Thursday, 26 February 2009

The knower as an artist, revisited

About 10 days ago, I began a new course of study, which will last for four months. Last year, I took some books out of the library about writing fiction. I got to thinking about it because I loved watching movies so much, and I wondered how stories were dreamed up and written. When I read the books, I didn't think that I would consider trying it myself. But by the end of the year, I had made some fundamental shift within, and opened up to the possibility. As it turned out, I noticed an advertisement in a magazine for an online course in fiction writing, and after looking into it, I realised it was just what I wanted and needed. So I here I am, surrounded and committed.

Despite my initial apprehension, by the time the course began in mid-February, I couldn't stop thinking about it, I was so excited. And the first week and a half have not disappointed. The book used as a textbook for the course is Janet Burroway's Writing fiction. From reading that, I was introduced to some amazing things that I never realised had anything to do with writing fiction. She said things like that stories do not come out of ideas but rather out of images and obsessions. And she said things like that

"Fiction is written not so much to inform as to find out, and if you force yourself into a mode of informing when you haven't yet found out, you're likely to end up pontificating or lying some other way." (p5)

Well, of course, when I read this, I could see how it related to what the Baha'is are doing with telling people about the Baha'i revelation. The Baha'is are completely given over to 'informing' and not 'finding out' and end up 'pontificating'. You see, the principle applies across the board. Sometimes, of course, it is appropriate to pontificate, such as in some teaching situations. But when it comes to things like fiction and revelations - hey, what's the difference, in that both are founded on stories; it's just that revelations are divine stories and fiction is made of human-made stories - then pontificating isn't going to get you very far.

I keep thinking about this. We know that the Baha'i community is stuck in a Shoghi Effendi time warp. But what does that mean on the ground? I think about the fact that kids these days are brought up with television and movies and video games and the internet; in other words, they are surrounded by visual media, which means that if you want a way in, then you have to get in with stories, not so much with ideas - and especially not by pontificating about one's ideas. Pontificating was more acceptable back in the Guardian's time. Important men who were considered experts got up and gave speeches. Baha'is were encouraged to give speeches - and people shared their ideas, political ideas, human rights ideas, gender equality ideas, economic ideas, sociological ideas, historical ideas. But I think people these days are much more sceptical of talking heads and take what they say with a grain of salt, especially young people.

Take for example, the huge success of the movie Slumdog Millionnaire, an indie movie that came out of nowhere to steal the hearts of everyone even over the blockbuster favourites. The movie has many messages in it that Baha'is would claim to teach - the triumphing of a young man who, unlike his brother, refuses to allow himself to be corrupted, and who remains faithful to love, despite extraordinary adversity; the highlighting of the plight of the poor; the power of virtues like truthfulness; the power of unity, in this case, through the mass support the young man received from the population, which was facilitated by mass media. In short, it is a very moral story. And look where it went in the end, to the top. But it doesn't achieve this by allowing itself to pontificate.

And this is the lesson I think the Baha'is need to take on board. There's no gaining mass popularity like that using tools such as Anna's Presentation, which do nothing but pontificate. I had to laugh when I read the following passage from Robert Olen Butler's famous book about writing fiction From where you dream:

"There's an interesting precedent for this idea - and what I'm about to observe has no intended religious message. A very influential person in Western and world culture taught almost exclusively in one way: only in parable, by telling stories. 'Without a parable he spake not to them.' He asked questions similar to the ones I suggested artists ask: What is the abiding universal human condition? What is this all about here on planet Earth? And his answer was, There was a guy who owned a vineyard and he had a son ... and so forth. He told stories." (pp12-13)

Now, I suppose, I can hear my detractors saying that Baha'u'llah came to tell it to us straight and not in parables like Jesus did. But that's beside the point. We can't let that be an excuse not to use stories ourselves. In any case, Baha'u'llah told many stories too - just look at the two Tablets of the Holy Mariner, for instance.

I am reminded of a young Baha'i woman who came to town (yes, a story) and who by sheer coincidence knew a guy who was a presenter for the local television channel. When he found out she was a Baha'i, he suggested she come on the programme so that she could tell him about what that meant for her. I sat down in great anticipation of what she would say. And so he introduced her and asked her what being a Baha'i was all about. Now, I am the first to own that such a question put to me on television would strike me dumb with terror, and it clearly did her because there was this awkward silence in which it was clear her mind when blank and after a while she managed to say something to the effect that Baha'is believed in unity. It was excrutiating, and it didn't take long for the presenter to realise that he wasn't going to get much more out her and so the interview ended not long after it started. I felt very sorry for her; and I don't want to claim that I'd be any better if I had a TV camera pointed at me. (Perhaps I have to explain here that, culturally, Kiwis are a reserved lot.) But I think that what became clear in that moment was that this woman couldn't access her own story about being a Baha'i.

When all said and done, what can we actually say about being Baha'i? It isn't any one thing; what each of us have is a set of experiences, many very painful, that we've lived through with Baha'u'llah as a guide and a help in one way or another. One person will tell you he came to them in a dream in which he protected them from a rioting crowd, and another will tell you that they were taken up directly in his rocket, straight from the launch pad; another will tell you that a couple of freaky things happened one after the other while they were investigating the faith and this confirmed for them that Baha'u'llah must be the Man; and still others will say how much they liked this idea and that one, and so on it goes. The Faith isn't any one thing - it isn't the set of ideas summarised in Anna's Presentation - it's in one important sense the millions of stories people tell about their encounters with Providence.

But the sad thing about the woman put on the spot in front of television cameras, was that, at that moment, she couldn't access her story - and that's because she was estranged from it. She felt like she had to tell the story she'd been told by others - 'Ah, yeah, the faith is about unity'. But I'll bet you anything the Faith isn't about unity for her. And so what I'm saying is that if we want the success of Slumdog, we need to access the real stories of Baha'is - not the 'unity' ones, the ones that we're not allowed to tell, but which are true. The ones that don't pontificate or lie in some other way.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The one essential movement - the movement within

Among the jargon of the five-year plan is the term "two essential movements". The two movements intended by this term are, first, the movement of believers through the sequence of Ruhi courses and, second, the development of communities from C-stage clusters through B-stage clusters to A-stage clusters.

In this blog entry, I want to discuss what I'll refer to as "the one essential movement" and that is the spiritual growth that a believer experiences if s/he turns toward the inner spiritual world of Baha'u'llah that is 'located' within them - that is, in their heart, soul, spirit or inmost being; whatever you want to call it, it doesn't matter. I describe this one essential movement as 'the movement within'. From writings like the Seven Valleys, Baha'is are aware of the idea that they are supposed to be wayfarers on a spiritual journey; indeed, the Seven Valleys depict the stages of that journey. But Baha'is do not realise that the two essential movements of the five-year plan are not the same thing as the one essential movement within. In fact, it is possible to participate fully in the two essential movements of the plan and yet never take one step on the essential movement within.

Let's look then at the differences between the two essential movements of the plan and the essential one within. A basic difference is that they take place in different worlds. The two essential movements are to do with activities that Baha'i communities and individuals take part in in the outer, physical, world. They involve attending institute classes, carrying out the practical aspects of the courses and participating in the teaching work and core activities.

By contrast, the one essential movement is a spiritual journey that takes place in an invisible inner world - the goal of that journey is referred to, among other things, as the "paradise of the Placeless":

"Up from thy prison ascend unto the glorious meads above, and from thy mortal cage wing thy flight unto the paradise of the Placeless." (PHW 39)

The activities associated with the movement within are related to our personal devotional life: praying, reading the writings morning and evening, fasting and bringing ourselves to account each day. The purpose of these activities, as Baha'u'llah emphasises in the quote below, is to develop an understanding of the scriptures and an awe for the mysteries. In fact, if we don't achieve this when we read, he says, we are wasting our time:

"Twelve hundred and eighty years have passed since the dawn of the Muhammadan Dispensation, and with every break of day, these blind and ignoble people have recited their Qur'an, and yet have failed to grasp one letter of that Book! Again and again they read those verses which clearly testify to the reality of these holy themes, and bear witness to the truth of the Manifestations of eternal Glory, and still apprehend not their purpose. They have even failed to realize, all this time, that, in every age, the reading of the scriptures and holy books is for no other purpose except to enable the reader to apprehend their meaning and unravel their innermost mysteries. Otherwise reading, without understanding, is of no abiding profit unto man." (Baha'u'llah: The Kitab-i-Iqan, p 172)

Despite the clear differences between the two essential movements of the plan and the essential movement within, it is common for Baha'is to integrate them in their minds. Commonly, belivers get so caught up in their community endeavours that they never find the time, or even take seriously the obligation, to embark on the movement within. Oh sure, they may pray and read the writings and even fast, but this does not necessarily lead to a sincere inner journey. It is possible to have a conversation with God in prayer, but not actually communicate anything. And as for reading, Baha'u'llah makes clear above that it is possible for, effectively, a whole global religious community to completely miss the point, despite all the reading in the world.

The reality of our lives is that it is very difficult to make space for genuine, sincere devotion to God. It demands real chunks of time and space in which we are on our own and experience sufficient inner silence to concentrate on the scripture we are reading, take it in, meditate on it and allow ourselves to be transformed by its majesty. My experience - and I know I am not unique in this - is that I had to struggle very hard to push back the demands of the world and say to it: "Hey, this special devotional time takes priority and I don't care what else is going on, my duty to Baha'u'llah must be met'. You can't do this without putting out challenging messages about yourself such as: I am religious; I need to be alone right now; I have a personal devotional life that is separate from my community life; I have a personal experience that does not involve my spouse. This is where Baha'u'llah's concept of detachment comes in. When we do convey those messages to the world, take time out and make sincere efforts to advance on our inner journey, then we are displaying one important facet of the attribute of detachment.

There is another way to look at the differences between the two essential movements and the one essential one, and that is in terms of the covenant. I am grateful to Susan Maneck who has recently put up an excellent essay on the covenant on her new blog "A Baha'i Perspective of Islam". In this essay, she begins by pointing out the crucial difference between the Greater and the Lesser Covenants. She rightly states that, when Baha'is think of the covenant they "usually describe the chain of authority designed to maintain their unity", which of course is the passing of authority from Baha'u'llah to Abdu'l-Baha to the World Order of Baha'u'llah. However, this is only one aspect of the covenant; it is the Lesser Covenant. There is another aspect to the concept of the covenant and that is the Greater Covenant, which Susan describes as "the Covenant which God has made with all humanity, wherein He promises us continuing guidance through His Messengers, 'Manifestations' as Baha’is call them, while we are obligated to recognize and obey them..." She points out the relationship between the two aspects of the covenant, stating that the Lesser Covenant is "predicated on" the Greater Covenant. In other words, the details about how the religious community functions in the world do not come into play unless there is first a God who decides to be known and to make a covenant with humanity via the manifestation.

Susan's excellent essay is principally a discussion on the meaning of of the Greater Covenant. She traces its beginnings with Moses, and follows it through Islam and on into the Babi and Baha'i revelations. The Qur'an transforms the meaning of the Covenant from an agreement made with Moses on Sinai, to a metaphorical event that takes place in pre-existence, or outside time, in which all souls assent at once to the fact that God is their Lord: "Am I not your Lord? They said: Yea, verily. We testify." (Qur'an 7:172) Susan explains:

"A couple of things might be noted about this passage. First, it is an event that happens in the pre‑existence, an event in which we are all said to be present. Because we all given [sic] answer to this question, we all become partners to the Covenant thus created. That Covenant consists of an acknowledgment of God’s lordship, and of our willingness to submit to it."

As Susan goes on to explain, our part in the Greater Covenant is about responsiveness; for each of us it is our duty to actively respond to the question: 'Am I not your Lord?' But, in order to do that, we have to recover a memory of that agreement we made in the realm of pre-existence. Baha'u'llah gives us guidance on how to do that in this Hidden Word:

"O my friends! Have ye forgotten that true and radiant morn, when in those hallowed and blessed surroundings ye were all gathered in My presence beneath the shade of the tree of life, which is planted in the all-glorious paradise? Awe-struck ye listened as I gave utterance to these three most holy words: O friends! Prefer not your will to Mine, never desire that which I have not desired for you, and approach Me not with lifeless hearts, defiled with worldly desires and cravings. Would ye but sanctify your souls, ye would at this present hour recall that place and those surroundings, and the truth of My utterance should be made evident unto all of you." (PHW19)

Baha'u'llah tells us that we'd remember the surroundings in which we made our agreement if we sanctified our souls. The memory of what happened in pre-existence is 'imprinted' on our inmost being. To find it, we have to undertake the journey in, clear out the obstructions and walk the path to find the sanctified realm of the Placeless. The fundamental importance of this journey is highlighted in this Hidden Word:

"O son of light! Forget all save Me and commune with My spirit. This is of the essence of My command, therefore turn unto it." (AHW 16)

In conclusion, if we compare the two essential movements of the five-year plan and the essential movement within in terms of the covenant, then their relative importance becomes clear. The one essential movement within is our primary and fundamental obligation under the Greater Covenant. This is why, for example, Baha'u'llah has made the obligation to read the writings morning and evening a requirement of the covenant:

"Recite ye the verses of God every morn and eventide. Whoso faileth to recite them hath not been faithful to the Covenant of God..." (Aqdas, para 149)

Our activities in pursuit of the two essential movements should be predicated on the one essential one. It isn't acceptable to say to ourselves that if we're participating in the work of the plan, we're fulfilling our obligation to God. We're not. Our primary obligation is to realise our ultimate purpose in knowing and then meeting our Lord; and then, secondly, to reflect that spiritual achievement to humanity through our good character and deeds. At its core, the revelation is a love story, not a work programme.

"O son of spirit! My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting." (AHW 1)

Commentary on Tablet of the Son

 Commentary on Tablet of the Son