BY DR. AGONSON
The center looks just like what a modern church might minus a steeple. A staircase leads up to some large doors, and a pair of winding ramps twist around the sides. I found myself somewhat hesitant to approach. I had a building headache, and I had thrown up last night. Still, feeling sick, I entered the center.
Two men greeted me. One seemed to be in his forties or fifties. The other, a lanky and hairy individual, may have been in his seventies. They were both casually dressed as befitted the atmosphere of the place. Friendly, they immediately began to proselytize. After our introductions, I explained my purpose. They were glad to have me. Droning on, they each began reciting their beliefs. One would begin, and if he looked like he might run out of steam, the other would take charge. Going back and forth like this, my head began to swim as their words all blurred together.
After their service, I talked with these two again plus an elderly lady. I asked each of them why they believed the Baha’i faith and how they came to it. Their stories were all similar: Once Christian, and then Baha’i. Only one, the tall man, gave me something of a rational for his faith (I do not here demean the other two; they gave emotional reasons that basically amounted to the fact that they preferred Baha’i, it was the tall man who finally gave something approximating an argument).
The basic argument was that the exclusive claim of Christianity or Islam (indeed, most religions) to truth was bunk. Which is to say, the idea that people would go to Hell because they had never heard the gospel, or simply rejected the gospel, didn’t sit well with him. Well, I had asked.
The service was rather empty, and not just in headcount. Forgive that I should editorialize here, but their beliefs, apparently the dogma of John Lennon’s Imagine, would not stir me out of bed on a Sunday to sit in an uncomfortable chair to hear unprepared people stumbling over prewritten prayers interspersed with canned music. The whole thing seemed incredible: What was the point? If I had thought of a polite way of asking this, I might have, but my head was throbbing, and I just wanted to be done.
That is, by the way, how their service ran. They were focused on the Psalms the day I came, but printed them out in a block of text irreflective of their poetic nature. So, an excerpt of a Psalm would be read followed by some of the Baha’u’llah. (Some of the prophets were interspersed in here too). To give their readers a break, the man at the piano would turn on his phone—they never used the piano other than to rest a phone on it—and play worship music. The music varied from religion and language. I recognized the English, think there was Hebrew, and know not what else.
There was a very interesting moment of freestyle prayer. I said moment, but in all truth this part dragged on for maybe a quarter of the entire service. Some of the congregants prayed in a foreign tongue in a manner which reminded me of an Islamic singsong type prayer. Many read from small books they carried. Shortly after this, the service was concluded.
There was so much said, that I fear I have forgotten much of it. Their theology was a theology of niceties. There was nothing they presented me which had teeth, which was transcendent or beautiful. It was the religion of soft-soap.
“Some people want to use religion to divide,” said the lanky man.
“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword,” said Jesus.
“And they want to argue,” the man continued.
I suppose it is nice not to argue, not to be concerned with the discovery of the truth. Here are the teachings that will tickle your ears; hear what you want to hear. I am reminded of yesteryear’s meme, a meme in which a character named Space Ghost proclaims: “I believe everything that man just said, because it is precisely what I wanted to hear.” This meme pokes fun at what we in the psychobabble community might call confirmation bias.
When I went to the Buddhists, I felt sorry for them. They were chained to useless rituals, worshiping dead things. In the Baha’i center, I found it hard to have any pity for these confused people. They had a wimpy religion of meaningless platitudes. I feel cruel writing such things: they were friendly and kind to me, but they were like castrated people, or as C. S. Lewis might have described them, they were men without chests.
Related: A Closer Look