Why Bahaullah Should Matter to UUs

Bahaullah

Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, Bahaullah

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.

In its inaugural Ridvan message, the Unitarian Bahai Association writes:

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.

7 Responses to “Why Bahaullah Should Matter to UUs”

  1. Dale Husband says:

    I certainly agree that we liberal minded people need to be as forceful in our approach as the fundamentalists. The mainline denominations decline because they are seen as weak, but do you see anything weak about THESE statements of religion?

    http://circleh.wordpress.com/2007/07/23/religious-fundamentalism-is-blasphemy/

    http://circleh.wordpress.com/2009/05/09/the-bible-cannot-be-the-word-of-god/

    http://circleh.wordpress.com/2009/02/11/how-christian-bigots-make-the-peace-process-of-israel-and-palestine-impossible/

    http://circleh.wordpress.com/2010/04/14/there-is-no-trinity-period/

    You can have faith in God and totally slam religion. Jesus did just that, so why not do it as well, Unitarian Bahais?

    • admin says:

      It’s certainly true that one can have faith in God and be critical of religion. It’s also true that one can be religious without having faith in God, although this is probably less common. So, religion and God usually go together, but not always.

      UUBahai.com strives to present the views of UUs and liberal Bahais on issues that are relevant to both. Sometimes that means we criticize religion; for example, our recent articles about Ghusn-i-Akbar are critical of some of the historical and doctrinal views of the Haifan Baha’i religion. Even when we do criticize religion, however, the purpose of our criticism is to promote beneficial religious reform — just as Jesus was doing by criticizing the religious assumptions and leaders of his time and culture.

      In the case of this article about Bahaullah and UUs, Eric Stetson is making the point that learning about and celebrating Bahaullah’s life and teachings could be helpful for UUs to improve and enrich their religion.

  2. Namayn says:

    Is the Revelation of Bahaullah complete in and of itself? Bahaullah had nearly 40 years of Revelation. Plenty of time to prescribe a Universal House of Justice and a Guardianship if He so desired. What if AbdulBaha and Mirza Ali Muhmmad died shortly after the death of Bahaullah. Would the Bahai Movement have failed and withered away. Are the Houses of Justice that Bahaullah wrote about sufficient to carry forward the Bahai Movement into the future and provide the means for addressing all spiritual issues that arise in a democratic way. Many Bahais became Bahais because of their love for AbdulBaha. He was certainly blessed with leadership skills and offered great insight into the Teachings of Bahaullah. Mirza Ali Muhammad was instead a very ordinary person who merely said that the Teachings of Bahaullah were sufficient unto themselves and that we should follow them. That there was no need for further Scripture and Revelation, that Bahuallah had indeed fulfilled His mission, provided us with the tools and means to expand His Movement, calling on us to weigh all spiritual matters including His own Teachings with the measures of justice, science and kindness.

  3. Richard says:

    Out of so many sects in Bahai faith may I know who are the true bahais????

  4. Dan Jensen says:

    Hi Eric,

    You say that the Baha’i Faith is unitarian in the theological sense of the word. I suppose what you mean by that is that Baha’is believe in one God, as opposed to three. But of course you understand that unitarians mean much more than that when they say “Unitarian”. What do you propose to say to UUs when they discover that Baha’u'llah claimed to override the religions of the past, and that his teachings are the standard by which others must be weighed? What will they think of his grandiose claims and angry denunciations of his enemies? It seems to me that his message, taken in full, is sure to contradict the inclusive openness of UUism. It seems to me that you’re going to have a tough time getting UUs to buy into it. The UUA is an association of creedless, inclusive churches which do not discriminate according to sex or sexual orientation, and a proud heritage of tolerance, reason, and social action. Some of the least theistic among them are the most joyous. What is it about the Baha’i Faith that you think will fill any need they may be feeling, and where do you find this quality exhibited by Bahá’ís?

    • Eric Stetson says:

      Hi Dan,

      You wrote:
      “You say that the Baha’i Faith is unitarian in the theological sense of the word. I suppose what you mean by that is that Baha’is believe in one God, as opposed to three.”

      Well, that’s only one aspect of it. Another aspect is that Bahaism teaches that all religions come from the One God or Source, like different manifestations or apprehensions of a single underlying Truth. Bahaism sees all the great prophets and holy teachers as one in spirit, despite the differences in their messages based on the context of different times and cultures.

      You wrote:
      “What do you propose to say to UUs when they discover that Baha’u’llah claimed to override the religions of the past, and that his teachings are the standard by which others must be weighed?”

      Many prophets and religious founders other than Bahaullah said the same basic thing. Certainly Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad all did, in one way or another. Buddha also did, in the sense that he claimed to bring a superior understanding of reality and path to enlightenment than Hinduism before him. The great thing about being a UU is that one can choose to believe that all of these spiritual teachers were somewhat bombastic and exaggerated in their claims and rhetoric, rather than having to take it all literally and agree with everything they said.

      You wrote:
      “What will they think of his grandiose claims and angry denunciations of his enemies?”

      What do they think of all the horrible stuff in the Bible about how God supposedly ordered the Jews to commit genocide against the Canaanites? Or the laws of the Torah that were presumably taught by Moses, which include prescriptions for stonings and other extreme brutality? Or the similar harsh legal penalties and jihad against the polytheists described in the Quran? Or the fact that Jesus saw himself playing a Messianic role for the Jewish people and perhaps even for the whole world (pretty grandiose, no?). Or Jesus’ angry denunciations of his religious opponents, the Pharisees, who were nothing more than a competing sect of Judaism at the time?

      The more I study religions, the more I realize that by definition, religious founders and reformers who actually succeed and make the history books are almost universally men of large egos and bold rhetoric and actions. And I have come to realize that this is just the way it works in this world, for better or for worse. It’s part of the natural process of spiritual and civilizational progress. We must be able to accept that historical reality rather than trying to explain it away or pretending that it only exists in one religion but not another. UUs, I think, are more willing and able to do that than people who belong to more conservative churches.

      You wrote:
      “It seems to me that his message, taken in full, is sure to contradict the inclusive openness of UUism.”

      It entirely depends on which aspects of Bahaullah’s message one chooses to regard as either essential or incidental. In general, I regard much of what the Haifan tradition regards as essential to be incidental, and much of what they regard as incidental to be essential. Basically, the Haifans take all the conservative and authoritarian aspects of the religion and emphasize those things, whereas I prefer to let those things fade into the mists of history as artifacts of the cultural context in which Bahaullah and the early Bahais lived, and instead emphasize the aspects of his/their message that are of enduring relevance to modern society.

      You wrote:
      “What is it about the Baha’i Faith that you think will fill any need they may be feeling”

      They need (whether or not they yet recognize it) to have a message to passionately proclaim to the world based on a stated belief that their progressive spiritual and social principles are in some sense the Will of Heaven rather than just nice ideas that one may safely ignore without much consequence for one’s soul or for the spiritual and material wellbeing of human civilization collectively.

      The UU church will not grow much and will not exert much influence in society unless it comes to be perceived as something more than a social club for intellectuals to get together and talk about how they don’t believe in anything. What it needs to become, for the health of its own future, is the church perceived by the public as being at the forefront of proclaiming with vigor that the Almighty is on the side of progressive religious and social change.

      A dose of liberal Bahaism could do the trick. The early Bahais were cutting edge reformers for their time and culture, and they had the zeal and the courage to make great sacrifices, suffer and even die for their faith. Sure, the Bahai religion has lost its edge because time marches on and progress occurs at an ever faster rate nowadays, and that has meant that some of the Bahai teachings already seem outdated. The answer to this is for Bahais to put the outdated stuff aside and focus on the aspects of their tradition that are still progressive and have not yet been fully achieved in the world. There’s a lot there to work with.

      Eric

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