baha’i dating: building a gateway to marriage

and in the darkness bind themlet’s talk about chastity, let’s talk about you and me, September 11, 2006

When I was in high school, I used to tell people that “Bahá’ís don’t date”. That was a gross oversimplification, of course. It’s not that Bahá’ís can’t do things with potential partners in order to get to know them better, it’s more like they don’t buy into the culture of dating that currently prevails in Western society. Yeah, Netflix and chill is out. But beyond that, I was probably having my own trouble figuring out how to get to know a potential life partner as a Bahá’í. How exactly do you learn how to relate to potential partners when most of your peers just want to talk about baseball? And just how are you supposed to get to know someone without playing that game?

A little while ago, there was a thread on Reddit’s Baha’i group in which a new Baha’i—for whom sex in romantic relationships had previously become an important part of life— asked: “How do Baha’is date without sex?” I thought I’d share a little about what was said in this thread. Several users made some great comments, so I’ve collected them here together.

From /u/t0lk: “Good sex is not the purpose of a marriage and therefore not the focus of the dating life for Baha’is. Marriage is about strengthening the family and therefore the core unit of society. It is also about providing stability in which children can be raised in safety and security. You can think of dating as the process of determining who would best allow you to do that. The more attached we become to someone through sex or intimacy the more difficult it can become to judge based on that criteria. Ideally a Baha’i enters a relationship once he or she has become acquainted with the character of the other person, has had a chance to serve together with that person and already has a strong friendship with them. As you can imagine, any intimacy detracts from this purpose and will make the process more difficult.”

From /u/papercranium: “It helps to keep in mind that the point of dating isn’t to be dating. It’s to further investigate whether someone could be a marriage partner. It’s not meant to be a long, ongoing process. It’s not something you can do with someone you find attractive at a bar somewhere. You obviously know this person from somewhere, or you wouldn’t be considering them as a potential spouse. So what did you do with them before? Go hiking? Play Scrabble? Teach children’s classes? Do more of that. My husband and I were friends since the age of 15. We started dating 11 years later. Within a year we were married. There just wasn’t a lot more getting-to-know-you that needed to happen at that point.”

And my own answer: “My wife and I met through service, as I was taking several months off to serve internationally and she was a member of the institutions at my post. We didn’t know each other as long as you guys did before we started considering a serious relationship, so from the get-go we tried to go into our relationship deliberately and with eyes fully open. Serving together was probably the best thing we could have done to get to know each other, as it allowed us to see how each of us dealt with a variety of challenges and difficult situations. We planned out other activities to allow us to get to know each other better, too. Some of these were one-on-one: hanging out in coffeeshops and having conversations, or long walks by the lake, for instance. Some of them were with friends and family, like sightseeing, trips, family dinners, and so on. And of course, we would attend Feasts and holy days together. We travelled a lot, and we were able to observe each other in a variety of different contexts. Eventually, we decided we were willing to take things to the next step, got consent, and voilà.”

eye-gazing in hoi anIt’s important to be clear: The Bahá’í Faith isn’t against sex. To quote the Universal House of Justice: “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.” In other words, the law of chastity revealed by Bahá’u’lláh 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.

So, does chastity mean that Bahá’ís have to be like monks and completely abstain from sex? Well, only until they get married: The law of Bahá’í marriage was revealed to give sexual impulses their highest and most constructive expression. But then, one might ask, how can we expect young people to “regulate” and “control” their sexual feelings until they’re ready to get married—especially when more and more young people are choosing to postpone marriage, sometimes into their thirties? Simple: Create a culture of Bahá’í marriage.

In the article Creating a New Bahá’í Marriage Culture, Raelee Peirce, a Bahá’í who works as a Parent Coach in North Carolina, explores how parents can help give their children a positive view of marriage and relationships. A short excerpt follows to give you a taste of it:

We need to share with our preschoolers the idea of marriage and we need to discuss the concept of finding a husband or wife when our children are in grade school rather than entertaining the idea of boyfriends and girlfriends. We need to create a family culture that does not include our children or youth engaging in frivolous boy-girl relationships. For example, when a six-year-old talks about “liking” another of the opposite sex, one should not consider it cute and exclaim to others that Jamal has a little girlfriend. As a Bahá’í parent we need to say, “Jamal, it’s wonderful that you like Emma; it’s great to have lots of friends. One day when you are much older you will find a girl to be your wife and have a beautiful Bahá’í family!”…

When we consistently refer to boy-girl relationships as a marriage relationship through the young years and the expectation of our family standard is that boyfriends and girlfriends aren’t relevant, then it isn’t a part of our child’s context even when it is part of their world at school. Potential husbands and wives are the more acceptable concept. In this context, a young boy or girl is not likely to start seeking a marriage partner!

One interesting point I’ve gleaned from this article is that perhaps, as Bahá’ís get their children started thinking about marriage in this way, marriage will become a goal for an earlier stage in life. In other words, it’s okay for children to know that one of the main purposes of Bahá’í marriage is to give expression to their sexual impulses, and it’s okay for them to plan ahead for it with that in mind. Instead of waiting until their thirties to get married, they can plan to marry young—let’s say, between 18–25—so that they can enjoy their youth with their partner.

So, with all of this said, what does Bahá’í dating look like? Well, the main difference that sets it apart from any other kind of dating is its intention. It’s not just a game, and it’s not a way for young Bahá’ís to indulge their sexual impulses. It’s a gateway to the institution of marriage, which, for Bahá’ís, is an institution that provides for the kind of strength and stability in which those impulses can be most constructively expressed, and in which children can be raised in safety and security. Imagine being an architect, and wanting to build a strong and beautiful building that will be able to withstand any conditions, from the strongest storms to the weathering of the ages. And imagine that the job is too big for you to take on alone: You need a partner, another architect with whom you will work on this lifelong project. Bahá’í dating essentially means looking for this architect—someone with the skills, the virtues and the character to help you build a fortress for well-being.

The original post, let’s talk about chastity, let’s talk about you and me, is one of the most popular posts on doberman pizza.

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.”

part of a whole

Many of you have probably read, listened to, or heard of a recent talk by former member of the Universal House of Justice Mr. Ali Nakhjavani, in which he emphatically expressed how important it is for Bahá’í communities to maintain teaching activities alongside core activities such as study circles, children’s classes, junior youth groups and devotional meetings. You may also have read a (previously unpublished?) letter on this same topic, written by the Universal House of Justice on October 31, 2002, that’s also been circulating. I read through these myself recently, and they brought me to reflect on the evolution in my own understanding of the institute process, and in my own actions. I shared some of these reflections on Reddit recently, and thought I’d repost them here.

Several years back there was definitely an increase in focus on the institute process in our local community as we studied the messages of the Universal House of Justice which described training institutes and their centrality to the process of community growth. At the time, I was just coming out of university, and it was really the first time I had ever been strongly involved in Bahá’í community activities, despite having grown up in a Bahá’í family. Being involved in study circles was pretty transformative for me—studying Ruhi Book 1 was the first time I ever really thought about the life of the soul—and I was inspired thereafter to do some homefront pioneering, which involved getting further trained up to Ruhi Book 7. At the time, training institutes were new and I think we were still thinking of it in terms of yet another deepening program, and we often skipped the practical service aspects of the Ruhi curriculum which help collaborators arise to serve. I feel like, as a result, I didn’t really “get” the interconnectedness of it all, and just thought something like, “OK, these study circles are the key to transformation, so I have to put all my efforts into study circles”. Occasionally, that meant that I declined invitations to participate in other initiatives, such as music nights, social get-togethers, and so on, that would have been great teaching opportunities, because I was too busy with my study circle stuff. I know I must have disappointed a lot of well-intentioned and inspired friends because of that, but thank God many of them went ahead anyway and carried forward those initiatives, which are a feature of our local community life now.

I certainly did have an “either this one or that one, but not both” mentality when it came to community activities. Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles I had to overcome was my fear of failure and my lack of confidence in my ability to teach—indeed, to create and maintain relationships with people in general. Somehow I was too comfortable with acting as a tutor within the safe, limited environment of an inward-looking community, and not comfortable at all creating genuine, profound relationships with others. I struggled with this for a while, especially as we spoke more and more about how the Bahá’í community had to open outwards, moving from the mindset of a congregation to that of a sort of commonwealth of mankind, blurring the lines between “Bahá’í” and “otherwise”. I think it was this internal struggle—and my continued willingness to adopt a posture of learning and participate in programs of growth in whatever ways I could despite my fear—that helped me see how many of these pieces fit together. The idea of coherence was particularly useful to me, in that I began to see how, for example, a study circle, devotional meeting, children’s class, and junior youth group could develop in sync and feed off each other, and be fed by things that we don’t call “core activities” but are no less crucial: firesides, home visits, and even just hanging out with friends and elevating conversation. In time, the sense of dichotomy disappeared, and now I find myself involved as much in establishing friendships with people in non-“core” ways as I do in teaching children’s classes or walking with friends through Ruhi Book 1.

I should also mention that one of the things that helped me gain confidence was being part of a team, in this case with Quynh. After we were married a few years ago, we found that we could support one another in our service, and do things together that we never dreamed that we could do alone. We are still learning about what seems “right” for us, what our strengths and weaknesses are, and where we can spend our energy most effectively. As a team, we balance and complement each other. If I can’t do something, then she picks up the slack; if neither of us can do it, we just focus our efforts on what we can do. And, most importantly, we are united, and we support each other no matter what. As long as we have that unity, we know that we will be confirmed.

interview with a stranger

Written on Feb. 25, 2010.

The air here in Da Nang is cool this afternoon, and the shade inside the dusty, cream-coloured offices of the Justice Department is a welcome change from the hot sun outside. I tap my thoughts and reflections out onto an iPhone as I wait for Quynh to finish her interview upstairs. We’re scheduled to be married in just over a week, and this set of interviews is the last legal hurdle to jump for our union to be recognized by the state – at least, besides signing a bunch more documents in triplicate.

I went under the scope first, and they brought in a translator to talk with me so they could make sense of my strange moon-language. The questions they asked were… bizarre. What’s her phone number? Her date of birth? Her email address? I guess I was expecting relevant questions, you know, like something besides what you’d put on a credit card application. But in retrospect, remembering what Quynh and I had discussed about the nature of the interview process, these banal questions make sense. They’re apparently intended to weed out arranged marriages, ones brokered through agents– proverbial “mail-order brides”.

I guess I always thought of the business of “mail-order marriages” as a big joke. I’d heard of stories regarding the practice and found them to be too unbelievable to be true. How could two people become so desperate– or morally directionless– as to reduce marriage to a mere transaction, to reduce a human being to a mere commodity? When Quynh explained to me that such “agency marriages” were a well-known (though strongly condemned) practice among Vietnamese women, I was filled with incalculable rage, so much so that I nearly fell off a speeding motorbike. it seemed to violate everything I’d ever believed about love, marriage, and human relationships.

supposedly the phenomenon is mainly driven by despair, on both sides. Quynh explained to me that many of the prospective husbands– the word “customers” brings my blood to a boil, although most are indeed customers– would be considered “past their prime”, and perhaps feel impotent to attract women in their own country. As a side note, some of Quynh’s neighbours have expressed astonished at how young I look– perhaps expecting her North American husband to be in his 50s. On the prospective bride’s side weighs the burden of percieved “marriageability”, or, in the case of a Vietnamese woman in her late 20s, the steadily dwindling levels thereof. In short, an unmarried woman over 30 years old is widely viewed as a failure. Such a perception isn’t unique to Vietnamese culture, but it’s much more pronounced here.

that next step

i’ve felt so tired these past few weeks—probably a combination of work, planning for the wedding in Vietnam (including scrambling around trying to collect documents and ferry them from one office to the next, like one of those bad video games), participating in the latest cycle of the Baha’i community’s intensive program of growth, and uhhhh being too lazy to go to the gym and get some exercise like I should be. Less than one month remain now before I fly back to Vietnam to be married—a story some of you may remember reading a few months ago. Planning a wedding is definitely serious business, and it seems like it’s a strong test of a couple’s ability to work together—which, so far, Quynh and I seem to be doing quite well. Although strongly aware of the cultural and temperamental differences between us, we’ve been getting along in a constructive spirit of unity and fellowship. I love it, and I’m really looking forward to experiencing the joy and the challenge of married life, of building that “fortress for well-being”. It definitely feels like leaving a certain phase of my life behind—that phase where I felt I only had to consider myself and what I wanted to do—and beginning a new phase of life which, while it closes some doors, opens up so many more possibilities.

OK I’m hungry now. off to dinner. Please leave wise comments if you wish.

intercultural marriage

how on earth did I miss this? upon doing random google searches this afternoon, I found an awesome CBC interview with Elham and Ayafor on the CBC Radio site (you may remember reading about their wedding on this blog), two good Baha’i friends of mine from Ottawa, on the subject of intercultural and interreligious marriage, specifically weddings between members of different cultures. They’re obviously qualified—Ayafor is Cameroonian, Elham is Persian, and both of them have lived in many different places across the world. Listen to the interview!