Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Comenius and Irenic Religion

Comenius and the Principle: "Religion is a Cause of Love"

By John Taylor; 2009 Nov 18, Qudrat 15, 166 BE

This essay series attempts to cover the salient contributions of John Amos Comenius's Panorthosia to our understanding of the subject matter of all the Baha'i principles. In recent weeks we broached the religious principles with a discussion of how to eliminate fundamentalism and other forms of religious prejudice. Today we look at the positive phrasing of the same principle, which has two aspects. The first Abdu'l-Baha called "religion is a cause of love" (RCL), and the second is "Religion is a Remedy." Although we treat them in isolation here, these are really only phases of the same process. RCL establishes the purpose of religion and the second, religion is a remedy, considers the practical implications of this purpose, that is, a heavy responsibility of faith groups to render themselves accountable to their own ideals.


Nietzsche was no admirer of religion but nonetheless he recognized a spiritual truth when he said that "To forget one's purpose is the commonest form of stupidity." When we get wrapped up in our own thoughts we tend to become "wise over trivialities" and become distracted from our purpose in life. Comenius wrote in the 9th chapter of Panorthosia,

"As Seneca aptly remarked that `the disease of the Greeks was to be wise over trivialities,' the Philosophy to which I am referring is like the wisdom of the Greeks, and is therefore trivial and mainly frivolous, not even touching upon the most essential needs of man, but occupying his mind with irrelevancies and constantly diverting him from his most important goal, i.e., God and Heaven. (Comenius, Panorthosia II, 148)

Although this sort of stupidity can be as common in religion as in any other field of endeavor, it is fair to say that it is more inexcusable here, since religion is all about our ultimate purpose in life. If we cannot get eternal aims right, it is unlikely that we will ever do so in more immediate, short-term issues.

In this series we have discussed at length a series of proposals that Comenius made to eliminate this sort of stupidity once and for all. Throughout Panorthosia he suggests that we distill purposes and place them front and center. Once we have a summary of the central goals that is acceptable to each level of society, it becomes a highly valuable reminder. For example, in the tenth chapter of Panorthosia he writes,

 "This would therefore eradicate the curse of sectional differences now and forever. Let us adopt as our common motto the idea expressed by our Common Master (Matthew V, 45) GOD AND THE SUN ARE THE SAME FOR ALL." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, 157)

This motto can aid in-groups and out-groups, members and outsiders alike in recalling that the ultimate purpose of God is universal. "God and the sun are the same for all" implies that although we may say "my God" alone or in a faith group, we have an obligation to treat God as for all and above all, as an end in Himself, in a public forum. The sun does not shine only for some, it shines on all equally. This spiritual principle Baha'is call the Oneness of God, and as Comenius says, it dampens the spirit of factionalism or "sectional differences."

Once "God and the sun are the same for all" is understood by all sides, the word "God" will no longer be banished from public fora, as it is today -- in spite of the fact that well over 90 percent of the human race profess some kind of belief in God. The word "God" will be a useful distillation of all our ultimate purposes in life.
This motto, though, is only the first of many brief mottoes or bywords that Comenius suggests be proclaimed everywhere, at every level of society, following the guidance of the proverb: "Wisdom calls aloud in the street. She utters her voice in the public squares." (Prov 1:20, WEB) For example, in the twenty third chapter of Panorthosia, on the reform of churches, he offers this slogan, from the words of Genesis 23:17,

"This is Bethel, the house of God and the Gate of Heaven." (Panorthosia, p. 85-101)

I do not know whether this motto is universal enough to be applicable to faith groups outside Judaism and Christianity. If not, some other motto could easily be chosen from scripture. The law of compassion and the Golden Rule spring to mind, since they are featured in some form in every religious scripture and tradition. Karen Armstrong has had some success lately in persuading various Abrahamic faith groups to accept a declaration based upon the law of compassion. This is a baby-step toward what Comenius proposed, 330 years later.

Of course we cannot ignore the heart and soul of religion, the purpose of God for the individual. The twentieth chapter of Panorthosia deals with personal reform. Here Comenius puts forward the following seven word declaration: "Here is a splendid image of God." This he clearly intends for everybody, not just his fellow Christians or any other sub-set of believers.

"Therefore no matter who you are, you must reform yourself according to God's good pleasure and with His help, so that angels and pious men are able, as it were, to read on your forehead the inscription: `HERE IS A SPLENDID IMAGE OF GOD.' (Panorthosia, Ch. 20, para 24, p. 28)

The motto refers of course to what God said of Adam just after creating him in the garden of Eden, that he was created in the image of God. Our purpose in life is to realize this Adamic spiritual heritage and destiny by remaking the self into a divine image. To be an image of God, he clarifies, means a maintaining a holy attitude in everyday matters, not only in isolated moments of sublimity.

"But inasmuch as you are the image of God, you must wholly transform yourself for the purpose of representing the very likeness of God in the actions of your daily life. This means that you should be holy, even as our God is holy," (Leviticus 24:2) and merciful and generous, and kind yet just to all men without respect of persons, (Romans 2:11) and so on, as true religion teaches you." (Panorthosia, Ch. 20, para 15, p. 25)

I imagine this declaration "Here is a splendid image of God" inscribed on a personal escutcheon, perhaps surrounding a mirror, so that in moments of retrospection one can decide how splendidly one has reflected the divine image of late.


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