Believing “in” and believing “that”

A recent post on Baha’i Views (On the Baha’i Faith as in Harmony with True Christianity: Andre greets Osita) reminded me of a misleading approach that the Central Figures and modern Baha’is take when teaching Christians. A Christian asks a Baha’i if Baha’is believe in Christ, and the Baha’i responds by talking about what he believes about Christ and how positively Baha’is regard him. Here are a couple quotes from Abdu’l-Baha that are used in the post:

Every soul who believed in Jesus Christ became revivified and resuscitated through this spirit, attained to the zenith of eternal glory, realized the life everlasting, experienced the second birth and rose to the acme of good fortune.

…Then know that for the dominion of the reality of Christ there is no beginning and there is no end. Everlastingly that luminous Entity hath been sitting on the throne of might and everlastingly It will have a penetrating dominion over the worlds of existence…

Quotes like these can serve to increase a seeker’s comfort level, but they are not promoting true understanding. Rather, they are confusing the phrase “believe in” with the phrase “believe that”.

What does it really mean to say one “believes in” Christ? Is it like believing in Santa Claus, as in believing that he exists? Is it like believing in your friend, i.e. that you have confidence in her? No, obviously when people say they believe in Christ they mean something else.

When a Christian says she believes in Christ, that is shorthand for two things: first, that she believes a set of propositions about Christ, and second (which is based on the first), that she has a personal relationship with him. It is very unlikely the Christian is asking if Baha’is have a positive opinion of Christ, so responding by talking about how wonderful you think Christ is does not answer the question. The Christian wants to know if you believe what she believes about Christ.

From the Christian perspective, if you believe in Christ, that necessarily means you believe that Christ is the second person of the Trinity who took on a human body and spirit and then, after dying on the cross, brought that body and spirit to life for eternity on Easter morning. If Baha’is can’t say they believe that those things are true, then they shouldn’t be so nonchalant in telling Christians they believe in Christ. If they don’t qualify what they mean by believing in Christ, then they are not so much teaching as misleading.

My own experience as a Baha’i was like that. I tried so hard to make Christians comfortable with the Baha’i Faith in hopes they would convert, that often Christians walked away from our conversations thinking the Baha’i Faith is a Christian denomination.

The solution to that is of course to explain that Christianity was a dispensation that lasted for only 600 years and was succeeded by Islam. The Baha’i Faith is not a denomination of anything, but a separate world religion. But then that only confuses people. “Wait, the Baha’i Faith isn’t part of Christianity? Didn’t you just say you believe in Christ?”

Then you have to separate Christ and Christianity in the person’s mind, and persuade them that Christ was basically a Baha’i, not a Christian. So the conversation has gone from, “We believe the same thing. We both believe in Christ” to “Most of what you believe about Christ is wrong. Only Baha’is believe the truth about Christ.” Juxtaposed, these statements might make seekers think you were trying to pull a fast one on them.

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14 Responses

  1. Hi Jonah,

    I’m glad you found the post on Baha’i Views stimulating enough to warrant a post.

    Having grown up a Unitarian, I’ve always felt somewhat inept at teaching about the connection between Christianity and the Baha’i Faith, but I still give it a go.

    As for “pulling a fast one,” I’m sure that the many Baha’is today who came into the Faith from a Christian background wouldn’t have remained Baha’i if they felt they had been hoodwinked at the start.

    I am reminded of this passage from “Creating a New Mind” by Paul Lample:

    “Teaching is an act of intimate communication between one human being and another. It answers heartfelt needs and aspirations by removing the veils separating a soul from the paradise of the presence of the Lord.”

    Warmest greetings,

  2. Dear Jonah,

    It seems to me that you are doing precisely the same thing you are accusing Baha’is of doing. Yes, there is a difference between believing ‘in’ someone and having beliefs ‘about’ some one. The former implies a relationship while the latter does not. So it might be better for Baha’is to describe what Jesus means to them personally rather than simply present a bunch of quotations from the Writings. But to then turn around and put out a set of Christian dogmas that should be accepted, before we can say we “believe in” Jesus is to turn it into a question of ‘beliefs about’ once again.

    warmest, susan

  3. Hello to both of you, and thank you for stopping by.

    georgewesley wrote:

    As for “pulling a fast one,” I’m sure that the many Baha’is today who came into the Faith from a Christian background wouldn’t have remained Baha’i if they felt they had been hoodwinked at the start.

    Of course not. But then, they aren’t the only Christians to have heard the Baha’i message. Most Christians who hear about Baha’u’llah *don’t* become Baha’is. I’m not saying that Christians always feel hoodwinked when a Baha’i teaches them. I do know, though, that some of my experiences teaching Christians went that way. And I also know that I, as a Baha’i teacher, sometimes… shall we say… selected my words carefully in order to make the Baha’i Faith sound as palatable as possible.

    Dr. Maneck wrote:

    But to then turn around and put out a set of Christian dogmas that should be accepted, before we can say we “believe in” Jesus is to turn it into a question of ‘beliefs about’ once again.

    I’m afraid you misunderstood my post. If you as a Baha’i want to say you believe in Christ, that’s perfectly fine with me. What I’m saying is that Baha’is should be aware that saying you believe in Christ means something specific to Christian ears, something Baha’is do not agree with. It is disingenuous for a Baha’i teacher to tell a Christian that they have something in common in that they both believe in Christ. That is NOT something they have in common, because *what* they believe about Christ is different.

  4. Jonah

    I would say there is a Christian Christ, a Muslim Christ, a Baha’i Christ… These are views on the same Manifestation of God. Some of these views have similar aspects, complementary aspects and contradictory aspects.

    Off-Topic:

    I was wondering if you could write a post inviting Baha’is to read “Jesus of Nazareth”. I could point some good reasons: Benedict XVI is a good theologian, a good writer,… but I am sure you can point out several other good reasons for baha’is to read it. And because you once were a Baha’i I am sure you are the best person to make such an invitation.

  5. Thank you for the suggestion, Mr. Oliveira. Unfortunately I haven’t read Jesus of Nazareth, except for the introduction. If/when I read it, I’ll write about it on the blog.

  6. Jonah,

    You were, indeed, a very poor teacher of the Baha’i Faith if you were attempting to decieve. Falsehood and deception is condemned in the Baha’i teachings which also state that guidence is given by deeds not words.

    You say-
    “If they don’t qualify what they mean by believing in Christ, then they are not so much teaching as misleading.”

    What about my experiences of when, in conversation, Catholics attempt to give me a brief explaination of their faith and say that Catholics believe in Jesus but don’t qualify what they mean by believing in Christ, are they also misleading and decieving?

    Puc

  7. Dear Jonah,
    I am fascinated by your posts and especially by your presumption of certainty regarding what it means to be a Christian, or rather, more importantly and less ambiguously, what it means to believe in and be a true follower of Christ.

    “When a Christian says she believes in Christ, that is shorthand for two things: first, that she believes a set of propositions about Christ, and second (which is based on the first), that she has a personal relationship with him.”

    Where is this set of propositions that are presumably without question regarding Christ? Just because a certain group of people, however large, believes something , that doesn’t mean it’s the truth or an accurate interpretation of the truth, or even an accurate reflection of an overall population (in this case, “Christians”). Nevertheless, the much more relevant question is what it means to be a true believer, a true follower of Christ.

    “From the Christian perspective, if you believe in Christ, that necessarily means you believe that Christ is the second person of the Trinity who took on a human body and spirit and then, after dying on the cross, brought that body and spirit to life for eternity on Easter morning. If Baha’is can’t say they believe that those things are true, then they shouldn’t be so nonchalant in telling Christians they believe in Christ. If they don’t qualify what they mean by believing in Christ, then they are not so much teaching as misleading.”

    I think the most misleading thing in this entire discussion is actually your presumption of what it means to believe in Christ. It seems quite clear in Matthew 25:31-46 regarding the standard for determining a true follower of Christ. Furthermore, Matthew 7:21-23 sheds some more light on this concept of the true follower, as do Christ’s teachings on the Two Greatest Commandments and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, both of which emphasize what one must do to obtain eternal life, which would presumably indicate a true follower – a true “Christian” for lack of a better term. Along that same line of thought, Matthew 12:50, Mark 9:40, John 5:24 and John 6:45-47 & 65 further call into question your presumption. Side note, all of these passages collectively emphasize the Father, in Whom almost all other religions believe if we consider the possibility that all are worshiping the same one God. I’m not going to address the trinity on this post, but suffice it to say, that concept as a means for explaining Christ’s relationship to the Father was settled upon by imperfect human beings, not Christ.

    Moving on, I don’t recall seeing a requirement to identify yourself as a “Christian” in any of these aforementioned passages. And I wouldn’t suppose that you would judge another’s belief in Christ or lack thereof (Luke 6:37), regardless of what they identify themselves as. The point is that regardless of whether someone identifies themself as a “Christian,” you, nor I, nor any other human being is the judge of what it truly means to be a believer or a follower in Christ.

    Moreover, the scriptures suggest that true belief in Christ is not mere acceptance of a certain list of teachings: reference 2 James 2:14-26, the passages above, and the New Testament comprehensively. This all suggests that true belief and true acceptance of Christ and his teachings is shown through how someone lives their life in accordance with that belief and acceptance.

    The Baha’is I encountered were actually the truest “Christians” I’d ever met. Though there may be a difference in what the Christians you’re thinking of believe about Christ and what Baha’is do, that doesn’t mean that a discussion about what it truly means to believe is off the table – and it doesn’t mean the Baha’is are necessarily wrong just because it doesn’t match up with what said group, or you, believes.

    God bless you,

    Eric

  8. As I’ve said before in this thread, if you want to call yourself Christian, go ahead. It’s a free country. I will disagree with you, but that is not the point here.

    My post was about definitions. Not that one definition is right and another is wrong, but that when you are teaching Christians you should be honest with yourself and with your acquaintance about your words and what they mean. I don’t know how to explain this any further without repeating what I wrote in the original post.

  9. Dear Jonah,
    I think you’re side-stepping the most important concept here – what it means to be a true follower of Christ, which is at the core of a discussion about defining what it means to be a “Christian.” How can you make a valuation judgement on someone’s honesty regarding what words mean if the crux of the discussion is in what those words mean? Furthermore, just because you may have been misleading or dishonest previously doesn’t mean others do the same. It just means that you were misleading or dishonest previously. :)

    Eric

  10. I think you’re side-stepping the most important concept here – what it means to be a true follower of Christ, which is at the core of a discussion about defining what it means to be a “Christian.”

    This is not a discussion about what it means to be a Christian. This is a discussion about the terminology Baha’is use when they teach.

    By all means, have a discussion with Christians about what it means to be Christian, and why you believe you’re entitled to call yourself one. I think that could be a useful discussion. What you should not do (to reiterate my in point in the post above) is tell Christians that Baha’is are Christians without explaining what you mean by that term, and without acknowledging up front that what you think that word means is different from what they think it means.

    Furthermore, just because you may have been misleading or dishonest previously doesn’t mean others do the same. It just means that you were misleading or dishonest previously. :)

    Are you suggesting that I was the only Baha’i who ever committed a lie of omission in hopes of winning someone over to the Faith?

  11. Hmmmm…

    Jewish polemicists have been accusing Christians for centuries of pretending to believe and follow the Torah, but “mean something entirely different than us”, and thus have been derided of “omission.” In fact, they accuse Jesus personally of willfully deceiving the public who “don’t know any better” with his convenient quotations of some verses from the Tanakh, and avoidance of other quotations that wouldn’t bolster his claim.

    Christian polemicists have been accusing Muslims for centuries of “not really” believing in Jesus and the prophets of the Tanakh, and at one point derided them as “heretical Christians” because they couldn’t wrap their minds around the idea that a religious community independent from Christianity could exist, even if it was “false.”

    Muslim polemicists have been accusing Baha’is for one-hundred and sixty-four years of pretending to believe in the Qur’an and the prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh), but “mean something entirely different than us” by it. I guess my question is if all of this supposed deception is so well-known by the “knowledgeable” of each preceding religious community in reference to the “new, false” religious community, what motivation would the “new, false” community have to keep continuing to doing such a horrible job of deceiving people who apparently can’t be deceived? Or is there something else going on?

    I’m not a Baha’i, by the way. I just think it is something to think about….

  12. I respond to Matt’s comment here.

  13. Only catholics get to heaven, a protestant may linger in pergatory for a thousand years and if they accept Jesus’ Mother as Earth Godess they may enter heaven earlier. Catholics by buying indulgences can shorten the length of their term in pergatory and that of whatever ancestors they petition their priests to pray for. There actually is only one TRUE church, The Mother of All Churches which is the Holy Roman Catholic Church. All others are false doctrines. Become a Cathlic or BURN IN HELL.
    I asked my priest about the Bahais and he hadn’t heard of them but said Jesus said to be aware of false prophets and he would be my spiritual leader . He actually met and was personally annointed by the Holy Spirit. As for Muhammad, That is the Anti-Christ.

  14. “We, as Bahá’ís, must not have any affiliations with churches or political parties. But he feels certain that when you meditate on this matter you yourselves will see the wisdom of it. We, as Bahá’ís, can never be known as hypocrites or as people insincere in their protestations and because of this we cannot subscribe to both the faith of Bahá’u’lláh and ordinary church dogma. The churches are waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ; we believe He has come again in the Glory of the father. The churches teach doctrines—various ones in various creeds—which we as Bahá’ís do not accept; such as the bodily Resurrection, confession, or in some creeds, the denial of the Immaculate Conception. In other words there is no Christian church today whose dogmas we, as Bahá’ís can truthfully say we accept in their entirety—therefore to remain a member of the Church is not proper for us, for we do so under false pretences. We should, therefore, withdraw from our churches but continue to associate, if we wish to, with the church members and ministers. Our belief in Christ, as Bahá’ís, is so firm, so unshakable and so exalted in nature that very few Christians are to be found now-a-days who love Him and reverence Him and have the faith in Him that we have. It is only from the dogmas and creeds of the churches that we dissociate ourselves; not from the spirit of Christianity.”
    (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 158)

    Comment: there are people who come into the Baha’i Faith with no relationship, understanding of, or education about Jesus. Those individuals of course do not yet fall into the Guardian’s description of belief in Jesus.

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