Much of what I’ve written on this blog of late hasn’t been directly connected to the Baha’i Faith and issues of spirituality. Well, this post is going to be an exception.
This post is, first and foremost, for people who consider themselves agnostics and atheists. If you consider yourself in that broad category, please keep reading.
I am going to make this as direct and straightforward as possible: I think more people with ambiguous or even skeptical feelings towards the existence of God should think about becoming Baha’is.
How could this possibly be, given that a bedrock principle of the Baha’i Faith is that God exists? It’s because, as I have written about before, the concept of God in Baha’i doctrine is purposefully mysterious. God is described as ultimately “unknowable”, even as we are encouraged to cultivate our own sense of spirituality, and to “know and love” our Creator.
The best way I could think to articulate this is through a dialogue between two people. So, if you will indulge me, here is an entirely fictional discussion between “Jack”, a once-agnostic person who came to call himself a Baha’i, and this blog.
Note that Jack is not a real person, but much of what you’ll read below is inspired by numerous individuals I’ve met over the years who became Baha’is, some of whom had some measure of spiritual inclination and belief before they found the Baha’i Faith, and others who were pure atheists. I tried to capture the spirit of some of those conversations in the rest of this post. Note also that though Jack is depicted as someone with a Christian background (I had to pick something), the spirit of the conversation I hope applies to people of all backgrounds.
Fruit Tree Blog: Tell us about your early years. Did you grow up in a spiritual home? Was your family religious?
Jack: Yes and no. My parents took us to church when we were kids, and I remember enjoying going. It was really later in my youth — my teenage years, I’d say — when I actually started thinking about religion, God, etc., and that is when I started to become skeptical about the whole thing.
FTB: What exactly were you skeptical about?
Jack: It wasn’t the church itself. I knew they were doing good work, I respected the church’s clergy, and got along well with people in the congregation. That part felt right. But as I got older and thought more about what the church was actually teaching us, it just started to seem like a fairy tale.
FTB: That’s an interesting way to put it, “fairy tale”.
Jack: Well, I remember when I was very young my mother reading actual fairy tales to us before bed, things with magic and imagination and mystery, things that seemed impossible. And my mother very astutely used to remind us that these things weren’t real. “It’s fun to pretend,” that sort of thing. I think she wanted us to be grounded in reality, which I’m grateful to her for.
FTB: And you started connecting this to what you were learning in church…
Jack: Yes. The way I had originally imagined God — a old, powerful man sitting in the clouds — at one point started to seem ridiculous. Even without believing that God is a physical being somewhere, it was still common to describe this concept in anthropomorphic terms, with human emotions and behavior.
Similarly, the way the afterlife was described was especially fairy tale-ish for an adolescent starting to learn the basics of science. Where was heaven if the earth is round and covered with space? Where is hell? How does God’s judgment work? Does He keep track of all your good and bad deeds in some ledger?
FTB: You mentioned the notion of God’s judgment. I think a lot of people have trouble with that.
Jack: I think the problem is that it’s so binary. Either you’re in or you’re out. Early on I imagined a lifelong sinner, a real nasty person, accepting Christ on their deathbed. You mean to tell me that that person makes it? That didn’t seem right. What about all the kids raised in India who spend their whole lives praying to Ganesh or Lakshmi, and living life the right way? When I asked grownups some form of this question, the answer always seemed like some form of “tough luck”. As in, tough luck for them for not being born into the right religion, or even meeting someone who might tell them about the Gospel. And then at the same time we are taught about a loving, forgiving Creator for all of humanity. It didn’t add up, of course. So pretty soon I looked at the entire landscape of religion and said to myself, the whole thing is just a fairy tale to make people feel better.
FTB: Were there other things that irked you?
Jack: I’d say the whole “physics” of it was particularly hard to take in. I used to hear people talk about the Rapture — when the true believers will be resurrected and be brought “up” to heaven. I instantly started thinking of dead bodies coming out of the ground, in all their grossness. I know that sounds hilariously ghoulish, but that’s what a young kid thinks about. I wondered, what about the people who died a long time ago, whose bodies had mostly decomposed? Would the atoms that the bacteria had bit off hundreds of years ago fly back to put them back together? What if those atoms were now in other people?! And what about people who’d been cremated? About five minutes into this thought process, you start realizing that the most likely explanation is that it’s just nonsense.
FTB: Was it painful to come to those conclusions?
Jack: The most painful part of it was that I felt like I had a deep, personal relationship with the church community, and also with the personhood of Jesus. In fact, somehow I think I stopped believing in God but kept believing in Jesus, as odd as that sounds. Here was a Person who embodied everything that was right. He encouraged people to draw their value from their good deeds, not their belongings. He exalted the poor and the meek. He was the ultimate advocate for justice and goodness, and for peace, and for serving others. I never wanted to say goodbye to that, and in fact I never did.
FTB: Did keeping that personal connection alive help you keep a foothold in your spiritual life?
Jack: To some degree, yes. But I’d also say that some of my agnostic and atheist friends — people who never set foot in any house of worship and never attended Sunday school — are among the most spiritual people I know. Because spirituality isn’t just what you profess to believe, it’s what you do. The most spiritual-feeling moments of my life involve other human beings. Selflessly sacrificing for another person is the most profound thing in the universe. It is the height of human existence to experience that feeling, of truly serving someone else, to be good simply for goodness’s sake, to exalt yourself by achieving that purpose. A lot of people have this epiphany when they have children, I think — the feeling that I would do anything for this little life, that I am willing to sacrifice totally and completely. It is empowerment and total humility at the same time, and it is beautiful. Some people live with that attitude, a current that runs through their life, which is something that we should all strive for. Whether you believe the people around you are God’s children or just a collection of stardust, their is no denying the sanctity of this. That’s why I say people who don’t profess any believe in God are sometimes extremely spiritual, whether they like to call themselves that or not.
FTB: Was this feeling — that the point of life is serving others, for lack of a better way to describe it — what drew you to the Baha’i Faith?
Jack: We should establish first that it’s not at all unique to the Baha’i Faith. Remember, as I understood it — and still understand it — this was the overarching theme of Christ’s life, to tirelessly serve others. What resonated about the Baha’i Faith was that it echoed this theme in the same way my Church upbringing did, but it did not ask me to believe in magical things that I knew could not be true.
FTB: What do you mean by that?
Jack: For instance, in Baha’i scripture God is described as an “Unknowable Essence”, a Being that is “sanctified above all else”. This is a poetic way of saying, I think, that we are like tiny ants trying to understand how we got into the ant farm. We will never be able to fully grasp the nature of the universe and the purpose of our existence. We will only be able to get a glimmer of it through metaphors, and through spiritual experiences.
When I encountered this way of conceptualizing God and spirituality, it was both thrilling and relieving. There was something out there, something deeply personal that could be discovered and experienced in those deep, selfless moments with our fellow human beings. But I was not asked to explain exactly what God is. After all, how could I? How can we, equipped with human brains, explain something that exists outside the boundaries of our known universe?
Pretty soon I stopped thinking of God as some muscular man sitting in a cloud, and started to realize that that image was purely symbolic of something that has no gender, no body, no physical form. So was, for instance, the image of a man with an elephant for a head (Ganesha), and later I actually met Hindus who told me, yes of course that’s a symbol of God, but the underlying reality is much deeper than that, and it has no such form. This is taught in their own holy book, I later learned, that God is beyond human comprehension, and we can only understand this Being through images, metaphors, experiences, etc.
FTB: If God is beyond human comprehension, as you say, then what’s the point? Shouldn’t we just admit that we don’t know, and move on? That sounds like the very definition of an agnostic.
Jack: Some people may come to that conclusion, and I would not begrudge them for it. In my opinion, however, it is an inescapable part of human nature to seek purpose and meaning. I believe this is — quite literally — in our DNA. To live life otherwise is like sailing in the ocean without a rudder. So I made the purposeful decision to say: I’m going to make this the purpose of my life — to serve my fellow human beings, to promote love and tolerance and understanding and justice — and I am not going to preoccupy myself with big, metaphysical questions about God’s nature that I can never hope to solve. That is, I want to live this way, and I can accept that there is something divine out there, that there is purpose in life, and I am willing to live with all the mysteries that come with that.
FTB: How would you respond to someone who might reply that you don’t need to believe in anything spiritual, divine, etc., to serve others and live the right way?
Jack: Again, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for taking that approach. On the contrary, people who choose to be good without any religious or moral code deserve commendation; they haven’t been instructed to live that way, they’re not following any higher power, and yet they’ve just decided to be good on their own.
I think the difference between that way of thinking and that of a Baha’i has to do with, first, the existence and importance of spirituality — however you want to define it — to human existence, and how that spirituality relates with the concept of community. That is, a Baha’i person sees spirituality as important not only to the life of the individual, but to how individuals are bonded to one another.
FTB: Spirituality helps establish a sense of community among human beings, you’re saying.
Jack: Yes. It doesn’t mean that you can’t establish bonds in other ways. I was on a sports team when I was young where all of us were extremely close, for instance. We all wanted to win, to be our collective best, and that singular goal helped us all sacrifice and subjugate our individual selves toward that goal. That alone is truly beautiful. I’ve heard serving in the military can be an even more intense version of this experience, with soldiers bonded together not only by the common goal, but by the knowledge that their very life and death may hinge on their cooperation.
The mission of Baha’u’llah and the very point of the Baha’i Faith is to establish a common understanding among all the people of the world — that there is goodness, that there is God, that there is meaning, that there is mystery — and to let this be the unifying principle binding the entire globe together. It’s one thing for all human beings to commit to trying to be good as individuals, but the vision of Baha’u’llah is grander. That vision is for all of us to be pulling together in one common direction, no matter your race, your gender, your nationality, or anything else.
FTB: It’s easy to find that vision compelling and beautiful. But does the skeptic in you ever takeover, and do you find yourself wondering whether Baha’u’llah was simply an enlightened, well-intentioned man who brought a beautiful message? That is, do you ever worry that you’ve abandoned one set of fairy tales and just replaced it with another?
Jack: I do not feel like being a Baha’i requires me to suspend reason, let’s put it that way. On the contrary, there is a central Baha’i belief that science and religion should be in harmony, that they are two wings of the same bird.
Now, if you are asking me if I wonder about Baha’u’llah’s claim to be a Messenger of God, then the answer is: Of course. I still have those questions about Jesus, mind you. What, exactly, was Jesus? What does it mean to call him the “Son of God”? This, like the case of the existence of God, is a mystery to me, and it will always be a mystery. All I can tell you is that — just as I have always believed in the case of Christ — there is something that feels truly divine about Baha’u’llah’s life and message. It is something I am compelled to, and if being a part of this means to accept that I will never have all the answers, then so be it.
FTB: You say that the Baha’i teachings are not in conflict with science. How can that be for any religion?
Jack: First, I don’t think I have come across any teaching of the Baha’i Faith that is demonstrably untrue in terms of the laws of physics. For instance, as a Baha’i I believe there is metaphysical reality, and that part of my identity as a human being is my spirit, not just my body. When I die, I believe my body will disintegrate and be gone forever. But the human spirit is not physical, and it has no time and place. So, Baha’is believe “heaven” is a state of spiritual refinement and exaltation, which one can achieve through living a good and holy life here in earth. It is a fundamentally spiritual concept, not a physical one.
Now, do I know exactly what the human spirit is? Again, I do not, and never will. All I can tell you is that heaven and hell are absolutely not physical places, one having clouds and harp-playing babies and such, and the other fire with a red-faced man with horns. That is what I mean when I say being a Baha’i does not require me to believe in fairy tales.
FTB: Ok, last question. You seem fairly critical of the traditional Christian view on the afterlife, on God, and other metaphysical concepts. And yet you say that you still believe in Jesus even after becoming a Baha’i. How can both of those things be true?
Jack: The irony is that now that I am a Baha’i, I believe more strongly in Jesus than I ever did before. Part of the reason for this is that Baha’u’llah teaches that Jesus was a Divine Messenger just as He was, and just as Moses, Krishna, Buddha, and many others throughout human history were. These Messengers all brought the same divine truth to different peoples at different times.
I now realize that Christ’s teachings were highly metaphorical, and yet they carried with them infinite beauty and spiritual truth. How, after all, could He have explained to the people of two millennia ago, people who still believed the earth was flat, the nature of God? That God is a mysterious Being beyond human comprehension, and yet whose loving presence permeates every aspect of our existence? No, of course not. Instead He used a metaphor to capture the essence of that reality: “God is the Father, and I am His Son”.
Likewise, how did the people of the Indian Subcontinent come to understand God, and the purpose of life on earth thousands of years ago? Through physical representations (like the Ganesha, for instance), and through the concept of reincarnation. All of these things express deep spiritual truths, but we in the 21st century should no longer be compelled to take them literally. For the human race in this day and age to cling to the same metaphorical religious thinking of the past is like a kid growing up and still believing in Santa Claus.
FTB: Let’s wrap up. In a couple of sentences, tell me what it means to be a Baha’i.
Jack: There’s a beautiful passage from Baha’i Scripture that reads, “To be a Baha’i simply means to love all the world, to love humanity and try and serve it”. So don’t get too caught up in having all the answers. Take a deep breath and accept life’s mysteries. And in the meanwhile, let’s all get moving towards building a better world based on goodness, justice, and love. Because we’ve got a lot of work to do.