Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Beam Me Up! My Experience With the Baha'i Faith



Perhaps it was a mixed blessing. After almost merging into a Semi on the Sawgrass Express way, nearly hitting a motorcyclist while turning into the development, and getting my back wheel stuck in the gutter after parking on the lawn, I felt that prayer might actually just be what I needed.

When this assignment was pitched to us in class, I had all the intention of visiting a Dharma-based religious site; rather, I found myself more particularly interested in a Baha’i website I had stumbled upon while searching for religious institutions. The woman on the phone, who only introduced herself as Ruth, informed me that I would be more than welcome to a Baha’i devotional on the upcoming Friday. She described it as quiet, initiate, open and particularly spiritual. Although I cannot say that Ms. Ruth’s description was false, I would say it was romanticized.

I had decided to bring a friend me to the devotional, Corey, a likeminded atheist who was inquiring about the origin of what he had read to be such a young and obscure faith. I figured that if I ran out of good questions to ask these folk, he could jump in with ones that had yet to cross my mind. And so, upon arrival, we soon came to the conclusion that this was not the type of religious event we had expected. We were greeted with smiling faces and screaming children in the background (Baha’i Devotionals apparently double as day-care centers) as well as the smells of religious food offerings such as Papa John’s and an array of diet soft drinks. Ruth had early told me that casual attire would be fine, though I had no idea the ritual would be quite this laidback. Even the prayer area was nothing more than an art-deco coffee table with couches and spare dining room chairs circled around it. No religious iconography, symbols of any kind, significant attire; simply a setting similar to my parent’s weekly game of Pictionary. The absolutely casual setting made me strangely uneasy. In every other spiritual setting, I had always been told to cover my shoulders, sit with my hands in my lap, and make sure I had spit out my gum. This was something completely unexpected. Corey and I took the two spare dining chairs that were cramped between the sofa and dining area, perhaps to give myself a sense of enclosure. And as we sat, we began to inquire. Here’s what we learned.

Baha’i is the youngest of all the major world religions. Founded by a man named Bahau’llah in late 19th-century Iran, the religion’s spread and interpretation is mostly credited to the founder’s son, Abdul’Baha, through speeches given in the United States and western Europe. Nowadays, the religious policies and interpretations are guided by a Universal House of Justices, made up of 9 elected devouts, who are believed to channel the thoughts of God. The religion itself teaches a unity of spirituality through all mankind. It is believed by Baha’is that the Abrahamic God sent to earth the first prophets (Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, and Mohammad) to spread the message of faith and love, and although man twisted the message of these prophets, Bahau’llah is the last prophet to spread the word. Most of all, the slogan for the religion is the “Independent Search of Truth”, or finding Baha’i and Gob by one’s own discovery and inquiry, importantly uniting the worlds of science and religion harmoniously. This and only this will bring universal peace.

The religion automatically sparked my attention, as it genuinely presses for the development of hard sciences, gender equality, and racial blindness. As a Sociology Major, these are all fundamental humanistic ideals of mine, so why wouldn’t Baha’i be the perfect religious fit for me? The people were friendly enough, and obviously ate well at every devotional. We began to ask more and more, trying to find where the weakness in these philosophies were, as the religion just seemed too lenient to have any standing against the other dogmatic theologies in today’s society. We soon discovered that lenience was the weakness of the religion.

Upon speaking of the “independent search for truth”, I asked the room at what age did they come into Baha’i openly. Most everyone claimed that as an older teenager or young adult, they found Baha’i to satisfy their spiritual needs. On the flipside, I then the room what religion they were raised as. All but one woman in the room reluctantly admitted that their parents were Baha’i and that they were raised in the religion. This puzzled Corey and I, as we were just told that these people found Baha’i on their own only after searching for spirituality. We then asked what happens to the soul after one dies, and only one woman was able to speak up about it. Paige, an animated and charismatic woman, took it upon herself to clear up these difficult questions. Without giving me so much as a solid answer, she immediately put the terms in metaphor.

“The body is like a cage and our souls are the bird inside. We must be close to god when we are inside the cage so that we can fly out one day, rather than flop out onto the ground.” I asked her to explain it in another sense, and she seemed stuck on the birdcage analogy. It was then we began to notice a strange pattern in the way these people spoke of their beliefs; they didn’t seem to care to. Every answer of every difficult question was open-ended. Every philosophy they laid out on the table was ambiguous to an excruciatingly frustrating extent. Even after speaking about it for 15 minutes, I’m still not sure what happens to people who are not Baha’i after death.

After taking up an entire hour of the Devotional time with questions, we sat back and decided to listen and watch the actual acts of the ritual itself. Books were first passed out in the way a Christian prayer group may pass out bibles, though none of these books were alike. Each one contained different prayers concerning different topics in completely different orders. One man, who only spoke English, settled with a Spanish prayer book and read from there, regardless of his lack of comprehension of the language. The ritual began only once everyone had a book in hand. Everyone bowed their heads and closed their eyes with the exception of the two of us. It began with one man bringing out a large bongo and beginning to drum an obscure beat that neither seemed rehearsed nor improvised. Soon, Paige began by saying a prayer about devotion and trust. As she ended her prayer, a woman behind us began to recite her own. In a breathy, seemingly sexual experience, she read from her book, her tone resembling what I associated with the ecstasy of the saints; a divine orgasm, in some ways. No one reacted to this, though I personally turned red in the face. The gentleman sitting beside Corey and I soon began to read aloud from his Spanish book of prayers, fumbling with the phonetics of a language he didn’t understand and emphasizing awkward parts of statements. Another woman behind us began to sing, though we couldn’t understand a word she was saying. It occurred to me that these people were not so much affected by what they were saying, but rather, simply satisfied that they had said anything at all. When the prayer circle was done, we said our “thank you”s and “god bye”s and walked out of the house in silence. We waited until we were in the car to reflect on what we had just witnessed, in one sense humored and in another deeply confused.

Now that I sit down to reflect and analyze, I find myself completely at a loss as far as how to tie this all back to what we have learned this semester. These people were completely unlike anything we had read about. These were not a sub-Saharan Muslim sect that worshipped river gods. These were not Christian Scientists attempting to pray the pain away. These people were not offering anything to a deity, like a puja to Shiva. They did not claim to witness the virgin mother’s image in their grilled cheese or profess that statues can cry tears of blood. These were progressive, forward-thinking people who simply lacked a sense of organization to their religion; no doctrine to document its philosophies, and no clergy to direct questions towards. These were people living in modern western society worshipping a god that was “both omnipresent and intrapersonal”. These are people who believe in civil rights and stem cell research and yet find religion in the ambiguity of the Baha’i faith. I still do not know what it means to be Baha’i, nor do I think I could have ever really known through the resource of the devotional alone. I cannot seem to relate my experience to Bowen, either. What I witnessed was not magic, it was not organized prayer, it was not euphorically spiritual. I grasp for anything to cite in Bowen, but I think the most useful tie-in would be it’s very definitions of religion. A “set of shared beliefs in spirits of gods” is one of Bowen’s descriptions, but then goes on to state it can also be “sentiment of awe and wonder toward the unknown”. If this is the case, perhaps those Baha’i that I was fortunate to meet met the criteria of shared belief. I, on the other hand, am struck with awe and wonder by this strange experience.

11 comments:

Alyse said...

Kudos for trying new things. And I've never even heard of this religion before, nice job explaining. But I think that's the problem with alot of new religions, they want to keep questions open ended to attract more people (at least with what I've noticed on campus)

Miss Infidel said...

I never thought about it that way, and I have a feeling you're right in your assumption. Maybe it's because I grew up in the catholic faith that I associate religion with folkways and moral law.

Alyse said...

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Ship 06 Div 934
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Greak Lakes IL 60088-3119

Jessica said...

next time you do something like that, can i come? you know me - always up for an adventure!

senmcglinn said...

I loved it. I'm a Bahai, and I studied theology and later Islamic studies, with anthropology and sociology of religion and comparative religions etc.. So I can understand the disconnect between the handbooks on "what religion is" and the Bahais. In some ways it's the same old same old, "the ancient faith of God" - and in some ways it's a postmodern redefinition of what religion is.

Anonymous said...

"These are people who believe in civil rights."

Not entirely. See:

http://revolked2.blogspot.com/2009/05/lets-start-with-consultign-about-my.html

http://www.religioustolerance.org/hom_bah.htm

http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/stop-bahai-anti-gay-discrimination

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Guidl-7oGn4

http://bahairants.com/yes-virginia-gay-bahais-do-exist-250.html

http://bahairants.com/the-challenge-of-homosexuality-193.html

http://bahairants.com/the-challenge-of-homosexuality-part-deux-588.html

http://mavaddat.livejournal.com/21160.html

Apologies for the number of links but the unvarnished facts simply do not bear that myth out. Gays and lesbians can be (and usually are) effectively excommunicated from the Faith if they refuse to accept the requirement to live a life of abstention from same-sex behavior.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that Women are not allowed full participation in Baha'i as they are barred from the highest decision making body (nine men) of the religion, namely the Universal House of In/Justice that everyone must obey. This is in spite of the fact that they all preach the belief in the 'equality of women and men' to the 'public'. Bait and switch techniques. How could people who preach one thing and then practice another not be in a state of confusion wandering around in a fog as to what they really believe? But the leaders know a Baha'i World Commonwealth is the eventual goal. Their Guaradian says Baha'is need to understand the Koran in order to understand their own religion. Again this ain't too good for equality, women, or a peaceful harmonious world. I suggest in the search after truth to move on and keep searching.

kaweah said...

Dear Miss Infidel,

There's a lot of ambiguity in the Baha'i Faith. The afterlife is depicted as a big mystery. My take is that everyone gets to go; it's just a question of whether one goes there with the proper state of mind. If one goes with attachments to the world, it can suck.

With respect to "independent investigation of truth", the general interpretation of this term is that non-Baha'is are encouraged to freely investigate the Truth, i.e., the Baha'i Faith.

I was raised in a Baha'i family, and upon turning 15 — the Baha'i "age of maturity" — I was expected to decide whether or not I would proceed through life as a Baha'i. I choose to be a Baha'i without hesitation. Seven years later, however, I changed my mind, but was told that I had already made my choice, and was no longer morally eligible to choose. I had already chosen the Truth; how dare I now reject it!

Your fellow infidel,
Dan

Jessie said...

The beauty of the Baha'i faith is that it is a global religion and so it is up to the followers of any given area to decide how they will hold gatherings and what cultural rituals they perform. There are universal practices, such as Feast and Holy days and so on, but the way these events are celebrated depends entirely on the culture you are in. This means that a Baha'i gathering in one part of the world will be completely different from another. The interpretation of the Baha'i writings will also change depending on the individual you talk to. There is no clergy (and therefore no hard-line fundamentalist interpretation) so each individual is expected to study the writings for themselves. As each individual is unique, so will their interpretations be. Religious scripture is incredibly complex and metaphorical, so its reading depends a great deal on the maturity and experience of the reader. The one thing that remains the same in any Baha'i community, however, is a sincere love of Baha'u'llah and a desire to serve (all) humanity. If you truly want to try and figure out what the Baha'i faith is all about, I suggest you take some time to read from some of the major Baha'i writings and see for yourself. It's there that you'll find better clarification on issues like life after death and so on. Bear in mind that scripture is both dualistic and meant to be understood as a system. The reading of one passage can be taken out of context if one does not have enough of a general understanding. Studying with a deepened Baha'i individual can help with this issue.
As an aside, my understanding of the Baha'i view of life after death is that humans have both a physical existence (the body) and a spiritual one (the soul). When the body dies the soul moves on to the "next world", or heaven, regardless of one's social station, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other ridiculous excuse human beings have come up with for creating an "us" and "them" worldview. It's my understanding that the only time an individual might not go on to the next world is if they did not develop ANY spiritual qualities in this life (which would mean they'd have to be a pretty evil individual) which is akin to not developing arms or legs in the human womb (or not even developing a body, I guess). The idea is that the development of spiritual qualities (such as love, generosity, gratitude, kindness, mercy, humility, etc.) in this world is what decides our "mobility", for lack of a better term, in the next. If you want to read directly from the writings about this topic you can search an online Baha'i library, such as reference.bahai.org. I hope this clears some things up.

Simon Dyda said...

Homosexuality bad. Extramarital sex bad. Nudism bad. Standing up to the State bad. Alternative lifestyles bad. You see? The Baha'i faith is just as nuts as any other religion.

Anonymous said...

I had a lot of sex with a Baha'i guy in college. I loved the way he acted all pious as he continued an affair with a married woman for a couple of years. He started chasing after his cousin when she was 14-15 years old and he was around 30. Pursued the hell out of that girl for about decade until she finally married him. Now she's actively spawning and the offspring look like they have something wrong with them.

These people seem to be proliferating on the West Coast / Pacific Northwest.