Monday, 4 January 2010

Response to Roy Hilbinger (2)

In my last entry, I responded to some of the issues Roy Hilbinger raised in his blog entry "No going back" and said I had more to say. This time I want to respond particularly to this comment of Roy's: "there is in the writings of Baha’u'llah an advocacy of blind obedience".
What I was trying to say last time, and probably didn't drive home properly, was this: that Baha'u'llah isn't like an ordinary human being claiming to have authority over others and to lay down the law; for example, he's not like a politician or religious leader. Baha'u'llah is saying that his voice is the voice of existence; that is, the voice of nature and of reality. So when he says 'obey me no matter what I decree', there isn't any choice in the matter because, as they say in climate change circles, there's no negotiating with nature. Countries may be facing issues with their economies and pressure from interest groups, but nature will not compromise. Like or lump it, we must knuckle under and reduce emissions, make the necessary cultural and ethical changes that are required. To accuse nature of blind obedience is a category error, for one would not call the sun a despot because it regulates our whole existence by disappearing for half the day. In fact, we are so conditioned to its rhythm that we celebrate its patterns. We can see benefits in it, such as the chance to wind down and rest at night. Perhaps we've turned a negative - the sun's 'oppression' - into a positive.
I want now to go back to the ordinary, the usual, meaning of blind obedience, which is requiring a person to act according to another's instructions even if this means - and it usually does - acting against one's own conscience. First of all, I want to say that, contrary to Roy's assertion that Baha'u'llah advocates this, in fact Baha'u'llah forbids it absolutely. I will cite a couple of passages that I think make clear Baha'u'llah's uncompromising position on this.
I start with the well-known passage from the Arabic Hidden Words, in which Baha'u'llah links justice with conscience. He admonishes us to be just and explains that this involves us seeing with our own eyes and knowing with our own knowledge.
"O son of spirit! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes." (Baha'u'llah, Arabic Hidden Word no 2)
But there is another, lesser known passage from Surah of Sacrifice:
"Say: O people, act not as did the people of the Qur'an, and never surrender the reins of your insight into the hands of anyone else. Seize upon the grace proffered you in these days and see with your own eyes. Turn not upon your heels when the verses of your Lord are recited, nor be of those who reject the signs of God and hurl derision from where they sit." (paragraph 11)
You can see here that the word is "never"; never surrender the reins of your insight into the hands of another. I don't know, how clearer can it be?
The challenge inherent in what Baha'u'llah is saying can't be overstated. For example: we know from personal experience and from what we hear on the TV that there is a vast religious world out there that is the Muslim world. It's huge and has a powerful influence on the world. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the seal of the prophets and so refuse to give the time to day to Baha'u'llah's claim to be a prophet after Muhammad. But here is Baha'u'llah, seemingly against the odds, asking Muslims to look at his claims with an open mind, which is an enormous thing to ask of a believer who has been raised with the idea that his claim is heresy and should never be given the time of day.
But the challenge isn't just meant for Muslims. Just as there is a Muslim world, with its unique beliefs, customs and identity (whether scripturally based or not), there is an American culture with these too. It has beliefs, customs and an identity that is just as ingrained as the Muslim one. So what Baha'u'llah is saying here, when he asks us to see with our own eyes, is to see his claim without the rose-tinted glasses our culture has given us. I know that Roy genuinely believes he is seeing with his own eyes; nevertheless, he is seeing through the values of his culture: "The progressive social agenda is just a facade over something much darker; there is in the writings of Baha'u'llah an advocacy of blind obedience, and a condemnation of things that we as Americans hold as basic truths." This statement tells me that Roy's religion is American nationalism; it's to this pool of ideals that he appeals for his standard of truth. I doubt his interest in neo-Paganism would fundamentally challenge this standard.
There are other passages in which Baha'u'llah forbids blind obedience, but I'll not bother with them for I don't believe that citing passages will convince many of Baha'u'llah's sincerity in the matter. Instead, the point I want to make is that advocating blind obedience is against Baha'u'llah's system of thought. If Baha'u'llah is indeed the voice of existence, as he claims, then it's to the very heart of reality that he wants us to turn. Let's face it, as I have argued above, he is up against it asking people to do this; in addition to our cultural milieu, there are powerful influences such as family, love and work that pull our attention and alliances this way and that, depending on vested interests. Nevertheless, the principle is sound: in order to see reality, we must look at it with our own eyes. It is impossible to see reality in any other way; relying on others is indeed blind obedience. Therefore, if Baha'u'llah is the voice of reality and he wants us to see him, then we must blind ourselves to all else and gaze upon what stands before us - reality - with the faculties the Lord has placed within us; that is, with our own senses and mind. Independent action is, in this way, a fundamental requirement of Baha'u'llah's claim and teachings.

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

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