Under Satan’s Thumb

Being in a religiously mixed marriage yields interesting experiences. I know because my wife Kathleen is Catholic while I’m Baha’i. We see eye-to-eye on many moral questions but have some significant theological differences. Indeed, sometimes she sees significant theological differences where I do not, and vice versa. Much hinges on interpretation.

Yesterday I accompanied her to Mass, and afterward she stopped to talk to a couple of women she hadn’t seen for some months. Kathleen’s suffered a host of medical issues over the past half year which have kept her home most Sundays, so she enjoyed catching up with her friends. One of these women, upon hearing of her woes, commented, “Satan likes to keep us under his thumb,” and urged us to call if we needed anything.

We both appreciated her sincere offer of help although, myself, I don’t blame Satan for physical illness. But I mentally shrugged off the assertion. There would have been no point in getting into that. Not then, anyway.

Now is another matter…

Perfectly Perfect

Humans have a self-centered view of perfection. The more something is as we like it, the more perfect we regard it. A steak done to perfection is one cooked the way you prefer, even if your spouse hates it. You probably envision a perfect life as long, healthy, and pain-free, with your bank account overflowing, your every whim satisfied, and nobody ever imposing upon you.

You’re also smart enough to know you can’t have that. Nothing is ever that perfect for anyone. Yet most everyone experiences small moments of such perfection from time to time. Some religious folks may credit God in those moments and blame Satan for the rest of it. But hold on a second.

God is often portrayed as a loving parent, so consider the following. Do loving parents give their children everything they want? Shield their children from all harm? Make sure they never need work for anything? Teach them to think only of themselves?

You know the answer. And you know why. If any parent, God included, actually gave their children everything they desired, those kids would become spoiled brats. So are the tough times necessarily satanic attacks? Or might they sometimes be divine providence?

Many of the tests and difficulties we face in life are consequences of God’s design. Earthquakes are an inevitable result of our planet’s structure. Disease results from evolutionary biology. And so forth. Why would this be so? Because misfortune is part of growth. It can teach us virtues, if we allow it. Through it we can become detached from the world, learn to place our reliance in God, develop patience, and recognize the value in generosity and in helping others. The alternative is to become self-absorbed and greedy. A spoiled brat.

Who’s This Satan Guy, Anyway?

So if such misfortunes are not Satan’s doing, what is? Or, more fundamentally, what is Satan in the first place? The Adversary, the Enemy, the Father of Lies, he is associated with all things evil. But evil isn’t an inherent property of anything. It’s the negation of good. Good and evil are akin to light and dark, and are indeed often symbolized as such in our thoughts and words. Light emanates from a source and illuminates whatever reflects it, but darkness doesn’t emanate, nor is it reflected. It is nothing more than a lack of light or a failure to reflect whatever light is present. It is an emptiness, a vacuum, a nothingness rather than a something. Evil, similarly, is a failure to reflect goodness, a moral nothingness that results from a lack of positive characteristics.

Every good thing is of God, and every evil thing is from yourselves.
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, LXXVII, p149)

Evil is a human failing, resulting from our lower nature, that part of us that derives from the animal. It is rooted in self-centeredness. It grows when we feed our desires and passions instead of controlling them. It recedes when we turn our sight outward to others and to our Creator. In this self-centeredness Satan is found. He is not something apart from us. He is us, or rather, the aspect of us driven by animal impulses and primarily concerned with our own selves.

So curiously, my initial objection notwithstanding, it turns out that Satan does indeed like to keep us under his thumb. Our lower nature wants to exert itself. It wants to run the show. But our true self is our higher nature, our spiritual self, created with a supreme capacity to know and love God. We must nurture and train our spiritual self so it can assume control. This is where goodness is found. Properly regulated, our lower nature is not evil, but when granted free reign, it inevitably gives rise to every genuine evil that has plagued humanity from time out of mind.


This post originally appeared on Medium, March 26, 2018.

What You Are

You are noble.

No, seriously, you are.

Okay, I know you probably don’t believe it. After all, nobility conjures images of kings, queens, and saints, not ordinary people like you and I. Nobility implies being outstanding in some way: of high birth, exceptional purity, or sharp intellect. Nobility is grand, impressive, uncommon.

You probably feel far from all that. Human beings are easily folded, spindled, and mutilated by the world. We collect stains and scars as readily as financial debts. We don’t usually feel noble unless we’re conceited, which is hardly a noble quality. Indeed, some of us have developed such a low opinion of humankind as to reject our whole species as a waste of space. Seriously. How many people do you know who say they hate people? We don’t regard much of anybody as noble, most especially ourselves.

But that low opinion is based on what’s visible on the outside, which itself results from years of being shoved around, pulled the wrong way, and battered. It’s rather like complaining that a house was poorly built because a tornado ripped it to shreds. But blaming the house is unfair. Not much stands up to a direct hit by a tornado.

What’s on the inside?

So forget outward appearances for a minute. What’s on the inside? That’s where your nobility lies. It’s an inherent quality, what you truly are, your real nature, your heart if you will.

Over time we’ve increasingly told ourselves that we are nothing special. We don’t live in a special place. We don’t live at a special time. We are not even special creatures, merely a particularly clever form of animal. While there is some scientific justification in adopting this view with regard to many questions, it’s not entirely accurate. Our Earth remains the only place we know where life evolved. If life-bearing planets turn out to be rare, ours would definitely be in a special class. Nor are we ourselves exactly typical. Out of the billions of species that have existed on our planet, we stand alone. A nearly infinite expanse separates the human being from even the cleverest animal, as evidenced not merely by our tool-making abilities, not merely by our power to understand the world, but in that we can ask who and what we are.

By asking that question, we stretch out our hands to our Creator — however we conceive It— and implore an answer. Somewhere out there other beings might be asking the same question, but we have not found them. We know of only one creature capable of this feat: ourselves. And if we do find others, it would make neither us nor them unspecial. It would, rather, make us kindred spirits, members of a very rare class, partners in nobility.

By asking that question, we also reveal that we are more than physical bodies. We are mind and spirit, too. Our bodies came into being through an evolutionary process that began not with the first instance of life on Earth, but with the birth of the universe itself. In a sense, we have progressed through all forms of matter from primordial soup to the complexities of our advanced brains to become what we are on the outside, which in turn enables our inner nature, our true nature, to pour out like water from a spring. “Why do you think you’re nothing,” the Imam Ali said, “when the universe is folded within you?”

By recognizing this truth we unlock our potential to become as noble on the outside as we inherently are on the inside.

The Mirror of the Heart

So to repeat: you are noble. Nobility is your nature and your birthright. Nobody can take it from you, for it is what you are. Nobility is the image of God within you. Think of an image in a mirror. If the mirror were perfectly formed and polished, the image would be a faithful representation of whatever is reflected in it. If the mirror is filthy or warped or broken, the image will be distorted. Yet the actual object reflected in it will be untouched, and glimmers of its reflection can still be seen.

This is a metaphor. God’s image is not a physical thing, but spiritual qualities such as love, mercy, generosity, truthfulness, and justice — all the perfections of which we are capable. They reside within us as potentials, awaiting development. If we don’t see them on the outside, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. It only means they are obscured. It means the mirror needs cleaning.

So what is this mirror? It is your heart — not the muscle that pumps blood, obviously, but your spiritual heart. The ancients often regarded the physical heart as the controlling organ in the body, associated with emotions and even understanding. We’ve long known that’s not the case, but the symbolism remains. Spiritually, we speak of the heart as the core of our being, our spiritual essence, or the soul itself.

Cleaning this mirror means removing whatever prevents it from reflecting those divine qualities that are part and parcel of our true nature: habits and attitudes that interfere with our ability to be honest, just, kind, and so forth. This is a lifelong quest. If we are to improve ourselves and our world, it’s a journey we must consciously undertake.

The Journey

Tools exist to help you find and develop your inner nobility, spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation. For some, counseling or therapy may be necessary to deal with serious psychological or emotional issues. In either case, you’re not going it alone. You make the journey in the company of your fellow human beings and with the One who is reflected in your very soul.

But at the end of the day, you must consciously agree to embark upon this journey, and you must put forth the effort to get somewhere. You won’t become as noble on the outside as you are on the inside by simply wishing for it, or by waiting for the wave of a magic wand to transform you. You have to look for it, find it, nurture it, and practice it. You become charitable, for example, by practicing charity.

Bottom line: you won’t go it alone, but you must go. Rest assured, it’s worth the walk.

O SON OF UTTERANCE! Thou art My stronghold; enter therein that thou mayest abide in safety. My love is in thee, know it, that thou mayest find Me near unto thee. — Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, Arabic 10


This post originally appeared on Medium, March 15, 2018.

Possibilities

The philosopher David Hume held that there is no rational reason to assume that the future will resemble the past. In the main, we do make that assumption, but we do so based on past experience and our sense that on the whole things stay pretty much the same from one day to the next. The sun has risen every morning for as long as humanity has been around, so we assume that it will do so tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. Generally, such an assumption turns out to be correct.

But some days are just not like other days. One day about 66 million years ago, something big slammed into the Earth, and in the aftermath a mass extinction occurred. One day the sun will exhaust its supply of hydrogen, collapse upon itself, begin to fuse helium, and swell up into a red giant, engulfing our planet. There will be no more sunrises then.

Similarly with human affairs. Most days are pretty much like any other. But then one day a new invention changes the way we do things, or a terrorist attack alters the mindset and agenda of an entire nation, or a birth or a death alters the dynamics of a family.

Some two thousand years ago, Jesus spent three short years teaching things so radical that He was put to death in the most cruel fashion, and the world was forever altered. Such an event in the human world is like a significant asteroid strike in the astronomical world: infrequent, but with overwhelming consequences.

On the whole, the appearance of a Person who inaugurates an entirely new religious system only occurs on thousand-year time scales (in the range of, say, 500 to 1,500 years). Baha’is hold that it has happened again, with the advent of the Bab and Baha’u’llah in the mid-1800’s. The Bab’s brief six-year ministry, which culminated in his execution in 1850, unleashed a social upheaval in Persia that echos to this day through the continued persecution of Baha’is. Baha’u’llah, who spent 40 years as a prisoner and an exile, enduring all manner of hardship and suffering over the course of that time, set in motion forces that have encompassed the whole world. His followers are drawn from all nationalities, races, and ethnic groups, and although still numerically small, the Baha’i Faith is the second most widespread religion in the world. It may not be too presumptuous to say that it will, in time, alter the world as radically as Christianity did. That is, the future may resemble the past by becoming something new.

Among the changes foreseen by Baha’u’llah is the union of all of humanity. This involves radical shifts in perspective as well as in how different subgroups of the human family interact. It predicts a realignment of political forces and is fundamentally anchored in the spiritual transformation of individuals. We do not know what this future will look like in any detail; at best, we have some broad outlines. But ‘Abdu’l-Baha often spoke of the world being transformed into a “paradise” (literally “garden”). While this shouldn’t be viewed as a utopian vision, it does indicate the degree of change required. In relative terms, the future world will be a vast improvement over its current state.

Many people laugh off such a vision, assuming that the future must resemble the past. But if something extraordinary has already happened, then it’s reasonable to expect extraordinary things will come of it. This is asteroid-strike time, spiritually speaking.

Moreover, as somebody some might care to listen to once said, “With God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19–25; Mark 10:26; Luke 18:26) Thus, the unification of humanity is not at all impossible. Indeed, if it is God’s will, it is assured.


This post originally appeared on Medium, March 5, 2018.

The American Gun Question

In the wake of the shootings at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, we’ve seen predictable results in the American news media, on social media, and among our politicians. Some call for more and tougher gun control laws, while others rail against any such suggestion, or simply ignore it altogether. We can likely be sure of just two things. First, little or nothing will come of this verbal brawl. Second, it’s only a matter of time before another such tragedy occurs.

We are not making our communities safer by persisting in divisive argument, with its attendant insults and slurs and its mangling of statistics to suit our whims. Bickering and fear mongering have never done one good thing for us. Never. If we really want to solve the problem, we need a new approach. We need to forge bonds of unity among all people, all elements of society. Only then can we hope to build a secure home for ourselves and our children.

Let me put that in practical terms. In decision-making of all kinds, Baha’is employ a process they call consultation. Consultation is a complex subject, but in brief it means setting aside all prejudices and entrenched views and joining forces to examine the problem honestly and fairly. It means considering, without any selfish motivation whatsoever, how to deal with an issue for the good of all involved. It means actually listening to each other, trying to understand each other’s thoughts and views, and then critically examining every suggestion, including our own.

In consultation, we share facts and opinions. We listen to everything, giving it all due consideration. We allow our views to be shaped by facts, guided by a few core principles. We might all come out of the process altered, with new insights and views. Ultimately, we seek a unified decision aimed at providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Consultation is not about compromise, not about selfishness, not even about so-called enlightened self-interest (an oxymoron if there ever was one; there is nothing enlightened about self-interest). It’s about working toward truth, resolved to support the decision of the group even if we don’t agree with it, knowing that the best test of a decision is how it actually works when tried in the real world. Bad decisions can always be changed, so long as we can clearly see their effects. But if half of us decide to torpedo a decision, how can we ever know if its failure is due to its merits or to sabotage?

To begin applying this to the question of gun violence, I suggest we consider two key questions: the root problem, and the urgency of the problem.

First, the root problem is not guns. People do not become homicidal maniacs simply because they possess a gun. The root problem is far deeper and can only be addressed through significant, long-term effort to transform our culture from one that breeds violence and injustice to one that breeds peace and justice. This truth urgently needs to be explored. Without a solution to the underlying problem, no measures to address gun violence can ever be successful.

Second, there can be no doubt that we face an urgent and growing problem. Reliable statistics indicate that the number of mass shootings–defined as one person shooting four or more people in a single 24-hour period–has been risen sharply each decade since the 1970’s. The vast majority of these shootings in the past 30 years have been committed by individuals with mental health issues. Given this and that the root problem cannot be quickly addressed, it seems prudent to take such steps as are possible to render gun violence less likely. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that immediate measures will prevent all gun violence, but neither should we ignore the matter. It’s worth viewing this from a security standpoint. We cannot make a breach impossible, but we can make it hard enough that few will bother to try, fewer still will succeed, and any who succeed will be caught.

You will note that I haven’t proposed any specific solution here. Rather, I’ve proposed a process to find solutions and offered a starting point. I’m not an expert in the many complex issues involved. I simply know–as do you, I’m sure–that continued bickering will fail to resolve anything, and in the meantime more of our neighbors and friends and children will needlessly die. Isn’t that enough to convince us to set aside our fear and our hardened political opinions, and instead to consult together in humility and unity?

Invoking the Divine

We don’t often question the familiar. Common, ordinary things, things that have been with us since childhood, don’t usually seem worth much scrutiny. Yet nothing springs out of nowhere. Everything has a history, and sometimes it can be interesting or fun to dig into the meaning of something very ordinary. Occasionally, deep insights may even result.

Take, for instance, the word “God.” What does it mean? Not what is God, not what is God like, but what does the word mean? What is its etymology?

Modern English speakers inherit the word from Old English. “God” is derived from the Proto-Germanic gudan, which in turn derives from the Proto-Indo-European gutom. The meaning is not entirely clear, but is generally thought to be one of two things: to pour or libate, or to call or invoke. The meaning of the word “God” is thus either “one to whom sacrifices are made” or “one who is invoked.” Perhaps both.

Note that the word is Indo-European. It is not Semitic. The earliest Semitic writings use “il” or “el,” specifically the latter in the Old Testament. From this is derived the Arabic al-Ilah (“the deity” or “the God”), which probably became Allah. Muslims and Arab Christians alike use the word “Allah.” “Allah” and “God” mean one and the same thing. Likewise, in English translations of Baha’i literature, “Allah” is rendered as “God.”

Baha’is, though, use a few terms untranslated, including what is called “the Greatest Name.” These are all are references to Baha’u’llah, the Manifestation of God for our age. In one sense, Baha’u’llah Himself is the Greatest Name. In another, the name “Baha’u’llah” (“the Glory of God”) is the Greatest Name. Other forms include “Allah-u-Abha” (“God is the Most Glorious”) and “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” (“O Thou Glory of the All-Glorious”). A well-known calligraphic form of the “Allah-u-Abha” is often found in Baha’i homes, and “Allah-u-Abha” is often used as a greeting. Also, Baha’u’llah instructs His followers to repeat it 95 times each day as a meditation. “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” is used as an invocation, often as an expression of joy but at other times as well.

One further invocation used without translation is a prayer revealed by the Bab, Baha’u’llah’s forerunner: “Ya Allahu’l-Mustaghath”, which means, “O Thou God Who art invoked.” The Bab instructed His followers to recite this in times of trouble or difficulty, and it is generally considered by Baha’is to be among the most potent of prayers.

All of these short phrases have a single thing in common: they call upon God through His Manifestation. Put another way, they invoke “the One who is invoked.” There is great value in such invocation. The world is often a confused, confusing place. It can be hard to navigate and very easy to become distracted. Invocations have a focusing effect, turning our thoughts and feelings toward God and centering us in Him. I’ve recently discovered that using them in combination can have a powerful effect, particularly when seeking to overcome some personal failing. From time to time, I repeat “Allah-u-Abha” nine times, then “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” nine times, then “Ya Allahu’l-Mustaghath” nine times. This is the work of less than a minute, yet during that time all but God sublimates like ice vanishing in the warmth of the springtime sun. Moreover, whatever issue is plaguing me is kept at bay through occasional invocations.

Naturally I can speak only for myself; the above practice is merely something I’ve found useful in my own life. You may choose to try it or not, or may adapt it in various ways. Regardless, the principle is that found in Qur’an 17:110 and cited by Baha’u’llah in The Seven Valleys:  “…by whichsoever (name) ye will, invoke Him: He hath most excellent names.”

Symptoms and Diseases

When something goes wrong on the inside, sooner or later it manifests as symptoms on the outside.

I’ve spent the past week in the hospital with my wife Kathleen, who started vomiting blood last Sunday afternoon. That’s a particularly scary symptom, but we knew more or less what was going wrong. Back in 2014 the same thing had happened. It turned out she had cirrhosis, which caused an increase in blood pressure in the portal vein system, which led to the development of varices (basically swollen blood vessels) in her stomach. Some of these burst and she began bleeding. The fix was what’s called a TIPS procedure (transjugular interhepatic portal shunt), a shunt that redirects some of the blood flow around the liver, reducing pressure in the portal system.

But the varices remain, and probably due to some medication she was on for another problem, one or more of them began to bleed again. Because we recognized the symptoms and got her to the hospital immediately, it didn’t turn out too bad. She’s having a procedure now that should make it less likely for another episode to occur.

While sitting here waiting for her to return from the procedure, I’ve been on my computer and spent more time than usual scrolling through Facebook. There, too, I see the external symptoms of something deeply wrong “on the inside.” Distrust. Division. Dislike. Even hatred. I’m looking principally at posts from people in the U.S., since most of my connections are there, but I imagine it’s not much different in many other countries. Someone need only do, or in some cases merely say, something with which others disagree to trigger the most vile reactions.

Granted that in one degree or another this has often been the case in human society, it seems that people have become so polarized that they can’t bear the thought that someone of a different viewpoint even exists. Maybe that explains why some controversial actions result in a barrage of death threats.

This sickness goes beyond political alignments or social agendas. It afflicts everyone, be they right or left or anywhere in the middle.

The foregoing is simply an observation based on looking around with open eyes and setting aside all personal opinion on any particular subject. I’m not looking at people’s positions on things, but on their behavior, on how they react to each other. But at this point I have to risk expressing an opinion.

The only way out of this morass lies in spiritual regeneration. The human spirit is not one of division and hatred, but of unity and love. It is not a spirit of opposition and condemnation, but one of cooperation and support. It is neither liberal nor conservative agendas and movements that destroy our societies, but this negation of the human spirit itself. This is the deep illness, the “something wrong on the inside” that manifests itself in the symptoms so evident around us. The issues of which everyone complains are the blood being vomited up, not the cause of the bleeding.

As a Baha’i, I believe in the human spirit. I believe we have the capacity to develop our spiritual nature, both individually and collectively. Moreover, the human spirit is not the property of any one religion. Baha’is are engaged in a community building process based on spiritual principles and invite people of all faiths, or of no faith, to join with them in this endeavor. I invite you to investigate this process and, if you find it worthy, join us.

Which Physician?

Here in the U.S. presidential election politics has been playing out for many months, and by now has risen to a fevered pitch with the conclusion of the major parties’ conventions. It dominates news, social media, and conversation. Baha’is, though, are called to distance themselves from this kind of politics. “Politics” is a big word with several connotations, but for the present purpose it may be useful to restrict ourselves to the definition that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once gave: “Politics is the art of getting other people to do what you want them to do.”

Baha’is are not called to “get other people to do what [we] want them to do.” We are called, rather, to teach others about Baha’u’llah. I would argue that we are not even called to convert others to the Baha’i Faith; rather, conversion is a matter between the individual and God, and if it happens should not be attributed to our efforts but to the Word of God itself. Indeed, our calling is so important that Baha’u’llah has drawn a sharp distinction between it and “the affairs of this world”:

O ye the beloved of the one true God! Pass beyond the narrow retreats of your evil and corrupt desires, and advance into the vast immensity of the realm of God, and abide ye in the meads of sanctity and of detachment, that the fragrance of your deeds may lead the whole of mankind to the ocean of God’s unfading glory. Forbear ye from concerning yourselves with the affairs of this world and all that pertaineth unto it, or from meddling with the activities of those who are its outward leaders.

The one true God, exalted be His glory, hath bestowed the government of the earth upon the kings. To none is given the right to act in any manner that would run counter to the considered views of them who are in authority. That which He hath reserved for Himself are the cities of men’s hearts; and of these the loved ones of Him Who is the Sovereign Truth are, in this Day, as the keys. Please God they may, one and all, be enabled to unlock, through the power of the Most Great Name, the gates of these cities. This is what is meant by aiding the one true God — a theme to which the Pen of Him Who causeth the dawn to break hath referred in all His Books and Tablets.”

(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, CXV, p. 240)

This passage and others like it are the root of Baha’i principles regarding obedience to the government and noninvolvement in politics (of the sort mentioned above). While there are subtleties which have been expanded upon by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the Guardian, and the Universal House of Justice, here is the core principle: “unlocking the gates of the cities of men’s hearts” is the concern of Baha’u’llah’s followers, not electing the right candidates or passing the right laws.

The reason for this, as I understand it, is fundamental. Humanity is in dire need of the prescription dispensed by the Divine Physician. Only spiritual transformation can heal its illness. Changes in laws, changes in politicians, even wholesale changes in government cannot do so beyond a limited measure:

O ye the elected representatives of the people in every land! Take ye counsel together, and let your concern be only for that which profiteth mankind and bettereth the condition thereof, if ye be of them that scan heedfully. 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. Thus informeth you the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.

We behold it, in this day, at the mercy of rulers so drunk with pride that they cannot discern clearly their own best advantage, much less recognize a Revelation so bewildering and challenging as this. And whenever any one of them hath striven to improve its condition, his motive hath been his own gain, whether confessedly so or not; and the unworthiness of this motive hath limited his power to heal or cure.

That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith. This can in no wise be achieved except through the power of a skilled, an all-powerful and inspired Physician. This, verily, is the truth, and all else naught but error. Each time that Most Mighty Instrument hath come, and that Light shone forth from the Ancient Dayspring, He was withheld by ignorant physicians who, even as clouds, interposed themselves between Him and the world. It failed, therefore, to recover, and its sickness hath persisted until this day. They indeed were powerless to protect it, or to effect a cure, whilst He Who hath been the Manifestation of Power amongst men was withheld from achieving His purpose, by reason of what the hands of the ignorant physicians have wrought.

(Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 90, para. 1.174-1.176)

What is the point of leaving one ignorant physician to seek treatment from another? Indeed, how much benefit can be derived from the sound prescriptions of one able physician if one is also being treated by a host of ignorant physicians? Rather, as Baha’is shouldn’t our concern be for taking the Divine Physician’s prescription and sharing it with others?

Certainly there may be times when we can do so in the context of political discourse, but this requires some care and skill. Such discussion needs to be divorced from the names of candidates and current rulers and not identified with partisan platforms or positions. Most political arguments rely upon “spin,” the practice of interpreting facts in a way that supports a desired conclusion. Such interpretations are usually faulty, relying upon invalid use of statistics or leaving out key information, and thus are little more than lies told in an effort to “get other people to do what you want them to do.” While such lies can sometimes be convincing, usually they usually sway few people and only serve to deepen divisions.

Baha’is are called to bring people of diverse opinions together, to forge bonds of love and unity, and through the instrument of united consultation find solutions to the problems of the day. This is a very different calling from the siren song of politics. During this political season, let us all make sure we’re listening to the right song.

Two Responsibilities

There are various ways of looking at religion. One is to consider what it does for us individually, another what it does for us collectively. Still another is what it calls us to do. From the latter viewpoint, there are again a number of ways of looking at the question, and the answers may vary slightly depending upon the religion you follow. It occurred to me recently that one way to answer the question is to consider two key responsibilities our religions assign to us: teaching and service.

Consider that Jesus called His disciples to become “fishers of men,” and that He sent them out into the world to proclaim the Gospel. It is said that when the Buddha attained enlightenment, the world hung in the balance until He determined to go out and teach others what He had learned.  Baha’u’llah states it explicitly for His followers:

The Pen of the Most High hath decreed and imposed upon every one the obligation to teach this Cause…. God will, no doubt, inspire whosoever detacheth himself from all else but Him, and will cause the pure waters of wisdom and utterance to gush out and flow copiously from his heart. Verily, thy Lord, the All-Merciful, is powerful to do as He willeth, and ordaineth whatsoever He pleaseth.
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, CXLIV, p. 313)

But teaching goes beyond carrying the Message to those who have not yet heard it. There is also the obligation to learn, or as Baha’u’llah puts it, to teach one’s own self. Also, there is the obligation to teach one’s children, not only in religion but in the arts and sciences they will need in the course of their lives. Teaching is a very big word.

Likewise with service. As with teaching, it can signify a number of things: service to God, service to others, service to “the world of humanity.” ‘Abdu’l-Baha often spoke of the latter. For example:

Soon will your swiftly-passing days be over, and the fame and riches, the comforts, the joys provided by this rubbish-heap, the world, will be gone without a trace. Summon ye, then, the people to God, and invite humanity to follow the example of the Company on high. Be ye loving fathers to the orphan, and a refuge to the helpless, and a treasury for the poor, and a cure for the ailing. Be ye the helpers of every victim of oppression, the patrons of the disadvantaged. Think ye at all times of rendering some service to every member of the human race. Pay ye no heed to aversion and rejection, to disdain, hostility, injustice: act ye in the opposite way. Be ye sincerely kind, not in appearance only. Let each one of God’s loved ones centre his attention on this: to be the Lord’s mercy to man; to be the Lord’s grace. Let him do some good to every person whose path he crosseth, and be of some benefit to him. Let him improve the character of each and all, and reorient the minds of men. In this way, the light of divine guidance will shine forth, and the blessings of God will cradle all mankind: for love is light, no matter in what abode it dwelleth; and hate is darkness, no matter where it may make its nest. O friends of God! That the hidden Mystery may stand revealed, and the secret essence of all things may be disclosed, strive ye to banish that darkness for ever and ever.
(‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, #1, p. 3)

Interestingly, the two obligations of teaching and service are intimately bound up with each other, for as ‘Abdu’l-Baha says above, being of true service to others helps to spread the light of God, and teaching itself is a form of service to God.

So a great deal is bound up in those two words, and indeed they offer a surprisingly deep view of the meaning and purpose of religion.

 

Possibilities

The philosopher David Hume held that there is no rational reason to assume that the future will resemble the past. In the main, we do make that assumption, but we do so based on past experience and our sense that on the whole things stay pretty much the same from one day to the next. The sun has risen every morning for as long as humanity has been around, so we assume that it will do so tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. Generally, such an assumption turns out to be correct.

But some days are just not like other days. One day about 66 million years ago, something big slammed into the Earth, and in the aftermath a mass extinction occurred. One day the sun will exhaust its supply of hydrogen, collapse upon itself, begin to fuse helium, and swell up into a red giant, engulfing our planet. There will be no more sunrises then.

Similarly with human affairs. Most days are pretty much like any other. But then one day a new invention changes the way we do things, or a terrorist attack alters the mindset and agenda of an entire nation, or a birth or a death alters the dynamics of a family.

Some two thousand years ago, Jesus spent three short years teaching things so radical that He was put to death in the most cruel fashion, and the world was forever altered. Such an event in the human world is like a significant asteroid strike in the astronomical world: infrequent, but with overwhelming consequences.

On the whole, the appearance of a Person who inaugurates an entirely new religious system only occurs on thousand-year time scales (in the range of, say, 500 to 1,500 years). Baha’is hold that it has happened again, with the advent of the Bab and Baha’u’llah in the mid-1800’s. The Bab’s brief six-year ministry, which culminated in his execution in 1850, unleashed a social upheaval in Persia that echos to this day through the continued persecution of Baha’is. Baha’u’llah, who spent 40 years as a prisoner and an exile, enduring all manner of hardship and suffering over the course of that time, set in motion forces that have encompassed the whole world. His followers are drawn from all nationalities, races, and ethnic groups, and although still numerically small, the Baha’i Faith is the second most widespread religion in the world. It may not be too presumptuous to say that it will, in time, alter the world as radically as Christianity did. That is, the future may resemble the past by becoming something new.

Among the changes foreseen by Baha’u’llah is the union of all of humanity. This involves radical shifts in perspective as well as in how different subgroups of the human family interact. It predicts a realignment of political forces and is fundamentally anchored in the spiritual transformation of individuals. We do not know what this future will look like in any detail; at best, we have some broad outlines. But ‘Abdu’l-Baha often spoke of the world being transformed into a “paradise” (literally “garden”). While this shouldn’t be viewed as a utopian vision, it does indicate the degree of change required. In relative terms, the future world will be a vast improvement over its current state.

Many people laugh off such a vision, assuming that the future must resemble the past. But if something extraordinary has already happened, then it’s reasonable to expect extraordinary things will come of it. This is asteroid-strike time, spiritually speaking.

Moreover, as somebody some might care to listen to once said, “With God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19-25; Mark 10:26; Luke 18:26) Thus, the unification of humanity is not at all impossible. Indeed, if it is God’s will, it is assured.

From Embryo to Infant

Recently a Baha’i of my acquaintance commented on changes that have occurred over time in how a certain subject is viewed. Compared to a statement on the subject by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, he found current Baha’i practice too restrictive and puzzled over the change. This got me to thinking about how people dislike change and, particularly where religion is concerned, prefer stasis. In a Baha’i context, for example, shouldn’t a statement by Baha’u’llah or ‘Abdu’l-Baha stand unchanged?

Actually, no. Central to Baha’i belief is the concept of progressive revelation: God sends us successive Messengers (the Manifestations of God). Each Manifestation of God is empowered to give such teachings as are suited to the needs and capacities of the people of their age. But beyond this, things change over time even within a given revelation.

Know of a certainty that in every Dispensation the light of Divine Revelation hath been vouchsafed unto men in direct proportion to their spiritual capacity. Consider the sun. How feeble its rays the moment it appeareth above the horizon. How gradually its warmth and potency increase as it approacheth its zenith, enabling meanwhile all created things to adapt themselves to the growing intensity of its light. How steadily it declineth until it reacheth its setting point. Were it, all of a sudden, to manifest the energies latent within it, it would, no doubt, cause injury to all created things…. In like manner, if the Sun of Truth were suddenly to reveal, at the earliest stages of its manifestation, the full measure of the potencies which the providence of the Almighty hath bestowed upon it, the earth of human understanding would waste away and be consumed; for men’s hearts would neither sustain the intensity of its revelation, nor be able to mirror forth the radiance of its light. Dismayed and overpowered, they would cease to exist.
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, XXXVIII, p. 87)

This principle was restated via another analogy by Shoghi Effendi:

Feeble though our Faith may now appear in the eyes of men, who either denounce it as an offshoot of Islam, or contemptuously ignore it as one more of those obscure sects that abound in the West, this priceless gem of Divine Revelation, now still in its embryonic state, shall evolve within the shell of His law, and shall forge ahead, undivided and unimpaired, till it embraces the whole of mankind.
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 23)

Think about that term for a moment: embryonic. A human embryo looks nothing like a newborn infant, much less a full-grown human being. It has none of the powers of a one-year-old child, much less those of an adult. Over time, it will change radically, gradually evolving in form and capacity, developing the physical and behavioral characteristics of an infant. The newborn child will then continue to develop physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually over a long period of time before it reaches adulthood. Even then, a person continues to grow in experience and maturity. So when the Guardian called the Baha’i Faith “embryonic,” he asserted that it was in the earliest stages of formation, that it did not yet “look like” what it would some day become. It has a long way to go, a lot of growing to do, a lot of change to experience.

Moreover, Shoghi Effendi divided the broad sweep of Baha’i history into three ages, one past, one present, and one future: the Heroic Age, which saw the inception of the religion; the Formative Age, still ongoing; and the Golden Age, now just a glimmer on the horizon. That the terms “formative” and “embryonic” reflect each other is probably no accident. If the Baha’i Faith is embryonic, then it is in the process of being formed, and vice versa.

Thus, it should be no surprise if many things change as the religion grows. A prime example is the Baha’i marriage law. Some people tie themselves in knots over the fact that the law as revealed allows a man two wives, but ‘Abdu’l-Baha stated that monogamy was the law. (Having multiple wives, He argued, is conditioned upon the ability of the husband to treat both wives equally, but that would be impossible and so monogamy is actually the law.) This is a clear case of “the sun gradually rising to the zenith,” or of embryonic growth, or of formation. There are others.

Returning to the case that started this train of thought, that ‘Abdu’l-Baha made a certain “policy statement” doesn’t necessarily lock in that policy until the coming of the next Manifestation of God. It may be only a starting point. Should the Guardian further develop the matter, that change should be viewed as embryonic growth or formation. Likewise should the Universal House of Justice continue to refine the policy.

The only truly immutable aspects of the Baha’i Faith are those laws and principles directly given to us by Baha’u’llah Himself, and even in those cases there may be some room for clarification by the authorized interpreter (‘Abdu’l-Baha or the Guardian). Nevertheless, Baha’is can rest assured that Baha’u’llah’s Covenant is guiding the growth of this embryo: it will develop over time as directed by its Creator. With that assurance, we can embrace its growth and development and play a constructive role in it.