Sunday, 20 December 2009

Response to Roy Hilbinger

On the 30 November, 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.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Trust in God's providence

Life continues apace. Steve and I expect to move in about three months and we still have heaps of cleaning up to do on this house in preparation for its sale. Everyday, I am focused on this task and it is difficult to focus my mind on writing my blog. Usually, I have quiet time reading and thinking, in which I formulate my ideas for my next blog entry.

Life has become strange for me. It is unusual and mildly unsettling to spend each day dedicated to getting rid of everything in your house bar the essentials, and sorting things out around the property knowing you'll never see them again. They're not activities one does very often in life. Managing a large transition is a full-time project. It provides me with a full-time job while at the same time keeping from a full-time job.

I spend much time thinking about how I will live on the new property: how it will be sitting in each room of the new cottage, how it will be walking around the paddock and trees, how it will be living in a much warmer climate, how it will be living where there are no street lights and the night will be dark and the stars clear, how it will be with no immediate neighbours, how it will be living where plants grow easily and trees fruit readily, how it will be for me for writing?

They say that shifting house is as stressful as getting married. I couldn't understand this until now because the two activities seem like completely different kinds of changes. But what's common to them is that they are permanent changes and there's only so much you can plan for the long-term future. You can't anticipate all the things you'll be confronted with in your new life. You just have to decide that you'll take the plunge and leap into the deep end of the swimming pool and hope that you'll come up breathing.

In fact, this is what Baha'u'llah tells us to do in our spiritual lives. It appears in a couple of places: Gems of Divine Mysteries and the Mathnavi.

"Great God! This sea had laid up lustrous pearls in store;
The wind hath raised a wave that casteth them ashore.
So put away thy robe and drown thyself therein,
And cease to boast of skill: it serveth thee no more"
-- Gems, paragraph 43
"You, likewise, Noah, break the body's Ark
and hurl yourself into the Sea of Light!
Don't seek self-preservation; Drown this self!
then you'll come up for air in God's embrace
Seek out the King's protection, not the ship's
– the King's preserve will then provide refuge"
-- Mathnavi lines 191-3

Both passages talk about the same thing: letting everything go - absolutely everything except Baha'u'llah. I always knew I had never achieved this level of detachment, but the unsettling, uprooting task of shifting house has helped me along the path, and I'm grateful for it. The process has taught me much about learning to rely on God and trust in the Lord's providence. I am getting more out of my devotions now. Consider: what can I do? I am powerless about my future and what will happen to me. I don't expect it to be bad, but it is uncertain and I have only so much control over it (and even that is an illusion).

The more I let go, the more simple life becomes, and the more simple life becomes, the more beautiful it is, and the more beautiful it is, the more I see God in everything. I rejoice in little things all around like I have never done so before. I am the happiest now than I've ever been in my life. It feels like the simple joy of childhood. I feel like I am returning to my Lord and I cannot ever say how glorious he appears to me.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Lovely Bones

Talk of The Lovely Bones is in the air at the moment, with Peter Jackson's movie coming out now, and so I thought I'd get on the bandwagon. Nice to keep up with popular culture and be relevant.

In anticipation of the seeing the movie, I decided to read the book. Luckily, my daughter's copy had recently been returned to her, so I was able to settle in. I hate getting books out of the library because it takes me ages to read a whole book - more weeks than a library is willing to give me. My daughter said that she had struggled through it; that it was boring. This gave me pause because I'd recently given up on the popular book The Life of Pi because it was boring. I hoped that I wouldn't have to give up on this one. And I didn't. I managed to get to the end, but I did indeed find it boring in the middle.

My principal frustration was with the purpose of the story. When I did my course on writing fiction, it was drummed into me that everything in a story must serve its purpose. It is clear by the end of the book that the story is about how a family learns to let go and allow itself to live beyond a tragedy - to give itself permission to laugh again and enjoy things without reference to the dead daughter/sister Susie. As a goal for a story, I like this very much. I think it's a brave goal, in that not many stories would attempt to find an ending beyond revenge and justice. It is positive and a grasp at real healing.

It captures an aspect of what Baha'u'llah calls detachment. By this, I understand him to mean raising ourselves up out of the story of lives in the world and finding ourselves in the story of the Cause, which is in the spiritual realm and which transcends the worldly story and evaporates it by infusing its components with new meaning. The book uses the transcendent vantage point of Susie's heaven to instill new meaning into the lives of the family members. It gives them and Susie permission to move on and find joy without the weight of a tragic memory chained to their souls.

I applaud author Alice Sebold for aiming at this for her book. She goes about it by filling the story with miniature slices of life from the many characters that are somehow connected with Susie. As expected, much time is given to each family member - mother, who has an affair; father, who is desperate to find the murderer; sister, who has to live with people looking at her and seeing Susie; the brother who is too young to be told anything; and the grandmother, who is an alcoholic. Then there is Susie's true love, Ray, who she's kissed once, and other kids at school. And there are the neighbours and, of course, the murderer, and the cop heading the investigation.

The book opens with the murder, which holds together well enough. But after that, it starts to come apart as it jumps all over the place to capture snippets from the lives of each character. After a while, you lose touch with where the story is going because there is no central theme to hold it together. At gut level, you want the story to take you to the identity of the murderer and sufficient evidence for his prosecution. But it consciously steps away from this and the murderer's story becomes just one of many. The trouble is that no theme strong enough steps in to replace it. The theme of healing through transcendence is an admirable one, but it needs to be anchored in a solid story line - one associated with one character in particular. As it is, there isn't really a main character, apart from Susie. But she is in heaven, which makes her role passive.

For me, things really came unstuck when Susie enters the body of her friend, Ruth, who acts as a medium, and has sex with Ray. This was too much for me. I have no problem with souls in heaven watching us, but when they take over bodies for the sake of a highly stylised scene of redemptive sex, my credibility is stretched too far. I suppose a 14-year-old girl might see romantic sex as union with God, but for me it was 'give us a break'. However, given the slow pace of the story, you find yourself saying: at least we have some action here! But as you can see, Sebold was forced to put Susie into Ruth's body to give her an active part. I think it was a desperate move to inject some life into the story and it shows up a structural flaw. Sebold would have been better to develop the story of someone on earth - Ruth, the medium, say - and make her the main character and wind it all around her.

I have other issues with the book, but these are to do with the style of modern fiction writing. I find it's too 'once over lightly' and much prefer to read the classics because they have more depth. I was listening to a professor of literature on the radio saying that modern fiction is written to a formula dictated by publishing houses, who edit and publish what they think will sell to a common denominator. I don't know enough about it, but this explanation fits with my very limited experience of modern fiction. It reminds me of the way that the administration uses Ruhi to dumb down the revelation. There's an assumption that the common person will not be able to engage with the complexities of the Word of God, and so a very simplified version is presented instead. This assumption is born of arrogance, of course, as Baha'u'llah says in the Iqan.

But back to The Lovely Bones, after reading the book, I assumed that Peter Jackson would have to mess seriously with the story to create a plot with sufficient force to push a movie along. From the interviews I've seen, Peter did say he struggled with the story and finding elements from it that would translate well on screen. One reviewer who has seen the movie says that Peter has greatly changed the focus of the story in the book. The reviews are divided, with some reviewers loving the film and others saying it's mostly a failure. I don't care what they say; having read the book, I'm keen to see what Peter has made of it, good or bad. One reviewer said it was What dreams may come version 2. If that is the case, then I will enjoy it for I like seeing people's imaginative impressions of the next world.

I was very interested to hear Peter Jackson and Susan Sarandon, at the press conference held for the release of the movie, on the subject of the afterlife. Both of them admit to believing in it. But both also stress that they do not have any time for organised religion. The Baha'is should wake up. In my view, Peter and Susan are expressing views that are representative of the middle classes in the West. They are very open to spirituality but not organised religion. Ruhi will never bring them in. It might draw in needy people, but not those who want to stand on their own spiritual feet. The tragedy is that Baha'u'llah's revelation has everything these people are looking for, but they'll never see this in the 'revelation' the Baha'i community sells.

Here's a link to the press conference about the movie.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

A mystical look at organic unity

Commoners Crown This blog entry gathers together some of my recent thoughts on what organic unity means. I'm not sure where the idea of organic unity comes from. It isn't from Baha'u'llah that I'm aware; from Sen's book on Church and State (the passage on organic unity, pp 249-257), it must be the Guardian. A search on MARS brings up 45 instances of the Guardian using the word 'organic'. I don't want this to be a discussion on the Guardian's use of the term. I'm interested in the concepts from Baha'u'llah that might underpin the concept of organic unity. 

The passage quoted by Sen, and the one Baha'is would most likely point to, is this one:

"Regard ye the world as a man’s body, which is afflicted with divers ailments, and the recovery of which dependeth upon the harmonizing of all of its component elements." (Summons p80)

The fundamental idea seems to be that we should regard humanity as a body. This is backed up by other important passages, such as this one from paragraph 58 of the Aqdas:

"Beware lest the desires of the flesh and of a corrupt inclination provoke divisions among you. Be ye as the fingers of one hand, the members of one body."

From the passage in Summons, we also get the idea that 'health' is a matter of harmony: "the recovery of which dependeth upon the harmonizing of all of its component elements". For me, this is where the idea of 'unity' comes in. A body is 'united' if it is in harmony. This is important because one might think that a body, such as that of a person which is stuck together by skin and bone, is already a 'unity' because it is an indivisible physical unit. But no, just because it is a unit, doesn't mean it is united, because its parts may not be in harmony. And, as Sen forcefully argues in the Church and State passage, unity does not mean that one organ rules the others, but rather that each organ has it own distinct role to play: "the brain cannot become a circulatory system, or instruct the liver to grow according to any pattern other than that 'idea' of a liver that is coded into every cell. It would be unhealthy even to try."(p254)

Baha'u'llah focuses on the idea of harmony in this other quote, which he starts in a similar way to the Summons quote above, but finishes differently.

"Regard the world as the human body which, though at its creation whole and perfect, hath been afflicted, through various causes, with grave disorders and maladies. Not for one day did it gain ease, nay its sickness waxed more severe, as it fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires and have erred grievously. And if, at one time, through the care of an able physician, a member of that body was healed, the rest remained afflicted as before." (Summons pp 90-91)

This passage underscores again the idea that health means the harmony of parts. It's not sufficient to heal one part, the whole must be healed and put into in balance.

The reason I got to thinking about the meaning of 'organic unity' was due to my recent meditations on gardening and, in particular, the garden of deeds and its fruits. Added to that was the idea of recycling, which has forced me to think about what I do with waste, and also how that ties in with the idea of composting. I think what I want to do is apply the concept of 'organic unity' to our deeds and the way we live our lives; that is, our lives are like a body and our deeds are like the organs. The body of our life is made up of distinct but related deeds, and a 'healthy' life is one in which our deeds are in harmony. A life lived in this state is a united one.

A story that got me thinking along these lines reportedly comes from Abdu'l-Baha (it may not, but that doesn't matter). It is quoted in a book by a German Baha'i therapist called Nossrat Peseschkian in the book "In Search of Meaning. A Psychotherapy of Small Steps". He begins the book with this story, which he attributes to Abdu'l-Baha and titles "About Eternal Life":

"A mighty king wandered for a long time though his kingdom. On a sunny slope he saw a venerable old man bent over, hard at work. Followed by his courtiers, the king came nearer and saw that the old man was planting year-old seedlings. "What are your doing there?" the king inquired. "I'm planting date trees," replied the old man. The king asked in amazement, "You are already quite old. Why are you planting seedlings when you won't see their foliage, won't rest in their shade, and won't eat their fruit?" The old man looked up and said, "Those who come after us planted, and we were able to harvest. Now we plant so that they who came after us can harvest. ..."

The king likes the answer so much, he gives the man a piece of gold. The old man then smiles and says the trees have already borne fruit and the king gives the man another piece of gold. The old man then complements the king for his just rule of the land and the king gives him more gold, then leaves for fear that he will lose all his wealth to the old man.

I was intrigued that this story was supposed to be about eternal life. Why is it about eternal life, I asked myself? Well, I think it has something to do with the fact that the old man, in his planting date trees, understood the reward for perfect deeds. In planting as he did, even though he was old and would not harvest the dates, his sole concern was to ensure that his deeds bore the quality of perfection. This perfection was the thing that attracted wealth, not the nature of the deed itself. I see him as a man whose deeds, and whose life, were in harmony. The wealth he attracted for this was immediate and eternal.

This reminds me of a pilgrim note, which I place much store by. It's from the memoirs of Ali-Akbar Furutan, and is number 60 in his book of memoirs. It gives four qualities of character that Baha'u'llah loved, and the fourth one is to finish what one starts:

The Blessed Beauty often remarked: "There are four qualities which I love to see manifested in people: first, enthusiasm and courage; second, a face wreathed in smiles and a radiant countenance; third, that they see all things with their own eyes and not through the eyes of others; fourth, the ability to carry a task, once begun, through to the end." The Stories Of Baha'u'llah, Compiled and Edited Ali-Akbar Furutan Translated by Katayoon and Robert Crerar with help from friends George Ronald Publisher, 1986, page 51

I often wondered why Baha'u'llah placed so much importance on finishing what one starts. Now I see it in the light of our deeds and life as an organic unity. Having a lot of unfinished tasks is like having a house full of stuff that has not been disposed of in a thoughtful fashion. In the end, the stuff accumulates and we end up living in a mess, or we throw away stuff that is still useful and should not be in landfill.

The habit of not finishing tasks is like society not taking the time to correctly process waste. Both involve a throw-away attitude. And both problems would be solved if we thought more about what we were doing and why, and believed ourselves to be committed to whatever we chose to do. Cleaning up afterwards is as much about doing a task as preparing for it. The loss to ourselves in not cleaning up afterwards is like the loss when we do not compost. Composting organic matter gives us a new rich soil that we can use for feeding and mulching crops in the following year. I think the same applies to finishing tasks: the clean up provides important resources and nutrients for the task we take up next.

The above might help to illustrate what I mean about seeing our lives in terms of an organic unity. The body of our life is healthy when we see our deeds as distinct organs of that body. These deeds need to be nurtured right through the process, from development, to maturity, to decline. All stages need planning, attention, nurturing, time and resources. For this reason, I have slashed by 90 percent the amount of things I try to do. If the fruit of action is in how we act and not in the nature of the act itself, then it is all gain to me to ensure my deeds are done well, rather than doing a million things and never getting any done properly.

I believe that this is having real benefits for my physical health too, which backs up the point that health is about harmony.

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.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

He is God, not the House

On 1 August, a talk by Peter Khan, member of the House of Justice, appeared on the blog "Reflections on teaching the Baha'i Faith". The talk is entitled "Reflections on the Ridvan 2009 message" and was apparently given on 3 July 2009. Peter devotes the talk to two issues he labels: the significance of Baha'i activity, and the question of change in religion.

In the first section, Peter dwells at length on what he argues are "two processes at work in the world today, a process of decline in the quality of life, and a growth in positive elements...". Relying on passages from the Guardian, he identifies the 'correct' Baha'i response to the declining process - that it is inevitable and that it will be severe and protracted, and end in "barbarism, chaos, and ultimate extinction" (World Order, p187). Peter then explains the role of religion in all this: that the process is caused by the decline in religion. He quotes Baha'u'llah in support: "Should the lamp of religion be obscured, chaos and confusion will ensue..." (Tablets, p125).

Peter explains that the purpose of the Ridvan message, and indeed that of Baha'u'llah, is to free the world from this oppressive downward spiral, by spreading the news of Baha'u'llah's coming. He gives several examples of this oppression: the rise of religious extremism and authoritarianism in religious leaders; the fomenting of hatred and division in the world; the search for instant solutions; indulging in extreme behaviour such as with drugs; and the worship of idols, as instanced in Michael Jackson's death. He argues that the answer is not to get depressed but to devote oneself to spreading the Faith, as stated in the 2009 Ridvan message. What the Baha'is are doing is building a new world civilisation. The civilisation we exist in today is like the Roman Empire, which took 400 years to decline and fall. He outlines what he believes are the essential features of this new civilisation - individual and community worship; application of divine teachings to daily life; altruism and the transmission of values to new generations - and argues that these are all met by the "elements of the core activities of the Five Year Plan".

The second section of the talk is a defence of how change in religion is legitimate, based on the fact that religions must evolve. This changing process produces division because some believers want change and others don't. This division has appeared in response to the Five Year Plan framework that the House of Justice has developed - "...the House of Justice in 1996 began a process of quite significant change and that change is a test to some sincere and devoted believers" - but if the believers would understand that change is natural, they will go along with what the House asks of them. In this spirit, Peter ends with a general, rousing appeal:

"The solution is no more and no less than unreserved acceptance of whatever the central authority of the Cause, in this case the Universal House of Justice decrees. If we would hold to that... we are safe. Nothing can trouble us, we are in an impregnable stronghold, and we would become part of this massive movement of humanity to rescue the world from the perilous disorder, the intense suffering of the declining process and to usher in the ordained new world civilization in the Golden Age of the Cause."

So that's it: the world is in dire straits and the answer is to do what the House tells you to. This is what will "rescue the world from perilous disorder". I was shocked mightly when I read this passage, particularly by the language Peter uses, for it appears to conflate the House of Justice with Baha'u'llah. The concepts of being safe and in a stronghold are used in the Arabic Hidden Words; they relate to the manifestation, not the House of Justice.

"9. O son of being! My love is My stronghold; he that entereth therein is safe and secure, and he that turneth away shall surely stray and perish."

It astonishes me that Peter Khan would openly make such a claim for the House of Justice. He refers to idols in his speech but seems completely unaware of the idolatrous nature of this claim. Only a power that transcends physical existence can provide safety and act as a stronghold, for all else is subject to the contingencies of physical existence. The House of Justice is as powerless as everyone else is.

To illustrate this, I challenge Peter Khan to answer the following question, which Baha'u'llah asks of another, with respect to the House of Justice:

"Say: O people! We shall put to you a question in all truthfulness, taking God for a witness between you and Us. He, verily, is the Defender of the righteous. Appear, then, before His Throne of glory and make reply with justice and fair-mindedness. Is it God Who is potent to achieve His purpose, or is it ye who enjoy such authority? Is it He Who is truly unconstrained, as ye imply when ye say that He doeth what He pleaseth and shall not be asked of His doings, or is it ye who wield such power, and who merely make such assertions out of blind imitation, as did your forebears at the appearance of every other Messenger of God?" Suriy-i-Haykal para 58

This is my question to Peter Khan before the Throne of glory: "Is it God Who is potent to achieve His purpose, or is it [the House of Justice] that enjoy[s] such authority? Is it He Who is truly unconstrained, as ye imply when ye say that He doeth what He pleaseth and shall not be asked of His doings, or is it [the House of Justice] who wield[s] such power, and who merely make[s] such assertions out of blind imitation, as did your forebears at the appearance of every other Messenger of God?" That is my question to Peter Khan. If you believe, as you claim, that God does as He pleases and is unconstrained, then why don't you say to the believers that the answer is to turn to God/Baha'u'llah? Why don't you remind them that God is their safety and stronghold, the healer of all their ills? Does the House of Justice have the power to "quickeneth the world of being and reneweth the temples of all created things", or is that the power of the Word of God? Is the House really the central authority of the Cause or is it Baha'u'llah?

Peter appears to have missed the central point in the Baha'i concept that today is the Day of God. It means that today is the appearance of the principle that He is God, and the consquences are that anyone who comes in cooee of that station does so at their very grave peril. It's Peter's job to tell the believers "to put thy trust in Me" - that is, Baha'u'llah - "and not in thyself" - that is, not in the House of Justice. Why? Because "I desire to be loved alone and above all that is" (AHW 8), including the community's central administrative authority.

"Say: This is the Day of God, the Day on which naught shall be mentioned save His own Self, the omnipotent Protector of all worlds." (Kitab-i-Aqdas, para 167)

Sunday, 19 July 2009

History and the Iqan

I finished reading the Iqan for the umteenth time a few weeks back. When I first read it three decades ago, I couldn't understand a word of it. Now when I read it, mostly I see that Baha'u'llah is describing the Baha'is. It rolls through my mind that when the Baha'is read the Iqan – if they ever do – they think it refers to the Muslims, Christians and Jews – after all, those are the people Baha'u'llah actually names, isn't it? And for ages, I read the Iqan like that too. But now, I recognise that Baha'u'llah is pointing the finger at the Baha'is as much as he is the people of other Books.

The Iqan gives us a cosmic history of religion. It tells us the history of religion from the point of view of God. And, from that vantage point, it explains to us what that history is from two points of view: from the point of view of those in the spiritual world and from the point of view of those in the physical world. To take a simple example, Christ was crucified, but how was that physical event interpreted by God and those in the highest Kingdom? Baha'u'llah tells us that during Christ's interrogation, he tried to open the eyes of onlookers to the spiritual reality before them by saying "Beholdest thou not the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and might?" Baha'u'llah explains:

"Finally, an accursed of God arose and, approaching Jesus, adjured Him saying: 'Didst thou not claim to be the Divine Messiah? Didst thou not say, "I am the King of Kings, My word is the Word of God, and I am the breaker of the Sabbath day?"' Thereupon Jesus lifted up His head and said: 'Beholdest thou not the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and might?' These were His words, and yet consider how to outward seeming He was devoid of all power except that inner power which was of God and which had encompassed all that is in heaven and on earth.' (Baha'u'llah: The Kitab-i-Iqan, Page: 133)

And so the point Baha'u'llah is making is that although in the physical world Christ was being interrogated and his life was in danger, the spiritual reality was that he wielded unlimited power. He just chose not to use it. There were two narratives going on, which were the opposite of each other. In the physical narrative, Christ was powerless; in the spiritual narrative, Christ was all-powerful. And throughout the Iqan, Baha'u'llah is telling us this double story. We tell a story about past events in this world – we call it history - but there is a complementary cosmic story told in the highest Kingdom and it is quite different.

Like it or lump it, the Baha'is are a part of the cosmic history that Baha'u'llah has introduced to humanity in the Iqan. Baha'u'llah discusses in the Iqan how this cosmic history begins in the beginning that has no beginning and ends in the end that has no end. The Baha'is don't think of the Baha'i revelation as being a part of it. But if that was the case, then cosmic history would have to end with the appearance of the Bab. The Baha'i revelation is a part of cosmic history and the consequences of that are a complex issue indeed.

Perhaps I haven't quite got the Baha'i position right here. Baha'is are willing to see themselves as a part of cosmic history, but only on the right side of it. They are not willing to see themselves as the baddies. The baddies who persecute the manifestations are the Muslims, Christians and Jews – but not the Baha'is. Baha'is are the victims; they are on the side of the manifestations; they are the ones who suffer and are martyred for the manifestations who appear in the world unrecognised. The logical problem with this assumption is that Jews, Christians and Muslims have all suffered and been martyred in the Cause of new manifestations. There were Jewish, Christian and Muslim martyrs in previous Days of Resurrection when God renewed his religion. But those people of the Book ended up persecuting future manifestations. This is one of the central themes of the cosmic story that Baha'u'llah tells, that just because you call yourself Jewish, Christian, or Muslim doesn't mean you have not persecuted God, doesn't mean you are on the side of right. Why do Baha'is imagine themselves to be immune from this cycle?

The answer is infallibility. If the House of Justice is infallible, it will not persecute the next manifestation. The effect of this assumption of infallibility is to rule the Baha'is out of the cosmic story as persecutors and allow only for them to be the persecuted. In the Baha'i world view, only Jews, Christians and Muslims can be on the wrong side of cosmic history. I suggest that this highly selective and self-serving reading of the Iqan is one important reason why the Baha'is do not take a lot of notice of the Iqan. The book makes statements that leave Baha'is uncomfortable; for example:

"Likewise, in the verse concerning the 'Spirit,' He saith: 'And they will ask Thee of the Spirit. Say, "the Spirit proceedeth at My Lord's command."'[Qur'an 17:85] As soon as Muhammad's answer was given, they all clamorously protested, saying: 'Lo! an ignorant man who knoweth not what the Spirit is, calleth Himself the Revealer of divine Knowledge!' And now behold the divines of the age who, because of their being honoured by His name, and finding that their fathers have acknowledged His Revelation, have blindly submitted to His truth. Observe, were this people today to receive such answers in reply to such questionings, they would unhesitatingly reject and denounce them - nay, they would again utter the self-same cavils, even as they have uttered them in this day." (Baha'u'llah: The Kitab-i-Iqan, Page: 183)

What would the Baha'is of today say to a person who said about the spirit that it proceeds at the Lord's command? Well, they might say that the spirit proceeds at the House of Justice's command! And they'd denounce the person for laying claim to any knowledge or experience of the spirit independent of the House of Justice, for all spirit is confined to that institution and its global teaching campaign - in the same way, for example, that bringing ourselves to account each day is asking ourselves what we're doing to support those two things.

But in any case, the point in the quote from the Iqan is that the divines were believers because their ancestors were believers and, therefore, only blindly obeyed their religion, despite being considered experts in the manifestation they claimed to adhere to. Why can't the Baha'is be guilty of this? Why can't this be true of those who are held up as leaders in the Baha'i community? This is an example of why a close reading of the Iqan is an awkward thing for Baha'is, why they don't do it and, when they do, they talk in general terms and point the finger at members of previous religions, but never apply the principles and lessons in the book to themselves.

But much as the Baha'is like to think of themselves as paragons of virtue, this myth cannot go on forever. The cosmic story that Baha'u'llah outlines in the Iqan is higher than any of us on this earth, including the House of Justice, and it will separate those who truly believe from those who blindly submit. One of the reasons I am bringing this subject up is that, to my mind, the Baha'i community is completely lost. The global campaign that the House of Justice is running, and that sporned 40 regional conferences, is an exercise in hysteria, vain imaginings and idle fancies. The Baha'i community has lost its way. And the reason this has happened is because of the infallibility fallacy.

I suggest that a good way to understand what's happened to the community is to see it in the context Baha'u'llah lays out for us in the Iqan. He tells us that manifestations come, that a few will believe but most, following their religious leaders, will not believe and will persecute. We also know that the followers of that same religion will play out the same game 1000 years later when the next manifestion comes. The Baha'is are no different. It took less than 20 years for the Babis to go off the rails, why do the Baha'is imagine themselves to be still on track 100 or so years later? I think it's time to start telling ourselves different stories – not stories about how it'll turn out all right on the night because the House of Justice is infallible, but stories about how we're doing as a community against the measures Baha'u'llah gives us in the Iqan such as:
-- Have we blindly submitted to our religious leaders instead of reading scripture for ourselves and coming to our own understanding of it?
-- Do we take seriously the imperative requirement that we have a pure heart, as outlined in the tablet of the true seeker?

Baha'is are indoctrinated to believe that their history is encapsulated in the Dawn-breakers. And although some aspect of Baha'i history is told there, we are also a part of a much larger history that Baha'u'llah outlines in the Iqan. We need to widen our horizons and see ourselves as part of a cosmic story that stretches over revelations. Each community will ultimately become divided as each new manifestation appears. We cannot afford to imagine that just because we call ourselves 'Baha'is' we are on the side of right, that we would not persecute a person who one day came among us and tried to make new laws that overrode those of Baha'u'llah. What would you do to such a person? One day such a person will come – although not in our lifetimes – but what would you think of him/her? Would you investigate openly for yourself, or take the easy road and just follow those who told you s/he was a heretic?

Monday, 27 April 2009

The principle of virtues

Sometime back, I was raving on to Steve about a passage from Tablet to the Son, in which Baha'u'llah states what is the fundamental principle of his revelation. After reading this passage, I suddenly remembered how the Baha'is like to say that the fundamental principle of the Baha'i revelation is unity (never mind what that means). But unity isn't what Baha'u'llah identifies in this passage - he says it is virtue.
"Note that what appeared was virtues, of which all remained ignorant." para 8, Tablet of the Son
This statement comes in the middle of a fascinating passage, which most Baha'is are, unfortunately, unfamiliar with. In paragraph 6, Baha'u'llah is lamenting the fact that the world is full of people who imagine they have attained mystical insight into God and then imagine that God is like them. He prays that God might cause the people to recognise themselves, which would enable them to distinguish themselves from God. If they could distinguish God from themselves - which, presumably, would enable them to see God better - they would be able to work out the purpose behind the verses, and hence recognise each new manifestation.
"The people have been stricken with an illness... This epidemic consists in people believing that they have attained mystical insight, and then supposing that God is like them. Today, most are afflicted with this disease... Beseech God to render hearts pure and eyes sharp, so that they might perhaps recognize themselves, and distinguish between themselves and God. Thus might they discern God's purpose in the revealed verses. If the peoples had understood the divine purpose, they would not have remained veiled at the moment of revelation." (para 6)
Baha'u'llah goes on in paragraph 7 to say that the Muslims never understood their scripture and this meant that they did not recognise the Bab when he appeared in the year 60. But then he, Baha'u'llah, came and washed everyone clean in a great celestial river.
"The dust of misconceptions and the clay of illusions prevented all humankind from attaining the panorama of divine unity, until the greatest purifier arrived and washed the people with the most cleansed of celestial rivers, calling them to the radiant countenance and informing them of the good news."
This leads into the first sentence of the next paragraph (para 8), which I quoted above. "Note that what appeared was virtues, of which all remained ignorant." In other words, what appeared with Baha'u'llah was virtues. He explains that it is true that virtues were also a part of previous revelations, but they gain a new meaning when they are renewed with a new revelation. This principle applies to all concepts associated with religion. He gives the example of the concepts of "mystical insight" and "monotheism". They all gain a new meaning with each new revelation. "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." (para 9)
In the first sentence of paragraph 12, Baha'u'llah says that we must look at the basic principle of each revelation and not allow ourselves to be distracted over this by the opinions of those held out by the people to be wise. "One must look at the basic principle of the cause of God, not at the high or low levels of verbal insight that have been achieved among the people." And so, as stated above, Baha'u'llah clearly states that the principle that arose with the Baha'i revelation was virtues. He also tells us that the principle favoured by God in the Muhummadan revelation was the state of transcendence and abstraction.
"In the dispensations of the Qur'an and the Bayan, the divine will preferred pure transcendence and absolute sanctification. For this reason, the brilliance of these utterances has established itself and become apparent in the hearts of the believers." (para 11)
When I think about virtues, I recall that, right up into the 1990s, Baha'is would say that what believers must endeavour to do is reflect the virtues of God. I don't hear talk like that any more. It's all about unity, and that's interpreted to mean that believers must reflect the attributes of their religious leaders - good or bad - for the sake of unity. Talk about having the disease of thinking that God is like you!
I get an idea of what Baha'u'llah means by 'virtues' from the following Persian hidden word:
"O son of my handmaid! Guidance hath ever been given by words, and now it is given by deeds. Every one must show forth deeds that are pure and holy, for words are the property of all alike, whereas such deeds as these belong only to Our loved ones." (PHW 76)
As I understand it, the new principle of virtues is the death-knell for hypocrisy. That's why I think President Obama is likely to find solutions that seemed intractable to President Bush. President Bush's motive was always expediency, not virtue for virtue's sake. And he achieved nothing, for nothing is achieved without the permission of God, and God has set the standard if you want to achieve things in this day.
It may be that those with questionable motives used to achieve their goals in previous revelations, I don't know. Perhaps, back then, one could get somewhere by sheer force of will, rather than by virtue. But I understand Baha'u'llah to be saying that he has put an end to that state of things. Now, if you want to prevail, you must do the inner work. This is the fundamental flaw of the new global teaching campaign. It is run on the force of will and numbers, not on the power of virtue and quality.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Poem for Ridvan

Orange juice, ice cream, runny brie and crackers
Drop the dime into the jukebox of your spirits.

Turn the dial on Heaven, up high to nine
Pick a soulful jazz, something warm for the spirit.

Let it dance and chime and swing between stars
Sweet pathos mixed with tango, cherry and spirit.

O Zaynab, sing softly the song of his pain
Like the charmer, in trance, draws out snake spirit.

Pirouette on the sigh gathered up from his cares
Spin him free with gentle tease and ease of spirit.

Beyond right and wrong, and lost to time
His eternal song in another’s tune and spirit.

World’s tacky nature-picture hung too long
Shatters into dust-settled dreams of tranquil spirit.

Copyright Alison Marshall 2009

Commentary on Tablet of the Son

 Commentary on Tablet of the Son