Thursday, April 08, 2010

Baha'i Newness

What is New About Baha'i?

Part I of a Series

By John Taylor; 2010 April 08, Ala' 19, 166 BE

As we noted in the Badi' Blog posting yesterday, ( next Wednesday our LSA is sponsoring a talk by Beth Fachnie on "What is Different About the Baha'i Faith?" at the Dunnville Branch of the Haldimand Public Library. This question, or more exactly, `What is novel about the Baha'i Faith?,' has been a major preoccupation of this blog since its beginning. More important, novelty is given ample attention in the holy Writings as well, ever since the Bab wrote in the Book of Names,

"O QURRATU'L-'AYN! We have, verily, dilated Thine heart in this Revelation, which stands truly unique from all created things, and have exalted Thy name through the manifestation of the Bab, so that men may become aware of Our transcendent power, and recognize that God is immeasurably sanctified above the praise of all men. He is verily independent of the whole of creation. (Chapter 23, Qayyumu'l-Asma', Selected Writings, 49)

Anything claiming to be a revelation from God, the Bab seems to be saying here, Ipso Facto has to be novel, for the same reason that everybody desires to be saying something new, or at least appropriate to the current situation, whenever we open our mouths to say something. If it is our desire to say something meaningful, how much more this must be the case with God!
Also, the Bab associates novelty here with the Oneness of God, for at the profoundest level the unity of the Godhead is always new to His creation, who live in a world characterized by particularity, separation and contingency. This truth Jesus Christ foreshadowed in the parable of the householder. In this story the faith of His followers is proven by their ability to become like an established, efficient homeowner, who has ample stores and supplies to take out the right tool for every job, be the tool new or old, as the need arises.
Beth chose an especially appropriate time of year to give this talk, since newness is the distinguishing feature of the holiest Baha'i festival, Ridvan, which will take place only a few days after her address. This holy day is all about novelty, innovation and renewal. At this season the Baha'i Administrative Order renews itself using democratic or wisdom-of-the-crowd-ish means; as the Guardian said, the closer we come to universal participation in the Ridvan election, the more life-energy the institutions will have at their disposal over the coming year. This is a reflection of a spiritual reality, for Baha'u'llah Himself stated that on the first day of Ridvan the entire creation was renewed and recharged with a new infusion of life. The nature of that renewal, its destructive and reconstructive aspects, He later summed up in the Tablet of the World,

"O ye that dwell on earth! The distinguishing feature that marketh the pre-eminent character of this Supreme Revelation consisteth in that We have, on the one hand, blotted out from the pages of God's holy Book whatsoever hath been the cause of strife, of malice and mischief amongst the children of men, and have, on the other, laid down the essential prerequisites of concord, of understanding, of complete and enduring unity. Well is it with them that keep My statutes." (Tablets, Lawh-i-Dunya, 94, also Gl 97)

According to this, every essential feature of the Baha'i Faith is new in that it serves this overweening goal of expunging the negative features of older religious ways and of laying down whatever is necessary for a unific "new-time religion."

A New Wrecking Ball; Breaking Down the Walls
In future essays, I want to talk about this question of newness systematically, using as my framework some selected texts of Baha'u'llah and the Master. However, today let us join a point made by one of the world's most incisive bloggers, George Monbiot, together with perhaps the most salient new feature of the Baha'i Faith, Baha'u'llah's command for all to associate together freely.
In a recent post called "Walled In," Monbiot reflects upon the recent "climate-gate" controversy, where private emails among specialists were pilfered, placed into the public debate, and barriers were erected on all sides.
Science, a specialist points out, is "a closed culture in which the rest of the world is a tedious and incomprehensible distraction. Scientists normally only interact with other scientists. We live rather sheltered lives..." Monbiot confesses that he too felt this isolation of our too narrow education and bifurcated culture. He felt great distress from the beginning.

"Like most people with a science degree, I left university with a store of recondite knowledge that I could share with almost no one. Ill-equipped to understand any subject but my own, I felt cut off from the rest of the planet. The temptation to retreat into a safe place was almost irresistible. Only the extreme specialisation demanded by a PhD, which would have walled me in like an anchorite, dissuaded me.
"I hated this isolation. I had a passionate interest in literature, history, foreign languages and the arts, but at the age of 15 Id been forced, like all students, to decide whether to study science or humanities. From that point we divided into two cultures, and the process made idiots of us all. Perhaps eventually we'll split into two species. Reproducing only with each other, scientists will soon become so genetically isolated that they'll no longer be able to breed with other humans."

This chasm between science and culture, he correctly points out, is keeping experts and lay from working together to cool off the inexorable pollution and heating up of our atmosphere. He quotes Bernard Shaw, "All professions are conspiracies against the laity," and points to the police who protect their own against charges of brutality, priests who protect the pedophiles in their ranks, and journalists, who close ranks against those they misquote. By specializing early students can compete for jobs, Monbiot points out, but are prepared for nothing else; they know more about less. This narrow training, I think, is like trying to dig a hole in a swamp; no matter how far down you go, the water of parochialism will always overwhelm you. Monbiot concludes,

"We are deprived by our stupid schooling system of most of the wonders of the world, of the skills and knowledge required to navigate it, above all of the ability to understand each other. Our narrow, antiquated education is forcing us apart like the characters in a Francis Bacon painting, each locked in our boxes, unable to communicate."

The solution? What else but that greatest innovation of Baha'u'llah, His teaching of unity in diversity. This Baha'u'llah treats in general throughout His Writings, but there are two specific counterweights to the parochialism that Monbiot so fervently deplores.

The Associative Imperative

The first novelty is the imperative to associate.
Baha'u'llah in the 2nd Taraz admonishes His followers to "consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship..." and, beyond just believers Him, for all sincere people to "associate with all the peoples and kindreds of the earth with joy and radiance, inasmuch as consorting with people hath promoted and will continue to promote unity and concord, which in turn are conducive to the maintenance of order in the world and to the regeneration of nations." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets, pp. 35-36) There is a parallelism here with the second Ishraq, or Glad Tidings, which says that it is "permitted that the peoples and kindreds of the world associate with one another with joy and radiance. O people! Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship." (Tablets, 21) He goes on to point out that it is of the nature of divine authority to sanction conscious mixing among the elements of society.
This clearly is not a mere technical point, since He pays such great emphasis to the need not just to mix but to do so in a joyful and radiant spirit. If this were to pervade the educational system we can imagine new graduates rushing out of the doors of their institutions longing -- not to congregate in their own publish-or-perish flocks solving their own self-defined problems --but rather to join outside their specialties into interdisciplinary teams aiming to solve wider, more general social problems that remain intransigent.

Baha'u'llah's Practical Imperative
In one of Baha'u'llah's "Great Being" statements in the Tablet to Maqsud (it is from these that most of what are now known as the Baha'i principles can be traced) He introduces a law that is, in my opinion, particularly directed at the intellectual.

"The Great Being saith: The learned of the day must direct the people to acquire those branches of knowledge which are of use, that both the learned themselves and the generality of mankind may derive benefits therefrom. Such academic pursuits as begin and end in words alone have never been and will never be of any worth. The majority of Persia's learned doctors devote all their lives to the study of a philosophy the ultimate yield of which is nothing but words." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, 169)

I think Baha'is too often understand this passage too narrowly, as if it only applied to gun-toting fellows in long beards and robes who dedicate themselves persecuting Baha'is in Iran. It does that, but more broadly it applies to everybody who learns a trade or profession. And in Baha'u'llah's Order, that means everybody.
The principle could perhaps be called one of "intellectual utilitarianism." It seems particularly designed to remove the problem that Shaw mentions, that professions become to inward looking and end up in opposition to those they were conceived of to serve. I think that one day this principle could even be applied to funding in universities. If a discipline does not prove itself useful in solving the problems of the world, it will get less money, fewer students will enter its classes and resources will be directed elsewhere. This too is new, or soon will be.


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