Dale Courtney’s Christmas column last week brought back vivid childhood memories: decorating the tree while listening to Handel’s “Messiah,” caroling neighborhoods house-to-house. I’ve sung Messiah many times, always with heartfelt emotion.
Liturgical music, from hymns to masses, are among influences that kept me from turning atheist during 12 years of agnosticism. One performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor changed my life.
My alma mater, Hamilton College in upstate New York, was all-male. We had a superb men’s choir, and we often performed jointly with women’s choruses. One spring weekend a chorus from Crane School of Music visited our campus for a complete two-and-a-half-hour performance of the B Minor Mass with full orchestra and professional soloists.
One of the sopranos, Jolie, had formerly dated my roommate. We renewed our acquaintance at that concert. The Crane director often guest-conducted choral groups around the state. Jolie, a voice major, was one of the “ringers” who accompanied him to strengthen those groups. He once told her she had sung the B Minor Mass with him more often than any other singer.
A few weeks after the Hamilton concert, Jolie invited me to another performance in nearby Syracuse. I went to listen. A year later we were wife and husband. For 58 years, whenever we hear anything from that masterpiece, we smile fondly at each other, saying, “Listen dear, they’re playing our song.”
Jolie was a Christian. I was an agnostic. All the religious prophets since Abraham have taught there is only one God. If that were true, I questioned, why couldn’t the followers of Jesus unify under that God? And why did Christians use the Old Testament, yet persecute Jews? Muslims sometimes persecute Jews and Christians, yet Muhammad confirms and validates Abraham, Moses, and Christ in the Quran. In short, if God is one, why do humans who worship him fight?
When singing music that glorifies God, I would be overwhelmed with joy and emotion. (Still am.) Similarly, when hiking, backpacking, or camping, I was awed by nature’s mysterious beauty. Something had to have created that unfathomable, beautiful complexity; it wasn’t just random. I couldn’t deny the existence of God, even though I couldn’t believe in him.
Another college roommate was a Baha’i. I’d never heard of the Baha’i faith. When I questioned him, he explained that a new messenger, a “manifestation of God” had appeared in Persia in the 19th century. His mission was to revitalize all religions by uniting humanity in one common faith that would establish the great peace promised by earlier messengers like Abraham, Christ, Muhammad and many more over millennia.
I didn’t want to hear about it. Yet it made sense that all religions came from the same source, that they differed partly because manifestations appeared at different times, successive chapters in a single book.
Cultures where these manifestations appeared differed in needs and understanding, so the same message couldn’t be given to all.
Baha’is believe the latest manifestation of God is Baha’u’llah, a Persian title meaning “the glory of God.” (Disclosure: I’ve been a Baha’i for 55 years.) Stories surrounding all the manifestations of God are miraculous. Pharaoh decreed death to male Hebrew infants when Moses was born. Ironically, Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s household, murdered an Egyptian and fled, returning to lead the Hebrews from captivity. How likely is that?
Christ was born and matured in obscurity. He preached love for about three years before he was murdered. The true miracle of Christ is that the revelation of an unknown carpenter from a tiny village has influenced beliefs and behavior of billions of followers over two millennia.
Among Baha’u’llah’s teachings are the essential oneness of all religions, the oneness of humankind, elimination of prejudice, equality of women and men, need for universal education, independent investigation of truth, and essential harmony between science and religion. Baha’u’llah’s teachings, in his own handwriting, are available for all to study.
Jesus said: “When he, the spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth.” Baha’is believe that spirit of truth has come in Baha’u’llah. His vision for a peaceful world is guiding Baha’i communities, tiny and large, throughout the world.
Pete Haug’s eclectic interests and several careers drew him across the U.S. and into China with his wife Jolie, lead singer in two-part harmony and sometime draconian editor. They retired south of Colfax. You can reach him at email@example.com.