Recently I've had a spate of old friends from my days as a Baha'i seemingly trying to lure me "back into the fold" through various things like recounting fond memories or sending me the old "hey, howarya, have you gotten over your silly stage yet" emails, stuff like that. So I decided now was a good time to republish some older material and re-edit it to disabuse those old friends of the idea that I'd do any such thing as turn back from the road I'm currently on. It ain't gonna happen, and here's why.
I was a member of the Baha'i Faith from 1971 to 2003. When I joined in 1971, it seemed to fulfill all my longings, preaching a liberal if not radical social gospel while still appealing to my need for a spiritual basis for this kind of teaching. Among the beliefs emphasized were:
• The equality of men and women;And more like this. What made it unique was that it was part of a religion! Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith, claimed to be the messenger of God for this day, and that these social principals were what GOD wanted humanity to do. NOW!
• The elimination of all forms of prejudice;
• World peace upheld by a world government organized on federalist principles;
• The independent investigation of truth;
• Universal education;
• Ending the extremes of wealth and poverty.
You can imagine the attraction for someone like me - a progressive social agenda wedded to a spiritual base. And I wasn't the only one of my particular bent to be thus attracted; the American and European Baha'i communities experienced a huge jump in youth conversions in the '60s and '70s. "Hippies" and spiritually-minded social radicals found the Baha'i Faith irresistible.
This influx of young, intelligent, educated, and enthusiastic new converts had a dramatic effect on the American Baha'i community. This newest generation of converts immediately became involved in all aspects of the Faith - writing articles, serving on the local governing boards of the religion, becoming vocal community advocates of what they perceived to be the important aspects of the Baha'i Faith. They were intent on bringing the Baha'i community into the mainstream of the effort to revitalize America and make it the spiritual as well as material leader of the world. They took seriously Shoghi Effendi's (leader of the Baha'i Faith from 1921 - 1957) exhortation to keep the Faith at the "forefront of all progressive movements." (The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 23)
But in the late 1980s the institutions of the Baha'i Faith began balking at the enthusiasms of this wave of idealists. Foremost in these efforts at stemming an activist tide was the constant reminder that Baha'u'llah told Baha'is to stay out of partisan politics and not to interfere in the workings of governments. And they imposed quite a literal interpretation of that principle. The Baha'i Faith teaches that racial discrimination is evil, but the institutions of the Faith deemed it unwarranted interference in the affairs of a "legally" elected government for Baha'is to be involved in the disinvestment movement against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Participation in peace and disarmament marches was first criticized and then outright forbidden, despite the fact that the Baha'i Faith claims to be working for a lasting world peace. There were other similar issues.
In 1986 the more enthusiastic advocates of a more public stand on progressive social issues created a magazine, Dialogue, to provide a public forum for these kinds of issues within the American Baha'i community. The editors, contributors, even those who wrote letters to the editor, were all approached by representatives of the National Spiritual Assembly of the US (the national governing body of the American Baha'i community) and told they were walking on thin ice. In 1988 an article entitled A Modest Proposal: Recommendations Toward the Revitalization of the American Baha'i Community, was submitted to the NSA for pre-publication approval (all materials about or concerning the Baha'i Faith by Baha'i authors and scholars have to be submitted to the NSA for review - can you say censorship?). Several members of the NSA seemed to be enthusiastic about the article, but at the National Convention in April of that year (this annual convention elects the members of the NSA and discusses general community affairs) the editors and authors were condemned - in general session from the podium - for even considering publication of the article, which they denounced as an attempt to "dictate" to the NSA. Dialogue ceased publication soon after that.
There were other issues as well. The Baha'i Faith advocates the equality of men and women but doesn't allow women to serve on its highest governing institution, the Universal House of Justice. The religion has laws forbidding alcohol and drug use, but refuses to deal with the problems of Baha'is suffering from addiction; in their eyes, since it's forbidden, no Baha'i imbibes so there can't be an addiction problem. Ditto AIDS. Oh yes, and homosexuality, or to be as specific as the institutions get on the issue, the practice of homosexuality is condemned as unnatural, in spite of the growing body of evidence showing homosexuality to be a genetic predisposition, on the same level as having blue eyes or brown hair; in other words, natural. Gay men and lesbians are allowed to become Baha'is, but they're not allowed to live together or have same-sex partners; instead they're exhorted to live a life of "noble sacrifice" in order to show their love for Baha'u'llah.
Needless to say, the children of the '60s who flooded the ranks of the American Baha'i community were increasingly disheartened, and many began to leave. Many still stayed, but starting in the '90s the Universal House of Justice began removing the membership of people who they claimed "didn't have a proper understanding" of the teachings and purpose of the Baha'i Faith. And some are still hanging in there, trying to find ways to keep the struggle alive.
Many of the people who stayed, and many who were ousted, still lay claim to a love for Baha'u'llah and see the current repression as an aberration and a departure from the original teachings of Baha'u'llah, and seek to reform the Baha'i Faith. I used to be one of those, but after much consideration and research, I finally figured out that we were only fooling ourselves. That repressive spirit is written in the writings of Baha'u'llah, his son 'Abdu'l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi, 'Abdu'l-Baha's grandson and successor. Let's face it, the exclusion of women from the UHJ and the condemnation of homosexuality are in the sacred scriptures of the Baha'i Faith.
The progressive social agenda is just a facade over something much darker; there is in the writings of Baha'u'llah an advocacy of blind obedience, and a condemnation of things that we as Americans hold as basic truths. Quite frankly, looking at the writings of Baha'u'llah and comparing them to the writings of both 'Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi and reading some Baha'i history, it becomes evident that starting with 'Abdu'l-Baha's ministry there was a concerted effort to woo Europeans and Americans, especially Americans. Much of the darker side of Baha'u'llah's writings was glossed over or explained away, or subjected to the more soothing writings of 'Abdu'l Baha. And after 'Abdu'l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi ramped up the westernization of the Baha'i Faith.
But despite the concerted efforts to make Baha'u'llah more palatable to western tastes, no Baha'i official has ever disassociated the religion from Baha'u'llah's anti-democratic, almost cultic utterances, and in fact in recent years have brought them out of the dark to try to enforce a conformity only vaguely hinted at before. For instance, this passage which I tried to pass over and ignore for 32 years:
"Consider the pettiness of men's minds. They ask for that which injureth them, and cast away the thing that profiteth them. They are, indeed, of those that are far astray. We find some men desiring liberty, and priding themselves therein. Such men are in the depths of ignorance.
"Liberty must, in the end, lead to sedition, whose flames none can quench. Thus warneth you He Who is the Reckoner, the All-Knowing. Know ye that the embodiment of liberty and its symbol is the animal. That which beseemeth man is submission unto such restraints as will protect him from his own ignorance, and guard him against the harm of the mischief-maker. Liberty causeth man to overstep the bounds of propriety, and to infringe on the dignity of his station. It debaseth him to the level of extreme depravity and wickedness.
"Regard men as a flock of sheep that need a shepherd for their protection. This, verily, is the truth, the certain truth. We approve of liberty in certain circumstances, and refuse to sanction it in others. We, verily, are the All-Knowing.
"Say: True liberty consisteth in man's submission unto My commandments, little as ye know it. Were men to observe that which We have sent down unto them from the Heaven of Revelation, they would, of a certainty, attain unto perfect liberty. Happy is the man that hath apprehended the Purpose of God in whatever He hath revealed from the Heaven of His Will, that pervadeth all created things. Say: The liberty that profiteth you is to be found nowhere except in complete servitude unto God, the Eternal Truth. Whoso hath tasted of its sweetness will refuse to barter it for all the dominion of earth and heaven."
- Gleanings from the Writing of Baha'u'llah, p. 335 - 336
And these others are equally disturbing:
"Mankind in its entirety must firmly adhere to whatsoever hath been revealed and vouchsafed unto it. Then and only then will it attain unto true liberty."
- Gleanings, p. 96
"It is incumbent upon them who are in authority to exercise moderation in all things. Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence. Consider for instance such things as liberty, civilization and the like. However much men of understanding may favorably regard them, they will, if carried to excess, exercise a pernicious influence upon men."
- Gleanings, p. 216 [Note: This one always bothered me a lot; how can civilization be considered excessive?]
In 1992 the Universal House of Justice published the definitive translation (Baha'u'llah wrote in Arabic and Farsi) of the Kitab-i-Aqdas (literally the Most Holy Book), Baha'u'llah's book of laws. There had been other translations by non-Baha'i scholars, but the official Baha'i version had to have a lot of footnotes, attached documents, and addenda. Why? Because the laws themselves are labyrinthine (e.g. the laws of inheritance and marriage), ridiculous (exhortations to clip toenails, change your furniture every 19 years, men to neither shave their heads nor grow their hair long), or downright barbaric (the punishment for arson is for the arsonist himself to be burnt to death). The extraneous additions are all later writings meant to try to make sense out of all of it and to try to make the more barbaric punishments more humane. But the bald fact remains that Baha'u'llah wrote those things in the first place and no amount of backpedaling or fancy footwork can change that fact.
But aside from a canon of laws , it also contains some pretty disturbing statements regarding the individual's freedom of conscience:
"Everything that is hath come to be through His irresistible decree. Whenever My laws appear like the sun in the heaven of Mine utterance, they must be faithfully obeyed by all, though My decree be such as to cause the heaven of every religion to be cleft asunder. He doeth what He pleaseth. He chooseth, and none may question His choice."
- Kitab-i-Aqdas, verse 7
"Beware lest, through compassion, ye neglect to carry out the statutes of the religion of God; do that which hath been bidden you by Him Who is compassionate and merciful. We school you with the rod of wisdom and laws, like unto the father who educateth his son, and this for naught but the protection of your own selves and the elevation of your stations. By My life, were ye to discover what We have desired for you in revealing Our holy laws, ye would offer up your very souls for this sacred, this mighty, and most exalted Faith."
- Kitáb-i-Aqdas, verse 45
One of the more common phrases in Baha'u'llah's writings is "He doeth what He willeth"; that God is supreme and will do whatever he wants and we mere humans have no option but to obey. The following is probably the epitome of that attitude:
"O thou who hast fixed thy gaze upon the Dawning-Place of the Cause of God! Know thou for a certainty that the Will of God is not limited by the standards of the people, and God doth not tread in their ways. Rather is it incumbent upon everyone to firmly adhere to God's straight Path. Were He to pronounce the right to be the left or the south to be the north, He speaketh the truth and there is no doubt of it. Verily He is to be praised in His acts and to be obeyed in His behests. He hath no associate in His judgement nor any helper in His sovereignty. He doeth whatsoever He willeth and ordaineth whatsoever He pleaseth."
- Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 109 - 110
After many years of trying to convince myself that I wasn't a total sucker, I finally gave up and sent my letter of resignation to the NSA. And when some of my good friends who are still bent on reformation ask me why I gave up, I show them these passages (which I know they're familiar with) and say, "The current ruling regime hasn't strayed from the original purity; Baha'u'llah hard-wired religious despotism into his writings from the very beginning. Sorry, but I can't follow a god who thinks I need to be treated like a mindless sheep."
I have nothing against Baha'is themselves; I still have a lot of friends in the American Baha'i community (although a lot of people dropped me like a hot potato after I unenrolled myself). And if they want to keep on believing that Baha'u'llah is the messenger of god for modern times, and that his religion will usher in the golden age of humanity, then more power to them. I think they're deluded, but that's their issue, not mine.
As I say to my reform-minded friends, we only fool ourselves. And I finally decided I couldn't do that any more.
But having left the Baha'i community, I wasn't entirely without spiritual belief or resources. In the course of my life I've been an avid student of the world's religions, faiths, myths, folk tales, etc. My personal library has all sorts of religious scriptures and books about religion, and covers everything from Native American beliefs and practices to Walter R. Martin's Kingdom of the Cults. There's even more on the hard drive of this computer, everything from the Zoroastrian Avesta to Guru Nanak's writings. And of course I'm addicted the the Internet Sacred Texts Archive, and every time they update their DVD-ROM to include everything they've added to the website, I pony up. So I'm well-read in the texts of the world's spiritual beliefs.
When I first left the Baha'i Faith to strike out on my own, I mostly hung out with neo-Pagans because the idea that all creation, including ourselves, is sacred appeals to me. Even now I celebrate the turning of the Wheel of the Year, and especially love Samhain and Yule, the central celebrations of the Autumn/Winter half of the year. And I have my personal altar with candles and incense and the requisite representations of the four elements - Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. But on that altar I also have: a homemade Lakota-style prayer stick; a Tibetan singing bowl; a Laughing Buddha figurine; a Ganesha figurine; seashells of all kinds; a bouquet of different kinds of bird feathers; and other things of that nature. I cover some pretty diverse territory on my altar. Why? Because it all represents the sacredness of everything to me.
Part of what I discovered in my post-Baha'i studies was Matthew Fox's Creation Spirituality, which, like my own and Pagan beliefs, centers on all creation being sacred. And one of the things Fox points out about the multitude and diversity of religious belief in this world is that we all try to define the divine by what we know, how we were brought up, where we live, etc. In his book One River, Many Wells he compared the world's religions to the five blind men of the Hindu story, who could only describe the elephant standing in front of them by the part that they had each grabbed: a leg, the trunk, the tail, an ear...
Now, I've always been a big fan of the Tao Te Ching, and one day while reading it, the first two verses all of a sudden said something to me:
The way that can be described is not the eternal Way.There it is! If you put a label on something, if you try to name or define it, you take away its sacredness. Do you know how freeing that discovery is? The Bible, the Tao Te Ching, the Qur'an, Rumí's poetry, Matthew Fox's works, the lectures of Rinzai Gigeng, the Dhammapada, the Vedas, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan - it's all true, it's all part of the eternal jigsaw puzzle that is our understanding of the cosmos. But...
The name that can be spoken is not the eternal Name.
Nobody's standing over me claiming any of this as a definitive revelation. It doesn't try to enforce any rules or modes of thinking on me. I don’t join an organization to do it, and I don’t give it a name. I walk the Way without trying to describe it or name it. In that I’m a free man, much more free than anybody sitting in a building reciting words written by somebody else and praying to a god created out of their own finite, constricted imaginations (while I’m out wandering in the woods and the salt marshes saying good morning to the birds).
And that freedom is such a divine gift!
© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger
Note: The photo of me at the top was taken by my friend Elizabeth Evans - better known to friends, family, and everybody on Gather.com as Bob (her father wanted a boy and didn't get one) - on a trip to photograph seals on the rocks off Sakonnet Point on February 21, 2008.