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.

One Religion?

The concept of unity is central to the Baha’i Faith.  Its key teachings are unity of God, unity of religion, and unity of humanity.  If there were a “Cliff’s Notes” to the Baha’i Faith, these three unities might constitute the bulk of the content.  At a basic level, they are all easy to explain, and most people grasp them without trouble.  Or rather, they grasp two of the three without trouble.  One, however, seems to boggle a lot of minds.

Unity of religion is the troublemaker, and it’s not hard to understand why. Even a cursory look at the various religions shows how different they all are.  How can anyone seriously talk about them as though they were all one and the same? Can one really lump together polytheistic religions, monotheistic religions, and (as many regard Buddhism) atheistic religions?  Even among monotheistic religions, of which the Baha’i Faith is one, there are seemingly irreconcilable differences.

The short answer is: that’s not what unity means.  Uniformity is sameness.  Unity is the combination of parts into an organized whole.  Think of the different organs and limbs that make up the human body.  Each component is very different, with differing characteristics and functions.  Nobody would mistake the brain for the big toe, yet they exist in unity because each is part of a whole larger than itself.

Or think of the human race. Each person is an individual, with varying physical, mental, and emotional characteristics.  Differences of ethnicity, culture, and religion exist, yet all are united in a single species.

Religion works the same way, in the Baha’i view.  Although specific religions differ in many ways, all are aspects of a single phenomenon that serves a common purpose: the advancement of humanity, both individually and collectively.  Religion evolves with humanity, changing according to the needs and capacities of people at different times and in different places.  Just as it would be impossible for a doctor to treat all of her patients in exactly the same way regardless of age, physical condition, and state of health, so it would be impossible for religion to achieve its purpose without regard for the state of human development and the challenges facing civilizations.  Or as Baha’u’llah wrote:

That the divers communions of the earth, and the manifold systems of religious belief, should never be allowed to foster the feelings of animosity among men, is, in this Day, of the essence of the Faith of God and His Religion. These principles and laws, these firmly-established and mighty systems, have proceeded from one Source, and are rays of one Light. That they differ one from another is to be attributed to the varying requirements of the ages in which they were promulgated.
(Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 13)

A still deeper thread unites all religions, too: all true religions are grounded in divine revelation.  If we could know the origins of every religion–which except in a few cases we unfortunately cannot–we would find they are rooted in a single person, a Manifestation of God in Baha’i parlance, through whom the divine teachings are revealed to humanity.  These Manifestations of God present themselves to us in differing ways.  Some may appear as prophets, others as enlightened teachers, others even as God among us.  As with what they teach, how they present themselves is according to our needs and capacities.  Baha’u’llah states:

These attributes of God are not and have never been vouchsafed specially unto certain Prophets, and withheld from others. Nay, all the Prophets of God, His well-favoured, His holy, and chosen Messengers, are, without exception, the bearers of His names, and the embodiments of His attributes. They only differ in the intensity of their revelation, and the comparative potency of their light…. That a certain attribute of God hath not been outwardly manifested by these Essences of Detachment doth in no wise imply that they Who are the Daysprings of God’s attributes and the Treasuries of His holy names did not actually possess it.
(Baha’u’llah, Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 103)

Understood in this way, it is indeed easy to grasp the unity of religion, but it requires a willingness to broaden one’s horizons, to envision a growing, advancing humanity with changing needs and changing capacity, and a God who provides for us at each step of the way.  This is the view that Baha’u’llah lays before humanity in this age.

Proving God

Over the years, I’ve read several works dealing with logical proofs of God’s existence, including a survey of the history of such proofs and William Hatcher’s Minimalism, the chief Baha’i entry into the field. My most recent foray into the subject is New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy by Catholic philosopher Robert Spitzer, which I finished a couple of weeks ago.

Proofs of God’s existence typically begin by demonstrating that there must be a singular precursor to everything in existence. In past times, going back to Aristotle, this singular precursor was thought of as a “first cause.” After the concept of causation fell into disrepute among philosophers, different terminology was introduced to make essentially the same point. Spitzer speaks in terms of conditions for existence. For example, two of the conditions for table salt to exist are that sodium atoms and chlorine atoms must exist. For atoms of any kind to exist, protons, neutrons, and electrons must exist. Without much difficulty, it can be shown that for anything to exist, there must be a singular reality that exists unconditionally.

Although Spitzer includes some scientific discussion, he does so primarily to show that science and philosophy converge in certain ways. But logical proofs of this sort do not require scientific input. Instead of using empirical evidence to develop models of physical reality, as science does, philosophy seeks to determine which of a finite set of mutually exclusive statements representing all possibilities happens to be true. In the above case, either there is no unconditioned existence, there is one unconditioned existence, or there is more than one unconditioned existence. There are no other possibilities. If the first or last of these is true, it can be proven that nothing else can exist. Thus, there must be exactly one unconditioned existence, because that is the only possibility that doesn’t lead to contradiction.

‘Abdul-Baha mentioned that logical proofs are important to people today and gave a few examples of His own to demonstrate God’s existence, the reality of the Manifestations of God, and various aspects of human nature. That said, people are very good at finding fault with logical proofs, particularly when they don’t like the conclusions. Moreover, logical proofs are not sufficient, because although they may be able to show what is, they don’t offer any insights into what to do about it. And that, really, is the heart of religion: not to merely know that God exists, but to know God, to enter into a loving relationship with Him and live one’s life accordingly. Logic, therefore, can be no more than a starting point.

Some even get along nicely without it. They don’t need a logical proof of God’s existence because they have experiential proof. Such proof may not satisfy either the logician or the empiricist, but it can’t be so easily discounted. Baha’u’llah stated:

He Who is everlastingly hidden from the eyes of men can never be known except through His Manifestation, and His Manifestation can adduce no greater proof of the truth of His Mission than the proof of His own Person.
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, XX, p. 49)

The life and teachings of Jesus or the Buddha or Muhammad or Baha’u’llah or of any other Manifestation of God speak for themselves, and the experience one has through accepting and following them likewise speaks for itself.

Even so, most of us have moments when we doubt our own experience, and in those times it may be of value to know that logic backs up our intuitions, at least generally. It shows that at the very least the foundation is firm. We still have to build on that foundation, but so long as we know it can’t fall apart under our feet, we can have the confidence to build.

Embracing Tribulations

My family and I have lived through a lot of misfortune in the past few years. Among other things, my wife was hospitalized with a very serious condition, my son suffered a severe infection in one of his feet, one of my daughters is dealing with an as-yet undiagnosed medical issue, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and I lost my job due to funding issues and went through a period of unemployment. Sometimes it seems we go from one disaster to the next with very little time to draw a breath.

All Baha’is are familiar with passages in their Holy Writings that speak about how tests and difficulties are blessings in disguise. They can help us to develop our spiritual nature and refine our character. Even if only grudgingly, I think most of us can see the point.

But in numerous passages, Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha speak of the trials they faced as causes of exaltation and joy. That point is harder to grasp for most of us. At least it generally has been for me. I can see how, for example, financial hardship can lead one to greater detachment from the material and increased reliance upon God, but I can also grumble about how I just don’t know where the money will come from for some necessary expenditure.

Recently, though, something I read–I think it was in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, but I can’t find the exact passage now–led to one of those “aha!” moments we sometimes have. Whatever the passage said, it caused me to realize that the hardships in our lives are not merely chances to develop spiritual qualities but chances to demonstrate our love for and faith in God.

Think of it this way.  It’s easy to be thankful when things are going well. It’s easy to speak of love and faith when nothing puts us to the test. But how true are those qualities? When things get rough, they may prove a mirage. Then there is no doubt: we either show true thankfulness, true love, true faith, or we don’t. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, speaking of a time when His trials abated, wrote this:

And yet, from one point of view, this wanderer was saddened and despondent. For what pain, in the time to come, could I seek comfort? At the news of what granted wish could I rejoice? There was no more tyranny, no more affliction, no tragical events, no tribulations. My only joy in this swiftly-passing world was to tread the stony path of God and to endure hard tests and all material griefs. For otherwise, this earthly life would prove barren and vain, and better would be death. The tree of being would produce no fruit; the sown field of this existence would yield no harvest. Thus it is my hope that once again some circumstance will make my cup of anguish to brim over, and that beauteous Love, that Slayer of souls, will dazzle the beholders again. Then will this heart be blissful, this soul be blessed.
— ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, #190, p. 278)

Although I’m certainly no master at it, I think that peace, contentment, and even happiness during times of trial springs from love of God, faithfulness to God, being open to His will regardless of how hard it may be. The joy of which ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke is the joy of demonstrating to our Creator that we don’t merely pay lip service to Him, that we truly love Him, hold faith with Him, and rely upon Him.

Dying Vitality

The vitality of men’s belief in God is dying out in every land; nothing short of His wholesome medicine can ever restore it. The corrosion of ungodliness is eating into the vitals of human society; what else but the Elixir of His potent Revelation can cleanse and revive it?
(Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, XCIX, p. 199)

Sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century, Baha’u’llah penned these words. On the surface, they seem to speak of a growing disaffection with religion and a rise in atheism. Lately, however, I’ve been pondering a subtlety in the phrasing: it is not belief that Baha’u’llah says is dying out, but rather the vitality of belief.

Vitality is the energy, the vigor, the life of something. To be sure, a lack of vitality in belief can equate to the death of belief and thus the growth of irreligion. But it may also signify belief reduced to a shell, the outward appearance of belief with nothing living at the core. What would that be like? It’s actually an old question, answered this way in the Epistle of James:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
(James 2:14 -17, KJV)

The terms “faith” and “belief” are not the same. Faith is trust, loyalty, and fidelity. Religious faith involves both knowing and doing, for religion calls us to action. Thus, faith without works is indeed dead, being without any result. Belief, although today often regarded as a conviction that something is true, has an older, deeper meaning that is particularly applicable to religion: to hold dear. The word is identical in form to the archaic “belove,” which today is only used in the form “beloved”.

When Baha’u’llah writes, “The vitality of men’s belief in God is dying out in every land,” in one sense it can be seen as saying that we are increasingly distanced from God, that we no longer hold God dear whether we say we “believe in God” or not, that even if we say we “believe in God” we do not act as though we do. In other words, He may be saying that increasingly whatever faith and belief people profess is “dead.”

I think we can see this in the world around us. Irreligion is indeed on the rise in some countries, with some embracing a “spirituality” devoid of religion and others professing atheism or agnosticism. Even where this is not happening, materialism engulfs all societies, resulting in a hollow faith which reduces religion to a weakened shell of its former self, having at best marginal connection to real life.

People who care about religion and understand that something is going horribly wrong fight this trend, but it seems a losing battle. The forces of materialism and irreligion overwhelm their efforts, and they find themselves despised and marginalized. Interestingly, Baha’u’llah foresaw this development, too, when He proclaimed that human effort was insufficient revitalize religion. Only God’s “wholesome medicine,” He states, “can ever restore it.”

It might be worth taking a swig of it.