If you drive directly east from the crowded northern suburbs of Sydney, Australia, you will quickly end up on one of many world-class surf beaches. As an Australian, I can assure you they are as idyllic as any travel poster advertisement for paradise. You know the routine: surf, sand, dining on the strand where all the beautiful people are; and the soothing sounds of balmy sea breezes mixed with water tumbling on bright yellow sand. Even after 26 years of living half a world away, that moment in the sun still draws me. To me, at least, it is a good stand-in for an earthly paradise.
A few days ago I retested the memory. Back in Australia for a few weeks, I made the trek to those eastern shores. Together with my family, I drove the 20 or so kilometers from the bushland suburbs across to the sea. I had forgotten though that there is so much open land between. It is an area of deep gorges down to tidal inlets. It is an area of alternating rocky desolation and heavily wooded eucalyptus forest: trees with smooth white-skinned bark that is bushfire blackened in swaths from runaway fires in recent years that have threatened to wipe out entire suburbs of housing.
And then when we were in sight of the beaches—the blue shimmer and sandy curves were visible from the mountain heights many miles away—still immersed in woodland, a white dome appeared like a mirage. And with it came another childhood memory. Looking much like the fabled Taj Mahal of India, a Baha’i temple holds pride of place on a peak in the woods before the tumble down to the shore. I remember well my father taking me to visit it shortly after it was built 50 years ago. Back then it was an even greater curiosity. Especially so for an impressionable young boy. I was particularly impressed with its empty pristine whiteness inside and out, decorated only by the curving lines of a single “word” on the roof—a designation to the glory of one God.
As we entered the temple grounds the other day we were welcomed by several women who gave us literature and an invitation to look around. One had an accent that hinted at other shores. I asked and found out she was Iranian. Now the memories that came were of more recent vintage.
Not too many years ago, in my capacity as editor of Liberty magazine, I attended an international religious liberty conference in Cape Town, South Africa. There were about 600 other attendees and participants from all over the globe. There was an incredible sharing of religious viewpoints and discussion on how to protect this most precious aspect of human existence.
One of the speakers was a mullah from Iran—an advisor to a previous president of his country. I looked forward to his comments on freedom of religion in a country not recently known for religious freedom. I had visited Iran back in the days before Khomeini and the Islamic revolution there—back before the U.S. embassy hostage crisis—and had been impressed with the great cultural heritage of that ancient civilization. Few recognize that Iran is not an Arab nation, but Persian—the inheritors of Cyrus and Artaxerxes. The conversion of Persia to Islam was an event of apocalyptic importance to the spread of that faith. What would this mullah have to say on religious freedom?
He was asked about the situation of the Baha’is in Iran. Hmm—an interesting question, because while Iran is now largely Muslim after the conversion to Islam centuries ago, it has been the cradle of its own religious traditions: anciently Zoroastrianism and more recently in the mid-1800s the Baha’i faith. A Persian mystic named Baha’u’llah first enunciated this new approach to faith and wrote much on his ideas of one god, one world of faith, a universalist view of religious cooperation and equality. Some of the Bab’s ideas were neoglobalist and perhaps naive; things like a world language, a global federation of faith, and a move beyond all forms of prejudice. A reasonable religious mind-set, one might think—at least harmless. But from the beginning there was severe persecution of this faith. In fact, the Iranian persecution of Baha’ism is so systemic as to be a type of religious genocide. Tens if not hundreds of thousands have been imprisoned and killed over the years. What would the mullah say?
He looked out on the hundreds of delegates—men and women dedicated to protecting the expression of religious faith all over the world—and said this: “They deserve what they got, because they supported the wrong forces.”
There was a giant group intake of breath. Nothing more could be said. The mullah had stated it in the hard calculation of intolerance. The persecution continues in Iran and elsewhere. So often with religion it is not enough to state a peaceful intent. There are greater forces at play than most recognize. Some hatreds cannot be disarmed just by good intent.
In this issue of Liberty we have a very well-put together analysis of U.S. President Obama’s efforts to disarm a global religious divide. I think him well intentioned and not all of his efforts ill-advised. But it is worth remembering that with religion we are dealing with some elemental aspects of human existence that are not always rationaly expressed or clearly recognized.
I think humanity can indeed benefit from a more global recognition that each of us is beholden to a higher reality—that we are all searching for our Creator. But just as surely the experience of the Bab and the president likely show that we cannot expect to blend the unique and often private holdings of religious faith into one universalist faith. Most holy books actually warn against this. I know my Bible equates a human-made religious conformity as coming from the counterpower.
Now and then my Seventh-day Adventist heritage reminds me of the larger forces at play in religious liberty. Oh, that it were as simple as a universal “humanism”—that we might just condition the nations to think benign spiritual thoughts. Oh, that we could just confederate religious expression into a one-world faith—oh, but for the dangers of syncretism and compulsion, of course. My Adventist heritage and doctrinal reading of the Bible tell me that faith differences are not just cultural—there are life-and-death issues at play. We need to know God not just for peace of mind, but to be able to know how He differs from the pretenders to deity.
It hit me on the heights above the Sydney beaches that we are in a race against time to find God. The Baha’i faith began in 1844. The Mormon movement in the United States also began in that same era, as did the Christian Scientists, and modern spiritualism and the Millerite movement, out of which emerged the Seventh-day Adventist Church. My church reads from Bible prophecy an imperative to find and acknowlege God in the moments before the end of all things.
Yes, in many ways the world of faith is in the woods of confusion. At times those woods reveal real danger—not just intolerance but mortal peril to faith and freedom. Beyond lies the healing curve of the eternal sea. We must accept the challenge of the journey. We must not give in to confusion or compulsion in matters of faith.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."