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