I was raised a Christian and embraced the Bahá’í Faith at the age of nineteen. As I deepened my understanding of the Faith, I began to realize a profound change in my worldview. The teachings of the Faith fundamentally changed my understanding of myself as a human being and my understanding of humanity as a species.
The original catalyst for this change was the Faith, itself, with its insistence that I must understand how the world really works in a physical sense, so that I could investigate that reality for myself, using the rational faculty with which God had endowed me. This investigation exposed me to a lot of science. Okay, I’ll ‘fess up: I became a science junkie—a condition from which I have not recovered. My favorite magazines were Science Weekly, Scientific American and The Skeptical Inquirer with whose editor, Kendrick Frazier, I corresponded on and off for several years. I was hooked on science. It appealed to my penchant for problem‑solving.
The Faith, in turn, brought me to the second catalyst for my change in thought: evolutionary theory.
I had been raised by parents who believed that—as Christ suggested—a Christian was known by his love for his fellow human beings and not by a particular doctrine one espoused. Neither was doctrinaire, but the churches we sometimes attended were. One of the doctrines I grew up with was the doctrine of Original Sin. That is, in a nutshell, that God set limits on the first humans and they disobeyed by actively seeking the knowledge of good and evil. This allowed sin to enter the world precipitated The Fall from grace. Fast forward to the Gospels from which emerged the doctrine of Blood Atonement—only the blood of a complete innocent, shed for mankind could save us.
I have since come to a different understanding of The Fall (which is, according to Jewish scholars, a spiritual metaphor in a larger symbolic tale) but the view of humanity that emerged from the doctrine of Original Sin was of a retrograde species. Mankind was degenerating from his perfect beginnings. He could only get worse until his original sin of disobedience was taken off the books, not by his finally learning to obey (requiring self-sacrifice), but by a perfect blood sacrifice (of Someone else).
The result of this historically has been manifold, but it has precipitated a certain self‑destructiveness in some members of our human family. Some Christians have come to believe that mankind has been growing more hopelessly wicked with every passing century and that when we have gotten impossibly evil, God will reach down His mighty hand—through the second appearance of Christ—rescue the believers and send the unbelievers packing.
This doctrine of man’s inveterate evil creates among some people what the guiding body of the global Bahá’í community has referred to as a “paralysis of will.” Why work in the vineyard, the theory goes, when the Lord thereof is shortly to appear and take us away from all this? Let the vineyard burn. There are even professing Christians who actively seek the destruction of the world in the belief that it will cause God to step in more swiftly.
These are not really new ideas. If you read the Epistles of Paul (and I highly recommend them—they are a fascinating glimpse into the nascent Christian community) you’ll see in his Epistles to the Thessalonian congregation that he was already dealing with the results of the belief that Christ’s return was to be immediate. Some folks figured that if this was so, they shouldn’t need to work to support themselves. They had, in essence, become a Doomsday group. Paul admonished them to continue to be in the world, if not of it, and to work for their own support. “He who will not work, shall not eat,” he proclaimed. He would probably give the same advice to the Doomsday groups around today, because many of them have the same attitude. Why bother to work or get a higher education or labor to make the world a better place when the world is irretrievably fallen? Man is headed down the slippery slope to Hell in a hand basket with well‑waxed skids and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
This was the view of mankind that pervaded some of the churches I attended as a child. I remember particularly a Baptist summer camp that was like something out of a Marjoe Gortner exposé. The message was that we were all horrible people and could not be considered “good” in any sense of the word no matter how hard we tried. We were doomed. And that was why Jesus had to die—because we screwed up … or at least our progenitors did.
If you’re thinking that this is not a healthy message to dump on the heads of carbed‑up, sleep‑deprived, dehydrated tweens who were already having doubts about their worth, you’d be right. It occurred to me, even at that age, to wonder why Christ would bother with all those teachings about love and obedience if we were psychologically incapable of even attempting to follow them.
The Bahá’í Faith reversed my polarity. It bid me look at the science of how we grew up on this world and accept what Darwin had to say about the way creatures evolved—the way human beings evolved and are continuing to evolve. If I were to believe what Charles Darwin and the Bahá’í teachings had to say about human beings, I would have to adopt a completely different attitude toward being human. First and foremost, I had to internalize the fact that we are evolving. We are leaving the animal past behind and becoming human.
Frankly, this tallies much better with a reading of history. Things that we thought were hunky‑dory only decades ago—such as owning other people or segregating them by skin color or forcing a woman to have her husband’s written permission to open a bank account or rearrange the furniture in her house (no, I’m not kidding)—we are appalled by today. Let’s not even get into what was going on in Europe’s Dark Ages, or during the conquering of the Americas by “civilized” Europeans.
In stark contrast to my many pastors’ dire and depressing words about the lot of humanity, the Bahá’í Faith’s teachings about humankind were uplifting and inspiring—despite the fact that he does not shy from calling us as we are. We sometimes behave “like the beasts of the field”, something both Bahá’u’lláh and Abdu’l-Bahá states plainly is unworthy of a human being. But the direction of our evolution, as framed by Abdu’l-Bahá, was the opposite of what some of my pastors insisted. “Man,” Abdu’l-Bahá says in talk recorded in Promulgation of Universal Peace, “must walk in many paths and be subjected to various processes in his evolution upward.”
“Man is endowed with an outer or physical reality. It belongs to the material realm, the animal kingdom, because it has sprung from the material world. This animalistic reality of man he shares in common with the animals. The human body is, like animals’, subject to nature’s laws. But man is endowed with a second reality, the rational or intellectual reality; and the intellectual reality of man predominates over nature. . . . Yet there is a third reality in man, the spiritual reality. (Foundations of World Unity, p. 51)
Further, he states that “the growth and development of all beings is gradual; this is the universal divine organization and the natural system. The seed does not at once become a tree; the embryo does not at once become a man; the mineral does not suddenly become a stone. No, they grow and develop gradually and attain the limit of perfection” (Some Answered Questions 198–99).
In other words, we are evolving “upward” (for lack of a better word), away from the animal reality toward human perfections.
I found this change of viewpoint also changed what it was possible to believe about human beings, and it cast our often brutal behavior in a far different light. Our failures as human beings are not because we are being led downward toward an ever stronger animalistic darkness of spirit and intellect, but because we are oh‑so‑gradually shedding our animal past as we grow up, and leaving it behind once and for all. The progress is uneven, but it is progress.
Seen in that light, the world becomes a place that—a series of Divine Emissaries have insisted—we must interact with and work to improve, not just for our own personal spiritual well-being, but for that of our entire species. Yes, we sometimes experience epic failures in this process, but what teenager doesn’t screw up once in a while? A creature who believes it is invincible and always right is bound to do stupid things. It is the overall arc of the life of a human being (or a species) that we must view, and that should be sufficient to make us abandon our Doomsday thinking.
Next time, I’d like to look at the ways in which the idea of evolution makes its appearance in the Holy Book I grew up with—the Bible.