Jenifer Tidwell, March 21, 1999
The Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Arlington. Massachusetts
My dear Baha’i friends,
I hope this year’s Fast found you happy and healthy. This special season, which seems to arrive sooner every year, always makes us slow down and reflect upon spiritual matters — why we go through this physically exhausting fasting process, what we expect from it, and what we believe about God’s laws and our obligation to follow them. The Fast is a test, but it’s also a time of spiritual rejuvenation, and I have always looked forward to it.
But this year was different for me. I was not fasting with the rest of you. This year, I am observing Lent instead; and at the end of it, I will celebrate Easter, for the first time in my entire adult life.
You see, I’ve been going through a crisis of faith over the past several months. The problem is this: I love the Baha’i Faith dearly, but there are some doctrinal and spiritual issues in it that I can no longer accept. Since I began attending an Episcopal church last year, many of those issues have been thrown into sharp relief. Seeing them “from the outside” has helped me understand the latent problems I’ve had with being a Baha’i all these years.
What it ultimately comes down to is that, now, I feel closer to God and to my fellow human beings than I did while I was an active Baha’i. That’s the only factor that really counts, I think. Everything else either contributes to it, or is secondary to it.
I think I should explain some of my reasons for making this rather unusual move (I don’t personally know of anyone who has gone from being a Baha’i to being a Christian, let alone an Episcopalian). This letter is my apologetic. I hope that it will also help some Baha’is and Baha’i communities understand some of the factors that I think are causing them problems, at least in the United States; some of these points, while controversial, should at least spark some good discussion or soul-searching.
* * *
1. Our Feasts are not spiritually nourishing. They must be for some Baha’is, but for me, they don’t even come close to a good church service, or a private meditation, or even a walk in the woods.
The big problem is the content. It’s limited to readings and prayers from the Baha’i Writings (which truly are a wonderful source of wisdom), and sometimes instrumental music or singing. Nothing else. There’s no spontaneous prayer, or personal reflections, or creative praise. There’s no ritual, either; even though the Writings don’t actually rule out the creation of new rituals for short-term use, they discourage ritual use over the long term (such for Feasts and for marriage ceremonies), and Baha’is as a rule stay away from ritual altogether.
I think that’s a sad loss. Ritual is a “door to the sacred” — the familiar repetition of a ritual, combined with one’s periodic reinterpretation of the traditions and symbolic meanings attached to it, really do help open one’s mind and heart to God. It lends focus and framework to our worship, gives rhythm to our spiritual lives, connects us to our history, and constantly reminds us of what’s important in our chosen faith. Yes, it has the potential to mechanize worship (I’m sure many churchgoers have this problem) and to distract us from our core beliefs, but that’s something each person can learn to rise above. Besides, Baha’is already have individual rituals such as the 95 repetitions of the Greatest Name. Why are community rituals so much worse?
(Incidentally, I didn’t understand these truths about ritual when I was growing up in the Christian faith. At the time, it just seemed repetitive and boring. I readily believed what Baha’is told me about ritual — that it calcifies the faith of a community, and becomes an end in itself, supplanting a living and creative worship. This is not at all true in the church I now attend, which is as vital and creative a faith community as I’ve ever been in. Maybe I needed to be deprived of the blessings of ritual for a while to appreciate it!)
Another problem is that I need music when I worship, and Baha’is do not have a strong musical tradition yet. There are a few well-known songs here in the United States — other countries may have more — but not nearly enough to provide a source deep enough to dip into at every Feast. Of course, it’s not fair to expect that a 150-year-old religion will have a musical tradition as large as the 2000-year-old church! But the Faith is culturally so diverse. It has so much talent in its ranks. Baha’is all know each other and travel everywhere. Countless wonderful songs should be flowing all over the Baha’i world by now! Where are they? And lacking those, why don’t Baha’is reach into the musical traditions of other faiths more often?
Finally, I am saddened by the exclusion of non-Baha’is from Feasts. I understand that people who have not chosen to be a member of the Baha’i Faith shouldn’t take part in the business-meeting part of the Feast, but why can’t they merely observe? And why should they be excluded from the worship aspect of the Feast? I’m sure it must be discouraging for people looking into the Faith, who want to experience how we worship. Their presence may enhance the Feast in unexpected ways, too. I will have more to say about this exclusion later.
In short, it seems like different people simply have different needs with regard to worship. Many people I know (including some Christians) honestly don’t like church services. Some need different kinds of rituals, some need private meditation, some need to get out into the woods and mountains. To each their own. Unfortunately, the Baha’i Faith doesn’t allow much choice in how to conduct Feasts, and what it does allow doesn’t work for me.
2. There’s no clergy. I find this issue difficult to discuss because it’s a core doctrine of the Baha’i Faith, but I really think the Faith has “thrown the baby out with the bathwater” — there are good reasons to have clergy, and the lack of clergy causes problems for individual believers and for the community.
It’s my understanding that the Baha’i Faith does not have a priesthood partially to avoid the trouble that an overly-powerful clerical class can cause (witness the history of the Faith in Iran), and partially to drive home the point that each one of us is responsible for our own spiritual life, with no intercessors necessary between us and God. Both are valid arguments. However, many Protestant denominations (among other groups) have solved both problems, through theology and church structures that have evolved over time. They do fine. I think it’s healthier to meet such problems head-on than to do away with the priesthood altogether.
I’ve also sensed a naivete on the part of some lifelong Baha’is about what clergy actually do, especially Christian clergy. In mainline Protestant churches, which is all I have any real experience with, a priest’s or rector’s job includes these roles:
Facilitator for worship. They act as sort of a “living center” for sacred rituals, or they preach, or they are simply responsible for planning and executing the regular worship services. This is not a bad thing, and Baha’is might do well to have knowledgeable people responsible for planning and carrying out Feasts, for instance.
Teacher. They’ve spent years learning about history, theology, other faiths, and so on. In sermons, in Bible studies, in Sunday school classes, and in private conversations, they teach us all this.
Spiritual advisor. Since priests are trained in theology, and sometimes also in such things as psychotherapy, marriage counseling, or conflict resolution, they are people you know you can go to when you need guidance. In fact, that’s their job. Thus, there’s a higher level of responsibility that you can’t get from volunteers or from random members of a Baha’i community. (Just before I got married, I really needed someone like this to talk to. I did not find such within the Baha’i communities that I knew, and since I wasn’t living in a town that had an LSA, I didn’t “have” an institution available to talk to either. It was a terribly lonely time, at a point when I feel like I should have had loving support from a religious organization.)
Community leader. Each church has its own personality, and some of it (though not by any means all of it) comes from its priest. They are partially responsible for the health of a community, and again, that’s part of their job. No one in a Baha’i community has its health and happiness as their primary concern, day in and day out.
Of course, Baha’is have their Local Spiritual Assemblies to take care of administrative and spiritual matters. But it’s much harder to run things effectively with a committee. And you know what? If I have a real crisis, I don’t want to talk to a nine-member LSA, even if it does have God’s blessings. I want to talk to a single human being. I want to talk to someone one-on-one, someone who has experience and knowledge that may help, someone with whom I have an ongoing personal relationship, someone whom I know will find time for me. Yes, I know no priest is perfect. But I’ll take my chances with a trained priest who has chosen to make serving God his or her life’s work, rather than go before an LSA with its nine volunteer members, all of whom I know socially and are probably tired, pressed for time, distracted by their “real” jobs, and woefully untrained in difficult personal issues.
As much as I love my fellow LSA members, I have never felt comfortable going before them with anything personal. It wasn’t their fault; nine people is just too many, and their time was always in such short supply that I didn’t want to add one more thing to their agenda. Even while I was on the LSA, I never felt we were fully qualified to deal with other people’s problems that came before us, even though our ranks did include professional therapists!
In general, I’m hard-pressed to believe that the Baha’i Faith can throw out a role as old as the oldest religions, and not suffer the consequences. The role of priest / elder / shaman / teacher probably exists for good social and psychological reasons (not to mention spiritual ones), and it’s present in every other religion that I know. It does not have to be incompatible with the Baha’i tenets of personal spiritual responsibility, the independent investigation of the truth, or anything else.
3. Chronic community fatigue and “burnout.” The Baha’i Faith seems to attract more than its share of responsible, intelligent overachievers. This is wonderful, up to a point — the Faith’s small numbers in the Boston area belies the huge amount of activity that goes on! But this takes an enormous toll on people. I think the typical active Baha’i works a 50-hour week (either in a job or at home), serves on at least two committees or an LSA, gets lots of Faith-related email every day, goes to talks and deepenings and Feasts, and maybe somehow finds time for daily prayers in the midst of it all. Then they’re asked to host a talk or a party or something. Or to make something for a potluck. Or to serve on one more committee. And they cannot say “no” to the Faith they want to serve, until they are just too tired to say “yes” anymore.
After all, the Faith’s needs are so great; who are we to decline the opportunity for service?
I’ve thought about this issue for a long time. I now believe that the Baha’i Faith in the United States is simply too demanding of its active members. Except in the really big urban areas, everything is done by volunteers, who all have their own lives to deal with. (Hired administrators and secretaries and such would help, but there’s never enough money for such luxuries.) Furthermore, service to the Faith is implicitly expected of its members — and active teaching is explicitly expected. There’s always so much that we’re being asked to do, to fulfill teaching plans and meet fund-raising goals. Plans are made by LSAs, Regional Councils, National Spiritual Assemblies, the World Center, the Universal House of Justice, and so on and so on. We constantly overreach ourselves, often fall short of our goal, then set the next goal higher. Sometimes victories are won, but at a high human cost: people who were once enthusiastic “burn out,” or just get too discouraged to keep going.
I think a religion should allow for more balance. We should all have time for contemplation and reflection. Time to be with our families, time to do our jobs really well without being tired, time to allow spontaneous things to happen like talking to a friend or taking a walk. Can we be spiritually whole without that? When we’re so busy serving and running around, we can’t hear the “still small voice” of God whispering into the ears of our souls. And that’s so important.
Why do we have an endless conflict between taking the time we personally need, and giving the Faith the time and energy it needs? Faith and sacrifice go hand in hand, but does God want us to sacrifice our spiritual well-being for the immediate needs of the Faith? I just can’t believe that.
4. The pressure to teach. This is directly linked to the burnout problem: if we had more people, the work would be spread out more, but at the same time, teaching is the reason we spend so much time and effort and money in the first place! Sometimes it seems that the Baha’i Faith’s whole purpose is to spread itself. In fact, this is probably a sound theological point — if the Faith’s only ultimate purpose is to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, then growth to a “critical mass” is exactly what it should be trying to do.
But is this what religion is all about? No, of course not. A religion is also about an individual’s relationship with God and the rest of humanity. It’s about seeking truth, and it’s about learning how to love other people beyond love for one’s self. The Christian denominations that I grew up in keep these things paramount; growth is secondary (though it’s certainly wonderful when it happens). That comes closer to matching what I know, deep in my soul, to be true.
Now, if I truly believed that the Baha’i Faith is the right answer for everyone else, then teaching it would come naturally. But I don’t. I know that many of my closest friends and family are spiritually content where they are; or maybe they’re not interested in religious topics, and would be bored or put off by my constantly mentioning the Faith. Love and consideration for the people in my life should take precedence over teaching them.
In a more sinister vein, the Faith sometimes encourages us to use friendship as a means to the end of teaching. A recent letter from the Regional Council for the Northeastern States recommends that we choose a single seeker to take under our wing, and make friends with them — with the express purpose of opening their heart through kindness and friendship, so that they will be more receptive to the Faith. Isn’t this putting the horse before the cart? If I were that seeker, I would be offended if I found out that such a “friendship” was built on the other person’s drive to teach, not on a genuine liking and respect for each other.
Finally, I think the emphasis on teaching pulls energy and resources away from non-teaching-oriented service and charity efforts. Perhaps if Baha’is were less focused on teaching, and less overwhelmed by the weight of all their other activities, they could do more in the way of community service, which they are enjoined to do by the Writings. Then again, maybe what’s really needed is a change of heart — away from growth as a primary goal, and towards love and compassion for all people regardless of their beliefs. (Mind you, individual Baha’is are among the most loving and compassionate people I’ve ever met; here I’m talking about the Baha’i Faith as an institution.)
5. An uncomfortable split between Baha’is and non-Baha’is. We talk about unity this and unity that, but we still use that declaration card to draw a sharp dividing line between who can attend Feast and who can’t, who can read certain letters and who can’t, who can give money and who can’t, and so on. It creeps into our language — “I’m inviting a non-Baha’i to this deepening, is that OK?” “We had six non-Baha’is and ten Baha’is come to this event.” It affects our social lives — we draw a cozy circle around “us Baha’is” and occasionally widen it to include a new declarant or an enthusiastic seeker. It subtly alters the way we view humanity, so that we no longer see one world, but two: Baha’i and non-Baha’i.
This is a particularly thorny problem for those of us who have spouses who are not Baha’is. For instance, if there’s a special event coming up that my husband and I want to go to, I have to ask if we can both go, or if only I can go. Yet we both enjoy the company of our beloved Baha’i friends (not to mention each other’s company), so tension is the result. Another side of this issue came up a few months ago, when I told a Baha’i group that I was willing to loan or give them a large amount of money, but I had to discuss it with my husband first to make sure it was financially feasible at that point in time. Even though it would ultimately have been my own money, I was turned down flat, because he was not a Baha’i and shouldn’t be involved with giving money to the Faith!
In contrast, the church we now attend welcomed us right from the beginning, regardless of where we were in our spiritual journeys. Nothing was barred to us before officially becoming members, except for voting rights in the annual meeting. In fact, we didn’t even know there was such a thing as officially signing up, until just before that annual meeting. No one made a big deal out of it. Even Vestry meetings (the Vestry being the lay governing committee of an Episcopal church, roughly the equivalent to the administrative aspect of an LSA) are open to anyone who wants to observe. Overall, I felt much more welcome there than I probably would have if I had visited Baha’i events as a non-Baha’i.
Isn’t this Revelation for everyone? What are Baha’is afraid of? Why can’t we welcome people into our events and lives with open arms and no prejudices based on whether or not they’ve signed a card? Maybe in some countries there’s a security issue, but here in the United States, there’s no political reason to fear outsiders! Are we afraid people will laugh at us, or that they’ll think we’re foolish or naive? Are we afraid they won’t approve of us if they see how we talk to each other or conduct our community business? Surely the Faith is stronger than that.
This kind of insularity can only hurt the Faith. Worse, it undermines our belief in unity, and borders on hypocritical. I can’t imagine Abdu’l-Baha’ making a big deal out of whether or not someone has signed a declaration card; on the contrary, I think he would welcome everyone, without even pausing to ask whether they were technically Baha’is or not.
6. An uncertain intellectual foundation. I’ve been fighting against this one for years, afraid to look too hard at some of the belief structures given to us in the Writings. I still can’t force myself to study some of the more pedantic works, like “Some Answered Questions,” because I can’t reconcile myself to believing what’s in them.
For example, the unity of all religions is a wonderful idea, and for ten years, I truly wanted to believe it. Guided by the Baha’i Writings, I tried my best to make myself believe in it. There are some assertions in the Writings about other faiths that I never could believe, though. One is about the resurrection of Christ being strictly symbolic. Yes, a physical resurrection is hard to understand and accept, but isn’t that the whole point of the ends of the Gospels? Over and over again (in three of them, anyway), they emphasize that he really did physically return, wounds and all, to the shock of his friends and disciples; the letters in the rest of the New Testament keep coming back to that point. It’s so fundamental to Christian doctrine that to reinterpret it as “only symbolic” is to dismiss nearly the entire history of Christian theology, not to mention the obvious meaning of the Gospels. In my opinion, it’s intellectually dishonest for Baha’is to claim unity with a theological construct that most Christians never believed in the first place.
But that isn’t the half of it; that doesn’t address the central core of beliefs that the Baha’i Faith says is common among all the revealed religions, like a belief in a monotheistic God. Buddhism does not necessarily teach this belief. Some individual Buddhists do believe in God, which may be OK within the tenets of some Buddhist schools (I don’t know this for sure), but the earliest Buddhist writings we have — the Pali texts — apparently indicate that Buddha himself did not teach monotheism at all! Yet Abdu’l-Baha’ claims he did. Again: how can Baha’is honestly claim unity with this religion whose doctrine they have changed to be something different from what was historically taught, and against all evidence found by historians and scholars?
The Baha’i counterargument I have heard most often is that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha’ had direct knowledge from God about these other religions, and therefore we should believe them and not what the other religions currently teach. That may be so; we can’t prove or disprove such a claim, at least not in this world. But in a sense, this is a false unity — the theological sleight-of-hand may help Baha’is feel like they’re standing on a firmer foundation, but it does nothing to help them find genuine common ground with modern-day Christians and Buddhists and others. If anything, it hinders any such efforts, because it tends to put people of other faiths on the defensive by essentially telling them they’ve been wrong all this time. I’ve seen that happen on the Net, and it’s not pretty.
Besides, at some point, our own common sense has to kick in and decide whether or not a revelation is correct, or else we’d be blindly following every nut case who claims direct revelation from God. We chose to believe in Baha’u’llah not just because he told us to, but because his teachings resonated with us at some level; either logically or intuitively, we already believed most of what we heard him teaching. Now if Abdu’l-Baha’ had seriously told us that the moon was made of green cheese, and that in the year 2000 we’d all follow the cow in jumping over it in order to bring about the lesser peace, wouldn’t a rational person begin to question the fundamental correctness of the Writings? At some point, credibility vanishes and one ceases taking everything on faith. I have reached that point.
7. A lack of open intellectual discussion. This isn’t entirely true, of course; since the spark of truth comes from the clash of differing opinions, open discourse is fine, as long as it stays within certain bounds. But those bounds have felt awfully constricting lately. Personally, I haven’t wanted to be accused of not being “firm in the Covenant,” so I have avoided certain topics that I’d really have liked to talk openly about. This includes many of the issues I’ve brought up in this letter. (Even if my dear Baha’i friends didn’t explicitly accuse me of anything, I know they would still be saddened and disturbed to hear me bring up these topics, and they would probably feel torn between their friendship with me and their loyalty to the Faith. I’d hate to put them through that.)
I did a Web search a few months ago and ended up on Frederick Glaysher’s Web site. While exploring there, I found an article called “A Modest Proposal,” written by a handful of Baha’is in 1987 for the now-defunct “Dialogue” magazine. It was an excellent article, well-written, insightful, and full of courageous and loving suggestions for revitalizing the Baha’i Faith in the United States. But the National Spiritual Assembly did not allow its publication. Personally, I could see nothing in it that might be considered blasphemous, or disrespectful of the Covenant, or even disunifying; to this day, I have no idea why its publication was prevented.
That got me wondering why it’s still necessary to review articles written by Baha’is before publication. Is it really just to make sure the Faith is presented in a dignified manner, and to guarantee factual accuracy? If so, why wasn’t the Dialogue article corrected and then published? Or is it because certain ideas are considered dangerous, even when they don’t directly conflict with the Writings? That frightens me. If the Faith is true and from God, it should be strong enough to remain standing in spite of all our questions and reinterpretations. Eternal truth is like that. If all serious Baha’i discourse has to be vetted for intellectual acceptability before publication, that belies a deep insecurity on the part of the Baha’i institutions.
In relation to this incident, the Talisman email list incident, and other things, I have heard many anecdotes that indicate that academics engaged in Baha’i studies feel ignored, belittled, or distrusted because of their work. Add to this the May 1997 correspondence between the Universal House of Justice and Susan Maneck, and I’m almost certain there’s an anti-academic undercurrent running through the Faith, in America and elsewhere. (This letter implied that traditional, non-religious methods of analyzing religious texts and histories by Baha’is are less worthy than a faith-based approach, in which the basic tenets of the Faith are already accepted as truth by the investigator.) Again, one wonders what the UHJ is afraid of. Shouldn’t we be eager to learn more about the historical context of our Faith, regardless of the source of the knowledge? Why would a dispassionate analysis of the Faith, done by methods widely accepted by the world at large, be worth less than those done from the perspective of faith? It seems to me that we need both, for balance.
Finally, there’s the matter of Covenant-breakers. We’re not supposed to talk with them, nor read what they write. Why not? We’re adults, not children; for the most part, we’re not so fragile that we can’t hear bad things about our Faith and not be seduced into believing them. We might believe on an individual basis that we’re not prepared to read such stuff, or that we just don’t want to, but that should be a personal decision, not one imposed upon us. For the most part, I bet their arguments against the Covenant couldn’t stand up to logical analysis or spiritual wisdom. (The few I’ve read aren’t worth the electrons they’re printed on!) If they can, well, maybe it’s good for us to argue against them, up to a point — we could learn from the experience, and grow spiritually and intellectually. Maybe we could even bridge the chasm between us, and view them as human beings deserving of respect and empathy. But sticking our heads in the sand gets us nowhere. Once again, it indicates a fundamental insecurity about the truth of the Faith — or, even worse, a lack of trust in the faith of individual Baha’is. Either way, it’s very authoritarian, and I can’t bring myself to agree with it anymore.
8. An overemphasis on unity as an ultimate good. Unity is wonderful, of course, but odd things happen when it becomes the highest ideal that we try to attain. I’m not sure that it ought to be.
When I began looking into the Episcopal Church a few months ago, they had just held the Lambeth Conference, a worldwide bishop’s conference which happens every ten years. I read the news stories. Boy, did they have unity problems! There were conservative factions, and liberal factions, and harsh words, and behind-the-scenes politicking, and a near meltdown of the Anglican Communion — all over the single issue of the Scriptural acceptability of homosexual behavior. I found myself thinking, “How awful. This would never, ever happen in the Baha’i Faith.”
Later I thought, “Maybe it should.”
Look at what brought about the conflicts at Lambeth: many different interpretations of Scripture, to be sure (which Baha’is aren’t supposed to have), but also a love for God, for the truth, and for the Church’s spiritual direction. And, importantly, a knowledge that they could express their opinions freely, even if those opinions were unpopular with other bishops or were a break with the past. Now wouldn’t it be wonderful if they ever do find unity, given these circumstances? That would be a hard-won, genuine unity. That would be a unity based not on an order that “Thou shalt be unified!”, but on care and respect, forged in the furnace of real conflict. On love, not on law.
I think this “difficult unity” is ultimately better and stronger than one that tends to subsume the search for truth in the name of unity. This happens among Baha’is, like during LSA meetings — for instance, someone may want to keep discussing a point they know is right, but according to consultation rules, shuts up in the name of unity. It also happens in public discourse, as I discussed above — if someone has an interpretation of some aspect of the Writings that differs from the standard one, they may feel discouraged from talking about it, for fear of causing strife and disunity (or, horror of horrors, being seen as a schismatic).
Instead of resolving such conflicts honestly, Baha’is tend to bury them, lest those conflicts fester and cause disunity. It seems a little cowardly to me now.
Also, there’s a little logic problem in Baha’i doctrine that has bothered me for a while. Baha’is believe that the Faith has never been split into sects (lasting ones, anyway), and will in fact remain basically undivided. But those groups that do separate from the mainstream of the Faith are declared non-Baha’is, simply because they separated. It’s a semantic trick, no more. I’m sorry, but there are other Baha’i groups that do not consider the Universal House of Justice an authority. They do believe in Baha’u’llah (though not in the Covenant as we understand it, hence the term “Covenant-breakers”), so the rest of the world would consider them Baha’is. They consider themselves Baha’is too. Only mainstream Baha’is don’t, and they have a powerful psychological motive for not doing so: the bedrock of their faith would be shaken if these breakaway groups were acknowledged as Baha’is.
This is very shaky ground for the claim that this faith is superior to Christianity and Islam, with respect to a lack of internal division. It also causes mainstream Baha’is to actively shun the company and opinions of certain other people who believe in Baha’u’llah; my soul tells me this is neither healthy nor just, and paradoxically, it makes the Faith less tolerant of diversity than many other religions.
And at some levels, what’s really wrong with division, as long as it doesn’t cause hatred or unloving behavior? I can choose to worship in a progressive church and still love conservative parishioners who leave to go someplace more suited to their beliefs. I can be an Episcopalian and still love my Unitarian and Catholic friends. (And my Muslim friends, and my Baha’i friends, and my Pagan friends, and so on!) I can even play Democrat to my Republican friends, or vice versa. It may be a little harder to understand where they’re coming from, since I don’t share their beliefs, but tests such as these are opportunities for intellectual and spiritual growth, not an indication that we need enforced uniformity of beliefs. I think what the world really needs is not a ban on divisions, but a spiritual discipline that prevents those divisions from causing hatred and prejudice.
9. Too many answers, not enough mystery. The Baha’i Writings are vast. In my ten years as a Baha’i, I’m sure I haven’t read even half of all the English works, and of course I don’t stand a chance at reading all the untranslated Arabic and Persian works. Between the writings of the Central Figures and the decisions of the Universal House of Justice, there’s probably something authoritative written on almost any topic of spiritual significance!
It really does makes life easier, having such an extensive set of laws and beliefs that I can subscribe to as a body. It means I don’t have to think all the time. I can just say, “Sorry, I don’t drink,” rather than having to decide how much alcohol is too much. It means I can believe in the ultimate unity of the religions and then shape my observations to that belief, rather than doing the hard work of forming hypotheses based on what I observe. It means I don’t have to have any doubts about the humanity’s future, since we pretty much know what’s eventually going to happen. It means I have a perfectly good explanation of Christ’s Resurrection; no need to keep going back to it year after year, looking for new layers of meaning. It means that there are very few unanswered questions left.
And this is supposed to help me grow spiritually?
It seems to me that all my real spiritual growth has come during periods of doubt, when I was unconvinced that the answers offered by the Christian or Baha’i doctrines were true. (This is one of those periods.) During those times, I have to go looking for my own answers; those that are given free, without the search, somehow lack the same weight. I feel like I have to use the mind that God gave me, even — especially — in religious matters, and to do otherwise would be something less than human. I take the independent investigation of truth very seriously.
The Baha’i Faith tells us that humanity has finally outgrown its adolescence and reached adulthood. Why, then, are we given yet more laws and answers than before? To me, it just doesn’t seem to fit.
Furthermore, the set of Baha’i beliefs and laws can only grow over time, as the Universal House of Justice issues more infallible interpretations over the years. They certainly don’t seem to be in the business of abrogating anything that the Central Figures have said, nor what they themselves have said in the past. Therefore, the amount of authoritative “stuff” in the Faith cannot shrink; it can only grow. If it continues this way, it seems to me that the Faith will calcify — with so many unchangeable answers, it will gradually lose its ability to adapt, even if it must do so in order to fulfill its divine station.
There is one non-religious idea that I’ve concluded is a fundamental truth about the world: the concept of incremental change, of slow adaptation to changing conditions while retaining an unchangeable core of individuality or “self.” It’s required for anything to thrive, whether it be an organism, a species, a personality, a building, a city, a software artifact, even a belief system. Christianity tried for centuries to resist change, only to be rocked by periodic upheavals like the Reformation. Now many denominations have learned to adapt to a changing world and an advancing understanding of morality, and they work pretty well. The Episcopal Church, at least, offers a relatively simple Gospel-based core doctrine, but its non-core beliefs change with the times. The changes are done thoughtfully, not according to whims or fads, but slowly — just enough to maintain a certain aliveness. The Church once condoned the subordination of women; now it doesn’t. It may once have been silent on the issues of slavery and racism in America; it certainly isn’t anymore. The institution learns and adapts.
(Ironically, the Baha’i Faith explicitly teaches incremental change, in the form of progressive revelation — each religion teaches a core of unchangeable truths, but with a set of beliefs and laws that change from one revelation to another. But the time scale is all wrong; will we really be living with all these same early-twentieth-century interpretations for a thousand years? I find that hard to believe.)
Christianity in general seems to fit this incremental-change model particularly well. There are many Gospels, and none of them are guaranteed to have accurately recorded the exact words and deeds of Christ. Their authors had certain audiences, certain agendas. They contradict each other sometimes, in fact. But because of these loving yet human retellings, the story of Christ’s life takes on a mythic status, more so than a historical one. And here the importance of mystery arises: because the Christ story is myth-like, its meaning shifts and deepens throughout a person’s life (or a culture’s). How can there be any one interpretation to something as profoundly simple as the Last Supper? It’s a holy mystery. Different interpretations are appropriate for different people, or at different stages of a person’s life, or in different cultures. No one can force a certain interpretation on me, nor should they — it would lose its mystery, and ruin any chance that I can get other meanings out of it later. Nailing down a single interpretation would damage the myth beyond repair, by stripping it of its mysterious aspect.
I’m convinced that this is why Christianity has lasted so long, and is still growing, in spite of its fragmentation. Its mythic basis allows for changing interpretations, while still remaining firm on the fundamental Christian truths (those pronounced uniformly by all the Gospels). It permits a diversity of denominations, for people with different needs and values. And above all, it offers an infinitely deep pool of spiritual truth, never running dry, no matter how many times a person goes back to it during his or her lifetime.
In contrast, the Baha’i Faith offers a pool which is large, but necessarily finite; definitive answers are always there for the asking.
* * *
As you can see, I seem to have irreconcilable differences with the Baha’i Faith. The question remaining to me is: am I still a Baha’i? If I believe in Baha’u’llah as the Manifestation of God for this day, then I would still be a Baha’i. That’s the only test that counts.
The answer is, I just don’t know anymore. I no longer have the certitude I once had. I know I’ll find out if He is or not in the next world, but until then, I just can’t make myself believe it. Because of the solidity, coherence, and authority of its teachings, the Baha’i Faith is not a religion in which one can just pick and choose what to believe or not believe.
My soul is still moved by Baha’u’llah’s writings, and probably will always be; their beauty is simply incomparable. I’m sure they’re divinely inspired (though I’m no longer sure exactly how). But most of the issues I’ve described here come from later interpretations, not from His own pen. Therein lies the problem. With the Covenant, Baha’u’llah made it very clear that Abdu’l-Baha’ was his successor, and that what he said was authoritative; and then it passed to the Guardian, and so on down to the Universal House of Justice. To believe in the authority of some of these institutions and not others is to break the Covenant, which is emotionally impossible for me. It’s also illogical. I don’t see how I can believe that Baha’u’llah was who He said He was, and yet discount what He clearly said about the succession of His authority.
That leaves two choices: I accept all of it, or I accept none of it.
Now you know what I have to do. Since I can’t make myself accept all of it anymore, I feel like I have no choice but to resign my membership in the Baha’i Faith.
Please understand that this was not an easy decision for me to make. It took months. It’s still deeply painful, and it will remain so for a very long time; I have been a Baha’i for my entire adult life, and it is part of my identity. Its teachings are deeply entwined with my personal value system, to the point where I don’t know sometimes where my own beliefs end and the Baha’i doctrines begin. I still have a great love for my Baha’i friends, and I’m acutely aware of how much pain this will cause them. To spare them this pain, I considered quietly “going inactive,” but I don’t think that would be intellectually honest, especially since I plan to be active in the church that we’re attending. I also need closure to this whole matter, and leaving it open-ended like that just prolongs it unnecessarily. And besides, every new beginning requires an ending!
I hope that the Baha’is that I know and love can understand why I am doing this. I don’t think the Faith is entirely wrong — I’m just not sure it’s entirely right, that’s all. It’s definitely not right for me, at this point in my life. I know that many of my Baha’i friends do know it’s right for them; may they continue growing happily in the Faith! My prayers will always be with them. And the Faith will be right for many seekers. I do think that growth will come, in time; the Faith offers so many wonderful solutions for the problems of this world.
But I also hope that if “entry by troops” does not happen in the way that Baha’is expect it to, that they may better understand why the Faith is not right for many seekers. I tried my best to make it right for me, but couldn’t do it — and I was a deepened Baha’i with a strong incentive to stay with it! One of the ways I think the Faith must adapt is to accept its place as one of many, many diverse religions in the world, not as a tiny religion which assumes that it will eventually claim the majority of the world’s people. It will not appeal to all those people, because many people’s spiritual needs will not be fulfilled by the Faith. If this letter can help the Baha’is understand that better, then that’s really the best I can hope for.
I read a book recently called “Things Seen and Unseen.” It’s an autobiographical work by an Episcopalian woman who describes her slow transition into a church community as being “pushed by God” — as though there was an invisible hand at her back, gently pushing her in the direction that she needs to go to achieve spiritual maturity. That’s what I’ve been feeling for the last six months. When you feel the hand of God, you go with it. I don’t know where I’m going. But I trust that it will be where God wants me to be.
I love you all dearly, and I pray that God may walk with you through all your journeys.