Main Entry: re•fine
Inflected Form(s): re•fined; re•fin•ing
transitive verb 1 : to free (as metal, sugar, or oil) from impurities or unwanted material
2 : to free from moral imperfection : elevate
3 : to improve or perfect by pruning or polishing <refine a poetic style
4 : to reduce in vigor or intensity
5 : to free from what is coarse, vulgar, or uncouth
intransitive verb 1 : to become pure or perfected
2 : to make improvement by introducing subtleties or distinctions
(Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)
Behold, I send My messenger, and he shall clear the way before Me; and the Lord, whom ye seek, will suddenly come to His temple, and the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in, behold, he cometh, saith the LORD of hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap; And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver; and there shall be they that shall offer unto the LORD offerings in righteousness.
(Nev'im [Prophets], Malachi 3,1-3)
Adopt ye such usages as are most in keeping with refinement. He, verily, desireth to see in you the manners of the inmates of Paradise in His mighty and most sublime Kingdom. Hold ye fast unto refinement under all conditions, that your eyes may be preserved from beholding what is repugnant both to your own selves and to the dwellers of Paradise. Should anyone depart therefrom, his deed shall at that moment be rendered vain; yet should he have good reason, God will excuse him. He, in truth, is the Gracious, the Most Bountiful.
(Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, ¶ 46, p. 36)
This year at the Association for Bahá'í Studies, Kit Bigelow (Director of External Affairs, U.S. National Spiritual Assembly) gave a talk during which she invoked this passage and the principle of refinement in general. I mentioned to Dale that her talk had given me an idea for an article. His reaction was interesting. He said something like, "It's come up in the Forum several times, and most of the reactions I get are negative about the concept."
That, and watching the Marx Brothers' classic A Night at the Opera last night, got me thinking. It seems to me that the concept of refinement does very much have to do with the Bahá'í Faith, otherwise Bahá'u'lláh wouldn't have made such a point of it in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. But what (and this is where the Marx Brothers enter) does "refinement" mean, anyway?
These days the usage connotes expensive clothes, classical music, and $1000-a-plate political fundraisers. But the prophet Malachi uses it in its most fundamental definition, wherein ore is melted in an extremely hot fire to release silver and gold. Refinement is a process of purification, in which a precious element is released. In this strict sense, it is easy to see that refinement is relevant to the Bahá'í Faith, and every other faith as well.
More subtle allusions of the word then come into play. "Refinement" is often perceived as a class distinction. Bahá'ís, to whom the principle of unity demands equality, might balk at this implication. In America, where class distinctions (such as they are) are more dependent upon wealth than is the case in Europe (or 19th century Persia), where accidents of birth separate royalty and nobility from "lesser" folk, there is a tacit understanding that beneath the veneer of expensive clothes, fine food, etc., there exists the law of the jungle that brought us the Gilded Age. (For those unfamiliar with the term, the "Gilded Age" refers to the period of American history c. 1870-90, when industrial magnates and financiers were exploiting workers, raking in money hand over fist, and building up the extraordinary wealth 'Abdu'l-Bahá refers to in any of a number of talks. The term was coined by Mark Twain after Christ's reference to the scribes and Pharisees being "whited [whitewashed, painted] sepulchers" in Matthew 23:27.) History has taught Americans to be skeptical of nobility and those who ape their ways, and perhaps are thus more likely to view this exhortation to refinement with a degree of disdain than to eagerly embrace it. Today's nouveau riche are more likely to have earned their money playing with computers than railroads, but the greed and venality within the system remain unchanged. (In A Night at the Opera, good examples of this sort of "refinement" are present in the characters of Rodolfo Lassparri, the brutal tenor who will do anything to insure that he remains at the top of the pecking order, and opera director Herman Gottlieb, a shallow opportunist concerned only with his appearance.) But money has nothing to do with the Bahá'í ideal either:
O son of man! Thou dost wish for gold and I desire thy freedom from it. Thou thinkest thyself rich in its possession, and I recognize thy wealth in thy sanctity therefrom. By My life! This is My knowledge, and that is thy fancy; how can My way accord with thine?
(Bahá'u'lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic 56)
If we divorce the idea of refinement from those of monetary wealth and social class, what remains? Definition #5 contains the words coarse, vulgar, and uncouth, but these terms are slippery. While it is fairly easy to consider "coarse" in terms of language—profanity and cursing being obvious examples—and "uncouth" as the opposite of polite and civil, "vulgar" deserves separate examination. The word is derived from Latin vulgus, meaning common people, in the sense of "the man in the street", "everyman", "you and me". Over time it has acquired a sense of "lower-class" or "lowbrow"; indeed, the opposite of refined as it is commonly used. While there is some overlap between "vulgar" and "coarse", "vulgar" frequently connotes a conscious effort to be rude or offensive. At its lowest point, "vulgar" slides into the same territory occupied by criminals and social outcasts. There is an unfortunate tendency to locate a broad range of human activities along the refined/vulgar axis, leading to regrettably sharp distinctions between "refined" or "cultivated" pursuits such as attending the opera, and "vulgar" pursuits such as attending a wrestling match. One can find matching pairs in almost every sphere of life, from art (Michelangelo vs. black velvet paintings) to music (Beethoven vs. country/western) to food (wine and cheese vs. beer and pretzels) to sports (equestrian events vs. football) to literature (Shakespeare vs. popular novelists)—indeed, our whole way of thinking is permeated by these assumptions. As a consequence we have "better" homes, "better" restaurants, "better" hotels, "better" clothes shops, etc. ad nauseum, not to mention elitist organizations based on one's income or ancestry.
So should we all be serving pâté and caviar at Feast instead of chips and dip?
I highly doubt it. Also in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Bahá'u'lláh puts us on the right path by instructing us to
...offer a feast, once in every month, though only water be served; for God hath purposed to bind hearts together, albeit through both earthly and heavenly means.
(Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, ¶ 57, p. 40)
If Bahá'u'lláh tells us that we must have Feast even if we have nothing more than water to offer our guests, surely there isn't a problem with chips and dip. Are chips and dip refined? Are chips and dip vulgar? After all, they're the sort of thing we less privileged folks eat.
Personally, I think that if the chips and dip are delicious chips and dip, and there are enough to go around, "refinement" has been served. We have allowed ourselves to become ensnared in a false dichotomy. The sort of twisted logic that lets us look at fried potatoes as somehow lesser than other forms of food (and I'm not considering all those health questions here) blinds us to the reality that potatoes are a perfectly good food. If a baked potato is "refined" and a potato chip "vulgar", how does that happen? As part of the cooking process? What about a potato in a stew, or a pot roast? Where do mashed potatoes fit into the continuum of refined/vulgar? Is a potato less vulgar if it appears on the king's table instead of his impoverished subject's? Can one actually impose this sort of value judgment upon a vegetable?
Ridiculous, when you get right down to it.
Some of the objection to this "refinement clause" justly derives from this observation. Further, some might object that century-old aesthetic standards and sensibilities no longer apply in the modern day. But at no time does Bahá'u'lláh engage in the sort of philosophical hairsplitting that can dominate academic discourse, and implicit in His silence is the idea that each age will determine for itself whether it likes symmetry or asymmetry, rhyme or alliteration, orchestra or choir. The House of Worship in India, the Parthenon, Notre-Dame de Chartres and a Quaker meetinghouse are each beautiful in their own way.
If one searches the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, the one will find thirteen instances of the word "refinement". Bahá'u'lláh links it with cleanliness:
Cleave ye unto the cord of refinement with such tenacity as to allow no trace of dirt to be seen upon your garments. Such is the injunction of One Who is sanctified above all refinement. Whoso falleth short of this standard with good reason shall incur no blame. God, verily, is the Forgiving, the Merciful. Wash ye every soiled thing with water that hath undergone no alteration in any one of the three respects; take heed not to use water that hath been altered through exposure to the air or to some other agent. Be ye the very essence of cleanliness amongst mankind. This, truly, is what your Lord, the Incomparable, the All-Wise, desireth for you.
(Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, ¶ 74, p. 46)
He also insists that we carry the idea forward into other aspects of our daily lives:
Ye have been enjoined to renew the furnishings of your homes after the passing of each nineteen years; thus hath it been ordained by One Who is Omniscient and All-Perceiving. He, verily, is desirous of refinement, both for you yourselves and for all that ye possess; lay not aside the fear of God and be not of the negligent. Whoso findeth that his means are insufficient to this purpose hath been excused by God, the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Bounteous.
(Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, ¶ 151, p. 74)
The translators of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas append a note pertaining to the word "refinement". They write, in reference to paragraph 46:
This is the first of several passages referring to the importance of refinement and cleanliness. The original Arabic word "latafah", rendered here as "refinement", has a wide range of meanings with both spiritual and physical implications, such as elegance, gracefulness, cleanliness, civility, politeness, gentleness, delicacy and graciousness, as well as being subtle, refined, sanctified and pure. In accordance with the context of the various passages where it occurs in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, it has been translated either as "refinement" or "cleanliness".
(Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 199)
The number of specialized pieces of cutlery appearing on our dining tables is irrelevant to the Bahá'í practice of refinement. What is clear is that Bahá'u'lláh asks of His followers both an inward and outward refinement—an inner refinement that burns away all that does not belong to God, and an outward refinement that reflects the perfection of His creation. Refinement does not mean that I need to be seen at the opera (although I occasionally am, simply because I love music), nor that I need to know which utensil belongs to which course (although my grandmother coached me), nor that I need be "sophisticated" in the usual sense of that word. What it does mean is that I should not speak elegant lies and cruelties, I should practice cleanliness, and I should make my surroundings mirror, to the best of my ability, a degree of beauty and graciousness befitting the presence of God in the world around me. Bahá'u'lláh does not ask us to be pretentious or pompous. He merely asks us to represent Him, and the One Who sent Him, faithfully. We are all capable of performing this duty.
The purport of our subject is that, just as man is in need of outward education, he is likewise in need of ideal refinement; just as the outer sense of sight is necessary to him, he should also possess insight and conscious perception; as he needs hearing, at the same time memory is essential; as a body is indispensable to him, likewise a mind is requisite; one is a material virtue, the other is ideal. As human creatures fitted and qualified with this dual endowment, we must endeavor through the assistance and grace of God and by the exercise of our ideal power of intellect to attain all lofty virtues, that we may witness the effulgence of the Sun of Reality, reflect the spirit of the Kingdom, behold the manifest evidences of the reality of Divinity, comprehend irrefutable proofs of the immortality of the soul, live in conscious at-one-ment with the eternal world and become quickened and awake with the life and love of God.
('Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 328)
(And if you've never seen A Night at the Opera, watch it now! It's the best of the best of the best!)
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