5. If Baha’u’llah, then the Baha’i Faith.

Why am I a Baha’i? That is why.

Erwartungen (Expectations)

What did they expect?
Were they expecting blue eyes?
Perhaps one taller.

A chestnut-maned Jew?
A sword-wielding cloudrider?
An actual lamb?

Maybe a shepherd,
What with all the “one flock” talk.
A politician?

Was it ageism?
Too old for a messiah?
Or the wrong accent?

What did they expect?
Deliverance from labor?
Instant gold-paved streets?

Was it not enough
Staying above engraved words:
Der Herr ist nahe*?

All know the saying
Rome wasn’t built in a day
So why the Kingdom?

*The Lord is near.

Apex Predator

Our natural enemy
Is not that beast that tears at limbs
Overwhelming with claw and fang.
But the daintiest of assassins, barely felt
Atomistic flying syringe
Weightless and exquisitely designed
Spreading its vector of sorrow village to village
Juneau to Soweto to Pyongyang
Bed, clinic, grave
Reducing us, mighty and beloved of God
To feverish wraiths from time before Eden.

Why, just God, did You ammend
A perfectly good creation
With this?
Must not every creature serve some good?
Vultures, no beauties, nobly dispose of disease.
Even lowly mold became a cure.
But why, if You loved your very own children, this?

You replied:
“My calamity is my providence;
Outwardly it is fire and vengeance,
But inwardly it is light and mercy.”

And then dawns the realization:
All of this, each brick and circuit of civilization
Owes its existence to this vile pest, our mortal enemy,
The apex predator of the world.
For what else could have caused the primal ancestor
To sweet-talk Prometheus?
To glean that twirling an ash bough on a cedar hearth
Would start a fire
The heat and smoke of which
Would drive them away?

What better than them
To have made us
Forsake the field–
Go inside?

The Body Washer

He came at first, dagger in robe:
I wish to see the Prisoner!
The Prisoner sent the answer then:
First cast aside your cloaked weapon
Retreating, he is unnerved.

When next he came, one-man jihad
His meaty hands were flexed
To silence that One’s profane voice
He felt he hadn’t any choice
His mind was still perplexed

Again he hailed the prison guard:
“I wish to see the inmate!”
The Prisoner sent the answer out:
First purify your heart throughout.
Again he’d have to wait.

He wandered through the dusty streets
Bewildered and confused
Wondering what magic this
Jailed Heretic could yet possess
To know his subterfuge.

At home, he slept now sound as stone.
The dream came swift and vivid.
And it replayed an episode
And memories from his boyhood flowed
Of a shaykh who’d paid a visit.

“When you are grown” the shaykh had said,
“Watch for the Promised One!
Listen for a Persian tongue
From One atop a stair so long!”
He woke, his hatred gone.

When next he came, his hands and heart
Were cleansed but both atremble.
“I wish to see the prisoner.”
The answer from the cell up there:
Allow him now this temple.

Through the gate he saw the stair
Ascended it and entered
And when their eyes met in that hall
He fell face-down, a helpless thrall
His universe now centered

When last he came his hands got wet
Not with the blood of hatred
But holy water flowed instead,
The Prisoner, years on, was dead
He would perform the sacred.

He wet the cloth, began to wash,
Tears streaming down his face.
How could a vile assassin be
Assigned a duty this lofty?
The miracle of grace.

Fit for a King

“Greetings and salutations rest upon this mansion which increaseth in splendor through the passage of time. Manifold wonders and marvels are found therein, and pens are baffled in attempting to describe them.”

 –Arabic inscription above the doorway of the Mansion of Bahji, Acco, Israel

Day and night craftsmen toiled
At the house near the bay,
Transforming ‘Udi Khammar’s new home
Into a mansion
Fit for a king.
Now a marble stair. Now a vaulted inner sanctum.
Now stately apartments veiled in velvet doors.
His family deserved nothing less.

When disease swept the land and took this man
Another moved in,
One with need of the space
For visitors, officials, pilgrims,
One Whose eyes were starved
For the verdure of its gardens.
One with need of paths that saints alive
And prophets dead could tread.

And now it could be told:
‘Udi Khammar’s improvements
Were never for himself,
Did he but know it.

* * *

They came home by the thousands, the children of Sarah
From Moscow, Warsaw, Prague, Madrid
Gathered on the hills and plains of Zion.
Fulfilled their own prophecies
Erected their own institutions
Affirmed their own identity
With a fortress built
For a venerable, imperiled race.

But here, where three continents kiss
Upon an ancient rock there grew
A new tree,
Sprung from a Seed that had been cast out,
Thrown away in a bygone age
When all this was but a garbage heap
Of a former king.

Now, hiding in plain view
In a new nation, a new creation.
The nascent civilization.
The new Order, thriving in the heart of the old,
The new Covenant, thriving on the hearth of the old,
Surrounded and protected by an unknowing guardian

And now it could be told:
Chosen indeed
For a task unsuspected
Did they but know it.

* * *

And are we all not fixing up a house?
And are we all not building up a nation
For greater purposes hidden from our eyes
Like wildebeests or whales or monarch butterflies
Carrying out the thousand complexities of a mass migration
Under the pretext of our own survival, success, glory?

But ever blind to the real import of our actions
As if the train were really for getting
From Merthyr Tydfil to Abercynnon
As if the internet were really created
For national defense.

And now it can be told:
That in all we do
And in all we are
We make the Earth itself
Fit for a King
Did we but know it.

None of the Above: A New Conception of Religion

Throughout history and until virtually this moment, there have been three ways that religion has been conceived and practiced.

The first we can think of as Exclusivist or Fundamentalist. This was how most religion was conceived of for the vast majority of history. This view holds that one’s own religion is right and all others are wrong, that one religious founder is correct and all the others either occupy a station far below him or else are pretenders. Fundamentalism’s essence is “My way or the highway … to hell” (with apologies to AC/DC). It is characterized not only by exclusivity, rigidity, and a hyperliteral reading of scripture, but is disproportionately animated by a reward/punishment model based on heaven and hell. Because Exclusivism feeds an us-versus-them, in-group/out-group mentality, it thrives by stroking the group ego with a sort of self-congratulatory vibe.

The second view, which flourished largely as an understandable reaction to the unyielding nature of Exclusivism/Fundamentalism, is Materialism, or atheism, the motto of which might well be: “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Materialism, holding as it does that there is no non-physical dimension to life or to the universe, dismisses all religion as superstition, as a mere function of individual and group psychology, as a tool for control of the masses, and as the nemesis of science and reason.

The third conception of religion can be called Postmodern Pluralism, and a suitable shorthand for it might be a spiritualized version of “If it feels good do it.” In most instances, we have a positive association with the term “pluralism,” but in this case it refers to a fragmented approach to religion rather than a holistic one, where theology and observance is a la carte, as a salad bar at which one picks and chooses the religious ideas and observances she fancies, instead of the full-meal deal, eaten at the behest of an expert nutritionist. Here, we find those who suspect that there is a higher power and therefore are not comfortable with cold Materialism, but likewise reject Fundamentalism for most of the same reasons Materialists do — its hostility to questioning, its disregard for science, etc.

Though Postmodern Pluralists believe in a higher power, their typical lack of an internally consistent doctrine can lead to a faith that is vague, ever-shifting, somewhat non-committal, and largely a function of cultural preferences and comfort zones. (“I like the music/location/preacher in this church, so I’ll be a ___”) As much as Fundamentalism is closed, Postmodern Pluralists, in their extreme form, can be equally open to every new idea that comes along, and therefore their conception even can be a portal back into superstition. Here we see the “new age” resurgence of astrology, crystals, past lives, etc. Author Nader Saiedi, whose typology I have borrowed here, writes, “Its relativism of truth and value becomes compatible with an eclectic, arbitrary, uncommitted, and fragmented approach to religion.”

Finally, Postmodern Pluralism generally preaches a gospel of affirmation rather than one of transformation. Because its members circulate in a vast marketplace with infinitely varied menus of beliefs and approaches, it typically seeks to reassure, comfort and affirm the views and habits a person already has instead of challenging them to transform themselves through the sometimes uncomfortable process of personal growth and the tough re-examination of assumptions.

Before going further, I want to say that it’s easy to empathize with each conception as a reaction to the extremes of the other two. The Materialist reaction to Fundamentalist fire-and-brimstone judgmentalism and the blind eye to science, and Materialism’s rejection of the woo-woo superstition of much of Postmodern Pluralism’s new age wing, is wholly understandable and even praiseworthy at a certain level.

For her part, the Postmodern Pluralist can be admired for recognizing that the choice between the extremes of Materialism and Exclusivist Fundamentalism is a false one — that God exists but doesn’t necessarily conform to the hyperliteral interpretation of the Bible Belt, the orthodox synagogue, or the madrassa.

And there even is a grudging degree of empathy here for the Fundamentalist, who on one hand is repulsed by the inherent nihilism of the Materialist, and, on the other, equally loathes the Postmodernist’s moral relativism, or fair-weather, soft-focus, affirmation-based theology, or its gradual abandonment of personal morality.

What’s more, all three of these conceptions of religion exist in the East and the West. And every major religion is split between Fundamentalism and Pluralism (conservatism/traditionalism vs. liberalism/progressivism) Think Orthodox vs. Reform Judaism, sharia Muslims vs. Sufi mystics who may have little use for religious law, evangelicals vs. the Christian left, and so on. Every major tradition has felt and is feeling the strain of those pulling in these opposite directions. Indeed, even within tiny religious communities such as single congregations, or even families, one sees the split, as when certain members of a church feel the necessity of upholding the fundamentals of scripture while another faction, instinctively uncomfortable with scriptural anachronisms (like Creationism or stoning), pushes the congregation toward ever more liberal stands.

By identifying three categories, I don’t mean to suggest an over-simplified scheme in which every person or congregation within a given category appears identical. We can picture the phenomenon as a pie divided into three sections (the Mercedes-Benz logo), in which each individual, depending on his or her constellation of views, could be plotted on the graph closer to one of the other two conceptions or farther away, as well as closer to the middle (moderation) or to the edge (extreme). But even taking the subtleties into account, the three basic conceptions held true.

Until Baha’u’llah.

Just when it seemed that there really could be no other conception of religion than these three, and that these views were irreconcilable at the deepest level, Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, introduced a notion that was essentially different from all three of these — answering “None of the Above.” This new conception is known as Progressive Revelation.

In short, Progressive Revelation means that God reveals His will to humanity gradually and through progressive stages. A few metaphors might help illustrate the idea.

The Baha’i conception of the historic religions is not the typical one of competing ideologies, but rather that the world is a schoolhouse, and each of the prophets are teachers, instructing at a different grade level. There is only one principal, God, who is in charge and is directing the teachers, who are given authority in each of their respective classrooms. The fact that the first-grade teacher is covering one topic and the fifth-grade teacher another does not mean that one is right and the other wrong. It merely means that the teachers are dispensing lessons at an age-appropriate level, and with different classroom rules to optimize learning.

Rather than viewing the great religions of history as separate books, Baha’is view them as chapters in one single book, a book that gets more sophisticated as each chapter arrives.

Finally, in our high-tech world, one last analogy might help. The human is like computer hardware. And the Word of God is like the software, or perhaps even the operating system, on which it runs. Over time, the software needs to be upgraded. The old software has gotten buggy, corrupted over time, and besides is not optimized for the tasks that the modern world requires. Think of it as Word of God 4.1, Word of God 8.5, etc.

But if religion is one, why don’t the historic religions agree in all their concepts, let alone in their particulars? Two reasons: their social laws are intended for a specific time and place, and, as mentioned above, their original teachings are corrupted over time, usually by a presumptuous clergy making leaps of logic after the founder is long gone, and often it is the particulars of social law as well as the corruptions — and not the essences — that we are comparing.

Now, strictly speaking, Progressive Revelation is not a new idea. Jews believe that God revealed his will to Abraham, and to Moses after him, and to many prophets after him. Christians believe in the authenticity of all of those Jewish prophets, but then add John the Baptist, Christ, and the apostles after him. Muslims believe in the Jewish prophets, the divinity of Jesus, then add Muhammad. What all of those have in common, of course, is that they all believe their revelation was the final one and all others coming after that, imposters, nevermind that the founders in each case spoke of one who would come in the future.

So the truly unique elements of Baha’u’llah’s Progressive Revelation are that He 1. equalized the station of all of the founders of the major religions, in Baha’i parlance known as Manifestations of God, and 2. said that this was an organic process that had occurred from time immemorial and would continue eternally. He did say that we should not look for another Manifestation before 1,000 years’ time — His medicine has to be given time to work — but he clearly stated that others would come after Him to carry civilization forward yet again.

It’s interesting to consider how Baha’u’llah’s fourth conception of religion, Progressive Revelation, is different from but in a way unifies all three previous conceptions:

  •  With Postmodern Pluralism it shares the belief that there is not simply one path to God, and in a sense ups the ante on this pluralism, affirming that not only is there more than one path, but indeed ALL the historic religions originated with an authentic revelation from God, with prophets who were equally exalted in their station.
  • With Materialism it shares a certain clear-eyed humility about our ability to really know the essence of God. While we believe in God, we also hold that God is an “unknowable essence” (which is why He appointed human messengers that could relate to us through our own language). Additionally, Baha’u’llah affirmed the importance of science, saying that true science and true religion had to be in harmony. And He made the independent investigation of truth, without attatchment to either superstition or tradition, the first prerequisite of a spiritual journey.
  • And finally, with Fundamentalism it shares the belief that God has a definite plan for humanity, that there is purpose and direction in that plan, that the ancient prophets were in fact correct (however misinterpreted they might be), and there is indeed one prophet whose message in particular is optimized for us (because it is optimized for this age and the unique problems and complexities of it).

As the Baha’i Faith is the only religion that fully embraces Progressive Revelation as an ongoing, organic process, the Faith is not simply another church, or another denomination, or even just another religion. It is a whole new way of thinking about religion. It is not just its own species of religion, but is a species, genus, family, order, phylum, and kingdom unto itself. While it shares numerous traits with other religions, it in itself embodies a radical new conception of religion — one that makes peace between and unites these three dominant old worldviews.

______

This essay was inspired by the book Logos and Civilization: Spirit, History, and Order in the Writings of Baha’u’llah, by Nader Saiedi, University Press of Maryland, 2000.