One Common Faith 2015 Course Gives Learner New Understandings of Materialism, Progressive Social Teachings, and Unity of Religion

Sonja BrookSonja Brook took the Wilmette Institute course One Common Faith in 2015 (with faculty Barney Leith and Anne Pearson). She became a Bahá’í in Denver, Colorado, USA, in 1967. When she married in 1969, she moved to Harvard, Illinois, where she lives on a small farm with her husband. They have grown vegetables as a secondary occupation for forty years. Sonja’s first career was in medical technology; her second was teaching for eighteen years. She is now retired from teaching and from most of the farming. She says that she stays more than busy caring for her elderly mother and enjoying her grandchildren. She has done some work with local youth (in preparation for animating a junior youth group) and is a member of a community coalition, the goal of which is assisting youth and junior youth. At the beginning of the course she said that she thought the information she would be learning should be helpful in her community work.

Some background on One Common Faith may useful. In April 2002 the Universal House of Justice addressed an open letter to the world’s religious leaders. Response to the letter was “encouraging,” the House of Justice wrote in the Foreword to One Common Faith released in 2005.The new publication, commissioned by the House of Justice and addressed to Bahá’ís, is a commentary containing passages from the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and the scriptures of other faiths. The background is “the accelerating breakdown in social order” that “calls out desperately for the religious spirit to be freed from the shackles that have so far prevented it from bringing to bear the healing influence of which” the Faith is capable. The House of Justice ended its Foreword to One Common Faith by commending it “to the thoughtful study of the friends.” Here is how Sonja Brook summarized her learnings from the course.—THE EDITORS

“I can describe my new or deeper understandings and insights from One Common Faith in three principal areas: (1) the impact of materialism on traditional religious communities; (2) the explanation for past religions’ seemingly prejudiced, unjust, and harsh social teachings; and (3) the meaning of the exquisite, yet basic, concept of the unity of religion.

  1. The Impact of Materialism on Traditional Religious Communities

“The idea that one response to the rise of materialism in the past century has been an increased revival of spiritual search resonates strongly with me, but it was not my first thought before reading One Common Faith. I thought that the loss of relevancy (due to modernity, as stated in the section beginning on page 16) in traditional religious social teachings was the main driver to spiritual search, but I can now see that both factors are at play. Clearly, materialism leaves a spiritual void that naturally leads to an urge to discover a personal identity and a purpose in life. A sense of ‘spiritual emptiness’ has led many back to a spiritual search. Meanwhile, to paraphrase One Common Faith, there has [also] been a reorientation from traditional branches of religions to sects whose primary emphasis is on spiritual search and personal experience. I have seen this phenomenon in those who hold an eclectic mix of traditional, interfaith, and New Age beliefs. They bring interesting and often relevant observations to discussions, but their personal searches have not led them to embrace Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. They seem comfortable being ‘more spiritual than religious’ in the traditional sense of religion. They very much like to ‘do their own thing.’ They are holding on to their ‘personal experiences’ that (to my understanding) may be hindering them from recognizing ultimate reality. Page 19 talks about one erroneous concept of religion that, so conceived, would be ‘an attribute of the individual person, an impulse not susceptible of organization, an experience universally available. . . . lacking the very authority of self-discipline and the unifying effect that give religion meaning.’

  1. The Explanation for Past Religions’ Seemingly Prejudiced, Unjust, and Harsh Social Teachings

“Sections of One Common Faith beginning on pages 13 and 30 present information that is very helpful to my understanding of the reason why so many social teachings in past scriptures seem to be prejudiced, unjust, and harsh. This is a concern I often hear expressed among family and friends who consider themselves Nones [according to Wikipedia, a term sometimes used to refer to those who are unaffiliated with any organized religion], agnostics, or atheists. It is a particular criticism of Islam even by those who claim to be religious. I find the explanation in One Common Faith to be particularly clear. To paraphrase a section on p. 37, in former dispensations, ‘more essential’ behavioral reforms were pursued at the expense of reforming some other behaviors in order to advance all of civilization.  I relate this to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá saying (paraphrasing) sometimes we have to leave the ‘important’ work undone in order to do the ‘most important’ work. The concept of divine priorities in the evolution and progression of civilization-building is very satisfying and logical to me. The section beginning on page 30 reminds us that all areas of difficulty in past religions should be seen and judged in the context of history. Of course, this also explains why the religions of the past are struggling so mightily today. As stated in the section beginning on page 13 they cannot turn back the clock to a time when their social teachings were relevant.

3. The Meaning of the Exquisite, Yet Basic, Concept of the Unity of Religion

“I especially feel that I gained new insights into the concept of the unity of religion. Statements from One Common Faith that particularly highlight those learnings include:

“Pages 17–23, The Nature of Religion from a Bahá’í Perspective: Bahá’u’lláh’s faith is not a new faith but a recasting of the idea of religion. On p. 23, One Common Faith says: ‘Rather has He recast the whole conception of religion as the principle force impelling the development of consciousness’ [emphasis added]. This helps us tie Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation to those of the past as we see how the human species has evolved spiritually and helps us grasp the notion that we are ready for and capable of more mature levels of consciousness.

“Pages 30–33, Supporting Passages from the Scriptures of the World Religions: Prophets past should not be thought of as having founded distinct religions. If we could really internalize this truth, the barriers between religions would fall away.

“Pages 42–45, Unity: Unity (of religion and humanity) is the means to the solution of the world’s problems, not the goalThis is a pivotal concept that has to seep into my consciousness in all my interactions with others.

“Pages 49–53, The Responsibility of Bahá’ís Today: ‘the task of sharing Bahá’u’lláh’s message is obviously not an interfaith project. . . . conversion is the pivotal issue that must eventually be addressed’ [p. 52; emphasis added]. I appreciated Barney Leith’s comments fairly early in the course about interfaith work. I think the take away was that interfaith work has its merits, but it can become a bit of a quagmire since most members of interfaith groups are not seekers and are not usually open to fully exploring or deeply understanding a faith beyond their own. . . . This paragraph in One Common Faith nudges me to spend more time in directly serving seekers (through the Seeker Response System, core activities, and general teaching) than in working extensively with an interfaith commission.

“Pages 53–56, The World Historical Context: Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation is the eschaton [the time of the Return], not a prelude to it. I learned a new word while being reminded of the true purpose of progressive revelation. On p. 54 we learn that ‘The declared purpose of history’s series of progressive revelations . . . has been not only to guide the individual seeker on a path of personal salvation, but to prepare the whole human family for the great eschatological Event lying ahead, through which the life of the world will be itself transformed. The revelation of Bahá’u’lláh is neither preparatory or prophetic. It is that Event.’

“Pages 53–56, The World Historical Context: And, finally, the ultimate goal is the union of all peoples in one common Faith. Religion.Is.One.

How I Am Putting My New Learnings to Work: “I feel excited to continue my exploration of this class with its related readings and other materials. I feel as if the insights I mentioned in the explanation for past religions’ seemingly prejudiced, unjust, and harsh social teachings will be not only useful to me in my teaching work but they have actually brought about a mental ‘shift’ or deeper level of understanding of the concept of religion.

“I have an even deeper appreciation or valuing of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation than I had before I began this class. The more I read, study, and serve the Faith and my general community, the more amazed I am by this revelation. I know my grasp of it is like a drop in the ocean, but even the glimmerings I get are mind-blowing, to use a term from the 1960s. I do not know that I have any basic changes in my values or beliefs, but I believe my understandings of my values and beliefs have been broadened and deepened by my study of One Common Faith.

“I expect to use my new knowledge and understandings to more clearly explain Bahá’í principles—especially concerning the common source, foundation, and purpose of religion—to seekers, during opportunities for elevated discourse, and in my wider community work.”

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