A Unitarian Universalist Visits the Bahai Temple

By Eric Stetson

I was an enrolled member of the Baha’i Faith from 1998 to 2002. Although I was very serious about my faith and took two trips halfway across America for evangelistic purposes (“travel teaching” in Baha’i lingo), I never visited the North American Bahai House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois — or any of the several other Bahai temples around the world — until now, eight years after I left the Baha’i Faith. I was inspired to visit the temple because of my renewed interest in Bahaism and the fact that it was on my way to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I was traveling to attend the 49th annual Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.

Last week, a friend of mine who lives near Milwaukee, Wisconsin and who had been to the Bahai temple before, drove down to meet me there. She has been a Bahai for more than 40 years, but resigned her official membership in the Baha’i Faith a few years ago and now attends Unitarian Universalist and Sufi meetings, while continuing to believe in the prophethood of Bahaullah. Both of us thought it would be best not to mention to anyone at the temple that we are former members of the Baha’i organization, since this tends to produce a reaction of coldness and suspicion among enrolled Baha’is. Therefore, my friend described herself to people there as simply “a Bahai” and I described myself as “a Unitarian Universalist,” mentioning that I share many beliefs in common with Bahais but saying nothing about the Unitarian Bahai Association or my encouragement of Bahais to join UU churches.

I found the temple to be impressively beautiful, more on the outside than within, but even the inside was a sight to behold. The gardens were lovely — filled with fragrant roses, lavender, and various other flowers and plants, plus bubbling fountains. Some of the gardens are under construction and this detracted a little bit from the atmosphere, but it’s good to see that the Baha’i Faith is continually improving the property.

There was an underground visitor center beneath the temple with promotional displays and videos aimed at the general public, and a bookstore selling Bahai books, publications, paraphernalia and souvenirs. Brochures were available in a multitude of different languages. My friend, a fluent Spanish speaker, expressed concern that there was a very limited selection of Spanish language materials in the bookstore. I found the videos we watched, which described the Bahai faith and the history of the temple, to be kind of hokey and seemingly low-budget productions. Other than that, the visitor center was okay.

Proceeding to the temple itself, the first thing I noticed was how empty it was. Only a handful of people were sitting inside it, despite that a daily scheduled worship service was about to begin. In the huge Chicago metropolitan area, could there really be this few Bahais and curious visitors wanting to take in a Bahai worship service? My friend and I sat in silence waiting for the service to start, listening to the peaceful and heavenly singing of birds who were trapped inside the vast interior space of the sanctuary and apparently lived in there. For me, a bird lover, the birdsong was the high point of the worship service — I would soon find out why so few people come to these events.

Two employees of the Baha’i Faith began to take turns walking up to a lectern where they recited verses from the Baha’i holy writings. They did so in restrained, unemotional voices. This went on for about 20 minutes, with no musical accompaniment, no choir, no recitations from the scriptures of other religions, and no original speech. When the service suddenly ended, my reaction was “That’s it?” It seemed that in such a spectacular building that has taken a monumental investment of time, energy, and money to build and maintain, not enough thought and attention are being paid to using this space for high-quality worship meetings that can energize and inspire souls.

The overall vibe of the Bahai temple felt like a tomb or a historical place, not a living home of the Holy Spirit. I got a sense of how secular Europeans must feel when they visit the great old churches of their continent — empty, silent places that are heavy with lingering karmic energy from the past but not much Spirit moving there today. I was left with a strong impression of “wasted potential” — that the Bahais could be doing so much more with this beautiful and impressive facility, such as regularly holding interfaith worship services in partnership with Unitarian Universalists, liberal Christians, Sufis, and other open-minded religious groups throughout the greater Chicago area, rather than letting their temple go largely unused as some kind of relic or visual advertisement of their religion.

After attending the 20-minute bare-bones worship service, spending some time enjoying the gardens and then returning to sit in the temple for private prayer and meditation, my friend and I encountered an older Persian lady on the temple steps who turned out to be a volunteer greeting visitors. We struck up a conversation with her, and I mentioned that I am a Unitarian Universalist and agree with many aspects of the Bahai faith. Her response to this was to tell me that Bahaullah is God’s messenger for our time, that he is descended from kings, and that the difference between the Baha’i Faith and the Unitarian Universalist church is that one of these traditions (her preferred spiritual affiliation) is “from God” while the other (mine) is “manmade.”

North American Bahai temple, Wilmette, Illinois

The Bahai temple rises above the harbor of Wilmette, Illinois, on Lake Michigan

Despite her condescending remark, this woman genuinely seemed like she wanted to be nice and helpful — she even spent 15 minutes guiding my friend and me to a park where we could see a spectacular view of the temple from a harbor on Lake Michigan. I don’t think she realized that the triumphalistic tone she used in presenting her faith and characterizing the religion of a visitor would be a major turnoff to the average open-minded spiritual person. Most Unitarian Universalists who had never heard of Bahaism, for example, would likely have come away from a similar encounter as I had with this Baha’i volunteer by forming the impression that Bahais think their religion is the only divinely inspired modern spiritual tradition and that other new religious movements such as UUism are fundamentally inferior. Certainly if Haifan Baha’is wish to grow their faith and win friends outside their own religious community, they need to show greater respect for other people’s spiritual paths — especially those such as UUs who share a generally compatible pluralistic view of religion.

My friend and I met a Baha’i couple visiting the temple from out of state, and we ended up having dinner with them. They were nice people and we all enjoyed the time together. However, I did find some things they said a bit disturbing. For example, when discussing our respective religious commitments, I mentioned that one of the reasons I prefer the Unitarian Universalist church to the Baha’i Faith despite my agreement with many Bahai principles is that the Baha’i organization forbids its members from participating in political activism, whereas the UU church emphasizes individual freedom of conscience and action in all arenas of society. They denied or downplayed the restrictions on involvement in politics by individual Baha’is; and this indicated either that they are misinformed or trying to make their religious organization seem more palatable to outsiders — something I myself remember doing when I was an enrolled Baha’i talking to potential converts.

More disturbing was how the Baha’i couple described their Baha’i community encouraging its children to associate with children of other religions for the purpose of “teaching the faith.” I politely replied that I think such relationships of Bahai children should be primarily focused on learning about other faiths, since Bahais are supposed to believe in the validity and importance of various religions rather than just their own. What I was thinking but didn’t say was: Baha’i children are being encouraged to develop relationships with other children for proselytizing? Has the culture of the Baha’i Faith really become this cultish?

We had some frank talk about my concern that all religions and religious groups inevitably get corrupted, the Baha’i Faith being no exception, and that Bahais therefore need to be ever watchful to ensure that their faith moves in the right direction and doesn’t get bogged down in outdated policies such as censoring scholars and authors with different viewpoints. The Baha’i man replied that the Universal House of Justice ensures that the Baha’i Faith cannot become corrupted because it is divinely inspired, and that “the Covenant-breakers” have tried to corrupt the faith but have been unsuccessful. I replied that the leadership organ of every religion believes it is divinely inspired — the Baha’i Faith is not unique in this regard — but this doesn’t prevent major internal problems and the need for periodic reform. I made a point of emphasizing how wonderful it is to have total freedom in the Unitarian Universalist church, to believe, worship, speak and act according to one’s own conscience, and that I wished the Baha’i Faith would become more that way. There was some tension in the air but we maintained a cordial, enjoyable, and very interesting discussion.

The day ended pleasantly, and I felt that I learned a lot about the current state of affairs and attitudes in the mainstream Haifan Baha’i Faith community. Much of what I learned confirmed things I already suspected, but some of it was new. Overall, I would have to say that after my experience visiting the North American Bahai temple I feel more certain that Bahaism has taken a seriously wrong turn in its development but that there was once a lot of inspiration and passion in this spiritual tradition worth celebrating. A great deal of grassroots effort went into planning and constructing this great edifice in Wilmette, Illinois; but that was in another time, almost a century ago, when Bahaism was on the cutting edge and attracting Americans of high capacity, creativity and free thought — unlike today, when it seems to be on the decline and has made itself unattractive to religious liberals. This conclusion does leave a person with sadness, but I think it may also inspire us to positive action to reclaim the good that has been lost and eventually bring the stagnant stream of Bahaism back into the great ever-flowing river of modern progressive spirituality.

I continued on my journey up to Minneapolis where I attended the Unitarian Universalist Association conference. The opening worship service was passionate and relevant, with folk music, choir music, and an all-embracing, peace-creating message that “Everything is Holy Now.” I powerfully felt the Holy Spirit moving in the stadium-sized room with several thousand people on their feet singing “Earth come rising; Life come rising; God come rising up inside of me!” I listened to people and met people doing all kinds of amazing, tangible work to build what Bahais or Christians would call “the Kingdom of God on earth” — a world of universal love, justice, peace, freedom, higher consciousness and conscience – without resorting to tribalistic arguments about which religious creed or organization is God’s chosen one.

If, as the Persian lady at the Bahai temple exclaimed, the Baha’i Faith is from God and the Unitarian Universalist church is manmade, then God seems rather human and humans quite divine.

Addendum: It has been pointed out to me that there is choir singing in the temple three Sundays per month. That’s good! If I go back for another visit, I’ll be sure to go on one of those Sundays. However, the weekday worship services are very bland, and I would suggest to the temple staff that they spice it up a bit or risk giving a poor impression to visitors. There’s nothing wrong with a little creativity in planning a worship service — even a short one of 15 to 30 minutes. Including some singing, somebody playing a musical instrument, or some other type of variety besides just recitations from Bahai scripture from beginning to end, would give a better impression and probably be more inspiring. And if they insist on limiting it just to scriptural recitation, how about some call and response or other techniques to get the congregation more involved in the readings rather than totally passive?

11 Responses to “A Unitarian Universalist Visits the Bahai Temple”

  1. Mark says:

    Spot on Eric, really enjoyed your thoughts. What a sad waste!

  2. Dale Husband says:

    I also visited the Chicago Baha’i House of Worship, back in the spring of 2000 at past of my attending the National Baha’i Convention that year. I too thought the House of Worship was beautiful, but I have since recognized that it is not merely the appearance of a building that matters, but the people associated with it.

    What was really weird about the Baha’is I knew and their worship practicies in general is that they had Sunday services at their local Baha’i Center in Arlington, Texas, despite the fact that Baha’i writings nowhere mention this and we are supposed to have feasts every 19 days or so, in addition to celebrating the various Holy Days. I got the impression that Baha’is were trying to compete directly with the Christian churches and discourage children from visiting them. I didn’t like that. If Baha’u'llah did call for his followers to associate with people of all faiths, that would surely include visiting their houses of worship.

    As for why Baha’is merely read Baha’i scripture at House of Worship services, I would note that such readings are called for, but surely the worship leaders would also recognize the need for music, singing, visuals, handing out of literature, etc., as supplements to what the Baha’is writings mention. The lack of creativity displayed at the worship service you witnessed shows how spiritually empty Baha’is have become.

    Even at local feasts, I noted that we would have a spiritual portion which consisted of reading Baha’i scripture and prayers (NOT prayers made up on the spot, just those written by Baha’u'llah and Abdu’l-Baha), a business portion, and a social portion coming last. I would have much preferred the order be changed to the social portion coming second and the business portion coming last. Also, in most cases, non-Baha’is were not allowed to attend feasts, and if they were allowed in, that was only for “Unity Feasts” where the business portion would be omitted.

    UUs have Sunday worship too (because they are spiritually descended from Protestant Christianity), business meetings for the congragation once every six months or so, committee meetings once a month or so, and never bar visitors from worship services. UUs are trying to make a real difference in the world, regardless of how many UUs there are now, while Baha’is are only concerned about winning converts and hope the world will change once most people become Baha’is. But that is idiocy.

    • Susan says:

      Uh, the reason the Baha’is in Texas are likely having their devotional services on Sunday is because that is when everyone is free to come. As Eric should have figured out while he was at the Temple, most people aren’t free to come to worship service on a daily basis. In fact what the Writings call for are worship services every morning at dawn. Unfortunately, there would be even less attendance if we did that. As for encouraging children to teach the Faith, I very much suspect that what is being referred to is our current policy of opening up children’s classes to the broader community rather than just having them for Baha’is.

      • Eric Stetson says:

        Susan, Do you really believe it makes sense that on an average weekday, at a temple of this beauty, in the middle of one of the largest metropolitan areas in America, there would only be about 5 or 10 people showing up for a lunchtime worship service? How many Bahais do you think there are in the Chicago metro area? Certainly enough to get more attendance than that, if you add in visitors from out of state and curious people who live in the area. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t make sense to me that the attendance would be so low unless it’s because the services are not very good.

  3. Pluralist says:

    That’s a very good entry and illustration. The Bahai Faith as now is does not attract liberals, or not for long if they remain open minded, though of course they may say things they thought they never would (e.g. about Covenant breakers). I thought there was a ban on congregational religious services, and that’s why the readings were therefore so dull – a ban that Abdul Baha used to ignore when on his travels.

  4. Will says:

    I am wondering how it is possible to make such magisterial judgments about the activities at the Baha’i House of Worship on the basis of a single visit. The Baha’i House of Worship has a fantastic choir, which performs at one or two services every weekend and at holy days. Over the Memorial Day weekend, two packed performances at the Baha’i House of Worship Choral Festival were held, with more than a thousand people at each performance.

    A short series of readings from Baha’i scriptures by two people is not something to dismiss lightly. It is, after all, the BAHA’I House of Worship. On the weekends, the services are longer and always include passages from the scriptures of the great religions.

    There is no ban on collective religious services in the Baha’i Faith. Baha’is have gathered to say prayers since the beginning and devotional gatherings are one of the Faith’s core activities. The “congregational” prayer that is prohibited is obligatory prayer led by an imam requiring the congregation to perform the actions together and say the words together.

    The purpose of the revelation of Baha’u'llah is the transformation of human society. One of the activities in that transformation is neighorhood children’s classes, the purpose of which is to povide spiritual growth and training to children where thy live, not just in religious buildings. One aspct of such classes is that Baha’i children gain a stronger identity when they are in classes with children who are learning about th Baha’i Faith. It is an honor and privilege and obligation of every Baha’i to teach others about Baha’u'llah. Proselytizing is offering inducements or pressure to convert. Children’s classes are not about inducements or pressure, but about serving the needs of people in their neighborhoods and to establish a pattern that can save children from the ravages of gangs, drugs, and early parenthood. Baha’i children gain strength from this interaction and learn how to teach their Faith with both courage and respect.

    As for the unfortunate approach of the Persian lady, it is certainly her right to express to you that Baha’is believe Baha’u'llah is the Manifestation of God for this day and that His Revelation is humanity’s hope for the future. She clearly needs more training about how to converse in a less judgmental way about other traditions – but I chalk that up to her generation and her culture, not to the Baha’i Faith or a policy at the Baha’i House of Worship. It is easy, when one is disaffected, to show little tolerance for fallible human beings who are enrolled members of the Baha’i Faith.

    Regarding politics, the Baha’i principle still holds that partisan politics is not conducive to the creation of unity of thought and unity in undertakings. That comes, not through poilitical wrangling, but through shared service at the grass roots.

    You fail to note in your post that your urging of Baha’is to “join” Unitarian Universalist churches is actually a call to violate a fudamental Baha’i membership principle – that a Baha’i cannot be affiliated with (an official member of) both the Baha’i Faith and another religion. A Baha’i should associate with all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship, but cannot be a member of both the Baha’i Faith and another church. You may continue to urge, but you are urging Baha’is to violate the requirements of their Faith.

    The references to “liberals” not being attracted to the Faith is disingenuous. It is not about liberal or conservative, but about adherence to Baha’u'llah’s teachings and His covenant, whether or not they appear to others to be one of thse noxious labels. The definition of “liberal” or “conservative” in any situation is subject to the partisan extremism at any given time that wishes to paint the other side as evil.

    Regarding the Nineteen Day Feast – it is not a worship service. It is the grass roots Baha’i institution composed of the Baha’is living in a locality. As an institution, it has a specified membership and certain affairs to deal with. Therefore, Baha’is should not invite non-members to the feast. The Baha’i community has devotions in homes, services at centers and house of worship, children’s classes, junior youth groups, and study circles open to everyone. These core activities are the main life of service and worship.

    If you preferred the business portion last, you could have made a request of your Spiritual Assembly. The order and elements of the Feast stem from ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, bu the order can be changed sometimes. If you preferred making up a prayer on the spot, you could have done so. No one would stop you. It is tradition in the Baha’i Faith to use the prayers of the Central Figures, but it is not an absolute requirement.

    In this post and in the other responses, I find little charity, but rather a desire for fault-finding. If you truly believe in Baha’u'llah as you say you do, then perhaps you will find ways to “breathe not the sins of others”, and will consider with compassion those who endeavor to live faithfully by Baha’u'llah’s will and their responsibilities to His covenant.

    • Eric Stetson says:

      Will wrote: “The Baha’i House of Worship has a fantastic choir, which performs at one or two services every weekend and at holy days.”

      That’s good! I’m very glad to hear it, and if I go there again I’ll be sure to go on one of those days. But my point is, if they’re going to have worship services every day of the week, they could at least make them better than what they had when I was there. It really was a letdown when they advertise that a service is going to happen and then when it happens it’s the level of quality of something that a couple people might throw together in their own living room.

      Will wrote: “…neighorhood children’s classes, the purpose of which is to povide spiritual growth and training to children where thy live, not just in religious buildings. One aspct of such classes is that Baha’i children gain a stronger identity when they are in classes with children who are learning about th Baha’i Faith. It is an honor and privilege and obligation of every Baha’i to teach others about Baha’u’llah.”

      I do not think that children have any obligation to “teach their faith” to other children. In fact, if a religion relies upon its children to do this, that shows that it’s a religion desperate to make converts. A good religion sells itself without trying to sell itself, and does not need any special methods such as children’s classes cleverly designed for evangelistic purposes.

      Will wrote: “Proselytizing is offering inducements or pressure to convert. Children’s classes are not about inducements or pressure”

      The commonly accepted meaning of the word proselytize has nothing to do with pressure, but is simply about attempting to recruit someone to join one’s religion. I think what you’re referring to as “proselytizing” would be called “aggressive proselytizing” or “unethical proselytizing” by most people.

      As for children’s classes in which non-Bahai children are being taught about the Bahai faith, that most certainly is an example of an evangelistic or proselytizing type of activity. Its very purpose is to try to promote the Bahai religion to children and secondarily to their parents, in the hope that some of these people will join the Baha’i Faith because of how much they enjoyed these children’s classes and what they were told about the Bahai religion therein.

      Will wrote: “As for the unfortunate approach of the Persian lady… It is easy, when one is disaffected, to show little tolerance for fallible human beings who are enrolled members of the Baha’i Faith.”

      If I had wished to show intolerance toward that lady, I would have refused to continue talking with her, because what she said was highly offensive. She point-blank asserted that her religion was from God and mine was not. I actually showed a great deal of tolerance toward her, because I ignored her comment and continued a cordial conversation with her.

      Will wrote: “You fail to note in your post that your urging of Baha’is to “join” Unitarian Universalist churches is actually a call to violate a fudamental Baha’i membership principle – that a Baha’i cannot be affiliated with (an official member of) both the Baha’i Faith and another religion.”

      I have never seen anything in the writings of either Bahaullah or Abdul-Baha that prohibits Bahais from being a member of multiple religious organizations. The policy of requiring Bahais to belong only to one specific organization called “the Baha’i Faith” and requiring them to hold no other religious affiliation was instituted by Shoghi Effendi. As I believe that Shoghi Effendi had no authority to make new laws for Bahais, I therefore choose to ignore the current Bahai doctrine and policy that limits Bahais to belonging only to the Haifa-based Baha’i Faith organization — and I hope more and more Bahais will similarly ignore it and join the Unitarian Universalist church. Certainly if they are open about their UU affiliation, they will have to leave the Haifan Baha’i Faith organization, because of the HBF’s strict policy against multiple religious affiliations. But I see no problem with that. Bahaism can be folded right into the UU church and will probably be truer to its original progressive spirit there than in the HBF today.

      Eric

    • fubar says:

      will,

      as an ex-haifan-bahai (30+ years), and paticipant in UBA, your response is yet another example of the hostile, polemic oriented way of (haifan) bahai thinking.

      Isn’t it absurd for you to talk about “fault finding” when that is exactly what you are doing yourself?

      One of the biggest problems with haifan bahaism is that its organizational culture is conformist, exclusivist and is culturally imperialistic. It abuses nonconformists and attaks critics and disidents. Your statement is another example of the inabiliy of haifan bahais to listen to valid and/or constructive criticism, instead of continuing to state predictable circular logic to defend dumb ideas and practices.

      Eric Stetson’s UBA work is of great value to people that suffered through the typical soul-killing organizationally dusfunctional forms of community life typically found in the haifan bahai community.

      Haifan bahaism’s position on politics is absurd and self-serving. Haifan bahai administration gets very political about iranian issues, but failed to stand up to the nazis, apartheid, segregation in the USA, human rights violations in Tibet and other similar places, and has excommunicated people for participating in union protests of corporate predators and global economics.

      Haifan bahaism’s gutless posture on many social justice issues is appalling.

      I am not a political liberal (I’m libertarian and integral), but I do agree with the UBA leadership that because of the horrible turn toward fundamentalism and authoritarianism taken in the last 30 years by haifan bahaism, that measures to adjust the political philosophy of haifan bahaism in a more social justice orientation would be a very good thing. Of course that will not happen because it would CONTRADICT the abusive and exploitive internal predation that is part of the organizational culture of haifan bahaism.

      Haifan bahaism is far to inauthentic, dysfunctional and imperialistic a religion to ever get enough converts to run the world, and if they did, it would become a horrible and backward thing.

      have a nice day

  5. Andrew says:

    Great article, Eric! Most of your assessments seem spot-on! Further reflections for a future article would also attract interest, I’m sure.

    “It is easy … to show little tolerance for fallible human beings who are enrolled members of the Baha’i Faith … I find little charity, but rather a desire for fault-finding. If you truly believe in Baha’u’llah as you say you do, then perhaps you will find ways to ‘breathe not the sins of others.’”

    The Baha’i comedic wit is as sharp as ever! ‘Abdu’l-Baha was also known to have a great sense of humor.

  6. Richard says:

    Even I have the same experience when I visited a Bahai center.
    Bahais are nowadays more occupied with the fight with covenent-breakers( I mean the other bahai groups)
    Richard

  7. nayman says:

    I grew up in the Chicagoland area. I still remember way before I became a Bahai, when my parents drove up Sheridan Road one day past the Bahai House of Worship. I asked my dad what is that building. I distinctly remember him saying it’s a meeting place where people of different religions get together to promote religious unity. Nothing about Bahai being a religion.

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