A BahaiTeachings.org reader asked: “Is it alright to not live life devoted to religion?” We’ve received variants of that question from many readers, actually.
In the western world, since the Enlightenment, we’ve somehow managed to divide life up into two vastly different segments: religious and not-religious; material and spiritual; the sacred and the secular.
In western cultures, maybe this all got started by setting aside one day a week for worship, and devoting the other six days to work.
But in many agrarian societies, especially in earlier eras, work and worship weren’t seen as mutually exclusive at all. In fact, the Torah uses the exact same Hebrew word for work—“avodah”—as the word for worship and service. When Moses renewed his covenant with God, he said:
Six days you shall work (avodah). – Exodus 34:21
But in several other verses, the word avodah means worship—including that famous verse in Exodus that says “Let my people go:”
This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship (avodah) me. – Exodus 8:1
In Judaism, as in the Baha’i Faith, work or daily life; and worship or spiritual life, can and do merge into one:
But as for me and my household, we will serve (avodah) the Lord. – Joshua 24:15
It is enjoined upon every one of you to engage in some form of occupation, such as crafts, trades and the like. We have graciously exalted your engagement in such work to the rank of worship unto God, the True One. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 26.
These powerful words indicate that it’s possible to live an integrated life—a life that doesn’t split our religious and non-religious selves into a schizophrenic, sacred vs. secular existence. After all, that’s what the word spiritual really means: animated by the spirit. Many people think of the activities that comprise our daily lives—going to work and playing with our children and preparing our meals and reading a good book—as somehow not spiritual or not religious, as not really mattering in the grand scheme of things. But all of those things are animated by the spirit, if we choose to let them be.
Most indigenous societies, including Native American tribal cultures, recognize no such bipolar dichotomy. For those groups, the sacred and the secular intertwine and co-exist in a seamless, holistic way, without any consciousness of a difference between the two. Navajo culture, for example, sees no gap or separation between daily life and religion:
The Navajos have no… word or phrase in their language which could possibly be translated as “religion.” Religion is not a separate entity to be believed in or subscribed to, it is ever present. It could no more be separated from the traditional Navajo’s daily life than eating, breathing, sleeping or the ground he walks on which gives him substance, the sun which gives him warmth or the summer lightning which gives him fear. Religious rites and practices are an essential element of Navajo culture, pervading it to such an extent that, paradoxical as it may seem, it was several decades before white Americans living among the Navajo realized they possessed any form of worship at all. – Raymond Friday Locke, The Book of the Navajo, p. 45.
This singular view of reality regards human life as both a physical and a spiritual journey, one unified road taken together and definitely not traveled separately:
But the life of man is not so restricted; it is divine, eternal, not mortal and sensual. For him a spiritual existence and livelihood is prepared and ordained in the divine creative plan. His life is intended to be a life of spiritual enjoyment to which the animal can never attain. This enjoyment depends upon the acquisition of heavenly virtues. The sublimity of man is his attainment of the knowledge of God. The bliss of man is the acquiring of heavenly bestowals, which descend upon him in the outflow of the bounty of God. The happiness of man is in the fragrance of the love of God. This is the highest pinnacle of attainment in the human world. How preferable to the animal and its hopeless kingdom!
Therefore, consider how base a nature it reveals in man that, notwithstanding the favors showered upon him by God, he should lower himself into the animal sphere, be wholly occupied with material needs, attached to this mortal realm, imagining that the greatest happiness is to attain wealth in this world. How purposeless! How debased is such a nature! God has created man in order that he may be a dove of the Kingdom, a heavenly candle, a recipient of eternal life. God has created man in order that he may be resuscitated through the breaths of the Holy Spirit and become the light of the world. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 185.
Religion, then, from a Baha’i perspective, is not some separate entity divorced from normal life; not some optional, one-day-a-week attendance at a ritual or service of some kind. Instead, religion is life:
Religion, moreover, is not a series of beliefs, a set of customs; religion is the teachings of the Lord God, teachings which constitute the very life of humankind, which urge high thoughts upon the mind, refine the character, and lay the groundwork for man’s everlasting honour. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 52-53.
… the religion of God … prevents both the manifest and the concealed crime, trains man, educates morals, compels the adoption of virtues and is the all-inclusive power which guarantees the felicity of the world of mankind. But by religion is meant that which is ascertained by investigation and not that which is based on mere imitation, the foundations of Divine Religions and not human imitations. – Ibid., p. 302.
Your religion, then, isn’t what you do for an hour or so one day a week—your religion is what you do every day of the week. Your religion is how you live your life.