The assertion “I’m not really religious, but I’m spiritual” generally serves its purpose. My devout Christian friends are silenced, and the rest of the religious conversationalists generally nod their heads in agreement. “Yeah, me too,” several agree. “I’m spiritual, just not religious.” Some might add that they don’t believe in the middle-man to God, others pipe in that their parents weren’t religious either. But propped up in church on Easter Sunday, my mind kept drifting to this meaningless response. Spiritual? Are we so sure? Religion seems to be a taboo subject in my Princeton life; I study amongst intellectuals and critical thinkers who shake their cynical heads at ideas based in faith alone.
Back in Richmond for fall break, I tried to pawn off this spiritual thing in a similar conversation with my best friend. With a Jewish father and a Presbyterian mother, Ben saw religion as a way to twice as many presents in December. So when I found out that he was in the middle of a quest for religious truth, I laughed at him. He said he was now well on his way to becoming a Religion major. I first assumed this meant that he had taken one class on Buddhism and would spit up his professor’s lessons about the path to awakening. Just like when he told me that everybody must take karate to live a fulfilling life or that hot yoga was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and soon after, quit both. But this time, it was different. He didn’t laugh with me, but quietly restated his mission. He was going to find the truth. I am a politics major, and a critical thinker, and spiritual. So I told him to let me know when he had found it. And that is just what he did. On January 1, 2007, Ben officially converted to the Bahá’í Faith.
Sarah: Explain to me what Bahá’í is. I don’t even know how to spell it.
(He patiently spelled out to me each name that he used throughout the conversation.)
Ben: Bahá’í is a monotheistic faith centered upon the same God that is worshipped by all religions. It’s the same God worshipped by Christians, Muslims, and Jews, but it represents oneness of religion but not simply from a universal or Unitarian sense. Each faith that you see worshipped represents steps on the path to intellectual and spiritual maturity that has now been heralded by the Bahá’í faith.
S: So is Bahá’í the ultimate religion?
B: Well every religion has their own prophesy about the manifestation of God. Christianity has the Messiah for example. Bahá’í is just the fulfillment of all the world’s religions.
S: Where does Bahá’í fall on the religious timeline?
B: Bahá’í is not a new religion but it’s a purification and progression of all the old religions, back to Abraham and Noah. It began in 1844 with the prophet Bab (it means ‘gate’ in Arabic), who was a forerunner of Baha’u’llah, the main prophet of Bahá’í. This also coincided with the first sending of a telegraph. This might seem like a coincidence, but the invention of the telegraph lowered the walls of the global village. The old world of individual peoples is over.
S: I thought Joseph Henry invented the telegraph in 1830.
B: The Bab declared his mission on May 23, 1844, and I’m pretty sure that the first telegraph was sent the next day. You can look it up on Wikipedia.
S: So basically the coming of these prophets coincided with some of the first steps in globalization. But what if globalization hadn’t developed when it did? Would the Bab still have declared his mission?
B: If you look at religion and the coming of different prophets, they’re all followed by a new civilization, a new progression and wave of thought, science, and technology. I mean, the Israeli people essentially developed from Abraham. If you look now at what Baha’u’llah’s claims are, you see a new world order developing in his wake. In all the holy books, you see the ‘end of days,’ or the resurrection, and if you look at the world now, it’s entirely new. Our entire world perspective has been changed. A lot of the problems seen in religion right now are caused by people still living in that old world order.
S: How do you know that Baha’u’llah is legitimate?
B: One of the central tenets in the faith is a quest for understanding. We can’t judge truth by other people. You need to investigate it for yourself and decide whether or not it is true. You look at other Bahá’í’s. Baha’u’llah’s teachings are essentially a medicine for an ailing age. Bahá’í is one faith in God restored and renewed for all mankind. All mankind is essentially family.
S: So you consider Baha’u’llah holy?
Ben: He is holy in that I cannot really understand God without the manifestations of God. I don’t confuse him with God in any sense, he is a servant. Likewise with Christ, he’s not God. He’s like a mirror reflecting the sunlight. When you look at the mirror, you see real sunlight but you do not see the entire sun.
S: Do you try to convert new followers to the faith?
Ben: The point is not conversion. The faith forbids proselytizing. There is a difference between proselytizing and teaching. Say you have a perfume that you really like and you love to wear it and you’ve seen it better other people’s lives because they love to smell it. If you want to tell them about it so that they may have the opportunity to wear it too, then you will be excited and willing to talk about it. You might tell everyone you see about it because it makes you a lot happier. They don’t have to buy it too, or even to like it. But you’re handing them a gift. You offer it on a silver platter and people don’t have to accept it if they don’t want to. But there’s a strong emphasis on teaching. You don’t trick people into believing. That can only hurt the faith.
S: So other than teaching, how has your daily life changed since you’ve joined the faith?
B: One of the central tenets of the faith is work. Work has been raised to the status of worship. So while my main job is to study, I also volunteer at a preschool, and I started an Interfaith Dialogue Club at school. I play music with three other Bahá’í’s, working to give music to the world. I also work within the Bahá’í community, socializing and teaching new followers about the faith.
S: Do you see your fellow students differently now?
B: I see more potential in people, but I also see more confusion. I have found what is ideal for other human beings. As the Bahá’í saying goes, I know I will butcher this, “the human being is a mine rich in gems, only through education may those gems be polished and made beautiful.” But I see people suffering. Look around at problems with alcohol, loose sexuality, and eating disorders.
S: As I seem to recall, you have engaged in some of these sufferers’ actions yourself.
B: Yeah, I have been drinking since 10th grade and my girlfriend and I used to have sex, but now we are waiting until marriage. Before we were searching for meaning, and we used sexuality to do so because we lacked understanding.
S: Do you think that the no-sex rule is better for your relationship?
B: We know it’s better because in a sense, we’re freer now.
S: Do your previous experiences taint your life as a Bahá’í?
B: No. Chastity can be attained at any point in your life. I have gotten hold of my sexual impulses. I have therefore become more chaste as a person. It taints me in the sense that I have certain tendencies in my mind that are seeking to be expressed. This is especially the case in my thoughts about women. I’ve done a lot of stuff in my life, I’ve looked at a lot of porn (laugh); the internal part is the hardest. Repentance means to recognize you’re wrong, to ask for forgiveness, and to restore your actions to the straight path.
S: I read that homosexuality is generally looked down upon by Bahá’ís.
B: I wouldn’t say exactly that it’s looked down upon. Every human searches for meaning in his life. That search is valid. Some people search for meaning based on physical appetites. Everyone has physical tests when it comes to their own sexuality, but these don’t always need to be fulfilled. There is no beneficial use of the sex impulse outside of marriage.
S: So you think sex is for procreation?
B: No, but it’s meant to be expressed only in the institution of marriage. A marriage is the highest relationship between two souls. Any form of sexuality that takes place before this union is not pure. Actually it makes your relationships much better, you’re really able to love people.
S: Wouldn’t some argue that the Bahá’í faith is cop-out?
B: Some consider this a cop-out because you’re getting rid of the differences in religion by making them all one. The Bahá’í faith is not some loose universalism. It’s a fact that religions come from the same source and they find their existence on earth in a progressive nature. The divine truths contained within the progressive revelation of God’s religion are consistent. Religions only differ in their non-essential aspects. Each manifestation brings specific social teachings for the age in which he comes. Just like you would give a 3rd grader different rules than you would give a 5th grader, religious teachings have different social messages for different ages. The major conflicts between the religions are the result of man and not God, and tend to result from literal reading of scripture and the notion of exclusivity and finality.
S: Isn’t there finality attached with this religion?
B: Baha’u’llah says himself that in a 1000 years there will be another manifestation of God.
S: How does he know that it will be 1000 years?
B: He perceives of the divine revelation. Every religious scripture has predicted the coming of another messenger after them.
S: Will your kids be Bahá’ís?
B: No children are officially counted as Bahá’ís until they’re older. I think its age 15. There’s a year period where they are encouraged to study all other faiths, and then they decide on their own whether they officially want to become part of the Bahá’í community. But I will definitely educate my children in the Bahá’í faith.
S: So where does your faith fall among your priorities?
B: My faith is my job. It is the central purpose of my existence.