The true purpose of interfaith panels

Continuing our look at the Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, we come to paragraph 24. This is an interesting passage:

We owe it to our partners in this common effort [i.e. interfaith activities], however, to state clearly our conviction that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

The above passage is just one sentence. It’s such a long sentence that it might be hard to see the forest for the trees. So let me break it down for you. The House of Justice here is saying, “We’ll participate in interfaith activities with you, but we have to make one thing clear. The whole project is pointless unless everyone agrees with us that there is only one God and all the religions come from God. Our beliefs are the solution. If you believe differently from us, then you’re not part of the solution. You’re part of the problem.”

Think I’m being harsh? Don’t look at me. The Universal House of Justice said it.

To be honest, I don’t have a problem with the UHJ saying that. They’re just being straight shooters. I’m making a point of it, though, to point out what I feel is a double standard. If a Catholic (or other Christian) says the answer to the world’s problems is Christianity, at least some Baha’is will regard that as pig-headed bigotry. You don’t have to take my word for it. It’s the dominant theme of the Letter. But saying that the Baha’i Faith is the answer to the world’s problems, that’s enlightened open-mindedness.

By the way, all this talk of interfaith discourse reminds me of a staple of the Baha’i campus association’s repertoire: the interfaith panel. Interfaith panel discussionGet five or six people up on a stage sitting a table together, each from a different religion. Give each one five minutes to explain their religion, and then open the floor for questions. This is supposed to promote understanding and tolerance, but I’m skeptical.

Don’t get me wrong, I very much support interfaith discussions. They are very helpful. I think they have two important roles. One is that by learning about someone else’s beliefs, you find out that they aren’t as block-headed as your stereotype made them out to be. The other is that you learn etiquette – little things that might be offensive to a member of that faith, or at least things that are best avoided. For instance, if you have Muslim or Jewish friends, it’s good to know before having them over for dinner that pork should not be on the menu.

Neither of these purposes is served by the interfaith panel discussion. Five minutes (or however long the organizer allows each speaker) is not enough time for a Catholic to explain what we believe about the Trinity, why we don’t have women priests, what we mean when we say the pope is infallible, and all the other issues people have with us. Let alone go into issues of etiquette like how to visit a Catholic church respectfully.

A theme can help by narrowing things down, but it can also hurt by watering things down. The organizer might ask the panelists to speak on “how your religion views racism” or something. Then each panelist says, “we think racism is bad”. Yawn. Of course they’re going to say that.

An event would have potential if there were only two speakers, along with a knowledgeable interviewer. Not a debate, but a guided discussion. Interfaith debates are dumb and pointless because they encourage adversarial judgments and attempts at one-upsmanship – not conducive to learning or understanding. Or even just an interviewer with a representative of one religion, and hold a 30-minute interview with time at the end for questions from the audience.

Anyway, getting back to our six-member interfaith panel… Aside from the superficial structure, look at its superficial composition. There are the usual suspects – the Jew from Hillel, the Muslim from the local mosque, the mainline Protestant minister, the Buddhist and/or Hindu, the Baha’i (naturally) and then something offbeat just to mix things up, like a Wiccan or a Native American, or a witch doctor from New Guinea. How can any of these people really represent either (a) their religion, or (b) their fellow believers? Who’s representing me on that panel, for instance? The reverend from the United Church of Vanilla Protestantism? Or can we really say that the guy from Hillel represents Judaism? Is he the voice of all Jews, from Lubavitcher to Reconstructionist?

Something else to notice: Interfaith panels are done all sorts of ways, but I’ll bet every one of them that’s sponsored by a Baha’i campus association will always have them talk in a particular order… the order of religions found in every Baha’i pamphlet. First the pagan, then the Buddhist/Hindu, then run through the monotheists in order from Jew onward, wrapping up with the Baha’i.

There’s something interesting about this order. I think there’s more going on here than simple interfaith understanding. Let’s go back to the Letter to see what I mean.

interfaith discourse … must now address honestly and without further evasion … that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

The purpose of interfaith discourse then, for the Baha’is, is ultimately to show people that all religions are the same and come from God. This then, will lead people to realize that the Baha’i Faith is true. The interfaith panel, when organized by Baha’is, becomes a sort of live-action Baha’i pamphlet. Each representative gives his or her spiel – pagan, Buddhist, Jew, etc. – and then the Baha’i representative wraps it up by saying, “All religions teach the same thing. Look at tonight’s panel. Everyone here said that racism is bad. That means they all came from God.” And then she reads a quote from Paris Talks and everyone breaks for refreshments.

Baha’i campus associations, therefore, use interfaith panels as tools for spreading the Faith. They are staged in a way that supports Baha’i truth claims. Don’t believe me? Then try an experiment. Suggest to your local Baha’i campus association that the next time they hold one of these events, they not invite a Baha’i panelist. How well will that go over? Or (and this would be even more interesting) suggest they choose a topic that is not a Baha’i principle. So instead of having them talk about race unity or the equality of women and men, have the panelists talk about the value of paid clergy or the necessity of ritual.

I can tell you right now, no Baha’i campus association and no LSA will ever do that. Why not, you ask? Simple. Because the purpose of interfaith dialogue is to prove the Baha’i Faith right, not to allow the other religions to be themselves.

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13 Responses

  1. Carol-lee Lane, a Vermont Baha’i, quoted in the Burlington Free Press:

    “I have a deep and abiding love of Christ,” she continued. “But I believe Baha’u’llah (who founded the Baha’i faith in 1863) is the most recent manifestation of God. To look further back could be counterproductive. It would be looking backward. I want to look forward.”
    http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071224/NEWS01/712240305/1009/NEWS05

  2. Yes, exactly. Thank you for noting that. That’s a normal Baha’i view.

    It is so odd and confusing that when I suggested that Baha’is regard their faith as in some sense better than the ones that came before, Baha’is objected – as for example here and here. Look at what Mrs. Lane is quoted as saying further down in the article:

    But Christianity presented her with too many emotional and intellectual incongruities.

    “I needed something more; something that let me be a thinking person and a woman with my integrity intact,” she said.

    How is that not expressing superiority? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.

  3. Very good points. I don’t think we (Bahais) perceive ourselves this way, but I think that we often do conduct ourselves and make statements that are certainly readily understood to mean that we feel superior to other religions. And, I have met other Bahais who, it is clearly apparent , feel precisely that way despite teachings in the faith to the contrary.

    After over 40 years in the Bahai Faith, and many such experiences with my fellow Bahais, I think it is an entirely fair criticism of the believers themselves and probably of the way the administration (UHJ, NSA and LSAs) and the way it instructs the believers in their teaching and deepening activities.

    Many Bahai’s have forgotten that these are institutions for this world and are not infallible. They have the capacity to lead the faith far astray from its original purpose. It is the downside of organized religion, it seems it cannot help but become increasingly political, intolerant and divisive. Certainly these are not traits that attracted most of us to the faith, although there will be those who are attracted by them.

    The only infallible source of information for Bahais is the scripture itself, much of which is still untranslated into western tongues. So, without an infallible source for information, or more correctly, with only limited access to partial information from sources understood as infallible, Bahais might be excused for becoming confused as to their position in the family of human religions.

    Of course, history has made it abundantly clear that we must never judge the teachings of the founder of a religion by the conduct or statements of those who claim to be followers of those teachings, as they are often at variance with the actual teachings that gave birth to the organized religion.

    I think that we Bahais have gotten caught up in the same separatist theology that we claim to deride. Perhaps it was inevitable, but it certainly is NOT taught by the founders.

    Abdu’l-Baha, in fact, opposed those who followed the teachings of himself and his father even calling themselves by any name, as doing so set them apart from other religions and was not conducive to the unity he so loved. He complained “Why must you call yourselves Christians, Moselms or Bahais?”. His vision was that the eternal and unchanging principals of the unity of God and God’s creation and the sanctity of the human family, as it was taught by all the founders of every religion, would be recognized by EXISTING religions as a unifying force that would bring them together in love, friendship and tolerance and that the differences in their theologies (whether Islam was in fact the one true faith, whether Jesus is the only savior and failure to accept Him leads to damnation etc. ) would cease to be reasons for the family of man to kill each other. Individuals would be able to consider the claims of each religion on its own merits through their own ability to reason and come to a conclusion whether they agreed. He does NOT seem to have envisioned these differences ceasing to exist, so much as envisioning that they should cease to be the cause of war and bloodshed.

    For instance, the current violence of Islamic fundamentalist can be directly traced to their religious convictions that those who are not in agreement with them must die. But, this conviction is not found in the writings of the founder of their faith. Abdul’-Baha was convinced if the people of every faith followed carefully the teachings of their founder, they would stop killing each other.

    There are prophecies about the faith itself becoming an “umbrella” religion and I think the view that we Bahais have it right and everyone else has it wrong stem from these predictions. But, I don’t want to lengthen my post at this time by discussing those statements. Maybe later! (LOL)

  4. O.K. – one more an then I will let it go (LOL). Your statement that Bahai campus clubs won’t let other religions be themselves is true, at least in my experience as a Bahai.

    I recall once manning a booth for a Bahai campus club at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. There was a Born Again Christian who kept coming round the booths trying to convert the Bahais to Christianity. Eventually , he got to my booth, and he was extremely talkative and joyful that he had found the Lord and wanted to share this with me in the hopes of my salvation. So, I listened to him for maybe an hour or more, and when he got done , I began to cry and told him how glad I was he found the Lord, because I was genuinely glad that a person who had no faith in God at all had found faith in God, and how I hoped that he would always walk with God. I never talked to him about the Bahai Faith at all. He began to cry and said to me that all day long he had been trying to talk to someone about his conversion,and everyone had thrown him out or had security remove him . I was the only one who had listened. We hugged each other and wished each other well in our quest to walk with God, and he left. After this, a Bahai from a nearby booth , who had been watching this whole thing I guess, came over and told me she had never seen, and get this , “any Bahai actually act like a Bahai until now. ” I thought it was odd, but now that you post all this, I get what she meant. I was deepened into the faith NOT to attempt to convert people to the Cause. When I was young, we were taught to respect and love other religions and only when they taught hatred to reject them. So long as they taught love, we loved them back. He wanted to save my soul. How could I be angry at someone who loved me so much that he wanted to save my soul? I knew I would not change my religion, but I also knew that what this newly converted Christian was offering me was genuine love (agape). He needed to release this new found passion for Jesus Christ somewhere. He did not need to hear about Baha’u’llah or the Bahais. His need was to be allowed to tell someone about Jesus Christ. Because this need sprang for his love for God, how could I refuse to listen?

    Of course, it is human nature to sponsor that which promotes one’s own view. I am uncertain whether a Catholic campus group would sponsor an event for the purpose of promoting an understanding of religion other than their own; but to attempt to pressure an inter-faith body to agree to a particular tenet of faith that is not actually already held by them ….. well, I have to agree, that’s a bit pushy! I think Catholics, who have been involved in these inter-faith councils for generations, are free of that particular attempted use of them. (I hope!)

  5. The purpose of the Bahai Faith is to bring people together not to divide them. Bahais are told that they have not joined a new religion and that it is a continuation of the previous revelations. Bahais believe in progressive revelation. I would encourage people to read the original Book of Daniel and in particular the particular place mentioned in it where the present revelation would occur.

  6. Well, some folks have had some bad experiences in interfaith activities and some have had very good ones. I guess I’ve been lucky in my 40+ years as a Baha’i, as so far I haven’t had bad ones. I was a youth in a Baha’i college club, and we were respectful of other faiths. Yes, we wanted to spread the glad tidings, just as they did; but were taught that some peoples’ cups are full and some peoples’ cups are partly empty; and you don’t try to pour into a full cup; and that the teachings are like a precious gem being presented as a gift to a friend: the receiver should be someone who is interested in receiving it. I attended many interfaith discussions in later years where we visited each other’s churches, synagogues and temples so we could understand the practice of our faiths better. I thought that was wonderful as some people are uncomfortable in other houses of worship as they don’t know what to expect there. I do agree that sometimes we Baha’is are incorrect in our understandings and responses. When I was living in Europe, a Baha’i who heard about the (then) recent Marian visions at Medjugorje said offhandedly to me, “Why would God still be sending vision of Mary to people? Why not visions of Baha’u’llah?” I laughed and reminded him of Abdul-Baha’s words about Jesus’ influence being everlasting:

    “The manifold signs of the existence of the spirit are for ever before us. The traces of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the influence of His Divine Teaching, is present with us today, and is everlasting.”

    And the Guardian reminded us that previous Revelations continue:

    “Let none, however, mistake my purpose, or misrepresent this cardinal truth which is of the essence of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh. The divine origin of all the Prophets of God—including Jesus Christ and the Apostle of God, the two greatest Manifestations preceding the Revelation of the Báb—is unreservedly and unshakably upheld by each and every follower of the Bahá’í religion. The fundamental unity of these Messengers of God is clearly recognized, the continuity of their Revelations is affirmed, the God-given authority and correlative character of their Books is admitted, the singleness of their aims and purposes is proclaimed, the uniqueness of their influence emphasized, the ultimate reconciliation of their teachings and followers taught and anticipated. “They all,” according to Bahá’u’lláh’s testimony, “abide in the same tabernacle, soar in the same heaven, are seated upon the same throne, utter the same speech, and proclaim the same Faith.”

  7. Well,

    The Baha’i position on interfaith dialogue is: “all religions are from God and are the truth.” I think that’s a starting point that works better for dialogue than: “my religion is from God, and you’re misled and following a misguided (nice view) or satanic (harsh view) prophet. I don’t think Baha’is need to apologize for believing that.

  8. Matthew,

    Baha’is do in fact say, “my religion is from God and you’re misled.” According to Baha’is, Jesus did not teach what Christians believe he taught, and did not do what they believe he did. Therefore, Baha’is tell Christians that they are misled.

    Why do you think that claiming Jesus as a Baha’i prophet makes you respectful of Christians’ beliefs? You’re telling us we’re wrong about the founder of our own religion! And then you have the gall to say that your position is more conducive to dialogue than anyone else’s. It’s the same as everyone else’s: “I’m right, and you’re wrong.”

    Please explain to me how the following Baha’i attitude is a good starting point for dialogue: “I know better than you do what the founder of your faith taught. Let me explain it to you.” Or, “Let me wait for you to ’empty your cup’ of all your distorted religious beliefs, so I can set you straight about what your founder really taught.”

    No, you don’t need to apologize for believing that. But you ought to be honest about it.

  9. When you said, “Think I’m being harsh? Don’t look at me. The Universal House of Justice said it.”, that is what is known as the straw man argument. You are arguing against an interpretation that you yourself made.
    There is a common thread running through all faiths even though theologies and creeds are widely dirverse. I feel it when I read the Koran, the New Testament, the Dhammapada. You can appreciate these great spiritual truths without excepting the dogma which were derived indirectly from them

  10. Jonah

    “Baha’is do in fact say, “my religion is from God and you’re misled.” According to Baha’is, Jesus did not teach what Christians believe he taught, and did not do what they believe he did. Therefore, Baha’is tell Christians that they are misled.”

    I have never heard any Baha’i say that. Again, you seem to be constructed a paraphased version of what you understood and then argue against a statement that you yourself created.

    I have always accepted Jesus’ words and Baha’is actually try to follow the example of Christ. Wasn’t Abdul Baha’s life the very embodiment of Christian virtues? Aren’t we encourgaged to follow his example. My problem is definitely not with the Words, the Teachings or the Actions of Jesus, I truly LOVE them and they are an inspiration for me and I see no conflict with the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. What I don’t agree with is Christian dogma that was established at the first council of Nicea, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire(whose decisions were heavily influenced by Constantine). The creed reached at that coucil 300+ years after Christ was the imperfect understanding of that Divine Word. That is what I don’t accept.

  11. Look. Religions have each had their time and contributed their share to humanity but now they are not solving the world’s numerous problems but their unwillingness to accept their own religions that another teacher, Christ, Buddha will arise and to step aside is both arrogant and insincere and holding humanity to ransom.

    Christianity is not good for this age neither is Islam or Buddhism so why do they want to impose themselves on humanity as ‘the only way’. If a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim were really truly sincere then they would accept the new day and new manifestation ‘for the good of humanity’ and move on. But no. They want to keep their power and buildings and accumulated wealth and followers and do this at the expense of world wars and conflicts.

    If they were sincere in their beliefs and accepted the ENTIRE Bible or Holy Book not just the parts they like, then they would obey Baha’u’llah’s teachings and the world would be rid of war and we would be getting rid of poverty and so many problems. But they have their heads in the sand and want to go on about the slogan ‘I am the way’.

    Saying that and being fanatical about exclusiveness overlooks the fact that humanity is suffering but who cares as long as I have my power and my followers right??

    They ALL have CLEAR prophecies that another Christ or Buddha or the Day of Rsurrection will come and don’t need a rocket scientist to figure it out. But when Baha’u’llah came He was opposed and since then every man and his dog has done everything possible to whitewash His appearance so humanity continues to suffer when the solution is on our doorstep.

    Are these rruly religions when they point blank refuse to accept the prophecies in their own Faith? Why can I see it
    . Why can millions of other Baha’is see it and they can’t???? Do we have a superior intelligence?? No. I’d point to sincerity as the main reason, Baha’is are being truthful and honest about their assessment and others deliberately closed minded.

    So the world has had world wars and a holocaust and other wars solely because these so called religions don’t want to surrender their power to a Manifestation that was prophesied to come in THIER OWN Holy Books. So they don’t give a damn about humanity or even their own religion. All that’s important to them is to keep their wealth and power.

    So the world is held hostage hijacked and held captive by ignorant doctors who wouldn’t have a clue how to fix the world’s problems and are even making things worse.

    If they really, truly cared why not let the real doctor have a go. They’ve had thousands of years. It’s not as if they haven’t been given a chance. Now it’s time to try something else other than this ‘I am the way’ exclusiveness rubbish which is only centred on superioriority.

    Humanity needs God not nonsense. It needs healing. And who gives a real damn??

  12. I wrote,

    “Baha’is do in fact say, “my religion is from God and you’re misled.” According to Baha’is, Jesus did not teach what Christians believe he taught, and did not do what they believe he did. Therefore, Baha’is tell Christians that they are misled.”

    Then Mr. Schellberg wrote,

    I have never heard any Baha’i say that.

    …then one paragraph later he wrote,

    I have always accepted Jesus’ words …. What I don’t agree with is Christian dogma that was established at the first council of Nicea …. The creed reached at that coucil 300+ years after Christ was the imperfect understanding of that Divine Word. That is what I don’t accept.

    Amazing! You denied my point and illustrated it at the same time!

    Christians believe the Nicene Creed. You think the Nicene Creed is wrong. You think the Nicene Creed is wrong about Jesus. You believe that you understand Jesus better than the Christians do.

    Therefore, you believe that Christians are misled. You believe that the Baha’i Faith is from God. You believe the Nicene Creed is not from God. Christians believe in the Nicene Creed. So, according to your belief, Christians are misled and the Baha’i Faith is from God.

    I really, honestly don’t understand how a Baha’i could take issue with that. If there is a flaw in my reasoning, please explain it to me.

    Just to clarify, in case this is a point of confusion: According to Christian belief (shared by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants), the doctrines defined in the Nicene Creed are consistent with what Jesus said about himself and what the Bible teaches. Moreover, we believe that when the bishops wrote the Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit was communicating through them. So for a Christian, the Nicene Creed is not a superfluous extra. For us, the Nicene Creed is inseparable from Christianity as a whole.

  13. Christians are wonderful people with beautiful beliefs and teachings and they are always welcome in my home and I had some Christian Teachers yesterday visit my home and I told them they blessed my home.

    They were the very first guests to sit on my new lounge.

    We are all human and passionate about our beliefs. I apologize to Christians if I get carried away but I love my beliefs like you do but I love your beliefs too and consider them my own too.

    I believe we all want what’s ultimately best for humanity and get frustrated because we are not unitedly working together. If we could all unite humanity’s suffering could be ended sooner so it hurts me to see because the religions are not working together strife continues.

    We could pull out the Nicenene Creed and you could pull out Baha’u’llah is a false Prophet and what would that achieve?

    I believe nothing false comes from Christians. That they are sincere. I’m the worst when it comes to arrogance and pride so I cannot judge others.

    I just want all Christians here to know that you are loved and precious and humbly ask to please forgive us if we get over enthusiastic. Me especially.

    I have many Bibles and I am mostly fine defending Christ and the Bible when people object but I still need help with how to explain Joshua 6:21 as children are involved. Is there a way of explaining it to today’s world? Would Hitler or Isis be a good example but then what about the women and children.

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