Friday, October 24, 2008

Printalk in Paris


By John Taylor; 2008 Oct 24, 8 'Ilm 165 BE

This Badi' Blog is dedicated to the study of the Baha'i principles. These principles embrace the world. Very little goes on in current events that cannot be lumped under one or more of these principles. As a result my essays tend to be too wide ranging. I easily go off on a tangent. As a corrective every once in a while I go back to basics by running through the sequential story of the principles as articulated by Abdu'l-Baha. I will do that today, using the summary He gave in Paris, as recorded on page 127 of Paris Talks.

In this undated address He starts off by discussing at length our universal duty to turn to God. Rather than seeking God wherever we find Him, we worship what Abdu'l-Baha calls "dawning points," that is, we adore not the sun but whatever means or place we contacted Him in the past. If we were sunflowers, we would die for lack of sunlight because we would be turning not to where the sun is now but to where it was an hour ago, or yesterday, or last month.

This is what philosophers call the fallacy of confusing the map with the territory. Moving our finger between two points on a map is not the same thing as travelling to and from the locations represented there. Yet we make this confusion very often in abstract matters, and in this case in matters of faith. Instead of taking maps and symbols of spiritual reality as abstract ways to orient ourselves, we confuse them with reality itself.

Human beings have the gift of reason. We can look at eternal truth in the aspect of eternity, but instead we imitate. After all, it is a lot easier to move our finger across a piece of paper than actually go out into the territory to take a long and arduous spiritual journey. So instead we abdicate our greatest and most fundamental right and duty to make ourselves into the image of God. We let George do it. We let nature take its course and make of ourselves nothing better than animals; in fact we often sink below the animals.

In place of imitations and avoidance, the Master suggests a new, comprehensive methodology: principle. He says, "Here are, very briefly explained, some of the principles of Baha'u'llah." The first principle He mentions here in Paris is search for truth. He defines it negatively at first. It is a process of burning away veils, or, if you prefer, maps, which obscure our view of the real territory.

"Man must cut himself free from all prejudice and from the result of his own imagination, so that he may be able to search for truth unhindered."

Maps are pre-judgments, products of the imagination that have a limited usefulness. They are not the `be all and the end all,' only God is. For that reason, the great, insidious idols in this age of widespread literacy are no longer statues and pictures. Now our maps are much more sophisticated and elaborate. They are the "-isms" and ideologies, abstract congeries of ideas that take the place of thinking for oneself. It is easy to destroy an idol or ignore a painting, but prejudices, ruts of mind and imagination, are much more difficult to escape. He continues,

"Truth is one in all religions, and by means of it the unity of the world can be realized."

Abdu'l-Baha offers a brilliant criterion for success in attaining to religious truth: unity. As long as we accept that reality is one, anybody who witnesses it with his or her own eyes will agree with anyone else who has done the same. To use Plato's famous cave analogy, if every slave chained to the cave wall, forced to see only flickering shadow plays, were liberated by learning and applying this principle of investigation of reality, if they went outside the cave and conditioned their eyes to direct sunlight, then all would see a single reality. Competition and doubt would be moot and argumentation would seem childish. They would instantly agree on what is real, based on what they see clearly and indisputably, both singly and together. Peace would settle on all human affairs. Religious fundamentalists and materialist ideologues would stop niggling and disputing over dubious, ephemeral distinctions. The greater Truth behind the sham of materiality would be clear and irrefragable to each and all.

Abdu'l-Baha goes on to conclude what is rarely understood even today, that the more unity we muster from our investigation of truth, the more valid it is.

"All the peoples have a fundamental belief in common. Being one, truth cannot be divided, and the differences that appear to exist among the nations only result from their attachment to prejudice. If only men would search out truth, they would find themselves united."

Abdu'l-Baha is not asking us to build an artificial unity based on perspectives, ideas or opinions. He is stating that unity is the direct consequence of knowledge. Oneness is the natural outcome of encounter with the One, an Omnipotent, Good and All-wise God.
It is conceivable that a mischievous daemon would create a multiverse with many realities. However it is not conceivable that a wise God would do so. That would be an offence to divine goodness and wisdom. A good God would make one reality, one sun, one universe, and would presumably assist any and all who sincerely endeavour to use their own gifts to investigate that one truth. Unfortunately, long term refusal to use our mental gifts means that our mental powers will atrophy. We will not have the will to go against currents of popular prejudice. This Heraclitus warned against at the dawn of philosophy,

"For what intelligence or understanding have they? They believe in the bards of the people and use the mass as teacher, not knowing that, `Many are bad, few are good.'" (fr. 104)

And Abdu'l-Baha might well add, "... and one is better and One is best." To encounter the One in prayer is to wash off the dust and mould accumulated during our obscure, benighted cave dwelling days. The eyes have become accustomed to the shining noonday sun of reality. Then we can proceed to universal application of truth in the next principle, the oneness of the human race. This manifests itself in a change of consciousness and a heightened sense of compassion.

"The one all-loving God bestows His divine Grace and Favour on all mankind; one and all are servants of the Most High, and His Goodness, Mercy and loving Kindness are showered upon all His creatures."

Thus the oneness of humanity is no mere "outburst of emotionalism." It is a state of mind that could not come about without that liberation from the cave of slavish illusion. Abdu'l-Baha stresses that this escape has an unexpected result, a total change of priorities. To know Truth directly and through one's own effort cannot help but change one's values utterly.

Away from Fulfilment and Happiness, Towards Service

Let us think back to what it is like in Plato's cave or den (the latter is considered a more correct translation. A den, the temporary home of a female animal giving birth or hibernating, is even more apposite to the Baha'i understanding that we are talking about birth from animal to divine nature).

In the dark, our eyes are accustomed to firelight. Imminent danger looms out at any moment. We live in fearful obscurity. We long for survival; we hope for fulfilment some time in the future. At this stage happiness is the greatest value and ultimate goal. On the other hand, if a seeker is liberated and wanders in the uplands of enlightenment, she perceives the one mover of all and learns wisdom. As Heraclitus put it,

"A single thing is wisdom, to understand knowledge, that which guides everything everywhere." (Heraclitus, fr. 41)

To be wise in the One is to cease to be the same person. We are still seekers -- only the dead and the non-human stop investigating reality -- but we stop wanting what we did before, at the stage when we had no idea if ultimate reality even exists.

In the bright light of day the seeker has already attained happiness. She is transformed already and knows in her bones that this is what she was made for. Nobody has to seek what they already have. Here, a seeker owns happiness and fulfilment. The surface dweller starts looking for something more.

But what could be greater than happiness and fulfillment?

In the above, Abdu'l-Baha offers the answer: service. "All are servants of the Most High." All men and all women are servants of God and are one in Him. As servants, we serve the whole truth, the One, in the way it requires. How do we all serve? First and foremost by doing what Plato suggests is the seeker's duty. In the myth of the cave the seeker is changed by exposure to the sun of the Good and immediately desires to respond to a moral duty to go back down into the dark cave beneath and persuade as many slaves as he can to cast off their chains and walk up into the light. This is the first service to teach those sunk in ignorance, even if the slaves hate the seeker and try to kill him.

Today this duty of service is universalized in the compassionate principle of the oneness of humankind. When we cannot teach the mind, we teach with other forms of compassionate service, such as curing the sick, helping the disabled, enriching the poor. Baha'u'llah put this core Baha'i principle in the strongest possible terms,

"That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race." (Tablets, 167)

In other words, if a seeker in the uplands above does not dedicate himself to serve the entire human race he has no right even to call himself human. After all, to be an enslaved dweller of the cave may be pitiful, but to escape and neglect helping one's enslaved brothers and sisters is even worse. Such are the most to blame for the continued oppression of humanity. They have betrayed our single heritage and misunderstood the Oneness that makes us human.
In this Paris talk, Abdu'l-Baha continues,

"The glory of humanity is the heritage of each one. All men are the leaves and fruit of one same tree, they are all branches of the tree of Adam, they all have the same origin."

Here Abdu'l-Baha paraphrases a central theme of both the Bab and Baha'u'llah, that reality is a tree, that the human race is a tree. All of us are leaves and branches of one tree, and religion itself is a single tree.

Speaking in the cultural center of the West, in pleasure-loving, materialist Paris, He lays down the gauntlet. The oneness of man, the ultimate goal of all philosophy, is an outcome of God. Thus enlightenment values, the soul of the failed French Revolution and the revolutions that followed, is fundamentally an outcome of religious understanding. He put it even more emphatically on another occasion:

"In every Dispensation the light of Divine Guidance has been focussed upon one central theme.... In this wondrous Revelation, this glorious century, the foundation of the Faith of God and the distinguishing feature of His Law is the consciousness of the Oneness of Mankind." (quoted in, World Order of Baha'u'llah, 35)

Next time we will continue with this "one central theme" and I hope proceed to the rest of the principles mentioned on this day in Paris.

John Taylor


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