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 compell 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 ramifcations 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 spritual 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.


Back through the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Power of Allegory in Spiritual Formation

When I first read C.S. Lewis’ children’s fantasy phenomenon The Chronicles of Narnia as a 12-year-old I got the allegory even then: Narnia was the spiritual world, the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea was God, the White Witch embodied evil or Satan (himself symbolic), the wardrobe was like faith, by which we entered the spiritual realm, the Lion, Aslan, of course, embodied Jesus Christ, the Stone Table was the cross, Lucy and Susan were Mary and Martha, Edmund was Judas (or any of us), “Peter” the high king was the church — all obvious enough for any child who had stayed awake in Sunday school.

After finishing the seven-book series, I so longed for that world to continue that, in a move that prefigured a lifetime of audacious and quixotic projects, I took it upon myself to write the eighth Chronicle of Narnia. It was a slim volume I named The Three Fires, in which I, to make the homage to the Chronicles complete, constructed my own allegory of the Trinity, however crude. My enrollment in an eighth grade typing class came not a moment too soon, as I used the newfound skill to peck out its fifty-seven pages on my grandmother’s Smith Corona. With the help of my father, I got seven copies run off and spiral bound and hand colored each of the seven covers before having them laminated.

In ninth grade, I sampled The Screwtape Letters, his playful apologetic written by a conniving Satan. Then I moved on to rock-n-roll, girls, cars, video production and other activities more befitting a teenage American boy.

But Lewis wasn’t done with me. Our second encounter came when I was about 27 and delved for the first time into Lewis’ nonfiction, Mere Christianity, an anthology of transcribed radio talks in which he argues for Christianity in a style marked by simplicity, easily grasped metaphors, and air-tight logic. I was so influenced and taken with the book that a slew of his other apologetics followed: God in the Dock, The Problem of Pain, Miracles.

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Ireland in 1898 and was a staunch atheist from the age of 15 to 31. He eventually became a professor of medieval literature at Oxford, and, influenced by arguments with his Oxford colleague and close friend J.R.R. Tolkien, and by the book The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton, he slowly rediscovered Christianity. Lewis said he was brought into Christianity like a prodigal, “kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape.”

Following his acceptance of God in 1929, Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931. Following a long discussion and late-night walk with his close friends Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, he records making a specific commitment to Christianity while on his way to the zoo with his brother. He became a member of the Church of England — somewhat to the disappointment of Tolkien, who had hoped he would convert to Roman Catholicism.

The close friendship between Lewis and Tolkien was on some level reenacted by my neighbor across the street and me, when he became the world’s foremost 10-year-old authority on Tolkien’s Middle-earth and I acquired similar credentials for Narnia. We were a Muppet Babies version of the Oxford dons themselves. Having cleanly divided children’s fantasy literature thusly freed us each to specialize in our areas all the more completely. Only occasionally during our long summer days playing together did orcs encounter centaurs.

Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia between 1949 and 1954, and died nine years later leaving a robust catalogue to convert and inspire Christians for at least a century to come, and most pointedly a body of apologetic in favor of basic belief in the divine. For their part, The Chronicles of Narnia have sold more than 100 million copies and various books within the series have been adapted for film, TV, radio, and stage. His legacy was never given its full due at the time of his death, as he died on November 22, 1963, the very day President Kennedy was assassinated. What little space was left that day for obituaries he had to share, incredibly, with Aldous Huxley.

Cloaked in the form of a clever fairy tale, The Chronicles of Narnia uses allegory to illuminate an impressive array of spiritual truths and dynamics.

I had not re-read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for 30 years, until last fall, when I read it aloud to my two older sons. In the meantime, I had gone on a long spiritual and intellectual journey that had culminated in my embrace of the Bahá’í Faith, a religion that claims that its founder, Bahá’u’lláh, fulfills the prophecy of the second coming of Jesus Christ (as well as the messianic promise of all historic religions).

What struck me in re-reading Lewis’ description of the Lion, Aslan, was how effectively he was describing the character not only of Jesus Christ, but, in accordance with my new understanding, the character of all the Manifestations of God, that is, all the founders of the world’s historic religions, including and especially Bahá’u’lláh Himself. And how he tries to put into words the effect the Manifestation, or even the name of the Manifestation, has on people.

Here then are Lewis’ descriptions of Aslan, followed by one famous description of Bahá’u’lláh by the only Westerner ever to have met him, the British scholar Edward Granville Browne. First, Aslan:

“They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed.”

“And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside…”

In Chapter 8, the Beavers struggle to further explain Aslan’s identity to those who have never heard of him:

“Aslan?” said Mr. Beaver, “Why don’t you know? He’s the King. He’s the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand. Never in my time or my father’s time. But the word has reached us that he has come back. He is in Narnia at this moment. He’ll settle the White Queen all right. It is he, not you, that will save Mr. Tumnus.”

… “Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—THE Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

“I’m longing to see him” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”

This notion of fierceness and goodness living within the same entity is one that may help us if we struggle with the notion of the “fear of God.”

Chapter 9:

“For the mention of Aslan gave [Edmund] a mysterious and horrible feeling, just as it gave the others a mysterious and lovely feeling.”

In Chapter 12, the children meet Aslan for the first time:

“But as for Aslan himself, the Beavers and the children didn’t know what to do or say when they saw him. People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now. For when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes; and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly.”

And now, E.G. Browne’s famous “pen portrait” of Bahá’u’lláh. The encounter takes place in Akka, Israel, in 1890, when Bahá’u’lláh would have been approximately 73 years old …

“… my conductor paused for a moment while I removed my shoes. Then, with a quick movement of the hand, he withdrew, and, as I passed, replaced the curtain; and I found myself in a large apartment, along the upper end of which ran a low divan, while on the side opposite to the door were placed two or three chairs. Though I dimly suspected whither I was going and whom I was to behold (for no distinct intimation had been given to me), a second or two elapsed ere, with a throb of wonder and awe, I became definitely conscious that the room was not untenanted. In the corner where the divan met the wall sat a wondrous and venerable figure, crowned with a felt head-dress of the kind called taj by dervishes (but of unusual height and make), round the base of which was wound a small white turban. The face of him on whom I gazed I can never forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one’s very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow; while the deep lines on the forehead and face implied an age which the jet-black hair and beard flowing down in indistinguishable luxuriance almost to the waist seemed to belie. No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain!”

Side by side, we can clearly see both authors struggling to find words that convey a majesty and nobility that for which human language, in all its glory, is ultimately inadequate.

C.S. Lewis’ writing — from Narnia through Mere Christianity — provided a crucial link in my spiritual growth, and I still treasure my shelf-foot of his books. I do not know if he ever even heard of the tiny, young Bahá’í Faith during his own life, and if he had, what critique he would have given it. So complete was his attachment to Christianity that I would presume if his exposure to the Bahá’í Faith was superficial he would have dismissed it as he did all other competitors in theological marketplace. However, I like to imagine that if he had encountered an unattributed collection of any number of Abdu’l-Bahá’s rational expositions, with their air-tight logic on the existence of God, the nature of Jesus Christ, or Abdu’l-Bahá’s commentaries on Old or New Testament scripture itself — in other words, if Lewis had taken a blind taste test — he unwittingly would have become a fan if not a follower. Ultimately, of course, I have no idea.

But in Chapter 17, the final portion of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis crystallizes Bahá’í Manifestation theology perfectly in a few choice lines. The four Pevensie children have been crowned kings and queens of Narnia …

“But amidst all these rejoicings Aslan himself quietly slipped away. And when the Kings and Queens noticed that he wasn’t there they said nothing about it. For Mr. Beaver had warned them, ‘He’ll be coming and going’ he had said. ‘One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down — and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.’”

Here, the Manifestation of God comes and goes in different eras, and “attends to other countries,” a Bahá’í tenet if ever there were one.

In book 5, The Silver Chair, our new protagonist, Jill, another British school girl drawn into Narnia, is by a stream when she see’s Aslan for the first time.

“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.

“Then drink,” said the Lion.”

“My I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.

The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.

The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.

“Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.

“I make no promise,” said the Lion.

Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.

“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.

“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.

“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion — no one who had ever seen his stern face could do that — and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water in her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted. You didn’t need to drink much of it, for it quenched your thirst at once. …”

“Come here,” said the Lion. And she had to. She was almost between its front paws now, looking straight into his face. But she couldn’t stand that for long; she dropped her eyes.

This episode is clearly autobiographical. In his actual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis described his final, futile struggle against belief in God:

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”

“I Knew Thy Creation, Wherefore I created thee…”

In The Hidden Words, Bahá’u’lláh, writing in the voice of God, shares a glimpse of the Divine perspective with the quotation above. This verse came to me immediately as I reread the passage below to my boys, again from The Silver Chair. Here, Digory and Jill are puzzling about how they got into Narnia:

“Speak your thought, Human Child,” said the Lion.

“I was wondering — I mean — could there be some mistake? Because nobody called me and Scrubb, you know. It was we who asked to come here. Scrubb said we were to call to — to Somebody — it was a name I wouldn’t know — and perhaps the Somebody would let us in. And we did, and then we found the door open.”

“You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you” said the Lion.”

Repeating the Signs

In The Silver Chair, Jill and Digory find themselves in “Aslan’s Country,” pictured as an Everest-high mountain looking down on the Narnian world. Aslan has given the two four signs they must remember in order to complete their mission in Narnia. And before he dispatches them to the country below, he admonishes them:

“… remember, remember, remember the Signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the Signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the Signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the Signs and believe the Signs. Nothing else matters. And now, Daughter of Eve, farewell—” p. 21

Likewise, as Bahá’ís we are instructed to pray and read from the Writings in the morning and at night, and not to be distracted from the materialism of the world as it exists today.

Narnia is not a flawless text, and more than once Lewis’ word choice betrays the superiority complex common for his day regarding non-Western European culture. (Good guys are generally lily white with all the cultural trappings of Anglo-Saxons; bad guys are pretty much straight-up Arabs if not Muslims. Good guys generally live in the northern lands of Narnia. Bad guys in the south, etc.)

His pre-modern shortcomings notwithstanding, I do think that Lewis’ own remarkable spiritual journey and lifetime of deep thinking put him in touch with profound spiritual truths that touched his readers and for us, can enable understandings beyond what even he intended.

* * *

As mentioned earlier, in the same degree that I was consumed by Lewis, my neighbor friend was obsessed with Tolkien, and we were so much a part of each other’s lives that I hardly found it necessary to read The Lord of the Rings as I got a heaping helping of it simply through osmosis.

My understanding of the story grew immensely, of course, on watching the astonishing trilogy of movies unfold between 2001 and 2003. Peter Jackson’s Academy Award-winning (11) effort drew me into Middle-earth, and I decided I was past-due for an actual reading of Tolkien’s classic text.

The Lord of the Rings is named for the bad guy, the Dark Lord Sauron, but of course the real star is the hobbit Frodo Baggins, whom we follow from his cozy home in the Shire to the epicenter of danger in Middle-earth to destroy an instrument of evil, the One Ring.

As we learn through numerous episodes, the One Ring is power, not spiritual power, but worldly power — the power to control people, the power to crush people. It’s evident from the story that the ring corrupts everyone. Of the elves, dwarves, hobbits, wizards, and men, it’s stated expressly that the One Ring has the most effect on men. They are the weakest when it comes to resisting its temptation.

Indeed, the central question of the story eventually becomes, can humanity unmake this apparatus that already exists, worldly power. One context within which to view this question is the Bahá’í tenet of surrendering of national sovereignty to a world state: for the sake of the peace of the world, will enough sovereign nations be able to surrender enough sovereignty to make that envisioned peaceful, human rights-based commonwealth a reality. Each nation ultimately will face what Frodo faced as he stood inside of Mount Doom at the edge of the lava. Will we decide to keep the ring and lord it over others, or will we destroy it by uniting it with the power that forged it, by uniting with each other?

As I considered the history Tolkien was living through while writing the trilogy, mid 1940s to early 1950s, I considered that the ring of power could also represent nuclear warfare. As is the case for any weapon of mass destruction that by definition kills indiscriminately, the nuclear bomb is a tool that would corrupt all who use it, no matter how noble at the start. It is power than cannot be used in a moral way. As icing on this metaphor, I even saw the Ring in that visible circle that emanates out from ground zero.

The spiritual lessons in The Lord of the Rings are profound but less overt than Lewis’ Chronicles. And while there is a clear Manifestation character in the Narnia series, I could not put my finger on any such character in the Jackson movies.

But when I began to read the series, I quickly came across a character, not included in the movie, who indeed displays traits we associate with the Manifestation.

The character is a whimsical old man who also embodies the spirit of the woods in which he lives. He is Tom Bombadil. Just as the four hobbits leave the Shire on their long journey toward Mordor, Merry is attacked by an evil willow in the forest, and Tom Bombadil, passing by, rescues him and takes the quartet into his home. For several days he regales the hobbits with a sort of crash course on the world outside the Shire. At length, one of the hobbits ask him:

“Who are you, Master?” he asked.

“Eh, what?” said Tom sitting up, and his eyes glinting in the gloom. “Don’t you know my name yet? That’s the only answer. Tell me, who are you, alone, yourself and nameless? But you are young and I am old. Eldest, that’s what I am. Mark my words, my friends: Tom was here before the river and the trees; Tom remembers the first raindrop and the first acorn. He made the paths before the Big People, and saw the little People arriving. He was here before the Kings and the graves and the Barrow-wights. When the Elves passed westward, Tom was here already, before the seas were bent. He knew dark under the stars when it was fearless—before the Dark Lord came from Outside.”

He is not exactly God, as he does not claim to have created all these wonders. But it’s clear he has a unique station. In the above passage, we get the notion of “pre-existence.” The Bahá’í understanding is that when mortal men (speaking of the real world now) are conceived, their souls come into being and associate with their bodies. When they die, they leave their bodies behind and proceed to worlds unknown, but we are assured that our souls continue to progress ever closer to God.

By contrast, the Mansifestations of God possess souls that are not only eternal into the future, but also into the past. This is known in Bahá’í theology as the pre-existence of the Manifestations. When we refer to Bahá’u’lláh as “the Ancient Beauty,” I believe this is an attempt to reflect that eternal, pre-existent essence.

Just two pages later, Tolkien gives us this other episode to chew on. Tom Bombadil speaks:

“Show me the precious Ring,” he said suddenly in the midst of the story: and Frodo, to his own astonishment, drew out the chain from his pocket, and unfastening the Ring handed it at once to Tom.

It seemed to grow larger as it lay for a moment on his big brown-skinned hand. Then suddenly he put it to his eye and laughed. For a second the hobbits had a vision, both comical and alarming, of his bright blue eye gleaming through a circle of gold. Then Tom put the Ring around the end of his little finger and held it up to the candlelight. For a moment the hobbits noticed nothing strange about this. Then they gasped. There was no sign of Tom disappearing!

Tom laughed again, and then he spun the Ring in the air—and it vanished with a flash. Frodo gave a cry—and Tom leaned forward and handed it back to him with a smile.

Just as the Ring had no effect on Tom Bombadil, worldly power had no effect on Bahá’u’lláh, or Christ, or Buddha. This indifference to worldly power is surely one of the prime characteristics displayed by all Manifestations. Tom Bombadil laughed at the Ring. Bahá’u’lláh, who began his adulthood by rejecting an invitation to the Persian court and an attendant life of luxury, laughed at the power of kings and high priests.

* * *

Returning to Narnia a final time, at the close of book 3, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lewis comes as close as anywhere in the series to explicitly stating his reason for writing the books. In this closing scene, Aslan breaks the news to Lucy:

“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”

“Oh, Aslan!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are—are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

Aslan’s point is well taken. The Manifestations of God are mysterious instruments through which God speaks to humanity. We are stretched to understand just who They are and what They were like. Should we not avail ourselves of every tool that can increase our understanding of Them? Allegory, literature, and even fantasy can function as such tools. If we look anew at our favorite stories through the lens of our beloved Faith, we can indeed know Him a little bit better, and that is well worth the enjoyable effort.