Sunday, December 14, 2008


Anamorphic Unity and Equality 

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 14, 03 Masa'il 165 BE

Last month I met a believer who for a decade had worked as a researcher collating the Tablets of Baha'u'llah in the holy land. I took my first opportunity to take her aside and ask why the Lawh-i-Ittihad had not been translated yet. Her answer was not helpful,

"I do not know. The House of Justice does as it wills, though I have wondered that myself, and several others have asked me the same question."

Only a short selection from the Lawh-i-Ittihad has been officially translated. Here are the first four of nine sentences available in English,

"And amongst the realms of unity is the unity of rank and station. It redoundeth to the exaltation of the Cause, glorifying it among all peoples. Ever since the seeking of preference and distinction came into play, the world hath been laid waste. It hath become desolate." (Unpublished Tablet, cited in "Elucidation of Baha'i Teachings on Ranks and Stations," 27 March 1978, Universal House of Justice to all NSA's, Messages 1963 to 1986, 206.3a, 206.3b, pp. 376-377)

What got me interested in this Tablet was the emphasis given to this quote at a conference in October about the Baha'i position on sexuality. It seems that Baha'i therapists find this thought consoling for their patients who are victims of abuse. It is true that almost all of us at one point or another have been "laid waste" by arbitrary, cookie-cutter, procrustian authority based on distinction.

In my conference report I reproduced the entire quote here on the Badi' blog; a few weeks later I was startled when I found that a reader had memorized it completely and was citing it verbatim in public talks. This made me sit up and take notice. Later, going over the quote carefully, I saw that it emphasizes equality not as an ideal in itself but as a function of unity. I had no idea where the passage came from but this seemed like a hint. Could it maybe be part of that long-lost, ever un-translated Lawh-i-Ittihad, A.K.A., The Tablet of Unity. A little surfing based on this hunch turned up a provisional translation of the Lawh-i-Ittihad made by Moojan Momen, at:

In the same surfing expedition I came across another thought-provoking paper by that prolific scholar, Moojan Momen. Its title is, "In all the Ways that Matter, Women Don't Count," (Baha'i Studies Review, Volume 4.1, 1994, His thesis here seems to take in the understanding of unity and equality that Momen gleaned from the Tablet of Ittihad.

Very briefly, Momen's thesis in this paper is that the patriarchal (male-centered) nature of our social structures prevents most of us (or at least "those that matter") from perceiving anything but a very narrow slice out of the very broad spectrum of divine qualities. To paraphrase a song, it is power and money that matter in the patriarchal order. Patriarchy sees whatever concerns coercive power relations and utterly ignores the rest, including an entire range of feminine virtues. This, Momen writes, explains why England in the 1980's was ruled by a female queen and a woman prime minister, yet if anything it shifted away from feminine values.

It is not that these ostracized perfections are unseen, it is just that the patriarchal mind-set cannot process the data. It all comes over as gobbledegook. I am reminded of those startling drawings by sidewalk artists that look like random abstracts from every perspective but one. If you stand in that exact spot a new image suddenly jumps out at the eye. Anamorphic art was popular as long ago as the 16th Century. The most famous example is the painting "The Ambassadors" (1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger in the British National Gallery. In the foreground is what looks at first like a splotch of paint. Viewed from the side, though, a memento mori of a skull can be discerned.


Undoubtedly each divine virtue acts like an anamorphic image, designed so that you have to stand in one particular spot to make them out.

Power is no different.

Patriarchy no doubt has its sweet spot, and if you take a step to the right or left it all looks like meaningless nonsense. Perhaps the most striking example of power crowding out other views is Winston Churchill's witticism about humility. Told that a certain man was humble, he quipped that he had a great deal to be humble about. Yet, as we saw yesterday in our discussion of faith, humility is essential to faith. The Master said that "meekness and humility are the hallmarks of faith" and that the slightest feeling that one is superior brings on immediate spiritual decline and fall. (Baha'i Scriptures, 449) Churchill was a scrapper who saw no use for the hallmark of faith. Nor do others whose worldview raises them to the top in our patriarchal world order. These blinded movers and shakers are putting us directly into the path of global climatic chaos.

Jan Amos Comenius understood that in order to summon up the confidence to make a major change of perspective, we must gain a vision of exactly where we are standing and how this context puts a unique perspective on our relationship with truth and power.

"Next, men must be taught to know their own power in order to understand how fully justice and law are on their side in their reform of themselves and their people, and how more chances of reform are arising than they ever desired, and how the assistance obtained from God makes it easy for them to put their hand to the work and begin to congratulate themselves and exult in God that so much power is given to them and such chances, challenges, and assistance exist." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 5, para 20, p. 95)

Though he discerned the role of anamorphism in reform, Comenius was hardly the first to understand its importance to philosophy. In ancient China Zhuangzi saw in a dream just such a sudden shift of existential perspective that we now need to view power differently. This he called the "Transformation of Things."

"Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction!" (Chapter 2, The Great Happiness, "Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly")

Zhuangzi, through this inspired act of imagination, saw as through a mirror a tie of equality and unity of the self with all living things. This same imaginative jump in perspective is required in order to grasp what Baha'u'llah means by "unity in rank and station," or even to understand basic ethical principles like the Golden Rule. It takes an imaginative leap to know what "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" even means, much less put it into action. Similarly, our society will have to take many imaginative jumps in order to see beyond the perspective of power, war and violence.

John Taylor



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