Tuesday, August 19, 2008

p16 Nature, gods and men

Men Like Gods, or God-like Men?

By John Taylor; 2008 Aug 18, 18 Kamal, 165 BE

I am almost finished H.G. Wells' utopian novel, "Men Like Gods," but I cannot resist commenting on it again. The story is set in 1921, the year the Master ascended, and is about an ordinary guy, a frustrated magazine editor, an optimist whose boss forces him to write dreary, pessimistic material. He comes down with "neurasthenia," the current rubric for exhaustion, and decides to take a driving holiday. Going nowhere in particular he passes through what we now would call an inter-dimensional wormhole. He meets a far more advanced civilization where women and men are like, well, gods. he calls them Utopians. For them, war is a thing of the past, as are diseases and even vermin and noxious insects. I like Wells' summary of the mental illnesses that had been prevalent in their ancient, primitive history,

"In the past of Utopia, in the Age of Confusion ... everyone had grown up with a crippled or a thwarted will, hampered by vain restrictions or misled by plausible delusions. Utopia still bore it in mind that human nature was fundamentally animal and savage and had to be adapted to social needs, but Utopia had learnt the better methods of adaptation -- after endless failures of compulsion, cruelty and deception.

"On earth we tame our animals with hot irons and our fellow men by violence and fraud," said Mr. Barnstaple, and described the schools and books, newspapers and public discussions of the early twentieth century to his incredulous companion. "You cannot imagine how beaten and fearful even decent people are upon earth. You learn of the Age of Confusion in your histories but you do not know what the realities of a bad mental atmosphere, an atmosphere of feeble laws, hates and superstitions, are. As night goes round the earth always there are hundreds of thousands of people who should be sleeping, lying awake, fearing a bully, fearing a cruel competition, dreading lest they cannot make good, ill of some illness they cannot comprehend, distressed by some irrational quarrel, maddened by some thwarted instinct or some suppressed and perverted desire."... (H.G. Wells, Men Like Gods (1923) http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200221.txt)

This is a parlous time, truly an age of confusion. Secret, inner fear, real and imagined, predominates while at the same time in external relationships, violence and abuse justifies the prophesy of fear. It is almost a century since Wells wrote this novel and we are no better off now, no closer to Utopia than then. The invention of computers and the internet has only drawn us further apart, given us as it were more mental space in which to roam. When we do come together, when it comes to making hard decisions or distributing wealth equitably, we are every bit as primitive, greedy and aggressive as the earth characters in Men Like Gods.

While it is clear that Wells was heavily influenced by Comenius -- for example he clearly agrees with Comenius that education has to be the predominating preoccupation of any future utopia -- Wells lacks the faith in God that has to be the basis of even worldly progress, much less eternal advancement through all the worlds of God. H.G. Wells' vision of our future is wholly secular, like the more recent world of Star Trek or Lennon's song "Imagine," where he asks us to imagine the people living as one and "there is no religion too (sic)." This is an insidious, ubiquitous presupposition of our age that once we progress beyond a certain point we will reach an upland where there will no longer be any need of faith and piety. We will outgrow such childishness of our youth and will simply not need to know and worship the Almighty. Nor will we need to treat sex and marriage as anything more than what our bodies are, a temporary union doomed sooner or later to disintegrate...

"Much of the every-day misery of earth was now inconceivable. Very slowly Utopia had evolved its present harmony of law and custom and education. Man was no longer crippled and compelled; it was recognized that he was fundamentally an animal and that his daily life must follow the round of appetites satisfied and instincts released. The daily texture of Utopian life was woven of various and interesting foods and drinks, of free and entertaining exercise and work, of sweet sleep and of the interest and happiness of fearless and spiteless love-making. Inhibition was at a minimum. But where the power of Utopian education began was after the animal had been satisfied and disposed of. The jewel on the reptile's head that had brought Utopia out of the confusions of human life, was curiosity, the play impulse, prolonged and expanded in adult life into an insatiable appetite for knowledge and an habitual creative urgency. All Utopians had become as little children, learners and makers.”

Here is why I find Comenius such a breath of fresh air. He refuses to believe that the sailboat of human progress will get anywhere without the wind of divine confirmation. And what a contrast Wells' future is with Abdu'l-Baha's teaching! He held that we progress only through the teachings of God and His holy Manifestations. We could no more thrive without God than the earth would if the sun were somehow switched off. Without a sun there would not only be no utopia, there would be no life at all.

The proposal that humans depend on God in the same way that the earth depends on the sun grates against one of our most basic instincts. I have been noticing this even in our children's class. This summer, in preparation for the upcoming commemorations of His Canadian visit in early September, we have been slowly going through the Master's talks given in Montreal. How strongly the kids resist this fundamental presupposition of the Master! They consider it an insult to their beloved animals to say that they are incomplete, imperfect, or lacking in anything. Anything we can do, they can do too. So, when I read the opening sentences of the Master's third recorded talk at the Maxwell residence, I got an instant and violent reaction.

"Nature is the material world. When we look upon it, we see that it is dark and imperfect. For instance, if we allow a piece of land to remain in its natural condition, we will find it covered with thorns and thistles; useless weeds and wild vegetation will flourish upon it, and it will become like a jungle. The trees will be fruitless, lacking beauty and symmetry; wild animals, noxious insects and reptiles will abound in its dark recesses. This is the incompleteness and imperfection of the world of nature. To change these conditions, we must clear the ground and cultivate it so that flowers may grow instead of thorns and weeds -- that is to say, we must illumine the dark world of nature. In their primal natural state, the forests are dim, gloomy, and impenetrable. Man opens them to the light, clears away the tangled underbrush and plants fruitful trees. Soon the wild woodlands and jungle are changed into productive orchards and beautiful gardens; order has replaced chaos; the dark realm of nature has become illumined and brightened by cultivation."

It does not matter that with the strongest admonitions and threats fail to persuade Silvie to stick her nose outside the house for fear of stinging bees and biting mosquitoes, nature is perfect and humankind is the bad guy. Now that I think of it, this is the overwhelming message of environmentalism. It will take a better teacher than me to persuade them of this point. I can only keep ploughing through the book and hope that the words of the Master will do what I failed at. Maybe my readers can suggest a better approach.


Ed de Jong said...

Hi John
My heart is with you in the difficulty of getting through to the children(or anyone else, for that matter) on the subject of spirituality. My spouse being Evangelical Christian, her way of praying sometimes make the kids nudge, or wink, or smile at each other. Perhaps my way too, has them laughing. I often fear I'm losing them. But I keep on trying, even to keep their minds open to the good in their mother's manner too. It's so essential for me to be fairly comfortable with the practice of prayer myself, and to be able to talk about it from the heart rather than from the head. That's easier said than done, in my case at least. The book 'Breezes of Confirmation', first in a series of 3 books for junior youth, touches in a very natural way on prayer and spiritually motivated effort. I've started going through it, and because it comes in very brief 'doses', I think I may be able to get through it in a relatively non-invasive way. I also find that I need to pray for help to be an ever-improving Baha'i myself and pray for the kids so that they will be helped. I have to admit that I find myself very affected too by the irreligion around me. It's a constant struggle.


Unknown said...

Hi John aqnd Ed,

Reading over your comments on nature I couldn't help but think of the comparison between the steep slope that was Mount Carmel from Haifa before the establishment of the Shrine of the Bab and the same stretch of "nature" after the Terraces were opened.

I enjoy your essays John, and the the comments.


Will Naylor (wbnaylor@rocketmail.com)