Teenagers Always Seem to Ask the Very Best Questions!
Updated: Mar 1
December 23, 2021
On October 14, 2021 I spent the day at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, Illinois, on stage (masked, of course!) in an auditorium filled with ninth grade students just finishing up with a social studies unit which introduced them to the world’s religions. To prepare, students were requested to formulate questions which, on this day, were posed to individuals who spoke on behalf of five world religions: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and the Baha’i Faith. I must say, so many of these questions were thoughtful, sincere, and heartfelt – exactly the kinds of questions that adults also have about religion and spirituality but, for whatever reason, may never have gotten around to asking. In this setting I was requested to help students better understand the intellectual and spiritual perspectives of the Baha’i Faith. What follows, here, are the questions posed by these high school freshmen, followed by my best responses. Please understand that, as an individual member of the Faith, I do not possess authority to interpret the Teachings of the Faith for anyone other than myself. In fact, no individual Baha’i possesses such authority. These responses, then, involve my personal understandings of Baha’i perspectives based on my daily spiritual practices of prayer, reflection upon Holy Writings, and my own experience as I seek to apply spiritual truths in the everyday of life… If any of what follows ignites within your heart a desire to know more, please, by all means, we should definitely be in touch! That’s the whole idea, to widen (and widen) the circle of community, as more (and more) of us actively engage in relationships filled with meaning, endow life with possibilities for greater purpose, and uplift the soul.
What religion/faith you practice and your role … I am a member of the Baha’i Faith, the most recent of the world’s independent religions. How recent? Year One of the Baha’i Era began in 1844, and the “Universal House of Justice,” the international governing body of the Faith, was not instituted until 1963. Within the long span of spiritual time, this new Era is just now growing out of its infancy and entering the period of childhood. Members of the Baha’i Faith recognize Baha’u’llah (which, translated from Arabic, means “Glory of God”) as the Manifestation of God for today. The mission of the Faith (or, as Baha’is say, the “Cause of God”) involves nothing less than the unification of all humanity within a single global civilization, one extended human family that will live in material prosperity and spiritual peace. The divine guidance for this worldwide transformation -- from conflict, violence, and division to universal peace and unity -- is now available to all of humankind through the gift of the Baha’i Revelation.
As to my role within the Faith, I am just a member … nothing more. You see, there is no clergy in the Baha’i Faith, and thus, nothing equivalent to rabbis, imams, priests, ministers, gurus, etc. I possess no authority to interpret the Word of God, and neither does any other individual in the world. Today, only the Universal House of Justice has legal authority to interpret the sacred Writings of the Baha’i Faith. This prohibition of individual authority is meant to preserve the unity of the Faith, and, yes, it has! The Baha’i Faith has been in existence for more than 175 years, and, today, there exists no conflict, no divisions, no sects. Baha’is across the world, approaching six million people and established in virtually every country, worship the very same Faith of God.
Have You Practiced this Faith Your Whole Life? Growing Up, Did Your Parents Practice the Same Religion? No. I joined the Baha’i Faith about eight years ago. My parents were both Jewish, and I was raised as a Jew. However, for me, Judaism (and the established religions in general) never seemed all that relevant to my life. I had nothing against religion, really, but religion just did not seem to matter. It was not until I stumbled upon the Faith during a 2013 visit to the Baha’i House of Worship, in Wilmette Illinois, that certain fundamental truths finally began to click for me: The intellectual and spiritual development of my soul can, in fact, serve to ground and center my life, and seeking to live in accord with the realities of spiritual truth can provide the whole of my life with true meaning, purpose, and joy.
What Do You Think About the Other Religions? Do You Respect Each Other? This question simply does not make sense to me as a Baha’i. Why? As we understand it, there is now, and has ever been, one religion in the world -- one religion only, the Faith of God. This makes sense: There is one God, therefore one religion! God has revealed Himself over the long course of history – to guide the progress of humanity -- through certain individuals specifically chosen for this purpose. Those thus chosen are “Manifestations of God.” The Manifestation of God for today is Baha’u’llah, who has come to fulfill the age-old promise of worldwide unity. God’s method is (and has always been) to teach humanity through divine Educators – Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, the Bab, and Baha’u’llah – and Baha’is recognize and honor every one: Each Manifestation of God has helped to set firmly in place the necessary spiritual foundations for humanity to advance, both individually and collectively. Baha’is understand this process of spiritual evolution, through which God has instructed the whole of humanity on how to progress toward the state of global unity, as “Progressive Revelation.”
Have You Ever Been Treated Differently by Others or Experienced Discrimination or Stereotyping Because of Your Religion? I did as a Jew, not as a Baha’i. In Evanston Illinois, where I grew up, Jews for the most part lived in south Evanston, separate from the rest of the community. Knowing where I lived, some in north Evanston or near Lake Michigan –Christians, mostly – excluded me at times from their own groups of friends and activities. This treatment differed from my experience as a Baha’i. Unlike the more insulated culture within which I was raised, Baha’is have been explicitly instructed by God to actively embrace the whole of humanity: “… let your heart burn with loving kindness for all who cross your path.” Baha’is understand that, for there to be progress toward unity, we must begin to view and treat each other based upon the reality that, in truth, all of us belong to one extended human family. In our activities, then, Baha’is consciously seek to include people of all religions, ages, each race, gender, ethnicity, class, nationality, and culture -- within one genuinely integrated community. For example, in our home Mrs. Blecher and I recently hosted a devotional gathering attended by 13 people: three Hispanics, five African Americans, two Native Americans, the rest being of European descent. About half were Baha’is. People at this gathering own homes valued in the millions of dollars, and others in attendance barely get by, month after month, living on food stamps. Maybe half the attendees were women. The ages of those who attended varied from their ‘20s to their ‘70s! Millions of Baha’is (with their friends) throughout the world actively work, within integrated communities, to overcome every obstacle – prejudices religious, national, ethnic, racial, cultural, class- and gender-based, etc. – that persistently blocks our efforts to bring about unity and peace.
What Do You Think is the Coolest Thing about Your Religion? There are so many things “cool” about the Faith that, honestly, it’s hard for me to pick out the #1 coolest. I love that the Baha’i Faith is so integrative, that it includes absolutely everyone. I also love that the most fundamental truth revealed in the Writings of the Faith – the “Oneness of Humanity” -- is so directly relevant for all of us today. Still, … I think that what’s coolest, for me, is how the spiritual forces released throughout the world by the Baha’i Revelation empower each of us to become active agents for change in our societies, how this divine guidance releases the powers of our hearts to advance the whole of humankind toward the attainment of its highest possible condition -- worldwide unity of the human family. I’ve studied lots of philosophies and religions (being a teacher of World History for 20 years!), and, to my knowledge, pretty much every religious tradition, until now, has in some way established the salvation of the individual – the union of our soul with the Creator -- as the sole and exclusive purpose of human existence. The Baha’i Revelation goes further, much further. Yes, Baha’is, too, strive to develop their personal intellectual and spiritual capacities to the fullest, and we hope that, when our mortal life does come to an end, God will grace our souls in union with Him. But, … for me, here’s the key to the coolest thing about the Faith: personal salvation is just one aspect of a process that’s bigger, much bigger! The divine guidance of Baha’u’llah, the Reality of God for today, empowers us – yes, each of us -- to put the capacities of our souls to work, here, for the transformation of society, and now, in this life. Baha’is, therefore, are now diligently engaged in the processes of community-building, worldwide, to establish the foundations essential to create a new global order that will allow the whole of humanity to live, unified, in material prosperity and universal peace. For my heart to know that, in this conflicted day and age, we have been provided with the God-given blueprint to transform (indeed, revolutionize!) the whole of civilization -- from the violence of division to the peace and tranquility of unity – provides my life, right now, in this world, with a truly positive, energizing, and joyful sense of meaning and purpose.
Has your religion or religious beliefs ever caused challenges for you? Yes, of course. Life is one enormous and ongoing challenge, filled with tests, trials, and difficulties for all of us. That’s the nature of life in this material world. Nevertheless, because of spiritual knowledge that my heart has received over the years by reading and meditating on the Holy Writings every day, I have come to understand and respond to these challenges differently than many I know. I see so many people today, of all ages, who have never fully opened their hearts to their identity as spiritual beings. Having lost touch with this most true sense of identity, I see more (and more) struggle mightily -- even with the ordinary difficulties of everyday life. Without a spirituality that’s genuinely centering, really grounded, increasing numbers of people I know seem constantly to wonder if life has meaning at all, whether there’s really any purpose in living through today (or tomorrow). What they experience, I believe, is a vast emptiness, the exhausting despair of “living,” chronically overwhelmed, within the abyss of spiritual void. This is not the case for me! Because I openly acknowledge and embrace my most fundamental identity -- as a rational soul -- I have gradually come to understand that the challenges of this mortal life serve an essential purpose. You see, it is only through difficulties, tests, and challenges that my own capacities (spiritual and intellectual) for compassion, knowledge, patience, forgiveness, persistence, resilience, trust, gratitude, and faith – yes, all the qualities of my soul – can develop and grow. Here’s one of many beautiful passages revealed in the Baha’i Writings as to the nature and purpose of suffering: “Men who suffer not, attain no perfection. The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when the summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit.” The purpose of this human life is not to live in comfort or convenience, no, it’s not to maximize the experience of pleasure. The purpose of this life is to develop our intellectual and spiritual capacities in order that, over the course of a lifetime, we can become of greater and greater service to our families, friends, neighbors, communities, and society. This growth happens, indeed, it only happens, when -- knowing that life’s challenges serve an essential purpose, the development of our abilities to better the world -- we mature spiritually into adults who can accept the tests and trials of this life with an authentic sense of what the Holy Writings describe as “radiant acquiescence.”
Have you ever doubted your faith? This is another question, I’m afraid, that does not make all that much sense to me as a Baha’i. My best understanding, from Baha’i Writings, is that a true “act of faith” – the only real evidence that faith does in fact exist -- must be based upon knowledge that is clear and certain. One’s faith, therefore, cannot logically be doubted; the very existence of doubt precludes the existence of faith; I cannot rationally doubt faith; doubt is the opposite of faith. If I doubt, there is in fact no faith. As for me, I live more and more within a state of faith – free from doubt -- because as my soul continues to progress, approaching nearer to God, my knowledge of what is true has become increasingly clear and certain. How? Because what I know, whatever I know – certainly, 100% for sure -- I know in my heart. Baha’u’llah teaches, “My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting.” This teaching, for me, illumines the truth that what must come first in our lives is the cultivation of an open and receptive heart, that the warmth and light of knowledge radiates outward, into the world, from our spiritual core -- the heart – and that every power, all legitimate authority, originates and grows from the fertile soil of relationship between wide-open hearts. My faith grows stronger because, as I continue in seeking knowledge of the spirit, I’ve learned to gradually let go of my mind as the primary source of understanding while, daily in spiritual practice, I continue striving to wholly “possess a pure, kindly, and radiant heart.” This is the starting point to overcome doubt, the heart … where knowledge can become sure with the wholeheartedness of faith that inspires us to act boldly, and no matter what – with patience and persistence, steadfastly -- on behalf of what is true, what’s right, what is just … in pursuit of whatever may be in the best interests of the human race.
How are you sure that what you practice and lead is the “correct” religion? It must be the correct religion … because, throughout history, there has been one religion, just one religion only. Baha’is understand that, because there is one Creator, one God, a single divine Source of all being, there can be only one religion, a concept that Baha’is understand as the “Oneness of Religion.” This must be correct because it is rational. In fact, I believe this to be the only conclusion that can withstand rational scrutiny. Why would God – in His Knowledge, Unity, and Perfection -- create thousands of different religions … divided within themselves and pitted against each other in perpetual conflict, confrontation that can (and has) become violent? Throughout history men in power have misused religion as means to divide each against the other, “us” versus “them,” but such dissension and strife, please understand, is the work of man – not God. God is one, the essence of Unity itself, and, thus, there is now and has only ever been one religion, a single “Faith of God.”
How do you know that your beliefs are true? In my heart I know with certainty, beyond all doubt, that what has been revealed throughout history by every Manifestation of God – whether He was Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad, the Bab, or Baha’u’llah – is 100% true. God is All-Knowing -- Perfect Reality -- and, therefore, all that He has revealed throughout history must be true. This also, however, must be true: Whatever may be revealed in a particular age by a Manifestation, indeed, through every Manifestation of God -- the divine Educators of humanity -- must be appropriately suited to the capacities and requirements of humanity in that particular age. The Baha’i Writings reveal this: “All religious laws conform to reason, and are suited to the people for whom they are framed, and for the age in which they are to be obeyed.” That’s why the Laws revealed by Moses so long ago, however foundational they were for civilization to emerge, are not sufficient to meet the needs of humanity in the twenty-first century. The Laws of Moses were revealed as divine guidance for humanity in a particular age of history, when civilization was just beginning to take shape, but the problems and needs of the Hebrew people, then, were very different from the needs and problems that confront humanity now. Today, the #1 problem in the world involves the ubiquitous global presence of conflict, violence, and division, separations between people that stand in the way of real progress. Throughout the world, we remain stubbornly divided by wealth and class, nationality, race, religion, gender, culture and ethnicity … and, so, what humanity requires, now, is guidance on how to overcome these divisions and live, unified, in prosperity and contentment. Unity is the “Cause of God” for this particular age, and the guidance uniquely suited for the here and now is set forth in the Teachings of the Baha’i Faith, the divine blueprint that we need to unify the whole human race, worldwide, within a single civilization organized according to the foundational truth of our time, the “Oneness of Humanity.” This is sacred Truth that vibrates throughout the whole of my being … in my experience, in my rational soul, and in my heart.
How did your religion affect your childhood? How was your life growing up believing in that religion? At what age do you think you formed a strong connection with your religion? Well, the religion I was born into – Judaism – did not affect my childhood all that much. I never really connected with Judaism as a religion. In fact, I never connected with any established religious tradition until, as a high school social studies teacher, I began in earnest the study of Islam. It was then when, for the first time, I started to understand that religious systems of knowledge constitute the most basic foundation – the essential prerequisite -- for the progress of civilization. Yet, it was not until my heart opened to the Baha’i Faith – during my ‘50s -- that I would form a connection to religion which can be unequivocally described as “strong.” As I understand it, the power of this connection has its roots in the fact that the divine Truths revealed through the Baha’i Writings are so directly relevant to life in the world today. Plus, these Teachings on unity are predicated on the most simple, profound, and elevated realities that have ever, in all of history, been revealed to humanity. Three foundational Realities – Oneness of God, Oneness of Religion, and Oneness of Humanity – provide the Baha’i Faith with tremendous power in these times of division, separation, isolation, and conflict … when, every day, we watch as the established global order seems to disintegrate further, and more rapidly, before our very eyes.
What is your favorite tradition or holiday from your religion? For me, that’s easy … the “home visit.” A home visit is not so much a religious holiday or tradition. It’s better understood as a regular, systematic, and ongoing activity within the community-building processes of the Faith. I do this all the time, actually … every chance I get! I visit the homes of others (or they visit mine) – families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, pretty much anyone who’s open and receptive to meaningful discussion – where we do our best to elevate the level of conversation to the point where each participant comes away with his thought provoked, present understandings heightened, minds expanded, and our hearts inspired to become more active in the progress of our lives and the life of our communities. What brings us down, discouraging conversation, depressing and incapacitating our souls, is talk that remains confined within the straitjacket of “everything wrong in the world today.” How absolutely negative, soooooo totally exhausting! What brings discussions up, however – inspiring hearts to action, positively refreshed, ready to serve others – are dialogues positively infused with principles of spiritual reality … such as the “Oneness of Humanity”… which consider, for example, the limitless number of ways that understanding and learning to apply spiritual principles can potentially transform our individual lives, the lives of our relationships and communities, and raise levels of public consciousness through our active participation in the discourses of society. Whenever a home visit has ended – and some can last for hours (because, really, nobody wants to leave!) – I am reinvigorated, purified, fresh with new energy, my heart anxious to engage in positive actions that in some small way (like my writing of this question-and-answer session!) might help to advance the cause of unity. What a wonderful feeling -- that, through the communion of meaningful and uplifting conversation, our souls continue to develop and progress.
What does the Baha’i Faith worship? Members of the Baha’i Faith worship God, and this worship is with God directly … without the mediation of individual human authority. In this spiritual era, please remember, God has eliminated the clergy! In every previous religious era throughout history, certain human beings – priests, rabbis, pastors, imams, gurus, and more – claimed authority to interpret the Word of God. This was necessary, of course, because, until recently, the vast majority of the world’s population had never learned how to read or write. Today, however, as the world continues to approach universal literacy, more and more of us are learning how to cultivate our God-given capacities to read, write and think, independently, for ourselves. Baha’is, therefore, do not rely on any individual to interpret and apply the Word of God for them. Instead, each Baha’i continually evolves in her and his own best understandings of what is most true in direct relationship with God -- through daily prayer, reflection upon the Holy Writings, in service -- and each of us cultivates the strength to carry out the Will of God in his and her own lives. The whole human race, in the Baha’i worldview, is now leaving the period of adolescence as we now approach the stage of our collective maturity. This “new race of men” – an adult humanity, in the fullness of maturity – will be able to investigate what is true for itself…
If any of this sparks curiosity in you, as these questions lead to more (and more), please … by all means, continue to investigate the truth for yourself! One way to continue this inquiry is to consult the official website of the worldwide Baha’i community, at https://www.bahai.org. You may also want to check out the official website of the Baha’is of the United States, at https://www.bahai.us. On this website, I’ve posted an essay that introduces readers to the three “onenesses” of the Faith, https://www.beautymrb.org/post/fundamental-truths, as well as the recording of a zoom conference when this same world religions panel was convened in the pandemic year of 2020. See https://www.beautymrb.org/lets-talk/let-s-talk/one-religion. Last and definitely not least, I would love nothing more than to be a human resource for you, someone willing to accompany you as, together, in the humble posture of learning, we trace the path of service to humanity. Email me, please, anytime, at firstname.lastname@example.org.