A close friend of mine recently said to me, "You know David, most people really don't know what the Baha'i Faith is all about." I was a bit surprised to hear this, but I knew it was true. After all, when I mention to people that I am a Baha'i, there is often a puzzled look on their faces. Most people seem to have the impression that the Baha'is are a good bunch of people, working in some way toward peace. But beyond that, most people don't have an understanding of the basic principles of the Baha'i Faith. This realization was a bit surprising to me because the Encyclopedia Britannica lists the Baha'i Faith as the second most widespread religion after Christianity. And The LA Times noted that the Baha'i Faith is among the top two fastest growing religions in the world. So I thought it would be useful to explain the fundamentals of the Baha'i Faith. It is likely something that you will encounter more and more in the coming years.
Baha’u’llah – The Promised One
When someone asks me, "What is the Baha'i Faith?" The brief explanation that I give goes to something like this: The Baha'i Faith is a world religion whose purpose is to unite all peoples and races. Baha'is are the followers of Baha'u'llah, whom they believe is the Promised One of all ages. The traditions of almost every people include the promise of a future time when peace and harmony will be established and humankind will live in prosperity. Baha'is believe that the promised hour has come and that Baha'u'llah is the great personage whose teachings will enable humanity to build a new world.
This brief explanation raises a few key points. First, the Baha'i Faith is an independent world religion. It is not an offshoot, sect or denomination of another Faith. Second, its purpose is to establish unity among the peoples and races of the world. Third, the Baha'i Faith accepts Baha'u'llah as the one whose teachings will establish the long-awaited peace on earth. It's a large claim for sure, and most people are rightfully skeptical at first. But millions of people find it a claim worth looking into.
God is Unknowable
Baha'u'llah teaches that there is a source of creation that we call "God." Yet God is unknowable in his essence. Our finite minds cannot fully grasp God and we should not make images of God in our mind, thinking of him, for example, as a man. God created all things out of love: "O Son of Man! I loved thy creation, hence I created thee. Wherefore, do thou love me, that I may name thy name and fill thy soul with the spirit of life."
The Manifestations of God
Baha’u’llah teaches that throughout the course of history, God has given humanity guidance. This guidance comes to humanity through the Manifestations of God -- those special beings who revealed (or “manifest”) to humanity the word and the will of God. History knows them as the founders of the world's great religions: Krishna, Buddha, Moses, Christ, Muhammad, and Baha'u'llah. This idea that a single God has sent these various Manifestations of himself to humanity is a fundamental teaching of the Baha'i Faith. Baha'is accept the divinity of all of these individuals, that they all speak with the same authority, and that they have progressively revealed the will of God to humanity. Referring to these Manifestations of God, Baha’u’llah has written, “If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith.”
Teachings for a Global Age
According to Baha’u’llah, the Manifestation of God returns from the same source from age to age, as people stray away from the teachings of the previous Manifestation of God, and as society changes. “This is the changeless faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.” The Manifestations of God all have the same purpose -- to bring God’s guidance to humanity. Their spiritual teachings remain the same: develop your virtues -- love, kindness, justice, compassion. However, their social teachings – those that guide the complexities of society -- are not the same. The social teachings change in accordance to the circumstances of the times: one says you can divorce, another says you can’t. Eat pork; eat what you want. Have four wives; don’t have four wives. These differences exist not because of intrinsic differences between the Manifestations or of their source. The differences in the social teachings exist only because of the changing circumstances of humanity at a particular time and place in history. Math in one grade is different from math in another grade, not because the teachers are in conflict, but because the students are different. The religions are not really different religions. They are stages of one common faith, like the chapters in the same book.
The spiritual teachings of long ago are still valid today. This is the reason millions of people continue to find sustenance in faiths that are thousands of years old. However, people are increasingly disillusioned by their religions (or any religion) because they do not appear to address the needs of the age, they do not appear to be relevant to life in the 21st century.
When Baha’u’llah appeared in the mid 1800’s, he claimed to bring God’s message that humanity would soon be moving into a global age, and that new teachings were required to govern a global society. Of course, at the time, these teachings were considered insane. How could anyone speak of “global” society, when the fastest way to travel was by horse? When communication required a message be carried by hand from place to place? But he spoke of the need to recognize the oneness of humanity, the oneness of God, and the oneness of religion. Those who accept his claims do not think of him as an enlightened or prescient man, but regard him as the most recent of the Manifestations of God, who has come to usher in the universal age of peace and unity.
I hope that these basic teachings of the Bahá’í Faith help make it less of a mystery to you. If you want to learn more, information is available at www.bahai.org.