Just before Yule I tagged along on a business trip with my husband and spent my days wandering the greater Chicago area. I was driving along a scenic road near Northwestern University when I turned a corner and came upon a truly glorious building. A white dome full of lacey stonework in a picturesque garden setting, it had that aura of a house of worship. Being fascinated by different faiths as I am, I pulled to the side to try to figure out what it was – and if I could get inside!
Turned out it was a Bahá’í temple, one of only seven around the world and the only one in North America. And I stumbled onto it by accident while jaunting about the Chicago suburbs. Like most houses of worship, they welcome visitors, and the temple has a basement with explanations of Bahá’í’s history and core beliefs. I knew a few things about Bahá’í going in, just that (a) we disagree on the morality homosexuality, (b) they are the fourth religion descended from Judaism, after Christianity and Islam, and they therefore believe in the same monotheistic version of god, and (c) unlike other Abrahamic faiths (at least traditionally) they believe all who worship anything at all worship the essence of the same Universal God and therefore don’t condemn people who practice different faiths. In fact, as I approached the temple I noticed their pillars contained religious symbols from Paganism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam running up the side, and in the visitor’s area a plaque explained that they did this as a welcome to people of all faiths to worship together in peace.
The approach to the temple was impressive but the faith itself was equally beautiful (minus the whole gay rights part). Aside from the respect for differing faiths, they have several key beliefs that I appreciate:
- Men and women are absolutely equal
- Any form of racial, national, economic, or religious prejudice is destructive and must be overcome.
- Each person must investigate truth for themselves
- Science and religion are not in opposition
- Family is a cornerstone of life
- All people of the world are children of g/God, making us one family.
Bahá’í was foretold in 1844 in Persia when a prophet known as The Báb declared that a Messenger of God was about to arise. The Muslim leadership at the time had him imprisoned and later executed for heresy. In 1863 one of his followers, Bahá’u’lláh – the son of an aristocrat who had eschewed his heritage to follow Báb – declared himself to be the anointed one. He was imprisoned for his beliefs and while incarcerated wrote a series of letters to world leaders calling upon them to embrace peace and enter a new era of universal citizenship. When he died in 1892, he passed on the leadership of his new faith to his son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was released from prison (where he’d been incarcerated with his father for heresy) in 1908 and toured Europe and America spreading his father’s message of peace, social justice, gender equality, and universal harmony. The writings of Báb and Bahá’u’lláh are considered divinely inspired while the writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and other heads of the faith (they always have a spiritual leader, like the Pope) are considered reliable interpretations of the divinely inspired writings.
About the time I had caught up on this much in the visitor’s center, they announced that church services would be beginning in the next few minutes. I gathered my things and hurried up to the temple, hoping to get a glimpse inside and interested (as always) to see what a service looks like in another faith. Photographs are not allowed inside the temple, so I didn’t take any, but if you are ever in the Chicago area and are interested in religious buildings, I highly recommend a visit – it is stunning. I was greeted upon entrance by a kindly looking man with a program, just as I had been every week growing up in Protestant services. The service itself is simply a time for meditation while rotating orators read passages from sacred Bahá’í writings. Even though I’m not much the meditation type, I had never read any Bahá’í scripture before, and so I had a nice time.
After services I went back down to the visitor’s area. I had noticed but not yet reached a miniature boulder on the ground that was cordoned off, and I was curious what it was. **pic** I made my way there and read the story. When the temple was being built, they were soliciting donations from Bahá’ís to support the construction. One believer had no money, but stopped by a quarry on her way to services and picked up a broken limestone that the quarrymaster was willing to give her. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived to dedicate the foundations of the temple, her stone was chosen to be the cornerstone in reminder both that “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief corner stone.” (Psalms: 118: 22) and that all of us can make an impact if we are willing to make the effort.
All in all it was a fascinating visit that had me singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” for the remainder of the day. I respect greatly what the Bahá’ís are doing, even if I’m jaded enough to think universal harmony is not a viable goal. (I guess that’s the Viking in me.) But their quest for equality, their social work towards human rights regardless of race or gender are admirable, and their hospitality to a Pagan are most impressive. (Now if they can just get over that one prejudice…) I’m glad I happened upon a temple and got to learn about a religion I had little concept of before!
Have you ever been to a Bahá’í worship service (they apparently have congregations all over the place that meet in homes or community centers, despite only have seven temples)? Are there any other unique religions that you’ve had a chance to encounter and could tell us about?
+ Featured Image: Photograph of the Greatest Name at the top of the interior of the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. (Where I was.) By Sean M. Scully, released into the public domain. Like Heathenry, Bahá’í considers 9 to be their most sacred number. They often use a 9 pointed star as a symbol (as here), and all their temples have nine sides. The caligraphy reads: “Yá Bahá’u’l-Abhá”, which translates to “”O Glory of the Most Glorious!”