Friday, April 9, 2010


I received an e-mail the other day with a very amusing story in it. My friend told me that some Mormons regularly come over to her place, and one day the Faith came up. One of them said, "Oh, Baha'is. They're those guys that believe everything." To which she responded, "Yes, and you're in that church where the men have all those wives. How many are you planning on?" After they stopped choking, she was able to talk to them about the idea of progressive revelation, and how important it is to not make blanket assumptions like that.

I smiled upon reading that story, but as you can tell, it got me thinking. Hmm. It occurs to me that you probably get the sense that a lot of things get me thinking. I suspect you're correct.

But thinking, it did get me to do, and I began to really wonder about this concept of perceptions, and how we are affected by them. On a whim, I decided to ask a few friends how they perceived the Baha'i Faith, and their answers came as a bit of a surprise.

To start, I have to say that there was very little in their answers that was about the Faith itself, and a lot more about us Baha'is as people. Aside from that slight skew in the responses, the answers were actually fairly consistent. They do, however, show that many people, as far as I can tell, connect with people rather than with abstract ideas, and this presents its own bounties and challenges. It means that we are the first line of contact that people have with the Faith. The impression they have of us will, to a great extent, determine how far they may be willing to investigate. This can be good, but it can also prove to be a challenge to later connect them to the Writings of Baha'u'llah, which, as we know, is essential.

So, what were their impressions? Although, as you would expect, there was some diversity, four things stood out as being fairly consistent.

First, we are viewed as peaceful, loving and resolvers of conflict. Not bad. I kind of like that image. It's kind of that image given when the Faith first appeared in The Simpsons. ("Look out! It's a gentle Baha'i.") Oh, and see, there's a fun effect a Baha'i had on a college roommate. (What, did you think Matt Groening found out about the Faith in a vaccuum?)

Second, we are seen as being trustworthy and dependable. Again, a nice image to have, and one that we all work hard to maintain. So, good job everybody.

Third, we are seen as pushy, single-minded and wanting to convert others. Hmm. Not what I was hoping for, but not completely unexpected. I'll go into that a bit more in a moment.

Finally, some of us are seen as only wanting to help Baha'is. OK, now that's just not a good image to have.

I'm not sure which is worse, the third or the fourth observation. But these are fairly common observations, and I think we all need to be aware of them, for if we aren't, how can we address them?

In looking at the third point, the fact of the matter is that we are passionate about our Faith. We really do tend to link all aspects of our life to it, and we are even being trained to do that more effectively and naturally through the Ruhi curriculum, especially Book 2 with the "elevated conversations".

Is there anything wrong with this? Probably not. After all, how many people regularly talk about their passion? Don't new parents talk about their child? Doesn't a baseball fan talk a lot about baseball?

I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with speaking about your interest, but we do need to see it from the perspective of those that don't share our passion. To them, it probably does seem a bit much.

So what do we do about it? Diversify. Have other interests. Myself, I like movies and books, gardening and cooking, artwork and storytelling. Chances are that with these various interests, I'll probably find something in common with the person I am talking to. As we are talking about gardening, I might introduce the concept of unity and diversity. Cooking? I'll speak of my love of other cultures.

I'm sure you see how each of these can easily be connected to the Faith, if there is interest on the part of the other person.

This point reminds me of a quote from the Guardian, in which he said, "It is just as important for the Baha'i young boys and girls to become properly educated in colleges of high standing as it is to be spiritually educated." Just as important. Interesting point, and one I like to ponder.

But going back to the idea that we appear to be pushy and intent on conversion, I believe that the pushiness is from our desire to always talk about the Faith. Quite often, in our zealousness to bring it up, many of us do so in an unnatural manner. Perhaps that is why so much emphasis is laid on the naturalness of conversations in Ruhi Book 2, third unit. They don't ask which conversations can be connected to the Faith, for like all Faiths, everything can connect to it, but which we do so in a natural manner.

No, I think the idea is to be aware of the spiritual in everything, and gently raise it as we can, not to force it in people's faces. That's just rude.

As for being seen as wanting to convert others, this is probably just our love for people combined with our love for the Faith. There are, however, a few rare cases in which a few of the friends (very few to be sure), really do seem to think that everyone needs to be Baha'i, and that it is their job to make them so. And just in case you think I'm exagerating, this is actually what someone once told me. On the other hand, though, there are a few others who feel that they don't need to teach, as every religion is from God.

To overcome this stigma of insisting on conversion, or the problem of the immobility of not teaching, I think we need to look at the Universal House of Justice.

In a letter to an individual (that would be me), dated 23 November 2005, they wrote the following:

"In attempting to resolve the apparent conflict between teaching the Faith and the Bahá’í principle that acknowledges the divine origin of all religions, it is essential to avoid a superficial dichotomy between exclusiveness and a form of religious relativism that are both irreconcilable with the Bahá’í teachings..."

"Bahá’ís have the obligation to teach the Faith with the aim of assisting receptive souls to embrace the Cause, but the nature of the response is ultimately between the hearer and the Almighty..."

"Upon learning about Bahá’u’lláh, an individual may accept the Cause, reject it, wish to investigate further or simply participate in Bahá’í activities. It is for God to judge the sincerity of every soul, not for a Bahá’í. To those who are receptive, the teacher responds according to their capacity. Yet, Bahá’ís are enjoined to love all, whether friend or foe, fellow believer or stranger, and to consort with the followers of all religions with friendliness and fellowship. Unhesitatingly recognizing the divine Source of all the great religions, Bahá’ís are happy to engage in dialogue or common endeavour with other religious communities to contribute to the betterment of the world..."
To repeat, they said that we "should neither impose the teachings nor be heedless of opportunities which arise..." This is the balance I believe we need to achieve.

One last thought on this point: a friend of mine used to tell people very early in talking about the Faith that Baha'u'llah was the return of Christ. As you can imagine, they would freak out upon hearing this. I asked him if this was his desired result, and he said "Of course not." "Then why do say that to people?" I think too often we get into this habit of using a particular method or phrase without actually reflecting on the outcome. When we do that, we are no longer teaching people, for they, as individuals, no longer matter. The script has become the important thing. And that is not a good place to be.

I truly believe that when we treat people as the individuals that they are, respond to their responses, engage them in their interests, and seize the opportunities as they come, this third observation will change for the better.

Finally, there is the mistaken idea that we only help other Baha'is. As we know, this is just not the case. It is not the example that was set by the Master, nor is it our intention. And yet I have heard people say that they became Baha'i only to get help, so where does this notion come from?

As you can imagine, I'm really not sure, but I think it might arise from the thought that we are a charity.

We do charitable works, and work towards the betterment of humanity, fully engaging in social and economic devleopment projects, but I don't think that is the same as what most people think of as a charity. It is also probably right at the root of the reason why we are told not to mix the teaching work with the SED projects. That is when people enrol for the wrong reasons, and get hurt.

I'm not sure what solution to offer, except to say that we should be aware of this. I know most of you are, but as it caught me off guard, I figured I had to mention it here.

In general, though, most people seem to have a verry favourable impression of the Faith, and that just makes our work a lot easier. So, as one of the people benefiting from this overall impression, thank you. If it wasn't for your efforts, my own work trying to help teach the Faith would be a lot more difficult.

Overall, I think we're doing pretty good. We are still not that community of the future, who will exemplify the teachings of Baha'u'llah a hundred times better than we do, but I think we're well on our way.

To close, here's another helpful tip from yours truly: When sauteeing onions, add just a dash of cocoa and cinnamon. They go amazingly well in chili or hashbrowns.


  1. Thank you so much for your reflections on something so vital to all Baha'is. Could you be a bit more specific as to where you found the quote of the Universal House of Justice? Many thanks.

  2. Thank you James, for your kind comment. As to the letter from the Universal House of Justice, I found it in my inbox way back on 23 November 2005, sent in reply to a question I had asked them earlier in the year.

    It occurs to me that I can write another article outlining the reason for my question, the question itself, and then include the letter. I'll try to do that next week.