Tuesday, 25 December 2007

The Covenant: dissolving the hierarchy

(A nice academic-style title - phrase, colon, phrase - just for a change.)

Yes, this one is about the Covenant (with a capital C). What on earth is it? Administration Baha'is talk about it all the time and say it's vitally important. I agree it's important, but view it through a different lens.

The subject came up because Steve found a love song, which I'll tell you about, whose lyrics, for me, are all about the Covenant. And I wanted to share the song with you, plus my interpretation of it. Soon after I discovered the song, Steve was in conversation with a guy called Jonah, who is an ex-Baha'i and now Christian, who was telling Steve the following:

"My site is more openly opposed to the Faith than Alison Marshall’s is, but hers is from a Bahai perspective more insidious and dangerous, because she is working to dissociate in people’s minds the Faith and the Covenant. I don’t know if that’s how she sees it, but that is the upshot of her site: that working counter to the Covenant is consistent with being a good Bahai. But the Covenant is whole reason for the Faith’s existence. Without the Covenant, the Faith can’t bring unity, and the world is lost." From a comment to the article "Moojan Momen is right" on the blog "Baha'i-Catholic Blog"

Fascinating, isn't it? He's no longer a Baha'i, but still has the adminstration-Baha'i discourse and worldview firmly implanted in his mind and heart. It just shows that, even if you change your religion, you don't necessarily change yourself. You can take with you the previous community's views and prejudices.

When Jonah accuses me of separating the Faith and the Covenant, what does he mean by "the Covenant"? Notice, that isn't spelled out. Of course, it doesn't need to be. Everyone knows that what "the Covenant" is: it's the hierarchy: God - Baha'u'llah - Abdu'l-Baha - the Guardian - the House of Justice. That's the Covenant! And you need only go to Alison's website to see it "condone an anti-administration viewpoint". That's how she separates the Faith from the Covenant; you can't have Baha'u'llah without the administration.

All right, now that we know what administration Baha'is think the Covenant is, I'll share my take on it. In a nutshell, the Covenant, for me, is a love affair. It's a love affair between the individual and God/the Manifestation. This means that the Covenant is first and foremost an experience of the Eternal God in the soul. It's all very well to talk about the hierarchy, but unless it is underpinned by an abiding and sustaining experience of eternal love within, it is just an intellectual concept. And the Covenant cannot be reduced to an intellectual concept or an agreement that, above all, demands obedience, any more than a marriage can. You see, I don't reject the hierarchy outright; I just don't think that the Covenant can be reduced to a formula without losing everything that's meaningful about it. (You won't find a 'houri of inner meaning' (Iqan, para 78) in the hierarchy no matter how much you dig - it's no wonder there's no women on the House! :-))

Persian Hidden Word 19 is about the Covenant. Abdu'l-Baha has explained that the gathering described there is the spiritual call of Baha'u'llah in the hearts of the people (Taherzadeh: "The Revelation of Baha'u'llah" (1974) p81):

"O MY FRIENDS! Have ye forgotten that true and radiant morn, when in those hallowed and blessed surroundings ye were all gathered in My presence beneath the shade of the tree of life, which is planted in the all-glorious paradise? Awe-struck ye listened as I gave utterance to these three most holy words: O friends! Prefer not your will to Mine, never desire that which I have not desired for you, and approach Me not with lifeless hearts, defiled with worldly desires and cravings. Would ye but sanctify your souls, ye would at this present hour recall that place and those surroundings, and the truth of My utterance should be made evident unto all of you." (Baha'u'llah: PHW 19)

We can see from this that the Covenant originates in a primal or pre-existent call that the Manifestation makes to our hearts. The call never stops - it has been going since the beginning of eternity and will continue on into eternity. Deep within our souls is a 'memory' of this call and the Hidden Word tells us that our job is to "sanctify [our] souls" so that we can recall that sacred place and hear the call.

Now for the really tricky part: how do we sanctify our souls so that we regain access to that 'place' and can hear the call again? As the text suggests, it has everything to do with the soul (and, by inference, nothing do with anything else). 'Sanctify your souls' suggests a real engagement with what's inside us and a process of cleaning it out. This journey inside is at the heart of my concept of the Covenant. As I said, it is first and foremost an experience.

The good news is that I have discovered a person who has been through this experience (not that it ever ends), and who has a blog in which he describes it and the issues involved. I was delighted to discover his site because this is an area that I'm not good at describing. His name is Bob Charnes. He is Baha'i and his blog is called "Authentic Sprituality".

Bob has his unique and accessible way of describing the process of sancifying the soul and finding the sacred home inside. He argues that, deep within us, is what he calls our "core wounding". This is the thing inside us that craves things like love, comfort, forgiveness, recognition, understanding and rest. He talks about these feelings being placed within us by God. I interpret these feelings to be caused by our memory of the sacred gathering. We have these needs within us because we desire to get back to that place and find all that we crave.

But, to get back to that place, we have to eye ball the needs within. Understandably, we don't do this because it causes pain, which we avoid at all costs. Who needs it? Bob beautifully describes how we devote our whole lives to avoiding this pain by creating a false self that is designed to trick ourselves and others into believing that we are powerful, successful and in control:

"So you see there is great resistance to experiencing pain. When one can allow himself to actually feel pain or shame or heartache, it is a step away from falseness. It is an act of bravery. It breaks the rigid fear that comes from constantly repressing one’s feelings in the name of trying to look good. We think this ‘looking good’ and ‘keeping up appearances’ helps others and sets a good example, but we just teach others to be fake and superficial, without real humility, and leaving no room for growth. It is actually selfish, because we are afraid to feel the inner shame and emptiness that comes when we realize we have been fake our whole lives and that we don’t know what reality is.

If we’re busy upholding an image for others, we cannot grow or transform. If we cannot feel insecurity, we cannot turn to God for security. If we’ve acquired knowledge, house, family, job, religious and secular titles and positions, relationships, possessions, and received our security and identity from these things, then there is no room for God, no way to realize that God is the only Comforter and Provider. If our heart is attached to the comforts of this world, how can we experience God as the one who bestows the joy and peace? How can we seek peace if we cannot feel the struggle inside us? If we are constantly appeasing our struggle with the pleasures and securities of this world, how then can we let God into our hearts? Even religion and our religious friends serve as worldly comforts, which perpetuates our attachment to this world. We actually use religious meetings and religious knowledge as objects to possess, which serve to build up our personal power and give us worldly security, in order to shield against feeling our inner emptiness, shame, fear, and insecurity.

We need to dig deep into our life, and recognize that we have feelings of fear, insecurity, shame, inadequacy, and this makes up the greater part of our inner self. And we’ve been conditioned to attach ourselves to our knowledge, family, job, position, house, etc., in order to prevent us from experiencing these feelings. But those inner feelings don’t go away—they just get covered up. And then we become superficial, materialistic, intellectual, and unspiritual. Then comes the creation of the false shell which may imitate spirituality, or at least imitates what the mind thinks is spirituality. True spirituality may not look like what you imagine it to be--because you can’t have true spirituality without authentic recognition and experience of that which is not spiritual—the untransformed ego self. After the arduous process of letting down the defenses against your unwanted ego self, you can spiritualize that very self, and apply the remedy of the Writings, and enter the battle with ego. After awhile, you will see that the struggle, the battle, the pain, the selfishness, is all part of God, it is all good, and it all issues from His grace. But these are just concepts until you first get real with yourself, and feel your pain and your inadequacy, instead of talking about it in your head from a safe distance." essay on Spiritual Transformation, part 1

In the last paragraph, Bob alludes briefly to what we experience once we have stared down our fears. We discover to our amazement and delight that all the things we were craving for are given to us by the grace of God. "After awhile, you will see that the struggle, the battle, the pain, the selfishness, is all part of God, it is all good, and it all issues from His grace." We find ourselves independent of all save God and floating in an ocean of abundance. Baha'u'llah's Hidden Word on the meaning of 'wealth' comes to mind here:

"Yet to be poor in all save God is a wondrous gift, belittle not the value thereof, for in the end it will make thee rich in God, and thus thou shalt know the meaning of the utterance, "In truth ye are the poor," and the holy words, "God is the all-possessing," shall even as the true morn break forth gloriously resplendent upon the horizon of the lover's heart, and abide secure on the throne of wealth." (AHW 51)

But my purpose here isn't to focus on the experience of eternal life. I'm wanting to go back to the issue Bob raises - that of creating a false self in place of making the real journey. Bob makes the important comment that: "We actually use religious meetings and religious knowledge as objects to possess, which serve to build up our personal power and give us worldly security, in order to shield against feeling our inner emptiness, shame, fear, and insecurity." This is where the hierarchy conveniently comes in. It's an intellectual construct. It's an idea people can readily assent to without having to venture inside themselves. 'God - Baha'u'llah - Abdu'l-Baha - the Guardian - the House of Justice - sounds right and it's real easy to understand and promote. All I need to do now is turn off my brain and I've made it!' Adopting this covenant construct brings deep feelings of righteousness and security, and worldwide social validation.

The three processes Baha'u'llah describes in the Hidden Word above are interpreted accordingly:

  1. "Prefer not your will to Mine" becomes "do not prefer your will to that of the House".
  2. "Never desire that which I have not desired for you" becomes "never desire what the House doesn't desire".
  3. "Approach Me not with lifeless hearts, defiled with worldly desires and cravings" becomes (oh dear, doesn't quite fit, but it's something like) "joyous, instant and exact obedience".

However, from the point of view of the journey into the soul, here's an alternative interpretation: Do not create a false self against the reality of your vulnerability, which I have placed in your hearts. Never desire the things of this world to the exclusion of me. Do not turn to me in prayer, when you actually believe you have no need of me.

Which brings me to the song. It's about a man who has faced his vulnerabilities and errors before his beloved, and is now travelling toward her with a determination that will never fail. That is what I think of as 'firmness in the Covenant'. The song is called "I will not let you down" and it's sung by Kiwi singer-songwriter, Don McGlashan (although, he didn't write this one). As luck would have it, there's a video of it on YouTube, so you can listen to it. I've put the lyrics below.

I will not let you down (by Sean Donnelly)

You must try to believe
That I will be coming through
I have burnt every bridge that I've crossed
There's no bridge from here to you

So I row to your isle
All that distance reconciled
Should my arms, shoulders fail
Put my trust in wind and sail

I need you to believe
That I will be coming through
I have carried my cross at each step
Upon my neck for you

Cause I will not let you down
I will not let you down
That's for sure
I will not let you down
I will not let you down
Any more

There's a tear in my eye
And an ocean of swallowed pride
There's a heart here that beats like a drum
As I sing the waters by

Ties that comfort
Ties that bind
There's a temple in my mind
With an altar
Set for you
So you know my word is true

And I will not let you down
I will not let you down
That's for sure

I will not let you down
I will not let you down
That's for sure

I will not let you down
I will not let you down
Any more

http://www.donmcglashan.com/lyrics.php#IWill

Plenty of houris of inner meaning in that video, eh? :-)

I love the way this song captures a sense of continuous motion toward the beloved. The movement is powered by an unfailing commitment. This has grown out of the decision to destroy all paths leading back ("I have burnt every bridge that I've crossed") and to come to terms with hardships, vulnerabilities and errors (the "ocean of swallowed pride"). There's no false self here; that's all been blown away. What's left is a simple, genuine sincerity. Running through this are the ties that comfort and bind, which to me are the ties of the Covenant. They guide me forward, out of my illusions and into the divine reality. And there's the altar I have created for Baha'u'llah in my mind, at which I face him and find the resolve to say: "I will not let you down. That's for sure." Those words don't come easily.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The mirror of the soul

I have been reading the Qur'an over the last week. I opened it up because I reread Baha'u'llah's statement in the Kitab-i Iqan about the Surah of Hud:

"To them that are possessed of true understanding and insight the Surah of Hud surely sufficeth. Ponder a while those holy words in your heart and, with utter detachment, strive to grasp their meaning. Examine the wondrous behaviour of the Prophets, and recall the defamations and denials uttered by the children of negation and falsehood..." (Kitab-i-Iqan, pp5-6)

And so I opened the Surah of Hud and read it. Gracious, it was just as Baha'u'llah said: it was an account of how prophet after prophet came to earth and was rejected and how the disbelieving were therefore brought to ruin by God. I was struck with how the theme of the surah was exactly the same as that of the Iqan. I became enthralled and read on to other surahs and found them to be the same: Surah of Jonah and Surah of Thunder. I loved the Surah of Thunder; it is full of power, which I guess you'd expect from the name.

And it was a passage from Thunder that I wanted to discuss; specifically 13:28:

"Who have believed and whose hearts have rest in the remembrance of Allah. Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest!" (Picktall)
"Those who believe, their hearts being at rest in God's remembrance - in God's remembrance are at rest the hearts of those who believe..." (Arberry)

When I read this, I thought, gee, this is very much like one of my favourite passages from Baha'u'llah in City of Radiant Acquiescence:

"Then know that your love for God is God's good-pleasure with you and your good-pleasure with him. This is the religious path that was ordained by the right hand of God's wisdom, and it shall not change with a change of prophets, nor is it renewed by the advent of a new messenger. Rather, all enjoin this upon the people, and it is a trust of God deposited in the hearts of the sincere. This is what suffices you above all else." City of Radiant Acquiescence, para 8

To me, there's a book of meaning in these verses. Essentially, it's about shifting the place where we locate God and the nature we assign to God - from a judgemental father figure outside us to a compassionate lover who experiences sympathetically all that we do.

As I understand Sufism, this shift from external/judgemental to internal/compassionate is the guts of what Sufism is about. The difference in perception is also at the heart of my differences with conventional Baha'is. From what I can make out, Baha'is have an external/judgemental view of God, which is projected onto the House of Justice and is behind why they revere the House so much, effectively making the House an associate of God. You can see it in Moojan's article for Religion. He writes as an unspoken representative of the House-god, standing in judgement over the evil-doers and detailing the dark inner workings of their souls.

But the verses of scripture above tell us that this kind of stand against others is the result of ignorance and distance from God, and is self-defeating. The verses tell us that the goal is for our hearts to find rest, radiant acquiescence and good-pleasure with God. The process of getting to that point takes place between ourselves and God only and entirely within our souls. It's a very private and personal thing. Each of us must sit down with ourselves and God and spend all the time it takes to work it out. Getting it worked out with God is what matters; the rest doesn't matter.

Now I can explain why I called this blog entry "The mirror of the soul". I understand Baha'u'llah to be saying that our good-pleasure with God is God's good-pleasure with us. So, if we sit down and work it out with God and fall in love with God as a result, that experience of contentment and love is contemporaneously God's experience of contentment and love with us. At that moment, what we are experiencing is exactly what God is experiencing. This is how we know God is pleased with us, because in all sincerity we experience love and good-pleasure with God. It's a contemporaneous mutual experience of affection. This is why Baha'u'llah says, for example, that he is closer to us than our life vein, that he sees through our eyes and hears through our ears and knows every thought we think. He is inside us experiencing us as we experience ourselves.

Given this, exhortations in the Hidden Words such as "see no evil, hear no evil" take on a whole new meaning. If we focus on the evil around us, we are forcing Baha'u'llah to see it too. And he's not interested. He's above all that. He's suggesting instead that we live in paradise with him. To do that, we need to focus our minds, hearts and senses on him: "Live then the days of thy life, that are less than a fleeting moment, with thy mind stainless, thy heart unsullied, thy thoughts pure, and thy nature sanctified, so that, free and content, thou mayest put away this mortal frame, and repair unto the mystic paradise and abide in the eternal kingdom for evermore." (PHW 44) When we fill our heart with love, not only do we experience love but Baha'u'llah experiences it with us, and at that moment we transport ourselves to paradise. The feeling and its fruit (existence in paradise) are contemporaneous. That is why the Qur'an and Baha'u'llah underline the fact that God is swift to reckon. Reckoning is instantaneous: the minute you fill up with resentment, you've lost it.

This is why I can't read, for example, Moojan's article. The language it uses and the horrible concepts it outlines - to me, it's a sin to think them at all - about anyone. I can't remain in paradise and run such ideas through my mind. I think this is what's behind the point about loving our enemies. It has nothing to do with whether our 'enemies' are deserving of our love or justice; their reckoning is with God and has nothing to do with us. It's about protecting our own hearts from falling victim to a strong negative reaction. The test evil poses is to stay the course and remain free from it internally. It takes extraordinary detachment, such as Baha'u'llah had, to be able to write about the evil others do without being drawn into feelings of dislike or worse and to say something that is truly equitable.

And so, what is judgement? It is a thing we bring on ourselves when we go to evil places within. "God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves." (Qur'an 13:11) Our reckoning is, as the Qur'an says repeatedly, what our soul earns. And what our soul earns is the internal states it chooses to go to. At each moment, God witnesses those states and takes us to them, hence our reckoning. Therefore, we don't earn paradise by writing essays pronouncing judgement on others (even if those others have actually done evil things). That activity only takes us to the place our feelings inspire within us when we focus on such things. We earn paradise by filling our hearts with love, forgiveness, forbearance, patience, and compassion. If we can maintain these states within, even in the face of provocation, we can then be said to 'live' in paradise.

Reckoning isn't an external, intellectual process that occurs outside of us. There isn't an external father figure who is standing over us with a perpetual disapproving look on his face. And that powerful father figure can't suddenly inhabit religious institutions such as the House of Justice or individuals with worldly power such as Counsellors and Aux Board members. Those people have as much right and power to judge as we do: none at all. The scriptures tell us that only God judges us and that this process takes place internally. It's not foreign, mysterious and unpredictable. It's actually directed entirely by us: we bring the reckoning on ourselves when we choose the inner states we welcome to inhabit our souls.

You find the idea about instantaneous reckoning in the Bible too. Jesus indirectly refers to it when he counsels his disciples not to judge others. "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Matthew 7:1-2)

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Crikey! Thanks Moojan

Yesterday, to my amazement, I found out that Moojan Momen had written an article called "Marginality and apostasy in the Baha’i community" and had it published in the prestigious academic journal "Religion". The citation is Religion 37 (2007) 187—209. The astonishing thing for me is that I am one of 12 people he discusses as being 'apostates'. Moojan says that we're all full of ressentiment. He doesn't name Michael McKenny or Sen McGlinn as apostates, despite their disenrollments, because they don't have any ressentiment.

"Some confusion has arisen out of different uses being made of the word ‘apostasy’. In the 1980s the word was used to apply to those who left a religion, particularly the religion of their birth.2 By the late 1990s, however, the word ‘leavetaker’ or ‘defector’ was being applied to anyone who simply left a religion. According to the sociologist David Bromley, the word ‘apostate’ now referred ‘not to ordinary religious leavetakers ... but to that subset of leavetakers who are involved in contested exits and affiliate with an oppositional coalition’ (Bromley, 1998b, p. 5). This narrower definition is the one used here.

This article is not the place to discuss at any length why people become apostates. But the findings of this article do fit well the description of ressentiment, a term that was taken from Nietzsche and was developed by the German social philosopher Max Scheler (1874—1928). Although Scheler’s work has been criticised for elitism and excessive nationalism, his insights into human motivation and particularly into ressentiment remain penetrating and perceptive. In his introduction to Scheler’s Ressentiment, the sociologist Lewis A. Coser has summarised Scheler’s concept of ressentiment thus: ‘Ressentiment denotes an attitude which arises from a cumulative repression of feelings of hatred, revenge, envy and the like.... Ressentiment leads to a tendency to degrade, to “reduce” genuine values as well as their bearers. As distinct from rebellion, ressentiment does not lead to an affirmation of counter-values since ressentiment-imbued persons secretly crave the values they publicly denounce’ (Coser, Introduction to Scheler, 1961, pp. 23—4). Applying the phenomenon of ressentiment to the apostate, Scheler writes:

"An ‘apostate’ is not a man who once in his life radically changes his deepest religious, political, legal, or philosophical convictions—even when this change is not continuous, but involves a sudden rupture. Even after his conversion, the true ‘apostate’ is not primarily committed to the positive contents of his new belief and to the realization of its aims. He is motivated by the struggle against the old belief and lives only for its negation. The apostate does not affirm his new convictions for their own sake, he is engaged in a continuous chain of acts of revenge against his own spiritual past. In reality he remains a captive of this past, and the new faith is merely a handy frame of reference for negating and rejecting the old. As a religious type, the apostate is therefore at the opposite pole from the ‘resurrected,’ whose life is transformed by a new faith which is full of intrinsic meaning and value." (Scheler, 1961, pp. 66—7; see alternative translation in Coser, 1954, p. 250)

I just want to thank Moojan very much for featuring me in his article. This has meant that my name and websites have been featured in that prestigious journal and are now getting untold publicity. I guess real thanks go to Baha'u'llah, but Moojan has faithfully played his part.

Gee, I am overwhelmed. I never imagined I'd ever get mentioned in an academic journal. If my detractors only knew! I'm a nobody and yet the House with its disenrollment and now Moojan with this article - they keep on making me famous.

It puts real pressure on a girl to keep her websites up to standard! I've been so busy at work these past two months, I have neglected them, including this blog. But things have settled down work-wise now, and thank the Lord for that, because I've got real work to do on my sites for the readers of Religion.

Also, I'm overwhelmed by the bounty Baha'u'llah sends me. He says that when people are mean to you and say untrue things about you for his sake, then we should be grateful to him. Tribulation is a horizon unto My Revelation, he says. And believe me, it's true. I've never been so happy and known such joy since my disenrollment and since my reputation for being bad was promulgated by the House of Justice. If people really knew, they'd rush to be in my place.

So all I can say to Moojan is "Thanks!" Keep those rocks coming. I can't believe you bothered to spend all those hours writing an article about how bad I am, for my sake! It's a win-win. You get to do an act that you believe will send you to paradise and I get to be the recipient of one that already has.

"Come nearer, nearer! How much (more) of this highway robbery? Since you are me (and) I am you, how much (more of this) being you and being me?

We are the Light of God and a Lamp. How much (more of this) quarreling with ourself? Because of what (is) light such as this fleeing from light?

We are all one complete being, (so) because of what (is) double- vision such as this? Why do the rich look at poor people as contemptible?

Why does the right (hand) look at its own left (hand) as contemptible? Since both are (part of) you, what (is "fortunate" about) right, what is "contemptible" (about left)?

We are entirely one essence, one intellect and one head. Yet we have become double-seeing because of this bent sky."

Rumi: Rise Up From Me-ness and Mix With All
Translated from the Persian by Ibrahim Gamard

Friday, 2 November 2007

Was my disenrollment an injustice?

I'm disinclined to discuss my disenrollment these days. There are many reasons for this. It's counter productive to go on about something - especially something that happened over seven years ago. I am not comfortable about defending myself; I am conscious about making myself the centre of attention. I don't want to become associated with bitterness and anger or with being a perpetual critic of the Baha'i administration. Although insightful criticism is important, it isn't as important as positive expressions of study, teaching and worship.

But I'm going to break with tradition and talk now about my disenrollment. This is because someone was asking me recently for my views on it. I said I didn't want to get drawn into a discussion on it but that I'd put some thoughts up on my blog. In particular, I realised that there was one argument that my detractors like to put about that I've never responded to. It goes like this: when Alison was disenrolled, she said that she was happy and that she didn't mind. Therefore, Alison was not treated unjustly. She didn't lose anything, for she is happy to have lost her community membership. A variation on this is that because I wasn't an active member of my local community when I was disenrolled, no injustice was done to me when my membership was taken away.

First up, I'll deal with that last one. If being an inactive Baha'i alone justifies your disenrollment, then there's plenty of Baha'is out there who ought to be deeply concerned. But, for some reason, they aren't being disenrolled in any systematic fashion. So, there must be more to it than that.

It's true, though, I do have two seemingly contradictory responses to my disenrollment. I am both content about it and not content about it. In a nutshell, this is because the two responses come from different perspectives. If I see my disenrollment from the point of view of detachment from the world and contentment with the will of God, then I am content. If I look at it in terms of the standard one would expect of the governing bodies of the Baha'i world and the New Zealand Baha'i community, and their duty to act in accordance with equity and justice, then I am not content.

My position about being detached from, and content with, my disenrollment is based on passages from Baha'u'llah such as this one, which has been very influential on me:

"Adorn yourself with My character, in such wise that should anyone treat you unjustly you would take no heed of him, nor oppose him. Leave him to the judgment of your Lord, the Powerful, Omnipotent and Self-Subsisting. Be at all times a wronged one, for this is one of My attributes, though none but the sincere are aware of it. Verily, the sighs of patience uttered by one wronged are more precious to God than any other deed, did you but know. Therefore, be patient in the face of whatever befalls you, and set your trust in your Lord God in all your affairs." Surah of Blood, paragraph 5

Another influential passage is this Arabic Hidden Word, and the ones immediately before it about the way we should respond to adversity:

"O son of man! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it." AHW 51

Also extremely influential on me is the example Baha'u'llah gives us through his own response to injustice. He met with injustice all his life; so, how did he respond? Again, you get the two perspectives: one, contentment with the will of God; and the other, where he tells the Shah and the Sultan in no uncertain terms that they have treated him unjustly. I won't go into how they did that; we all know about how they imprisoned him and exiled him from place to place without bothering to talk to him or dispassionately weigh the evidence against him. Here's a passage that illustrates both perspectives:

"I have seen, O Shah, in the path of God what eye hath not seen nor ear heard... How numerous the tribulations which have rained, and will soon rain, upon Me! I advance with My face set towards Him Who is the Almighty, the All-Bounteous, whilst behind Me glideth the serpent. Mine eyes have rained down tears until My bed is drenched. I sorrow not for Myself, however. By God! Mine head yearneth for the spear out of love for its Lord. I never passed a tree, but Mine heart addressed it saying: `O would that thou wert cut down in My name, and My body crucified upon thee, in the path of My Lord!'... By God! Though weariness lay Me low, and hunger consume Me, and the bare rock be My bed, and My fellows the beasts of the field, I will not complain, but will endure patiently as those endued with constancy and firmness have endured patiently, through the power of God, the Eternal King and Creator of the nations, and will render thanks unto God under all conditions." Tablet to Násiri’d-Dín Sháh in Summons of the Lord of Hosts, paragraph 268

And so, this is my position too. On the one hand, I am detached from what's happened to me. I know that, in reality, it is an honour to suffer in the path of God. On the other hand, however, it is also true that I have been wronged. Just like Baha'u'llah, I was exiled (only for me, it was from the Baha'i community) without first being spoken to, and I was the victim of people scheming against me behind closed doors.

What my detrators like to do is mix the two perspectives up. The mixture turns out compelling for those who don't understand the spiritual perspective of detachment. The result isn't bothered with the subtleties and leaves a potion easy for the simple-minded to swallow: Alison is content over the decision to disenrol her, therefore no injustice was done to her. But would those detractors use the same logic in the case of Baha'u'llah? Baha'u'llah was thankful to God for the imprisonment and exiles that were ordained for him, therefore he wasn't treated unjustly? Or perhaps it could be applied to the martyrs in Iran: they used to kiss the hands of their executioners and couldn't wait to die, therefore the Iranian government did not wrong them when it had them killed? In fact, now that the idea is out there, I'm just waiting for the day the Iranian government starts using it to justify its actions. It can thank the Baha'is for thinking the argument up.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Scriptural inerrancy

I'm very busy at work at the moment and thought I'd put up some archives. Below is a 1999 H-Baha'i message from Juan about scriptural inerrancy; that is, reading scripture literally. In it, he explains that the concept of scriptural inerrancy is alien to Baha'u'llah's revelation. Instead, Baha'u'llah adheres to what Juan calls 'perspectivist epistemology', which basically means that what is true for Person A in spiritual station X might be false for Person B in spiritual station Y. People interact with the writings depending on their spiritual station. Given this, the idea that scripture has one specific and literal meaning that we all ought to adhere to is nonsense.

And this is basically where I come unstuck with the administration. I have no trouble with people in power seeing the writings in a different way to me. They can believe the House has propositional infallibility if they want. They are in spiritual station X and I am in spiritual station Y and we see things in different ways as a result. But I am not granted the same respect. For some reason, I have to be wrong.

Quoted message begins:

I just want to demur from the idea that Baha'u'llah taught scriptural inerrancy. I think such a notion does enormous damage to Baha'u'llah's own thought, which was formed in the matrix of Muslim Neoplatonism and Ibn al-`Arabi's Sufi metaphysics, and which was premised on the notion that the physical, external world, is theo-semiotic, full of signs pointing toward the divine. Thus, it is a point of view completely incompatible with scriptural inerrantism, which to the contrary sees divine revelation as merely a set of factoids about the physical world that can be taken in a literalist way at face value.

It is true that Baha'u'llah insisted that his prophecies were borne out, and that this was because they were divinely revealed. But it *isn't* true that he insisted that the minor details of the prophecies were all perfectly fulfilled; that is, he did not insist that he was a mere weatherman making predictions and that everything depended on the details and minutiae.

Moreover, in untranslated tablets Baha'u'llah often admits that the truths he wishes to communicate are obscured by historically conditioned human language. He explicitly complains that he has to communicate 'in your tongue.' Indeed, his entire idea of progressive revelation, as explained in the Tablet to Mankji on Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, is based on the notion that each religion consists of a distinct *discourse* (guftigu), and that these are incommensurate with one another. When Manakji tries to get him involved in the basically syncretic activity of judging propositions in one religion against those of another, Baha'u'llah refuses precisely on the grounds that those were previous guftigu's, and now a new guftigu has come.

And, of course, Baha'u'llah's own discourse/guftigu was historically conditioned, and the acceleration of scientific advance and cultural interaction in modernity and postmodernity has already made some minor parts of it outmoded (alchemy, Greco-Islamic historiography, etc.) This vulnerability of the guftigu to becoming outmoded is the whole basis of the notion that humankind needs progressive revelation.

One problem is that relatively little of the vast corpus of Baha'u'llah's writings has been translated. Taherzadeh, an Iranian Baha'i fundamentalist (and an engineer untrained in literary or historical analysis), is extremely selective in what he presents, and he spins it heavy-handedly. So, of course it is easy to misread Baha'u'llah through his late 20th century lens as himself a fundamentalist. But anyone who knows Baha'u'llah's oeuvre well in Persian and knows the Sufi and Neoplatonic traditions in which he worked can only gape in astonishment at the idea of him as a scriptural literalist.

Instead, Baha'u'llah had a perspectivist epistemology, in which the truth-value of a proposition depended not on its intrinsic properties alone, but on who was perceiving it and under what circumstances. Thus, what is 'true' for one person at maqam/station "A" might be utter falsehood for another person at maqam/station "B". Such a standpoint epistemology is, again, incompatible with any theory of scriptural inerrancy, since the propositions of scripture cannot all be seen from the same perspective, given that every individual is at a different spiritual level.

I see fundamentalism in religion as an aspect of the High Modernist project (it is no accident that it is a 20th century phenomenon that reacts to science by appropriating scientistic rhetoric but inserting scriptural premises rather than scientific ones). I'm afraid I think that the importation into the Baha'i faith of what is essentially Protestant Fundamentalism is one of the ways in which the High Modernist project has rather set perhaps a majority of the Baha'i community on the wrong path, indeed, on a path that is 180 degrees away from Baha'u'llah's own.

Juan R.I. Cole
13 April 1999

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Imitation: crows and nightingales

I posted up Sen's Talisman message about infallibility because I think it covers many important issues. I want to comment on some of them. In the first paragraph, Sen says: "I think XXX has explained why people want to get hold of something infallible, in the sense of its never being wrong. It is so that they can be not-wrong themselves, it is a way of short-circuiting the critical faculty and banishing doubt and reflection."

I wanted to look at the matter of short circuiting the critical faculty and banishing reflection. As I understand it, the process works something like this: using the critical faculty and reflection means actually working through the nuts and bolts of an issue. This involves investigating with an open mind to find the facts, determining what the relevant principles are, weighing it all up, praying for detachment and inspiration, and coming to a conclusion. The difficulty with this process is that one might come to a considered position that is different to the majority of the community or to an institution. What then? And then there is the fear that one might come to a conclusion that will condemn us in the eyes of Baha'u'llah. At our post-death moment of reckoning, we might find Baha'u'llah was angry at us for coming to that conclusion. Therefore, the absolute last thing we want is to believe anything that will make either an institution or Baha'u'llah angry at us. That would mean we'd wind up in hell.

But, it's OK because there is an answer and it's this: Abdu'l-Baha says in his Will and Testament that whatsoever the House decides is of God. Phew! This means that a letter from the House of Justice is the same as a letter written by Baha'u'llah. Therefore, it's guaranteed that everything the House decides is what Baha'u'llah would decide. This means that I don't have to worry about getting it wrong. All I have to do is agree with everything the House says, and that way I'll be agreeing with Baha'u'llah. Then, when I die, I'm guaranteed to avoid hell. Baha'u'llah is sure to be pleased with me.

This is a very appealing argument; not only does it offer a way of obtaining guaranteed salvation but it's logically consistent. If you believe the premises, then the conclusion does follow. It's very powerful, no doubt about it, and it's got the community in the grip.

As you are no doubt aware, those who reject this argument do so on the basis that it is blind obedience. The Shi'as have a practice known as taqlid where you choose a mujtahid you admire and blindly follow that person's beliefs and practices. This was done because, it was believed, the common person was incapable of understanding the faith for themselves. They needed help with that. And so, a practice grew up where the common folk were required, for their own good, to choose someone who was trained in the subtleties of the faith and follow that person. You may also know that Baha'u'llah condemned this practice. Here are two passages where Baha'u'llah tells us to turn away from the practice of taqlid. In both passages, the word 'taqlid' is translated as 'imitation':

Seven Valleys, p. 5: "It is incumbent on these servants that they cleanse the heart – which is the wellspring of divine treasures – from every marking, and that they turn away from imitation (taqlid), which is following the traces of their forefathers and sires, and shut the door of friendliness and enmity upon all the people of the earth."

Gleanings LXXV: "Tear asunder, in My Name, the veils that have grievously blinded your vision, and, through the power born of your belief in the unity of God, scatter the idols of vain imitation (asnam-i taqlid)."

The idea of imitation has more to it than one might initially think. From what we know so far, one is given the impression of someone who performs religious practices in exactly the same fashion as another and who might take the same position on religious questions. But what is the spiritual effect on the soul of this practice? Given that Baha'u'llah condemns it in no uncertain terms, there must be more to it than just copying others.

I think we get an idea of the spiritual effect of taqlid from Baha'u'llah's fairy tale "Tablet of the Lover and the Beloved". In the story, the Rose (Baha'u'llah) calls the nightingales in the divine garden to him in order that they may join him and experience union. But the nightingales refuse, saying that the Rose they follow comes from Arabia not Iraq. Baha'u'llah berates them, saying that their response makes it clear they never recognised the Rose in the first place. Instead, they recognised "walls, rafters and buildings". He accuses them of blind obedience, saying that although they appear to be nightingales, they are actually crows. "You are known for your love of me, but it is apparent that you have begun to ignore me. It is obvious that you are really crows, who have learned to mimic nightingales. You are wandering in the land of illusion and blind obedience, and are bereft of the blessed garden of divine unity." At the end of the story, these crows who are imitating nightingales are banished from the Rose's presence. "Although you have the form of nightingales, you have for some time associated intimately with crows, and their ways have become apparent in you. Your place is not this garden. Fly away!"

For me, the message in the symbolism of the crows imitating nightingales is that one does not become a nightingale simply by taking the form of one. One does not become a nightingale simply by acting like one. Similarly, it is not enough to put on the garb of a believer - to carry out the religious practices and proclaim what we are told are the correct doctrines. Instead, a genuine spiritual change must take place in the soul so that we are transformed from crows into nightingales. This is why Baha'u'llah condemns taqlid, because it causes us to think that all we need to do to attain salvation is do what those who are considered knowledgable do and say. Whereas, in fact, doing this prevents us from taking one step on the path to salvation. We die never having gained a knowledge of our own selves.

What is the principle at work here? The principle is "the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself" and it works like this:

1. God has created each one of us capable of recognising God on our own. If this were not the case, we could not be held accountable for failing to recognise God.

2. Therefore, it is unacceptable to say: 'I failed to recognise God because others did'.

"Suffer not yourselves to be wrapt in the dense veils of your selfish desires, inasmuch as I have perfected in every one of you My creation, so that the excellence of My handiwork may be fully revealed unto men. It follows, therefore, that every man hath been, and will continue to be, able of himself to appreciate the Beauty of God, the Glorified. Had he not been endowed with such a capacity, how could he be called to account for his failure? If, in the Day when all the peoples of the earth will be gathered together, any man should, whilst standing in the presence of God, be asked: "Wherefore hast thou disbelieved in My Beauty and turned away from My Self," and if such a man should reply and say: "Inasmuch as all men have erred, and none hath been found willing to turn his face to the Truth, I, too, following their example, have grievously failed to recognize the Beauty of the Eternal," such a plea will, assuredly, be rejected. For the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself." (Baha'u'llah: Gleanings, LXXV)

3. On the same basis, it is also unacceptable to say: 'I recognised God because others did'. One's faith must be conditioned on oneself, not on what others do or say. In other words, one does not become a nightingale by imitating them. One must make an actual change within oneself.

What it comes down to is that, although using one's critical faculty and the process of reflection are hard spiritual work, and oftentimes painful, we cannot avoid them. In order to become nightingales, we must give those faculties and processes a hard work out. Real activity and exercise must take place in our souls. We can't just cruise through. It's precisely that inner spiritual exercise that propels us down the straight path. We can't cover any distance by sitting around.

Now, let's assume for the sake of argument that we go ahead with this process and come to some 'wrong' conclusions about things. As I identified above, our concern is that we might get it all wrong, we might end up holding a view that Baha'u'llah disagrees with and end up in hell. Let's read what Baha'u'llah has to say about that:

"Say, people of the Bayan: Be fair. By God, your Lord, the All Merciful! Aside from this divine youth, and the immortal manifestations who appeared in this dispensation, consider the Bayan in its entirety, and make your own judgment. Even if you are not, in the end, satisfied with the decree of God and what he revealed, God will nevertheless be pleased with your judgment if it is fair, so that perhaps an eye might be opened by justice and gaze toward God." Tablet of the Son, paragraph 30

You see, Baha'u'llah doesn't actually care what conclusions you come to. What he cares about more is that you undertake a genuinely fair process with regard to your decision making. It's got to be a real and fair process within you, and you have to actually work through the process, not just follow others. The saying goes that it's easier to please God than it is to please man. I believe that's true. We worry, and rightly so, about the abusive way the Baha'i administration treats the believers. The believers are taught to worry terribly about going to hell if they disobey. But that isn't Baha'u'llah. He isn't unfair and unkind like that. He really does love us and just wants us, for the sake of our own growth, to make a genuine inner effort to find him and know him. What he rejects is imitation.

_______________________________

The Laying Open

In the name of God the Compassionate the Caring

Did we not lay open your heart
and relieve you of the burden
that was breaking your back
Did we not honor your name

After the hard time
there is the easing
After the hard time
there is the easing

When you finish, strive again

And in your lord, aspire

Surah 94, from Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, introduced and translated by Michael Sells, p 92

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Sen on infallibility

The following message was posted by Sen McGlinn to the Talisman9 discussion list, on 14 September 2007. In it, he discusses the meaning of the term 'infallibility' in Baha'i scripture.

Message begins:

I think XXX has explained why people want to get hold of something infallible, in the sense of its never being wrong. It is so that they can be not-wrong themselves, it is a way of short-circuiting the critical faculty and banishing doubt and reflection. The inerrancy of scripture in Protestant doctrine is the clearest example: the claim is usually not used as a statement of humility in the face of scripture, but as a claim of superiority: it generally says, "I have the scriptural faith which cannot be wrong, so everyone different is wrong." Infallibility is also an assurance that something will be constant: it is used as a crutch for people who are having difficulty in coping with a world of constant universal change.

Infallibility in the sense of never being wrong is simply a non-existent thing. Arguments about its general nature are therefore futile, and it cannot be proved or disproved in any specific case. What we can say is that, for infallibility in this sense to exist in the world, there would first have to be one universal standard of "rightness" and then one contingent thing or being which somehow escapes contingency and always has and always will be "right" against this one standard. Which standard then? The will of God? Scientific accuracy? effectiveness in maximising human happiness? Effectiveness in some other respect? If there is no universal "rightness" there cannot be anything which is universally and always right.

Infallibility in the Bahai writings does not mean never being wrong. Baha'u'llah for instance was wrong on some historical and scientific matters. Bahai infallibility is in the first place an attribute of God, and as such is shared with the whole creation, and its meaning is defined as "free from sin" that is, not bound by sin, free to do otherwise. Infallibility is a statement that sin does not reign -- except when we allow it to. It is an attribute of empowerment, a statement of our liberty from what seems to us to bind us. At every breathe, we are free to start again with a fresh slate. That is why the new believer is assured by Baha'u'llah:

"Thou hast mentioned Husayn. We have attired his temple with the robe of forgiveness and adorned his head with the crown of pardon. ... Say: Be not despondent. After the revelation of this blessed verse it is as though thou hast been born anew from thy mother's womb. Say: Thou art free from sin and error. Truly God hath purged thee with the living waters of His utterance in His Most Great Prison." (Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 76)

This is infallibility at the individual level.

In the same way, sovereignty is an attribute of God, and the individual can choose sovereignty for himself: "Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting." (Baha'u'llah, The Arabic Hidden Words)

Each of the attributes of God takes different forms at different levels. So the kings are called "the manifestations of affluence and power and the daysprings of sovereignty and glory" (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 30), and in the Aqdas are told: "Arise, and serve Him Who is the Desire of all nations, Who hath created you through a word from Him, and ordained you to be, for all time, the emblems of His sovereignty." At the same time, the founders of religions exhibit a different kind of sovereignty: "by sovereignty is meant the all-encompassing, all-pervading power which is inherently exercised by the Qá'im whether or not He appear to the world clothed in the majesty of earthly dominion. ... That sovereignty is the spiritual ascendancy which He exerciseth.." (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 107)

The same is true of infallibility: it takes different forms in the individual, in institutions, in relationships and so on.

"Know thou that the term 'Infallibility' hath numerous meanings and divers stations. In one sense it is applicable to the One Whom God hath made immune from error. Similarly it is applied to every soul whom God hath guarded against sin, transgression, rebellion, impiety, disbelief and the like. However, the Most Great Infallibility is confined to the One Whose station is immeasurably exalted beyond ordinances or prohibitions and is sanctified from errors and omissions." (Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 108)

I will puzzle out the details of this below, but we can note now that it includes "every soul" but not all in the same sense, and that it says NOTHING about not being wrong: it is all about not **doing** wrong. And we can look to the next page and see that the example of the Most Great Infallibility which Baha'u'llah gives is the designation of Mecca as the place of pilgrimmage. Muhammad puts Mecca in place of Jerusalem. He changed the Law of God. "Consider thou the blessed, the divinely-revealed verse in which pilgrimage to the House is enjoined upon everyone. It devolved upon those invested with authority after Him to observe whatever had been prescribed unto them in the Book. Unto no one is given the right to deviate from the laws and ordinances of God...." (There's a critique here of the Umayyid Caliphs in Damascus, who tried to make Jerusalem at least a rival place of pilgrimmage). So the example of infallibility is that Muhammad changed the place of pilgrimmage, and all after him had to obey that change. Except we do not go to Mecca on pilgrimmage, do we? Baha'u'llah changed the Law again.

It is not just that infallibility means "being always right but only within one dispensation" -- which would be nonsensical anyway. It is stronger: infallibility actually MEANS freedom from bondage and therefore the freedom to change. In the case of the Manifestation, it means the freedom not to be bound by the Law of God as it was up till then. In the case of House of Justice, it is bound by what is revealed in the Book, but it is free to change its own rulings. It can say, "sorry, that is wrong" or "that is no longer best" and head off in another direction. The UHJ is not bound by its own history, or by the need to appear consistent to the world. If is FREE, in a way that the Pope is not. He, like the Shaykh al-Azhar and the Shi`ah Mujtahids, dare not be seen to change what the authorities before them have laid down. They are prisoners of history, and of the expectations of the faithful.

I said I would puzzle out the passage from the Ishraqat about infallibility in more detail. In Taherzadeh's translation of the Ishraqat, a new paragraph begins here:

"When the stream of words reached this stage [maqaam, station], the sweet savours of true knowledge [‘irfan] were shed abroad and the day-star of divine unity [tawhiid] shone forth above the horizon of His holy utterance. .... Whoso faileth to quaff the choice wine which We have unsealed through the potency of Our Name, the All-Compelling [al-qayyuum - better would be ‘the Self-Subsisting], shall be unable to discern the splendours of the light of divine unity or to grasp the essential purpose underlying the Scriptures of God, the Lord of heaven and earth, the sovereign Ruler of this world and of the world to come. Such a man shall be accounted among the faithless in the Book of God, the All-Knowing, the All-Informed."

There is no mention here of infallibility, but there is in the following paragraph, and the theme of the oneness of God forms a link. I am inclined therefore to think that it is not the sum of the foregoing Ishraqat, but rather the specific statement that the Manifestation has no partner in the Most Great Infallibility, which gives us ‘true knowledge.'

Before answering the question, Baha'u'llah explains that he has delayed unveiling the doctrine because it will elicit opposition from the `ulamaa' and persecution for the faithful. Then he prefaces the actual explanation with a restatement of the sovereignty of the Manifestation, and the threat this represents to existing religions:

"... thou didst firmly adhere unto seemly patience during the days when the Pen was held back from movement and the Tongue hesitated to set forth an explanation regarding the wondrous sign [al-ayah al-`azmii], the Most Great Infallibility [`ismat al-kabrii]. Thou hast asked this Wronged One to remove for thee its veils and coverings ... We restrained the Pen for a considerable lapse of time in accordance with divine wisdom [hikmat] and for the sake of protecting the faithful .... The All-Merciful is come invested with power and sovereignty. Through His power the foundations of religions have quaked ... Know thou that the term ‘Infallibility' [`ismat] hath numerous meanings and divers stations [ma`aan shattaa wa maqaamat shattaa = diverse meanings and diverse stations]."

The reason why infallibility (in its Bahai meaning) causes the foundations of religions to quake, is that in Bahai teachings infallibility entails change and freedom to change, whereas in previous religions and even in the minds of some Bahais, it is used as a buttress against change. ( !! ) The parallel construction in the last sentence links the diversity in meaning to the different stations or levels at which infallibility applies, as we have seen above. Taherzadeh's translation continues:

"In one sense it [infallibility] is applicable to the One Whom God hath made immune from error."

"In one sense" does not appear in the text, and the capitalisation of One, implying that this is the first station, the most great infallibility of the Manifestation, is an inference by the translator. In my view it is incorrect: this sentence and the following one are talking about the general use of the term, and its Arabic etymology. What it says literally is:

"Where there is one whom God guards (`s.mahu) from slipping (az-zalal), he (God) confers upon him this name (infallible) as a station [fii maqaam]."

Baha'u'llah is emphasising that the word `ismat comes from the verb `sm, to guard or protect, and the concept ‘infallible' means that God has protected someone from something - in the first case, from a slip. Zalal is a simpler term than khataa', it means a lapse, slip or mistake. Coincidentally, this explanation works in English: in-fall-ible means ‘saved from falling,' as if God is beside us and catches our elbow when we are about to fall. The English etymology in this case is false, but the coincidence gives us a mnemonic for one meaning of the term.

The text continues, in my translation:

"Similarly where God has guarded anyone from sin (khataa'), rebellion (`isyaan), impiety (`iraaz) disbelief (kufr), joining partners with God (shirk) and the like, God grants each and every one of them the name of ‘infallibility.'"

In short, where God guards anyone from anything, this guarding is called ‘ismat.

"However, the Most Great Infallibility belongs to the One Whose station is a holiness above ordinances and prohibitions and an exemption from sin (khataa') and forgetfulness (nisyaan).] Indeed He is a Light which is not succeeded by darkness and a suitability [s.awaab = rightness, fittingness, perhaps righteousness here?] that is not subject to sin/failing (khataa'). Were He to pronounce upon water the decree of wine (i.e., that it is forbidden) or upon heaven the decree of earth, or upon light the decree of fire, it is the truth [haqq = truth, reality, legal right] and there is no doubt about it; and it is not for anyone to object to it (or, against him) or to say ‘why and wherefore?.' If anyone objects, he is one of the objectors in the Book of God, the Lord of the worlds. Truly, he is "He shall not be asked of His doings, but they shall be questioned."

The Qur'an verse (21:23) refers to God, but the subject of this paragraph is the Manifestation of God. The last sentence asserts that the Manifestation is in this respect like God: free to do as he (or she) wills, without having to answer to others. This freedom includes changing laws, of which the extreme example would be to forbid the believers to drink water. It includes changing the language and symbols of the religions, in which, for instance, fire has been the symbol of punishment and disgrace, and light symbolises insight and purity. What is meant by pronouncing the decree of earth upon heaven? We imagine the physical and metaphorical heavens to be unchanging, while the earth (or the sub-lunar realm in medieval cosmology) is the realm of change, relativity and conditionality. The Manifestation has the authority to introduce change into "heaven" -- into religion.

"He is come from the invisible heaven (or: the heaven of concealment), and with him the banner `He doeth whatsoever He willeth' and the hosts of power and authority (ikhtiyaar, which is authority in the sense of being able to choose) while it is the duty of all besides Him to hold fast to the religious laws (shari`ah) and ordinances (ahkaam) that have been enjoined upon them. Should anyone transgress them, even to the extent of a single hair, his work will miscarry."

The last sentence need not mean that one who ignores the religious laws will not prosper in this world;­ the opposite is quite likely. The worst sort of people generally rise to the top. It seems more likely to mean that respect and obedience for the religious laws is a condition for the acceptability of good works in the eyes of God, and for the success of the mystic's efforts.

Sen

Monday, 20 August 2007

Expulsion dream

When I was disenrolled from the Baha'i community in March 2000, I mentioned a few times that I had had a dream warning me that someone was watching me and that, one day, that person or thing would 'kill' me. There was so much heat over my expulsion that I didn't make much of the dream at the time. The day after I had the dream, however, I reported about it on Talisman because I knew it was significant. That was 13 September 1998, about 18 months before my expulsion.

This morning, I thought I'd dig into my archives and find that Talisman message and post it here. It was kind of Baha'u'llah to let me know in advance that there were eyes watching me and that, one day, once invisible beings would suddenly materialise to strangle the breath out of me.

Date: Sun, 13 Sep 1998 13:01:44 +1200
To: talisman@umich.edu
Subject: dreamin'

X said: "What do they need to know: Baha'u'llah is the Promised One, Abdu'l-Baha is the Centre of His Covenant, the Universal House of Justice is the God-guided world embracing administrative institution directing our efforts. Pray, fight your own spiritual battles, and give to the fund. Go study."

Well, X, IMV, they need to know a darn sight more than that. This tired old formula won't keep 'em. It sure wasn't going to keep me. They need to know that everything that they are, or can be, or yearn for, or dream about, or love is a divinely-inspired path that the world desperately needs them to walk.

X asked: "So can we dream the invisible Divine Unity into the visible - that is the Question?" I say, yes we can, and what we need is more people dreaming. Our dreams have power; that's what I hear Baha'u'llah saying. I'm gonna dream what others are too fearful to dream. I want women on the House; I want the Faith broken free of its administrative shackles; I want a Faith that is empowered by Beauty.

Last night I dreamed that 'Abdu'l-Baha was lying on a bed - he was very ill, or dead or asleep, whatever, but he was not physically active in this world. I had to move his things and was in the process of doing this, putting them outside on the footpath/sidewalk. I picked up one item that I knew contained something Precious and took it outside. I knew that I was being watched, and that someone did not like me looking after and protecting this Precious-container. I wondered where I should put it down, knowing that I was holding a hot potato. Eventually, I put it down in a way that I thought would make it unnoticable amongst other items. I also didn't want it stolen. I put it down, turned around and began to walk back to get more things from inside, when someone came up to me and accused me of trying to steal this Precious-container. I felt unjustly accused. I was trying to help, and was being protective of it. My actions were deliberately misinterpreted. The person who accused me was large and male and I knew he had no heart. He wanted to possess me, but knew he had lost control of me when he saw how lovingly I cared for the Precious-container. Before I had a chance to profess my innocence, he put his arm around my throat and I woke up.

Alison

Friday, 10 August 2007

Paradise within

'Paradise within' - it's one of my favourite topics. I've spoken about it before, but it's a subject that is not understood and can do with multiple airings.

Baha'u'llah tells us clearly in the Hidden Words, and alludes to it throughout his writings, that paradise is within us. You can figure this out by following the logic of the following Hidden Words. First of all, Baha'u'llah tells us that his paradise is his love and that we are to enter it; this is our destiny:

"O SON OF BEING! Thy Paradise is My love; thy heavenly home, reunion with Me. Enter therein and tarry not. This is that which hath been destined for thee in Our kingdom above and Our exalted Dominion." (AHW 6)

A little further on, he tells us that his love is his stronghold and that we are to enter it, otherwise we'll stray and perish:

"O SON OF BEING! My love is My stronghold; he that entereth therein is safe and secure, and he that turneth away shall surely stray and perish." (AHW 9)

In the next Hidden Word, he tells us that his stronghold is us and that we are to enter it. His love, which we were told above is his paradise, is in us. We should know this so that we can draw near to him:

"O SON OF UTTERANCE! Thou art My stronghold; enter therein that thou mayest abide in safety. My love is in thee, know it, that thou mayest find Me near unto thee." (AHW 10)

We can therefore conclude that God's paradise is his love and that it is our destiny to enter it. God's love is his stronghold and his stronghold is us; again, we are to enter it. Furthermore, God's love is within us and we are asked to know this so that we can draw near to God.

This issue is fundamentally important. Baha'is are immersed in a non-stop discussion about their administration and community. This reality is so pervasive that believers miss out on exploring the reality latent within them. They are not encouraged to undertake the journey into their souls. Instead, they believe that, if they give themselves over entirely to the agenda of the UHJ and NSA and devote their time to attending meetings, salvation is assured.

But is it? A person can spend their whole life consecrated to this course of action, but die knowing nothing about who they are. Baha'u'llah describes this as "true loss":

"True loss is for him whose days have been spent in utter ignorance of his self." (Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p156)

Repeatedly, Baha'is wonder out loud about it - the ongoing plans, the frequent meetings, the endless consultation, the careful navigation around egos, the dream that looks all the more like a black hole thirsty for effort. Where's it all going? Has all this work closed the two-paces of gap that Baha'u'llah says stands between us and him? No, the fruits are exhaustion and achievements that never seem to solidify into substance.

It was precisely this disillusion that forced me off the treadmill of community life and into exploring a new way of being a Baha'i. For me, it all began about ten years ago when I came to understand the true purpose of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar in the Baha'i community: the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar wasn't just a building on a continent but my radiant heart and any devotional meeting. This new understanding changed me completely. I saw what was wrong with my community: it didn't have a Mashriqu'-Adhkar; that is, it lacked a spiritual core. But, of course, there was no telling anyone that. They couldn't see it, and it was hopeless to gear them up to establish one.

And so, I decided that I'd do it myself, on my own. Because I worked in town at that time, I began going every lunch hour to the church just down the road from my office and reading the writings. It was a watershed; within three months everything had changed within me and I never looked back. Ten years and an expulsion later, I have learned a great deal about the paradise within and look forward to an everlasting journey of discovery about it.

What was the process I went through? The heart of the process is captured in this Hidden Word, which Baha'u'llah says is the essence of his teaching:

"O SON OF LIGHT! Forget all save Me and commune with My spirit. This is of the essence of My command, therefore turn unto it." (AHW 16)

This makes it perfectly clear what we have to do. The difficulty is in identifying and removing the obstacles to doing it. I'll tell you about the obstacles I faced, which will be much the same for others.

The first obstacle was the Baha'i community. Most Baha'is never get over this one. In theory, the Baha'i community is supposed to be perfectly supportive of your aim to journey within. But the constant activity of community life and its focus on the administration and community functioning pushes the inner journey aside and it is lost sight of. If you want to journey within, you have to free yourself from Baha'i community life enough to make space for your inner journey. And you have to believe that the path to salvation isn't in devoting yourself entirely to the agenda of Baha'i institutions, but in your personal pilgrimage to the spiritual horizons within.

Another major obstacle is love. I used to be the sort of person that fell in love quite easily. I am a sensitive and emotional person and love was never far from my experience. That worked against me all my life; it got me into all sorts of pickles. But then I found out that Baha'u'llah was in fact my lover, and then it suddenly turned into an advantage. I guess it's one reason I am able to sustain myself each day on my Baha'i path, despite near isolation from the Baha'i community.

But in any case, the point is that, if you're absorbed in the reality of some person, you can't travel within to visit God. Baha'u'llah tells us that we have only one heart and that he has claimed it for himself. I'm not suggesting that you should not love your partner; I'm saying that your love for your partner should not be an obstacle to your destiny, which is to make that fateful journey within. One day, you'll die and continue on that journey and leave your partner behind. Or your partner will die before you and you'll find yourself alone. Either way, we are in the end "Alone with the Alone" (as the book title says) and must account for the effort or lack of it that we've put into discovering ourselves.

Finally, another major obstacle for me has been work and the Protestant Work Ethic. Like the rest of us, I was brought up hearing stories about how Abdu'l-Baha slept only four hours a night and worked tirelessly and constantly, and the Guardian saying:

"The field is indeed so immense, the period so critical, the Cause so great, the workers so few, the time so short, the privilege so priceless, that no follower of the Faith of Baha'u'llah, worthy to bear His name, can afford a moment's hesitation." (The Advent of Divine Justice, p46)

After I was disenrolled from the Baha'i community and found my feet on my spiritual path, I had a million things I wanted to say and many projects I wanted to undertake. I began talking and working and drove myself like there was no tomorrow. The last couple of years, I found myself in an inner state of collapse. The fire in my belly had dampened and I couldn't find the same enthusiasm I had before. I wondered what on earth was wrong with me. I still had the same vision and understanding - nothing had gone wrong there. I still believed I was on the right track. The problem was I hadn't learned this:

"Make not your deeds as snares wherewith to entrap the object of your aspiration, and deprive not yourselves of this Ultimate Objective for which have ever yearned all such as have drawn nigh unto God. Say: The very life of all deeds is My good pleasure, and all things depend upon Mine acceptance. Read ye the Tablets that ye may know what hath been purposed in the Books of God, the All-Glorious, the Ever-Bounteous. He who attaineth to My love hath title to a throne of gold, to sit thereon in honour over all the world; he who is deprived thereof, though he sit upon the dust, that dust would seek refuge with God, the Lord of all Religions." (Kitab-i-Aqdas, para 36)

I had to reassess my earlier Baha'i conditioning, which drove me to tireless effort. Instead of leading me to God and to success, it drove me to exhaustion - so much so that I didn't have the energy even to concentrate on my devotions! I saw my situation was absurd and self-defeating. In my quest for God, I'd driven myself from God. I began to listen anew to the principle that anything taken beyond the point of moderation ceased to exert a beneficial influence. I began to see that I needed to interpret the messages of Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi in accordance with the principles laid down by Baha'u'llah. Yes, we were to work hard, but not so that we lost sight of our purpose!

Ironically, my work had driven me out of paradise. I was no longer happy and could no longer feel God's eternity within me. A new appreciation of the words above pervaded me: "Say: The very life of all deeds is My good pleasure, and all things depend upon Mine acceptance."

And so, a couple of weeks ago, I did something I'd never consciously allowed myself to do before: I put myself on holiday. I am self-employed, you see, and don't take holidays at the same time as the rest of the workforce. I consciously stopped all my work for the cause and mixed up my routines. I read my book, went to the movies, went for drives in the car, and otherwise just lazed around.

It took three days before I began to feel my soul again. Gradually, the paradise within has returned, and when I contemplate it in there, I see myself as the richest and most powerful person on the planet. "He who attaineth to My love hath title to a throne of gold, to sit thereon in honour over all the world." Achievement comes from being in, and acting from, that place.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

The primal call

I wanted to talk some more about why it is important to approach God through our inner selves and not through others, such as the House of Justice. As I explained last time, the inner self - that is, our soul - is the vehicle by which we are linked permanently to God. Through this celestial umbilical cord, we know God and communicate with God.

One reason it is important that we look to our own souls to know God is that God has imprinted them with key information. This information tells us the essential nature of our relationship with God - that God has a primary claim on us and therefore God's will, desire and love are greater than any other concern.

Baha'u'llah describes how this claim was made, in the Hidden Words. He describes a scene in pre-eternity in which we are told about the primal call and its importance to us:

O My friends! Have ye forgotten that true and radiant morn, when in those hallowed and blessed surroundings ye were all gathered in My presence beneath the shade of the tree of life, which is planted in the all-glorious paradise? Awe-struck ye listened as I gave utterance to these three most holy words: O friends! Prefer not your will to Mine, never desire that which I have not desired for you, and approach Me not with lifeless hearts, defiled with worldly desires and cravings. Would ye but sanctify your souls, ye would at this present hour recall that place and those surroundings, and the truth of My utterance should be made evident unto all of you." Persian Hidden Words, no 19)

Baha'u'llah tells us that, in a radiant morn, he seated us under a tree and then gave us some instructions: to be satisfied with what God has willed and desired for you and to invest your heart in your communication with God. Then he tells us that if we sanctify our souls, we'd remember that scene and the guidance he gave us.

The point I want to make is that the soul is the key here. It is the reality that has the memory placed in it. Only by going back to our souls and forgetting all else can we read the instructions of the celestial imprint placed on us.

This fundamental spiritual process can never take place in the soul of someone else. We cannot grow spiritually by relying on someone else's memory of the instructions given on that radiant dawn. We have to remember it ourselves within ourselves. If someone else tells you that God has a claim on you that trumps all others and, out of fear or persuasion, you believe them, can you be said to have remembered it yourself?

Baha'u'llah tells us that our faith cannot be conditioned on another - "For the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself." (Gleanings, LXXV). This means not only that we can't justify our disbelief on the fact that others disbelieved, but also that we can't justify our belief on the fact that others believed.

Those like Counsellor Murphy (I'll call them 'loyalists') who tell us that we have been given a gift to see God through the eyes of the House of Justice say this because they believe that this is the path to uniting the community. They fear that if individuals are left to see God for themselves, they'll go off in all directions and chaos will reign.

If, as I am arguing, God wants us to develop our link with God through our souls, what was God's plan for overcoming what the loyalists fear? If we all looked within, instead of to the House, how would that lead to unity? The answer is that, if we looked within, we'd all find God. We'd all find the divine reality and the divine attributes that Baha'u'llah tells us have been placed in there. (I have covered this issue of God within in my previous message.)

But, in addition to that, we'd also discover the important instructions that God imprinted on our souls in pre-eternity. They have been placed there so that, when we look within, we'll immediately see that God has an absolute claim on us. We'd see God's will, desire and love are over us and greater than any other influence. This inner recognition leads to the fear of God and to our willing compliance with God's purpose for us. And this brings about unity. No one who has truly remembered that scene from pre-eternity is going to be lead by self and passion.

To have everyone looking to the House of Justice is not the path to unity. Firstly, it is inconsistent with the plan God has mapped out for us, where we are all asked to look within. Secondly, it is not spiritually fulfilling for the believers. They never attain the direct link with the divine through their own souls, which is their birthright. Thirdly, it limits the community's vision to that of the nine souls on the House. What of the vision of others? How can the community be successful in teaching if the vision of each member is not brought to bear on the task?

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Turn thy sight unto thyself

For those who may have missed it, here's a passage from Counsellor Murphy's talk at the 2007 US Convention:

"We don't want to be those people who want to see God with their own eyes, or hear His melody with their own ears, because we have been given the gift of being able to see through the eyes of the House of Justice and listen through the ears of the House of Justice."

I'm not going to dwell on the fact that Baha'u'llah says we should see God with our own eyes and ears. No doubt readers will know those passages already. However, here's one passage, which I'll cite for the sake of argument, that isn't often quoted and contains the ideas I do want to discuss:

O son of the throne! Thy hearing is My hearing, hear thou therewith. Thy sight is My sight, do thou see therewith, that in thine inmost soul thou mayest testify unto My exalted sanctity, and I within Myself may bear witness unto an exalted station for thee." Arabic Hidden Words, no 44

I want to look at how Baha'u'llah says our interactions with God should take place. This is really basic stuff - basic to religion and our relationship with God. If we don't understand how this interaction works, we're not going to get anywhere. And it isn't difficult. Baha'u'llah maps out the mechanics of it in the Hidden Words, which is the nuts and bolts of religion.

One clear statement about what we should do is here:

"Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting." Arabic Hidden Words, no 13

Step one, then, is to turn in the direction of our inner self. Baha'u'llah tells us a lot of important information about what God's created in there. He tells us, for example, that our inner self is:
-- God's stronghold, the place where God's love is found and the place where we can get 'near' to God (AHW 10),
-- God's lamp and the place where God's light is found (AHW 11 and 12)
-- rich and noble (AHW 13)
-- God's dominion, light, glory and robe (AHW 14)
-- a breath of God's spirit (AHW 19).

I ask you, what could be clearer? Turn your sight towards your inner self and you'll find out that you exist because God loves you, that God has placed the essence of his light in you and that God has created you rich, with the most noble attributes. It's simple; it's the purpose of our existence, so why would God make it difficult?

Now, why does it go wrong? We turn our sight towards ourselves, all right, but instead of finding the divine self God has placed in there, we access the false self created out of self and passion and allow that to rule us. I don't want to dwell on that here. Following on from Counsellor Murphy's quote above, I want to mention the other thing that can go wrong: we listen to our religious leaders instead of ourselves. (This is related to self and passion as well, but I'll treat it as separate here.)

To be fair, it makes sense that we should listen to our religious leaders. We have to work with them for the day-to-day functioning of the community. It's natural for us to think they might have better ideas than us. I don't have any problems with that. But Counsellor Murphy's statement goes well beyond that. She is not telling us that we should give the House a fair hearing, she's telling us that the only way we can know God is through the House of Justice!

"We don't want to be those people who want to see God with their own eyes, or hear His melody with their own ears, because we have been given the gift of being able to see through the eyes of the House of Justice and listen through the ears of the House of Justice."

I've always maintained, and I know this might sound silly, but if God had intended to give the House of Justice such an exalted station, he'd have mentioned it in the Hidden Words.

On the contrary, what Baha'u'llah does discuss in the Hidden Words in glorious detail is the importance of the divine self of every human being in creation. Each person's inner self is the link that person has with the Creator. It's the umbilical cord by which we are nurtured throughout eternity. When we die, we travel in the 'vehicle' of that link to the next world and we leave the House of Justice behind. That link is vital to our existence. Without it, we die.

If the House of Justice was so important in the process, how would we get on in the next world when we no longer had the House to rely on? Here's a possible scenario:

Baha'u'llah: "Now, tell me, Peter, what made you feel justified in doing that?

Peter: "I'm sorry, Baha'u'llah, I can't understand what you're saying because I don't have the House of Justice to interpret it for me!"

And so, you wonder on what basis Counsellor Murphy says we have been given the "gift" of being able to see God through the eyes and ears of the House. What gift is that exactly? It's not in the Hidden Words. It's true that we've been given a gift, but it's a darn sight better than being able to see God through the House. We can do it ourselves. That's our gift. We have been created noble, why do we bring ourselves down to poverty by relying on the House?

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Ascension of Baha’u'llah

"His bed was in the middle of the room. The mattress and quilt were covered with white sheets and He was propped up on two or three pillows. Mirza Diya'u'llah and Mirza Badi'u'llah were fanning Him. His body was extremely frail and his voice was weak - though He spoke clearly. He revealed words of separation and departure, emphatically commanding unity and love among the believers. ...

As we heard these words and clear verses from the mouth of the Beloved of the worlds, the effect on us can be imagined. 'Andalib was utterly distraught; his heart broke. With tears in his eyes, he cried out: 'Ya Baha! Ya Baha!' expressing his grief.

Baha’u'llah dismissed us from his presence, saying 'Go in God's care'. Every one of us prostrated at His blessed feet and circumambulated His bed. We left the room in deepest sorrow, burning from separation from the Beloved."

From Samandari: Moments With Baha'u'llah pp 30-33, published by Kalimat Press

---------------------------------------------------------

LAMENT at the Ascension of Baha’u'llah

by 'Andalib (Mirza ‘Ali-Ashraf, a famous Baha'i poet)
translation by Ahang Rabbani and Anthony A. Lee

He is the Powerful, the Mighty, the Beloved!

Today the cupbearer, by God’s design,
poured bile into the cup of life, not wine.

Every wound has its balm, each ache a cure-
except this wound! this endless ache of mine!

The nightingales refuse to sing. No trees.
The world’s gone dark, and every eye is blind.

Calamity! The universe unbuilt.
Calamity! The reign of God undone.

On the Sea of Mercy all waves lie still.
But waves of woe rise high! The storm’s begun.

The banner of God's Name collapsed. Such grief,
such grief that heaven will be overrun.

Through Him the Day of Resurrection dawned:
Now earth quakes at the setting of His Sun.

From Sinai He called, "Come see!" Now Moses
hears these final words: "You shall never see."

On the Most Great Ocean the Crimson Ark
has sunk. The tears of Noah drown the sea.

Look west! The Sun of Holiness has set.
Look up! and in His placeless place He’ll be.

We'll never hear His voice again, but there
the Nightingale of Paradise flies free.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Infallibility parallels

Over the last couple of weeks, some events have happened in New Zealand that have parallels with the Baha'i community's struggle with the concept of infallibility.

When I ran my case against the New Zealand NSA in 2002, my lawyer, Colin Withnall QC, was at the same time preparing a case for a young man, David Bain, who had been accused of killing all his family. This mass murder occurred here in my hometown of Dunedin in the early 1990s. What happened was that David Bain went out early one morning as usual to deliver newspapers. When he got back, he found all his family dead. The police argued that David had sneaked back early, killed his family, and then used his paper round as an alibi. A message had been left on the computer in the house by, apparently, the murderer. It said something like "You were the only one who deserved to live". The police argued that David had turned on the computer and written the message to make it look like his father had done the killings, left the message and committed suicide. As it turned out, David was convicted of the murders and sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment.

But that wasn't the end of it. A businessman from up north, Joe Karam, took up David's cause and tried to get David's conviction quashed. New evidence kept on emerging; for example, some witnesses testify that one of David's sisters was having an incestuous relationship with her father and that she was about to make this known to the family. A year after my court case in 2002, Colin Withnall took this new evidence to the New Zealand Court of Appeal and asked for a retrial. But the court refused. David's supporters argued that the Court of Appeal made the mistake of itself determining whether the evidence was persuasive, not whether the evidence should be put to a jury in a retrial.

In the years following, Colin Withnall had been interviewed by the media at various times and he was reported to have said that he was not happy with our criminal justice system. I remember him saying on TV that he didn't believe that an adversarial system delivered justice. When my case was thrown out by the High Court, Colin couldn't believe it. To him, I had a clear case. I remember him saying that sometimes judges did strange things and this was one such instance. He felt that the judge had missed the point of our arguments, and had actually decided the case, when he was only required to decide if a prima facie case existed.

Here's a quote from Colin about the justice system, from the New Zealand Listener in March this year:

If anyone knows about playing the system, it’s veteran defence lawyer Colin Withnall, QC. He fought for 10 years to get Rex Haig cleared of murder and has another case before the Court of Appeal after a jury "went right off the rails". He thinks it is time for a judicious makeover.

"Back when I was doing a lot of crime [defence] 20 odd years ago, I would have said the adversary system is the greatest thing since sliced bread," says Withnall, "because I enjoyed playing these games. But it’s not a search for the truth. It’s a question of putting forward the best case on the material you have within the ethical constraints. It is a bit devious."

He knows of police and prosecution taking liberties with their duty to disclose all the evidence and he has had important documents turn up months after a trial. Defence lawyers also have their tricks, he says. "Abstract justice means finding out the truth, not finding out which side puts up a better case or manages to obscure the truth more effectively."

"Evidence to the contrary" by Amanda Spratt, March 24-30 2007 Vol 208 No 3489.

One of the points made in my final submission (and in previous submissions) related to the House's infallibility. The NSA, with its arm now up its back due to court scrutiny, was now cuddling up to the court saying that it would be 'only too happy' to review the decision to expel me. Here's the submission I made in response, pointing out that such a review would be waste of time given that the original decision was made by the 'infallible' House:

  1. It is not accepted that the "review" procedures suggested by the Defendant offer any real means of redress. Paragraph 11.9 of the affidavit of Mr Wilcox dated 27 June 2002 makes that perfectly clear. In that paragraph, Mr Wilcox states that the appropriate course of action for an individual that has had his or her membership removed by the NSA is to seek a review of the decision by the NSA in the first instance. He goes on to say that where the NSA made the relevant decision itself it would give full and impartial consideration to any request for reconsideration. However, in this situation, where the NSA had received and acted on an express instruction from the Universal House of Justice, he says that it "would refer any request for review to the Universal House of Justice."
  2. This follows on from paragraphs 7.7 and 7.9 in which he says that the NSA will carry out any instruction it receives from the Universal House of Justice without question, and that it does not have any discretion to disobey or to fail to carry out the instruction.
  3. It is therefore abundantly clear that any request for a reconsideration made to the NSA will result in nothing more than that request being passed on to the Universal House of Justice in Israel. There is no reason to suppose that that body would even consider reversing the decision which it has made, as it is considered, and considers itself to be, infallible and incapable of being wrong.

Early this year, Joe Karam took David's case to the Privy Council in London. Until a few years ago, the Privy Council was New Zealand's highest court - a remnant of our colonial past. David's defence asked the court to quash David's conviction on the basis of the new evidence, which our Court of Appeal had felt did not justify a retrial. In a shock decision released about 10 days ago, the Privy Council quashed David's conviction, describing it as a "substantial miscarriage of justice" because all the evidence had not been heard by the trial jury. The court ordered a retrial.


David Bain hugging ex-Baha'i and long-time campaigner, Patti Napier, after his release on bail. (Photo courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald)

As a result, early this week, David was released from prison on bail. He had been in prison for 13 years. When he walked out of the courtroom and onto the street after so long, he was an instant celebrity. He was greeted by a wall of media - more cameras and attention than most people ever face in a lifetime. His life had been turned upside down in a matter of days.

I was listening to Colin being interviewed on Radio New Zealand National about the Privy Council decision. I was fascinated to hear him describe the issue with the criminal justice system as a problem with the assumption of infallibility. He said that the public believes in the system and that it is infallible. So, if a person is convicted, then people assume that the person must be guilty. But, he argued, an 'infallible' system is, in fact, one that can admit it can get it wrong.

Another lawyer who previously worked on the case, Colin Withnall QC, says what the Privy Council in London heard is basically what the New Zealand Court of Appeal heard.

He said there's a drive in New Zealand to maintain the belief that the system is infallible and that's what the Court of Appeal did by rejecting the idea that David did not get a fair trial.

But, he said on Morning Report, people should have more faith in a system that's prepared to say: "we got it wrong".

Lawyers ask how New Zealand judiciary got David Bain case wrong

It is also interesting to note that the Privy Council's criticism of the Court of Appeal's decision in David Bain's case is essentially Colin's criticism of the judge in my case. In both cases, the courts' role was simply to assess that sufficient issues were raised by the evidence for the case and all its facts to be presented before a court so that a jury/judge could rule on it. Instead, in both cases, the court made this ruling itself, even though it did not have all the evidence placed before it.

The quote from Colin above indicates that Colin believes the Court of Appeal did this because, perhaps unconsciously, it wanted to maintain the facade of infallibility in the system.

I can only guess why the judge did it in my case. As I understand it (I wasn't at the hearing), the NSA's lawyer bombarded the judge with a lot of irrelevant evidence - the sort of evidence and detail you'd expect at a full hearing not an interlocutory hearing as this was - and come about 3pm, Colin reports, the judge got tired and just stopped listening. After that, he started looking for ways to get rid of the case and turned his attention to finding me guilty for not doing things he assumed I would have done if I'd been bone fide. It seemed that the NSA's attempt to discredit me in the eyes of the judge had worked, for some of the material they presented was designed to paint me as unstable. As Colin explains it in the quote above, the system isn't designed to find the truth but to run with the side that "manages to obscure the truth more effectively".