Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Investigation as Education as Work as Worship

Investigation as Education as Work as Worship

By John Taylor; 27 September, 2006

The Haldimand Spiritual Assembly is sponsoring for its monthly proclamation meeting on October 10th a discussion of the principle of work as worship, animated by Ron Speer. I made up the poster for this meeting last night and showed it at the Feast of Mashiyyat. This subject fits in nicely with our study of Dr. William Osler, the man who asked that only one thing be put on his gravestone, "He helped introduce the practice of residency in medical education." Osler was in fact given credit for introducing direct contact with patients early on in student doctors' medical education, according to the article about him in the online Wikipedia Encyclopedia. Now most of the contacts patients have in hospitals is with student doctors learning the ropes of their future profession by getting their hands dirty in the trenches.

Before Osler medical students were still hitting the books and sitting in on lectures only, even in the third and fourth year of medical school. Baha'is regard this practice of practical experience early in professional training as part of the spiritual teaching that the principle of work as worship aims at.

"The value placed on service, and the elevation of work to an act of worship when it is done in the spirit of service, helps programs achieve a balance between working with one's hands and acquiring abstract knowledge. The student's attention is focused from the beginning on needs and aspirations of the local community, and curricula seek to develop those skills and capacities that render acts of service meaningful and effective." (Baha'i International Community, 1989 Jan 02, Position Statement on Education)

This mix of education and work, known in many universities as "co-op programs," expanded in the 20th Century into the training of most other professions. Computer scientists, engineers and many other highbrow professions have swallowed the pill and adopted apprenticeship programs that used to be the exclusive province of lowly manual trades. Teaching and work, like love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.

In my opinion co-operative education, advanced as it has become, still has not gone far enough or early enough. Schlosser, in Fast Food Nation, talks about how the big fast food giants routinely pressure their High School student employees to go beyond the established modicum of five hours work a week, thus impairing rather than helping their tender young careers. If all employment by all high school students were moderated and regulated by their teachers and curriculum, this could never happen and the nature of the work that students do would in time become less menial and dead-end and more edifying. I would like to see primary school children being introduced to the real world of work too, though specifically how that might be done I do not know. Maybe workplace tours and group janitorial sweep-ups, supervised by teachers, starting off in Kindergarten. Even if the productivity of the little ones does not pay for itself, that is not the point.

Anyway, the Master often mentioned work as worship as part and parcel with the principle of promotion of education. For example, in covering education in Paris he is reported as saying:

"In addition to this widespread education each child must be taught a profession, art, or trade, so that every member of the community will be enabled to earn his own livelihood. Work done in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship." (Abdu'l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 83)

I find this rather mind-blowing, that work done by all, universally, is the "highest" form of worship. It certainly is not directly confirmed in the writings of Baha'u'llah that we have in English; in the Aqdas He says that work has been "elevated" to the station of worship, not that has been raised higher. Frankly, I suspect this source, which is among the most un-authoritative of all collections of the Master's talks, and has never come out in any editions after the first. True, the House quotes this passage several times in its own letters, but I still have my doubts about its authenticity.

The Wiki article about Osler mentions a contribution of Osler that I do not remember being mentioned in the Bliss biography, his initiating of the idea of a "journal club." The Wiki article says, "Osler subsequently taught at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, where he had obtained his medical degree in 1872. It is here that he created the first formalized journal club." It has a hyper-link to an article about journal clubs, and I hit it. This article says:

"A journal club is a group of individuals who meet regularly to evaluate critically the clinical application of recent articles in scientific literature. The earliest reference to a journal club is found in a book of memoirs and letters by the late Sir James Paget, a British surgeon, who describes a group at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London in the mid-1800s as `a kind of club ... a small room over a baker's shop near the Hospital-gate where we could sit and read the journals.' Sir William Osler established the first formalized journal club at McGill University in Montreal in 1875. The original purpose of Osler's journal club was `for the purchase and distribution of periodicals to which he could ill afford to subscribe.' The application of evidence-based medicine to the medical literature is facilitated by a journal club, as each participant can voice their view relating to the two fundamental questions: whether the results of the study are valid, and whether the results are clinically useful."

Sound familiar? Does the word "Ruhi" ring a bell? The journal club sounds like a sort of scientific Ruhi where instead of Baha'is and friends of Baha'is going over the Creative Word as our source of authority, practicing doctors and medical students buy journals and go over the scientific studies reported in them actively and critically, sharing insights and criticisms. Indeed, Osler's journal clubs sound much like what Francis Bacon had in mind with his "nursery gardens of the mind," places where ideas can grow in a protected atmosphere, and be weeded out too, before they are exposed to the elements in an open air garden. Though most historians take the laboratory method, enacted under Napoleon, as the flowering of Bacon's nursery garden, the journal club sounds more like the intermediary of theory and practice that he had in mind. It reminds me of this joke that popped out my home page's joke pipe a few days ago:

"Do not LOOK at anything in a physics lab.

Do not TASTE anything in a chemistry lab.

Do not SMELL anything in a biology lab.

Do not TOUCH anything in a medical lab.

and, most important,

Do not LISTEN to anything in a philosophy department."

Funny as that is, it points to a major problem in our social setup. If this were anything like a truly scientific, spiritual, healthy world philosophers would be the profession that is the most in demand of any, for they are the ones with expertise about expertise. Nothing can trump that. Democracy, leadership, science, are all about putting experts in the right places and having them communicate amicably, critically, and productively. But no, philosophers are hopelessly lost in a labyrinth of analytic hairsplitting. Sad but true. They are the most in need of all professions of practical experience, of apprenticeships and journal clubs, but they eschew such practices, in effect making themselves, in Plato's image, lame, having only one working leg of theory rather than two, theory and practice. Frightening but true. Plato wrote his Republic to prove that the only way to save the world is to do one of two things, make kings into philosophers or make philosophers into kings. As things are, there is no danger of either happening anytime soon. And just as politicians make themselves into the butt of jokes, so are philosophers, as we see above.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Superbrain; Curing and Teaching Around the Round Table

By John Taylor; 2006 September 26

Most of this mail-out today is devoted to selections scanned in from the biography of William Osler that I read lately, spiced up with some selections from Mahmud's Diary of the Master's trip across America. I was drawn to Osler out of my conviction, born of Baha’i, that the two most important professions are medicine and teaching. The power and influence of Doc and Teach (not to mention farmer Joe) must come first in every decision, big and small. Their collective advice will have to be primary, taken before that of kings and parliaments, if the human race is going to survive and thrive. This is increasingly unavoidable as computers, and especially connected computers on the miracle we now call the Internet, amplify our collective intelligence but not necessarily our wisdom by many orders of magnitude. More and more decisions will have to be collectively arrived at by a judicious combination of groups of human specialists and their experience will in turn be amplified and supercharged by artificial, networked intelligence. This is the only way that science will save us rather than kill us all. The model for power in future is the Baha’i House of Justice, or if you prefer, Arthur’s round table, a group of experts sitting around a round table as equals, making a detached, disinterested collective decision based only upon the facts of the matter. The big difference is that the modern Camelot has a magic round table, a cybernetic table that connects experts anywhere in the world. The Internet is a round table that takes power almost beyond the bounds of time and space. The utility of this table is only beginning to be apparent, and its limits too. For example, an early version of the cybernetic round table was used to conquer Iraq; the power of video connections today is astonishing. But this ventures initial success turned into a quagmire of insurgency because principles, democratic, moral and scientific, were violated. Once we get wisdom down though, the cybernetic round table will save us all. The acceleration of travel and communication is undoubtedly a sacred, divine salvation to the human race.

"It is written in the Hadith [Islamic traditions] that cities shall draw nearer to each other. Besides spiritual nearness and communications between the cities of the hearts and friendships between diverse people in the promised Day, how physically close have the cities and countries also become. Truly, if not for railroads and the power of steam, how could these long distances be traversed with such ease? This is one of the miracles of this promised century of our current age." (Mahmud, 283)

Now it is communication and cybernetics rather than transport that are making leaps forward, changing the ground rules for everything. All that means that what my children Tommy and Silvie learn in school today, or what their doctor does when they fall ill, must be decided primarily by - what do we call this new mix of human experts and cybernetic intelligence? How about the name my father gave his personal computer: Superbrain? Superbrain is the new scientific method, Superbrain is the collective intelligence of the entire human race mediated, expanded, made reliable and virtually blunder-free by the Internet. But that is not to say that Superbrain will put teach or doc or farmer Joe, or any other skilled worker out of a job. There will in fact be an expanded role for individual experts, though of course it will be radically changed. A teacher whose curriculum is fed in and out of Superbrain or a doctor whose diagnosis is fed in and checked by Superbrain will be able to concentrate on the patient or student standing before him or her. In such conditions charisma, personal magnetism, the ability to inspire, provoke independent thought and motivate others to put forth an effort will become the first requirement of the job description. Mere ability to manipulate facts and data, the old mark of a good expert, will sink into the background. That is why I think an expert like Osler, who had these rare qualities, is of primary interest to everybody, not just to a few student doctors.

Bliss: To have understood the self-limiting nature of disease was a great step forward by the medical profession. If only the laity would follow that!

Osler: A desire to take medicine is, perhaps, the great feature which distinguishes man from other animals. Why this appetite should have developed, how it could have grown to its present dimensions, what it will ultimately reach, are interesting problems in psychology. Of one thing I must complain, that when we of the profession have gradually emancipated ourselves from a routine administration of nauseous mixtures on every possible occasion, and when we are able to say, without fear of dismissal, that a little more exercise, a little less food, and a little less tobacco and alcohol, may possibly meet the indications of the case - I say it is a just cause of complaint that when we, the priests, have left off the worship of Baal, and have deserted the groves and high places, and have sworn allegiance to the true god of science, that you, the people, should wander off after all manner of idols, and delight more and more in patent medicines and delight more than ever at the hands of advertising quacks. But for a time it must be so. This is yet the childhood of the world, and a supine credulity is still the most charming characteristic of man. (Michael Bliss, William Osler, A Life in Medicine, 189)

JET: As for drug desire or longing for medicine distinguishing us from animals, `Abdul-Baha was of a varying, if not opposite opinion.

"The most important of all intentions is to spread the love of God, to establish harmony and oneness among the people. This is what distinguishes man from animals." (Mahmud, 16)

"A little later a group of philosophers, doctors and journalists met with 'Abdu'l-Baha. He spoke to them in detail about composition and decomposition and the diagnosis of disease:

"If one is fully cognizant of the reason for the incursion of disease and can determine the balance of elements, he can cure diseases by administering the food that can restore the normal level of the deficient element. In this way there will be no need for medicines and other difficulties will not arise."

After a detailed discussion of this subject, He asked them, 'Although animals do not know the science of medicine, why, when they are sick, do they abstain instinctively from what is injurious to them and eat foods that are beneficial, while man, when ailing, inclines more to that which is injurious to him?' They had no answer to this question and stated that the Master knew the answer better than they.

'Abdu'l-Baha then gave a description of the extraordinary power of the world of humanity and the freedom of man from the limitations of nature:

"Since man's attention is not confined to one interest, his negligence is greater; while his comprehension is greater than that of all other creatures when it is focused and fixed on one subject."

Thus did the Master speak to the group of journalists, philosophers and doctors, who thanked Him for His discourse." (Mahmud, 84)

Edith Gittings Reid, a writer, observed Osler closely when Harry was sick with typhoid, when their children were ill, and during her own sicknesses:

To have been a patient of Sir William Osler’s was to have obtained an almost impossible idea of what a physician could be ... It was not necessary for him to be sensitive to a social atmosphere, because he always made his own atmosphere. In a room full of discordant elements he entered and saw only his patient and only his patient's greatest need, and instantly the atmosphere was charged with kindly vitality, everyone felt that the situation was under control, and all were attention. No circumlocution, no meandering. The moment Sir William gave you was yours. It was hardly ever more than a moment but there was curiously no abrupt beginning or end to it. With the easy sweep of a great artist's line, beginning in your necessity and ending in your necessity, the precious moment was yours, becoming wholly and entirely a part of the fabric of your life ...

With his patients he recognized at once the thing or characteristic that concerned him and them; and for the rest, whatever was uncongenial or unattractive he put from his mind and prevented any expression of it. A pose or an attempt at serious chatter about unessentials was intolerable to him. But he was as merciful as he was masterful, and from the very poor and the genuinely afflicted he would even have borne being bored.

Such telling love, such perfect confidence were given him that he could do what he liked without causing offense. Three times in my life I have seen him, when in consultation, smash the attending physician's diagnosis and turn the entire sick-room the other way about; but he left the room with his arm about the -corrected physician's neck, and they seemed to be having a delightful time. The reason for this was perfectly evident: every physician felt himself safe in Sir William's hands; he knew that he could by no possibility have a better friend in the profession; that if, with the tip of his finger, Sir William gaily knocked down his house of cards, he would see to it that the foundation was left solid. (Michael Bliss, William Osler, A Life in Medicine, 263-264)

And Clarence B. Farrer, a former student who became one of Canada’s leading psychiatrists, wrote that `Oslers very presence brought healing. It was immediate unplanned psychotherapy There was healing in his voice.

He usually tried to cushion a grim outlook, a habit some thought he took to a fault in later years. 'The careful physician has but one end in view not to depress his patient in any way whatever,' he wrote while reflecting on the humor of Rabelais. He cautioned students against saying anything in the hearing of a patient that would increase anxiety. If a man's terror at knowing his chest pains were angina would itself worsen them, Osler told him he had 'a neuralgia of the pneumo-gastric nerve.' On the other hand, he advised telling tuberculous patients the truth about their condition right away. It was 'really not often necessary, since Nature usually does it quietly in good time, to tell a patient he was past all hope, Osler maintained, he added, 'and yet, put in the right way to an intelligent man it is not always cruel.' (Michael Bliss, William Osler, A Life in Medicine, 265)

Michael Bliss, William Osler, A Life in Medicine, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1999

In a 1910 secular sermon called Mans Redemption of Man to 2,500 listeners at University of Edinburgh Osler says that thanks to the new socialism of science,

The outlook for the world as represented by Mary and John and Jennie and Tom has never been so hopeful. There is no place for despondency or despair. As for the dour dyspeptics in mind and morals who sit croaking like ravens let them come into the arena, let them wrestle for their flesh and blood against the principalities and powers represented by bad air and worse houses, by drink and disease, by needless pain, and by the loss annually to the state of thousands of valuable lives let them fight for the day when a mans life shall be more precious than gold. Now, alas! The cheapness of life is every days tragedy. (Michael Bliss, William Osler, A Life in Medicine, 393-394)

Osler was witty, expansive, and medically humble: `Fullness of knowledge does not always bring confidence; the more one knows the more timidity may grow. He had seen too many men live for years with severe angina, too many apparently mild cases die suddenly, and, now that postmortem data was coming in, too many confusing and contradictory pathological findings to be confident in a prognosis. Angina kept reminding him of the Hippocratic dictum: Experience is fallacious and judgment difficult. (Michael Bliss, William Osler, A Life in Medicine, 372)

Not surprisingly, given the nature of his practice, Osler thought angina pectoris occurred almost entirely in men, usually in high-achieving men, and disproportionately in doctors. He was particularly impressed by the extreme anxiety many sufferers experienced - a 'mental anguish' so overwhelming that it could take on a life of its own, leading to varieties of the syndrome based on and accentuated by worry and stress. Arteriosclerosis was often enough discovered in angina sufferers, but the total picture seemed to involve a more general pattern of chronic misuse of the body - too much eating, drinking, work, and worry - leading to its deterioration.

If public health measures could stave off infectious disease, good personal habits were called for to avoid or minimize bouts of heart pain. In his metaphoric way, Osler had always advised young men against worship at the

shrines of Venus, Bacchus, and Vulcan. Now he varied false-gods image with advice not to overstrain the human mechanism. In the early twentieth century his favorite image of the body was as a machine. Like transatlantic steamers Osler and his well-to-do patients so often took, doubt using the crossing to rest and reflect on their health, the body would give out if the engines were overstoked, driven too long under high pressure, negligently maintained. During actual malfunction, you worked desperately to get things going again. Otherwise, for signs of overexertion, ranging from chest pains to nervous exhaustion, the prescription was often to reduce speed. Osler found himself telling patient after patient (for his angina consultations continued to increase) to eat less, drink less, smoke less, work less, worry less. Look after the machine. Cut back from twenty-five to fifteen knots: 'Go slowly and attend to your work, live a life, and avoid mining shares ... I doubt if quinine could have very much influence.'

Such advice shaded into general maxims for healthy living. These fitted with and reinforced Osler's dislike of unnecessary drugging as well as his personal temperance. To the Johns Hopkins graduating class of 1900 and at the Historical Club in 1901 he preached lay sermons about how the progress of the past century had culminated in 'a new school of medicine,' based on a return to natural methods for both the treatment and the prevention of disease. Hydrotherapy and massage were important in treating disease. Diet and exercise, he argued with a touch of hyperbolic fever, were crucial in preventing it:

Some one said he cared not who made the laws, so that he could write the songs of a nation, which I would paraphrase by saying, I care not who physics the people, provided that I could train their cooks. From the kitchen must come one of the great needed reforms in medicine. The besetting malady of this country is dyspepsia ... From it about one half of the income of doctors is derived, and at least two thirds of that of the patent medicine vendors ... If the women of the country whose energies are at present engaged in the problems of temperance, the suffrage, missions and millinery, would take a year off and spend it in the kitchen something might be done ... (Michael Bliss, William Osler, A Life in Medicine, 272-273)

"With the introduction of light beer there is not only less intemperance, but we see much less of the serious organic disease of heart, liver and stomach caused by alcohol, and less of the early general degeneration ... How few cases, comparatively, of alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver one sees. I I wish that I could say the same of intemperance in eating ... We physicians are beginning to recognize that the early degenerations, particularly of the arteries and of the kidneys, which we formerly attributed in great part to alcohol, is due to too much food. The clinkers kill, and we all, I fear, habitually have clinkers and ashes in our machines which clog the workings, rust the bearings, and lead to premature break-down ...

"The remarkable increase in the means of taking wholesome out of door exercise goes far to counteract the universal malignity of the American kitchen. Golf and the bicycle have in the past few years materially lowered the average incomes of the doctors of this country as derived from persons under forty. From the senile contingent - those above this age - the average income has for a time been raised by these exercises, as a large number of persons have been injured by taking up sports which may be vigorously pursued with safety only by those with young arteries.

"In other talks Osler sometimes warned against the excessive use of tobacco but it was not in the foreground of his neopuritanism. In 1896 he remarked on the rarity of tobacco's toxic effects despite its widespread use. He believed there was a form of angina, 'tobacco heart,' brought on or aggravated by tobacco, and a tongue condition, 'tobacco tongue.' Otherwise he sided with lovers of the precious weed and attacked a writer in the British Medical Journal who condemned cigarette smoking: 'As a cigarette smoker of some twenty-four years standing, I would like to make the counterstatement, that to smoke a cigarette (a good one, of course!) is to use tobacco in its very best form, and that in moderation it soothes physical irritability and corrects mental and moral strabismus.'

Osler proscribed all forms of tobacco for youth. Tom Cullen told the story of Osler one day persuading a young man to give the vile habit up and throw away his box of cigarettes. 'Dr. Osler walked down the step to the lawn, picked up the box of cigarettes, took one out, lighted it and put the box in his pocket.

(Michael Bliss, William Osler, A Life in Medicine, 274)

Jet: later on in England Osler gave a lecture against smoking and as a grand finale lit up a cigarette, to the great amusement of the audience. His death was caused by emphysema and pleurisy, which the MD author of this biography does not attribute to smoking. I have no expertise here but my brother, a smoker, has emphysema and I, a non-smoker, do not.

"A moderate health reformer in those years, Osler today would have eschewed the extremes of modern food and exercise faddism, though he surely would have stopped smoking. He would certainly have endorsed devotion to good health as an almost religious pursuit. The very origin of his profession had been in the cult of Aesculapius, the worship of health. `In the old Greek there was deeply ingrained the idea of the moral and spiritual profit of bodily health. It was too bad, Osler wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century, that the `beauty and majesty of this old therapeutic worship had degenerated into the sordid superstitions of Lourdes and other shrines to modern faith healers." (Michael Bliss, William Osler, A Life in Medicine, 275)

Let us give the last word to the Master. He firmly believed that the real cure is doing the Will of God, which, as Ostler himself often said of preventive cures, puts no money into the hands of doctors or Big Pharma.

"In the early stages of our long journey to California my health was affected. But as the journey was made for God and to diffuse the divine fragrances, my longstanding indisposition has been cured without any medicine. The confirmations of Abha are descending from all sides." (Mahmud, 283)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Prayer Sharing

Prayer Sharing; Report on the Inter-Cluster Meeting, "The First Movement of the Plan"

By John Taylor; 2006 September 25

As mentioned last time, Saturday's meeting was for clusters with fewer than one hundred believers, ones like our Ontario Cluster Number 4, which includes our Haldimand LSA, Brantford LSA, Brant County group, Paris LSA, and Norwich County LSA, as well as the largest native reserve in Canada, the media-darling Oshweeken Six Nations, which is right next another rez, that of the Mississauga First Nation. The other three clusters were all much further away, north of Guelph, north east of Toronto, including Georgian Bay, Parry Sound and several other mere names in my geographically challenged mind. Calling places like these clusters is a misnomer. In effect they are dispersals. Our LSA is thirty believers spread over a place that is an hour and half drive from one end to the other. Being part of Cluster Four means that now we have to worry about an area that is a four hour drive from one end to the other. Denizens of the northern clusters laugh at this, for it is much worse for them. You cannot change geography, challenging as it is.

Being such a small meeting in a small town, we had the unique bounty of personally meeting both our Auxiliary Board members, Maem Smith (propagation) and Shakar Arjomand (Protection), as well as Peter Smith of the Ontario Baha'i Counsel who so ably chaired last spring's inter-LSA meeting -- in my report of that meeting I was erroneously calling him "Tod Smith," as a reader pointed out to me later. I am plagued by ideas, as readers of this know, and I shared my quest for an illustrator for a non-fiction comic book about the Faith or perhaps for the Ruhi Program that I would like to write with Maem Smith. She knew of at least one Canadian Baha'i illustrator.

I had the chance to express to the Protection ABM my concerns about the progress of the Faith here, the need for Persian pioneers. I see that as our only realistic hope of reversing the accelerating decline in numbers that we are in here in Haldimand. We have dropped by half over the past two years and if it continues we may lose an incorporated LSA. It burdens my heart that a big city like Hamilton had, when I left, only about a dozen active non-Persians, while out here there are no Persians at all. Caledonia is a twenty minute drive from Hamilton, how hard is that? If they had intended to snuff the faith out in this region they could not have done a better job than just congregating in the big cities. Mr. Arjomand said he would mention this at the Spirit of Badasht meeting the next day. I thought initially that this was a brush-off, but later I was told that this was a Persians-only meeting. Maybe something good will come of this after all.

Our morning break-off session was led by Shakar Arjomand and included the notorious eccentric Bruce Beach (known to readers of the Toronto Star for covering his property with buried buses in preparation for a nuclear crisis about to hit -- when it is Dr. Strangelove time that is what we will all need for our survival right away, a one way ticket to a seat on a buried bus. I know I will. Absurd crises breed absurd solutions.); he had a large, bushy grey beard and at his feet was a golden Labrador retriever pup, a Seeing Eye dog in training. He carried a badge reading: "Ask to Pet." I had met Bruce before at an ABS break-off seminar about the International Language that included just myself and him. As an Esperantist I was surprised to learn that his International Language Institute does not seem to have a specific language in mind. That does not seem to have stopped him from talking to the Chinese government about an international language. He said at the Saturday Cluster meeting:

"The UHJ had asked me not to mention the Baha'i Faith when talking with the Chinese government and only later did I realize their wisdom. The Chinese officials kept asking me if my International Language Institute had anything to do with religion and I told them no. They knew I was a Baha'i though because in all their chattering away in Chinese I kept hearing the word "Baha'i" being repeated over and over."

So if there is a crisis and the lights go out all over the world, we will have a place on a buried bus, seeing eye dogs to guide us to the bathroom and we will be acutely aware of the need for a language to converse with other bus-dwellers. And here I had been feeling strange for suggesting an illustrated Ruhi book to the Auxiliary Board Member.

Since my joking about a speaker at a conference last spring stirred up so much controversy afterwards, allow me to put in a disclaimer here. I do not mean to mock Mr. Beech. This Faith is universal and includes all manner of diversity, including diversity of thought and opinion. I think Bruce Beach rightly complains of intolerance and conventionality from his fellow believers. I have seen it, and it is worse outside of his earshot. The word for it is backbiting. Pray God that the above attempt at humor is not that. We should all make an effort to be every bit as open and welcoming to diverse opinions and viewpoints as we are to diverse races, cultures and languages.

Anyway... we went over the first two paragraphs of the UHJ's 27 December letter to the Counsellors, which Shakar said _is_ the current five year plan (the plan I saw at a publisher's website on the Net must have been a hallucination; it made we wish I had actually read it). In proper Ruhi style we deconstructed the material, each throwing in our own two cents worth, especially on this sentence:

"The elements required for a concerted effort to infuse the diverse regions of the world with the spirit of Baha'u'llah's Revelation have crystallized into a framework for action that now needs only to be exploited."

What is the framework? Answers came from all directions: the clusters, the three core activities, children's classes, devotionals, the Ruhi study institutes. Shakar said that the three have actually become four, since the House has tacked on junior youth programs too. I guess it is like a three plus one bedroom house. Then there are the counsels, the Ruhi activities, which have been tacked onto the Ruhi deepenings as sort of semi-independent projects.

That deserves a paragraph of explanation. It seems that you do not necessarily have to be doing Book One in order to do the Book One activity. In fact our Cluster Coordinator is asking us to do the activity on our own and report back the number of times we did it, for statistical purposes. What? What is the Book One activity? I have gone through that book several times with several tutors but I had to be told what it is. The activity is sitting down with with another believer to say a prayer and then do the Ruhi Thing, you know, Construction, Deconstruction and Synthesis -- rather like Platonic (not Socratic or Hegelian) dialectic. You go over the prayer with a fine toothed comb, sentence by sentence, word by word, sharing personal insights and experience with one another, one on one, as they are reflected in and from the holy Text. The step to synthesis would be the follow up, leading to more activities, this time with non-Baha'is. This last part is what strikes terror into the heart of shy, introverted writers like myself.

In the afternoon session we had a chance to try this dialectal immaterialism, or whatever you want to call it, out on one another. I was paired with Phyllis from Somewhere Up North. I must say that for me this was the most productive part of the day. Now I can say that I have done it and it does not seem as foreign and difficult as it had. We were given about five prayers to choose from. We were to pick one, decide which of us would be the "animator" and which the animated, or whatever the word is. You know, the quick and the dead. I am not very good at explaining, let me just scan in the material and you can read it for yourself.


WORKSHOP: STUDYING A PRAYER Multi-cluster Conference. 23 September 2006 Instructions:

Group yourselves in pairs, with someone you do not know too well. Each of you choose one of the five prayers below to study together Determine which of you will facilitate the study of the prayer. When carrying out this exercise:

-Read the selected prayer on your own for a couple of minutes, make notes, highlight words

-Together, examine difficult words and difficult concepts, sentence by sentence

Consult about the implications and applications of the prayer in your lives, sentence by sentence. Discuss what stands out in the prayer and why, sentence by sentence. Once one group member has facilitated the study of one prayer the other member then facilitates the study of another prayer.


Like many other groups, we did what my kids always do, we picked out the two shortest prayers. The prayer I "facilitated" (when I do it a better word would be "pontificated" or "bombasted.") with Phyllis was a prayer of the Bab. As readers of the essays over the past year of this Badi' mailing list know, the Bab inspires me to endless orgies of analysis. His words are packed with meaning. It was hopelessly dumb of us lazy fellows to pick out a short prayer of His, for the stream of His Writing may seem narrow but it always amounts to a very deep wade inot profound depths of meaning. Here is the prayer.

"PRAISED and glorified art Thou, O God! Grant that the day of attaining Thy holy presence may be fast approaching. Cheer our hearts through the potency of Thy love and good-pleasure and bestow upon us steadfastness that we may willingly submit to Thy Will and Thy Decree. Verily Thy knowledge embraceth all the things Thou hast created or wilt create and Thy celestial might transcendeth whatsoever Thou hast called or wilt call into being. There is none to be worshipped but Thee, there is none to be desired except Thee, there is none to be adored besides Thee and there is naught to be loved save Thy good-pleasure." (The Bab, Selections, 214)

Phyllis had her favorite part but I only remember my favorite part. Isn't it always the way? My favorite was the apparent definition of the word "steadfast." To be steadfast, He implies, is to submit to the Will of God. Islam. Peace, acceptance of God. It takes detachment to do that, for His will varies from ours as often as not. For example, if I had been detached from personality, I would have resisted mentioning Bruce Beach in this report and would not have slid down that old slippery slope towards a hundred years of hellfire. I was not being steadfast. Of course, I did not mention any of that to Phyllis.

Time is running out on this little conference report. The keynote speakers offered several helpful hints towards implementing this framework for action. One suggested incorporating it into our daily self-assessment, you know, taking into account our own actions before God. "Think of how you are progressing in the prayer sharing with other souls at that time." Excellent idea. Lately I have been doing so much exercise that I procrastinate and my taking into account usually comes about just before sleep. Usually I end up dropping off to sleep when it has barely begun. Maybe a better time would be in the morning. Still, having done the prayer sharing once with Phyllis I may have something to think about and assess in my future daily assessments.

Peter Smith reported that in the last plan the Counsel was guided to concentrate on the most advanced clusters. Now in this plan the emphasis is on all, even us, the "Dispersal Clusters" who I am sure qualify as the weakies. It is possible, we are assured, to get the ball rolling everywhere. The UHJ says it in paragraph two of the Letter:

"Indeed, so consistent has been the experience with intensive programmes of growth, implemented on the basis of this understanding in divers clusters, that no cause for equivocation remains. The way forward is clear, and at Ridvan 2006 we will call upon the believers to steel their resolve and to proceed with the full force of their energies on the course that has been so decidedly set."

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Shifty and Twitchy

Shifty and Twitchy

By John Taylor; 2006 September 24

Yesterday I traveled with fellow LSA members Ron and Fran to Forest Hill for an inter-cluster meeting. Ron as always took every side road available and gave Fran and me a beautiful tour of the back roads of Ontario. At my request we ventured into my alma mater, Guelph University, which I had not seen for decades; I was shocked at the expansion and development going on there and all around. Every square inch of what used to be a lovely, green campus is now covered in buildings, outbuildings and out outbuildings. The entire road of Highway Six from the school to Highway 401, formerly gently rolling farmer's fields is now nothing but box stores, mini-malls and McMansions as far as the eye can see. Progress.

Ron continued to explore his favorite topic, friends and acquaintances, for most of the way. I could have recorded our discussion and put it directly into the Haldimand Assembly's archives; afterwards I swear that I had heard the name of every non-Baha'i to have moved in or out of Dunnville or in or out of the Baha'i Faith for the past two decades. At one point a name escaped him. I teased him saying, "What, there is a person in the world whose name you do not know?" He can even trace the intricacies of cousins and extended family members, plus the always difficult problem women in serial marriages, whose last name changes as often as the seasons. If I could remember ideas and thinkers with the facility that he has for faces and names I would be a major philosopher.

One snippet of information picked up from his experience as a volunteer at the Chamber of Commerce has relevancy for me, as a homeowner. Our little town since we moved here has gotten a Food Basics and a larger Canadian Tire. At the moment an old factory is being torn down, soon to become a No Frills Superstore; plus, Wal-Mart just got approval to put in a huge store right behind the Canadian Tire Store. The question is, why? This town is too small for such major retail outlets. The Chamber of Commerce is all for this increase in activity, but the Business Improvement Area, representing downtown shops, is vehemently opposed. Ron commented:

"In my time in the office I hear bits and pieces. I overheard a bigwig say to his friend that there is a reason the big boys are marching in here. They must know something we do not. Which means almost for sure that the big direct superhighway from Toronto to Buffalo must be about to go forward."

That is great news, soon our quiet little burg will be just like Guelph and surroundings, nothing but box stores, mini-malls and McMansions laid out to every horizon, with hardly a tree or open space in sight. And this is how these things are planned: everything kept a dark secret until the process is in motion and it is too late. If word should ever get out, of course, there would be an orgy of speculation and land prices would shoot through the roof. That is why planning development is out of the question. Open discussion makes it expensive for the big boys to finance sprawl.

When I got home I found another fait accompli that had happened without my knowledge or consent. Marie and the kids had gone out and in my absence bought a grey bunny, which they named "Twitchy," and a cage. Tomaso insisted that I close my eyes as soon as I entered and he guided me into the bedroom to see the surprise. I opened my eyes and really was surprised this time. "We have had him four hours and these have been the best four hours of my life!" He declared. I suggested that old Twitchy might like to go out and play on the road. They stood between me and Twitchy and pounded me with their fists. They requested a film about bunnies to show him, and settled on "The Bunny's Picnic," a Jim Henson puppet production. Twitchy, presumably, was duly edified. I was reduced to grumbling helplessly, with the same impotent disapproval I got driving by Guelph and its environs. Twitchy indeed. He should be called Shifty.

Tomaso was so excited that night that he could not sleep alone, he crawled into our bed and kicked me in the face most of the night. So instead of writing a report on the actual content of the Cluster Conference, I slept most of this morning. Maybe tomorrow. Meantime, here is something to think about.

At a news conference <> a reporter asked the President of Iran through a translator:

"In your remarks, you have mentioned that the leaders and presidents of the world should turn to justice and enforce justice. You are the president of Iran and you have the opportunity to enforce justice. Reports coming from Iran seem to indicate that student movements are being repressed, that justice is not being served, as far as the followers of the Baha'i faith, as well as for women, who object to the Islamic laws that discriminate against them. And this justice that you speak of in the political realm does not exist. So why are (you) against justice?"

AHMADINEJAD (THROUGH TRANSLATOR): In the meeting we had with the Foreign Press Council last night, it seemed to me that this was the main question on the mind of many people. I want to give you two figures. There are about 219 million people in the United States and in Iran we have about 68 million people.

(jet: I checked up on his figure for the US population in my atlas. Ahmadnejad seems to have transposed his digits, for in 2003 there were 291 million souls in the US.)

Now, there are about 3 million prisoners in the U.S. There are about 130,000 -- there are exactly 130,000 prisoners in Iran, 90 percent of whom are illicit drug traffickers who have been arrested in direct armed conflict with our security forces, who were trying to prevent the transit of drugs from Iran into Europe and the United States. Now, let's find out, and I think you should, what the composition of the backgrounds of prisoners in the United States is. I asked this question yesterday, but nobody had an answer.

Now, let's see, a high percent of American people are in prison, whereas only 0.2 percent of the Iranian population is in prison. Let's just put these figures in proportion now.

jet: Assuming his other figures are correct that would make over one percent of the population in the US currently being held in prison, five times higher than in Iran (higher in fact than any other country except South Africa). The other red herring, that 90 percent of Iranian prisoners are there for drug crimes, probably also applies to American incarceration.

You know, I like to speak of law as a framework. If you violate a traffic regulation, you will be governed (ph) by law. If not, there will be no rule of law. Now, we do have law in our country. We have a judiciary system. And, in fact, our courts are quite independent because the president does not have the right by law to interfere in the judgments of the judiciary. It therefore represents an independent power, an independent branch of government. We have a judiciary, we have lawyers, we have judges, we have trials. There are violations under law. Now, let me just clarify what the political situation in Iran is and for you to understand better.

There is a newspaper in Iran that is affiliated with the government and it's a voice, a podium for government position. Three months ago they had a violation under law and they were shut down. The president could not do anything. Now, I mean, what happened there is really a concept of freedom, a dimension of freedom that we must examine, because if we are to allow insults to happen, if we allow violations of law to happen, then we are acting against justice, we're allowing those with power to tell others what to do.

The courts are set up to defend the rights of the people. A citizen might raise a complaint against me. The judge must consider and examine that and they might give a sentence against me and force me to leave office. This, to me, is a power given to our courts and is a dimension of freedom, it is a dimension of democracy that we've been attained. Now, let us not forget that there is a possibility of failing to carry out law completely (ph) everywhere. It's in our country as well. Sometimes an enforcement official may not carry out his duties in the right way. But we are all involved, we are all responsible, we have to tell people not to do that, we have to make our efforts.

And everywhere in the world, when you look, such things do happen, and in Iran, too. But we believe that the freedom that we enjoy in Iran and the kind of justice we enjoy in Iran today is, sort of, self-grown, home-grown, and we made every effort to get to where we are, and we hope you respect that.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Nobody's Consumer

Nobody's Consumer; Sucking Up Lies and Cash

By John Taylor; 2006 September 21

It was early this morning and the family upon awakening gravitated to the sofa while I prepared my breakfast. Twelve-year-old Silvie then threatened to enter into another of her interminable, sleep inducing accounts covering every detail of her dreams the night before; that prospect got even her mother off the couch and off into the kitchen preparing breakfast and lunches. Surprisingly, this time Thomas, hidden under a blanket, eagerly listened. As I ate breakfast I had no choice but to take much of it in. It started off in the world of Spongebob Squarepants and ended up with her walking the school grounds, which turned into a beach covered in starfish, which in her hands turned into pink slugs. "Now we are coming to the sad part of the dream. Parental guidance suggested." In the dream she then dropped one of the slugs and one of its antennae was damaged. "Is it blind?" I asked Mom in the dream. No, she replied... I took the parental suggestion and, my breakfast finished, unobtrusively guided myself out of the room.

The other day I came across this passage from the Bible,

"For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil." (1 Peter 3:12, KJV)

This little reminder of the importance of combining prayer with a moral focus reminded me of the novels of John Grisham, which I have been listening to lately in audio book form. Until the mid-1990's I read the first half of Grisham's opus as each novel came out, but then for one reason or another lost touch. Since then he has written a half dozen more. Now I return to his legal thrillers with a fresh perspective and I find them surprising. In these new-for-me novels he retains his gift of suspense, his amazing ability to make the work of a lawyer, which is nothing but bureaucracy-for-hire, seem thrilling. At the same time he seems this time around to have misplaced his moral compass. Either that or things have become so astonishly corrupt in the American South, the locale of his stories, that a moral compass cannot be expected of a storyteller there.

For example, one story is about three corrupt and disgraced judges who come up with an extortion scheme, which they work from a minimum security prison. Only in the last pages does the reader sadly come to realize that these clever but base fellows are the protagonists and that, as must happen in a Grisham story, these are the "good" guys who win out at all odds. But the reader is left with lingering doubts about whether such dishonest corruptors of the law should have won out. If any social sin is unforgivable, it is a corrupt judge.

My current novel is even worse, the story of a professor of law who comes home to find that his father, an incorruptible judge, has died and in the house are stacked boxes full of cash, some three million dollars. It turns out that this was a sort of post hoc bribe from a dishonest lawyer who had made a huge fortune on one of his decisions. This judge is as close to perfect in his integrity as anybody you will find in the world of Grisham. He gives away all of his extra money and refuses every attempt to sway him. Yet he comes home to find boxes of cash dropped off in his home and does not report the bribe and have the money officially counted and duly turned in to the authorities. Surely that is the first thing an honest judge would do! Instead, he sits on it and intends to return the money to the giver along with a tongue lashing but gets sicker and in the end dies with the stash still stacked away. Then his son, the law professor, inherits the problem and fails the same test.

Surely, if anybody in the world would know enough to turn in a pile of cash found in his father's house it would have to be a law professor! But no, if he were to do that there would be no novel, no danger, no mystery. The author tries to give reasons for him not to report the money, including a brother who is an addict and who would no doubt kill himself with so large an inheritance. Also, half of the inheritance would have gone to taxes. Not convincing in my book. That would be small price to pay for the sense of doing the right thing that would come of turning in the money; as a bonus in this case it would also keep a group of cold blooded killers avid for the cash they had delivered to the judge off his law prof son's back.

Now whenever I think back to when I was a kid and for so many years longed to become a lawyer when I grew up, well, I start to break out in a cold sweat. Thank God I was denied that ambition! I conclude from Grisham that we are living in a profoundly corrupt place here in North America. It, we, are sadly, gravely, deeply rotted out. It is not the structure, not the setup but the people themselves, you and me, who lack our bearings. What used in the Sixties to be called "the Establishment" is just a machinery built out of stinking rot bubbling out of the heart of each of us.

Why do we allow cash at all in an age of computerized monetary transactions? Cash is a standing temptation, an open invitation to dirty tricks. We would all be better off doing all of our purchases and other financial transactions with smart debit cards. They would be far more convenient than cash; in stores we are forever counting change and fiddling with pennies. Why do we not do that? Do I need to say it? Because powerful people profit. Same reason illegal immigrants are openly tolerated in Canada and the US, because a few very rich and influential people gain from it. The CIA and Canada's Security Agency would grind to a halt if they could not do dirty tricks and perform underhanded acts with untraceable cash.

If that happened government intelligence would stop being an oxymoron, it would really have to be intelligent and, horror of horrors, national governments would be forced to come up with their information openly and honestly. In other words, they would be scientific, according to a definition of science that I just heard of last night. What is the opposite of science? The opposite of science is not ignorance, it is secrecy. It is proprietary data. Cloak and dagger activity is the reverse, the very denial of political science. Same way, an undercover cop may gain some information from criminals that otherwise may not be forthcoming but most importantly at the same time by using underhanded, secret tactics obscures the moral distinction between law enforcement and lawlessness. This is a devil's bargain that cannot be tolerated, openly or otherwise. Not that it is the only devil's bargain, the devil has been making thousands of such bargains wherever you turn. As the UHJ Agency that wrote One Common Faith puts it,

"Selfishness becomes a prized commercial resource; falsehood reinvents itself as public information; perversions of various kinds unabashedly claim the status of civil rights. Under appropriate euphemisms, greed, lust, indolence, pride -- even violence -- acquire not merely broad acceptance but social and economic value. Ironically, as words have been drained of meaning, so have the very material comforts and acquisitions for which truth has been casually sacrificed."

The only scientific way to security would be to unite all governments into one ruling body representing all human beings under one divine law. Only that could we be honest and expunge the millions of devil's deals we have made, en masse. Anything less is by definition unscientific, irreligious, immoral, and most to the point, a form of enslavement. Consider what Paul said, "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." (II Cor 3:17) Cash is false freedom, a satan in angel's robes. No cash would mean no secrets, no fighting, no opposition, open or behind closed doors. Among other things, without cash gambling casinos, those machines designed to suck cash out of the pockets of families, would slow down if not halt. Without a thriving cash-based economy we would start looking like those poor denizens of the Starship Enterprise, concerned only with what is good for themselves and everybody else, living a healthy life and performing their mission in life: manipulated and exploited by nobody, nobody's consumer. With free and open information (in other words, data ruled by wisdom) we would for the first time taste the sweet savor of spiritual liberty.

A scientific, spirit-led society would devise some clever device to root out lies, an open process, a sort of lie vacuum cleaner that would act in the reverse manner of a gambling casino, instead of exploiting the family it would bolster and enrich it. The anti-lie vacuum would start with our natural sense of guilt when we lie and do everything possible to bring truth to light and eliminate the shadow places were lies breed. After all, as the Master somewhere said, the secret to never telling a lie is never to do anything wrong in the first place. No wrongdoing, no cover-ups, no secrecy.

How do you vacuum up falsehoods? Begin by building an open process and then start with the professions most prone to lying, doctors and the police (lawyers probably fall under the law enforcement professions). Since lies are known to be most prevalent there, no doubt here are the worst structural wrongs. Encourage doctors and police to confidentially report every case where they felt they had to tell a lie. Every lie reported would then be fed into the anti-lie machine, statistically analyzed and consulted upon by experts and the public alike. Philosophers, psychologists and other experts would openly crunch in all new data and consult with everyone to come up with scientific ways to change the most common lying situations. Make it so that lies will never be needed in future. Such a falsehood elimination process, to my mind, would mark the first time we could really call the social sciences scientific.

Take our law professor in the novel. As soon as he decided to hide the cash stash, his prevarication had to start. Then came outright lies. As I said, a lie vacuum would not take long to pinpoint the problem here: cash. The lie eliminator would then pinpoint the most common situations where outward changes are impossible. Then, and only then, would it turn it over to teachers train the next generation to avoid lies in such difficult and unavoidable situations.

At this stage, religion would have a big role to play working hand in hand with law and the state. Consider the explanation of Baha'u'llah about the divine goal of moral testing in one of the most crucial passages of the Iqan:

"Meditate profoundly, that the secret of things unseen may be revealed unto you, that you may inhale the sweetness of a spiritual and imperishable fragrance, and that you may acknowledge the truth that from time immemorial even unto eternity the Almighty hath tried, and will continue to try, His servants, so that light may be distinguished from darkness, truth from falsehood, right from wrong, guidance from error, happiness from misery, and roses from thorns. Even as He hath revealed: "Do men think when they say 'We believe' they shall be let alone and not be put to proof?" (Qur'an 29:2) (Baha'u'llah, Kitab-i-Iqan, 8-9)

This is why religious property is not taxed. In effect, when we pray and reflect morn and eve and in houses of worship we are, from the point of view of the state, "working." It benefits because in this apparently idle time we are really gaining the spiritual energy to face such moral dilemmas. Nonetheless, the state, in the teaching of the Master, has primacy in deciding what specific measures to take in enforcing moral change. Let us finish with a selection from a provisional translation of Abdu'l-Baha's Tablet on Politics, perhaps His least known work at present.

"The divine revealed law, which is the life of existence, the light of the visible world, and is consonant with the ultimate goal, requires an agency that will implement it, decisive means, a manifest protector, and a firm promulgator. There is no doubt that the wellspring of this mighty institution is the edifice of the state and the sword of rulership. When the one becomes strong and triumphant, the other becomes manifest and refulgent. Whenever the one achieves paramountcy and radiance, the other is rendered perspicuous and luminous.
"Thus, a just government is ipso facto a government in accordance with the divine law, and a well-ordered realm is an all-encompassing mercy. The glorious crown is wrapped in divine confirmations, and the regal diadem is adorned with the gems of heavenly bounty. In the manifest book, it is clearly said, "Say: O God, king of kings, you bestow rule on whomever you please, and take it away from whomever you please." Therefore, it is evident and obvious that this bestowal is a divine gift and a grant from the Lord. In the same way, the authentic saying of Muhammad has it that "The ruler is the shadow of God on earth." Given these texts, which are like a mighty edifice, how clear is the falsehood of the words of any vexatious usurper, which are mere imagination unsupported by proof or evidence." (Abdu'l-Baha, Treatise on Politics, Risalih-'i Siyasiyyih, tr. Juan R. I. Cole)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Master at St. John the Divine IV

The Master at St. John the Divine, Part Four

by John Taylor; 2006 September 20

Before continuing from where we left off our discussion yesterday of the second discourse of the Master, given at St. John's in London, I feel moved to jump forward to the end. Here, as He often was to do later on, He finishes by revealing a prayer. He did not do this every time, and He had not chosen to do so at the first talk a week earlier. So -- think of it! -- this was the first revealed prayer of the Master ever that was revealed in a public place, at least in a Western public place. It may well have been the first publicly spoken revealed words -- I do not know, maybe since the Bab spoke at that kangaroo trial in Tabriz. (And even then, it is unlikely that the Bab was given a chance to reveal a prayer; instead, the meeting ended with the bastinado.) This is one of the few if not the only time I recall when the Master ends in the common Christian manner with "amen." Since our source is less than authoritative (the original editors and publishers of "Abdu'l-Baha in London were not Baha'is), the "amen" may have been added on somewhere down the line. Nonetheless this is an historic prayer that we would do well to be aware of and use in our devotional life.

"O GOD the Forgiver! O Heavenly Educator! This assembly is adorned with the mention of thy holy Name. Thy children turn their face towards thy Kingdom, hearts are made happy and souls are comforted.

"Merciful God! cause us to repent of our shortcomings! Accept us in thy heavenly Kingdom and give unto us an abode where there shall be no error. Give us peace; give us knowledge, and open unto us the gates of thy heaven.

"Thou art the Giver of all! Thou art the Forgiver! Thou art the Merciful! Amen."

This prayer demonstrates the genius of the Master, His ability to mark out a place of stable calm in a world of relativities and imponderables, and at the same time promote an attitude of humble search. One phrase strikes home: "give unto us an abode where there shall be no error." If you wish to sum up what makes a scientifically oriented atheist like me into a Baha'i, this is it: certainty. Having certitude in an infallible authority about what Karl Popper calls "non-science" has kept me a believer since the moment I first read the Master's words on this theme in a little compilation called "The Reality of Man." The Baha'i Faith offers comforting certainty about a broad range of grave issues that otherwise would remain permanent quandaries. And here He stood, the very personification of certainty, standing there in front of that congregation. The Kingdom of God offers perfection, infallibility, and the Master had a mysterious ability to hit the mark on where it is to be found.

Just before this prayer, the Master cites, seemingly out of a clear blue sky, a passage from "the great Apostle" Paul. (Contrast this with His loud declamation to a Christian, probably a Protestant, in Montreal, "Peter, not Paul!" The fact that Paul was not the successor of Jesus does not take away from his greatness in the Master's eyes.) Here is the translation given in Abdu'l-Baha in London, which is very close to the King James Version:

"We all, with open face beholding as in a mirror the glory of God, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord."

My guess is that this quote from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians was the given reading for that Sunday by the church's minister, in this case Archdeacon Wilberforce in his evening service. It may have already been commented upon at length in the venerable deacon's sermon; in some churches the reading is posted on a black sign with moveable white letters in a prominent place, either outside of the church as a "teaser" to passersby, or right above the pulpit. If so, it would reasonable to assume by quoting it at the end that the Master's argument beforehand had led up to and was explicating something that was very fresh in the audience's mind. Unlike later talks, at this early stage in the Masters' journey the talk was evidently either prepared and translated ahead of time, or it was given extempore and a rapid translation was written down; later on, when He was giving several talks a day, this written stage became impracticable and the interpreter spoke intermittently. Here is the contemporary account of the event, which fortunately has survived.

"With a few warm words characteristic of his whole attitude Archdeacon Wilberforce introduced the revered Messenger from the East, who had crossed seas and countries on his Mission of Peace and Unity for which he had suffered forty years of captivity and persecution. The Archdeacon had the Bishop's chair placed for his Guest on the Chancel steps, and standing beside him read the translation of 'Abdu'l-Baha's address himself. The Congregation was profoundly moved, and following the Archdeacon's example knelt to receive the blessing of the Servant of God -- who stood with extended arms -- his wonderful voice rising and falling in the silence with the power of his invocation. As the Archdeacon said: "Truly the East and the West have met in this sacred place tonight." The hymn "O God our help in ages past" was sung by the entire assembly standing, as 'Abdu'l-Baha and the Archdeacon passed down the aisle to the vestry hand in hand." (`Abdu'l-Baha in London, 21)

Now, we are not so blessed as to receive a blessing direct from the hand of the Master but we are blessed in other ways. We have better access to the texts, both of the Bible and Baha'i scripture. Maybe a filmmaker one day will give an illuminated version of this talk and intersperse it with a choir singing that hymn sung on that occasion, "O God our help in ages past." My wife Marie is part of the Voices of Unity Baha'i choir, so maybe, God assisting, I will be that filmmaker and talk them into to participating. Okay, I am dreaming; that would take maybe a million tonnes more gumption than I have ever shown. So let me stick with what is possible, going over in detail the rather puzzling reading from Paul, which I will do next time. Here it is in the King James Translation:

"Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the LORD." (2 Cor 3:17-18, KJV)

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Master at St. John's, Part Two

2006 September 17; The Master at St. John's, Part Two

This is the chasm at the lip of which we stopped at last time:

"Divinity cannot be comprehended because it is comprehending."

Talk about God is always problematic. You end up like Sinbad the Sailor, going ashore and exploring what you think is an island, then you look down and see that you are walking on the back of a whale. Retreat as fast as you can! Or, you are like a man-in-the-street interviewer who tries to interview his television viewers. As soon as he pinholes one, that person ceases to be a viewer and becomes a subject. And meantime a thousand other viewers await unseen in a thousand other locations. So it is with images and words about the One, which is why in His law of love He kindly disallows all attempts to do what we cannot do anyway, and what would not be good for us even if we could. The Master continues,

"Man, who has also a real existence, is comprehended by God; therefore, the Divinity which man can understand is partial; it is not complete. Divinity is actual Truth and real existence, and not any representation of it. Divinity itself contains All, and is not contained."

This can be demonstrated with an object lesson. I hold up an object, it does not matter what it is. How much can I understand of this thing? I may be a physicist and think that I know how every atom whirling around inside it works. But even if I were a perfect physicist with that kind of perception, a chemist, even an imperfect one, might come up here and see an entirely different set of relations in this hunk of matter. The sum of what this thing is would still be greater than the sum of what we know, since you could add an interior designer, an historian, and any number of other specialists, and each would have something new to say about this object.

Let us say for argument's sake that we could combine the sum of human knowledge about this thing and know it completely, to the uttermost bounds of human knowledge. That would still be inherently limited. To have a complete understanding we would have to trace the history of its every atom since the beginning of the universe. Then we we would have to know its future. Nobody can know what has not happened yet. So here we are, stymied trying to grasp a mere piece of dumb inanimate matter.

Imagine then that this is an intelligent human being standing here instead of a chunk of minerals. It would be harder still to really grasp what it is, wouldn't it? We do not even use the word object for this, it becomes a "people lesson" instead of an object lesson. Or let us up the ante and imagine that it is a space alien standing before us here, a representative of a race that we have every reason to believe is more intelligent than we are. Its unknowns would be orders of magnitude harder to grasp. Or think that it is an angel or some other minister of grace from another world, a dimension beyond ours. This entity too, just based not on what it is but only on what it has seen, would be way beyond the knowledge and experience of whatever we know.

We have struck out three times here, and we have not even got to the word "God," much less His reality.

This humbling stumbling over our basic limits was broached by Socrates, but in its full implications it can be categorized under the broad ranging set of discoveries made in the Twentieth Century commonly known as "post-modernism." All of it could have been grasped centuries ago if Westerners had bothered to study the Qu'ran with the attention it deserves. Instead for over a thousand years you got bigoted blanket denunciations like the one recently quoted by Pope Benedict. Muslim demagogues have their minions all in a lather about this, but the real losers, the real denizens of the Dark Ages are us. We in the West are utterly clueless about how to begin to think about the elementary concept, the very idea of God and His Oneness. Here, the Master gives a crash course.

Talking about the kafuffle over the Pope's comment, yesterday I quoted the reaction of the Master to the astonishment of passers at the strange dress of his entourage. This took place in Denver, on Tuesday, September 24, 1912, about a year after giving this talk. They were strolling Denver's public parks and boulevards (for those young people who have never seen one, this was a public walkway where human beings could walk without being struck by automobiles, poisoned by their fumes, or having their voices drowned out by their noise. Only a precious few true boulevards remain today.) Mahmud records another observation the Master made that afternoon.

"As the Master passed by the government buildings, monuments and statues of American heroes, He remarked: 'Their victories are trifling in comparison with the first victories of Islam, yet they are famous and a source of honor to all who know them. But these great victories have been completely forgotten.'" (Mahmud, 284)

Lest there be any doubt about the veracity of this historical observation, the early Muslim conquest was by primitive tribes over advanced, living, thriving civilizations. The so-called Indian Wars were the opposite, civilized Europeans fighting rear guard actions against diverse, distributed tribes. The most advanced of these peoples had just been devastated by disease that Europeans unknowingly carried with them, diseased caused by the filthiness of their urban lifestyles. Baths were considered dangerous -- natives could smell their approach before they could see them. In some cases White settlers came upon fully cultivated fields, their owners just killed by the new epidemic diseases they carried.

Compare that to the conquest of remote, illiterate Arab traders mounted on camels over two vast, literate and advanced empires, Christian Byzantium and Zoroastrian Persia. There are few if any historical parallels for such a rapid conquest. Admittedly, Rome started off small too, but its imperialism was gradual, taking centuries to reach its full extent. Even the entry of Moses's people into the Promised Land was slow, partial and abortive in comparison; David and Solomon, glorious as their rule no doubt was, ruled over a small portion of the Holy Land.

Does Western historical amnesia justify the rancorous bitterness of Muslims today? Perhaps. But as the Master seems to be saying, hero worship in the West is just as ephemeral. I cannot offer any first hand observations of the statues remaining in Denver, but by bet is that few of those seen by the Master still remain standing. I recall Schlosser's observation in Fast Food Nation that only one kid in a Colorado High School was wearing a cowboy hat. In the heart of cowboy country the overlordship of rappers is complete. Cowboys used to be the big heroes of the American West, and now they are rapidly being eliminated by industry and forgotten in popular lore. And so it is with the Indian fighters and generals of that era. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Tomorrow we will proceed to the next point made by the Master,

"Although the mineral, vegetable, animal and man all have actual being, yet the mineral has no knowledge of the vegetable. It cannot apprehend it. It cannot imagine nor understand it."

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Master at St. Johns

The Master at St. John's, Part One

By John Taylor; 2006 September 16

A Baha'i friend here in Dunnville wondered aloud the day after the recent showing of the slide presentation on the Master's trip to the West whether the non-Baha'is present might have been put off by seeing so many pictures of the Master, dressed in His Eastern traditional clothing. After all, in the media the only time you encounter such clothing is in association with dismal reactionaries. Of course it is forgotten that not only the Mullah's dressed like that back then, everybody in Persia dressed in that exotic manner. The priesthood was distinguished only by relatively slight variations, such as a different type of head dress. I recalled that the Master's dress even at the time was strange to Western eyes, though perhaps at the time it seemed more exotic than threatening. Here is how Mahmud recorded the Master's response to that suggestion while walking through a park in Denver,

"All eyes were attracted to 'Abdu'l-Baha, to His glory, dignity and grandeur, as He walked with His companions dressed in their kulaks and Persian clothes. One of the Master's companions remarked that the people viewed this picturesque sight as an amusing comedy. He replied, 'Yes, it is a heavenly act, a performance of the Kingdom, a wonderful pageant.'" (284)

As promised, today we will plunge into the Master's pregnant words at St. John's church in Westminster, spoken on the 17th of September, 1911.

"O Noble Friends! O Seekers for the Kingdom of God! Man all over the world is seeking for God."

We are all off on an impossible dream, an unattainable quest. Our holy grail is something that we can never hold in our hands. But, as the noonday prayer says, God did create us to know and worship Him. God Himself set us off on this quest. God would not ask what cannot possibly be done. So maybe this is not the impracticable plan that it seems to be at first blush. With God all things are possible. Given His aid, we will come to know and love God adequately if and only if, as the Master hints here, we take on the attitude of an ardent seeker.

"All that exists is God; but the Reality of Divinity is holy above all understanding."

The answer is right before our very eyes. But we cannot see the forest for the trees, or the trees for the forest. The idea that all things, from atoms to galaxies, are expressions of God is very ancient. It is featured in Jewish Rabbinic writings as well as Hindu scriptures. On the other side, the idea that God is inherently above our ken is part of the very definition of the word. But the Master is not reiterating an ancient platitude. He is edging us towards an aspect of the Oneness of God that is rarely emphasized. In His philosophy it is crucial, it allows One God to be treated as a world transforming principle. It makes OG the mother of all Baha'i principles.

"The pictures of Divinity that come to our mind are the product of our fancy; they exist in the realm of our imagination. They are not adequate to the Truth; truth in its essence cannot be put into words."

Here is the heart of One God, any image of Him is forbidden -- the first few of the Ten Commandments -- along with the result of that, any words, especially reproductions of words, are also Verboten. Plato understood the latter consideration with his surprising suspicion of books and the written word. A book cannot learn, argue or answer questions, it is passive, dead information. As a teacher it can never take the place of direct contact with another human being. But images are worse than words; they are grasped quicker, and are therefore more deceptive and contagious.

This is because, as Baha'u'llah Himself affirms, first comes vision, then understanding. Hence, the principle of One God teaches first of all that we can neither see God nor speak of Him without being led astray by an illusion. Images and words may help, but in sum they obstruct. It is just like the way we all collect piles of possessions. Each item is potentially useful or valuable, but soon the clutter renders it all more of a burden than a treasure trove. Some poor souls become so attached to hoarding that they are literally buried under their piles of accumulated goods and suffocate to death. On a broader scale, the latest evidence indicates that the hugest mass extinctions of the dinosaurs and before were caused by a similar process. According to an article in the latest Scientific American, at these times most life on earth may have been suffocated by accumulated poisonous gasses emerging from the ocean, spawned by a process now known as the killer greenhouse effect. My life, your life, all life depends upon a balance between proper intake and constant casting off, purification. First and foremost, our relationship with God must be constantly renewed and purified. This leads us to the crux,

"Divinity cannot be comprehended because it is comprehending."

This chasm we will try to plumb next time.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Cobras and Cowboys

Cobras and Cowboys

By John Taylor; 2006 September 04

I have been listening lately to a Book-on-CD history of Bush II's Gulf War II, called Cobra II, written by two authors, one a general intimately involved in planning, and the other writer, one of the "embedded" journalists who witnessed events first hand from the ground. The Bush regime called their plan to invade Saddam's Iraq "Cobra II" because "Cobra" was the name of Patton's plan to drive inland against Nazi Europe after D-Day. Neither author (in what I have heard so far) seems to catch the irony of the name, since Patton's plan was thwarted at the crucial moment by Dwight Eisenhower, who refused him gasoline to refuel his tanks at the crucial moment, thus allowing the Germans to regroup and fight on for over a year. Military opinion today agrees that this was a blunder of the first order, that Patton could have routed the Nazis and shortened the war considerably if he had been enabled to carry out Plan Cobra.

Cobra I was hardly a fiasco, it eventually got the Nazis. And Cobra II got Saddam Hussein, quickly and with relatively little bloodshed, no question about it. But the problem was not the war but the occupation that had to follow. Imagine a cobra biting its own tail before it enters the fray and you have an idea of how Cobra II worked behind the scenes. As the poison enters its system it starts to sway drunkenly. This is how you run a war? The authors favor another analogy; they compare the plan to an accordion. Rummy, the unelected defense secretary, would get a hold of Cobra II and the numbers of troops would shrink to a few tens of thousands. Downsize, like a good CEO. No need for old style bureaucratic thinking, strike quickly with few troops, it is the new kind of warfare. Cobra II would then go back into the hands of the generals and they would think, we have to occupy a country of twenty million people, seal its borders, and on and on. We need something closer to a million troops. So the accordion would stretch out. So it went, back and forth, and needless to say Rummy won out. The result was quagmire.

The result was the confused aftermath of the war, first documented by a Swedish embedded journalist (you can see a full interview with him on the DVD version of Fahrenheit 9/11) where confused troops, untrained and unprepared for policing, would go from door to door throughout Iraq bursting into homes in the middle of the night, often using tanks to break through the front door, arresting suspects and trying on the spot to read Arabic documents without knowing a word of the language and, as documented on video, physically and sexually abusing their often innocent captives. By now the accordion was in its full fat phase but it was much too late. Not only were they alienating the people they wanted to save, but they had, in an earlier narrow phase sadly short of manpower left the borders unsealed and let loose millions of stockpiled weapons into the growing ranks of insurgents.

It is evident now that the plan they should have been looking back to was not Cobra but, well, any invasion plan. The Nazis were past masters at it, they took over all of Europe and got good reviews for their competence in taking over a nation intact. Hitler, meddler that he was, never thought of downsizing the number of troops needed to take over and run an entire nation. The exception was Barbarosa, the plan to invade Russia. Then, the Nazis sent in troops unprepared for winter. The reason they messed up then was the same reason Iraq II turned into a quagmire, interference from the top. Rummy was in a political position, albeit unelected (unlike Hitler), and was playing armchair general, just like Adolph. Adolph had the excuse that he had been right several times while the experts were wrong, so his arrogance was understandable if not excusable. Rummy, well, enough said. I shall watch the rest of this man's career with considerable interest.

Another book that has grabbed me lately is "Fast Food Nation, The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser. This is the best, most gripping and incisive journalist I have read for a long time. His method is simple: if you hear somebody blathering on about freedom, look around for his slave driver; if you hear another praise independence, dig up his co-dependency. Those who vaunt themselves as lovers of small government are always heavily dependent upon government subsidies. Schlosser with surgical precision uncovers every hypocrite's big lie. Let me tell his story in capsule form.

It took America almost a century to get the "trusts" and combines into line with anti-monopoly legislation to allow a true free enterprise system where buyer, distributor and seller all had equal access to information. In the 1980's Reagan in one blow dismantled the whole structure and in the name of free enterprise destroyed free enterprise. He allowed the big middlemen to dominate at the expense of small farmers and other food producers and the general public. They squeeze farmers, they squeeze nutrients out of food (using chemicals to restore taste and aroma), they squeeze their minimum wage workers and then say to the general public, hey, we have lowered prices haven't we? The result is a system which looks like an hour glass. At the top are about two million full time farmers (smaller than the present American prison population), in the middle a very small number of corporations, and at the bottom several hundred million consumers.

Fast Food Nation portrays how this accelerated out of control. The fast food vendor does not pick out meals that are best for our bodies but those which require the least expense, especially in labor costs. They sell a soft drink for a buck fifty that costs 9 cents in syrup; they sell fries for the same, with expenses also in pennies. They even get you to do the work of putting away your plastic meal. If you do it from youth it does not seem expensive, it seems natural.

Schlosser has a knack for picking out the worrying, telling detail. For example, in Colorado, in the middle of cowboy country, he visits a high school and finds only one kid wearing a cowboy hat. The entire cowboy culture of my youth is dead. Cowboys, the ones who take care of the brown part of your hamburger, are not only not heroes, they well on the way to being utterly forgotten by the upcoming generation. And the cattle ranchers brought it all upon themselves. If you believe in freedom really hard you end up as a slave -- it says so right in the Kitab-i-Aqdas. These are slaves that nobody laments because they are going extinct so quickly. Now there are just lackeys for meat distributors.

You can react to this in your own way, but to me our situation is parlous; fast food is not only the cause of the obesity epidemic but threatens something far more dangerous. By allowing this squeeze on our food resources we are opening ourselves up to potential famine. You cannot automate the prime profession, the farmer, out of existence and get away with it. I read this kind of thing and start to break out in a cold sweat, for though few of us today have experienced famine first hand, the accounts are there in history books. Millions die slow and horrible deaths. May God protect us.