Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Tangled Threads of Fundamentalism

By John Taylor; 2008 June 18, 14 Nur, 165 BE


The Badi' blog is a mess of multi-colored threads laid one beside the other in pretty arrangements, far from the finely woven tapestry that I would like it to be. If you picture Baha'i scholars as workers in a rug factory, I would be the fellow off in a dark corner churning out, rather than beautiful carpets, an ever mounting tangle of threads in piles all around and over his head; I am the sort of plant worker that the bosses never fire because they do not know that he is there.


Some of my favorite threads of late came from the loom of 16th Century Czech educational reformer, Jan Amos Comenius. I am reading his lost masterpiece, the Panorthosia, or Universal Reform. How strange to read a Christian thinker of his age, or any age, so close to Baha'i universalism. What is more, Comenius understood universalism as millennial in significance, that is, it is both the sign of and the qualification for the coming of the end. The Return would be marked by universal learning and world unification, not shunting history off into the backyards where believers would sit idle in hope that the bad would be shown to hell while the good enter an exclusivist Great Justification. Comenius, in sum, was what Buckminster Fuller would have called a generalist.


It is indeed sad that European religion did not follow the lead of Comenius. Instead, both factions of the Reformation took doctrinaire and traditionalist pathways straight to fundamentalism and fanaticism. Tolstoy discovered the sterility of doctrine in his Confession -- yes, another thread that I am trying to weave into this tangle that should be a rug. Tolstoy found that Christian religion had become united in disunity and was determined to put tradition and doctrine eternally before the search for truth. God, blind faith taught, would set it all aright when Jesus came again.


This is diametrically opposed to the developmentalistic approach to faith propounded by Comenius. I am convinced that if Christians had followed his lead, the path to the Lord of Hosts would have been smooth, peaceful and direct. Comenius starts off his lost masterwork, the Panorthosia, with a quote based on a variation of the Vulgate text,


"To him who disposes his way aright will I show the salvation of God." (Ps 50:23)


If Comenius had the influence he merited, Europe would have "disposed" its "way aright." It would have adopted his "Panglottia" or universal language. It would have seen its salvation unobscured by clouds. European leaders, backed by an enlightened, progressive priesthood, would have instituted the world parliament proposed by Comenius. This in turn would have put them into a position to welcome Baha'u'llah and assure that He was not mistreated by Shah and Sultan.




But all I hold here are discrete threads of my life and others, nothing woven together. Here, look, another thread, a thin, bittersweet one coming out of my daughter's apprentice loom. She wrote:


"Small Brown Bat in the Grass" by VioletLavender


This is 13-year-old Silvie's recent post on her favorite art sharing site, Deviant Art. The "art" she shares there is a photo of a bat on the grass sitting near an old wrapper, taken by her Aunt Jitka. She writes,


"Artist's Comments: He was found in the street by my aunt. She found and rescued him. Then mom took a few pictures, and then put him in a safe place by a tree. Later, at night, the bat got his energy back. He now flies free among the other bats. The End! (just jk. We never actually saw him fly away, but we know he is safer now.) I wuv batz! PS: The bat does not support tootsie rolls! The wrapper is... just there! lol."



My back-story is that a few weeks ago I read a newspaper article saying that bat experts are getting together in a big conference to try to find out why entire colonies in the northern United States are suddenly dying off for no known reason. If this dying bat is an indicator, the die-off is starting to spread to Southern Ontario too. I tried to read that article to Silvie but she would not hear it. Immersed in bat lore, she has read every Kenneth Oppel bat fantasy ever written and constantly draws cutesy pictures of bats, only some of which end up on this DeviantArt site.


Anyway, I was sitting here writing one morning when Marie and her sister Jitka came back with the moribund bat in the photo. They were hot-to-trot to show it to Silvie when she got home from school. I suggested that maybe watching a bat die a slow and agonizing death would not be an entirely pleasant experience for a girl who "wuvs" bats with all her heart. Perhaps it would be a good idea just to take some photos of it and release it somewhere in the wild. Then they could tell her the story and at least some hope for its survival would linger. They took that advice, and I was pleased to see the above posting. As Baha'u'llah says,


"O ye Cohorts of God! Beware lest ye offend the feelings of anyone, or sadden the heart of any person..." (Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha v1, p. 44)


How rare and tiny are the chances in personal life to bring joy to hearts, or avoid hurting them! Compare the small influence of an ordinary worker, even a competent weaver, to the comfort or massive hurt that a religious leader can exert! Comenius wrote,


"Men have only themselves to blame for disturbing the happiness of the human race. God is always intent upon improving them, since he fashioned them in his own image, but they are guilty of recklessness in dealing with God, with things, and with their fellowmen, and thereby provoke God, disturb nature and bring misery upon themselves. In the words of Ecclesiastes, `God has made men upright, but they have sought out many inventions.' (7:29)" (Comenius, Panorthosia, p. 47)


These opening words of chapter one of the Panorthosia encapsulate the spirit of developmentalism. If only it had triumphed over reaction. It stops your breath to think of the contagion that the fanatic, fundamentalist and doctrinaire have brought into the world. Baha'u'llah in the Iqan says that there can be no greater oppression than to need God's guidance and not know where to turn to find it. The mother of all oppression is when the learned of religion abdicate their sacred responsibility to turn from past ways and seek God now ... the ultimate thorn in the heart. The mass extinction of bats, and frogs, and many other life forms are just delayed effects of this primal, terrible wrong.


The dogmatist imagines, in the image of the Qu'ran, that the "hand of God is chained up." In contrast, the lesson that Comenius understood and taught was that we need always to learn, we should never be satisfied with past knowledge, for God created us without limit. Human nature is created in God's image, and is therefore inherently unbounded.


"Aristotle compared the mind of man to a blank tablet on which nothing was written, but on which all things could be engraved. There is, however, this difference, that on the tablet the writing is limited by space, while in the case of the mind, you may continually go on writing and engraving without finding any boundary, because, as has already been shown, the mind is without limit." (Great Didactic, 1628-32, translated by M.W. Keatinge, from Wikiquotes)


Instead of a blank tablet, the Baha'i Faith holds up a much more compelling image in three dimensions, the Mashriq, a dawning place of the mention of God to be erected, one day, in every neighbourhood. The Mashriq is at heart a symbol of man before God, as shown in Baha'u'llah's heaviest tablet, the Suriy-i-Haykal, or Chapter of the Temple. Haykal means, among other things, star, man, body and temple in Arabic. The Guardian held the Mashriq up as a visible symbol of the primal Baha'i fundamental, that relativity is the true fundamental, that all but God is relative. Writing to the believers of Canada and the United States in 1929, he wrote,


"To them will the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar symbolize the fundamental verity underlying the Baha'i Faith, that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is not final but progressive." (Baha'i Administration, 184)


Let us end today with more of Tolstoy's description of how he awoke, as Kant would put it, from deep dogmatic slumber. To believe "I am holier than thou" is to do violence, ultimately to all mankind.


from Tolstoy's Confession


And this enmity grows in proportion to one's knowledge of the teachings of doctrine. Even I, who had supposed that the truth lay in a union of love, was forced to recognize that the teachings of doctrine destroy the very thing they set out to produce. (86)

 The temptation is obvious to educated people like ourselves who live in countries where a variety of creeds are professed and who see the contemptuous, self-righteous, unflinching disdain the Catholic has for the Orthodox and the Protestant, the Orthodox for the Catholic and the Protestant, and the Protestant for both; this also applies to the Old Believers, the Revivalists, the Shakers, and all the rest. It is so evident that at first glance it is quite puzzling. You say to yourself,

 "It cannot be as simple as all that. Is it possible for people to fail to see that even though two positions are in conflict with each other, neither one may harbor the single truth that should constitute the basis for faith? There must be some kind of explanation here."

 I too thought there was some kind of explanation, and I looked for it and read everything I could on the subject and consulted everyone I knew. But the only explanation I could find was the one according to which the Sumsky hussars regard themselves as the finest regiment in the world, while the yellow Uhlans considered themselves to be the best in the world.

 Clergymen of all denominations, the finest representatives of their creeds, all told me the same thing -- namely, that theirs was the true belief and all the others were erroneous, and that the only thing they could do for the others was to pray for them. I visited archimandrites, bishops, elder monks, and ascetic monks, none of whom made any attempt to explain this pitfall to me. Only one interpreted the matter for me, but his explanation was such that I asked no more questions of anyone. (86)

 I have said that for any unbelievers returning to faith (and here I have in mind our entire younger generation), the first question to be posed is: why does the truth lie not in the Lutheran or in the Catholic Church but in the Orthodox Church? One is taught in high school and cannot help but know what the peasant does not know -- namely, that the Protestants and the Catholics make exactly the same claim to the one and only truth that our own faith does. Historical proofs perverted by each creed to suit its own purpose are insufficient.

 Is it not possible, as I have suggested, that in attaining a higher level of understanding the differences would disappear, just as they do for those who are genuine believers? Is it not possible to go further down the path along which we have set out with the Old Believers? They have claimed that there is an alternative to the way in which we make the sign of the cross, shouting hallelujahs and moving about the altar. (87)

 It has been said, "You believe in the Nicene Creed and in the seven sacraments, and so do we. Let us keep to that; as for the rest of if it, you may do as you please. Thus we may be united by placing the essential elements of faith higher than the nonessential."

 Is it not possible to say to the Catholics, "You believe in this and that, in what is important... as far as ... the Pope are concerned, do as you please?" Is it not possible to say the same thing to the Protestants and join together in the one thing needful? (87)

 I said this to one person who agreed with my thinking, but he told me that such concessions would arouse the censure of the clergy, who would object that this marks a departure from the faith of our forefathers and brings about dissent, and that it is incumbent upon the clergy to preserve in all things the purity of the Greco-Russian Orthodox faith handed down to the church by our ancestors. (87-88)

 Then I understood it all. I am searching for faith, for the force of life, but they seek the best means for fulfilling what people consider to be certain human obligations. And in meeting these human duties they perform them in an all-too-human fashion. No matter what they may say about compassion for their brothers who have gone astray ... human duties can only be carried out by force... If each of two religions believes that it alone abides in the truth while the other lives in a lie, then since they want to lead their brothers to the truth they will go on teaching their own doctrine.

 ...What is to be done with a sectary who passionately proclaims what the Church regards as a false faith and who is leading astray in the most important thing in life, in faith? What is to be done with him except to chop off his head, or lock him up? (p. 88)


Alexander M Zoltai said...

Penetrating and profound.

You are a "scholarly journalist"...

Do you have or are you working on a collection of essays?

Would that be the "rug" you seek to produce?

~ Alex said...

from Jean:

Before you give up on your "tangle", go play a computer game. Really.

This mathematical game is all about untangling a mess of line segments linked at vertices, so that they form a map in which no line crosses another. Try a couple of levels, but don't go crazy - the game is open-ended and you could potentially go to hundreds of vertices. The screen starts off with all the vertices arranged in a circle. You move them one by one to uncross the lines. One of the better strategies is to find four vertices that together with their connecting segments, make a square, the beginning of a map. Then bring in the other vertices one by one to add areas (triangles, squares, irregular hexagons etc) to that map, making sure that as the map grows, none of the newly rearranged lines crosses any of the other ones already part of the map.

You will find that the array looks very orderly at the start, and looks reasonably orderly after you solve the level, but in between it is, as my mother would have said, "a mell of a hess".

Try this game and you will feel much better about your tangle. Tangled-ness can be a sign of progress. said...


Funny you should ask.

I just resolved to put out some kind of book to help the world get through this looming petroleum crisis.

I have been mulling over some sort of plugged in consultation meeting that could leverage knowledge and problem solving around the world.

Subject of a future essay, I suppose...

E-mail me direct and we can talk more: said...

from: "me"

So I have found that you have written
something about me, deviantart and that bat. I see that you care about bats too.

yay! fourth comment!

Anyways I'll see you later dad.
bye ! ;) :P :B