Saturday, 16 May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commentary on Tablet of the Son

 Commentary on Tablet of the Son