Tuesday, January 30, 2007


Parrots, Penguins and the Definition of Religion

By John Taylor; 2007 January 30

It is not a coincidence that Abdu'l-Baha, our spiritual leader, was interested in city planning, for spirituality and planning go together -- I learned this from Him. I get so frustrated when I hear these dime-a-dozen mystics and spiritual advisers who cash in on society's endless demand for counsel, whose tomes weigh down bookshelves everywhere.

"Such a condition as this is witnessed in this day when the reins of every community have fallen into the grasp of foolish leaders, who lead after their own whims and desire. On their tongue the mention of God hath become an empty name; in their midst His holy Word a dead letter." (Iqan, 29)

They inevitably presume to advise you alone, just you, in isolation from your social environment. Of course not, to mention surroundings and society introduces a chance they may err and lose their air of omniscience. That is why it is always about you.

But the whole point of spirituality is to prepare and condition the spirit for entering into consultation and group planning! The spirit is here to change the world, not to flatter people out of their money. It makes no sense ever to talk to the individual, for no man is an island; the spirit loves all, not just you or just me, all of us. Baha'u'llah says in the Iqan that if we washed out our eyes with the salve or eyewash of the knowledge of God, we would see these mavens gathered around like a pack of wolves tearing away at their kill, a caribou or moose, perhaps, ripping apart the flesh in a bloody display. They combine to assist one another (in the words of the Tablet of Ahmad, they do not unite, they combine) and then fight over the spoils of divided and conquered prey. And what is the prey? Nothing less than the souls of men and women. Okay, I will stop paraphrasing, here are the exact words:

"With all their power and strength they strive to secure themselves in their petty pursuits, fearful lest the least discredit undermine their authority or blemish the display of their magnificence. Were the eye to be anointed and illumined with the collyrium of the knowledge of God, it would surely discover that a number of voracious beasts have gathered and preyed upon the carrion of the souls of men." (Iqan, 28)

Actually, the original words are more severe, are they not? These beasts are feeding on carrion, so they must be scavengers, maybe hyenas or vultures. And that makes more sense, too, since each soul is its own master, responsible for its own salvation, until it gives itself over to the ways of death, until it imitates rather than originates from its own knowledge. In Baha'u'llah's vision here the inner eye beholds horrors while the outer eye sees only very prestigious, successful and wealthy spiritual advisors. Give up praying and planning and acting, and the soul rots. Meanwhile society starts to take on that imprint, it smells of rotting wrong.

Last night I watched the remarkable nature documentary, March of the Penguins; the DVD version has additional material showing the sorry fate of a colony blocked in their march to the nesting colony by a huge broken-off iceberg that re-collided back into the mainland. The commentators suggest that these may be the first victims of global warming. Seeing the dead and dying birds blocked in their march is heart wrenching, but as a Baha'i I know that Baha'u'llah predicts this and the imminent destruction of nature in the above passage.

First the souls of men, then the planet that depends completely upon human care and wisdom. The outer eye beholds proud and preening potentates and ideologues, and the inner eye sees same gathering and feeding on dead and dying human souls. It is now too cold for these beautiful birds to be preyed upon or scavenged in their nesting grounds, but as the planet heats up that will change. The emperor penguin surely will go extinct along with so many other species trying to live in a garden of God usurped by Adolph Nobody.

These two young French filmmakers spent a year in the desert wilderness of Antarctica devoting a half hour each morning just to dress, putting on no fewer than seven layers of clothes to go out in air so cold (it averages 50 below in the sunlight) they could only stay exposed for four or five hours max. When I lived in Val Dor and went out in the wintry woods I thought I was being excessive putting on four shirts! It is a transformative experience for them, though. They are in awe at the icy formations, at the astonishing fortitude of birds that fast for four months while balancing an egg on their feet, at the savage purity of ocean, snow and sky. One writes home recalling the words of Shakespeare,

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

In his philosophy? In all of philosophy. When I heard those words uttered in this context I thought, "Yes! Shakespeare has given here a spot-on definition of religion." Here lies the difference between spirituality and philosophy; philosophy is what we know and think we know, and spirituality is the realization that both are inadequate. Religion goes even further and says, "Deal with it." Spirituality cannot become religion until enough people are conscious of their own inadequacy that they can rely upon one another to plan together. Spirituality is just a good feeling until it connects with self-denial, sacrifice in working and thinking and praying with others. As Baha'u'llah points out in a passage near what I just cited, the spiritual scavengers have "renounced renunciation," they think they are beyond the need to deny self. When He wrote the Pope he called upon him to sell the collected Vatican treasures and give them to the poor. That would prove that a spiritual message has been made truly religious. But no, personal enlightenment only bolsters arrogance and self-sufficiency, and ultimately violence. As the first Imam said,

"O people, blessed is the man whose own shortcomings keep him away from (looking into) the shortcomings of others, and also blessed is the man who is confined to his house, eats his meal, buries himself in obeying his Allah, and weeps over his sins, so that he is engaged in himself and people are in safety from him." (Ali b. Abi Taalib, Sermons)

Spirituality cannot become religion until we look into our own face and see the face of God, yes, that is what the New Age pundits say, but we cannot stop there. Spirituality alone cannot eject Adolph Nobody from his hegemony over the divine garden. Only religion can. Religion goes beyond inspiration and makes the self "safe" enough for reliable planning. Renunciation makes it a life's struggle to plan a world to reflect His image in the macrocosm. Which is why we need the Manifestation of God. Only He puts words of sufficient authority into enough mouths. Rumi compared this to how they train parrots to talk.

"The method is to place a mirror between the parrot and the trainer. The trainer, hidden by the mirror, utters the words, and the parrot, seeing his own reflection in the mirror, fancies another parrot is speaking, and imitates all that is said by the trainer behind the mirror. So God uses prophets and saints as mirrors whereby to instruct men, being Himself all the time hidden behind these mirrors, viz., the bodies of these saints and prophets; and men, when they hear the words proceeding from these mirrors, are utterly ignorant that they are really being spoken by `Universal Reason' or the `Word of God' behind the mirrors of the saints." (Mathnavi of Rumi, E.H. Whinfield, tr.)

Parrots, like us, have no idea what words are for but they can be trained to mouth their sounds by means of a mirror. We can only know of our own knowledge, but we can also pray to Him that His words and thoughts will become as ours. We will speak our words like the parrot, but they will not be ours. We will look into what we think is our own philosophy, and if we hear, obey and repeat His Words, the Manifestation will take in what is beyond, the "more things in heaven and earth." But none of this is done alone, only in groups. Only there is power safe and reliable.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Master in Lotusland

The Master in California, Part I

By John Taylor; 2007 Jan 29

If you are like me, you cannot get enough details about the life of the Master. This morning I have scanned and edited some source materials from the Star of the West on His two or three week visit to California, some of which I will share here. It is interesting to see what He did on my birthday, October 10th... in the morning he visited an African American believer at his home and told him an inspiring story with deep spiritual meaning for all who have suffered.

Also included is an editorial published when the Master visited Stanford University; this reporter compares the Master's idea of a religion for all by comparing it to an early photographic technique that I would have thought was impossible until the introduction of digital photography. I have seen recently in science magazines composite computer-generated pictures of the most attractive female and male faces; but apparently something very similar had been done in 1912. If any of my readers is familiar with the history of photography, I would appreciate being enlightened with details of how it was done.

Abdu’l-Baha in San Francisco, California

By Frances Orr Allen

(SW, Vol. 3, No. 12, pp. 9-10)

Part 1

THESE ARE wonderful days which we are living with Abdu'l-Baha in our midst. Our longing to see him was great, but much greater is our joy that our prayers were answered.

A house was taken for Abdu'l-Baha at 1815 California Street. As our Assembly is composed of the friends in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and several adjoining towns, each day has been filled to the utmost receiving the friends and others interested in the movement, speaking to large audiences, giving talks in the parlors to groups of earnest seekers, and giving personal interviews to others. All, alike, are recipients of his favors.

The afternoon of the day of his arrival he crossed the Bay to Oakland where he met the friends at the home of Mrs. Helen S. Goodall. For twelve years this home has been a meeting place, but on the Afternoon of October rd it became a memorable place blessed by the presence of Abdu'l-Baha. After a beautiful address he took the children in his arms, kissed them and blessed them; they felt his love, even following him into the adjoining room, and one dear baby of four wanted to know if she "might pet the God man."

Friday evening, October 4th, he received many people at his home people from all the cities about the Bay, and after a short address, he greeted them, welcoming them to his home. Saturday from early morning he met the friends, and in the evening attended the regular Assembly meeting held each Saturday night at the Lick building, Montgomery street, where a most wonderful talk was given -- only the immediate friends being present.

Sunday, October 6th, two public addresses were given ill the morning at the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco, and in the evening at the First Congregational Church in Oakland.

Monday was also a busy day, with interviews, talks in the parlor, and in the evening an address before the Japanese Y. M. C. A. of Oakland, in the Japanese Independent Church (formerly a branch of the Congregational Church). The meeting was opened by the president of the society, Mr. Toga, reading a Scripture lesson in Japanese; this was followed by the singing of "Nearer My God to Thee" also in Japanese, then prayer was offered by the pastor of the church, Reverend Kazahira, to which all present said "Amen" in English. Following this a short address was given by Mr. Kanno, a Japanese poet and philosopher, at the close of which he read a poem in honor of Abdu'l-Baha. Then Abdu'l-Baha spoke, and it was a most interesting occasion, for the words were spoken in Persian, translated into English by Dr. Fareed, then from English into Japanese by Reverend Kazahira.

It was a marvelous mingling of the East and the West and the Islands of the Sea. In the audience were Japanese students and philosophers as well as those who serve in the humbler walks of life. As Abdu'l-Baha passed down the aisle, mothers held out their babies for his blessing and smiled most happily as he said in English, "Good baby; Japanese baby."

Early Tuesday morning, October 8th, Abdu'l-Baha, accompanied by the Persian friends and fifteen others, went to Leland Stanford Junior University, where an address was given before the student body. He was enthusiastically received by the 1,500 students who listened attentively to his address, the theme of which was "The Oneness of All Phenomena." At the close of the address Abdu'l-Baha was given a perfect ovation by the students, who thus showed their appreciation of his wonderful knowledge, not alone of religious and philosophical subjects, but of scientific as well.  For the remainder of the day he was a guest of Dr. David Starr Jordan, with whom he drove in the afternoon, going later to the home of Mrs. Merriam.

In the evening Abdu'l-Baha spoke at the Unitarian church. The impressive service opened with soft music as Abdu'l-Baha entered accompanied by the pastor, Mr. Reed, who introduced him in the following words: "It is a great privilege to have with us tonight one who calls himself a Servant of God; one who also is a great lover of mankind."

The theme of Abdu'l-Baha's discourse was "The Reality of Divinity." Mr. Reed closed the service by saying:

"I feel that a man of God has spoken to us tonight. I know no better way to close the service than with a prayer; not a prayer in spoken words, but a prayer in silence. Let each person pray in his own way for the coming of the universal religion, the religion of love, the religion of peace a religion of the fullness of life." There was a moment's silence, then the pastor said in quiet tones, "You are dismissed."

An interesting incident in the day at Palo Alto and the University was the attendance of Professor Rodgers and the boys of his school, which is located near Los Gatos. They came a distance of thirty miles by train and walked five miles each way to the station. But Professor Rodgers said as they took the late train home, "We are well repaid more than repaid, and all very happy."

Abdu'l-Baha and the Persian friends spent the night at the home of Mrs. Merriam, after a most joyous day in which he expressed himself over and over as having been made so very happy.

Early the following morning Abdu'l-Baha and party returned to San Francisco.

Part II, Continued from the last issue of the Star of the West

SW Vol III No. 13, pp. 11-12

The only public address of Abdu'l-Baha in Berkeley was given the evening of October 9th at the High School Auditorium before a large and representative gathering. He had been invited by Mr. J. Stitt Wilson, the Mayor of Berkeley, to be the guest of the city. In the Mayor's absence, he was introduced by Mr. H. I. Stern, of the Public School Department.

The next morning, Abdu'l-Baha made quite a different visit -- not to one of the great universities, but to the humble home of one of the friends, Charles Tinsley, a colored man, who was confined to his bed on account of a broken leg. During this visit, Abdu'l-Baha told a beautiful story of a ruler who trained the subject he loved best in order to fit him to hold the most important place in his kingdom -- told how he scourged him, and maimed him, and caused him all manner of sorrow and suffering that he might know for himself what these conditions were in reality, meanwhile assuring him that he loved him and that only through this training could he be fitted for the great place he had destined him to fill.

The evening of the same day, October 10th, Abdu'l-Baha gave an address before the Open Forum, an organization for the discussion of economic and kindred subjects. His discourse was scientific, contrasting the philosophy of the East with that of the West.

Friday evening, he spoke before the Theosophical Society and their friends, being introduced at length by the President of the Society, who presented Abdu'l-Baha as one of the Enlightened.

The most remarkable public address given during the visit to the Coast was on Saturday morning, October 12th, at Temple Emmanu-El. It was a wonderful sight, Abdul-Baha standing in the pulpit of that magnificent synagogue, between pillars of palms. The morning sunshine came dimly through the beautiful colored windows, descending as in benediction and approval of the call to righteousness, once more being given to the chosen people of the Lord. In their own synagogue, he proved to the congregation the validity of Christ. He called upon them to investigate Reality, --not to be bound by dogma. He urged them to respect the name of Christ and of Mohammed, and, above all, exhorted them to be kind.

From the synagogue Abdu'l-Baha was driven to Mrs. Goodall's Oakland home, where Children's Day was to be observed. The afternoon was especially for the little ones, whom Abdu'l-Baha loves so tenderly. The spacious parlors were filled with the children and their parents and friends, and the rooms were sweet with the fragrance of many flowers. The children greeted him with the beautiful song, "Softly His Voice Is Cal1ing Now." Calling them to him, he gave them candy and flowers, and then went to each one, child and adult, and gave an envelope, containing rose leaves. He named the children "radiant children." They followed him about and he took the little ones in his arms. Later the children gathered on the steps, where a photograph was taken. It was a beautiful afternoon. Truly one who has not seen Abdu'l-Baha with the children has missed a great deal.

At 3:30 o'clock of the following day, Sunday, Abdu'l-Baha spoke in the reading room of the blind, at 1665 Jackson Street, San Francisco, where during the week instruction is given in manual training. To this meeting were invited, also, the blind from the Adult Home in Oakland, and the children and youth from the State Educational Institution in Berkeley. The service opened with a beautiful song by a child. Abdu'l-Baha first paid a tribute to Mrs. Rowan, through whose efforts the teaching at this place is made possible. Then he spoke of how, in receiving education, the blind are being endowed with sight. He told them -- even though deprived of sight, having *insight* -- they must not sorrow. Sight is only for a time, but insight is divine and discovers the Kingdom, sees the beauty of God. Though deprived of a drop, they possess the ocean, for insight comprehends all the other senses. He closed by saying, "May you not see dust, but purity -- see the beauty of Christ, of Baha'u'llah and all holy souls."

In the evening, many of the friends gathered in the parlor and Abdu'l-Baha told them of his visit to the beach. He likened humanity to a sea, -- at times smooth, at other times in motion. The sea in motion is most like life, even when tempestuous; when in motion, each hour brings results. He said: "Seek to dive in the spiritual sea and bring up pearls; seek to find that sea."

At the conclusion of the talk, he spoke of musical instruments, saying all are imperfect, but that Baha'u'llah brought to earth a heavenly, divine instrument where each soul could find and strike his note and the music would be a heavenly chorus, and eternal. At this gathering there were Persians, Swiss, Hindu, Holland, Canadian, French, English, Japanese and Americans -- all in love and fellowship.

Wednesday, October 16th, Abdul-Baha and party returned from a short visit to the country. To the nine Portland friends, who had arrived, he said, "Be happy, no tears! no tears!" Some of these friends had come at great sacrifice. One little boy said to his mother, "Why do you cry, mother? It is silly to cry here." In the afternoon Abdul-Baha addressed the Century Club on Equality between men and women. He spoke of woman's superiority in kindness and tenderness, and, when necessary, in valor and courage.

The evening of October 16th will never be forgotten, because of the memorable feast, held at the home of Mrs. Goodall, in Oakland. The beautiful rooms were filled with tables, adorned with yellow chrysanthemums and pyramids of fruit. The friends gathered quietly and talked in low but joyous tones. All seemed to feel the evening to be one set apart from all other evenings, for at this feast it was our great privilege to have Abdul-Baha with us. There were one hundred and ten present, friends from the Bay Cities and also from Portland and Seattle.

When all were seated at table, Abdul-Baha requested that we partake of the food so bountifully provided, while he walked about speaking words of wisdom and love, giving us the spiritual food, for which we hungered. Then, from the stairs, he pronounced a benediction upon all assembled, and soon the friends quietly withdrew. It was the most spiritual meeting. Gathered under one roof were people of different nations and various nationalities, the young and old, all meeting in love and fellowship, and in devotion to the Servant of God in this day.

Thursday passed in the usual way, with private interviews and talks. Friday, Abdul-Baha and party, accompanied by several of the friends, left for Los Angeles, returning early the following morning. During the day, friends from Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane arrived, and were welcomed and made very happy.

Tuesday evening, the farewell meeting of the friends was held at the home of Mrs. Goodall in Oakland. This was another especially memorable occasion. All realized that at this meeting would be given final words of exhortation and farewell. There was a reverent hush as Abdul-Baha told of Baha'u'llah and of the two years He passed in solitude. At the close of this narrative, Abdul-Baha arose, and, in no uncertain terms, declared himself to be the Center of the Covenant; and exhorted all believers to firmness, calling upon them to spread the message of the Kingdom both by deed and word. In farewell, he took each one by the hand, giving to each the Greatest Name.

Wednesday and Thursday went all too quickly, filled with the usual interviews and talks. The friends spent as much time as possible at the house of Abdu'l-Baha, realizing that the days of great privilege were swiftly passing. All the public discourses were well received and will bear much fruit; but it was through the more intimate and personal talks that the friends received greatest quickening and instruction.

From the University at Berkeley many of the East Indian students came to visit Abdul-Baha, and to them and to the Japanese friends he showed great favor. It was most interesting and gratifying to witness the beautiful spirit of love and kindness in the friends who gathered to meet Abdul-Baha.

Abdu'l-Baha expressed himself much pleased with San Francisco and greatly enjoyed his visits to Golden Gate Park. He took especial interest in the flowers and would often leave the automobile for a walk along the shore of some one of the small lakes. But even on the drives and during the walks he dispensed blessing -- giving many wonderful lessons to those whose great privilege it was to be with him at those times.

Early Friday morning, the friends gathered at the house to say good-bye. The admonition to be happy was given, the last words were said, the wonderful days were ended. Our cups have been filled to overflowing with blessing and it is for us now to give out to others some of the light and love we have received.

"The Palo Altan"

SW Vol III No. 13, pp. 8-9

Friday, November 1, 1912, The Palo Alton, edited by H. W. Simkins, devoted its entire sheet to a presentation of the visit of Abdu'l-Baha to California. On the first page, under a six-column heading, appears an excellent half-tone portrait of Abdu'l-Baha. An introductory article telling of the visit to Leland Stanford Junior University -- which we reproduce in this issue of the STAR OF THE WEST -- is followed by a sketch of the life of Abdu'l-Baha, under the heading, "Bahaism and Its Prophet." Page two contains an editorial, "The New Evangel," and the Address delivered by Abdu'l-Baha at the University -- published in our last issue. Page three contains the "Message to the Jews." Page four, Address delivered in the Unitarian Church, Palo Alto; also a reproduction of the original Tablet and translation of same to Mr. H. W. Smikins. We quote it as follows:

Tablet to the editor of "The Palo Altan"

To his honor Mr. H. W. Simkins -- Upon him be BAHA-o-LLAH-EL-ABHA!

At the time I met you and felt the susceptibilities of your conscience my heart and soul became greatly attached to that dear friend (i. e. yourself) and the utmost love was produced, and the spiritual emotions were obtained. Your visit gave me the utmost happiness. The address delivered in Stanford University and published completely in your paper was observed today -- and on account of it I became both pleased and grateful. In order to express my pleasure and appreciation for this service of yours I am writing you this epistle.

I shall never forget your cordiality, and as long as life lasts I shall remember you. I beg of God, that that dear friend (yourself) may become like unto a shining star in the horizon of Reality, and become the cause of bestowing spiritual life upon the world of humanity.

The address delivered at the Jewish temple establishing the validity of His Holiness Jesus Christ and inviting the Jews to believe in Him is enclosed herein. From its powerful contents you will realize that though there were many conservative Jews in the audience, yet the most dauntless manner the validity of Christ was proven. After reading its contents should you think it best you may print it fully without abbreviation in the columns of your paper that others of the Jews may read ... Perchance this may prove an impetus for their respect for, and belief in Christ, that this strife and contention that has lasted between the two nations for two thousand years may disappear and the oneness of the world of humanity be unveiled.

Upon thee be greeting and praise!


On behalf of the Baha'is in America, the STAR OF THE WEST not only congratulates the editor of The Palo Alton in that he became the recipient of such words of commendation from Abdul-Baha, but that he was assisted to render such excellent service through the medium of his newspaper -- a service that shall be effective in these great days and remembered throughout the coming years. We take pleasure in reproducing his editorial herewith:

Editorial from "The Palo Altan."


Wednesday morning at the University assembly and in the evening at the Unitarian Church in Palo Alto appeared and spoke the leader in a world movement for unity in religion, international peace and universal brotherhood. This is Abdu'l-Baha, a native of Persia, who has devoted his life to the mission handed down to him by his father. This mantle of inspired evangelism was consecrated by the persecution of forty years of imprisonment imposed by the Sultan of Turkey upon Baha'u'llah, the elder.

As the stone that was rejected may become the head of the corner, or like the prophet's dream expand until it fills up the whole world, so may be the mantle of the wise men of the east, who rediscover a glorified star shining over the birth of a world movement toward idealism.

This idealism is the further perfection of the ideals of all the great religions of the world. In the science of photography there is a process by which any number of images of different faces may be composited together to produce the dominant type. What is truly representative leaves its impress upon the final result. What is vague and non-intrinsic surpluses into the shadow and disappears. Such a scientific process to arrive at the true composite of religious truth may be likened to the aim of the Baha’i movement. It seeks the true common denominator of all religions, rejecting nothing which is good and afraid of nothing which is true.

The spiritual kingdom is full of clashes and contradictions, just as the political and industrial worlds are full of contention and strife. And just as in the latter fields volunteers are spending their lives to pave a better way, so in the spiritual kingdom we have the dawning of a more perfect light. This light will shed its peaceful rays over all contentious factions and will show them the form and substance of truth, which may have been obscured by the dust of strife.

To build a structure by taking a plank from here and plank from there and a stone from hither and a stone from yonder, as some vague fancy might dictate, would result in an architectural monstrosity that would violate al1 the rules of unity and proportion. In no such way is the temple of true light to be founded. It is to be brought together in one focus of rays forming an image of al1 the elements which stand the searching test. This temple may be surrounded on al1 sides by the images of those beautiful non-essentials which have not gained entrance to the inner structure, but which the true spirit within may yet see as outer landscapes unfolding before the temple windows.

This is the task of the Baha'i. It is a true ideal. Truly catholic and universal, it provides a meeting ground for Christian, Jew, Moslem and Buddhist. There is one God who is the God of all religions. His will is the law of all harmony and good. He stands revealed in the last analysis of universal truth. His truth is a gospel of love which surrounds and comprehends all things. In this there is no room for strife and discord, no place for darkness or deceit, and no beginning for bitterness and woe.

Whenever science discovers any great truth, that truth is not the property of science but it is the heritage of the whole world. We do not refer all the marvels of electricity to Edison nor worship his laboratory at Menlo Park. We use the blessing and pass it along. It matters little, in the long run, who made the discovery. If the founders of Baha'i arose from the ancient plains of Persia and sent out the true message, it matters little whether Persia is of the east or of the west. From the cradle of the human race and the oldest nation of the world comes a voice reaching down the centuries, to bring a message of peace to the strong young giant of the west, bidding America to usher in the dawn.

-H. W. Simkins.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Crash and the Accidental Theorist

Reviews of Crash and the Accidental Theorist

By John Taylor; 2007 January 28

Last night's film was Crash, a series of connected vignettes about interracial clashes in the mean streets of Los Angeles. My impression was that the root problem is not so much race as poor health, physical, mental and emotional health, combined with deteriorated manners and the use of courtesy. In a world designed for cars rather than people, everybody feels incessantly on edge and shouts before they think. Sandra Bullock's character says at one point, "I wake up in the morning angry, I am angry all day, and I have no idea why." Everybody feels constantly a grating inner lack of peace, as if they heard the scraping of nails across a blackboard all day long. When such fear and nervous strain are the norm, race is just another excuse for blowing up and forcing yet another confrontation.

I have been working over my book-in-progress of proposals to save the world from the climate crisis. Over the past few days my time was spent picking over the early essays where it all began, in and around 2003. It is interesting to notice how migraines gave birth in me to a desire for health, and a desire for health pushed older utopian dreams into something that might be doable. It started when I noticed on vacation what a large percentage of my fellow tourists in Point Pelee Park were obese. Only later did I start reading the news about the slow motion disaster that is the obesity epidemic. Now when I see a film like Crash, I do not see art, literature or comment on society or the human condition, I just see the results of a poorly designed public health system. This could be solved if we liberated ourselves from the tyranny of Adolph Nobody, and applied better design of lifestyle. At the heart of my inspiration were always the following words of the Master, especially the last sentence,

 "At whatever time highly-skilled physicians shall have developed the healing of illnesses by means of foods, and shall make provision for simple foods, and shall prohibit humankind from living as slaves to their lustful appetites, it is certain that the incidence of chronic and diversified illnesses will abate, and the general health of all mankind will be much improved. This is destined to come about. In the same way, in the character, the conduct and the manners of men, universal modifications will be made." (Selections, 156)

 The vexing question of what these "universal modifications" of the machineries of conduct and manners might look like has preoccupied me all these years. I look at the world through the lens of movies like Crash and wonder what the specific modifications need to be, and how to start it all going. A universal modification would start with the physical design, and proceed to the metaphysical later. One thing is sure, it cannot start in one place, be it Los Angeles or any other city; it has to take place everywhere, city and country, rich and poor, near and far, all simultaneously. This would reduce speculation and allow for an integrated used of scientific methods.

 A universal modification, therefore, would have to begin its planning stage at the universal gathering of humanity that Baha'u'llah called for but its implementation stage would take place everywhere on the planet, especially in extreme environments, even in space. If it has any semblance to my suggestion of cooperative mound housing, experimental projects would be carried on in natural jungles like the rain forest and human jungles like Los Angeles, in Antarctica, on Mount Everest, and even underwater. If sea levels are about to rise, it would seem to be a good idea to take advantage of underwater mound living. The data gained from the entirety of mound developments everywhere would be fed back to specialists and experts, who would institute standards for mound projects to be built in less demanding locales. It all would be part of a single process of ongoing scientific improvement.

 As these cooperative lifestyle experts gain in experience, their standards would be constantly readjusted to maximize health benefits in mound developments. The following admittedly difficult passage of Aristotle describes the general goal of this environmental re-design:

 "... the art of gymnastic considers not only the suitableness of different modes of training to different bodies (2), but what sort is absolutely the best (1); (for the absolutely best must suit that which is by nature best and best furnished with the means of life), and also what common form of training is adapted to the great majority of men (4). And if a man does not desire the best habit of body, or the greatest skill in gymnastics, which might be attained by him, still the trainer or the teacher of gymnastic should be able to impart any lower degree of either (3). The same principle equally holds in medicine and shipbuilding, and the making of clothes, and in the arts generally." (Politics, Book IV, Part I)

 In antiquity Aristotle was known as one of the best stylists ever, his Greek prose being described as a "river of gold" but unfortunately his finished books were lost and we have only his lecture notes, which is why the above is phrased in such obscure language. But it is very important, so I will go into this in detail.

 As I understand him, Aristotle is anticipating what are now called life coaches, personal trainers who put adults onto a different path of self improvement. He assumes like all Greeks that the basis of education is gymnastics (health of the body) and music (health of the soul). An expert in gymnastics can train an athlete to extreme performance in a particular sport, but also can bring an ordinary person with average abilities to a higher level of proficiency than he would otherwise attain. (Note that gymnastics is not part of medicine, he mentions the two as separate arts. Health maintenance and the cure of sickness are different areas of expertise.) Music and gymnastics were the twin pillars of the Greek education, and this system has influenced educators to this day. Unfortunately, we have endemic obesity and ubiquitous emotional strain, as depicted in the film Crash, because we have restricted the lessons of gymnastics and music to the school years and have not made them standards of living from cradle to grave.

 What Aristotle is getting at, it seems to me, is that every trade and area of scientific investigation has a specific and a general application. A trainer or expert in gymnastics can benefit athletes specifically but also has a duty generally to see to it that everyone attains their own peak of physical health. Similarly an expert in music, which includes all the arts as well as religion, teaches both a specific skill in a particular instrument or discipline, and also has a more general duty to the cure and maintenance of souls.

 The same is true of every other trade and profession, each has both a specific and a general service. But these two, gymnastics and music, stand above. Why? Because everybody has a body and a soul, and everybody has a duty to maintain them at every stage of life, from infancy to old age, according to the latest evidence-based, scientifically-derived standard. These two are the sciences of all other sciences. By putting them first science and the professions will go beyond their particular specialties and have a primary say in the general good and in the design of mound housing projects. This will, I hope, effect a "universal modification in conduct and manners."

 As if to demonstrate the need of every discipline to get involved in the crusade to eliminate quasi-science and uphold an evidence-based consensus on the design of things, I have been drawn to a set of essays first published in Slate Magazine by Paul Krugman called,

 The Accidental Theorist; And Other Dispatches from the Dismal Science, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1998

 The dust jacket declares that Krugman is the best popularizer of economics since John Kenneth Galbraith. His explanation of economics and what it involves is certainly among the best I have ever seen. To back this up, although his book has tough competition from the many other volumes in my towering pile of books being read, I have gone through this one at a steady clip. I feel this poor academic's frustration with popular superstitions pretending to be sound knowledge. I feel it at a gut level, for example, when he says,

 "Muddled thinking about the subject of jobs flourishes, in some cases at the highest levels of government. Particularly depressing for anyone who would like to believe in intellectual progress is the reappearance of decades -- and sometimes centuries-old fallacies stated as if they were profound and novel insights -- as if those who propound them have transcended conventional views, when in fact they have merely failed to understand them." (Accidental Tourist, 16)

 I suppose I should pity doctors more than economists, for physicians go to school for over a decade only to see ignorant charlatans and pretenders spouting bromides and filling the airwaves and bookshelves with shoddy advice that kills rather than cures. But now that I think of it, a depressed or inflated economy run by muddled quacks may have a worse effect, in the broad picture, than pseudo-scientific medical cures.

 In any case, Krugman notes that a common error among pretenders to economic knowledge is to commit the fallacy of composition, to imagine that what is true of a part is true of the whole. The entire economy, macro-economics, does not operate according to the same market rules that a single industry does. I will not go into the details, suffice to say that entire books on economics have been written by clowns ignorant of this not-so-complicated mistake. I was reminded of a similar fallacy of composition common in popular thinking about God. We too often imagine that what is true for worldlings is true of the Manifestation, and that what applies to the Manifestation applies to God. If it were so, God would be the murderer of us all, which makes no sense since He is the Creator of us all too. Such are fallacies of composition.

 One of the worst fallacies that continue to return no matter how often they are refuted is supply-side economics. Krugman says that in his early years he thought it would help if he ridiculed it, but he has since learned better. It comes back like a zombie from the grave in spite of having no validity simply because it is in the narrow interests of the rich to support it. Since the rich have almost unlimited power and influence such pandering follies will keep coming back until the end of time.

"Biologist Richard Dawkins has argued famously that ideas spread from mind to mind much as viruses spread from host to host. Its an exhilaratingly cynical view, because it suggests that to succeed an idea need not be true or even useful, as long as it has what it takes to propagate itself. (A religious faith that disposes its believers to become martyrs may be quite false, and lethal to its adherents, yet persist if each martyr inspires others.) Supply-side economics, then, is like one of those African viruses that, however often it may be eradicated from the settled areas, is always out there in the bush, waiting for new victims." (Accidental Tourist, 46)

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Damned

What Happens to the Damned?

By John Taylor; 2007 Jan 26

Last Sunday midnight I was weak and tired and strayed over to the Web to do some surfing. I wandered into the soc.religion.bahai discussion group, which has many, many basic questions about the Baha'i Faith being discussed by a small coterie of learned and polite scholars of the Faith. It has been so many years since I was caught up in the Q&A there that back then it was still part of Usenet. I spent much time there, but finally the need to have everything vetted by a moderator became too annoying, and I jumped over to another discussion group called "Baha'i Scholars." That was even more interesting, so much so that eventually the time drain became too much and I gave up discussion groups completely. Now soc.religion.bahai and tens of thousands of other conversations about everything under the sun are all called "Google Groups." Anyway, one question caught my eye,

"Do Baha'is believe that God would punish atheists no matter how good they are as people? Just curious."

There had been many learned responses in the weeks since the question was asked. The questioner certainly got his money's worth, and more. One of the best answers simply cited the Master as saying:

"... How ignorant, therefore, the thought that God, Who created man, educated and nurtured him, surrounded him with all blessings, made the sun and all phenomenal existence for his benefit, bestowed upon him tenderness and kindness and then did not love him. This is palpable ignorance, for no matter to what religion a man belongs, even though he be an atheist or materialist, nevertheless, God nurtures him, bestows His kindness and sheds upon him His light." (Promulgation, 267)

Another mentioned the Master's saying that, "Service to humanity is service to God." (Promulgation, 8) However, I could not resist pointing out that the Bab was pretty adamant that disbelief in God is an unforgivable sin. "...God will not forgive disbelief in Himself, though He will forgive other sins to whomsoever He pleaseth. Indeed His knowledge embraceth all things..." (The Bab, Selections, 48) Nor, according to another quote of the Bab, are any good deeds an atheist offers of any avail. Severe stuff. As one person pointed out, the Arabic word for unbeliever is Kafir, which means ungrateful. Since God's favors are manifest, it is not a question of believing or not believing, it is one of responding or being a callous ingrate. Nor is Baha'u'llah, at times, any less severe than the Bab was. In the Iqan He compares the proofs of God to the sun and only the blind can deny the light of the sun, though not its heat.

"Such is the sway of their desires, that the lamp of conscience and reason hath been quenched in their hearts, and this although the fingers of divine power have unlocked the portals of the knowledge of God, and the light of divine knowledge and heavenly grace hath illumined and inspired the essence of all created things, in such wise that in each and every thing a door of knowledge hath been opened, and within every atom traces of the sun hath been made manifest." (Iqan, 29-30)

All of this will be familiar to anybody with a copy of Ocean. I want to close with a new provisional translation of a Tablet of the Master to Jinab-i-Fazel, from the relatively recent biography of the latter. It seems that Fazel asked about this and about the 12th Imam and a belief of the "sect of the twelve" that,

"the Imam disappeared into an under-ground passage in Surra-man-Ra (Samarra) over a thousand years ago and still lives in one of those mysterious cities, Jabulqa and Jabulsa and will come forth in the fullness of time to fill the world with Justice."

The biography continues,

"In this letter Fadil, referring to the harbinger of the Bab's Revelation, "that luminous star of divine guidance, Shaykh Ahmad-Ahsa'i", asks 'Abdu'l-Baha to "... graciously reveal the mysteries hidden in the allusions made by that light of knowledge and guidance regarding the twelfth Imam, the Qa'im." Fadil, in his letter, goes on to say, "So far no one has unravelled the mysteries concealed within the allusions made by that source of knowledge and understanding. May 'Abdu'l-Baha's pen which is the bearer of the Supreme Pen reveal the meaning of this mystery which would gladden the hearts of the friends and thereafter no one would put forth vain imaginings and worthless sayings." In the same letter Fadil had asked another question regarding the state, after death, of all those souls who remain heedless. What follows is the Master's reply:

His honour Fadil-i-Shirazi, upon him be the glory of God!

He is God!

O thou who art attracted by the fragrances of God! I noted the contents of thine epistle and the purpose of thy call, and praised God for having inspired the pure in heart with divine susceptibilities and perfumed the senses of the people of light with a fragrance that hath enveloped the whole earth. I beseech Him to assist thee through that spirit which quickeneth the hearts, the minds, and the souls of men. He, verily, is wont to hear and to answer the prayers of whomsoever invoketh Him.

Thou hadst asked concerning the twelfth Imam. Know thou that this perception did not originally exist in the physical world. The twelfth Imam existed in the Unseen realm, but had no reality on the material plane. However, some of the Shi'ah elders of the time deemed it advisable, solely for the protection of the weak elements among the people, to portray a person existing in the Unseen realm as being possessed of a corporal existence. "For the world of existence is a single world; it cannot be hidden, except from your eyes, and cannot be manifest, except to your eyes." Such was their thought, their perception, and their design. Ibn-i-Hajar hath a verse in the Sawa'iq, saying:

"A cellar cannot engender a creature such
As fancy prompteth you to call a man, O fools!
May then your feeble minds be excused, for ye have
Added a third to the phoenix and the ghouls."

In any case, were one to refer to the accounts and carefully reflect upon their meaning, it would become clear and evident that this magnanimous Imam, peace be upon him, hath never existed in the physical realm.

As to the question of the immortality of negligent souls once they have cast off their earthly frame, their immortality is tantamount to extinction, inasmuch as they are deprived of a heavenly life. They are even as the mineral, which endureth in the mineral realm, but which is utter nonexistence when compared to human existence. The other worlds are not a place where realities are transformed, or natures transmuted, or creation renewed. It is clear, however, that souls will progress in degrees and become the object of divine pardon and forgiveness.

This reply hath been made brief due to lack of time. Through careful thought and examination thou wilt no doubt elucidate and elaborate upon it.

For now, choose Tihran as thy place of residence. From time to time, do thou travel to one of the other provinces and return. Convey My loving greetings to Fathu'llah Khan-i-Mushir. His presence here would not be advisable at this time. God willing, in due course permission will be granted.

Abdu'l-Baha, Abbas

from pp. 86-89 of Houri Falahi-Skuce, A Radiant Gem, A Biography of Jinab-i-Fadil-i-Shirazi, Trafford Publishing, Victoria, BC, 2004

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Migraine Shuts My Door

A Migraine Shuts My Door on a Setting Sun

By John Taylor; 2007 January 24

I had a migraine on Monday, the first for many months. I drank water until I almost burst, but nothing could keep the burrowing brain worm away from my cranium. Afterwards I felt a strange exhilaration, a not uncommon feeling for those with brainstorm illnesses, like epilepsy, etc; it was as if I had been through a ringer squeezing out all my hopes and vain illusions on life, leaving in their place only an ineffable relief. My conscience for a long time was a drop of water sitting on an absorbent cloth, slowly disappearing into nothing. Ecstasy wrapped in an agony. Which raised the question, what if migraine, and indeed all illnesses, are ways for the human intelligence to explore alternative universes? What if there is an AIDS and a multiple dystrophy universe, a migraine dimension, where people who get the affliction act as astronauts? Are we sent by our Creator to explore unique head-spaces on behalf of the collective consciousness of the human race? Are we expanding it all by our pain? Is that what Baha'u'llah means when He says in this prayer,

"Every vexation borne for love of Thee is a token of Thy mercy unto Thy creatures, and every ordeal suffered in Thy path is but a gift from Thee bestowed on Thy chosen ones." (Prayers and Meditations, 219)

Could the mentally ill and the retarded have a gift that goes not only to them but to all, are they exploring, rooting up spiritual discoveries that otherwise would not be available? Are they somehow charging up spiritual generators that churn away somewhere fueling creativity among scientists, artists and other creative minds in healthy bodies? We have no way of knowing, but for some reason this morning my thoughts turned to the question of life on other planets.

In October of 2000 I wrote an essay for the month of Ilm called "On History's Greatest Breakthrough in Knowledge." In it I speculated about Baha'u'llah's incontrovertible statement that there are planets around every sun and that there is life on every planet. In the few years since I wrote that essay much has happened to make it obsolete. Many, many more planets have been discovered orbiting many other suns. Last year a new phrase entered the language, "shadow biosphere," meaning, according to the "jargon watch" column of Wired Magazine,

"Alternative microbial life that evolved from chemistry entirely unknown to modern science and is undetectable by conventional genetic methods. Some astrobiologists theorize that chemical anomalies detected on Mars may be evidence of a shadow biosphere -- and that there might even be shadow biospheres here on earth." (Wired, May 2006, p. 40)

It was speculated that there may have been life in the form of a shadow biosphere on or around the moon and Mars but that our space probes, carrying the Earth's more advanced microbes as stowaways, may have snuffed them out. Whether that is true only time will tell. For Baha'is, this raises the possibility that Baha'u'llah was literally correct in saying that every planet has life.

After I put out the essay I got the highest complement I can imagine, a friendly response from a Baha'i scientist with a NASA email address. Others shared disconcerting quotes from the Master and the Guardian showing that they did not agree with my thesis there that Baha'u'llah may have been quoting Epicurus. They took it as a prophesy that will be born out by scientific discoveries. And indeed, just that seems to be on the verge of happening.

Is the essay was totally obsolete or does some value still stand? I went over it this morning, making minor corrections. I am still not entirely certain so I will share it again on this list and let you be the judge. It is not often that I write about hard-core science, though it is my first love. When low marks forced me to take an Arts degree I consoled myself that if I had studied science most of what I learned would be obsolete in a few decades, but the knowledge I got from philosophy, literature and languages would be still valid in my sunset years. Now that I am fifty I see how silly this consolation was. In two decades you forget every iota anyway, so it is moot whether it becomes obsolete or not. As Shakespeare said, "Men shut their doors on a setting sun." (And no, I came across that lately, not when I was in college studying Shakespeare)

On History's Greatest Breakthrough in Knowledge

Month of 'Ilm Essay, 2000, 157 BE

"Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute." (Gleanings, 162-163)

They (enemies of the Baha'i Faith) put this statement up to ridicule. It is nonsensical, they say, because the moon and other planets are known to be devoid of life, utterly uninhabitable and only a few stars have been found with planets. How can Baha'u'llah know what He is talking about?

... Baha'u'llah here seems to be talking as much about religious and secular ways of knowing things as about exobiology and cosmology. He seems to be preparing us for the revolutions in knowing things that we are beginning to encounter, especially the greatest of all, far greater even than computers and the Internet, that is, our inevitable encounter with other intelligences in the universe. I think the Baha'i Writings are so matter of fact about the existence of life beyond earth in part because the idea was so well foreshadowed in the Qu'ran.

Here is the full paragraph containing Baha'u'llah's answer to an unknown question in Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah,

"Thou hast, moreover, asked Me concerning the nature of the celestial spheres. To comprehend their nature, it would be necessary to inquire into the meaning of the allusions that have been made in the Books of old to the celestial spheres and the heavens, and to discover the character of their relationship to this physical world, and the influence which they exert upon it.  Every heart is filled with wonder at so bewildering a theme, and every mind is perplexed by its mystery. God, alone, can fathom its import. The learned men, that have fixed at several thousand years the life of this earth, have failed, throughout the long period of their observation, to consider either the number or the age of the other planets. Consider, moreover, the manifold divergences that have resulted from the theories propounded by these men. Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute." (Gleanings, 162-163)

Clearly, it would be very useful to know what the original question was to which Baha'u'llah was responding here. Did it have to do with astrology? If so the purport of the above would be quite different from what it would be if the question was, "What are the stars and planets (celestial spheres) made of?" Most people - enemies and perplexed believers alike - assume that the latter was the original question. But if so, why does Baha'u'llah say that you must inquire into the "Books of old" in order to understand the answer? Would it not make more sense to say, "Look into the most modern and powerful telescope you can find," in order to answer that particular question?

Since the Guardian chose to capitalize the word "Books" (the original did not, since the Persian and Arabic languages do not have capital letters, or even punctuation at the time) his interpretation seems to be that the discussion is about the allusions to celestial spheres in not just any books of the past but in holy scripture. In that case the question may have been, "Why do the Bible and Qu'ran talk about strange celestial phenomena like stars falling out of the sky? For example Qu'ran 82:1-5,

"When the heaven is cleft asunder, when the planets are dispersed ... A soul will know what it hath sent before (it) and what left behind."

The original question could have been, What is the nature of a celestial sphere that can be "dispersed?" Or it may have been a request to clarify a passage like the following, which seems to place the planets into a "heaven" closest to the earth, one somehow related to protection from evil:

"Lord of the heavens and of the earth and all that is between them, and Lord of the sun's risings. Lo! We have adorned the lowest heaven with an ornament, the planets: With security from every froward devil." (Qu'ran 37:5-7, Pickthall)

Unlike earlier scriptures the Qu'ran seems to assume that life is everywhere. It repeatedly states that the human race is expendable.

"But nay! I swear by the Lord of the rising places and the setting places of the planets that We are Able to replace them by (others) better than them. And We are not to be outrun." (Q70:40-2) "If He will, He can remove you, O people, and produce others (in your stead). Allah is Able to do that." (Q4:133) "We, even We, created them, and strengthened their frame. And when We will, We can replace them, bringing others like them in their stead." (Q76:28, tr. Pickthall, cf. also Q9:39)

This could of course mean that other Arab tribes would take the place of those who had become Muslims; or that other cultures would take their place (such as the Indians and Indonesians who in modern times both have more Muslims than there are Arabs); or other species on this planet, such as the development of intelligence in other species like insects or lizards. This is a familiar theme of science fiction. But it could well mean that there is intelligent life on other planets already. Such life would have to exist already if it is to perform God's wishes in place of a human race that refuses to do so. Otherwise it would take billions of years for life to evolve and longer still for intelligent life to come about.

But then in our quote Baha'u'llah goes on to say that the "character of their (celestial spheres) relationship to this physical world and the influence which they exert upon it" is a mystery that only God can know. This refers to a link of some sort between us and celestial bodies. At first this seems to back up our original speculation that the query was about astrology. But it says "physical world." This opposes celestial to the physical. In that case the inquiry would have been something like, "What is the nature of the next world, of heaven, life after death, and how does it affect this life?" If that were the case Baha'u'llah's answer could be paraphrased as: look into how scripture talks about celestial spheres that influence our physical world. The real relation they have to this world is a mystery.

This may have been the root of the analogy that 'Abdu'l-Baha (one of His titles is "Mystery of God) often applied between the physical world with planets circling around a sun and the supreme Manifestation of God Who like a sun dominates and sustains our souls circling around. Thus in question may have been the Qu'ranic story of the prophetic dream of Joseph - a prefiguring of Baha'u'llah,

"When Joseph said unto his father: O my father! Lo! I saw in a dream eleven planets and the sun and the moon, I saw them prostrating themselves unto me." (Q12:4, tr: Pickthall)

However, the phrasing of the earlier reference to the "meaning of the allusions" in scripture could also obliquely to refer to a definition given in the Qu'ran of the role, nature and importance of metaphor in scripture. This passage also states that only God knows the real meanings.

"He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except God. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: `We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:' and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding." (Qu'ran 3:7, M. H. Shakir)

Thus the Qu'ran severely upbraids those early Muslim opponents and their allies who intentionally seek to twist allegorical allusions to destroy unity among believers. Similarly Baha'u'llah, by echoing this passage, may be saying that only God really understands the tie between physical celestial bodies and allegorical ones. He may thereby be foreshadowing and preparing for the inevitable rethinking of scholars' understanding of scripture that will result when ubiquitous life in the universe is discovered (the chemical building blocks of life have already been found to be very common in space, for example in the composition of asteroids).

Then Baha'u'llah goes on to talk cosmology. Now clearly it is science and materiality, not scripture, that is being discussed.

"The learned men, that have fixed at several thousand years the life of this earth, have failed, throughout the long period of their observation, to consider either the number or the age of the other planets."

The savants, He points out, gave a limited number and a fixed date on the history of the planets and stars. However, Baha'u'llah elsewhere states that cosmology is indeterminate. The universe's beginning has no beginning, and the end no end. These thinkers, by contrast, assume that the planets and stars came about in a short, or at least computable time span. Being stuck in this finite and bounded presupposition, they have theorized and observed for a long time, but still cannot agree among themselves. For an "exact" science, lack of agreement upon basics is fatal. It reduces a purported science to mythology.

"Consider, moreover, the manifold divergences that have resulted from the theories propounded by these men."

Then comes the statement at issue, that every non-binary star has planets and every planet has life.

"Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute."

On the face of it this is a very risky thing to say. All it takes is one planetless sun or one lifeless planet to prove it false. There are trillions of stars and undoubtedly many more planets. With so many to choose from the chances are very great that at least one case will someday be found to disprove the whole statement.

By the criterion set up by philosopher of science Karl Popper, the falsifiability of this statement qualifies it as a scientific theory. Religious writing, he says, is concerned with questions about why, not how. Questions about how, specifically propositions that can be falsified are the sole qualification and concern of scientific theories. You do come across falsifiable statements from time to time in Baha'i holy Writ but I agree with Popper that this is only incidental to their main concern. Any science there is in scripture is meant only to help along the main purpose, answering questions like why we are here, what God is about, what God wants for us, and so forth. It is unusual to see a scientific theory put forward by Baha'u'llah Himself, especially one so clearly falsifiable as this.

I suspected that there was more to this quote than met the eye but this is as far as I got on the point until recently when I came across the following in a review of a book called "Probability 1: Why There Must Be Intelligent Life in the Universe" by Amir D. Aczel,

"The idea [of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe] is very old; Aczel quotes Epicurus (341-270 BC) as saying there are many worlds, all with `living creatures and plants and other things we see in the world.'" (Scientific American, February 2000, p. 104)

This citation from Epicurus seemed so close to Baha'u'llah's statement that I began to wonder if He was in fact intentionally quoting Epicurus. It is not unusual for Baha'u'llah, in conformity with the conventions of the time and place in which He lived, to paraphrase and even quote word for word other writers without acknowledgement or footnotes. So, let us cite yet again the last two sentences of our paragraph from Gleanings:

"Consider, moreover, the manifold divergences that have resulted from the theories propounded by these men [i.e. ancient savants who calculated the earth to be only a few thousand years old]. Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute."

There seems to be quite a gap between the first and second sentence here. In order for the second sentence to follow logically the same theme as the first you could assume an interposition like: Epicurus for example said, "Know thou..." Or: If you have to choose among these conflicting theories those on the side of ubiquitous life in the universe were closest to being right, for example ancient writers like Epicurus who said, "Know thou ..." But this ignores what went before. If we assume that the original question was something like, "What is the influence of other celestial worlds on our world?" The implications of Baha'u'llah's overall answer could be paraphrased thus:

`There are many other worlds and they are greater in number and have been around longer than it is possible to calculate. Life has evolved everywhere, so you cannot understand how fate works in homocentric terms. The universe does not revolve around this planet; our fate is not astrologically tied to heavenly bodies in any way we can understand or systematize. The tie that celestial bodies have to us is real but obscure to all but God. It works through and by God, not directly from the spheres to us. The answer is only confused by looking at it in terms of scientific theories which must ultimately contradict (though some, like the theory put forward by Epicurus, come pretty close to hitting the nail on the head). The best way is to look at the allegories in scripture which are intended to draw out what is most important: not that the universe is homocentric but that God has a clear purpose for us and that it is comprehensible. We should first ask God why before we get confused with scientific questions of how or, more important in view of the astrological error, confuse questions of why with questions of how.'

So, after coming across this saying of Epicurus here is where my present understanding on this very challenging paragraph by Baha'u'llah rests. Needless to say, this is only my personal speculation and carries no authority as an interpretation -- even for myself.

It is universally agreed that the discovery of life on other planets will be the most revolutionary breakthrough in knowledge in human history. If and when the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (the SETI project) uncovers life humans will come across knowledge for the first time conditioned by other intelligences. Computers and the Web fade in comparison because they are advances in scientific and technical questions of `how.' Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence will affect `why' as well as `how.'

For example, it would surely have a tremendous impact upon believers if extraterrestrials turn out to be atheists. Conversely, it would shake unbelievers to the core should other forms of life accept the existence of a Deity. Surprisingly, the Qu'ran seems in some way to call upon this authority,

"I call to witness the planets, the stars which rise and set, ... That this is in truth the word of an honored messenger, Mighty, established in the presence of the Lord of the Throne, (One) to be obeyed, and trustworthy; And your comrade is not mad." (Qu'ran 81:15-22, tr: Pickthall)

Is it prophesying a challenge where knowledge from "the planets" will vindicate the guidance that scripture has given humanity throughout history? Is Baha'u'llah's prediction that life will be found everywhere a continuation of this theme?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Ending Dungeon-based Education

The Root of Openness Runs Deep; Ending Dungeon-based Education

By John Taylor; 2007 January 28

The roots of openness -- and by that I mean democracy and its "open society," as well as shared ownership and cooperative, volunteer labor, which in computer software is termed, "open systems" -- run deep. Ultimately, openness is an attribute of God. Consider the words of God in the Qu'ran,

"Lo! thy Lord is full of bounty for mankind, but most of them do not give thanks. Lo! thy Lord knoweth surely all that their bosoms hide, and all that they proclaim. And there is nothing hidden in the heaven or the earth but it is in a clear Record." (Q27:73-75)

To believe in God is to accept that somewhere in heaven or in the knowledge of God there exists a "clear Record" of our deeds, our thoughts and motives, of everything that is obscure even to our heart of hearts. That means that heaven is the most open place conceivable; only here in this dark material plane lurk secrets and obscurity.

This is why I feel troubled every time I enter a classroom. It depresses me that we have not come up with anything better than this confined space. It depresses me to think that anywhere you go, from the poorest African village to American private schools with virtually unlimited budgets, you still see the same basic thing, a teacher standing up in front of kids who are sitting passively at little desks. I remember my horrible primary years sitting in my hard desk, more a torture device than a seat of learning, feeling utterly claustrophobic in that artificially lit, enclosed space, watching the clock, praying that it would all be over soon. I hated it. Why can we not come up with something better than dungeons? Why cannot classrooms be more, well, open?

Hence my delight upon reading "Everybody in the Vegetable Patch!, No desks, no pencils: Welcome to the U.K.'s first outdoor preschool." (by Cynthia Reynolds, Macleans, Jan 22, 2007, p. 42) At last an answer! These new schools do the ideal thing, they put kids out into natural settings where they belong and where they are happiest. Rain or shine, warm or cold, the little nippers are outside, rooting in a garden, walking in a forest path, their only books, as Shakespeare put it, the running brooks. And they love it! (I mentioned this idea to 12 year old Silvie and she was horrified; I have to use all my ingenuity and force of character to cajole her and her brother to go outside for the recommended minimum hour and a half of fresh air daily. Maybe it would not be such a fight if they had gone to such a pre-school) The idea of outdoor classrooms started in Scandinavia, which,

"has a rich tradition of outdoor preschools and kindergartens, going back to the '50's. One study in Denmark, where most communities have at least one such preschool, shows that kids of outdoor schools suffer 80 percent fewer contagious sicknesses, such as colds, sore throats and ear infections. Studies in Germany have found that kids are less aggressive and suffer fewer injuries. More than 300 of these so-called forest kindergartens now exist in that country."

Let there be no mistake. If there were no other advantage to keeping kids in the great outdoors this is sufficient, the fact that outdoor schools do not spread disease. They do not mention this but not only kids but everybody who comes into contact with them, parents especially, get sick right along with them. This fall both Silvie and Thomas caught several severe colds in succession, and I did too, to my great consternation. These were no minor annoyances either, they were severe; less than a flu, perhaps, but I could barely breathe or exercise for many weeks. I love our kids but I hate the way they make me sick. Even as I write, I am coming down with another cold. For God's sake, keep them away from enclosed spaces!

In the US educators are devising what they call environment-based education, extending it further into older children as well. Local rivers, forests and mountains are used as object lessons where you stand in rather than before the object. A study of math problem solving among grade eights found that 96 percent of these students met or exceeded state standards, as opposed to 65 percent confined in dank, dark classrooms. Disciplinary problems dropped by half in some studies, in others almost to nothing. And why not? When standing under the open sky in a natural setting there is no need to vent frustration at being confined. The vault of heaven above, nature all around you, who can doubt but that heaven holds a clear record of all things, a God out there, hovering in every atom, and a God within, deed within one’s heart as well?

The bad news is that Canada, with our climate formerly known as cold, nothing is being done to liberate our children from the classroom. At best, some schoolyards are being turned into gardens, and that is a very good thing, but quite as exhilarating as studying in forest or in the open in a field or on a hill.

Since reading that article about the benefits of an open, outside classroom I have been thinking about how that could be integrated into my mound housing developments. Certainly outside classes would put local parks, woodlots and places of interest to use -- with relatively little harm -- if they doubled as classrooms during weekdays. This would provide an incentive for local planners to preserve green areas, to give good access to them from every habitable area nearby. With open revenue payments from the funds saved on classrooms it would allow nature and parkland to pay for themselves, and this would further benefit everybody in the community.

Nor do I think it is necessary always to be in nature. Why not have classes in local factories and workshops, or in homes and play areas? The important thing is that the surroundings change. Variety reduces and mitigates the terrible oppression that I remember feeling being confined in the same place day after day. Is it any wonder that suicide is the most common cause of death among young people, after car accidents? I know a high school teacher and he says much of his time is spent persuading these poor kids to keep from taking their own lives. One already did so, and he was an honor student, popular, the sort who has everything going for him. But he did not think so. I believe that confinement in a depressing room all day has got to be part why they lose a sense of purpose.

In the future the segregation of the young from the rest of the world in classrooms will be remembered as a root of barbarism, a sign of a closed society. Soon we will mix them into the wider world. There will be open, cooperative local workshops in the community where they will be apprenticed at an early age with master craftspersons making their living close to residential areas. Kids will not be stuck like convicts with other kids just like them. The worst thing for a child is to be restricted to others of the same age, where fancies and follies are not diffused but rather are reinforced and reflected back incessantly.

This innovation is also used to reduce the segregation, exploitation and disconnect between urban and rural areas,

"Budding research in place-based education shows that learning in the community and collaborating with local governments and farms also help small and mid-sized cities retain their young people. `It helps train kids to engage in civil society,' says David Sobel, an expert in place-based education. `It makes them better citizens.'"

I have no doubt that it would make them better servants of God as well, not the tortured and torturing psychopaths that dungeon-based education churns out today.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


Silvie's World Religion Day Speech

By John Taylor; 2007 January 20

Today's contribution is the speech that I have been asked to ghostwrite for my 12 year old daughter, Silvie, who will read it as the Baha'i contribution at tomorrow's World Religion Day commemoration. For those who may wish to attend, it will be at Grace United Church tomorrow, Sunday, at 2 PM. Silvie will also be there as part of her school's choir, the Central Singers, who will be making a musical contribution. Their choir leader is the ubiquitous Ron Speer. Silvie just made a test read of the speech, and it took her ten minutes to read, three minutes longer than it is supposed to take. Evidently I will have to do some cutting, the thing I hate most to do. So I send you now the complete version, so that I will have the courage to get out the butcher's knife and start hacking. Mayhap she will read a tattered remnant, a husk, a pale imitation of a brilliant original. Or, who knows? maybe a little pruning will do it some good.

A Badi' list reader just informed me of another event coming up, a deepening called "Exploring the Sacred Nature of Baha'i Elections: A Model for a World in Conflict," put on by Joe Wood and Michael Ladouceur. It will happen next week, Saturday, Jan. 27 from 2 to 5 in the Hatts Off building in Dundas (153 King St. W., Dundas).

The Right to Convert (Speech)

I am a follower of Baha'u'llah. The most important principle that Baha'u'llah taught is the search for truth. At the core of our faith is a strong belief that there is one God, that He loves all, and that His truth is one. It never contradicts itself. As one piece of Baha'i scripture puts it,

"As reality is one and cannot admit of multiplicity, therefore different opinions must ultimately become fused into one." (SWA 298; Hague 2 of 14)

Baha'u'llah taught that no matter how differently we think, reality is one. The more of truth we know, the closer we will agree. Our main responsibility to truth is not to say I am right and you are wrong, but to be just to one another. For that is justice, seeing with your own eyes and knowing with your own knowledge. God, Baha’u’llah taught, loves this above all. He wrote,

"The essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye." (Tablets, 157)

Justice and the search for truth are not only rights, they are sacred obligations. In the 19th Century Baha'u'llah wrote the kings and world leaders, admonishing them to be just. They should avoid hypocrisy by daily examining and assessing their own hearts, dealing with their own faults and flaws. Only then is anybody ready to judge others fairly,

"It behoveth every ruler to weigh his own being every day in the balance of equity and justice and then to judge between men and counsel them to do that which would direct their steps unto the path of wisdom and understanding." (Tablets, 166-167)

This is not to say that only a few, a small elite of leaders and authority figures, are obliged to be just. Everybody must be! This is what makes us human, this turns us into angels. In an early, mystical work, the Hidden Words, Baha'u'llah wrote,

"O SON OF BEING! Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds." (AHW 31)

Nor is this accounting only a spiritual exercise, important as that is. It is the first step to planning our lives and bettering the world. Baha'u'llah called upon the leaders of the world to convene a "universal gathering of man," a gathering that would be upheld by all and include every important concern of modern life. Politicians would agree to end war; linguists would devise or agree upon an official world language to be taught in every school. Scientists would find ways to protect the environment.

Nor did Baha'u'llah leave out religion. Leaders of religion have a heavy responsibility. They must answer a sacred duty to God to make peace among His faiths and religions by forming a permanent covenant. The result would be a new parliament of religions where chosen representatives of each world faith would come together with a single goal: to iron out differences once and for all and to resolve any disputes and dissensions that may arise on religious grounds. This would give people of faith a vision of a common religion for the human race, rather than what we have, rival, separated, warring sects, each thinking itself superior, each embroiled and clashing in the breast of a single planet.

This was no Utopian dream. In fact, it is the inevitable result of many people in diverse lands learning the elements of justice, living examined lives and seeking out truth for themselves.


Almost immediately after its founding, the United Nations in 1947 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among the many basic human rights to be protected for the first time was the right to change your religion. The 18th article states,

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."

While we Baha'is welcomed this wonderful declaration, some may have recalled the story that Abdu'l-Baha, the Son of the founder of the Baha'i Faith, told during a moment of relaxation while attending at a similarly high-minded peace conference at Lake Mohonk, New York.

He related that one day the mice got together to find a way to end being eaten by the cat once and for all. After deliberation they all agreed on a simple answer. Just hang a bell on the cat's collar. That way, whenever the cat came near they would hear the bell and hide before they could be caught. It was brilliant! However there was just one small hitch. When the time came to decide who would bell the cat, no volunteer stood up. After a while the mice gave up and went home. Needless to say, cats still have a free hand to catch themselves a mouse whenever they please.

Among humans, the cat has been very active since the UN declared the right to convert in 1947. We are all from different religions in this room. At a World Religion Day celebration we can all tell our own sad story best about how our own brothers and sisters in faith are being persecuted and suppressed somewhere in the world. As a Baha'i I can talk your ear off about how Baha'is in Iran are being killed and deprived of basic rights, such as the right to an education, just because they believe in Baha'u'llah. Most recently, Baha'is in the intellectual center of Sunni Islam, Egypt, have been refused identity cards, which in effect deprives them of recognition of their existence as citizens by their own government; this of course is yet another right supposedly upheld by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is sad and ironic that the founders of all the major religions without exception were persecuted and deprived of the right to convert. “A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country.” Abraham lost his home and was sent out into the desert; Moses was put down by Pharaoh; Jesus was accused of blasphemy and crucified; Muhammad was exiled from his hometown to Medina; the Buddha suffered rejection; the Bab was shot and Baha'u'llah was thrown into prison. As believers we derive meaning from their sacrifice; surely a big part of their message is: Never again! Do not repeat what was done to them! I beg you to remember what happened to the saints and prophets and teachers you revere!

We know that suppressing other beliefs is wrong. But every time we want to deal with it on the world level, that big, scary old question arises, "Who will bell the cat?"

This a simple answer, but it requires action and courage, first by a few, but in the end by all of us. We must have faith that the search of one, even if we do not like where it seems to be going, ultimately helps us all to get a little closer to our goal. This spirit of tolerance helps us all to be more just, compassionate and to search for ourselves a little better. Once we all have direct experience of search, both separate and together, we then can work to uphold the right to convert in society. We can teach the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in every school; that will assure that the next generation will understand that one faith is harmed, not helped, when its members put down another faith group. Most important, we should see to it that justice is done, that violations of the right to convert are punished in courts of law, and that laws against slander apply to religious leaders as much as they already do to you and me. Please, let us all take it as a sacrament to tolerate the right of others to think and believe as they decide best.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Right to Convert

Upholding Our Right to Convert

By John Taylor; 2007 January 19

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." (Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1947)

In April of 2005 the Baha'i International Community (BIC), the NGO representing the Baha'is at the UN, wrote a paper responding to the United Nations Development Programme's report for the previous year. The BIC’s paper called "Freedom to Believe" is available on the BIC website (Document 05-0401). Our Dunnville World Religion Day committee has asked my daughter Silvie to read a seven minute talk on the Baha’i position on the right to convert (or, using loaded language, to apostatize), a talk to be written by yours truly. As part of my preparation, I want to summarize most of what this BIC paper covered on the Badi Blog today.

The BIC start their “Freedom to Believe” paper off by pointing out that it is increasingly recognized by sciences like psychology and sociology, and by political bodies on all levels that religion and the free exercise of the conscience are essential to the development of the human psyche. But in spite of that, "the promise of freedom of religion or belief for all remains one of the most contested and pressing human rights of our time." The BIC also notes that the previous year's Human Development report to the UN had concentrated on outer cultural expressions and steered away from what should be considered by all the fundamental of fundamentals, the right of individuals to an inner life, to think as they wish and believe as they decide. The BIC wrote:

"As a worldwide religious community, which regards the human conscience as sacred and believes in the independent search for truth, we urge the UNDP to give serious consideration to four critical issues..."

These four were,
(1) the right to change one's religion or beliefs
(2) the right to share one's beliefs with others
(3) governments have a responsibility to protect marginalized and peacefully organized religious communities
(4) religious leaders are responsible to promote and protect the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Since we are limited in time and space, let us go through only numbers one and four of these.

Right to change religion or beliefs

Under the right to convert the BIC states that there are compelling reasons to give this right concrete protections. For one thing, it safeguards the dignity of the human being. We all need to seek out the truth for ourselves, using our own eyes and brains. We do not do this once in a while but at all levels of our development, from cradle to grave and in fact if we fail in our quest we cannot progress or for that matter help the world progress. It therefore should be universally recognized as no ordinary right but a non-derogable one, that is, one protected unconditionally, at no time subject to government regulation, even in times of a national emergency.

Unfortunately, this is not happening. The broad, clear and unambiguous language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see the opening quote of this essay) marks a high point that has not been matched but which has been broadened to some extent by subsequent resolutions. A footnote gives several examples from past international documents showing that the resolution has not been forgotten. The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allows the freedom "to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice." In the same year,

"The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights" guarantees that the rights in the Covenant "will be exercised without discrimination of any kind as to religion"; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) calls on States Parties to take all appropriate measures to guarantee women "the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men"; the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) affirms the "right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion"; the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) includes in its definition of genocide, "acts committed with intent to destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group". Notably, regional treaties such as the American Convention on Human Rights (1969) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) explicitly provide for the freedom to change one's religion or belief."

Other documents, though, use weaker language. Most notably, the UN General Assembly in 1981 issued a "Declaration on the Elimination of All forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion and Belief," which did not explicitly mention the right to convert. It affirms the right to keep the religion you have but not to change it. Even watered down as it was this paper did not make it through the hoops that would have made it a legally binding covenant.

In spite of such setbacks there is near universal recognition that this is a right universally upheld. The UN's Human Rights Committee in particular has comprehensively identified the freedom to change religion or belief, freedom to manifest beliefs, non-coercion in matters of religion, and non-discrimination on the basis of religion as core components of the right provided for in the Declaration. There can be no doubt that upholding the right to convert is a prime responsibility of every government.

Responsibilities of Religious Leaders

Not only government is called upon to uphold the conversion right; religious leaders bear a heavy responsibility as well. In fact I think that we see here to some extent the reverse of the climate crisis situation. With climate the experts concerned, scientists, are united in their conclusion that humans have screwed up the weather, and that we can reverse the situation with resolute action. The problem is persuading government and industry to act. Nobody in their right mind, though, would put the blame on scientists themselves, at least not climate scientists. In the case of religious belief, that is just the case. The problem we are looking at was caused almost exclusively by the experts themselves. The BIC states:

"Too often, those acting in the name of religion have fanned the flames of hatred and fanaticism, themselves serving as the greatest obstacles in the path of peace."

Instead of provoking and inciting to violence, these spiritual leaders should be guiding their charges into the ways of peace, teaching how to promote mutual understanding with people of all beliefs. It would take more than legislation or law enforcement to reverse these entrenched hatreds and suspicions between religious leaders. Somehow they need to create a culture of peaceful co-existence by thinking of themselves as partners -- in word and deed -- in a common endeavor to create respect for human dignity and freedom of conscience, religion, or belief. The BIC then concludes,

"The forces of history now challenge every person of faith to identify spiritual principles within his or her own scriptures and traditions that answer the difficult questions posed by an age hungering for unity and justice in human affairs. In this common undertaking, based on an understanding of the inherent dignity, reason and conscience of every human being, religious leaders must uphold the sacred nature of the human conscience and unreservedly accord each individual the freedom to search for truth."