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During the summer of my junior year in high school, I became introduced to the notion that there might be a world vision that challenged the one I presently had, which was not one I had spent much time examining. It was certainly not hard wired in my brain or gut.
I had been raised in the Methodist church, but the Methodist church, or at least the one I attended, did not confront me with or insist that I advocate some encompassing illogical or mindless dogma, at least none that bowled me over with its fanaticism or absurdity. I had since childhood felt closeness to the world of the spirit, to God, and especially to Christ, who for me was an approachable spiritual presence with whom I could converse freely and from whom I felt comfort and companionship as I thought about his sane and simple advice and examples of right conduct. At night I would mull over his life in the New Testament and commune with his spirit.
After my puerile and needless rebellion against parents, society, and sanity around age fourteen, I made a conscious effort to reform my behavior. The stupidity of my conduct and those with whom I associated was laid bare before me in such a way that I never again needed to question the basic wisdom of not being a total idiot. Within a few years, I began to conduct myself accordingly, wearing decent clothes, following the rules, and studying.
At sixteen I was elected as president of the youth department at the church where we arranged to have discussions about such subjects as whether or not a Nazi might be forgiven if he sincerely believed that he was doing the right thing. We also got into more complex theological and doctrinal matters about the station of Christ—whether the Nicene Creed was to be taken literally or not. Was Christ indeed very God of very God—one and the same essence?
It was about this same time I discovered that my brother, then a pre-ministerial student at Vanderbilt who had been planning to attend Yale Divinity School, was studying the Baha’i Faith, a religion which, he informed me, asserts that everything Christ said is true and accurate, that Christ was indeed the Messiah, but that there was a more encompassing plan of God that included everything before Christ and everything since.
This “plan” he described as the Baha’i core belief in progressive revelation, the idea that all the world religions throughout human history are really one religion revealed in progressive and successive stages. I discovered that this religion also confirmed the beliefs I already held—that the essential reality of the human being is the human soul, a spiritual or metaphysical reality, and that the soul continues to exist perpetually after the body’s demise.
There was much more, and bit by bit, little by little, I extracted from him the various parts of this belief that I wished to know. He was careful not to explain more than I asked and, still in the process of investigating it for himself, he was likewise vigilant about not imposing these concepts on me. But the logical foundation of this belief system so attracted me that it quickly became my Ockham’s razor, my touchstone, my mizán or balance with which I weighed all other theories of God and religion and human history, which, according to Baha’i belief, organizes itself through the advent of the successive prophets of God:
Among the bounties of God is revelation. Hence revelation is progressive and continuous. It never ceases. It is necessary that the reality of Divinity with all its perfections and attributes should become resplendent in the human world. The reality of Divinity is like an endless ocean. Revelation may be likened to the rain. Can you imagine the cessation of rain? Ever on the face of the earth somewhere rain is pouring down. Briefly, the world of existence is progressive. It is subject to development and growth…
This has been the case also with the religious teachings so long set forth in the temples and churches, because they were not based upon the fundamental principles of the religions of God. In other words, the foundation of the divine religions had become obscured and nonessentials of form and ceremony were adhered to — that is, the kernel of religion had apparently disappeared, and only the shell remained. Consequently, it was necessary that the fundamental basis of all religious teaching should be restored, that the Sun of Reality which had set should rise again, that the springtime which had refreshed the arena of life in ages gone by should appear anew, that the rain which had ceased should descend, that the breezes which had become stilled should blow once more. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 377-378.
This seed of an idea that had been planted in my brain begin gradually to germinate. At first I was barely aware of it, but over time it seemed to appear at every turn. Gradually, I became more seriously challenged by answers it offered to the questions I had long since given up trying to resolve, questions that my Methodist ministers would allude to as “mysteries” of Christ and Christian belief. They would portray these mysterious facets of belief as something to be cherished to be marveled at, but not to be understood logically, not to be resolved.
Whereas I considered mysteries to be puzzles asking to be solved. Indeed, I had already arrived at the inescapable conclusion that God was certainly more logical and intelligent than the professional clergy whose very income depended on perpetrating this veil of inscrutability about religious belief. For me, nothing transcended logic. For me, this capacity to discover how things work—whether my bicycle going up the hill or the gas engine on my model airplane—was among God’s most precious gifts to me.
Next: Jumping off the Train of Mainstream Thinking