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The Almost Hip Religion – Western Ideals Meet Baha’i Teachings

August 28, 2015, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by

I’ve been a Baha’i all my life and yet it never ceases to amaze me how intuitive the Baha’i Faith seems. Most Baha’i ideals quite simply feel true. They resonate and appeal to what some call “our modern sensibilities”.

And yet for many of us there remains that fraction of the totality of Baha’i ideas which is difficult, even daunting, to truly accept in one’s heart of hearts.

Many teachings stand in stark contrast to the majority view in any given culture. Some teachings challenge what is hip and trendy. Some defy what is passed down as a proud tradition. Almost all Baha’i teachings defy strong selfish impulse or entrenched habit. A new Baha’i or someone looking into the Baha’i Faith, may become so enamoured by the beautiful and instantly palatable core teachings that they unwittingly ignore a host of other fundamental principles which may later come as an unpleasant surprise — usually in the inconvenient personal challenge they present. Time should be given, and loving sympathy and utmost patience shown for every individual to process the most personally challenging Baha’i ideas whatever they may be.

The West is a case in point. In the West the core Baha’i tenets of independent investigation of truth and unity in diversity are sometimes mistaken, by Baha’is and non-Baha’is alike, for the Western ideals of liberalism (i.e. individual freedom as the ultimate standard of both personal life and social order) and pluralism (i.e. the state of play where everyone ‘agrees to disagree’).

Originating from 19th Century Persia, and predating any Western humanist movement in its call for unity-in-diversity on a planetary scale, it may be worthwhile to call to mind that the Baha’i Faith, as established in the Writings of Baha’u’llah, is a genuinely global religion reflecting exclusively the penetrating vision of but one personage, the Persian prisoner Baha’u’llah.

It’s neither Eastern nor Western, whilst seamlessly incorporating many salutary elements from both great cultural traditions. Baha’u’llah’s mission was not to pander to any culture — least of all His own — but to challenge them in order to pave the way for a world civilization rooted, on one hand, in the unique strengths of each earlier civilization whilst introducing, on the other, healing and transformative concepts to all cultures.

Hence, the Baha’i Faith has never been a Western liberalist movement, nor does it aspire to be. Many of Baha’u’llah’s Writings openly challenge both Western ideals and Eastern customs and blind faith.

When the eyes of the people of the East were captivated by the arts and wonders of the West, they roved distraught in the wilderness of material causes, oblivious of the One Who is the Causer of Causes, and the Sustainer thereof…

Tablets of Baha’u’llah, Lawh-i-Hikmat, p. 144

A paring from the nail of one of the believing handmaidens is, in this day, more esteemed, in the sight of God, than the divines of Persia…

Baha’u’llah cited in The Promised Day is Come, p. 144

If one feels more drawn to the Western notion of freedom which regards a lifelong career of disciplining our bodily impulses as a failure to be true to oneself, the Baha’i Faith may indeed impose unbearably painful standards for one to follow.

But if one is open to the possibility of simultaneously…

(1) pursuing superb spiritual discipline in one’s personal life

…while…

(2) passionately embarking on a collective mission to eliminate all prejudices standing between all the diversity of mankind

…then the Baha’i Faith indeed has a lot to offer to oneself. A quick note of caution, the word “pursuit” in the above does not signify “mastery”. We are all imperfect and bound to fail on occasion. It’s the journey that counts. Pulling oneself quickly together and giving it the umpteenth try whenever one falls or falters. Forgiveness, including self-forgiveness, is also a key tenet.

There is a lot that is worthwhile in Western liberalism. Democratic elections, consultative decision-making and the notion of complete freedom from coercion in one’s moral choices are deeply rooted in the Baha’i Faith. In non-criminal aspects of personal morality no third party has the right to impose sanctions on a person.

Those who are not Baha’is are not expected to observe Baha’i standards of morality nor are we allowed to “exalt” ourselves “above anyone”, which by definition includes avoiding all manner of spiritual self-superiority and condescension. In the Baha’i view the power of the human spirit lies not in keeping high moral standards by coercion (the Eastern traditionalist extreme) nor in forsaking them as ‘outmoded’ only to justify a lifestyle of indulgence in fleeting and arbitrary whims (the Western liberalist extreme).

The greatness of our spirit lies in voluntarily upholding high moral standards without any external coercion nor succumbing to the noise of our passing impulses and peer pressure.

Yet Western liberalism, just like Eastern traditionalism, is also critiqued in the writings of Baha’u’llah, including His Most Holy Book, the Kitab-i-Aqdas. Openly self-indulgent lifestyle which is often noised abroad through the fair veneer of ‘freedom’ has very little to do with the freedom from selfish attachment and prejudice proclaimed in the Writings of Baha’u’llah. In the West we often regard our lifestyle, with both its empowering as well as self-destructive freedoms, as a superior yardstick for everyone to emulate or else be branded as “backward” or “narrow-minded”. Yet it is precisely the tendency to divide the world into “us progressives” and “them backward”, “us reasonable” and “them superstitious”, “us haves” and “them have-nots”, “us 21st century” and “them medieval” which blatantly defies the nonpartisan vision of unity and humility inculcated by Baha’u’llah.

It is these devastating divisions and prejudices that Baha’u’llah came to eliminate. It is these mutually hostile judgments that breed conflict and only widen the gulf between cultures. Willingly falling prey to our primitive instinct of asserting group superiority is what hinders true progress.

We as Baha’is are not immune to our own presumptions of superiority which we sometimes mistakenly derive from the fact of having embraced the most progressive revelation to date. Yet we are emphatically called to humility and to be sympathetic to those who disagree with us.

Warn, O Salman, the beloved of the one true God, not to view with too critical an eye the sayings and writings of men. Let them rather approach such sayings and writings in a spirit of open-mindedness and loving sympathy.

Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, p. 329

I believe both Orientals and Occidentals, both liberalists and traditionalists, would do well to digest the nonpartisan essence of this verse. It doesn’t ask us to agree with everyone. It asks us to be “open-minded” and “sympathetic” even towards those whose beliefs and views are foundationally at odds with ours.

I am interested in your personal insights on the title theme. Please share in the comments below.


Posted by

Sam Karvonen

Sam Karvonen is a ridiculously fortunate husband and a thoroughly blessed father. He is specialized in conflict-affected countries and inspired by the everyday heroism of their lay citizens. Oh, and a Baha'i of course.
Sam Karvonen

Discussion 11 Comments

Extremely well-written and thought-provoking article. The Faith is truly the bridge between the East and the West. Thank you.

Bayan

Bayan (August 8, 2015 at 3:59 PM)

Beautiful article thought provoking well written and well expressed..

He seems to have an in depth study of Eastern and Western Cultures and has wittingly showed us the path that could challenge and also unite them both in the Baha’i Faith..

Abbas Amreliwalla

Abbas Amreliwalla (August 8, 2015 at 8:56 PM)

Good article! Concise, well-written, interesting. Well-done!

Ellie

Ellie (August 8, 2015 at 7:14 PM)

I’m so touched by the simplicity and beauty of your message. In 10 days, I shall be a Baha’i of 50 years… since 1965… and I’m in such awe of the unfoldment of the World Order of Baha’u’llah. The Universal House of Justice has said there are 3 things needed for a growing understanding of the W.O.B.
Prayer, Guidance of the Universal House of Justice, and the Passage of time. Thank you for your truly pleasant, and wise presentation.

Hi.....

Hi..... (August 8, 2015 at 11:06 PM)

I appreciated your article very, very much. I have been a Baha’i for nearly 50 years and am one of those few Baha’is in a particularly unique position. I am gay and have chosen to be as obedient as possible to Baha’u’llah. Without mentioning any of the issues by name, you have explained my life. I have had non-Baha’is ask why I would belong to a religion that rejects me. I explain that my Faith does not reject me, it rejects my life style while requiring the same efforts toward chastity of all people. Thank you so much for writing this.
“Whoso maketh efforts for Us,” he shall enjoy the blessing conferred by the words: “In Our ways shall We assuredly guide him.” (Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán, p. 195)

Rex Block

Rex Block (August 8, 2015 at 12:10 AM)

Thanks for sharing this, Rex! I’ve been considering this question a lot. It’s interesting that many people in Western societies today have taken one or another aspect of their lifestyle to be a core element that they feel defines them as a human being — they feel that if the Faith does not approve of this one aspect, then by definition it “rejects” them as a human being, which is not the case at all! How many and varied are the impulses which Baha’u’llah calls on us to understand and take charge of! The core of our identity should be “servant of God”, not “member of this or that human social grouping based around common interest”. Serving humanity is the core work of being human, and everything else is subordinate to that, including all our desires, preferences, and inclinations, however intense or even well-intentioned these may be. Even when aware of this truth, this can a huge challenge, though! It helps me to remember that “[a]n act, however infinitesimal, is, when viewed in the mirror of the knowledge of God, mightier than a mountain. Every drop proffered in His path is as the sea in that mirror.” (Bahá’u’lláh, quoted in The Advent of Divine Justice, pp. 65-66)

David

David (September 9, 2015 at 4:36 AM)

Insofar as the personal Teachings regarding the conduct of people are concerned I agree fully with the author. In my opinion the world is in such a dire state that a new world order must come into being before we hope to see collective cultural transformation in individuals.
The present capitalist or market economy system that puts money before everything is at the root of the world problems. All consumption including alcohol and gambling for examples are good in this economic system. What a sad state of affairs!

Hooshang Sadeghi-Afshar

Hooshang Sadeghi-Afshar (August 8, 2015 at 7:53 AM)

A wonderful article, very thought-provoking, and insightful. I’ll recommend it to a seeker friend who’s been studying for quite awhile.
Also I’ll discuss it with my husband.
Thanks so much for it.

Loree Gross

Loree Gross (August 8, 2015 at 9:30 AM)

Good job, man!

Allen Warren

Allen Warren (August 8, 2015 at 6:55 PM)

Great commentary on the subject, Sam. I have come to consider that Baha’u’llah’s vision is not only ‘world-embracing’ but of a world that is unlike anything that we have a point of reference, even today. And we only have to consider the difference between the lives and attitudes of the 19th century believers with the 21st century, to see that there are enormous transformations occurring. It seems that Baha’u’llah is inviting us to constantly be with the developing knowledge of humanity so that it can inform the Word of God as the Word of God simultaneously provides a framework through which to organise that knowledge. There is a tension here, not an argument, but a very real tension around how complete our understanding of the Word of God could be, and how complete our ‘knowing’ of human knowledge. I see that the tension is not about resolution but maintenance as the transformative process occurs at the points of tension. The tension is maintained (as against broken or dissipated) through the dual process of the development of the potential of the individual in knowledge and creativity; and the consultative process within families and communities. I further see that the modern world has geographically local and geographically global and roaming communities. I think in the spirit of your commentary, the Baha’i Faith is well ‘misplaced’ to take full advantage of these dynamics to influence the transformative processes in human society. The more we study the Faith in the context of human knowledge and social movement, the greater contribution we can make for humanity. Our tests remain ever the same, when society ‘kicks back’ at the success of the Faith in surfing the waves of possibility, are we certain in our spiritual stand?

Owen Allen

Owen Allen (August 8, 2015 at 11:48 AM)

An interesting discussion is worth comment. I believe that you simply ought to write extra on this subject, it could possibly not be a taboo topic but commonly people today aren’t sufficient to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

Quinn

Quinn (September 9, 2015 at 5:42 AM)

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