Monday, June 09, 2008

p24 Religious Roots of Buckminster Fuller's Thought

World Citizen as Orthodox Liberal

By John Taylor; 2008 June 09, 05 Nur, 165 BE


Last time we talked about how the Baha'i Faith is "orthodox in morality and liberal in principle," It occurs to me that this description fits Buckminster Fuller perfectly. His friends remarked on how chaste he was in his personal life; he and his wife died so close to one another that neither ever knew (in this world) that the other had passed on. He was surely one of those hidden Baha'is who act it out but do not know that they are Baha'is. I read somewhere that when Fuller was in Hawaii some Baha'is in the front row of his lecture room were wearing those old tee-shirts labeled: "One Planet, One People, Please!" When he saw that slogan he was delighted. I have not heard, though, whether he had any further contacts with the Faith.


Baha'u'llah once wrote that the crucifixion made Jesus Christ the inspiration and patron Saint of artists and inventors for all time. Buckminster Fuller got his inspiration more directly and consciously from Jesus than most creative people. As mentioned, he was highly conservative in his personal life. Although profoundly spiritual, he was never ostentatious about his religiosity. Asked what his convictions were about God, he said that he avoided that subject because he did not have anything new to say on the matter. He made one exception, though. I was inspired to come across this video of Fuller explaining this for himself called "Rethinking the Lord's Prayer" on the Web.




It is inspiring to think how Fuller constantly re-wrote and rethought this prayer, the only one revealed by Jesus. I have to admit, I never thought of rewriting prayers in my own words. And since there is no reliable text of the Lord's Prayer, rewriting it hardly seems the same as rewriting an authoritative Baha'i prayer. Still, to go over the divine Word again and again would surely be a sign that you are thinking about it, taking ownership in a creative way. How better to demonstrate that a prayer is sinking into both mind and heart?


The epitaph, "Call me Trimtab," that Buckminster Fuller had put onto his gravestone is also a wonderful way of thinking about the power of prayer. Here is a simple blackboard demonstration by one of his acolytes (among whom I count myself) that shows very economically what a trimtab is,




For those who cannot access video, a trimtab runs along the rear edge of the huge rudder on a ship, allowing it to be turned with very little work. In an airplane it is a little different, but still illuminating. The trimtab is a small adjustable tab on the trailing edge of the elevator control surface that allows the pilot to trim it, that is, steady and level the aircraft's orientation, without constant adjustment, a little like the cruise control in an automobile, only for steering. In Fuller's own words,


"When I thought about steering the course of the `Spaceship Earth' and all of humanity, I saw most people trying to turn the boat by pushing the bow around. I saw that by being all the way at the tail of the ship, by just kicking my foot to one side or the other, I could create the "low pressure" which would turn the whole ship." (Fuller, in Wiki Quotes)


The ship trimtab perfectly describes the Baha'i concept of the Manifestation of God, an Individual Who is so placed in history that He can alter its course and create an entire new direction just by His life, suffering and teaching. The aircraft trimtab hints at how non-violent peace activism works, not by protest, opposition or violently forcing one's will but by small adjustments that smooth out long-term maladjustment. But mostly, trimtabs hint at how the power of prayer manifests itself, not by superstitious magic but by fueling our thought and conditioning the soul for reflection.


A recent scientific study in the U.S. tested to see whether praying for strangers has any effect on patients undergoing heart surgery. Anti-theistic atheists took great delight in its findings. Overall it found no results one way or the other. The only visible effect was in those patients who were informed that a church group was praying for them. The knowledge that this was going on apparently scared these patients ("Oh my, I must be sicker than I thought") and their recovery was noticeably slower than the control subjects.


The presuppositions of this study completely miss what prayer is all about. What these researchers failed to grasp was that you cannot pray that God's Will not be God's Will. Do that and the prayer was not prayer in the first place. That is what we learn from the "ask not" Hidden Word, AHW #18,


"Ask not of Me that which We desire not for thee, then be content with what We have ordained for thy sake, for this is that which profiteth thee, if therewith thou dost content thyself."


To pray against God's will is not prayer, nor would it profit anybody even if it were. This is not prayer any more than homosexually expressed "love" is love, since the act goes against everything that the word "love" stands for. In Fuller's terms, it is brain, not mind. Jesus promised that anything asked "in His name" would be granted. Doing it in His name implies that prayer be used as a trimtab, as something that conditions us for reflecting upon God's Will and our role in carrying it out in a far greater scale than we can ever realize. Prayer conditions reflection and reflection conditions action; this is the heart of both faith and science.


Prayer, in short, can only be prayer when it fuels changes that really matter to the Spirit.


Imagine what would happen if these church groups had followed the "trimtab" methodology that the Guardian suggested for prayer. First they would have prayed for the poor heart patients. Then they would reflect on what caused these hearts to fail so prematurely. They would read scientifically valid books like Taube's "Good Calories, Bad Calories" to find out how to avoid heart problems. Then they would act as if the prayer were already answered by changing diet and lifestyle, cutting out excessive meat, additives, etc., and then going out and attacking corruption in society at large. They might even apply non-violent activism to end bad planning choices. Their prayers would be answered when the entire society stopped encouraging stupid choices, thus saving millions of lives, not just a handful of dissipated guinea pigs in the hands of greedy surgeons. That would be trimtab prayer.


Now, back to Bucky's profound grasp of Jesus' inner Truth.


One of the most important distinctions that Fuller made was one I just alluded to. It is a seemingly obvious distinction between brain and mind.


"The difference between mind and brain is that brain deals only with memorized, subjective, special-case experiences and objective experiments, while mind extracts and employs the generalized principles and integrates and interrelates their effective employment. Brain deals exclusively with the physical, and mind exclusively with the metaphysical." (Wiki Quotes)


Too often we forget this crucial difference, and then we mess up big time. Forget it and things like global temperatures go out of whack.


Thank God Fuller taught me that about mind-as-world-principle when I was a seventeen-year-old anti-theist, because when I saw the Baha'i principles it was love at first sight, in spite of the fact that Baha'is could not stop going on about this "God" all the time. Now the principles and I have been happily married, under Baha'u'llah, for almost 35 years.


Springing from this understanding of mind, Fuller agreed with certain Hidden Words that we should question the reality of death and regard it not as a cleavage but instead a messenger of joy. Mind by nature goes on forever, he believed, and we cannot contemplate an end to it.




Fuller's basic ideas can all be traced to teachings of Jesus. For example, Jesus taught a worldview of Joie de Vivre, that since Spirit looks to the moment so should we, "sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." But at the same time, Spirit also manifests itself in careful planning and hard-headed reckoning up of the costs of long term enterprises. Jesus said,


"For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish." (Luke 14:28-30)


Between these two externally contradictory ideas lies Fuller's worldview and fulcrum.


The imperative to plan by "sitting down first" and assessing the situation describes perfectly Fuller's World Game, an activity that counts up the resources of the entire earth and calculates how to make everybody win by doing more with less. Out of the first few iterations of these games -- a massive simulation of a decade in the life of earth played by several hundred students for as long as a month using real-world statistics -- came many surprising facts about the human condition that peppered Fuller's itinerant lectures in his latter years.


Yet Fuller arrived at this world-embracing planning regime from a highly personal resolution made in the depths of despair. He decided to consider his life as if it were already over and every minute after that was gravy. He would just try out each day, "sufficient unto the day," and see what would happen if he sacrificed his all for the overall good of all mankind. The same feeling animates every Baha'i martyr and pioneer. In his own words he describes how he made his life into a combined prayer and scientific experiment in this archival footage called, "Buckminster Fuller - Live Your Life as an Experiment," at:




Next time we will get into how these spiritual insights consummated in Fuller's greatest discovery, the geodesic dome.

No comments: