Q & R: What about Bahai?
Here's the Q:
In anticipation of your presentation [later this year], I've read "A New Kind of Christianity". I really liked it a lot! However, I came to this topic from an unusual perspective, i.e., I'm a member of the Baha'i Faith (The newest member, we think, of the Abrahamic family.) In particular, the lovely eschatology you describe in The Future Question can be deduced from our Sacred Writings (of The Bab, Baha'u'llah and Abdul'-Baha). So, while we are vanishingly small in global membership (about 6M) at this time, we are confident that God's flow of grace will transform all humankind and our planetary home into a place of peace, prosperity, beauty, and Global Unity.
I look forward to your presentation. I hope you enjoy your visit to [our area]. Since you will probably have your hands full talking to the 250+ professional clergy, I doubt that I'll be able to tell you more about the Faith. (We have a significant presence on the WEB: www.bahai.us)
Here's the R:
Thanks for your note. I've been distantly acquainted with the Baha'i Faith since I was in high school and college and had some Baha'i friends. More recently, I've been inspired by the courage of Bahai leaders in Iran who have courageously stood up to religious persecution (and I've been broken-hearted to see how that persecution continues). Since my new book came out - Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? - I've heard from quite a few Bahai folks with encouraging words. So it's great to hear from you.
My understanding is that Baha'i arose in 19th Century Persia to address constructively the problem of hostile religious identity. That problem was largely unacknowledged in the rest of the world, which was still in the grip of colonial-era cultural and religious supremacy. Baha'ullah was, in that sense, profoundly "ahead of his time" - and now the rest of the world is finally catching up. In that sense, the relatively small size of the Bahai movement is not an indicator of lack of relevance or importance at all.
Today, I think people are responding to the problem of hostile religious identity in one of four ways:
1. By becoming secular or nonreligious as a way of avoiding hostile religious identity.
2. By joining religious communities - like Bahai - that have from the start highlighted the formation of benevolent religious identity.
3. By seeking to reform and renew their existing religious traditions in the direction of strength and benevolence.
4. By doubling down on religious hostility, often in rivalry with others like them, thus becoming mirrors of one another.
I'm pursuing option 3 as a Christian and you're pursuing option 2. Growing numbers in younger generations are choosing option 1. Our common future depends on all of us providing alternatives that are more attractive and wise than option 4.
I've been reading Ewert H. Cousins' "Christ of the 21st Century" (Continuum, 1998) lately, and it strikes me that the "Second Axial Age" he describes has many similarities to the planetary vision of the Bahai faith - and to my own understanding of Jesus' message of the Kingdom/Commonwealth/Reign/Ecosystem of God. Let me include a lengthy quote from Cousins that I think expresses a perspective that growing numbers of us - Bahai, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, atheist, agnostic - would share:
Since prehistoric times, religion has played a formative role in human society. It shaped the burial customs of primitive tribes and inspired their art on the walls of caves. As nations and empires emerged, religion provided a cosmic vision for social and political institutions. Throughout history, religion has been a wellspring of cultural creativity. Much of the great art of the world ... has been religious in inspiration and function. Religion has preached justice, brotherhood, and universal peace. It has defused hatred, deflected aggression, and humanized society, disciplining conduct and evoking noble actions through lofty ideals. Yet religion has a dark side. It has launched wars and persecutions, has justified slavery, discrimination, and oppression, and has blocked the advance of knowledge. It has been used, both consciously and unconsciously, as a tool for social, political, and economic exploitation. Throughout its long history, religion has revealed its paradoxical nature. At its best, it is a most creative force in a culture; at its worst, it can be distorted to destroy the very ideals it espouses. (p. 1)
Thanks again for writing. I look forward to meeting you later this year.