Saturday, 26 September 2009

Alison's Oscars

The other day, I was on Wiki looking through lists of people's favourite movies. I found that the lists didn't reflect my taste very well. Steve counselled me not to take any notice because the lists are meaningless. But I thought, damn it, my taste in movies is just as valid as the mainstream. So I decided I would take the plunge and stick up for my movies, for there must be others out there who like the movies I do. I am therefore going to hold my own Oscars and give awards to my favourite movies, just for fun.

As for my taste in movies - in general, I guess I watch 'mainstream' arthouse movies. I do like movies to challenge me. Of the movies I've chosen for awards, most of them tell stories (often true) that are harrowing. I also like movies that a mainstream audience would likely consider too slow, too boring and too long. I don't watch movies that the NZ censor gives an R16 or higher rating to on account of violence. I still live with my mistakes, for I can never erase the horrible images from my mind. For example, I went to the 1999 film version of Shakespeare's Titus. I didn't see the censor's warning that it had graphic violence and horror scenes. It was an excellent movie - probably deserves an Oscar - but I have to pass on movies like that.

All these movies have won an Oscar because they had such an impact on me I never forgot them. They are what I'd call Alison's classics. You'll see that my Oscars involve awards not traditionally given at Oscars. I've left out movies that are already popular, such as "Out of Africa", "Singing in the Rain" and "American Beauty", which I would also award Oscars too.

Without further ado, then, I'll get down to it. Steve, envelopes please ...

The award for Best Depiction of the Feminist principle 'the personal is political' goes to ... (drum roll)
"Sunshine" (1999). I saw this movie ages ago, so I can't remember it in detail, but I remember being completely taken by it. "It follows three generations of a Jewish family... during the changes in Hungary from the beginning of the 20th century to the period after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution." By following the family through the political changes in the country, it shows how the personal and the political are interlinked. And, in this way, it also shows how the 'enemy' - ie, the fascist etc - is inside us and not the other guy. It also has some harrowing footage of life in a concentration camp. Unpredictable.


The award for Best Depiction of the Culture of Downunder goes to ... (drum roll)
"The Castle" (1997). It's an Australian comedy, so it's tongue in cheek - but Steve and I think that it captures the general laid-back attitude of Downunder culture, which includes Australia and New Zealand. Although there are important differences between the two countries, this movie captures the similarities, such as the continual fascination with picking up bargains. One of our favourite lines is where the father says to his son, who points out that a lectern is for sale in the paper: "It doesn't come up often". But it cleverly winds through the humour a serious message about property rights, including indigenous rights. Playful.


The awards for Best Comedy and Best Screenplay go to ... (drum roll)
"Intolerable Cruelty" (2003). Steve and I both think that this is the funniest movie out. It screened on TV here last week, and the TV reviewer said it wasn't funny at all. But it's a complex little number and you can't possibly take in all the layers in one sitting. First time around, you're focused on the tricky plot; after that, you learn to look out for the hilarious dialogue. We've watched it over and over and always double up laughing; for example, "'Let NOMAN put asunder' - the National Organisation for Matrimonial Attorneys Nationwide"! A scream.


The award for Best Foreign Language Movie goes to ... (drum roll)
"The Wind that Shakes the Barley" (2006). The movie opens up with some young men playing soccer on a field in rural Ireland. They're shouting at each other as they kick the ball around, but you haven't a clue what they're saying. In short, you need the subtitles. This is a harrowing movie about the Irish resistance in the 1920s. It depicts the moral decline of the central character, who makes increasingly morally dubious decisions in the war-like situations he finds himself in. You come away with a real appreciation of what it was like to live with the English running around controlling you and your country. Tragic.


The award for Best Classic Movie goes to ... (drum roll)
"Zulu" (1964). I first saw this one on pay TV many years ago, and was riveted. It's an amazing movie and should have got an Oscar for Best Picture. The images of the Zulu warriors appearing on the horizon and the fear on the soldiers' faces is something you never forget. You feel like you really are there and about to die. I like the fact that the producers weren't too scared to use silence. There are long periods of absolute silence and it creates a very intense eerie atmosphere. The film also gives you real insight into the way that the British army worked back then. Unsurpassed.


The award for Movie with the Best Sex Scene goes to ... (drum roll)
"Atonement" (2007). This is one of my all-time favourite movies - and yes, it does have a stunning sex scene. But that's not all, it's just a great movie all round. As the title suggests, the story is about coming to terms with a wrong one has done, which has had terrible repercussions on the lives of those involved. The movie was directed by one of my favourite directors, Joe Wright, who also did "The Soloist" (which came out this year and deserves an Oscar too for its portrayal of the mentally ill and homeless in LA.) Passionate.


The award for Best Movie that Proves Tom Cruise isn't just a Top Gun goes to ... (drum roll)
"Born on the 4th of July" (1989). I'll admit it - I was one of those who thought Tom Cruise had nothing in him but a top gun, until I saw this movie. I was amazed to see him carry off a moving portrayal of the Vietnam War veteran who was paralysed from fighting in the war. I always knew the veteran hospitals were bad, but nothing could have prepared me for what the movie shows. It's a scandal: sell them the patriot religion and then leave them to rot. Perhaps the thing that moved me most was the symbolism of it all: there was Tom Cruise, one of the real success stories of the American Dream, portraying a man who is mostly a loser in that dream (despite his sacrifices for it, and the charade of hailing him a hero). Intensely human.


The award for Best Movie Depicting Muslim North Africa goes to ... (drum roll)
"The Sheltering Sky" (1990). If you see it, you'll never forget it. Roger Ebert summed it up: it's about "American intellectuals confronted by an immensity of experience they cannot read or understand." The cinematography is extraordinary. Tiny villages of mud houses, initially indistinguishable, appear gradually out of the dust as the camera zooms in. The movie loses you in this vast, North African moonscape, with one of the main characters who finds herself alone and disorientated in the middle of it after her husband dies of typhoid. She winds up in a harem, locked up in a little hut! Out of this world.


The award for Best Romance goes to ... (drum roll)
"Brokeback Mountain" (2005). It was a scandal that this movie didn't win Best Picture at the Oscars, ahead of Crash. What on earth got into those judges? Do I need to tell anyone how wonderful this movie is? New Zealand is a farming country and I felt some affinity to the culture that was depicted. I used to go to rodeos with my family when I was a child, amazingly. The culture is a prison in that it has narrow socially constructed gender roles, for women as well as men, and offers no more than an empty existence. A serious problem for anyone with genuine feeling or depth. A real love story.


The award for Best Movie Depicting Spiritual Themes goes to ... (drum roll)
"As it is in Heaven" (2005). A Swedish movie with English subtitles. In the movie, a conductor teaches a local choir how to sing together. He begins by teaching them that singing is all about listening; that is, listening to the music that already exists and then drawing it down. This process of drawing down the music is like the one we need to focus on in order to enrich our spiritual lives. Uplifting.


The award for Best Holocaust Movie goes to ... (drum roll)
"The Pianist" (2002). This movie shows you what it was like to be Jewish and living in Warsaw when the Nazis took over. You feel the humiliation of having to wear arm bands, and having to walk in gutters because you're not allowed on the footpath. You wonder what they'll do next. Then the Nazis force all the Jews to live in one area, which they separate off with high brick walls (reminiscent of the wall the Israelis use to keep the Palestinians in) and the people can't get out. They starve. The movie is the miraculous tale of survival of the Polish pianist, Władysław Szpilman. The climax is when the German officer, right at the end, goes out of his way to bring him food and gives him his coat to keep him warm. Providential.


The award for Fabulous Arthouse Movie Mistakenly put out by Warner Brothers goes to ... (drum roll)
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (2007). Here we go again - I didn't go to this movie because I couldn't decide if it was just another Western. And the title! What was a girl to make of that? But I was aware that critics seemed to like it, although some said it was too long. I bought the DVD and was astounded. It's an intimate psychological analysis of the Jesse James gang set in an Andrew Wyeth painting. A literary masterpiece.


Finally, the prestigious award for Best Picture goes to ... (drum roll)
"Fateless" (2005). This is the standout movie, in my view. It's head and shoulders above them all. It's the true story of a young Hungarian boy who was sent to concentration camps at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Zeitz. If you ever really wanted to know what it was like to be in a concentration camp, then this is the movie for you. This movie rearranges your head. You'll never see simple things like carrot soup in the same way again, and you'll never ever think you know what it means to be cold, or what it means to be tired. The only reason I saw it was because it happened to screen here on Maori Television, which is like a public broadcaster and shows movies you don't see on the mainstream channels. I wasn't going to watch it, thinking 'yet another depressing holocaust movie', but I'm really glad I did. I sat the whole time with my teeth clenched. You know, I never understood why people made horror movies - I hate them. If you want to see a horror movie, watch this one. Overwhelming.


Special award

The special award for Best Movie Critic goes to ... (drum roll)
New Zealand movie reviewer, Simon Morris. He does a weekly 30-minute slot called "At the Movies" on Radio New Zealand National. Once a programme has aired, it goes up as a podcast on the web site. So you can listen to Simon as well. I like him because he often sees things the way I do, such as this on Quentin Tarentino: "Quentin Tarentino may be a smart postmodern pop artist with an encyclopedic knowledge of every rotten film ever made, but at heart he remains the emotionally stunted adolescent he's always been." This is found in Simon's programme dated 26 August 2009, in which he reviews Tarentino's "Inglourious Basterds". Go Simon!

Monday, 21 September 2009

The embodiment of deeds

Alison's camellia tree

I wrote last time about my new understanding that our deeds, thoughts and words create a spiritual reality and that that reality takes a form in the spiritual world, such as the form of a woman or houri. For me, I like to think of my houri as a garden, because gardens are things that you nurture (or neglect) and, over time, they develop and become fruitful (or wither and languish) and, in this way, are an everlasting source of sustenance. In this way, I now understand Baha'u'llah saying that: "The essence of wealth is love for Me; whoso loveth Me is the possessor of all things, and he that loveth Me not is indeed of the poor and needy." (Tablets p 156)

But I want to address another question about how this system works: what does it mean to say that our deeds take a form, or reflect an image, in the spiritual world? In finding an answer to this question, I discovered that the issue is at the heart of a great deal of Islamic mysticism. My quest has taken me back to Henri Corbin and his writing about the spiritual realm in which these spiritual images appear (for example, in his book "Spiritual body and celestial earth"). I always knew Corbin was famous for his writings on this subject among those interested in Sufism, but I've only just discovered why, as a Baha'i concerned with Baha'i theology and Baha'i mysticism, what Corbin has to say is important for me. In other words, how do I see what Corbin discusses as being related to what Baha'u'llah has to say? Finding that there is a connection has been quite a discovery for me because I've found that, in general, what Baha'u'llah says about mysticism sweeps away the Islamic take on it. That's because Baha'u'llah's revelation brings a fresh meaning to the term 'mysticism', as he explains in Tablet of the Son:

"For if God speaks a word today that comes to be on the lips of all the people, before and after, that word will be new, if you only think about it. Consider the word, "monotheism," about which all the manifestations of the Eternal Truth have spoken in each dispensation, and which all the adherents of the various religions have asserted. Nevertheless, in each dispensation it is an innovation, and its novel character can never be withdrawn from it. God breathes into each word he speaks a new spirit, and the breezes of life from that word waft upon all things outwardly and inwardly." Tablet of the Son, para 9

And this principle applies to the word 'mysticism' too. It is an innovation in the Baha'i revelation.

But I digress. The question is: what does it mean to say that our deeds take a form, or reflect an image, in the spiritual world? For much of the time I have been interested in mysticism - about 15 years - I had never read anything from Baha'u'llah that gave an explanation of images of ourselves appearing in the spiritual realm. The problem was a lack of English translations, I was given to believe. But about three years ago, by the grace of God, a fellow called Mehran Ghasempour was inspired to translate "Tablet of the Right of the People" (Lawh-i Haqqu'n Nas). I thank the Lord for raising him up to do this work, for it has helped me hugely to move forward in my understanding of mysticism.

The tablet came about because someone asked Baha'u'llah the following question: if person A wrongs person B and one person, or both, dies before the wrong is righted, how does God settle the matter in the next world? This is a problem because, as we witness, the world in which the wrong was done - that is, the physical world and its characteristics - ceases to exist for us when we die and, therefore, the means by which the matter could be settled disappears also. Added to this is the following principle: that God has undertaken to settle all matters relating to rights that exist between people. So if someone is wronged, the wrong is guaranteed to be righted by God. God may forgive a wrong done to himself but will settle justly a wrong done to a person. How then is this promise fulfilled in the next world if one or other person dies and the matter cannot be settled in the physical world?

In order to answer this question, Baha'u'llah has to explain how our deeds can 'exist' in the next world so that they can be sorted out; that is, so that right ones are rewarded and evil ones are punished. This takes him into exactly the territory I needed him to go for me to understand how our deeds take on a spiritual form in the spiritual world. Over four short paragraphs, Baha'u'llah gives a basic outline of how it works. The rest of the tablet is taken up with examples to flesh the argument out. For now, I'll deal with what Baha'u'llah says in those four paragraphs. Please bear in mind that the translation has been done by someone for whom English is a second language, so there is some awkward phrasing.

Paragraph 1: "Thus I express to thee that what thou hast seen and heard in this mortal world of limitations, by any name and character and by any form or descriptive attribute, in every one of divine worlds is manifested and witnessed in a manner suitable and proper to each world, which shineth forth and revealeth itself by another name, character, form and descriptive attribute."

This paragraph seems to outline a basic principle, which I'll call the central principle. The central principle states that everything we see and hear in this physical world, no matter what its name, form, character or attributes, has a corresponding name, form, character and set of attributes in every one of the divine worlds; and the features of that thing in the divine worlds is determined by the conditions of those worlds - hence a thing appears in a manner that is suitable and proper to each world. I assume that this principle does not just apply to what we see and hear but to what we experience in this world via all our senses.

Alison's flowering cherry

What this means - and this is where Corbin comes in in a big way - is that everything we experience takes on a spiritual form or image in each of the worlds of God. I can't overstate how important this principle is - all of mysticism seems to rest on it. I'm just looking now at my garden, and wondering what image it takes in the other worlds of God. Pondering this principle over the last few days caused me to think about the Kitab-i Iqan again. I can see now that all through that book Baha'u'llah is showing us how to look at the participants in religious history - the religious leaders, the prophets, the masses, the martyrs - in symbolic terms. And he teaches us to read some symbols, such as the sun, moon and stars. One could write a whole book on that subject.

In the examples Baha'u'llah gives further on in the tablet to illustrate this principle, he explains that the world of sleep is very like - is the 'brother' of - the world of death - by which, I understand him to mean the world we pass on to when we die. A little further on, he gives the example of the famous dream that Joseph had that illustrated what would happen to him in the future. "Lo! I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon - I saw them prostrating themselves unto me." (Qur'an 12:4) This dream uses the symbols of the stars, sun and moon, which correspond to Joseph's 11 brothers (the stars), and his father and mother (the sun and moon). Baha'u'llah asks his reader to ponder what is the world in which family members appear as sun, moon and stars, and conversely, what is the world in which sun, moon and stars appear as family members? There is one thing we can say about the world of the sun, moon and stars: it is real; it isn't a product of the chemicals in our brain or a function of our imagination. It is a spiritual reality. (I think this must be the reason that fiction and movies are so popular, because they create a world of images, something we all consiously or unconsciously can relate to - I guess this would be true of all art.)

Corbin famously says we use our "Active (or Creative) Imagination" (that is, Imagination with a capital 'I') to 'see' these images in the spiritual realm - what he calls the 'Imaginal realm'. He gives the word 'imagination' a capital 'I' in order to distinguish it from what we usually mean by the word 'imagination', which is a world of illusion. When I was thinking about this the other day, I was suddenly reminded about this from a hidden word: "Never shall mortal eye recognize the everlasting beauty…" (PHW 10) In other words, to link into the Imaginal realm, on which one will see the 'beauty' of Baha'u'llah, one cannot do so by using one's physical eyes. We have to learn to use the Active Imagination that Corbin talks about in order to see the spiritual image and know how to interpret it.

In paragraph 2 (of the 4 paragraphs I mentioned above), Baha'u'llah says: "This death that thou hast heard of in the world, referreth to the outward appearance and the garment, and not to the truth and the inner essence. Certainly the realities of things, through different appearances and various manifestations, truth after truth, shine forth and reveal themselves in every world. The sages of mature wisdom who have drunk from the mystic choice wine - God requite them - have believed in the embodiment of deeds."

Expanding on the central principle, Baha'u'llah goes on to explain that, when we die, our outer garment dies but not our inner essence and "truth". The realities things - presumably, our essence and truth, plus the reality of our deeds and so forth - appear in each world of God in the form appropriate to them. Then he says that wise people have always believed that our deeds are 'embodied'; that is, they take on a body or form in each of the spiritual worlds. This paragraph seems to take the central principle beyond its initial boundaries; that is, it is not just what we experience via our senses that is embodied in the spiritual realm but also ourselves as a person, for we are a 'thing' in the world, and our deeds, which reflect how we interact with other things in the world. I would argue that the principle also applies to our words and thoughts, which is why it is important that we keep our thoughts pure.

In paragraph 3, Baha'u'llah confirms that each of us is judged according to our deeds: "The All-Glorious saith: 'God will reward them for their attributions!'. The Dawning-Place of revelation, the All-Merciful, hath said that people are recompensed according to their deeds; reward for good and punishment for evil." And in paragraph 4, Baha'u'llah brings his argument together, explaining that our deeds do indeed go with us into the spiritual world so that God can recompense each person according to their deeds.

"Thus it becometh evident that a deed will remain and every attribute will exist until recompense is given according to the deed and attribute itself. Therefore, any deed and any attribute that appeareth from any person hath a form in every world and unveileth itself "that God may reward every soul what he hath earned; verily, God is swift in reckoning."

Here, the central principle seems to be extended again to hold that 'any attribute' from a person is embodied in the spiritual world. This then would include inner things such as aspirations, loves, hates, goals, desires and so on.

Further on in the tablet, Baha'u'llah explains how this process of recompensing people according to their deeds can also take place in the physical world. In a karmic way, things can happen to us as a direct spiritual consequence of our deeds. The example Baha'u'llah gives of this is interesting. He says that, for example, a person may lose their wealth, but this might be an act of kindness on the part of the Lord because wealth is "the garment of fate and afflictions". Moreover, if a robber steals your money, then the only thing the robber has achieved, from a spiritual point of view, is to load themselves up with fate and afflictions. Hence, the recompense for the deed for the robber is hidden in the deed itself.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Garden of good deeds

In my last entry, Rendering assistance to God, I ended by saying that I'd found a way through my paralysis over the seeming pointlessness of good deeds given God's omnipotence. I had also described in earlier entries the trap in using deeds as snares to manufacture a desired outcome. I languished for months between these two positions until last week when a mixture of questions I'd had for ages all found an answer in one place. It was a great moment!

One of those questions I've long been wondering about is what exactly is the houri who appeared to Baha'u'llah and spoke to him? Some years ago, I read the excellent article "Daena-Den-Din: The Zoroastrian heritage of the 'Maid of Heaven' in the tablets of Baha'u'llah" by Kamran Ekbal (in Moojan Momen (ed): Scripture and Revelation, pp125-169) and this gave me an idea of the relationship between the houri and good deeds. Then, just recently, I finally read the first chapter of Alessandro Bausani's Religion in Iran, and between that and the Ekbal article, I began to see how the houri concept worked, and to my surprise and delight, recognised that it also answered my question about the place of good deeds in our spiritual life.

As the Ekbal article explains, the houri concept that the Baha'is are familiar with has its origins in Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is hugely complex due to the fact that it is ancient - at least 1000 BCE - and therefore added to and altered for millennia until you get the version of today. But both Ekbal and Bausani are clear that the idea of Daena, a houri figure, is fundamental to Zoroastrianism and is found in the earliest extant texts of that religion, the Gathas, which are in the first person and are considered Zoroaster's voice (Ekbal, 134).

The concept of Daena is complex, with several aspects to it that work together to create the whole meaning. I don't feel qualified to attempt a definition but have to for the sake of this blog entry. For me, the way I first got a handle on the concept was when I read the Zoroastrian texts that used it and described how it works. But I'll attempt an explanation first.

Bausani explains that the concept has three meanings, which are all interlinked: religion in the wide sense of revelation, the soul's double, and a maiden (Bausani, pp53-4). My understanding of how these work is that each person creates within themselves, by means of their soul, a spiritual world, energy or garden (however you like to conceptualise it), which is made up of their actions, thoughts, words, conscience and the like. This individual spiritual world, substance, or personality takes on in the spiritual realm a unique form - hence the idea of our soul's double - and in Zoroastrianism, this form is said to be that of a maiden. The idea is that if our deeds, thoughts and words are good, then our maiden double is beautiful, but if our deeds, thoughts and words are evil, then our 'daena' is an ugly old woman. A useful way to look at it is via the concept of revelation - just as Baha'u'llah produced a revelation, which took the form of the houri he describes, we also produce a revelation through the activity of our selves and this also produces the image of a houri or daena unique to us.

I always suspected, but could not argue cogently why, all humans have a 'houri' and not just Baha'u'llah - although Baha'u'llah's houri is The Houri, as John Walbridge once said, and we are all reflections of his archetypal form. It is also consistent with the teaching that ordinary humans are made in God's image, and it also works when you consider statements such as this one in AHW 59, "Thy spirit is My place of revelation; cleanse it for My manifestation."

But here is a classic example from Zoroastrian scripture about how the houri is at work in our lives:

"When the just man's soul passes over that bridge (Chinvat) it becomes as wide as a parasanga (about 6kms), and the just man's soul passes accompanied by the pious Srosh. Then the good works he has accomplished advance towards him in the form of a maiden who is more beautiful and good then any maiden in the world. The just man's soul says: 'Who are you, for in all the world I never saw a more beautiful and better maiden than you?' The form of the maiden answers: 'I am not a maiden, I am your righteous actions, O young man of righteous thought, of righteous words, of righteous actions, of the righteous religion! For when - in the world - you saw someone sacrificing to the demon you, instead, started adoring God; and when you saw someone carrying out violence and robbery and afflicting and despising good men and gathering their substance with evil actions you, instead, avoided treating creatures with violence and robbery… And when you saw people give false judgments and allow themselves to be corrupted with money and commit perjury you, instead, undertook to tell the truth and speak righteously. I am your righteous thoughts, your righteous words, your righteous actions, thought, spoken, done by you. For, although I was already esteemed you made me even more esteemed, and though I was already honored, you made me even more honored, and though I was already splendid, you rendered me still more splendid." (quoted by Bausani, pp52-3)

Perhaps because I am a gardener, I tend to think of my houri as taking the form of a garden. You invest in a garden by planting seeds and seedlings and you nurture it with water, food and sunshine and by keeping weeds away, and gradually you build up a garden that is a source of wealth. It has good loamy soil and feeds you through good times and bad. With this, I now think of Baha'u'llah's houri as taking on the form of the Garden of Ridvan. And this fits with the fact that the Arabic word for garden, janna, also means paradise.

Another useful way of looking at the houri is as a spiritual bank account. You invest in your spiritual account by placing in it good thoughts, words and deeds and, as it sits there over time, it attracts interest and accumulates. After a time, you find you have assets and so you can rely on it to support you later in life and you can use it to 'buy' things you need to achieve your goals in life. My experience also is that the richer your spiritual bank account is, the more Providence seems to work in your favour. Finance people will tell you that money attracts money and I think it works exactly the same way with our houri. I think of a spiritual bank account when I read the passage in Matthew 6 about storing up treasures in heaven.

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:19-21

And a little further on in that chapter, Christ tells the disciples not to worry about things like food and clothes because God knows they need those things and will provide them. Instead, he says in verse 33, they should first seek the Kingdom and God's righteousness, and then God will given them what they need.

I hope it is coming clear how these new insights have got me through my impasse. I think now that the purpose of acting in the world isn't to snare an outcome and isn't to help God, who doesn't need help, but to grow a garden, build up a spiritual bank account, or paint a beautiful houri. This asset becomes a spiritual resource from which God provides for me and, if there is enough in the account, God will also use the resource to aid me in serving God and influencing others. Now I believe that this idea was intended when Christ managed to feed the five thousand - he had a huge spiritual garden - an unlimited one, from which he could have feed the whole world.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Rendering assistance to God

"The defining feature for any religion is its teaching and leadership. These are the pillars that shape its growth." Vahid Ajepuh Oloro, in his article "Baha'i Administrative Institutions"

Sigh ... and the rest is just as bad. But I quote this so that I can keep in mind, and alert my readers to, why I write my blog - so that I might present another interpretation of the Faith, and perhaps play a part in rescuing Baha'u'llah's revelation from that moribund, worldly, formulaic dogma that passes as an understanding of the Faith these days.

All this is a perfect introduction to what I want to talk about. It's central to how I see the revelation and invite others to do so too. Last blog entry, I effectively did a rant about how we use our deeds as a means to manufacture desired outcomes. Baha'u'llah very nicely calls this using our deeds as snares. At the end of that entry, I refer to a small tablet in which Baha'u'llah outlines how we can best aid God. The tablet forms a small part of the larger tablet addressed to the Shah. Baha'u'llah quotes it in its entirety in order to demonstrate to the Shah that he is not interested in sedition. The tablet is found on pages 108-111 of Summons to the Lord of Hosts. The heart of what Baha'u'llah argues in this tablet is captured in this short passage:

"The one true God hath ever regarded the hearts of men as His own, His exclusive possession—and this too but as an expression of His all-surpassing mercy, that haply mortal souls may be purged and sanctified from all that pertaineth to the world of dust and gain admittance into the realms of eternity. For otherwise that ideal King is, in Himself and by Himself, sufficient unto Himself and independent of all things. Neither doth the love of His creatures profit Him, nor can their malice harm Him."

Baha'u'llah argues that rendering assistance to God means to aid in the process of purifying people's hearts of all save God; and, in order to do this, we must purify our own heart first, otherwise we will have no effect. The reason we render God assistance in this way is because God's purpose for us is to "be made worthy recipients of the effulgent splendours of Him Who is the King of all names and attributes". This is God's goal, and so we aid God by achieving this ourselves and then by helping others advance toward this goal too.

As part of his discussion, Baha'u'llah makes the logical point (as in the quote above) that God is independent of all we do. Therefore, our actions do not and cannot aid God. God has no need of us and our hard work, and it is vain to think that what we do is actually helping God, as such. Rather, anything that we do do that 'helps' God has this positive outcome only as a result of grace. Baha'u'llah alludes to this in the passage above, where he says that our service to God in purifying the hearts of people is a service that God has given us out of his mercy.

This tablet about rendering assistance to God had a profound influence on me. For several years, it gnawed away at me until finally it paralysed me. I couldn't get up in the morning and settle myself to a task because I kept thinking that it was pointless. However, I never let go of what Baha'u'llah did identify as important - purifying one's heart - but I never felt like I did a very good job at that either. The last couple of years have been difficult ones for me because of this theological issue.

But in the past wee while, I've starting making headway with this impasse and have begun to see a way through. I will outline this new understanding in the next entry.