Monday, 4 October 2021

Launching a new blog on my website

After about 18 months of umming and ahhing, I finally decided to go against the advice of the author community. That advice is to set up an email newsletter and use it as a marketing tool to maintain one's profile as an author. I know it works for many authors. They love their newsletter and it seems their fans do as well. But I hate email newsletters. I don't feel comfortable with the idea of sending out emails to people who regard them as a nuisance, even if they want to occasionally read them.
I was finally convinced about this when I listened to an interview with Seth Godin on YouTube. He said that way, way back, he started with a newsletter and gravitated to a blog, and this move was super successful. His blog is mega popular. (Search: Seth's blog) He writes everyday, which I won't do. But he takes a laid-back attitude to it. He writes short posts. He talks about whatever is on his mind. He's got plenty on his mind, so no shortage of ideas.

I decided the blog idea was for me. I have set up a new blog on my own website, with a general focus on me, Baha'u'llah, my books, and my thoughts on recent issues.

You can read it at www.alisonelizabethmarshall/blog.

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Book review: The Baha'i Faith and Dreams, by Grace J Keene

The Baha'i Faith and Dreams: Unified Theory of Another World, by Grace J Keene was published by its author on Amazon in April 2020. I tried write a review for it on Amazon - something that Keene kindly asks a reader to do at the end of her book - but discovered that Amazon requires a reviewer to have spent $50 in the past year to qualify to write a review. This rule is designed to prevent review scams, where one person creates sockpuppet accounts in order to load their book with fake reviews and push it up Amazon's ranking system. Never mind. I intended to put up a review of the book here anyway. I note that Keene has also published two other books, the titles of which suggest she may be writing a series. These are: The Baha'i Faith and Aliens: The Evidence Revealed, and The Baha'i Faith and Food: The Diet of the Future. The line-up of all three books shows that, whatever the value of Keene's ideas, she certainly has a lot of them and is keen to share them with the world. For that, I salute her creativity, initiative and courage.

The book opens up with Chapter 1, which is titled "What is a dream?", but the discussion in the chapter does not narrow itself down to a definition. It is more a short overview of dreams, with ideas drawn from various scientific and religious sources. This is where Keene introduces the Baha'i writings, segueing into a rather didactic summary of nine Baha'i principles. The list is far too long for the purpose of the book, venturing miles away from the subject of dreams. Purely for the sake of completeness, I assume, Keene includes the principles relating to equality, prejudice, universal language, universal education, and international tribunal! Keene should have taken the time to write a short introduction to the writings specifically for the book; for example, one that introduces the authors she would be quoting (Baha'u'llah and Abdu'l-Baha) and how the subject of dreams forms an important part of their thought. (As an aside, Keene's explanation about an "international tribunal" consists almost entirely of a confusing quote taken from an unknown source. Keene provides no reference for it, apart from a link to baha' for more information. She follows this long quote with an incorrect assertion that the international tribunal is the House of Justice. See "Who votes in the Baha'i World Order" by Sen McGlinn.) Keene's overview of nine Baha'i principles suggests that she intended her book to reach a wider readership than just Baha'is. However, her subsequent failure to keep up with definitions of Baha'i jargon, and gradual lapse into a comfortable Baha'i concept-based language, reduces the likelihood that the book will retain the interest of a wider audience.

As the subtitle suggests, the book promises to deliver a unified theory of dreams; presumably, based on Baha'i writings. I don't think that Keene achieves this, but she certainly has a go at it. In my view, the argument running through the book is not sufficiently detailed to pass as a cogent theory. Instead, I would describe the book as an arrangement of Keene's speculative ideas about dreams. It is more a discussion paper and literature review than a fully developed theory. Much of the book consists of sizeable quotes from the Baha'i writings and other spiritual, scientific and historical sources, which are interspersed with Keene's commentary and conclusions. The result is a line of thought that meanders along in uncertain directions. Keene does raise interesting ideas along the way, but the lack of structure to the argument, and the lack of an in-depth examination of the ideas, leads to the whole being repetitive and confusing. The maze of ideas is rescued somewhat by Keene's organising them into eight chapters with helpful titles, each ending with a series of statements summarising her conclusions on the material she has presented. The reader is left in no doubt about what Keene is trying to argue, even if she does not focus much on arguing for it in the chapter. She just puts forward theories that the reader is invited to consider.

One of Keene's favourite ideas is that dreams are a parallel universe. It is the subject of chapter 3, but Keene comes back to it all through the book. She opens up chapter 3 with: "I postulate that dreams may be altered states of consciousness where the dreamer experiences other layers of reality or parallel universes." Reading this set off alarm bells in me. It is awfully vague. I take her to mean that the term "parallel universe" can simply mean "other layer of reality". Further on, Keene talks about quantum physics and the discovery that quantum reality is a realm of probabilities until it resolves itself into a manifest physical reality. Keene runs with the idea that these realms of probability are separate realities existing simultaneously. I think the assertion "dreams are parallel universes" means that one of these probability-based worlds could be the dream world. That would be a bold claim indeed. I'm not convinced that when physicists talk about parallel universes, they have the dream world in mind (or the afterlife). My own view is that the scientific notion of a parallel universe is a dimension that is a part of the physical world, even if it is a subtle, non-material reality. It is very unlikely that scientists are thinking of parallel universes as metaphysical worlds, such as the world of dreams and of souls in the next world. The topic of metaphysical realms is one for religion and is not the purview of scientists, many of whom do not believe in metaphysical worlds. The plot of the excellent Korean drama currently running on Netflix, "The King: Eternal Monarch", rests on the concept of parallel universes. The story imagines parallel universes to be physical worlds existing parallel to this world.

The issue of whether the dream world might be a parallel universe is a good example of how Keene pitches her arguments. She boldly asserts her ideas, supports them with longish quotes from the writings (throwing in other sources where relevant), then draws conclusions from it all. This happens throughout the book. I don't want to appear too harsh here, for I wholeheartedly agree with some of Keene's ideas; for example, that dreams are real and have a connection to the afterlife and to prophecy. But I think the real value of the book is in its wide collection of quotes about dreams from Baha'i sources and their structured presentation. Each of the eight chapters is devoted to a separate idea; for example, that dreams are the afterlife, that dreams are a means of communication, that dreams are keys to the Kingdom of God, and that dreams are prophecy. In the end, I think the unified theory is that dreams are all of these things. I found the chapter on dreams as a means of communication interesting. The passages from Abdu'l-Baha about dreams as mirrors, in which believers mirror each other, was new to me. In the final chapters, Keene's commentary starts to run dry, and the text consists mostly of long, unedited quotes, which are drawn from all over the place, including pilgrim's notes and obscure books. Keene has certainly found some interesting and unusual material. At just under $4 for the Kindle version, a person interested in the topic of dreams might consider it worth buying.

I think Keene should consider producing a second edition, in which she spends more time arguing the nuts and bolts of her theories, reducing greatly the size of the quotes she relies on (and weeding out the peripheral ones), and doing more research. I recommend she study the book "Archeology of the Kingdom of God" by Jean-Marc Lepain. In my opinion, it is the best work available on the subject of Baha'i philosophy. Keene raises many interesting issues in her book, such as whether reality is consciousness, what is time in the various levels of reality. Lepain's extraordinary work covers all of these issues and explains how they fit into the overall framework of Baha'u'llah's thought. Also, I want to mention that there is another translation of "Tablet on the Right of the People" on my Windflower Translations website. I think this translation, by Keven Brown, is superior to the one quoted in the book.

Post script: On May 29, I wrote a few more comments to an FB group, which I quote below.

"In my view, equating the dream world with the speculative multiple dimensions in physics is mistaken. We know that the dream world is real, because Baha'u'llah talks about it being real. But, as I understand it, the proposed multiple dimensions in the physical world are only a speculation of some physicists and there is no conclusive scientific evidence for it. I think it is a mistake to equate a world we know to be real (the dream world) with a dimension that arguably has no more reality than a conceptual one in the minds of some scientists. Mulitple dimensions are just speculation - at this stage anyway. 

But even if, for argument's sake, multiple dimensions do exist in the probabilistic quantum world, are they the same world as the world of dreams? Again, I would argue that they are not. One way to argue this is using Abdu'l-Baha's concepts of the arc of descent and the arc of ascent. The arc of descent refers to the hierarchy of worlds that particpate in the process of creation from the world of revelation down to the physical world. The arc of ascent refers to the hierarchy of worlds that participate in the process of creation from the physical world back up to the world of revelation. I think that the multiple dimensions would be on the arc of descent, for they particpate in the creation of the physical world. But the dream world would be on the arc of ascent, and it is specific to the world humankind. It is a moral and metaphorical world that carries the imaginal reality of the soul. It is located between the person's consciousness and the metaphysical reality of the next world."

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The theme of 'place' in Aqdas 1

I have done my own translation of paragraph one of the Kitab-i Aqdas and am now ready to share it and say something about it. The ideas about 'place' that I discuss below form a part of a book I am working on about the mystical path.

Here is the Arabic of Aqdas 1:

ان اوّل ما كتب الله على العباد عرفان مشرق وحيه ومطلع امره الّذي كان مقام نفسه في عالم الامر والخلق من فاز به قد فاز بكلّ الخير والّذي منع انّه من اهل الضّلال ولو يأتي بكلّ الاعمال

اذا فزتم بهذا المقام الاسنى والافق الاعلى ينبغي لكلّ نفس ان يتّبع ما امر به من لدى المقصود لانّهما معاً لا يقبل احدهما دون الاخر هذا ما حكم به مطلع الالهام

Here is my translation:

"The first of what God prescribed for the servants is acknowledgment of the place from which God’s revelation rises and his command emerges. This place constitutes the self of God in the worlds of command and creation. The person who achieves acknowledgment of this place has gained all good. The person who refuses is among the people of error, even if that person performs all good deeds. Should anyone reach this most elevated position and imposing outlook, it is incumbent on that one to follow what is commanded of them in the presence of the Ultimate Purpose. For the two go together; one is not received without the other. This is what the source of inspiration has determined."

The most striking thing for me about Aqdas 1, which I discovered when I worked on the translation, is the theme of 'place' that runs through it. What I mean by this is that, in the paragraph, Baha'u'llah describes an event that is happening in a 'place'. That place is the heavenly realm and the event that Baha'u'llah describes happening there is an encounter between the divine and the soul of the person reading the text of the paragraph. The idea is that, when a person reads the paragraph, that person's soul actually participates in the event that is being described. This active involvement in the drama of the text by the soul enables the true meaning of the words to be communicated to the soul. The meaning is not a collection of concepts conveyed to the intellect through words; it is the transforming influence the soul sustains when it experiences its encounter with its Lord. 

The theme of place begins strongly in the first sentence: "The first of what God prescribed for the servants is acknowledgment of the place from which God’s revelation rises and his command emerges." This sentence sets up the stage and location for the drama. The reader is invited to come to a very special place. Baha'u'llah does not say where that place is; instead, he gives information about the nature of the place he is inviting the reader to come to. He describes it as: "the place from which God’s revelation rises and his command emerges." Clearly, this is a very great spiritual place, for it is where divine activity seems to originate. In the next sentence, Baha'u'llah underscores just how sacred this place is: it is the place that stands for, or constitutes, the self of God in the worlds of command and creation. So, effectively, for everything in those two worlds, this place is God.

How is someone to find this place? Baha'u'llah simply asks the reader to "acknowledge" it (see below for my use of "acknowledgment" here). This challenges the reader to find, and then inhabit, a place within their own self where they acknowledge openly and with solemnity something that is the Source of inspiration and authority. I think that this is an allusion to the scene in pre-existence where all human beings stand before God and acknowledge the eternal covenant.

Baha'u'llah continues his depiction of the mystical event a couple of sentences further on. Whenever a reader finds and acknowledges this place - this placeless place of the Source of revelation and authority - suddenly the reader's soul is thrown into the drama of the text and finds itself a principal character in the climax of the story:

"Should anyone reach this most elevated position and imposing outlook...."

Now Baha'u'llah addresses the one who has entered this mysterious place, and he describes the position this person finds themselves standing in: it is the most elevated position and one with the most imposing outlook. These attributes suggest that the person is standing in a very formidable place indeed, for it is a place that is higher than anywhere else and has the most mind-blowing view. This ultimate grandeur forms the backdrop for the climactic scene of encounter that is about to take place.

Imagine it: you are standing at the topmost height of creation and you are looking down at the panorama that is all created things. Absolutely everything you have known up to this moment drops away before you. Now, in this place, you are told:

"... it is incumbent on that one to follow what is commanded of them..."

What is happening? Someone is speaking to you. Who else is in the scene? Baha'u'llah goes on:

"... in the presence of the Ultimate Purpose."

You are standing in the presence of God, of course. Baha'u'llah has already explained that this place constitutes the self of God. And the name of God that you are standing before is the name of God, the "Ultimate Purpose"[1]. In the climax of this most fantastic of all scenes, the soul stands before the Ultimate Purpose and is informed of what it was created to do. This is its purpose and destiny.

Then the reader comes to the enigmatic statement:

"For the two go together; one is not received without the other."

Again, there is an allusion to place here. A person does not enter another person's home unless the owner receives them. The same applies here. The reader stands in the most exalted spot in the presence of God only with God's leave. One does not just turn up. We are invited to come by finding the requisite humility, honesty and vision within ourselves. If we accomplish this, then we are permitted to enter. We are received. And at that point (because the two go together), something else is received also: the deeds we are asked to carry out in view of that celestial meeting. It is the encounter that gives our deeds meaning and makes them right. And this is an ongoing process. If, at any time, we stop acknowledging and fall out of the presence of God due to our negligence, our deeds (even the same ones) stop being acceptable also.

To sum up: if a person fails to humble themselves and acknowledge the Source of revelation and authority, they will never be received into the presence of the Ultimate Purpose and will never know their purpose and have their deeds accepted. Whatever that person does will be a product of self. For this reason: "The person who achieves acknowledgment of this place has gained all good." And "The person who refuses is among the people of error, even if that person performs all good deeds."

[1] "Ultimate Purpose" translates al-maqṣūd, which has the range of meanings (from Hans Wehr): "aimed at, intended, intentional, designed". The root carries the meaning 'to go or proceed straightaway to someone or something'. As a name of God, it is also translated as 'the Desired One', 'the Intended One'. I chose "Ultimate Purpose" because it refers to the place where God's command emerges and the soul is given its instructions. Another possible translation is 'Ultimate  Goal'. 

Translation of the word `irfān

"The first of what God prescribed for the servants is acknowledgment (`irfānof the place from which God’s revelation rises and his command emerges."

I have chosen to translate the verbal noun `irfān as "acknowledgment", in the place where the Guardian used "recognition". While I was researching this word, I discovered some interesting things about it, which lead me to prefer the translation "acknowledgement".

The 19th-century dictionary, Steingass, gives the primary meanings of the related root verb `arafa as "to acknowledge, avow, confess". The Hans Wehr dictionary of modern Arabic gives meanings more along the lines of what the Guardian chose: "to know", "to recognise, perceive". But it also gives "to recognise, acknowledge", "to concede, acknowledge", so Hans Wehr does allow for 'acknowledgment' as a possible translation for `irfān.

But in the end, what pushed me fully in favour of "acknowledgment" was the fascinating information I found in Lane's dictionary of classical Arabic (p2012). It says that the contrary of `irfān is 'inkār, which means 'denial', 'disapproval', 'rejection'. These struck me as the opposites of "acknowledge, avow, confess"; in other words, the opposite of a person acknowledging or confessing to something is their denial and rejection of it. The idea that 'inkār is the contrary of `irfān also works with the text of the paragraph, where Baha'u'llah effectively gives his own contrary in his use of the word mana`a ( الّذي منع "the one who has refused"), which Steingass gives as "to refuse; hinder, prevent" etc.

Launching a new blog on my website

After about 18 months of umming and ahhing, I finally decided to go against the advice of the author community. That advice is to set up an ...