Sunday, 20 December 2009

Response to Roy Hilbinger

On the 2 December, Roy Hilbinger wrote a blog entry, "No going back", in which he gave his reasons for no longer believing in Baha'u'llah. Initially, I decided against responding, but one night, a response came to me and so I have decided to pursue it. I do not respond in order to convince Roy to change his beliefs. I don't blame him for getting irritated at Baha'is who hassle him to do so. I respect his decision and wish him well on his journey. Rather, I express here alternative ways of seeing the passages he quotes, which have put him off the writings, and explain the concepts that I believe underlie those passages and give them a different light. Having said that, I agree with some of the criticisms Roy makes, but do not see them as critiques of Baha'u'llah.

Roy says that he is particularly disturbed by the passages in which Baha'u'llah says there must be limits on liberty. He sees Baha'u'llah's position as "anti-democratic" and "almost cultic". (My initial reaction was to wonder if Roy had read Juan Cole's book Modernity and the Millennium, in which Juan shows how Baha'u'llah defended democracy at a time when to do so meant risking one's life. But that's not the approach I want to take here.) Roy quotes several passages; here's two, to give a flavour of what concerns him.

"Regard men as a flock of sheep that need a shepherd for their protection. This, verily, is the truth, the certain truth. We approve of liberty in certain circumstances, and refuse to sanction it in others. We, verily, are the All-Knowing." Kitab-i-Aqdas, para 124

"It is incumbent upon them who are in authority to exercise moderation in all things. Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence. Consider for instance such things as liberty, civilization and the like. However much men of understanding may favourably regard them, they will, if carried to excess, exercise a pernicious influence upon men." Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p 169

Roy says he gets particularly upset at the second passage above: "This one always bothered me a lot; how can civilization be considered excessive?" Well, I would argue that the kind of thing Baha'u'llah had in mind would include our global troubles with the finance sector. As I understand it, the global financial crisis was caused by people who control a large proportion of global wealth not following prudent financial practices and taking extreme risks in order to make fortunes. I think this is an example of the liberty offered by civilisation being carried to excess. The finance sector is a good thing and is an important development for our civilisation, but its players have been allowed to go to extremes and we've all paid dearly for that. Governments the world over are now talking about how to regulate more closely those in the finance sector; that is, reduce their liberty; have them act in moderation. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand, for example, is taking extra measures to ensure that New Zealand banks are sufficiently cashed up to cope with a crisis like the one we've just had. Also, new legislation gives the Reserve Bank the power to regulate non-bank deposit takers and insurance companies. (For an excellent article on what caused the global financial meltdown, see "The financial crisis: whodunnit?" by Howard Davies, which was published in the September 2009 issue of the New Zealand Reserve Bank Bulletin.)

Another example of civilisation being carried to excess, I suggest, is climate change. As I understand it, the heart of the problem is that we use more carbon than we store. Here's a summary in layman's terms - one I can follow in any case:

"Carbon drives the world. Energy from the sun is captured by plants and, through the process of photosynthesis, is combined with carbon dioxide taken from the atmosphere. Carbon and energy are trapped as carbohydrate, which can then be used in plants to make fibre, protein, fats and oils. We can eat the carbohydrate directly to fuel our bodies, or we can let animals do the first processing then eat the meat.... These days, however, the demand for energy is not just for food, but also for transport, power and industry. Every year... we humans burn a million years' worth of energy stored through previous photosynthesis. The burning process releases carbon that had been locked up in oil and coal into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide." -- "Does the answer lie in the soil?" by Jacqueline Rowarth, in New Zealand Listener, 12/12/09 p23

And so we have key aspects of our civilisation, such as transport and industry, using huge carbon reserves to run our civilisation, but not putting anything back. We are not acting sustainably. Our whole civilisation depends upon using resources to excess, and this is having a lethal effect on us. I think Baha'u'llah's principle - that the liberty enjoyed as a part of our civilisation, if carried to excess, will have a pernicious influence - has proved prophetic. Perhaps one might also claim that Baha'u'llah was the first to suggest we act 'sustainably'. But, surely, it is also common sense. Everyone must accept limits on their freedom; a person without them is a blight on society - generally, a bully or a criminal. Baha'u'llah has simply pointed out that, like individuals, society/civilisation must also accept limits on what it can do - and this, for its own sake, not Baha'u'llah's.

It is common for people to get concerned about the passages Roy cites. In addition to the ones above, he also quotes passages in which Baha'u'llah points out that God does as God wills and that we must obey God. Roy says: "One of the more common phrases in Baha’u'llah’s writings is 'He doeth what He willeth'; that God is supreme and will do whatever he wants and we mere humans have no option but to obey." And he sees other passages as a limit on our freedom of conscience too.

I think how one interprets Baha'u'llah comes down to how you see who and what he is. I can understand where Roy's concerns come from. I used to be able to see those passages in the light that he does. But I've made a big shift in my understanding, which leads me to try and shed a different light on them. Going by what Roy says, he seems to view Baha'u'llah as a kind of leader, a politician, or high-ranking religious leader like the pope, or, more to the point, an ayatollah - yes, like Ayatollah Khomeini. He is the best example because Roy accuses Baha'u'llah of advocating blind obedience. And if you put that together with a passage from Baha'u'llah like this - "Whenever My laws appear like the sun in the heaven of Mine utterance, they must be faithfully obeyed by all, though My decree be such as to cause the heaven of every religion to be cleft asunder. He doeth what He pleaseth" - well, it's clear that you have a guy whose ego has run amok, a cultist, a religious nutter bent on taking over the world and imposing his ideas on all.

Except that Baha'u'llah isn't a politician or a religious leader in the sense of a pope or an ayatollah. He is a manifestation, or prophet, of God, which I know is just words to most people, and so I want to give an idea of what it means and why it's different. I'll start by using the truth that Roy says has always appealed to him and which he turned to when he left the Baha'i community. He says "When I first left the Baha’i Faith to strike out on my own, I mostly hung out with neo-Pagans because the idea that all creation, including ourselves, is sacred appeals to me." Touché. Baha'u'llah says everything in creation is a sign of God and that humans are made in the image of God and their spirit is a place of revelation. But how does Baha'u'llah know this? And how does Roy know that all creation is sacred? Roy knows it because he senses it within himself and his sense is confirmed by what he reads in books. Baha'u'llah, on the other hand, knows it because he is the voice that speaks within every atom of existence. If Roy gazes upon creation and senses that it is speaking to him, then he is hearing the voice of Baha'u'llah. A good illustration of the magnitude of Baha'u'llah's claim here is that he says it was his voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush. (The prophets are one in essence, but their revelations differ in intensity in this world: "Some of the Apostles We have caused to excel the others."(Qur'an 2:253)) Here is an example of Baha'u'llah's voice calling to us from the heart of creation:

"Say: My creatures are even as the leaves of a tree. They proceed from the tree, and depend upon it for their existence, yet remain oblivious of their root and origin... Say: My creatures are even as the fish of the deep. Their life dependeth upon the water, and yet they remain unaware of that which, by the grace of an omniscient and omnipotent Lord, sustaineth their very existence. Indeed, their heedlessness is such that were they asked concerning the water and its properties, they would prove entirely ignorant." Summons p40

Again, this will just be words to most. But I think that delineating Baha'u'llah's claims in this way does make clear the difference between Baha'u'llah and a politician or religious leader. For example, if you are the voice within all existence, why on earth would you want to be a politician or religious leader? The power that these leaders temporarily have is a parody of the power that Baha'u'llah claims to have. If you give effect to your will through all existence, then you write the fortunes of these worldly leaders, you don't want to be one. Nor would you be interested in oppressing people in the way that leaders like Saddam Husayn or Hitler did. If you have the power to determine the fate of all, why aspire to be a tinpot bully? Instead, Baha'u'llah's purpose is to offer himself as a lover, in a world that it is outside the experience such leaders have ever known.

When I read a draft of this blog to Steve, he dryly suggested that Baha'u'llah's extraordinary claim to be the voice of existence might be even more horrifying to people than a claim to be a worldly leader. I had to confess that I hadn't seen it like that before, but that he was right. For the voice of existence isn't something one can argue with, and if you don't like what it says, then that's not good news. But it makes all the difference for me. For Baha'u'llah's qualities are all-loving, all-forgiving, all-powerful and so forth, and as such, he is the greatest comfort and joy to me. So, yes, he is the Ruler and we must accept him for who he is, but he is also our best-beloved who wants only what's best for us.

I'll end with this quote, which shows Baha'u'llah in a different light to the passages chosen by Roy.

"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

I have other things I'd like to say about Roy's blog entry - about blind obedience and names - but this is long enough, so I might raise those issues next time.

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