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The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.
How do I become Baha’i?

Striving to Truly Understand Religion

Maya Bohnhoff | Jul 9, 2016

PART 11 IN SERIES Terms of Faith

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Maya Bohnhoff | Jul 9, 2016

PART 11 IN SERIES Terms of Faith

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

The whole duty of man in this Day is to attain that share of the flood of grace which God poureth forth for him. Let none, therefore, consider the largeness or smallness of the receptacle. The portion of some might lie in the palm of a man’s hand, the portion of others might fill a cup, and of others even a gallon-measure. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 8.

An aspiring writer once asked me how he might write about religion “safely.” He had collected an array of anecdotes and stories from his business dealings, but worried that if he fictionalized them, he’d be accused of mocking someone’s beliefs.

This is a good thing to worry about, because treating other people with respect and kindness isn’t mere “political correctness,” it’s a recognition of our common humanity. Simply mocking someone’s beliefs accomplishes nothing good; while striving to understand their beliefs can accomplish miracles.

In my fiction, I don’t write about religion in a way that has the narrator saying “This belief is good; this belief is bad.” I write as if the characters believe things are right or wrong, but I try very hard not to manipulate my “antagonistic” characters so that they spout straw arguments—a practice that leads to the insupportable: “He’s evil because he’s evil.”

Even the character I’ve set up as a foil for my protagonist believes his viewpoint to be valid and correct. When my editor complained that I’d failed to signal that she was supposed to distrust the ”villain” in one of my fantasies, I took it as compliment. She’d liked him, she told me. She’d really, really liked him, and it was hard when she began to realize he had a nasty (but perfectly reasonable) agenda. That was the way I meant it to work, because real people are like that.

In real life, I also try to consider the “opposing” viewpoint, even though I may be secure in my own. This becomes easier with practice and with the understanding that you don’t have to agree with someone’s point of view to understand why they hold it, and what experiences and forces in their lives led them to it. Often our attitudes and assumptions about life become habitual—the circumstances and forces that spawned them are gone, have changed, or were never what we thought they were in the first place, but we still hold those old attitudes.

That white blob in your closet when you were five looked like something from the set of Supernatural, but it was really just the white lab coat from your mad scientist Halloween costume. You may know this when the lights are on, but when they go off, it becomes a monster all the same. The missing piece of information or reason, in this case, is that the absence of light does not change the object in your closet. If you can internalize that knowledge, the monster will disappear. No child is convinced to open their closet door by being mocked for believing in that monster. But they might open it once they understand the physics of light and darkness.

God has created man and endowed him with the power of reason whereby he may arrive at valid conclusions. Therefore, man must endeavor in all things to investigate the fundamental reality. If he does not independently investigate, he has failed to utilize the talent God has bestowed upon him. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 313.

One of my favorite essays on faith and reason is William S. Hatcher’s “The Science of Religion.” In it, he proposes a natural understanding of why we believe what we believe:

It would be a mistake to say that we hold such a statement to be true because of reason, or because of intuition, or because of experience. In the final analysis, we hold something as true only because of everything else which we accept as true, that is, because this something is consistent with our experience and understanding of life as a whole. – p. 12.

Obviously, as Hatcher notes later in his book, “the quality of faith is directly proportional to the validity of the assumptions… on which faith is based.” This is inarguably true, and it is why we have such diverse understandings of reality. The experiences that inform our reasoning are different, and in addition, we have different levels of education in the application of logic, and different levels of awareness about what’s going on inside and around us.

So, what does this suggest for the ways in which we communicate about our dearly held beliefs and the dearly held beliefs of others? It suggests to me that, as Baha’u’llah said:

One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 173.

I will admit that this has not always been easy for me. I have an arsenal of very pointy words at my disposal, and I have not always been moderate in their use. Snark comes as naturally to me as breathing. But even as a child I understood the superior value and efficacy of applying the Golden Rule in word as well as in deed.

The Baha’i teachings encourage us to apply our words with wisdom—a wisdom that begins with knowledge about the subject on which we converse. You’ll notice, if you pay attention, that those with the most knowledge often speak and write in the kindest ways.

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  • Michael L. Ward
    Aug 29, 2016
    Maya, well done! Encore!
  • Aug 9, 2016
    Beautiful article. I loved the selection of quotes and how the thoughts were tied together. Thanks.
  • Steve Eaton
    Jul 10, 2016
    You really got to the bottom of some principles here, Maya!! I liked your realistically complicated "villain" treatment; I am assuming you later
    showed the unpleasant fruits of his nasty plan.....if so, maybe your readers will look more carefully at
    people and ideas, to judge better
    their character and implications.
    I also agree there are just so many causes for somebody's orientation and attitudes, even simple inertia.
    Trying not to be subjective is like
    trying to levitate by pulling up our
    socks, but religious scriptures can
    pull us out of those influences, toward pure truth.
    • Aug 29, 2016
      I did, indeed, show how his agenda could have no truly positive outcome. In fact, what he was considering doing was going to destroy what he wanted to preserve. To some degree the situation was like what people with dogmatic certitude—religious and not—do when they are terrified at the prospect of losing something they hold dear: a way of life, a belief system, power, substance, identity, etc. They may abandon the spiritual principles that are at the heart of their avowed beliefs even as they try to protect the outward structure. They believe they are trying to protect the faith, ...but are really trying to protect their limited perception of what it is. In my novel, the antagonist was trying to save the institutions of his faith by sacrificing the lives of those best-suited to protect its essence.
      The book is THE SPIRIT GATE, by the way.
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