Wednesday, 18 August 2010

On the phrase, "He is God"

I searched MARS to find commentary on the meaning of the phrase "He is God" and found a couple of passages from Abdu'l-Baha about it. Confirming the principle that the Word of God has multiple meanings, Abdu'l-Baha gives two different, but complementary meanings, neither of which I want to dwell on here, for another meaning is found in Baha'u'llah's Commentary on a Verse of Rumi, which I do want to discuss. But I will quickly cover Abdu'l-Baha's two meanings as well.

The first comment I found from Abdu'l-Baha appears in Promulgation of Universal Peace. He mentions it while explaining the opening verse from John ("In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God") and how this bears on the station of Christ and the fact that he is the Word. In response, Abdu'l-Baha explains that Christ embodied all the perfections of God, therefore it can be said that "He is God".

"'The Word was with God.' The Christhood means not the body of Jesus but the perfection of divine virtues manifest in Him. Therefore, it is written, "He is God." This does not imply separation from God, even as it is not possible to separate the rays of the sun from the sun. The reality of Christ was the embodiment of divine virtues and attributes of God. For in Divinity there is no duality. All adjectives, nouns and pronouns in that court of sanctity are one; there is neither multiplicity nor division. The intention of this explanation is to show that the Words of God have innumerable significances and mysteries of meanings - each one a thousand and more." (Promulgation of Universal Peace, p 155)

Given that "He is God" can mean "Christ is God", it is also the case that "He is God" means "Baha'u'llah is God".

The second comment from Abdu'l-Baha is from volume 3 of Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha. It is a short tablet written specifically to explain the meaning of the phrase. Abdu'l-Baha says it means that the Essence of God cannot be accessed by humans and that our access to God is through Baha'u'llah.

"Thou hast asked regarding the phrase, 'He is God!' written above the Tablets. By this Word it is intended that no one hath any access to the Invisible Essence. The way is barred and the road is impassable. In this world all men must turn their faces toward 'Him-whom God-shall-Manifest.' He is the 'Dawning-place of Divinity' and the 'Manifestation of Deity.' He is the 'Ultimate Goal,' the 'Adored One' of all and the 'Worshipped One' of all." (Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha Vol 3*, p 485)

The point seems to be that, because our access to the essence of God is cut off, we therefore access God through Baha'u'llah; in which case, we can say: "He [Baha'u'llah] is God".

The two definitions are therefore closely related: one says "Christ is God" and the other says "Baha'u'llah is God"; but in both, the basic idea is that the Essence of God is out of reach, therefore, we say that the manifestation is God. And it doesn't matter which manifestation we are talking about, they are all "God" from the point of view of their divine stations.

Baha'u'llah's discussion of the phrase "He is God" in his Commentary on a Verse of Rumi appears to give a new, but no doubt related, meaning. It comes out of a fascinating paragraph, which begins with the bald statement: "These days are the manifestation of the firm and incontrovertible phrase, 'No God is there but He.'" [para 2] For years, I understood Baha'u'llah to be referring to the new Day of God when he used the words "these days". And perhaps he does, but I'll pass over that issue for now because more evidence about it comes up later. The rest of the first sentence - "God is there but He" - seems straightforward, until Baha'u'llah expands on its implications in the next sentence. He goes on to explain the significance of the way the famous "No" phrase is worded. In particular, the fact that the word "no" is at the beginning of the phrase and precedes the word "God" means that the negative idea of "no" appears to dominate over the positive idea of God. As Baha'u'llah puts it: "The negative particle modifying the positive noun is prior to and has taken precedence over the essence of affirmation."

This placement of the word "no" at the beginning of the phrase has implications for reality, for the Word of God is the author of reality and the way that God has chosen to word things makes a difference to how events play out in the physical world. Baha'u'llah explains that the presence of the word "no" at the beginning of the phrase has resulted in the forces of darkness appearing to win out against the forces of light in this world. He says: "What you have witnessed, that to outward seeming the letters of negation have triumphed over the letters of affirmation, is because of the influence of this phrase", and states that the phrase was consciously worded in this fashion on account of a hidden wisdom of God: "the Revealer of [the phrase] has, owing to a hidden wisdom, caused the negative particle to come first in this universal phrase." He doesn't tell us what that wisdom is because it would cause the reader to fall dead. (That's what I like about Baha'u'llah, he knows really important stuff!)

I found Baha'u'llah's point reassuring: I wasn't going mad; the baddies do seem to win. (For those who haven't seen the movie "No Country for Old Men", it is about that issue. And there's that negative particle appearing at the beginning of a phrase again.) But Baha'u'llah's next point is reassuring. He explains that although events on earth do seem to play out in a way that's contrary to God's will, on an esoteric level - that is, on a higher spiritual plane - they are playing out exactly according to God's will.

Baha'u'llah says that the "form of the words" is like a container that holds truth, and the meanings intended by God are like pearls of knowledge that are deposited in them. The people can find those pearls of knowledge only when God lifts a veil and gives us access to them. Paragraph 3 is devoted to an illustration of this principle: the Muslim clergy wrote commentaries about the Qur'an but never understood it. But with the appearance of the Bab, God has lifted a veil and this has enabled children to know more than clergymen.

At the beginning of paragraph 4 comes the other striking point: that the All-Merciful says in this dispensation: "We have removed the negative particle from before the affirmation…" (God does not give the wisdom for doing this, but might send it later). So what have we got? It seems to me that if the negative particle is removed from the beginning of the "No" phrase, we are left with something like "God is there but He", which can be turned around to the positive statements "God is He" and "He is God".

Back to the first sentence of para 2: "These days are the manifestation of the firm and incontrovertible phrase, 'No God is there but He.'" I now think that by the words "these days", Baha'u'llah refers to the early days of his dispensation before events in the physical world have had a chance to manifest the change in the wording of the phrase. For it seems clear that, with the appearance of the Bab ("In this dispensation"), the negative particle has been removed and so the influence of the "no" on the word "God" has been removed.

This gives us a new explanation of the phrase "He is God". In this new dispensation, God has removed the negative particle "no" from before the positive noun "God" in the phrase "No God is there but He". Therefore, Baha'is say, "He is God".

The implications of this new wording on the world are beyond anyone but God. But it is inspiring to think about their possibilities, knowing that anything we can dream up will be a drop in the bucket of the reality. For, how could anyone in the 1980s have imagined the implications of the Internet a decade later? I often think about how Baha'u'llah told the believers that, in future, women will be able to travel all over the world unveiled and alone, without fear of molestation. That must have seemed extraordinary to them. (I can't remember where I read that; I hope I didn't dream it up.)

More on this topic next time, provided I can get my head around it.

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