Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Universal Language, Part III

The Secret and Panorthosia; Universal Language, Part III
By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 31, 01 Sharaf, 165 BE

I just came across some time lapse videos that seem designed to illustrate Abdu'l-Baha's words about reform in the Secret of Divine Civilization. I put them together in the following blog entry:

Abdu'l-Baha's "Secret of Divine Civilization" is the foundation document for this blog. Some five years ago the Universal House of Justice called this book "a celebration of the creative role played by the rational faculty -- God's greatest gift to humankind -- in the advancement of civilization." (Letter dated 2003 Nov 26, To the Followers of Baha'u'llah in the Cradle of the Faith, p. 1) In this book, Abdu'l-Baha writes,

"The basis of Europe's progress and civilization was actually laid in the fifteenth century of the Christian era, and from that time on, all her present evident culture has been, under the stimulus of great minds and as a result of the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge and the exertion of energetic and ambitious efforts, in the process of development." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 10)

I have no doubt that the most far seeing of these "great minds" was Jan Amos Comenius. A few days ago we took up Comenius's proposal for a universal language in Panorthosia. As a result the Badi' blog has been joined by a new group of readers interested in an international language. I probably should give a little background as to just who Johannes Amos Comenius was.

Born in 1592, Comenius is largely known today for his contributions to education. He invented what we now call "child centered learning," wrote the first illustrated children's book and was an early advocate of kinder and gentler treatment of students, both young and old. He also invented a more effective way to teach the De Facto Lingua Franca for intellectuals of the time, Latin.

He wrote some 160 books and was actively involved in the adult home study movement allowed by the cheaper books put out by the newly invented printing press. Perhaps most important, he argued for universal education (that is, everybody goes to school, including girls and the poor), which has yet to be fully implimented around the world.

Recent research has turned up further contributions of Comenius beyond education. That is what I am popularizing here.

It turns out Comenius was an early advocate of world government, universal language and several other principles of world federalism. To give more background, here is my latest draft of a précis of this project on the Badi' blog for the Association for Baha'i Studies,

"Among the geniuses in the Western Canon, the utopian vision of Johannes Amos Comenius (1592-1670) comes closest in spirit to the Baha'i principles. Today, Comenius is known largely as an educational reformer but in a recently translated, largely posthumous work, the Panorthosia (Universal Reform), Comenius offers a plan for broad reform on a planetary level that, like the Baha'i principles, remains far ahead of anything seriously considered on the world stage today. I am an essayist and author of the Badi' Blog, a daily blog specializing in the application of the Baha'i principles. Over the past year I have been examining the Panorthosia in detail, comparing and contrasting its proposals with the Baha'i viewpoint. I have so far found that many principles and teachings that uninitiated Baha'is think of as distinctive features of their Faith are clearly discernable in the writings of Comenius. For example, education for all, including girls as the mothers of the next generation, independent search for truth, a common faith for all, universal language and world government were all pioneered by Comenius..."

That said, let us continue with the fourteenth chapter of the Panorthosia, "Concerning A Universal Language, Why, And By Whom, And How It Should Be Introduced."

There is a detailed history of the various proposals and candidates for an international language through the centuries called, as I recall, "The Universal Language Movement." I borrowed the book from the McMaster University library and read it many years ago. It is an interesting document, but unfortunately I no longer have access to it. The Wikipedia article on Universal Language mentions many early proponents of a universal language and Francis Bacon is the earliest. Comenius was an enthusiastic reader of Bacon, and there is evidence that Leibniz, the next major writer on this theme, had access to the Panorthosia in his early years. That would make Comenius either the first or the second major European thinker to advocate for a universal language. Of course, as the Wikipedia article points out, the earlier Arab civilization had Arabic as its own equivalent to a universal language, India had Sanscrit and China had classical written Chinese.

As far as I have so far found out, Bacon did not come up with a specific proposal for a world language but rather emphasized the dangers of the "Idols of Language," speaking in general terms of the deceptiveness of the means of communication, speech. Like Wittgenstein, he gleaned his linguistic vision directly from long and careful reading of the Bible. Comenius also elaborated on this Biblical understanding, but as far as I can tell right now, he was the first person in history to advocate a universal language that would be formally agreed upon by a world federation and placed under the aegis of a world ministry of education, an institution that he termed the "Collegium Lucis," or College of Light. Comenius saw the universal language as integral to the reform program that a world government would implement. In the second paragraph of the chapter of the Panorthosia that we have been examining is his mission statement for this new, consensual language of the human race:

"For in the Universal Reform of Affairs it would be both wrong and impossible to desire anything but the very best. But only one thing can be the very best of its kind. Therefore LANGUAGE also should be no exception to the rule that we desire but one, and that the very best and most suitable in all respects for its purpose, namely, to give accurate expression to things and the nature of things, and to communicate every meaning fluently and clearly from one mind to another, as I have outlined in my Panglottia, chapters VI-VIII.'" (Panorthosia, p. 207)

Some of the Psalms (2 and 22) speak of the dominion of the heavens and the earth being placed by God into the hands of mankind. Comenius reasons from this that language too must, by its very nature, be unitary and as boundless as earth and sky. Language should not, therefore, be an ethnic or national possession, it must be the domain of all,

"Therefore language should also be in keeping with this infinite extent. And since the languages at present in use among the nations are confined within their own territory (although some of them do not even cover it as they are suppressed by foreign powers, or if they do spread abroad they only infiltrate into the neighbourhood), there is every reason to seek a Universal Language, whose boundaries are the uttermost ends of the earth, as widespread as Mankind itself." (Panorthosia, para 7, p. 209)

As soon as all nations gather into a world federation the first task of educators, Comenius holds, will be to come together and agree upon a universal language. Language is the one thing that can make all the various cultures into one human race. The outer political act of joining nations together has no effect, in itself, on the hearts and minds of the world's people. It does not involve education or religion. The paltry results are to be seen today with the half-hearted, stilted token gesture that is the United Nations. The only way to make a true act of union would be to start with a universal language and follow it up with a well organized educational system for all students, everywhere, and to involve all the world's religious denominations as well. This, for Comenius, could not help but be wrapped up in the expected Return of the Christ,

"For it is the custom of new monarchs to pass on their laws to conquered nations in their own language, and thereby impose on them the need to learn their language (as the Greeks and the Romans did, and the kings of Peru' and Turkey etc.); surely Christ, the new monarch of the universe, will impose some new language on his World? It would be most fitting for the majesty of the most high monarchy to provide a language that is wholly wise and enlightened and worthy to represent it." (para 7, p. 209)
"If the Romans felt it necessary to enforce the adoption of their language by all nations as a measure towards easier control and administration of their empire (although it was not destined to last for ever), how much more shall we be justified in our efforts to establish one universal language as a measure towards securing an everlasting Empire for Christ all over the world? Therefore the whole Babylon must be destroyed and no trace of it must be left to survive." (Panorthosia, para 16, pp. 212-213)

After Comenius there were many weird and wonderful suggestions for a world language, most more weird than wonderful. More than one was entirely based on mathematics and another on music, so that Beethoven's opening phrase of the Fifth was actually saying something rather more mundane than its sublime flavour would suggest. As some readers have pointed out, Esperanto found a broad following because of its learner friendliness. As the following makes clear, Comenius envisioned a world language that would be attractive in itself. It would be not only appealing but robust; that is, if part of it were somehow lost it would still be possible to reconstruct it again using basic principles.

"Who shall persuade the Nations of so many languages to discontinue their traditional tongue in favour of a strange one? My answer is that if the new language is wholly reasonable, harmonious, pleasant, and clear according to our requirements, it will freely commend itself to every nation that has a taste of it. Therefore philosophers, churchmen, and the political leaders will make a concerted effort to extend it to all nations. For it is in the common interest to promote light and peace and the favour of God among all people." (Panorthosia, 14:16, pp. 212-213)

John Taylor


the seasons of reform

"When, through the Divine bestowals, three things appear on earth, this world of dust will come alive, and stand forth wondrously adorned and full of grace. These are first, the fruitful winds of spring; second, the welling plenty of spring clouds; and third, the heat of the bright sun. When, out of the endless bounty of God, these three have been vouchsafed, then slowly, by His leave, dry trees and branches turn fresh and green again, and array themselves with many kinds of blossoms and fruits. It is the same when the pure intentions and the justice of the ruler, the wisdom and consummate skill and statecraft of the governing authorities, and the determination and unstinted efforts of the people, are all combined; then day by day the effects of the advancement, of the far-reaching reforms, of the pride and prosperity of government and people alike, will become clearly manifest." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 107)

Monday, December 29, 2008

Claude Piron Video

Here is the video suggested by a reader responding to the first installment of the present essays series on the principle of universal language.

A former UN and WHO translator, who is also a psychologist -- Claude Piron taught for 20 years at the Psychology Department of the University of Geneva - shares his experience of international communication and discusses the international language Esperanto.

Subtitled in others languages:

Mi esperas ke aliaj samideanoj sendos aliajn similajn ideojn kaj vidfilmojn cxi tie por varbi E-on pere de tiu blogo.

Universal Language, Part II

The Analysis in the Panorthosia of the Problems that a Universal Language Would Address
By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 29, 18 Masa'il 165 BE
Yesterday we ended our opening discussion of universal language in the Panorthosia with a nod to Baha'u'llah's paragraph on this subject in the Kitab-i-Aqdas. He also points out here that agreeing to a single language for all human beings would assure the security and permanence of any future world order. "This will be the cause of unity, could ye but comprehend it, and the greatest instrument for promoting harmony and civilization, would that ye might understand!" (Aqdas, p. 88) Comenius, who today is recognized as one of the most influential innovators in the methodology of language instruction in the history of education, concurs with this judgment.
"By this procedure we shall be surprised how soon we shall see the fulfilment of God's promise that Language shall be changed among the people, and it shall be pure, and all men shall call upon the name of Jehovah and serve him with one consent (Zeph. III, 9). For just as we see today that anyone making an exhaustive study of the language of a particular nation assimilates and begins to imitate not only the phrases, idioms, and proverbs of the people but also their customs and temperaments (as it gives expression to their general characteristics), so mankind, if provided with a language that is wholly founded upon reason, cannot fail to derive from it reasonable ideas, thoughts, desires, and policies." (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 14, para 18, p. 214)
Comenius points out that the language barrier leaves most of the human race in utter ignorance, without access to books or even the languages in which they are written. Worse, even when there are enough books, there is little inclination to take advantage of them.
"... some people, even whole nations, have no books or never read them, and do not care to train any living men as leaders of wisdom, but only live a sensual life like beasts of the field. Unless such barbarism is stopped, the reform of human affairs will be impossible, and the world will remain for ever as it is at present, beastly, insensate, irrational, groping in darkness, stumbling at every step, and dashing headlong into various pitfalls." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 9, para 7, p. 146)
Again, Abdu'l-Baha's Secret of Divine Civilization agrees with this, that only a planned program of active reform based not on some theory but initiatives by enlightened individuals, combined with the implementation of a common language, can ever succeed in establishing real progress and development, as opposed to blind growth and destructive expansion.
One of the most hopeful developments of the past decade are the spread of the Internet and the new encyclopedists writing the Wikipedia, which is being written in hundreds of languages at the same time. Another leapfrog over the language barrier is the "laptop for every child" initiative of Nicholas Negroponte. As Negroponte points out, the laptop computers his group are distributing in poor, isolated villages are not just computers but include entire libraries with far more books than we had access to, even in the best schools of the developed world.
I was watching Negroponte on the TED website videos explaining the charity's offer of "two for one," buy one of these specially designed kids' laptops and another is purchased for a poor village child in a deprived region. My nine-year-old son happened to be watching and became so enthusiastic with the possibilities of this green computer that now he wants one for his birthday present next summer. I have no objections to that, of course.
We think of the discourse of rights and freedom as characteristically modern. For that reason it is startling to find it in full flower in Comenius, thanks largely to the insights gained by close study of the Bible. He points out that the diversity of languages is not like the good diversity of flowers in a variegated garden, but it is rather the result of the old divide and conquer technique of the slave master and oppressor.
"The time of general restoration is approaching; everything must be restored to liberty. Therefore since God is on the point of removing the yoke of slavery inflicted on the world by the men of Nimrod, it is time also for the removal of languages forced upon the people against their will, as these are but symbols of slavery. And when the doorway to full liberty is opened to all mankind, we should at the same time open up the most obvious doorway to universal intercourse, the common language that shall be reasonable, harmonious, thoroughly pleasant, fluent and clear. For once this is established and generally adopted, the whole human race will be able to find a happy solution in its innumerable problems." (Panorthosia, Ch. 14, para 10, p. 210)
It is moving to recall that this was written by a man whose Slavic roots gave us the very word "slave." The Romans had enslaved the Slavs for centuries longer than Africans were enslaved in the Americas. Plus, it is sobering to remember that there are more de facto slaves today, due to endemic extreme poverty caused largely by the linguistic divide, than there ever were in past centuries. The inauguration of a universal language, backed by a single world-embracing media, would end slavery of all kinds, chattel, industrial and financial.
The ill effects of a multiplicity of languages are not restricted to the indigent majority of mankind. They extend to the linguistic elites as well. A spirit of partisan disputation is endemic in the insular cultures of England and America, the inheritors of English, the de facto, unofficial world language. Proof of this is the complete lack of consensus about how to go about responding to climate change, in spite of having more and better endowed universities now, united by a single language, than at any time in history. One might expect that we would be unaffected by the multiple solitudes of the modern Babel, but such is not the case. This parlous condition too was foretold by the genius of Comenius, who wrote,
"... since the fall of mighty Babylon was foretold at the end of the ages (Revelation XIV, 8), we must put a stop to every form of confusion no matter where it originated. Moreover, the multiplicity of languages was not only one of the main causes of our confusion, but a universal handicap which was especially responsible for our failure to reach agreement with our minds and senses. For otherwise the instruments of the senses, such as the process of reasoning, had by the grace of God remained unaffected; but so long as we could not pass information about the same things in the same way, there were well-nigh constant misunderstandings. This occurred not only where languages sounded very different, but also in cases where men used the same language, owing to mistakes, obscurities, and endless ambiguities, which have been notorious for causing almost continuous verbal warfare even among scholars. Therefore all Babylon must be destroyed through God's mercy to us." (Panorthosia, Ch. 14, para 14, p. 212)
The modern word for "Babylon," of course, is "the West." While Western academics engage in "continuous verbal warfare" with one another, insistent environmental alarms ring around the world. None are being answered because of a legacy of ignoring the language barrier, the worst structural injustice on the face of the planet. Our lack of an official world language taught to every child in every classroom creates terrible habits on the part of thinkers in the English-speaking world. Because English is an unplanned language, we imagine that our hegemony proves that the world is best off without a single vision or energetic initiatives for unification.
Long established habits of criminal neglect and intellectual laziness reduce willingness to sacrifice for the general good and encourage a complacent preoccupation with unfettered capitalism, a Laissez faire "hands-off" approach to reform, and animal-like liberty. These are all little more than sad excuses for malingering, glorying in the ascendency of English while neglecting the planet's imperative need for planned, comprehensive solutions. Just as having many rival nations is extremely profitable for a small number of weapons manufacturers, having many rival languages competing with one another benefits a few translators and media moguls while endangering the whole human race.
In the meantime, as in the time of Comenius, there is little more to be done than pray that somebody will arise and take the language problem on directly. Let me close with Comenius's crucial point in the Panorthosia that we have no choice but to regard a world language as a basic human right that cannot be denied.
"It is a well-known fact in Church history that mankind has been handicapped by the diversity of languages, and the difficulty of learning even two or three of these must be regarded as clear evidence of God's vengeance.
Surely, therefore, since God is granting other forms of reconciliation we shall also seek this further favour from Him through prayer and in every possible way, so that we are restored universally to the full, free, and rightful use of a universal language, and even as we are all accorded equal rights as citizens of one world-wide fatherland so we all enjoy mutual understanding also, with the prospect that true unity of language will lead to true unity of purpose.
And so the promise of God will clearly be fulfilled:- 'They shall all know me, from the least of them even unto the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquity,' etc. (Jeremiah XXXI, 34).
(Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 14, para 11, p. 211)

John Taylor


Universal Language in the Bible

Comenius and the Principle of Universal Language
Part I; Scriptural Grounding

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 28, 17 Masa'il 165 BE

Chapter Fourteen of the Panorthosia is concerned with a "Universal Language, Why, And By Whom, And How It Should Ge Introduced." The translator points out that Universal Language is also the subject of Part III of the Consultatio. Since I do not have access to the Consultatio, I will just consider this chapter, along with a small number other parts of the Panorthosia that touch on this theme.

I should point out from the start that ever since the birth of modern science, starting with Descartes and Bacon and going right through Pascal, Leibniz and on to the present day, the idea of a perfect language for all humans has inspired the greatest minds, many of whom devised their own candidates for the perfect artificial language. This ideal did not come out of a vacuum; it was inspired directly from Holy Writ, as we shall see in Comenius's treatment of the subject. For example, Comenius cites Zephaniah,

"Then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent." (3:9)

Nor was Comenius the only one to notice that Adam in Eden was given the job of naming each new creature of God's creation right after it was revealed to him, in effect making up his own language.

"God brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them... And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field." (Genesis II, 19-20)

Adam's prelapsarian language was supposed to have remained universal until human arrogance built the tower of Babel, which split human linguistic creativity into many branches.

"Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth." (Genesis 11:9)

Comenius was born in war-torn Moravia and was uprooted by brutal suppression when still a young man. He saw with his own eyes the bloody results of strife and disputation, much of which was not only based on religion, politics and ideology, but also on Babel's fruit: multiple languages. He witnessed how the multiplicity of languages in that region worsened an already dangerous mix of cultures.

As always, though, Comenius did not start from personal experience but from first principles. In the opening paragraph of this 14th chapter he points out that although he places under Christ every one of the three categories of philosophy (what we now call science), religion and politics, language is such an all encompassing tool that it should properly be elevated to an even higher category, that of the Holy Spirit. "... all languages should become one supreme language under one supreme teacher, the Holy Spirit." (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 14, para 1, p. 207)

As I should have mentioned at the start of this discussion of the Panorthosia, Comenius differs from the vast majority of modern Christians in that he sees the Millennium not as something imposed by absolute divine fiat but as something that Christians would have to earn for themselves. He starts the book off with Zachariah's words: "To him who disposes his way aright will I show the salvation of God." (1:3, Vulgate) Thus it is up to mankind to imitate the example of Adam and come up with their own names for God's creation, thus forming a perfect language. Prophesy is no mere prediction but a project for the believer to enact. He mentions, for example, this as scriptural evidence of the principle,

"I will yet pour out doctrine as prophecy, and leave it to all ages for ever." (John 5:39)

Also unlike the ossified faith of most moderns, Comenius understood that change and growth is a basic characteristic of spirit. Faith must grow along with the Spirit and Word. God's creativity is inexhaustible, and the fact that we are always having new thoughts reflects that. Similarly, the language we speak will also sooner or later have to reflect this creative attribute of many arising out of One,

"Truly inexhaustible treasures still lie hidden in the depths (and they must be brought to light from day to day) since the natural world still keeps many things concealed; and in the sacred text of God a greater and profounder portion of His mysteries is unknown (Eccles 24:33), and from the hiding-place of our Spirit there come forth daily new and priceless treasures of priceless thoughts. Accordingly, the words of Christ to the Jews who put all their trust in Moses, 'Search the scriptures', must be extended to all God's books. The story of Nature, the text of Scripture, and the register of Universal Ideas are man's alphabet, displaying the mystic meanings and the inter-play of God's wisdom to the sons of a more mature Wisdom." (Ch. 11, para 9, p. 178)

Comenius for this reason emphasizes that a universal language should not be an old one but a new artifact, in view of Christ's words,

"No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old;... but new wine must be put into new bottles." (Matt. 9:16-17, Luke 5:36-37)

In this sense, as in many others, the understanding of Comenius is almost perfectly consonant with the Vision of Baha'u'llah. In the penultimate paragraph of the Aqdas Baha'u'llah places the responsibility of devising a universal language squarely on the shoulders of the "members of parliaments throughout the world," predicting that carrying out that responsibility will be one of two signs of the full maturity of the human race.

John Taylor


Saturday, December 27, 2008


The Unity Tablet

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 27, 16 Masa'il 165 BE

We have been considering Baha'u'llah's Tablet of Unity, the Lawh-i-Ittihad. A literal, provisional translation of the whole text is available on Moojan Momen's personal website, and at:

In Momen's preface to the Tablet he summarizes the six types or "rutbahs" of unity that are discerned in this Tablet, unity of religion, words, ritual acts, station (or rank), wealth and souls. Unity of religion is unity among the believers themselves. The spread of this unity will make unnecessary excessive lawmaking and external, governmental interference in peoples' lives. The second rutbah is of words, meaning the public stance that Baha'is take, and the ability of individual believers to put this position into effect through good works.

The third rutbah is unity of ritual acts, where all believers pray exactly in the prescribed manner and thus avoid variance and disputation that fragmented the older faiths. The fourth rutbah is unity of station, whose prime concern is eliminating prejudicial arrogance. I will return to this rutbah. The fifth and sixth rutbahs, unity of souls and unity of wealth, Baha'u'llah considers together. When we go beyond voluntary sharing of property and actually prefer that of others to what is ours, then the unity of souls will be complete. Then, all will gather around the love and Word of God.

In this series I have concentrated on the fourth rutbah, unity of station, not only because of its inherent interest but also because it is the only one that has been officially translated, at least in part. Moojan Momen may not have been aware of the existence of the UHJ's partial translation. For purposes of comparison, here is the official translation of one sentence from the fourth rutbah, followed by Momen's more literal version.

Authorized: "And amongst the realms of unity is the unity of rank and station. It redoundeth to the exaltation of the Cause, glorifying it among all peoples. Ever since the seeking of preference and distinction came into play, the world hath been laid waste. It hath become desolate." (Unpublished Tablet, in Letter dated 27 Mar 1978, Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 376)

Momen's version: "Another type is the unity of rank or station. This results in the rising up of the Cause and its elevation among the peoples. But if ranking and preference of one over another comes into its midst, the world falls into ruin and desolation may be witnessed."

It can be seen more clearly in the latter that it is not preference and distinction in general that has historically laid the world waste but specifically the seeking of preference in the Cause of God. That former may well be the case, however, since presumably the lump is leavened according to the quality of leaven of the people's faith.

Baha'u'llah goes on, pointing out that the only way really to understand God's words is to see oneself and others on a level, as of one station. If believers were to take on this egalitarian identity they would have a vision of the world would make it into a paradise of Abha. On the other hand, the tendency to consider the self and what is close to it as inherently above others is a "mighty sin" that nullifies divine acceptance. This, Baha'u'llah says, is the core evil of the Ulama of Iran. It explains their drive to crush all who vary from their dogma, most especially the Cause of Baha'u'llah. The following passage has not been officially translated:

"If they had not considered themselves the most exalted and most accomplished of all beings, they would not have caused those wretched followers of theirs to curse and blaspheme against the Desire of the Worlds. All humanity is dismayed, nay the entire world is bewildered, at these false and neglectful souls. The fire of pride and vainglory has burnt them all, but they are not aware of it and do not understand. They have not drunk a drop of the ocean of knowledge and understanding. Woe unto them and unto what their tongues have uttered and unto what their hands have wrought on the day of retribution and on this day when the people have arisen for the Lord of the Worlds."

Baha'u'llah speaks of pride and vainglory "burning" these arrogant Ulama. It is a common insult in Persian is to accuse someone of having a "burnt father;" I would expect that Baha'u'llah is not merely flinging an insult but calling to mind the probable origin of the expression in such Biblical language as "pouring hot coals on someone's head," that is, following the moral imperative to refrain from retaliating and showing kindness to an angry or haughty opponent. By overlooking the fire of arrogance, a spiritually aware believer leaves these aggressors to burn in the flames of his "father" virtue of haughty ignorance. There is no need to oppose those who are full of themselves, since they will combust and fall apart by themselves.

Momen points out in his preface to this translation that three major issues are raised in the Lawh-i-Ittihad, one, unity as a value in itself, two, the question of station, rank and leadership in the Baha'i community, and three, covenant. As a whole they answer the crucial question: how do the Baha'is propose to get anything done if they are all equal? This apparent contradiction comes up in any egalitarian or libertarian system: if all are equal, who is to say what is to be done? And even if there is strong leadership, who is going to submit to it?

Unity as value offers a remedy to the problem of priorities. In practice values often cancel one another out. For example, freedom of speech, although affirmed as a basic right, can often go against equality and unity. Here, Baha'u'llah sets unity as the deciding "mother of all values."

The question of ranks relates to the removal of a professional clergy from the Cause of Baha'u'llah. The furious arrogance of the Ulama stands as an object lesson for posterity that a pure religion must expunge professionalism from its ranks. As long as a group is singled out it will come to regard the divine message as its own property, and this is intolerable. But the question remains, by what general principle will the Cause gain the strong leadership that unified action implies? Momen get around this by suggesting that the central principle of Covenant -- so important but clarified and solidified only in the last year or so of Baha'u'llah's ministry with the Revelation of the Ahd -- is there by implication.

"The third issue that is touched upon tangentially in this tablet is that of the Covenant. Although the tablet does not refer directly to the issue of the Covenant, we can see how Baha'u'llah's concern for unity would raise the question of what was to be the focal point of unity and loyalty in the new religion. Christianity was based around intellectual loyalty to theological and doctrinal formulations which were summarised in creeds. Islam was based around a more practical loyalty focussed on a way of life formulated around the Shari`ah. What was to be the basis of the unity of Baha'u'llah's religion?"

The unity of rank, then, was later resolved by Baha'u'llah's appointment of a successor who later called Himself Servant, Abdu'l-Baha, thus connecting the Revelation to the spiritual leadership ideal that "if any desire to be first he shall be last of all and servant of all." (Mark 9:35, KJV) A tie is also forged by the Covenant with the unity of ritual acts; prayer and devotionals are fundamentals of the lifestyle of faith, and the details of this were established during the Ministry of the Master. Momen says, "Baha'u'llah saw this (unity of ritual acts) as the way of achieving the last unity that he described in this tablet - the unity of souls."

Much more needs to be learned from this momentous tablet. If I were to choose what its most important thrust I would have to choose its implications for justice. Baha'u'llah says succinctly in the 6th "Leaf" of the Words of Paradise that, "The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men." (Tablets, 66-67) Let that be the topic of the next essay in this series...

John Taylor



Thursday, December 25, 2008

Stewing over World Government

Santa Patrol

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 25, 14 Masa'il 165 BE

Last night was Christmas eve. The kids got it into their heads to establish an all-night "Santa Patrol" to catch the jolly guy in the act and persuade him to sign a pile of contracts and then invite him to a play that they had been writing and rehearsing all day for Christmas. I overheard them as they worked out one hour shifts and at one point nine-year-old Tomaso said to Silvie, "You do believe in Santa don't you?" My fourteen-year daughter replied, "Yes, but not in the way you believe in him."

Mom was off reading by herself, and I was in the study watching Tom Hanks in "Charlie Wilson's War." Every few minutes Tomaso would come in to give a report on his patrol. When midnight drew near I commented that maybe Santa will just decide not to come this year and instead just give their presents to some poor kid in the Third World. They were tired enough that this persuaded them without further argument, though Silvie protested weakly, "Yes, but there is only one world. There is no Third World. I caught Tata out on a blooper." I agreed that I had made a mistake, contradicting Baha'u'llah Himself, as I ushered them into their beds.

Sometimes when Tomaso cannot sleep and even Momka has failed to lull him off, I slip into his lower bunk and in pitch dark recite the Tablet of Ahmad. Sometimes one recital of the prayer is enough, but other times I have to say it twice and even thrice before the tedium puts him to sleep. This time I reclined in bed but was not moved to begin saying the prayer. The film I had just seen worried me. I just lay there stewing over the state of the world. The next year or so, some are saying, will the most important in history. Do we have a chance? It did not take long for Tomaso to drop off to sleep, but the worries continued...

Charlie Wilson was not the typical hero that Tom Hanks chooses to make a film about. Wilson was the playboy senator who took on the mission to get effective weapons into the hands of Afghani resistance fighters after the Soviet invasion. Wilson was a no-account pleasure seeker, womanizer and coke user with no record of success. That is why the Soviets underestimated him badly. When he saw the horrors the Soviets had done to helpless civilians he spent every minute for ten years advocating on their behalf. After the Soviets left, though, he failed to arouse any interest at all on the part of the American government in helping get the Afghanistan economy back onto its feet.

Which is why the ill results of the Afghanistan blunder remain to this day. The film begins and ends with Charlie Wilson receiving special recognition from the American "clandestine community." And the Monty Python crew thought they were making a joke when they called their reviews the "Secret Policeman's Ball" and, a few years later, "The Secret Policeman's Other Ball."

I find this horribly depressing. There is no support anywhere for a world government, which is the only real solution to the present problems. The only thing that can get people moving are violent causes, like arming the freedom fighters of Afghanistan, that only make things worse. Much worse. Where are the heroes and freedom fighters for a world commonwealth? Why is nobody arising to do the only thing that will get us out of this pickle?

What could Charlie Wilson have done to establish real peace? How about going and talking to the Soviets and Afghanis and talking them out of violence? Or if he had campaigned against war spending in his own government? Would any of that have worked? Maybe if he had the moral force of a Gandhi, or the verve of a Churchill. Probably he would have got nothing done. It all seems pointless. Peace is a lost cause. As Baha'u'llah wrote,

"Methinks ye are as dead, wrapped in the coverings of your own selves." (Summons, 231)

This relatively hopeful sentence lately appeared in the Financial Times of London:

"So, it seems, everything is in place. For the first time since homo sapiens began to doodle on cave walls, there is an argument, an opportunity and a means to make serious steps towards a world government."

Then it fizzles and the author buries himself in the same pessimistic vision of where we are really going that so discourages me.

"... making progress on global governance will be slow sledding. Even in the EU -- the heartland of law-based international government -- the idea remains unpopular. The EU has suffered a series of humiliating defeats in referendums, when plans for ever-closer union have been referred to the voters. In general, the Union has progressed fastest when far-reaching deals have been agreed by technocrats and politicians -- and then pushed through without direct reference to the voters. International governance tends to be effective only when it is anti-democratic." (Gideon Rachman, "And Now for a World Government," Dec 8, 2008,>

The people can only support what they know, and they are unlikely to support world government as long as it has never been tried out. The people have blinders; they see only what is old, never what is new. When Abdu'l-Baha said that we have already suffered thousands of years of war, why not try peace? He was hitting the nail on the head. We cannot possibly hope for a democratic push to peace as long as peace is unknown and untried. Plato's parable of the ship's captain applies. Only an expert seaman can sail the ship through a storm. If they oust him from authority and start taking votes about what to do next in a storm, the whole ship is as good as doomed. That is what I feel, a complete sense of doom. Unless millions of people start making radical changes to their sense of identity, we are all in for it. As that article says,

"The world's most pressing political problems may indeed be international in nature, but the average citizen's political identity remains stubbornly local. Until somebody cracks this problem, that plan for world government may have to stay locked away in a safe at the UN."

John Taylor



Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Wisdom's Skeleton Key

The Skeleton Key

Piaget on Comenius

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 24, 13 Masa'il 165 BE


Early in Jan Amos Comenius's life he wrote a parable of the relationship between the world and spirit which became a spiritual classic. It is called, "The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart" and is, according to Wikipedia, the best known of all older Czech literary works. The latest Czech edition came out in 2002 and sold out immediately. The story describes a pilgrim in search of the trade or profession that would most conduce to his happiness and that of others. He is sent a guide named Searchall or Ubiquitous and together they navigate the complex labyrinth of worldly understanding. I have a brief film version of the parable in a DVD biography of Comenius, and it is on my todo list to upload it onto YouTube. At any rate, in the end the searchers find that the paradise of the heart opens doors in the world below as well as the way to heaven.

In this essay series we have been discussing the distinction that Comenius makes between reform and universal reform.

Universal reform, or Panorthosia, is based upon the universal worldview of spirit that Comenius called Pansophia, or universal wisdom. In the eleventh chapter of the Panorthosia he asks, "What is the difference between Philosophy and Pansophy?" He then answers his own question:


"Surely it is that between the part and the whole; just as if one man who lived in a castle had separate keys for each of the rooms, and another had only a single key which opened them all." (para 22, p. 184)

This skeleton key of divine wisdom is different from all other "keys," all of which open just one room in the castle. Pansophia, universal wisdom, can open all doors in the rooms and dungeons of the labyrinth of the world. Abdu'l-Baha had a very similar understanding of the knowledge given to the Holy Manifestations,

"Thus, the divine Manifestations of God had a universal and all-inclusive conception. They endeavoured for the sake of everyone's life and engaged in the service of universal education. The area of their aims was not limited - nay, rather, it was wide and all-inclusive." (Selected Writings, 69)

Pansophia is universal because it divides wisdom into knowledge, volition and action -- or, as below, into the aims, means and methods of the science.

"So we have seen the Aim, and the Means, and the Methods of a new and truly Universal PHILOSOPHY, and it is an easy matter to state the conclusions to be drawn from all that I have said." Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 11, para 22, p. 184

Universal reform, based on universal wisdom, could without dislocation remove all of the narrowness, prejudice, hatred and confusion that afflict the tortuous dungeon of materialism. The modern educational reformer Jean Piaget held that pansophia was meant to become the first Everyman's philosophy. I will close with Piaget's tribute to Comenius,

Piaget on Comenius

"Not only was Comenius the first to conceive a full-scale science of education but, let it be repeated, he made it the very core of a pansophy which, in his thinking, was to constitute a general philosophic system."

"...he resumed a scheme for a work on the universal reform of human society by the following means: (a) unification of learning and its spread by an improved school system under the supervision of a kind of international academy; (b) political co-ordination through international institutions aimed at maintaining peace; (c) reconciliation of the Churches in a tolerant form of Christianity. The title of the work, General Consultation on the Reform of Human Affairs, shows that his idea was to submit a programme to those taking part in the great negotiations which had aroused and disappointed so many hopes during the seventeenth century.

"Comenius's international projects, therefore, cannot be divorced from his educational ideas or from his philosophy as a whole. Peaceful international organization and the sort of international ministry of education that the Collegium lucis was intended to be are not merely the outcome of the dreams with which a man whose tragic life had always prevented him from carrying out his educational intentions consoled himself.

"As we have seen in running through the stages of his life, Comenius constantly sought, with direct relation to his pansophic ideal, to lay the foundations for that co-operation which was at least as close to his heart as his ideal of teaching.

"He must, therefore, be regarded as a great forerunner of modern attempts at international collaboration in the field of education, science and culture. It was not incidentally or by accident that he conceived such ideas, fitting in fortuitously with certain modern achievements, but as a consequence of the general conception of his system, which fused nature, human activity and the educational process into a single whole."


John Taylor



Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Obligatory and Congregational Prayer

Why Say the Obligatory Prayers? Plus, A note on Congregational Prayer

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 23, 12 Masa'il 165 BE

"One who performeth neither good deeds nor acts of worship is like unto a tree which beareth no fruit, and an action which leaveth no trace. Whosoever experienceth the holy ecstasy of worship will refuse to barter such an act or any praise of God for all that existeth in the world. Fasting and obligatory prayer are as two wings to man's life. Blessed be the one who soareth with their aid in the heaven of the love of God, the Lord of all worlds." (IOPF, Section 1, no. 3)

I have been writing about debt and Comenius's meta-reform plan. While researching these I came across Plato's description of the nature of justice in the fourth book of the Republic:

"But in reality justice was ... concerned however, not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man: for the just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others,  -- he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has bound together the three principles within him, which may be compared to the higher, lower, and middle notes of the scale, and the intermediate intervals..."

After performing the Long Obligatory prayer this morning I thought of this passage. It seems to explain why God ordained this prayer as obligatory. This is the only prayer that puts us through all three of the processes Plato mentions, knowing (the inner life), willing (being your own master) and acting (being at peace with oneself). All three are part of a harmony of inner with outer that we call justice.

The justice that comes out of the obligatory prayers is like a tuning fork. This sets them apart from other prayers. Even the verb we use to describe the Long and Medium Obligatory Prayers is different, we "say" other prayers, but these we do not just say, we "perform" them. In that sense, words combined with bodily motions, they set the tone for all parts of the soul, its faculty of reason, the will and the body.

When I perform the obligatory prayer in the morning, as I just did, my thoughts and emotions in that time act as a sort of tuning fork, not unlike the mixed up sound of the warm-up that an orchestra must go through before the symphony. My day is marked by an ineffable commingling of the three inner faculties, reason, will and deed. The day's events seem at times like a direct means of approach to my Creator, as Baha'u'llah promised that they would,

"And We have ordained obligatory prayer and fasting so that all may by these means draw nigh unto God, the Most Powerful, the Well-Beloved." (Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting (IOPF) Compilation, Section 1, no. 1)

Abdu'l-Baha, in talking about the longer obligatory prayers, emphasizes their effect on emotion and sensibility. He holds that this prayer gives a pleasure of an entirely higher order than anything else available to the human palate. "Every joy is earthly save this one, the sweetness of which is divine." (Sec. 2, No. 8) (`Abdu'l-Baha, IOPF Compilation, Sec. 2, No. 8) Say the prayer long enough, I guess, and spirituality starts to infuse your entire being.

"Through worship man becometh spiritual, his heart is attracted, and his soul and inner being attain such tenderness and exhilaration that the Obligatory Prayer instilleth new life in him." (Sec. 2, No. 7) (`Abdu'l-Baha, IOPF Compilation, Sec. 2, No. 7)

Read that enticing promise and you are reminded of a speaker at a TED conference (see:, a journalist who wondered if the most expensive and sought after pleasures are worth the money you have to shell out in return for the refined experience that they supposedly offer. He got a magazine to sponsor him and he tried a ride in the world's most expensive sports car, he slept in a $60,000 bed, sampled truffles, the most legendary wine, and so forth. Most of these luxuries he judged unworthy of the money spent. Mostly, they rely upon snob appeal, the feeling that I am experiencing what only a few in the world can get their hands on.

It would have been interesting if after all that sampling of rare luxuries he had tried out what the Master proposes is the most exquisite pleasure of them all, the ecstasy of prayer. Imagine him getting down on his knees before God, raising his hands, putting hands on knees, making the moves and reciting the very words that God says to say... Would that have moved him more than Chateau l'Effite had (that is, not much) or the perfect control of the three million dollar roadster?

This act of devotion has many advantages over the priciest luxuries. Unlike them, it costs nothing. And it is hardly a sought-after commodity. The poorest shlub in the world in the ugliest slum of Mumbai or Haiti can perform it all he wants. In fact the Long Oblig has the reverse of snob appeal, if you are a Baha'i you have to do it, not once but every day.

Sure, you probably have to believe in order for the Long Oblig to work its full magic, and even if you do believe -- for me at least -- there is often no noticeable effect at all -- which is one reason they put at the front of most prayer books Baha'u'llah's "warning label," "though he may at first remain unaware of its effect..." But when the prayer does connect right away, you feel in your bones what the Psalm declares:

"The law of Yahweh is perfect, restoring the soul. The testimony of Yahweh is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of Yahweh are right, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of Yahweh is pure, enlightening the eyes." (Psalm 19:7-8, WEB)

Note on Congregational Prayer

There is a great deal of interesting discussion about all things Baha'i at the Baha'i Library discussion group. Somebody asked the following question about congregational prayer:

Dear Baha'i Friends, I was wondering why we do not pray in congregation? Why was it abolished?

Several responses were given, none of which in my opinion came near the mark in answering this question. The following by one Loren, however, stood out. It is the best answer that I have seen.


This is a good question, one for which there is probably not one correct answer. However, I have thought about this before, and can share with you some of my thoughts on the abolition of congregational prayer based on some of my experiences of them. I spent some time living in the Middle East, as well as many years studying Islam, and at one time, as part of my self-initiated Arabic and Islamic studies, I studied at an Islamic Invitation school, which was for general education of Muslims, as well as enrolling people in the faith through offering a systematic study of Islam, and Arabic (to read the Quran and pray properly). I learned and participated in the Islamic Salat on the occasions that I was at the school, when the afternoon prayer time came. I learned the proper manner of washing, what to do, what to say, and when. Other than the transitional Allah-u-Akbar that the Imam would say between the different positions, the only thing which could be heard was the nearly silent sound of lips mouthing word in Arabic.

I do not wish to suggest for a moment that those believers were not sincerely reciting their prayers. But it did make me realize at least one good reason why Baha'u'llah should abolish it. With the system of Imam lead prayer, it seems all too easy for the outward forms of the prayer (ablutions, positions, extra prayers, reverent appearances, etc.) to receive undo emphasis while the more important matters of intentions, inward attitudes, the actual words of the prayers, etc., can get lost altogether. In contrast, in my experiences as a Baha'i saying my obligatory prayers, I have never experienced even the potential for those distractions I experienced praying with Muslims. Don't get me wrong, praying with the Muslims was a precious experience for me, but I think Bahaullah has made our obligatory prayers much more personal and intimate.

On another note, I wanted to clear a common misconception that I often hear about the Baha'i obligatory prayers. I have heard it said by many Baha'is that we must be alone when we prayer our obligatory prayers. In fact, we do not have to be alone, but we have to say our prayers alone:

"As to the obligatory prayer: Each one must say his prayer alone by himself, and this is not conditional on a private place; that is, both at home and in the worshipping-place, which is a gathering-place, it is allowable for one to say his prayer; but each person must say his prayer by himself. But if they chant supplications together, in a good and effective voice, that is very good" (Lights of Guidance, 465).

In some ways I think this passage even sheds some light on your question. It seems God wants us to pray from our own hearts and lips and not merely shadow someone praying on our behalf. I think its important to understand that we not be alone to find a suitable place to pray. Im sure many of us prefer to be alone, but I can think of too many occasions where I may have missed a prayer on the excuse that I made to myself: there is no place to be alone before I knew any better. Being alone might be ideal, or, depending on your personality, essential, but it is nice to know it is not required. It makes it a little easier for us to comply in certain times and circumstances.

I hope you will not think I was just confessing my sins about missing some prayers! ;-)