Before I came to Chicago, I had never heard of the Bahá’í. When my friend Jesse suggested that I go to see their House of Worship in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette, I was open to it because I have a general interest in religion and places of worship, and the pictures Jesse showed me of the temple looked stunning. But I did not foresee how much everything I found would speak to me.
The commute out to Wilmette is easier to take during rush hour, because the purple line of the L, Chicago’s metro, goes from the downtown Loop area directly to the quiet suburb in the morning from around 7 through 10 and in the evening from around 3 to 6. I take it to the last stop, Linden, and when I walk out the station, I can’t fail to see the sign that points to the Bahá’í House of Worship. I walk along Linden Avenue with its beautiful villas and only about five minutes later, while crossing a bridge over the North Shore Channel, I see the white dome glisten through the trees. Then it opens up before my eyes in all its splendour.
Without knowing much about the faith at all, I just feel impressed by the white beauty of the House of Worhsip that was built here in the beginning of the 20th century and is the oldest Bahá’í temple in the world. As I approach the door, it is opened for me by an usher who moves somewhat solemnly. I enter the simple room that seems almost round – it is actually a nonagon with nine alcoves that are topped, like the outside walls, with quotes from the holy scripture of the Baha’í. I especially like
The light of a good character surpasseth the light of the sun.“
I wonder briefly how spelling something with a th instead of an s can make a sentence sound so much more meaningful – a „surpasses“ might not have impressed me as much.
After a bit of quiet contemplation there is a devotion in which the lofty usher has read parts from Bahá’í scripture. It is unpretentious, simple and without any rite or big gesture. Just reading. Lutheran services are bombastic by comparison. I sit and listen and look around me in the big room under the high dome. I sense that the nine sides with their nine glass doors are to symbol that people are invited from all directions and, metaphorically, all backgrounds. If the chairs weren’t pointed to one side of the room, there would be no hierarchy in the structure of the room. Just equality.
I sit out in the gardens of the temple for a while. They seem to me like the proverbial gardens of Alamut Castle that were said to resemble paradise. Not because they are so beautiful (although they are), but because they have that oriental touch with their fountains and flower beds.
After my visit to the gardens, I visit the Help Center underneath the temple not really expectant of a lot – but there is a small exhibition on the history of Bahá’í Faith and the House of Worship where I end up spending two hours learning about the Bahá’í, and after that, I understand much about the temple’s architectural symbolism.
The Bahá’í Faith is a monotheistic religion which roots in Persia around 150 years ago and is based on the teachings of the prophet Bahá’u’lláh. Its three main principles are the unity of God, the unity of religion and the unity of humanity. The faith is therefore quite syncretistic. It says that there is just one God, and that all religions point to that same God and thus are essentially not different. Analogically, the equality of religions is mirrored in the equality of all human beings. I remember the feeling I had in the temple, that people were invited from everywhere and from each background and direction. The architect’s intention to symbolize that worked well on me.
The syncretism in this really speaks to me. It has been a conviction of mine for a long time that at least the big monotheistic religions really promote the same spirituality with the use of different stories and rites. My American hostfather always says: „Same God, different names“. That is exactly what the Bahá’í Faith says.
And it is beautifully symbolized in the columns on the temple that show, from bottom to top, the ancient pagan sun symbol (weirdly reminiscent of a swastika, which unfortunately stems from this rune indeed), the Jewish star of David, the Christian cross, Islam’s moon and star and finally the Bahá’í’s nine-pointed star. Nine is the holy number of Bahá’í Faith – hence the nine alcoves of the temple. It is the holy number because it is the highest single digit and as such is supposed to symbolize unity.
The Bahá’í justify their syncretism (which extends to Bhuddism, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism) by the idea that new religions emerge at different times throughout history to enable people to have a faith that can be actively practiced in the society they live in. Basically, a new prophet will renew the ever-same faith in a contemporary sense. This makes a lot of sense to me, and it explains why Islam, the youngest monotheistic religion, accepts science as a godly way to explain God’s creation – as does Bahá’í Faith.
I enjoy learning about the founding myths of Bahá’í Faith, and the principles the belief functions by. They all come back to the three basic principles. In the exhibition, quotes of the prophet Bahá’u’lláh, another spiritual figure of the Bahá’í called the Báb, and the prophet’s son are posted to the walls, and some of the words speak to me deeply, most of all the last sentence of this:
For a while I think about what would keep me from converting. I then realize that it is the existence of a prophet. I would have difficulty to all at once recognize the existence and sacredness of a prophet that was unknown to me so far. I then ask myself if a prophet is necessary for a faith like the Bahá’í Faith. But it must be – because people need words like the ones above from an authority to keep to a faith, I think. If they didn’t, maybe religion couldn’t do so much harm.
Bahá’í Faith is beautiful to me – inclusive, accepting, and sensible. It promotes equality and unity, and it says that worship is done by being an active member of society, thus bringing faith into the midst of modern life. It holds up principles that I can believe in. That might not be the function of religion – but it makes it easier. I at least found lots of unexpected spiritual inspiration in Wilmette.
Have you ever gotten to know a religion that was previously strange to you through travel? Had you heard of the Bahá’í before? What do you think about them – and about their House of Worship?