Saturday, May 31, 2008

p07 Avoiding Knowledge Fallout

Comenius and the Bestseller List

By John Taylor; 2008 May 31, 15 `Azamat, 165 BE


We are living in a knowledge explosion. An atomic detonation, in fact; a huge mushroom cloud is sucking up good and bad information. Then later it all rains down on our heads. If there is bad data in the mix it acts like radioactive fallout mixing around with the good. We die from it, sooner or later.


For example, now they are researching and teaching nano-technology in every high technology center. Then nano-junk goes into frivolous products like cosmetics; and last week we here of a study finding that nano-particles act like asbestos in the body -- and do not even think about what they will do to animals and plants once they end up in landfills... The only way to make this explosion into a good thing is for teachers to teach better than they are. We need to teach wisdom. We need to teach faith. We need to teach restraint, planning, consultation, world citizenship, philosophy... not continue teaching dubieties that are as likely as not to make things worse than they already are.


That is why I think Comenius is a writer who should be on the top of all the bestseller lists, instead of the intellectual nano-particle ridden crap that is up there now. Now it is possible to use computers to aid the learning process very effectively. Comenius started it going centuries ago, when he wrote,


"If, in each hour, a man could learn a single fragment of some branch of knowledge, a single rule of some mechanical art, a single pleasing story or proverb (the acquisition of which would require no effort), what a vast stock of learning he might lay by. Seneca is therefore right when he says: `Life is long, if we know how to use it.' It is consequently of importance that we understand the art of making the very best use of our lives." (Wikiquotes, Comenius,


In fact, as we all know, the Bab predicted that learning and data retrieval would one day explode, but explode in a good way, without radioactive fallout. He is cited as saying,


"The newly born babe of that Day excels the wisest and most venerable men of this time, and the lowliest and most unlearned of that period shall surpass in understanding the most erudite and accomplished divines of this age...." (The Bab, quoted in "The Dawn-Breakers: Nabil's Narrative of the Early Days of the Baha'i Revelation" trans. and ed. Shoghi Effendi, London, Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1975, p. 65)


I recently ordered Comenius's Panorthosia, his master plan for uniting the world under a single schema of learning, applying systematic learning to the ultimate end of all learning, and all religion too: the establishment of a world government and a world culture. The Panorthosia covers basically what we call the Baha'i principles now. This is an astonishing book, all the more amazing when you think of the dramatic story of how it came down to us. What happened was that Comenius worked on it till his last days and on his deathbed got his son to swear to get it published. He did his best to do so, but something happened to prevent it, though. The manuscript ended up stuck away in some obscure monastery in a small German duchy. Apparently the only person who pulled it off the shelf during all those centuries was another genius, GWV Liebniz. The latter lived nearby. His ideas and proposals for unifying Christianity and European states into a single political union fell in line so closely to the Panorthosia that the translator of the book is convinced he must have read it.


Anyway, fast forward to the 1930's and suddenly somebody discovers the manuscript, which had been thought lost for three hundred years, and translates it into Czech. Then a Latin scholar, the headmaster of some obscure Scottish high school, comes across the Panorthosia and devotes his life to translating it into English. The section that I just got was published in 1997. Coincidentally I was reading George Monbiot's 2003 proposal for a world democratic government, where it says,


"While a global people's assembly has revolutionary potential it is hardly a new idea. The first reference to the notion I have seen is contained in Alfred Tennyson's poem Locksley Hall, written in 1842. ('Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle flags were furl'd In the parliament of man, the Federation of the world.") Today there are at least six competing models and scores of proposals, each supported by a vocal faction. (Age of Consent p. 86)


I could not resist whipping off an email to the author, in which I said,



Dr. Monbiot, I just finished your Age of Consent, which I enjoyed immensely and gave favorable reviews on my blog ( However, with regard to (the passage quoted above) in the Age of Consent, I note that, as you no doubt are aware, Kant wrote a "sketch" for a world constitution much earlier, and I just came across this, from the Czech reformer Jan Amos Comenius, in his Panorthosia,


"I never forgot that beautiful dream of Jeremiah concerning the wonderful church and the restoration of the world for her sake, nor lost my constant desire to serve God's good purpose in this matter. These devout plans were in course of time carried to fulfillment in the achievement of my sevenfold work... What is essentially new is its universal range, nothing less, in fact, than the reform of all persons and everywhere."

 "We shall also be bold as it were in the parliament of the whole world to proclaim how in our judgment, Learning, Religion and Government may be brought to certain immutable principles or bases, to their best foundation, so that ignorance, uncertainty, discussions, the noise and tumult of disputes, quarrels and wars shall cease throughout the world and Light, Peace and Sanity return, and that golden age which has ever been longed for, the age of light and peace and religion, may be brought to sight." (1664) (Panorthosia, p. 14)


from: Jan Amos Comenius, Panorthosia, or Universal Reform, Chapters 1-18 and 27, translated by A.M.O. Dobbie




If I were less polite, I would have added that what Comenius suggests is far better, bolder, more far reaching and more comprehensive than anything Monbiot or anybody else today dares suggest.


Comenius's idea would actually work.


Comenius understood that world government is not a political project at root; it is an educational enterprise. Monbiot, passionate as is his love of justice, and clever as his ideas are, is sadly caught up in the conflict of protester versus establishment, a model that is outmoded and tedious and, as history has amply demonstrates, does as much harm as good, and even when successful revolutions always eats their own children. What Comenius proposes is a positive unification, the combination of all knowledge, all intellectuals, all religious people to form what Baha'u'llah later called an "all embracing assemblage of humanity." There is no more exiting book for the environment and for the world than the Panorthosia that has come out over the past several decades, and nobody has even heard of Comenius. This is unbelievable.


Comenius was not unfamiliar with war and conflict; he lived during the bloody Thirty Years War. But he saw that there is only way out of contention, and that is education. If people are disputing, both sides are wrong, both need to go back to school and learn to pray, reflect, consult and plan. It is as simple as that. Let Comenius have the last word; what he says in the following about learning being "useless, curious and pernicious" describes exactly the educational culture of today, with its nanotech and DNA splicing, even as millions of children languish around the world without access even to primary school.


"Education is indeed necessary for all, and this is evident if we consider the different degrees of ability. No one doubts that those who are stupid need instruction, that they may shake off their natural dullness. But in reality those who are clever need it far more, since an active mind, if not occupied with useful things, will busy itself with what is useless, curious, and pernicious."

Friday, May 30, 2008

p19cap More on Capital Punishment

More on Capital Punishment and Other News


Dunnville Fireside

Reader feedback

Further Comments about Capital Punishment




Dunnville's Fireside in June

Dunnville's Baha'i Fireside takes place on Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Ron Speer and Cheryl Sensabaugh share a power point presentation on their recent trip to Israel, including Baha'i gardens and holy places, Nazareth, the Golan Heights, the Jordan River Baptismal Centre, Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank.

This presentation will take place Tuesday June 10th at 8:00pm at the Garfield Disher Room of Dunnville's Library.




Ron and Cheryl are available to take this presentation to your group. Just call Ron Speer 905-774-6526 or Cheryl 905-774-6218 and book a place and time.




Reader feedback from Jimbo

 Very interesting and timely ideas! Just an update on the world's present population. It is now 6,668,967,842 human beings living on this planet, and growing fast. See  for the latest world population count.




Capital Punishment


Recently I wrote about the provisions in the Aqdas for capital punishment, and I got two comments on the blog, one quoting the first sentence of the 62nd paragraph only, saying I was wrong, and another saying I should have quoted the passage in question. So here is the whole paragraph:


"Should anyone intentionally destroy a house by fire, him also shall ye burn; should anyone deliberately take another's life, him also shall ye put to death. Take ye hold of the precepts of God with all your strength and power, and abandon the ways of the ignorant. Should ye condemn the arsonist and the murderer to life imprisonment, it would be permissible according to the provisions of the Book. He, verily, hath power to ordain whatsoever He pleaseth."


The second sentence says to "abandon the ways of the ignorant," probably means extremists on both sides of the issue, pro and con, those who would increase punishments and those who would wipe out capital punishment completely. But note the third sentence. It allows society to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. The last sentence again throws water on those who would take an absolute position either way; saying that God does what He wants, so leave it alone.

So the question remains, do Baha'is "believe in" capital punishment, or do we see this provision for its use as gradually removing the need for ever applying it? Let me ask a parallel question. Baha'u'llah's law provides for all nations to rise up and attack an aggressor nation. Does that mean that He sanctions attacks? Is He advocating war? Can you correctly say that Baha'is "believe in war"? That would be a gross perversion of the intent of Baha'u'llah's proposal for collective security. I am just saying that it is a gross half-truth to say that Baha'is believe in capital punishment.


It is, I declare forcefully, a fundamental step in the spiritual path to recognize that compassion for life is central to the belief in God. But compassion cannot thrive without the firm support of justice. But taking a life created by God is an affront to God, even in the hands of justice itself, which is why Baha'u'llah allows for life imprisonment instead of capital punishment for the arsonist or murderer. It is like the parable of the sower: some seeds fall on rocky ground, some on swampland, but neither crop grows. A society that bases itself on too much punishment or too much compassion will not thrive for long.


Since I have been citing Leo Tolstoy's story of his spiritual journey, let us look at the following. The turning point for him in finally accepting God after being an unbeliever all his life came upon two events, the death of his brother and the disturbing occasion when he witnessed a public execution. A footnote in Confession explains that on 25 March 1857 Francois Riche was executed for murder, and on 6 April Tolstoy mentioned the execution in his diary: `He kissed the Gospel and then -- death. What insanity!'


Here is how Tolstoy tells the story in Confession,




"During this time I went abroad. Life in Europe and my acquaintance with eminent and learned Europeans confirmed me all the more in my belief in general perfectibility, for I found the very same belief among them. My belief assumed a form that it commonly assumes among the educated people of our time... This belief was expressed by the word "progress." At the time it seemed to me that this word had meaning. Like any living individual, I was tormented by questions of how to live better. I still had not understood that in answering that one must live according to progress, I was talking just like a person being carried along in a boat by the waves and the wind; without really answering, such a person replies to the only important question -- Where are we to steer?" -- By saying, "We are being carried somewhere."


"I did not notice this at the time. Only now and then would my feelings, and not my reason, revolt against this commonly held superstition of the age, by means of which people hide from themselves their own ignorance of life.


"Thus during my stay in Paris the sight of an execution revealed to me the feebleness of my superstitious belief in progress. When I saw how the head was severed from the body and heard the thud of each part as it fell into the box, I understood, not with my intellect but with my whole being, that no theories of the rationality of existence or of progress could justify such an act; I realized that even if all the people in the world from the day of creation found this to be necessary according to whatever theory, I knew that it was not necessary and that it was wrong.


"Therefore, my judgments must be based on what is right and necessary and not on what people say and do; I must judge not according to progress but according to my own heart.


"The death of my brother was another instance in which I realized the inadequacy of the superstition of progress in regard to life. A good, intelligent, serious man, he was still young when he fell ill. He suffered for over a year and died an agonizing death without ever understanding why he lived and understanding even less why he was dying. No theories could provide any answers to these questions, either for him or for me, during his slow and painful death." (Tolstoy, Confession, pp. 22-23)




Tolstoy, in my opinion, went to the nub of the question: the idolatry of progress. Advocates of capital punishment believe in an automatic mechanism of social engineering: kill killers. If we kill murderers we will automatically progress to a better, more just social condition. Progress is an ideology if it is used as an excuse not to seek out truth for yourself. So the question is: does capital punishment lead to progress?


History, especially American history, amply disproves this notion. As it is now in America the ones who end up being executed are non-whites and other despised minorities, thus worsening the racism that the Baha'i faith is designed to eliminate. The only way forward is to take the shoelaces of history between the hands and shake them by seeking truth for ourselves.


Capital punishment only perpetuates a culture of violence and retaliation. In the same way, if some nations rather than all nations were to arise to suppress an aggressor nation, Baha'u'llah's suggestion would actually spread regional conflicts into world wars. No, you have to look at the whole context of the peace program in order to understand it; and same way, look at the entire justice agenda of the Baha'i Faith.  Anything less than the whole Law of God is not enough. It is but sounds repeated back by a parrot. Baha'is do not parrot the pros or cons of disputes like capital punishment: we seek to establish justice and love through our own spiritual effort and by planned social action.


Let us apply each of the Aqdas's provisions as the divine Doctor prescribes the whole remedy. This law is designed to end murder, not perpetuate it.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

p13 Tolstoy's big question

An Example of Question-Guided Search for Truth

By John Taylor; 2008 May 29, 13 `Azamat, 165 BE


Tolstoy, Confession, Translated by David Patterson, Norton, New York, 1996

I am going to devote several essays to excerpts and comments on Leo Tolstoy's story of his spiritual awakening as told in his book, Confession. Here is the blurb.


"Marking a shift in his career from the aesthetic to the religious, Tolstoy's Confession relates his spiritual crisis, posing the question: Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my death? It is a timeless account of an individual's struggle for faith and meaning."

I think it is an important text for anybody to read, but especially for Baha'is living in areas where secularism, atheism and agnosticism predominate, and where there is an antipathy to religion.


But first, this.


The Universal House of Justice wrote an important letter to a believer in a Nordic country prescribing several steps to take for spiritualizing oneself in the face of the challenge of living and teaching in places where anti-theism predominates. I highly recommend the whole letter, but here is an excerpt.


"Europe has suffered so appallingly in past centuries from persecutions and conflicts inspired by religious differences and fanaticism that there has been a revulsion against religion. Many Europeans have become skeptical, scornful of religious practices, and reluctant either to discuss religious subjects or to give credence to the power of faith. This turning away from religion has been powerfully reinforced by the growth of materialism, and has produced a combination of physical well-being and spiritual aridity that is having catastrophic results, socially and psychologically, on the population."

"This intellectual and emotional atmosphere creates problems for the Baha'i community in two ways. Its effect upon a large proportion of the non-Baha'i population makes it difficult for Baha'is to convey the Message to others. Its effect upon the Baha'is is more subtle, but no less harmful; if not consciously combated it can lead the believers to neglect those spiritual exercises which are the very fountainhead of their spiritual strength and the nourishment of their souls." (The Universal House of Justice, 1983 Sept 01, On Steps to Spiritual Growth)


I hope that this gives a hint at my reasoning for reading Tolstoy's Confession. It is a sort of primer for spiritual enlightenment. It is a handbook for understanding the process of spiritual advance. The Master picked up on Tolstoy's search for truth, and my former roommate, Jan Jasion, wrote a book about what happened next. It is called, I think, Tolstoy and the Baha'i Faith.


Anyway, Tolstoy's turning to faith issues makes the Confession not just an inspiring read, but more than that it is a foundational document in the so-called justice movement. The whole idea of non-violent resistance came out of his strict reading of the Sermon on the Mount, which most Christians had dismissed as impracticable for centuries. Martin Luther King was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi and Gandhi corresponded with Tolstoy for the last year of the latter's life, and named one of his communes after Tolstoy. This makes it one of the most influential reformist manifestos of the 20th Century.


The trick that Tolstoy learned is to get down to basics, and retain your ability to be ruthlessly self-critical. Plus, he kept the right questions in mind. There are only a few big questions that every seeker sooner or later must answer satisfactorily, which I call the "Questions Five." These questions permeate the talks and writings of Abdu'l-Baha, and few others. Tolstoy, in Confessions, goes through them quite systematically. Here they are:


What do or can I know?

Who or what am I? or, How do I define myself?

Why am I here at all?

How should I behave?

What is to come of me?


Here is how Tolstoy dealt with what he thought was the biggest of the big questions,


Tolstoy's big question


My question, the question that had brought me to the edge of suicide when I was fifty years old, was the simplest question lying in the soul of every human being, from a silly child to the wisest of the elders, the question without which life is impossible; such was the way I felt about the matter. The question is this:


"What will come of what I do today and tomorrow? What will come of my entire life?"


Expressed differently, the question may be: Why should I live? Why should I wish for anything or do anything? Or to put it still differently: Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death? (Tolstoy, Confession, pp. 34-35)


Throughout human knowledge I sought an answer to this question, which is one and the same question in the various expressions of it. And I found that in regard to this question the sum of human knowledge is divided as if into two hemispheres lying opposite each other, into two opposite extremes occupying two poles, one positive and one negative. But there were no answers to the question of life at either pole.


One field of knowledge does not even acknowledge the question, even though it clearly and precisely answers the questions that it has posed independently. This is the field of experimental science, and at its extreme end is mathematics. The other field of knowledge acknowledges the questions but does not answer it. This is the field of speculative philosophy, and at its extreme end is metaphysics.


From my early youth I had studied speculative philosophy, but later both mathematics and the natural sciences attracted me. And until I had clearly put my question to myself, until the question itself grew within me and urgently demanded a resolution, I was satisfied with the counterfeit answers that knowledge had to offer.


In regard to the realm of experience, I said to myself, "Everything is developing and being differentiated, becoming more complex and moving toward perfection, and there are laws governing this process. You are part of the whole. If you learn as much as possible about the whole and if you learn the law of its development, you will come to know your place in the whole and to know yourself." As much as I am ashamed to admit it, there was a time when I seemed to be satisfied with this. (35)


Another big question: why do I live?


Generally the relation between the experimental sciences and the question of life may be expressed in this way: Question -- why do I live? Answer -- in infinite space, in infinite time, infinitely small particles undergo modifications of infinite complexity, and when you understand the laws that govern these modifications, then you will understand why you live. (37)


Then along more speculative lines I would say to myself, `All of mankind lives and develops according to the spiritual principles, according to the ideals that guide it. These ideals find expression in the religions, the sciences, the arts, and the forms of government. As these ideals rise higher and higher, mankind proceeds on to its greater happiness. I am a part of mankind and my mission, therefore, lies in helping mankind through the consciousness and realization of these ideals.' (37-38)


... In addition to the careless inaccuracy with which this type of knowledge draws its conclusions and makes general claims about humanity after having studied only a small part of it; in addition to the mutual contradiction among the various advocates of this view with respect to what the ideals of mankind are, the strangeness, if not the stupidity, of this view is that in order to answer the question that occurs to every man -- "What am I?" or "Why do I live?" or "What am I to do?" -another question must first be settled: "What is the life of the humanity that is unknown to us, the life of which we can know only a small portion over a short period of time?" In order to know what he is, a man must first know what the sum of this mysterious humanity is, a humanity made up of people who, like himself, do not understand what they are.


I must confess that there was a time when I believed this. It was during the time when I had my own pet ideals to justify my whims, when I tried to devise one theory or another so that I could look upon my whims as laws that govern mankind. But as soon as the question of life began to emerge in my soul in all its clarity, his reply immediately crumbled into dust. And I realized that within the experimental sciences there are those that are genuinely scientific and those that are only half scientific, trying to give answers to questions that lie completely out of their realm; thus I realized that there is a whole series of the most widely diversified fields of knowledge that try to answer questions beyond their scope. Those that are only half scientific include the judicial, social, and historical sciences; in its own way each of these sciences attempts to decide the questions concerning the individual by seemingly deciding the question of life that concerns all of mankind." (38-39)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

tenv, tfam, Poverty of Environmentalism Concluded

The Clash of Two World Charters

By John Taylor; 2008 May 28, 12 `Azamat, 165 BE


Yesterday we started to review Udo Schaefer's magisterial discussion of law and ethics. He ends his paper with this concise, insightful comparison of the crucial distinction between the Baha'i stance and that of the West, epitomized in the famous saying of the agnostic philosopher Protagoras.


"The conflict between the two different sets of values, that of Western secular civilization and that of the book of God is inevitable, and it will be a long time before humankind will accept that not `man is the measure of all things,' as the Greek philosopher Protagoras (d. 410 B.C.) stated, but rather it is God's unfathomable will that is the `infallible standard.' (Gl. 88:1) of all morality." (Udo Schaefer, Some Aspects of Baha'i Ethics, Journal of Baha'i Studies, 16. 1/4. 2006, p. 21)


Yesterday we touched on two touchstones of this parting of the ways suggested by Schaefer in this paper. One was capital punishment, which we looked at in some detail, and the other was sexual morality, which we will dive into today.


Essentially, what the Aqdas says (along with most other scriptures) is that indulgence in extra-spousal or non-heterosexual sexual intercourse is a perversion of human nature. Now from Protagoras's point of view, this brings up a paradox: how could a part of human nature contradict human nature? Man is the measure of all things, and since man often indulges in extramarital, homosexual, even extra-species sex therefore extramarital sex must be a standard of human behavior. As long as behavior is the standard of behavior, the very idea of perversion is logically inadmissible. The conclusion is inevitable: God's law forgive me for saying this, is nothing better than a form of prejudice. God is not only jealous, He is a bigot.


We have discussed Protagoras before on this blog; he was an agnostic, but Socrates paid him great respect, and later Protagoras, like his theist colleague Socrates, suffered for his convictions by being exiled. Now the West has come around to Protagoras's point of view; as Plato's dialog named for this sophist demonstrates, Socrates was not able to refute Protagoras, and their discussion trailed off into abstruse interplay over the question of "one" and "many." In other words, the theist and atheist viewpoints cannot logically nullify one another. Both are worldviews and can only be judged as such. There is only one way to judge a worldview, and that is not internally but by its fruits, by its widespread social effects when large numbers of people adhere to it. This is the only way. This criterion was explicitly prescribed by Jesus to His followers when He promised to return and they asked how they would know it was really He: "By their fruits..."


Lately at a meeting it was driven home to me how important this issue of sexual orientation is to the Universal House of Justice. Here is what happened. A member of Canada's NSA gave a talk to 78 people in Grimsby on how to deal with the environment, but I noticed that he had not mentioned the Earth Charter. When he asked for questions I jumped at the chance and briefly said that this charter, if it is accepted, would be the first pillar of the United Nations that has been consulted on and drafted by a broad cross-section of society. He gave it a polite nod, then turned to other things. I could not understand why the reticence. Why are Baha'is not latching onto this wonderful document? This is the first international political constitution designed from the ground up to change our relationship with nature and the environment. You would think that the leadership of the Faith would be all over it.


Since this speaker happens to be one of my spiritual parents, I later had a chance to discuss the Charter with him for a few minutes. He explained that a Baha'i, a member of the United States NSA in fact, had done a great amount of work on the early consultations leading up to the final draft of the Earth Charter. (and of course long before that the early environmentalist and Baha'i St. Barbe Baker had enlisted the Guardian as a "man of the trees" in his "forestry charter" initiatives.) However the House wrote a letter to this US NSA member (I could not find it on the Web, maybe a reader can point me to the letter) saying that it could not give its official sanction to the document, largely because of what it says about homosexuality. I looked the passage up in the Earth Charter and, looking it over again, it is worse than expected. I think the offending words are "sexual orientation" in the following, from paragraph 12,


"Uphold the right of all, without discrimination, to a natural and social environment supportive of human dignity, bodily health, and spiritual well-being, with special attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities. a. Eliminate discrimination in all its forms, such as that based on race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, language, and national, ethnic or social origin." (


 So in effect the Earth Charter accuses the Charter of Baha'u'llah's divine Order, that is, the Aqdas, of discrimination based on sexual orientation. This is what happens when there is a clash of two charters. According to what the speaker said, Baha'is are not discouraged from using the Charter as individuals but there just cannot be official sanction from the House or the Administration, in spite of their practically proposing the thing single handed from the beginning. This is a pity, and I must say I have been mulling this over during the past weeks. Yesterday I think I came to the threshold of a satisfying answer.


I was listening to a taped set of lectures put out by the CBC radio show "Ideas," that were given several years ago at my Alma Mater called "Malthus and the Third Millennium." Here is the blurb,


"In 1798, Thomas Malthus published his chilling essay `The Principles of Population,' claiming that human populations grow faster than resources. In the University of Guelph's Kenneth Hammond Lectures, four speakers ask how Malthus' dire prediction might apply today."


The first three speakers were conventional environmentalists who gave the usual fifty minutes of bad news followed by five minutes of hopeful solutions. The fourth speaker, Ronald Brooks, in effect gave them all a sucker punch. He pointed out that none of them had mentioned Malthus. The simple idea of Malthus that population always outruns food supply. Behind this is the story of the Chinese Emperor who offered to reward a sage, and he suggested a grain of rice on one square of a chessboard, two on the next, and so forth. Of course by the sixty fourth square all the rice in the world could not fill the last square. Arithmetic progression always falls behind geometric progression, and the more progress the quicker it falls behind. Population outstrips resources and the result is inevitable famine. This utterly demolishes any silly, vain hopes that the unthinking environmental guru can possibly offer.


Briefly, there are two kinds of approach to the environment, both of which have been around for centuries. One is the bucolic view that if we just respect the environment, hold high environmental ideals and curtail our wasteful lifestyle, everything will come out all right. Brooks points out that in practice people tend to do the opposite of the ideals they hold dear. For example, the three places with the lowest birthrates in the world are Italy, Ireland and Quebec, all three with Catholic majorities forbidden birth control by the church. The same is true with our planet, the more we value it the more we rape and exploit it.


The other approach says: forget about valuing the environment, protect it or do not protect it according to your own best interests. Put blind faith in progress, technology, capitalism, the working class, or whatever. We will find a way. Just accept that if we just keep on learning we will figure out a way to do the impossible. One thinker even suggested that as the population grows there will be more brains and therefore with all that much more brainpower we are bound to figure out a solution. That is the logic of democracy, and Plato saw through it at its very beginning. No matter how many people vote for one plus one equaling three, it will never make it true.


Malthus's answer to both sides is always the same mathematical inevitability: Seven billion humans sitting on a fence, trying to make arithmetic beat geometric progression. It cannot be. You can stack all the computers and all the best human brains in the world on top of one another, and the answer is always the same: the more you progress the worse it gets. Population always grows beyond the earth's ability to sustain it.


 Brooks uses a solution suggested by water expert Sandra Postel in the third lecture as an example. Drip irrigation will increase crop yields and decrease agricultural water use by eighty percent. What will we do if that happens? Naturally, food prices will go down, we will eat and waste more food, the population will increase, farmers will try to cultivate more land, and the noose around our necks will only get tighter.


 The second lecturer seemed to realize the hopelessness of our situation; a New Zealander, he sounded smashed out of his head, strangely like Dudley Moore's drunken character "Arthur." As he stacked up the offenses against the earth that he had discovered in his illustrious career, it made even a teetotaler like myself want to take a drink. But Brooks and Malthus took the prize; nothing can be more depressing than mathematical proof that nothing we do will ever make it better.


 Eureka, sad but true, that is why environmentalism is doomed to failure and fundamental poverty. Malthus exposed it and utterly refuted their basic presuppositions. Progress, now that the bounds of earth have melt into a single small globe, has to be mental, emotional, spiritual, just not physical. It is a mathematical fact that the only way ahead is to progress inwardly while keeping outer progress carefully to the limits of arithmetic progression.


Then I thought back to Udo Schaefer's conclusion: at the root of it all is the contradiction and clash between two standards, that of man as measure and that of the Will of God as measure of all things. Using the criterion of success, "by their fruits ye shall know them," the way of Protagoras is failing miserably.


First of all, Protagoras, like the environmentalists, was working a fallacy; he was fundamentally mistaken. How can a measure be used to measure itself? You cannot use a ruler to measure itself or a weight scale to weigh itself any more than you can use your eye to see itself or your hand to hold itself. The very definition of "standard" means to measure something according to something else. That is why if you want to measure all things, yes, use man as the measure, but to measure yourself you first need something outside of man in order to say what man is. The viewpoint of God has to be the measure of who and what we are before we decide what rules and laws to adopt for our own regulation. If God says that certain sexual expressions are illicit and unnatural, that is the way it is. Our true nature is what is above, God, not what is below, the animal. Our future rests with Him too.


When we use man as the standard of all things, no matter what our ideals or intentions we end up using our worst behavior as our standard. The short term, narrow view beats out the aspect of eternity. Killers, not saints, grab the headlines. We look at an airplane or train crash that kills hundreds, or a typhoon or earthquake that wipes out thousands, and we ignore the millions killed by poverty and international disorganization. The same thing is true of sexuality. In the same way that this water specialist was calling for water sustainability in the same way we speak of other forms of sustainability, that is exactly what God advocates too, in our sex lives. The virtue of chastity promotes family sustainability. Our nature is perverted if it does not act as if it part of a family that will last many generations. The expression of sex has to fit into the long run evolution of the human race; it is not a playground for personal desire. Unchastity and promiscuity betray one's family, and a person who wastes his or her life in sexual relationships outside marriage is living an unsustainable lifestyle, using same dissipated, fallacious thinking that lures industry to wanton destruction of nature. If it feels good do it, if it is useful, to hell with the long-term consequences.


None of this is new. Here is what the Guardian recalled about how the Master reacted when His proposals to the Hague Peace conference were rejected and a ship of nationalist fools made up the first charter ending war and starting the League of Nations.


"Peace, Peace, how often we heard Him remark, the lips of potentates and peoples unceasingly proclaim, whereas the fire of unquenched hatreds still smoulders in their hearts. How often we heard Him raise His voice, whilst the tumult of triumphant enthusiasm was still at its height and long before the faintest misgivings could have been felt or expressed, confidently declaring that the Document, extolled as the Charter of a liberated humanity, contained within itself seeds of such bitter deception as would further enslave the world. How abundant are now the evidences that attest the perspicacity of His unerring judgment!" (Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Baha'u'llah, pp. 29-30)


It was just as the Bible prophesied: "they declare peace, but there is no peace." Hatred, not love, becomes the dominating force when "realities" rather than God are our standard. The fundamental poverty of the leadership of environmentalism is just like the poverty of our peacemakers, solutions that are lies. Any improvement based on increasing resources only staves off the inevitable. A healthy beautiful environment cannot be based upon a faulty standard. In the same work, the Guardian continues by asking if,


"the fundamental cause of this world unrest is attributable, not so much to the consequences of what must sooner or later come to be regarded as a transitory dislocation in the affairs of a continually changing world, but rather to the failure of those into whose hands the immediate destinies of peoples and nations have been committed, to adjust their system of economic and political institutions to the imperative needs of a rapidly evolving age? Are not these intermittent crises that convulse present-day society due primarily to the lamentable inability of the world's recognized leaders to read aright the signs of the times, to rid themselves once for all of their preconceived ideas and fettering creeds, and to reshape the machinery of their respective governments according to those standards that are implicit in Baha'u'llah's supreme declaration of the Oneness of Mankind -- the chief and distinguishing feature of the Faith He proclaimed?" (35)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

p19cp Review of Ethics Article

Capital Punishment

By John Taylor; 2008 May 27, 11 `Azamat, 165 BE


Udo Schaefer, Some Aspects of Baha'i Ethics, Journal of Baha'i Studies, 16. 1/4. 2006


Udo Schaefer is among the most prominent living scholars of the Faith. I have enjoyed and profited from many of his erudite treatises on the intellectual implications of this Revelation. Over the next while I will be looking at some of the issues brought up by his article, "Some Aspects of Baha'i Ethics." This 2006 essay is a summarized version of a book that has since been published by George Ronald, I believe. He sets out to discuss the similarities and differences between Baha'i ideas about ethics and law, a subject that he is well qualified to talk about, since he is a retired judge. The pivotal paragraph in his discussion of the difference is the following:


"Whereas secular moral standards are based on the doctrines of individualism and liberalism, the Baha'i value system is balanced; it is -- and in this point more similar to Islamic and Confucian ethics -- less individualistic, less focused on the interests and rights of the individual and more concerned with the common weal. The Baha'i position derives from the basic political concept according to which the common weal and the security of the public have priority to the rights of the individual, notwithstanding the community's duty to respect and protect the unalienable rights of the citizen. Strong emphasis is placed on the `security and protection of men' the `common weal' and the `prosperity, wealth and tranquility of the people." (Schaefer, Some Aspects of Baha'i Ethics, p. 18)


This difference of emphasis, Schaefer goes on to say, can be seen in highest contrast in two examples, sexual ethics and penal law. These were chosen with great acuity. Let us summarize.

 The liberal model of today is of course sexual liberty, if it feels good, do it, as long as it is with a consenting adult and does not harm others. "Volenti non fit iniuria." The individual is free to choose his or her sexual orientation. So-called "ethical minorities" are legally protected to the extent that they can marry and (as is the case in Canada) even receive full widows and other pension benefits from government. The Aqdas, on the other hand, condemns extramarital sex, zina, as inherently immoral because it is "incompatible" with Baha'u'llah's "normative image of the human being."


As for penal reform, Schaefer points out that the leading model in Europe is rehabilitation of criminals. The Baha'i idea of the purpose of punishment, Schaefer holds, is retaliation and expiation. Baha'u'llah says that the "structure of world stability" is reared on reward and punishment in order to protect society. The touchstone of it all is capital punishment. Europe says that capital punishment is inherently wrong, the U.S. and its satellites say "hang 'em high." (Schaefer, Aspects, 19)


Now I have to say that right up until the late 1980's I would have agreed with Schaefer completely on this summary of the Baha'i position on capital punishment. I thought that that was the Baha'i position, based on what we had in the Codification of the Aqdas. Then our parliamentarians had a referendum on this issue and there were a spate of articles in the press about a practice that had been banned for decades in Canada, but they were considering bringing back, based on the example of our neighbours to the south. Although only my representative was voting, I did a lot of reflection on what I read and I came to the conclusion that indeed, killing somebody for a crime, no matter what it is, is wrong. It has nothing to do with what the person did, what is inherently wrong is that the state, on our behalf, perpetuates an atmosphere of violence and vengeance. To my satisfaction my Member of Parliament, and the parliament as a whole, voted against re-introducing this form of official barbarism. Once official murder is banished, this is how it should be; it should stay that way and be banned forever.



Then a few years later when the full text of the Aqdas was translated, I was surprised to see how mild the sanction of capital punishment is in there. In my opinion, Baha'u'llah institutes capital punishment in the same way that the Qu'ran institutes polygamy and slavery.


That is, He does not institute it at all.


What the Qu'ran does is it restricts an evil practice and carefully lays the groundwork for its elimination. In the case of marriage, it limits men to four wives, or the number that he can be "just" to. We know that the Master interpreted this as implying that you can only be just to one spouse, so in effect, it is legislating the end of multiple wives. Ditto for the Qu'ranic law on keeping slaves. It is not the fault of the divine law that Muslims have not thought deeply enough about the divine law to have seen that this was the intent. Same thing with Baha'is, if we think about this issue deeply enough, we will see that Baha'u'llah is not supporting capital punishment in the Aqdas, He is seeing to it that it will die out in one or two generations wherever His Laws are implemented.


And since the Law of God is for the whole world, not for the four nations in the world that have attained to the ethical nirvana of not only failing to kill citizens, but also contributing more than their pledge to helping poor nations -- that is, the four good nations are Holland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. All the rest are, in my opinion, sunk in selfishness, corruption, perversion, evil, and in dire need of the "justice therapy" that the Aqdas prescribes. These four, by the way, were all exposed to the educational theories of J.A. Comenius, and two of them he actually lived in. That is why, every day, this man rises in my estimation. I really believe that Comenius is my missing link, the reason I have not been able to finish my book on the principles that has weighed on my shoulders all these decades.


So is Schaefer, the good judge, wrong in saying that "Baha'is believe in capital punishment"? Strictly speaking, no. Undoubtedly, there is provision in the law of God for this practice and God surely put it there for a reason. For one thing, there may be extraordinary conditions in the future, an act of terrorism causing mass destruction for instance, where not only the perpetrators but the whole of society may benefit from undergoing the shock of a state sanctioned execution. But unless very judiciously applied, shock therapy generally does more harm than good, as any reader of Klein's "Shock Doctrine" will not soon forget.


So notwithstanding and taken all in all, I do think that, considering the importance of mercy in the Writings, I would say that "Baha'is do not believe in capital punishment" is closer to the truth than the reverse.

Monday, May 26, 2008

p40 Great Transformation

Transformations Great and Most Great

By John Taylor; 2008 May 26, 10 `Azamat, 165 BE


Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006)


I am auditing Karen Ferguson's "Great Transformation" about the fundamental advance in our spiritual and moral understanding made during the Axial Age when the likes of Ezekiel, the Buddha, Confucius, Zoroaster and Socrates brought religion from a mindset based on war, ritual and blood sacrifice to a deeper understanding of justice, spirit and compassion. This is from the publisher's official summary of the book,


"In one astonishing, short period--the ninth century BCE--the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity into the present day: Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Historians call this the Axial Age because of its central importance to humanity's spiritual development. (This is) a chronicle of one of the most important intellectual revolutions in world history and its relevance to our own time."


Ferguson is a popularizer of discoveries made by scholars in the Religious Studies program in our friendly neighbourhood universities. Unlike science, what these researchers do is not backed up by years of careful study in our youth, from primary to high school levels, at least not those of us who are products of the curriculum in public schools. Even parochial schools are unlikely to cover more than one faith in detail. Here is a rare comparative overview of all world religions at once, or at least those born on the Eurasian continent. Ferguson covers them in a clear, refreshing, holistic style that is rare among her jargon ridden, mealy-mouthed colleagues in secular religious studies.


Our general ignorance of her area of expertise lets her cover the subject more freely and broadly than a science writer might. At the same time I get the feeling that as the only non-sectarian popularizer out there she is taking certain liberties with her sources (if you want to know what I mean by that, check out my discussion of her History of God a few years ago on the Badi' blog -- I found her dismissal of the Babis not just unfair but openly insulting to the memory of our martyrs). An example in this book is her use of the term "axial age," a term that has been common fodder for decades in religious studies faculty rooms but which a naive reader might assume was her own invention. How much of this book is original, and what is common knowledge? A non-expert would never know just by reading it. Anyway, more from the official mini-review, which concentrates on the good,


"Armstrong makes clear that despite some differences of emphasis, there was remarkable consensus among these religions and philosophies: each insisted on the primacy of compassion over hatred and violence. She illuminates what this `family' resemblance reveals about the religious impulse and quest of humankind. And she goes beyond spiritual archaeology, delving into the ways in which these Axial Age beliefs can present an instructive and thought-provoking challenge to the ways we think about and practice religion today. A revelation of humankind's early shared imperatives, yearnings and inspired solutions -- as salutary as it is fascinating."


The Great Transformation should be covered in primary school history classes; better still, there should be religious studies classes in which this essential material could be made into common knowledge. Unfortunately the teaching profession has cravenly allowed dogmatists and fundamentalists to browbeat them into not touching religion at all in public schools, leaving a vacuum which, in the long run, will only worsen the crisis of fanaticism. In spite of my reservations about Ferguson, I think she should be read carefully by every Baha'i Sunday Class teacher. Let the Sabeans and other archaic scholarship be banished from our pedagogy and replaced with the fruits of authentic investigations into the early religions using the tools of modern scientific investigation.


Here is a quote from The Great Transformation that demonstrates its potential value in changing our view of our common religious heritage,


"In our global world, we can no longer afford a parochial or exclusive vision. We must learn to live and behave as though people in remote parts of the globe were as important as ourselves. The sages of the Axial Age did not create their compassionate ethic in idyllic circumstances. Each tradition developed in societies like our own that were torn apart by violence and warfare as never before; indeed, the first catalyst of religious change was usually a visceral rejection of the aggression that the sages witnessed all around them.... All the great traditions that were created at this time are in agreement about the supreme importance of charity and benevolence, and this tells us something important about our humanity."


For a Baha'i of course the insight that there are common features to all faiths is hardly front page news. It is just sew grade two. But listening to her description of the background of primitive beliefs from which the Axial geniuses made their innovations, I did learn something new and important. I had not realized what a strong consensus there was among all of the primitive religions -- from China to the Middle East, including present day aboriginals --that the human moral condition is directly tied to outer events like climate, hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes and so forth. When I say this is a primitive belief, I mean really early. It was ancient long before the oldest of the surviving religions were born, that is, Chinese Traditional Religion, Judaism and Hinduism.


Listening to Armstrong's description (she reads the audio book versions of all her books personally, and reads them very well) of this almost visceral tie that humans make between our moral and our outer condition, I was struck by how modern it is. What is past is prologue. Is not this exactly what the Panel on Climate Change is trying to persuade the world is the case? Humans do have a direct influence on our planet, for better or worse. Believe it. But deep down, we cannot believe it.


As Jesus put it, the Kingdom of God is within. It really is within. If we corrupt our morals the direct result is to pollute our environment, then the environment turns around and pollutes us, and we lash out at one another. This was confirmed by a recent study of climate in relation to the history of ancient China over thousands of years. This found that the outbreak of war was always directly the result of some climate disaster. There were droughts, which caused famine, and that caused leaders to decide to go to war. The three horsemen of war, famine and pestilence ride together -- reading the story of Comenius I have seen how the Black Death, the so-called "little ice age," and the wars of religion all worked together to decimate the population of Europe in the 16th Century. The religious tensions of the Reformation were both a cause and an effect of crises in the outer world.


This is no theoretical curiosity. As global climate destabilizes worse every day, who can doubt that rioting, wars, terror and other forms of violence will increase right along with it?


But beyond that, I think the fact that this belief that the moral atmosphere and outer conditions is so primitive is the key to the problem. It flies against logic. This is one reason why climate deniers are having such an easy time stalling the process of decarbonization. The idea that bad thoughts cause bad weather just seems impossible to the modern scientific mindset. It flies against one of its most precious dogma. Religious people have no problem believing it, but to the atheist and humanist this is just incredible. How can such an outmoded idea turn out to be true after all these millennia? This hesitation goes right down the line. Without the wholehearted support of the entire scientific community, corporations and business are unwilling to invest in renewables. After all, is not primitive religiosity mere superstition? Is not acting on faith, on what you are not sure of and what cannot be calculated – is that nothing better than a mad leap into the beyond? But Ferguson has a good point that religion trains the human mind for just such leaps of faith in uncertain, dangerous times,


"If religion is not about believing things then what is it about? What I found across the board is that religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God first you do something, you behave in a committed way and then you begin to understand the truths of religion."


That training alone is an unassailable reason to teach religion along with science and mathematics from kindergarten on to grade twelve, in every school in the world. Faith is a tested methodology for surviving in uncertain conditions. It can help ready the world for the Most Great Transformation, saving an entire planet.