Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Limits of Universalism

In "The Illuminated Prayer: The Five-Times Prayer of the Sufis" by Coleman Barks, a story is recounted of a child in the Sufi community asking Bawa Muhaiyadden what religion she was. He responded:

You are a Christian because you believe in Jesus, and you are a Jew because you believe in all the prophets, including Moses. You are a Muslim because you believe in Muhammad as a prophet, and you are a Sufi because you believe in the universal teaching of God's love. You are really none of those, but you are all of those, because you believe in God. And once you believe in God, there is no religion. Once you divide yourself off with religions, you are separated from your fellowman.

Now, this has some resonance with me, and I would imagine with many Baha'is. After all, it is the teaching of the unity of religions that drew a lot of us into investigating the Faith in the first place. It felt very odd, once I became a Baha'i, to identify with a particular community, with its own particular expectations and culture. Like the new kid on the block, I did my best to fit in to all of that -- and the more "Baha'i" I became, invariably, I lost a good deal of that universalist outlook that had drawn me into the Faith in the first place. I have recovered some of it since leaving -- though, not all. I still have a distinct Baha'i identity; I still believe in Baha'u'llah.

And truthfully, Bawa and his followers have a distict identity as well. This book, which teaches in a non-dogmatic way, the prayer "of the Sufis" is actually teaching the Muslim salat, presenting it as a universal prayer. No matter how broad-minded and inclusive his community attempts to be, it remains Muslim in its essence, although I suspect they'd fit in with traditional Muslims about as well as I do in the Baha'i community.

It seems part of human nature to need a certain identity. I'm not entirely sure that anyone can follow a spiritual path without becoming attached to one more than another, no matter how inclusive you try to be. And, naturally, when you choose one, you have the feeling that it is somehow more "right" than the others, which don't suit you as well. But Bawa was correct in saying that it does cut you off from others to some extent. I don't feel comfortable showing up for Sunday Services at any of the local churches, although I know there are folks there who would do their best to make me welcome. There's just that little hitch of believing in Baha'u'llah, which means I just don't belong in a Christian church, no matter how liberal. There are New Age groups around, too, but I don't quite fit in there, either -- again, believing in Baha'u'llah makes me a Baha'i, and I can't really pretend to be anything else.

Going it alone, though, really isn't so bad. After all, it's what I did before I became a Baha'i. And, with the online community, there are many of us who are "going it alone", together. That sense of a community of solitaries is what I've been trying, with some success, to build out here. And it works. It's hard, but it works.

I find it interesting, though, how spiritual practices appear to be the most "separable" aspect of religion -- in some cases they are virtually idenitcal anyway. The practice of saying a mantra is pretty much like Sufi dhikr, which in turn is much like saying a Rosary or repeating the Jesus prayer -- you're just using different sacred words. Barks, in writing this book, clearly sees prayer as prayer -- usable by anyone no matter what creed is professed. I had to suppress a chuckle recently, when a yoga teacher told me that saying "OM" was just for the cleansing vibrations and had nothing to do with religion. Yoga is a path within Hinduism -- it's religious through and through. The Hatha Yoga Westerners practice to reduce stress or get into shape was originally inextricable from religious meditation. Of course, an act is religious only if you intend it so -- but I don't believe for a minute that the ancient yogis taught their disciples to chant "OM" so they could get rid of their toxins and improve their health. But then, unlike some, I don't have a problem with it being religious.

To continue: Religious identity can be a complex thing: There are spiritual practices, which, as I said, can be separated from the whole and performed by anyone who finds them meaningful. There are belief systems, which those of us coming from a Christian background tend to regard as the whole of what we mean by "religion", and which is generally the most exclusive aspect. (I doubt if the majority of adherents in any major religion actually have beliefs which entirely match those of religious authorities; folks beliefs are extremely persistent.) There are traditions -- holy days, rites of passage, and the like -- which people can be sentimentally attached to long after they leave behind the religious beliefs and/or community they were raised in. And finally, there are communities, where the formalities of membership apply -- although some religions are more formal about that than others. It is probably possible for a person to be a different "religion" in each of these four aspects. Certainly, it's not uncommon to find someone who is split between two, usually the religion they were brought up in, and the religion of their choosing. There are times I think that multiple religious identity may be the wave of future -- along with the "spiritual, but not religious" crowd -- but only time will tell.


kaweah said...

Hi Karen,

The situation of unenrolled/non-participating Baha'is is indeed not so bad with the help of online communities, and besides, most Baha'is are somewhat isolated anyway.

I wonder how much you've thought about what predicament you'd be in if you brought someone into the Baha'i Faith (inspired him/her to enroll). Would you refer him/her to the local community, and downplay your unenrolled status? I'm not implying that there's no solution, just thinking out loud about it for the first time.


Karen said...

Dear Dan,

That's what I felt -- I was isolated even when enrolled, so being unenrolled wasn't so great a leap, and it leaves me free to say what I think without fear from a visit by a disapproving ABM.

Anyway -- interesting question. I've had people scold me for doing the opposite, for dissuading people from becoming Baha'is or accusing me of deliberately trying to get people not to enroll.

Actually, I just say what I'm thinking -- what people decide to do is up to them. On my UB list, I have a policy of never telling people what to do; I just try to help them work through their situation.

I don't "downplay" my unenrolled status, unless I'm in a conversation where it would be irrelevant. Sometimes, it can be almost silly to announce that I'm not a formal member -- as if I'm expected to walk around with an "unclesn!" sign or something. I have had situations where it becomes clear that I'd better tell a person that I'm not enrolled, or there could be big misunderstandings.

I have, on occasion, told seekers to check out their local communities -- the state of which can vary widely, so I feel I can't assume that everyone everywhere would have the same experiences I did. I don't hit seekers over the head with problem areas (Hey, did you know they don't allow women on the UHJ?) But, I also don't shy away from those areas if people want to discuss them.

There was a guy on Beliefnet several years ago, who became a Baha'i because he was impressed that none of the critics had anything bad to say about Baha'u'llah. I guess he was willing to deal with a system with problems as long as he felt the Founder was the real deal.

Love, Karen

El Loco said...

It seems part of human nature to need a certain identity. I'm not entirely sure that anyone can follow a spiritual path without becoming attached to one more than another, no matter how inclusive you try to be. And, naturally, when you choose one, you have the feeling that it is somehow more "right" than the others, which don't suit you as well.

I believe you need to draw a difference between "choosing a spiritual path" and "choosing your spiritual path."

A quick background is in order. I was a Baha'i who became disillusioned with the Faith, not unlike many others. I'm now a Unitarian Universalist and the one thing UUs believe is that every person has a right and a responsibility to choose their own spiritual path. What it means is that you recognize that your path is the "right" one for you but that someone else's path is the "right" one - for them.

Your dilemma only arises if, as your implicit assumption suggests, you believe that there is one path better for everyone. A spiritual "one faith fits all" so to speak.


Karen said...

Dear Loco,

Well said.


Laura said...

Hi: I was happy to stumble upon your blog(s)because I am just becoming interested in the Baha'i faith and like all perspectives. In another post you reference something you wrote nine years ago about your decision to leave the faith...and there is an inactive link to your website. I'd love to read that essay/ it published anywhere else or could you send me a link. Thanks in advance...Laura