the role of sex and sexuality

So I was looking back at the very first Baha’i AMA we hosted a while back, with the help of a bunch of users from Reddit’s Baha’i group. One of the questions had to do with the Baha’i view of the role of sexuality and gender identity. It was answered quite well, but I decided to offer my own perspective on the role of sexuality in Bahá’í life.

The sex impulse is a natural bestowal, and Baha’u’llah says it should be regulated in its expression to just with our marriage partner. […]

Just a bit of digression on this: Sexuality, in and of itself, is a part of the human experience. The Bahá’í teachings emphasize the dual nature of human life: we have a higher, spiritual, divine nature, and a lower, material, animal nature. Both are necessary for us to progress in this physical world, but our spiritual self—our soul—is all that we bring with us into the spiritual worlds of God. The laws and precepts revealed by Bahá’u’lláh constitute the means for us to refine and prepare our spiritual self for its eternal journey, which has its beginnings in the womb of the mother, continues through this physical world and into the hereafter.

The Universal House of Justice explains: “Just as there are laws governing our physical lives, requiring that we must supply our bodies with certain foods, maintain them within a certain range of temperatures, and so forth, if we wish to avoid physical disabilities, so also there are laws governing our spiritual lives. These laws are revealed to mankind in each age by the Manifestation of God, and obedience to them is of vital importance if each human being, and mankind in general, is to develop properly and harmoniously.”

The law of chastity revealed by Bahá’u’lláh, then, is basically a way for us to remain in control of our sexual impulses, which enables us to develop true, profound and lasting friendships and relationships with members of both sexes, freed from the constraints of an excessive focus on sexuality. The law of marriage, which, as /u/finnerpeace noted, is defined as being between a man and a woman, was revealed to give those impulses their highest and most constructive expression.

From the Universal House of Justice again: “…the Bahá’í Faith recognizes the value of the sex impulse and holds that the institution of marriage has been established as the channel of its rightful expression. Bahá’ís do not believe that the sex impulse should be suppressed but that it should be regulated and controlled. Chastity in no way implies withdrawal from human relationships. It liberates people from the tyranny of the ubiquity of sex. A person who is in control of his sexual impulses is enabled to have profound and enduring friendships with many people, both men and women, without ever sullying that unique and priceless bond that should unite man and wife.”

All this being said, the application of these laws, as with many Bahá’í laws, is left to the discretion of the believers. Except in cases where people are somehow hurting or otherwise negatively affecting themselves or others, it’s not something that people get upset over. Everyone has his or her own path to follow and his or her own spiritual row to hoe. Confession of sins to others is forbidden for Bahá’ís, as is fault-finding—in fact, Bahá’u’lláh regards fault-finding and backbiting as the worst possible sin. Every Bahá’í, then, is directly responsible before God for his or her own actions, inactions, and overall spiritual growth.

One last quote from the Universal House of Justice: “It is neither possible nor desirable for the Universal House of Justice to set forth a set of rules covering every situation. Rather is it the task of the individual believer to determine, according to his own prayerful understanding of the Writings, precisely what his course of conduct should be in relation to situations which he encounters in his daily life. If he is to fulfil his true mission in life as a follower of the Blessed Perfection, he will pattern his life according to the Teachings. The believer cannot attain this objective merely by living according to a set of rigid regulations. When his life is oriented toward service to Bahá’u’lláh, and when every conscious act is performed within this frame of reference, he will not fail to achieve the true purpose of his life.”

do baha’is believe in ghosts?

Another older question here from the Reddit Baha’i group, /r/bahai. This time, someone (presumably a Baha’i) asked the question: “Do we believe in ghosts?” Here’s the answer I gave.

This is a good question, and to me, there are a few different ways of looking at it. One is, is there an afterlife that follows our physical death? The answer is, yes, there is, most definitely. A quick look through Ruhi Book 1 will reveal a number of insightful quotes from the Writings on this subject, including this one, which tells us that this physical world is, in fact, a way of preparing us for the life beyond:

“In the beginning of his human life man was embryonic in the world of the matrix. There he received capacity and endowment for the reality of human existence. The forces and powers necessary for this world were bestowed upon him in that limited condition. In this world he needed eyes; he received them potentially in the other. He needed ears; he obtained them there in readiness and preparation for his new existence. The powers requisite in this world were conferred upon him in the world of the matrix …

“Therefore, in this world he must prepare himself for the life beyond. That which he needs in the world of the Kingdom must be obtained here. Just as he prepared himself in the world of the matrix by acquiring forces necessary in this sphere of existence, so, likewise, the indispensable forces of the divine existence must be potentially attained in this world.”

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace)

Another way of looking at the question is: Are there “spirits”, or souls, who are bound to the material world? The answer to this question, according to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, is no:

“There are no earth-bound souls. When the souls that are not good die they go entirely away from this earth and so cannot influence anyone. They are spiritually dead. Their thoughts can have influence only when they are alive on the earth… But the good souls are given eternal life and sometimes God permits their thoughts to reach the earth to help the people.”

(Questions answered by Abdu’l-Bahá in Akka: Daily Lessons, Received at Akka, 1979 ed., pp. 35-36)

Yet another way of looking at the question is: Have people who report seeing “visions” or apparitions of people who have passed away, or somehow communicating with those people, actually seen or heard those souls? The answer, according to Shoghi Effendi, is “probably not, but possibly, in very rare circumstances”:

“Regarding your question: In His chapter on ‘Visions and Communications with Spirits’ in ‘Some Answered Questions’, the Master evidently desires to point out that there can be, under certain rare circumstances, such as those experienced by the Prophets, communion with some soul gone before into the invisible world, but that most of this type of experience which people often claim to have with departed souls is nothing but the product of their own imaginations–however real it may seem to them to be. […]

“Truly mystical experiences based on reality are very rare, and we can readily see how dangerous it is for people to go groping about in the darkness of their imagination after the true thing. That is why, as you point out, we are warned against all psychical practices by the Master.

“If we are going to have some deeply spiritual experience we can rest assured God will vouchsafe it to us without our having to look for it.”

(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated October 25, 1942, to an individual believer)

It’s also worth noting that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi both recommend against trying to tamper with or even to give undue consideration to supernatural or psychic forces, as mentioned in the quote above, as doing so can actually be harmful to us spiritually and retard our soul’s progress.

For a good treatment of the subject of everything supernatural in the Bahá’í Faith, you might want to take a look at the book Miracles in Religion: A Study of the miraculous in religion in context of the Bahá’í Faith by Anil Sarwal.

why is the baha’i faith so prominent in the pacific?

Here’s an older question, but an interesting one which I thought I’d share here. Again from Reddit, this one was posted on the /r/AskSocialScience subreddit: “Why has the Baha’i faith become so prominent in the Pacific island-states?”

The original question was as follows:

“I was reading a Wikipedia article on religious demographics and read that large percentages of the populations of small island-states in the Pacific are Baha’i. So why?”

There are a few reasons that I’ve been able to dig up after some searching. Much of the in-depth research I’ve found has been published by Dr. Graham Hassall of Victoria University of Wellington, NZ. Here are two good references:

Hassall mentions in (1992) that much of the growth of the Bahá’í Faith began after 1953, as part of a systematic “Global Crusade” to establish communities in a number of areas where no Bahá’ís lived at the time, of which fifteen were islands in the Pacific. From the settlement of “pioneers” to the conversion of individuals and groups and eventually the establishment of institutions, this phased, methodical approach laid roots in a number of these islands simultaneously, aided by international support from Bahá’ís in many countries worldwide.

As for why the peoples of the Pacific islands were attracted to the religion, Hassall notes in (2006) several reasons why new converts in the Gilbert Islands abandoned their existing churches to join the Bahá’í Faith: aversion to financial and other obligations from the churches; a quest for education; and attraction to the lifestyle offered by the Bahá’í Faith and other “new religious movements”.

As for the question of percentages, we might bear in mind that many of the Pacific nations listed in OP’s link have relatively low populations to begin with (Wikipedia, via national census). Top-ranked Nauru, for instance, has a population of 10,000; 9.22% makes 922 Bahá’ís. Tuvalu and Tokelau, also in the top five, have similarly low population. Tonga, with its population of 104,000, has 6.09% = 6333 Bahá’ís. If we look at sheer population of Bahá’ís (again, in OP’s link), India dominates with over 1.8 million, though the proportion compared to the nation’s total population is much lower at below 0.15%.

The overall answer is probably a combination of these: the systematic approach to mission work adopted by the worldwide Bahá’í community, as well as its relative attractiveness to the islanders, helped the Bahá’í Faith to gain a strong foothold there early on and build a relatively large population of converts, which, as compared with the low population of the islands, tends to stand out more than in other places in the world, which have much higher populations.

Finally, something I didn’t include in my original post, of course, was that perhaps the peoples of the Pacific islands were attracted to the Baha’i Faith because they saw in it great spiritual confirmations and truths that had been lacking in their previous religious experience.

all about entry by troops

And here’s another question from our jargon-busting session on Reddit’s Baha’i group, this time asking about the term “entry by troops”. What’s it all about? And does it mean the same thing as “mass conversion”?

First off, I’ve been reminded several times that the expression “entry by troops” is actually echoed in the Qur’an:

The Day when the Trumpet will be blown; then you will come up in troops… (Qur’an 78:18)

When comes the victory of Allah, and the Conquest, and you see mankind entering the Religion of Allah in troops… (Qur’an 110:1-2)

Generally, the term seems to be used to describe the Day when God will be victorious over the forces of unbelief, and humanity will recognize His religion and so enter it in multitudes. So this isn’t a concept that’s exclusive to the Bahá’í Faith; it’s grounded in the Scriptures of previous Revelations.

There’s an interesting compilation on entry by troops that was published in 2000, but unfortunately, it doesn’t spell out the leaps of evolution in thinking and capacity that have come about in the Bahá’í World in the past 17 years, the real examples of mass conversion that have happened in certain communities around the world in that time, and so on.

My understanding of entry by troops is that it largely has to do with the spiritual perception and receptivity of populations. When people are ready to accept God, they will do so in great numbers. We have already seen this in places where people have suffered greatly, such as Cambodia (civil war for ~30 years, with a major genocide in the 70s), Colombia (civil war for ~50 years), or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (war off and on for ~30 years). These are places where the Faith has not only grown in numbers, but also played a huge role in regenerating society, leading to a strong and vibrant community life. The more people suffer, it seems, the more ready they will be ready to turn towards God and embrace His Cause.

Now, as to whether “entry by troops” means exactly the same thing as “mass conversion”: According to the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, the two are different parts of the same process. Simply put, “entry by troops” (i.e., a time when a lot of people will start entering the Faith) is properly seen as a “prelude” to mass conversion (i.e., a time when A REAL LOT of people will start entering the Faith).

From Citadel of Faith:

This flow [of reinforcements], moreover, will presage and hasten the advent of the day which, as prophesied by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, will witness the entry by troops of peoples of divers nations and races into the Bahá’í world—a day which, viewed in its proper perspective, will be the prelude to that long-awaited hour when a mass conversion on the part of these same nations and races … will suddenly revolutionize the fortunes of the Faith, derange the equilibrium of the world, and reinforce a thousandfold the numerical strength as well as the material power and the spiritual authority of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh.

choice wine

Yet another question from our jargon-busting session on Reddit’s Baha’i group, asking for the definition of “choice wine”.

Taken literally, a choice wine is a wine that you would choose above all others. In a Bahá’í context, the phrase “choice wine” is probably best known from its use near the beginning of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, where Bahá’u’lláh issues this warning:

Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power. To this beareth witness that which the Pen of Revelation hath revealed. Meditate upon this, O men of insight!

In the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Bahá’u’lláh uses this same metaphor in an admonition to the Epistle’s recipient, Shaykh Muhammad Taqi:

O Shaykh! Verily I say, the seal of the Choice Wine hath, in the name of Him Who is the Self-Subsisting, been broken; withhold not thyself therefrom.

Volume 4 of the book “The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh” gives an explanation of this metaphor, which I’ll quote here:

‘The seal of the Choice Wine hath…been broken.’ The reference to choice wine, sealed, may be found in the Qur’án (see 83:22-6). The significance of ‘sealed’ is that the true meanings of the Words of God in former Dispensations were not disclosed until the advent of Bahá’u’lláh (see vol. 1, pp. 160-61, on this prophecy of Daniel). The unsealing of the Choice Wine signifies the revelation of the Word of God in this age, disclosing to mankind new teachings and new laws. Bahá’u’lláh declares in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, ‘Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay rather We have unsealed the Choice Wine with the fingers of might and power.’ [The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, ¶5]

So, tl;dr: It’s not literally wine, but a figurative wine that symbolizes the Word of God for this age, which Bahá’u’lláh has revealed.

are all religions equal?

Another question coming from Reddit here, this time from the /r/AskReligion subreddit: “Why do some people believe all religions are equal?” And this one has a pretty simple answer, at least, from a Bahá’í perspective.

Bahá’ís believe that all the world’s great religions are, in fact, one religion that has been revealed progressively over time by different Manifestations of one and the same God—Abraham, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh.

The fact that these Manifestations have differed from each other doesn’t mean that God changed; instead, it means that they each revealed God’s word in a way that was suited to the capacity and to the reality of the people to whom they appeared. The fact that the great religions differ from one another, then, is due to them being revealed at different times to different peoples, as well as to the rituals that human beings have built up around the essential spiritual message they were given.

This is why you’ll often hear Bahá’ís talk about all the great religions being paths to God: They’ve all been part of a long process of education that has spanned all of human history, and that will continue into the future.

If you’re interested, there’s a lot to read about this process of progressive revelation on the official website of the Bahá’í Faith.