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.

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.”

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.