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A few days ago, I met a young man who told me he had decided not to join any specific religion because he was “raised in one of them and they just kept saying the same thing over and over.”
He said he recognizes that “all religions have some good in them, and a lot of similarities,” so he has decided to call himself “spiritual but not religious.”
I would have liked to have a conversation with him at the time, but he was my waiter in a restaurant – so no time or opportunity. Maybe I’ll get a chance to share these thoughts with him sometime. It would be wonderful to hear his perspective and see if any of these speculations I’ll make in this essay hit close to the mark.
At the time, I would have liked to share with him the news that the newest major religion on Earth, the Baha’i Faith, is not just one more religion on an already overcrowded menu of religious choices.
The true meaning and mission of the Baha’i Faith can best be understood in relationship to the other religious messengers who have come before it, for example, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad to name a few. According to the Baha’i principle of “progressive revelation,” when these holy souls appear, they bring the Creator’s message for that day, that time, and that place. In doing so, they infuse humankind with spiritual forces that move the consciousness of the whole of humankind to a higher level or plane. This process results, over time, in new ways of thought, new inventions, new societies.
Each of those prophets and messengers, the Baha’i teachings tell us, is linked to each other in a great chain of progressive revelation – which means, in reality, that there is only one religion.
That incredibly wide lens on history, spanning eons before this time and eons after, is like no other perspective, either religious, philosophical, or sectarian. Its implications reach every individual in every sector of the world. It’s almost too big to take in – but the Baha’i teachings ask us to ponder it and evaluate its truth for ourselves. Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Faith, wrote: “The world’s equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order.”
So, my waiter friend was definitely onto something when he said many religions say similar things. Each messenger of God seeks to bring out in humanity the spiritual realities that lie latent within all of us. All of the messengers of God speak of love – to love thy neighbor as thyself, as the Bible says. But each one also brings gifts of knowledge appropriate for the times, and each successive messenger builds on that earlier knowledge with new inspiration and information.
Spiritual But Not Religious?
Now let’s look at his idea of being “spiritual but not religious.” Perhaps he chose that label to avoid religious arguments or conflicts – to avoid the “my religion is better than your religion” interchange. As he said, there is good in all religions, and Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor of Baha’u’llah, agreed. He said:
… religion must be the source of fellowship, the cause of unity and the nearness of God to man. If it rouses hatred and strife, it is evident that absence of religion is preferable and an irreligious man better than one who professes it. According to the divine Will and intention religion should be the cause of love and agreement, a bond to unify all mankind, for it is a message of peace and goodwill to man from God.
If I get that chance to talk with him again, I would want to tell him the exciting news that rather than “saying the same things over and over” many people like him gather together and try to apply the Baha’i teachings to the needs of today – which of course are many and urgent – like world peace, racial justice, equality, the environment, and the like. I would explain that Baha’is explore together, seeking to learn from each other over time – and rather than being a boring, repetitive recitation of old doctrine or ideas, these conversations create dynamic consultations that seek to discover ever new ways to make progress on the world’s greatest needs today. As Baha’u’llah said, “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”
How Do Baha’is Propose to Build a New Global Civilization?
If my new friend wants to know how Baha’is go about doing all that, it would be fun for me to explain what “social action” and “participation in public discourse” is from a Baha’i perspective. There is a lot to it, but to summarize, those Baha’i practices bring the exploration of any topic to the level of principle. Hidden assumptions are explored, frameworks illuminated, and deep listening, empathizing, and refraining from judgment and criticism absolutely essential.
In all these conversations, in settings ranging from the UN to one’s living room, Baha’is avoid anger, rancor, conflict, etc. Differing opinions may clash, but within an atmosphere of mutual respect that seeks at all times to find points of similarity, connection, and agreement.
That is very different from the political arena where the loudest, meanest voice often wins. Baha’is do not participate in partisan politics at all, because the underlying assumption that “fighting it out” leads to solutions is contrary to Baha’i principles – and doesn’t work.
If I do get another chance to talk to this person who made such an intelligent impression on me while tallying up my restaurant bill, I would first assume what Baha’is call a “humble posture of learning,” necessary for any meaningful conversation. I would not try to “convince him” of the things I am saying here. I would listen, fascinated to learn his thinking behind those brief sentences that have so affected me. I would want him to know that even though I am excited to share news of the Baha’i Faith, that must not be confused with proselytizing or “pushing it on him.” Heaven forbid.
A key belief of the Baha’i Faith is that everyone, each individual, must investigate reality for themselves. No one should tell another what to think or believe. No one should feel they “have all the answers.” As Abdu’l-Baha said “… truth or reality must be investigated; for reality is one, and by investigating it all will find love and unity.”
It’s a bit tricky, isn’t it, to speak of religion in today’s society, and not fall into the many pitfalls and clichés that make this topic one to avoid in polite company. Hopefully, if I do get to speak with him, he won’t prejudge my outreach as fanatism or misconstrue my excitement as a sales pitch. Is there a way to say I held his seemingly casual remarks in my heart, feeling in them both sincerity and an unresolved tension?
I think I’ll pray about it. My meeting with him was a chance encounter, but on the spiritual plane, I know at some level we are all connected, so I’ll pray using this Hidden Word revealed by Baha’u’llah:
O Son of Man! Veiled in My immemorial being and in the ancient eternity of My essence, I knew My love for thee; therefore I created thee, have engraved on thee Mine image and revealed to thee My beauty.