Why Bahaullah Should Matter to UUs
By Eric Stetson
His Holiness Bahaullah (also spelled Baha’u’llah or Baha’ullah; pronounced ba-HAH-oo-lah), is the founding prophet of the Bahai faith. He lived from 1817 to 1892. He was a Persian aristocrat who spent most of his life in exile and under house arrest, in various countries of the Ottoman Empire, because of his controversial religious beliefs and claims.
Bahaullah came from a Shiite Muslim background, but he claimed to bring a new revelation from God. This was seen as a great heresy in his culture, for mainstream traditions of Islam do not allow anyone to claim prophethood after the Prophet Muhammad, until the Day of Judgment when they believe the world as we know it will end. Bahaullah interpreted the Day of Judgment in a metaphorical way rather than literally, arguing that every time a new religion arises on earth, it is “Judgment Day” for all the people, who must either open their minds and hearts to new divine revelation and thus enter the “paradise” of reunion with God, or close themselves off to the possibility of growth and change and thereby enter “the fire” of remoteness and destruction.
The new message that Bahaullah brought to the world — which he claimed was inspired by God and should form the basis of a great new religious movement — was the idea that people of all nations, religions, races, and languages are in fact one people and should not allow their differences to divide them. We are all human, and this is what really matters. It is time for the whole planet to unite in love, peace, and mutual cooperation, putting aside what has formerly divided us to seek what is good for all. We must work together to create a global civilization in which religious affiliation, patriotism, tribalism, and other historical sources of conflict are quenched by the common understanding that God has created us all in our glorious diversity and does not intend for one group to triumph over another but for all to coexist harmoniously.
Today is the twelfth and last day of Ridvan, the annual festival during which Bahais celebrate the declaration of Bahaullah’s mission. In 1863, in a garden near the Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq, Bahaullah proclaimed to his companions and to guests from all over the city that he had been invested with a divine cause — a cause through which the world would be transformed. He claimed authority from God for his message and ministry.
Is Bahaullah’s claim of a divine revelatory station still relevant today, beyond his own time and culture? Its relevance is not because of who Bahaullah may or may not have been, but because of the quality of what he taught and its continuing importance. Even the greatest ideas rarely gain significant power in people’s hearts and translate into bold actions that produce meaningful and lasting changes in the world, unless they are imbued with or perceived as having a divine character. People must believe that a Higher Power has inspired their cause — that it is in some sense “the Will of Heaven” — in order for it attain sufficient motivational energy, drive, passion, and therefore results. …
Today, there are many people in the world who believe fervently in the causes of fundamentalist religion…. Progressive people also have a prophetic voice to inspire us and move us to fight just as hard for what the modern world really needs: interfaith reconciliation, racial and ethnic harmony, civil rights for all, limitation of the power and influence of clergy, equal rights for women, respect for science, international peacemaking institutions, and more. That voice is Bahaullah — a man who claimed that such teachings were not just his own good ideas, but were actually the will and command of God.
A former member of the Haifan Baha’i Faith and current Unitarian Universalist writes that “Unitarian Universalists need to get EVANGELICAL!”:
Christians, Baha’is and members of other religions are more than willing to thrust themselves into the marketplace of ideas, even in places where they may not be appreciated. Maybe its time Unitarian Universalists (UUs) also got a little militant, instead of just sitting in their churches and waiting for refugees broken and disillusioned from authoritarian religion to come to their churches. If lost souls learn about us faster, they can also heal faster. …
So how about it? Wouldn’t our world be better if there were as many UUs in it as there are Roman Catholics or Muslims now? I think so!
I think so too. And I think a big part of spreading Unitarian Universalism is to have a coherent and powerful message to share with a hurting world. The progressive principles articulated by Bahaullah more than a century ago are largely the same as our cherished Unitarian Universalist principles — but the main difference is that Bahais have a prophet who claimed that these principles are not just good ideas, but are the message of God for our time. That’s something with real substance and power, something that can make people care and move people to action.
Unitarian Universalists have not always been as politically correct and reluctant to invoke the name of God in connection with our beliefs and ideas. In fact, the history of our church is replete with examples of zealous and fiery preachers who stood up with passion for religious liberalism and taught that the Unitarian and Universalist movements are the next phase in humanity’s spiritual evolution. Where is this fire in the UU churches today? Why does it seem that more often than not, we are afraid to take a stand for the idea that Providence, the Source of Being, the Guiding Hand of Reality, the Great Spirit, the Almighty God — whatever one may choose to call Him, Her, or It — is on our side rather than that of the fundamentalists who preach hatred, division, and backwardness?
Bahaullah should matter to UUs because he was a religious leader from a conservative culture who taught progressive ideas, boldly taking a stand for the advancement of spiritual thought and human civilization, and making many sacrifices in his life to do so. He believed he had a message that the world desperately needed to hear, and he was not shy to proclaim it. He believed that God had given him a message and a mission, that he was inspired in his cause; and he said so without fear, trusting that if he truly was doing the work of the Divine, it would blossom and bear fruit regardless of the criticisms of those who rejected his claims.
I believe that we Unitarian Universalists today have something to learn from Bahaullah. We should look to his example, celebrate his life and his teachings, and find a little bit of the spiritual fire of the Middle Eastern prophets within ourselves. In doing so, we will transform our churches and ensure that our religious denomination doesn’t continue to decline, especially among youth. After all, most people nowadays don’t bother to attend religious meetings unless they are — well — religious.
Peter Morales, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, writes that “The key to the future for every single congregation and for Unitarian Universalism as a movement is whether we can ‘get religion.’ If we ‘get religion’ we will thrive. We will touch lives and change the world. If we don’t, we will decline.” I couldn’t agree more.
A man in Tennessee recently visited a UU church for the first time and wrote about it on his blog. Although he generally liked the UUs, their attitude and their congregation in Murfreesboro, this is what really jumped out at me:
I was hoping for something with a bit more substance, but I found it intriguing nonetheless. What was REALLY interesting was the lack of reference to any religious language. The words prayer, Jesus, God, faith, belief, and the like were completely absent. In fact the whole service was completely devoid of any religious symbolism (except for their string of flags representing the various faiths hanging above the podium) that I began to wonder what these people got from being Unitarians.
This blogger concludes that he realized what the UUs in this congregation got out of it was “the sheer pleasure of congregating.” Although I can sympathize with the general desire for community fellowship, the reality is that churches and religious communities don’t tend to grow and gain influence in society unless they are held together by common beliefs that are sufficiently strong to motivate the congregants.
I recently attended a UU church in Bangor, Maine, while on vacation visiting family, and I have to say that the congregation there had a much different flavor. It seemed far more religious, imbued with a tangible and substantive interfaith spirituality that resonated on the level of my soul. I think the future of Unitarian Universalism is not in the churches that avoid God language and strong beliefs, but the ones that openly celebrate the many paths to the Divine and eschew the tired path of bland secular humanism.
Bahais can help to move the Unitarian Universalist Association and its churches in this positive and meaningful direction. Bahais are both Unitarian and Universalist, in the theological sense of the words. One might say that Bahaism and UUism are a match made in heaven. I fully expect that Bahaullah, his spirit and his faith will be brought into the UU churches by numerous liberal Bahais in the coming decades, and I think this will be a very good thing both for Bahais and for UUs. Bahaism could stand to become less doctrinaire, and UUism needs a healthy dose of religious conviction and fervor.
In any case, a good first step would be for UUs to study the life and teachings of Bahaullah. Though coming from a conservative Islamic background and speaking the language of radical 19th century Middle Eastern millennarianism, Bahaullah can be regarded as a Unitarian Universalist prophet as much as anything else. And the commanding style in which he presented his progressive teachings is an inspiring mirror image of conservative religious leaders who unabashedly claim to speak for God as they promote their outdated notions.