I know you remember this: a teacher asks a question in school, and you answer—but it’s not the exact answer the teacher wants. Frustration!
We’ve all had that experience, when a teacher seems to be looking for a particular answer to a question, and all the students have an answer, and all their answers seem plausible or even potentially right, but the teacher keeps saying “No, that’s not the answer I’m looking for.”
That’s the way I felt when my wife Teresa and I, both Baha’is, had a fascinating conversation about religion with our friends Don and Peggy. Don, a veteran student of theology and a Methodist minister for 40 years; and Peggy, a deep thinker who attends Quaker services, had joined our Valentine’s Day dinner, and Don, who had recently preached as a guest pastor at a Unitarian Universalist church, asked “What’s the difference between Unitarians and Baha’is?”
Now our friend Don has a cheerful demeanor, laughs readily and enjoys a good joke—so I wasn’t entirely sure he didn’t have a punchline ready for his riddle. But we had seriously discussed his question for a while, so I suspected he must have a serious answer in mind. So I cogitated for a while, and I came up with an answer I thought might work:
“The Unitarians come out of a Christian history, and so they focus mainly on the Western, Abrahamic tradition—Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” I said. “The Baha’is accept and honor that tradition, too, but also recognize, accept and honor the Eastern traditions of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism.”
Nope, sounded good, but that wasn’t the answer Don was looking for. In my head, I heard that “Wrong!!” buzzer sound that you hear on Jeopardy. Finally, the rest of us at our Valentine’s Day dinner asked him: “OK, we give up, tell us, what’s the difference between Unitarians and Baha’is?”
“God,” Don said.
Suddenly I knew he was right. I immediately remembered a Unitarian friend of mine, who years ago described his Sunday UU meetings as “church for non-believers.” At the time his description struck me as hilariously funny and even truly ironic—after all, why would you go to church if you didn’t believe in God? My friend went faithfully, though, every Sunday. I could never quite figure it out.
“Nowhere in the Unitarian literature or sermons or even in most of their hymns do you see the word ‘God,’” Don said. “It’s more of a humanist approach. Apparently, they’ve gradually removed any suggestion of a Creator from their beliefs. But the Baha’is have a very prominent belief in God. I love that.”
Don told us about his recent experience addressing a sermon to a Unitarian Universalist congregation, and about the wonderful fellowship and joy he had experienced. The Unitarians, he said, had loving hearts and a very active social conscience, with a tremendous dedication to doing good for society. But he said “You know what? I missed God there. After all, He’s kind of important to me.”
The next time I went by the UU church in our town, I stopped to pick up some literature. Sure enough, Don was right—I couldn’t find any mention of God. Even in the basic pamphlet about UU beliefs, God was conspicuously absent and unmentioned. Hmmm.
That led me to begin some serious meditation and thinking about the Baha’i relationship to the Author of Creation.
We don’t talk much about God in our Western cultures, I realized. I’ll tell you a story that illustrates my point: years ago, when our daughter had just graduated from college, she spent a summer living at home and commuting by bus to an evening teaching job. That meant she rode the bus in Los Angeles late at night, sometimes not until around midnight. Like parents will, we worried about her safety—a young woman in the wilds of L.A.—but she assured us she had a foolproof method of dealing with any potentially over-enthusiastic, excessively hormonal males.
She said: “If a guy sits next to me on the bus and makes his move, either verbally or physically, I just start talking very rapidly and loudly about God or marriage. They always change seats—fast.”
We laughed pretty hard about her creative technique for avoiding any unwanted advances, but it always worked well for her, she said. Perhaps, I thought, that’s because talking about God in a culture that doesn’t really believe in a Supreme Being can brand you as, well, a little crazy or fanatical. In some parts of North America or Europe, you’d be considered deranged, mentally ill or deficient in some way if you talked about God in public.
So it makes sense that we would create entire churches that don’t mention God, doesn’t it? Just as we have created our societies in an almost entirely secular fashion, we’ve gradually moved our Creator into a secondary or even non-existent role in our lives. Sure, people still go to temple or church or the mosque, but how many of those people actually contemplate and try to follow the Great Mystery every day? How many of them actually live their lives based on the teachings of God?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, since no way exists to quantify them, but I do know that we’ve increasingly relegated the whole concept of a Supreme Being to the back of the bus.
In the Baha’i Faith, though, God is primary:
With fixed and steady gaze, born of the unerring eye of God, scan for a while the horizon of divine knowledge, and contemplate those words of perfection which the Eternal hath revealed, that haply the mysteries of divine wisdom, hidden ere now beneath the veil of glory and treasured within the tabernacle of His grace, may be made manifest unto you. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, pp. 16-17.
… the existence of God … is beyond the comprehension of man. He, the invisible, the lofty and the incomprehensible, is preceded by no cause but rather is the Originator of the cause of causes. He, the Ancient, hath had no beginning and is the all-independent. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 60.