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.

 

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.