Saturday, 1 November 2008

The knower as an artist

I was interested to read, and I recommend, Sen's response to Paul Lample's article, "Learning and the evolution of the Baha'i community", which is found on Sen's blog. I liked the way Sen emphasised that a Baha'i scholar is an artist and cannot get away from that fact, because everyone necessarily has a personal, creative interpretation of the revelation. No one can, as Sen puts it, "stand in the shoes of that Author".
"It goes without saying that God creates ‘ex nihilo,’ while we create from what God has given us. In the case of theology, we create from the examples of the Manifestations, from scriptural resources, and from questions. Creativity is not an optional characteristic of scholarship, it is inherent. The choice is between being conscious of it, and distinguishing it from the materials we were given, or being unaware of it and blithely supposing that what we ‘find’ in the Writings is simply their intended meaning — as if we could stand in the shoes of that Author !" -- Sen McGlinn
I've been doing a lot of thinking over the past several months about the idea that the scholar is an artist. This came about because I started analysing the phenomena of movies and fiction and their influence on me; for example, why I love them so much, why they captivate people, and how their influence can be harnessed for the revelation. These were new questions for me. They reflected a fundamental change, which lead to my wondering what human activities really are most influential for getting the message across. Up until early this year, I had assumed that the way to go was to use rational argument. I had gained degrees in philosophy and in law and had learned to put together a rational argument. But something happened this year - a mid-life re-examination of my life - and I realised I was bored with this rational approach to things. Having worked as a professional writer for 15 years and done a lot of writing for the faith, I guess I was written out. This lead me to examine the power of creative pursuits, in order to broaden my horizons.
This examination process showed me that I had a hidden prejudice, or something of that sort, against the worth of creative pursuits. That didn't mean I didn't appreciate them, for I love many arts, but I assumed that they were the poor relation beside rational pursuits, when it came to usefulness in teaching the Faith. I assumed that 'direct teaching' was most effective because, well, it is direct and gets to the nitty gritty. Steve looked up some quotes on the topic for me and I quickly learned that the Guardian had a similar opinion about the arts. For example, when asked about teaching the faith through fiction, he argued that there wasn't time for such an indirect approach to teaching:
"He would not recommend fiction as a means of teaching; the condition of the world is too acute to permit of delay in giving them the direct teachings, associated with the name of Baha'u'llah. But any suitable approach to the Faith, which appeals to this or that group, is certainly worthy of effort, as we wish to bring the Cause to all men, in all walks of life, of all mentalities.(3)" (23 March 1945) (Shoghi Effendi: Writers and Writing, p 412)
But, you know, I've spent nearly 30 years thinking that I shouldn't do things because there just isn't time. And after 30 years, somehow that argument doesn't cut ice any more. Humanity is always on the brink of some catastrophe; it was on the brink of WW2 then and it's on the brink of financial collapse now. Does that really mean there's no time for fiction? Steve told me today that Sen recently argued on Talisman9 that the 'end time' was when Baha'u'llah came; we are now in the period where humanity works out what that means for its future. Surely fiction and the arts have a role to play in that process. I guess I'm rebelling against the fact that I've spent half my life feeling like I didn't have time to live; that to have a life was selfish and something I should sacrifice for the sake of the Cause.

And so, spurred on by the fact that I no longer believe the end is nigh, I stayed the course and continued my examination of the power of fiction. It was Steve who said, one day in the middle of a conversation about these things, that fiction acted like a mirror. I realised he had a good point - fiction about the Baha'i community acts like a mirror on that community; it shows the community, warts and all (assuming it's done properly), to that community and to the world. When I thought about it, I realised that this was indeed a powerful instrument. Any fiction written about a subject that people intrepret with entirely different worldviews is going to cause a stir. And this even more so when there are power and control issues involved. The other thought I had was in relation to Sen's idea of the postmodern society, where you have independent but complementary areas of human activity: religion, state, arts, science, law and so on. Each of these is an important and worthy pursuit and has its own rules of participation. Baha'is should participate in the arts because it is a worthy human endeavour like any other. It is not trumped by religion - just as religion cannot render the state obsolete, it cannot say the arts are a waste of time. Furthermore, just as the state has its own rules, the arts do too - in other words, the arts should be an independent statement on reality and not a slave to vested religious interests.
Given this, it's no wonder Paul Lample says that the Baha'i scholar isn't an artist, for the true artist produces a personal and independent image of reality. By denying that the Baha'i scholar is an artist, the idea is, I suggest, to rule out a legitimate place for depictions of reality outside the institutions' agenda.

Forthcoming book about Baha'u'llah's mystical teachings

  Paradise of Presence: Conversations in the Mindscape of Eternity by Alison Elizabeth Marshall