Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My Tahirih Moment

From Theology, the Alchemy of Faith, to Divine Philosophy


Wisdom and Folly, Speaking Qua Baha'i

"In the discussion of wisdom in your email of ... you observe that maybe `Baha'i academics all too often have not recognized that to a great extent failure to exercise wisdom represents a failure of love.' The House of Justice agrees that the exercise of wisdom calls for a measure of love and the development of a sensitive conscience. These, in turn, involve not only devotion to a high standard of uprightness, but also consideration of the effects of one's words and actions."

This letter from the Universal House of Justice (8 Feb 1998) points out several themes that turn up repeatedly in any discussion of wisdom. One is that wisdom somehow straddles the gap between love and knowledge -- in fact, the Master said that knowledge _is_ love. Another is that wisdom teaches us to curtail our tongue. A wise person thinks before talking, is never capricious and takes every use of speech, especially speech about God, very seriously. We shall be spending much time on this theme in future essays. And finally, there is the seemingly universal tendency of experts and professionals to become insular and selfish, and to regard their own interests before those of society.

As this letter of the House demonstrates, Baha'is are not immune to this form of corruption. I recently was shocked to come across a post-graduate thesis where the author was openly calling himself a "Baha'i theologian." How could this happen? Baha'u'llah has specifically and emphatically excluded a professional clergy from His Cause. In the 24th Persian Hidden Word, which the Guardian interpreted to be a reference to the "Islamic" clergy of Iran, Baha'u'llah addresses them thusly, "O ye that are foolish, yet have a name to be wise!" Their egregious behaviour is such as to bring shame upon the very word "religion," how much more the word "theologian,"

"Wherefore do ye wear the guise of shepherds, when inwardly ye have become wolves, intent upon My flock? Ye are even as the star, which riseth ere the dawn, and which, though it seem radiant and luminous, leadeth the wayfarers of My city astray into the paths of perdition."

These fools in wise man's clothes are like the morning star, that is, that ultimate greenhouse-gas planet Venus, pretending to be the sun. Anybody who mistakes them for the sun is, well, a fool's fool. A willing victim of meta-foolishness. It is true that the Mullahs are not without competition, now that the scandal from the sheltering of child-abusing clergy has reached the Pope himself. But I ask you, which is worse, failing to protect a few dozen innocents from the lusts of some of your colleagues, or openly depriving half the population of their fundamental right to contribute to society, and conniving to suppress rival religions, denying their very right to call themselves a religion?

That is why I think Baha'is should recoil in horror at the very word "theology."

Think of it this way. Baha'u'llah did not forbid polygamy, He left it up to the Center of the Covenant to rule that this custom is unjust and unfair. Same way,
He left it up to us to come to that conclusion. He did not explicitly say never to use the word "theology," but it is implied. The word is unnecessary. A similar thing happened, I recently learned, with the term "timocracy;" in the 1950's some guy started using the wholly unnecessary word for the same thing, "meritocracy." He meant it as a sort of sarcastic joke, but the word caught on, being more readily understandable to a generation of scholars unfamiliar with Greek.  Before that, there was no need for the term, since timocracy, rule of honour, covers merit nicely. But there is, I hope it is apparent, very good reason to shy away from the word "theology," when discussing the Baha'i Faith, just as there is to steer away from words like "heresy," "propaganda" and "dogma," which come out of mind sets that are wholly foreign to the Baha'i spirit.

I discussed this with the learned organizer of an academic Baha'i studies forum, and he did not agree. He said that the word "theology" as presently used does not necessarily imply that somebody studying this subject area is necessarily a professional, much less a clergy-person.

I countered with this argument: the very word theology stinks of folly. Its components, "theo," God, and "ology," study of, imply that an expert is "studying God." God is by definition an unknowable essence. Therefore anybody who thinks of himself as a theologian is stepping close to the precipice. He will be tempted to assume that the progress he makes in his study will give him privileged information about God, or at least that he will know more about Him than somebody who did not study the subject area. If it were the case that the study of religion led directly to achievement in religion, then Jesus would have been the most learned Rabbi in Jerusalem, Muhammad would have been chief shaman in Mecca, and the Bab the number one Mujtahid in Shi'ih Islam.

No, one does not lead to the other. No, one does not lead anywhere near the other.

In fact, this reflection supports an even stronger formulation of this argument. Why study theology at all? Why is the very subject area on the curriculum of a Baha'i institution of learning? There is no trade of alchemist anymore for good reason. It is because that study has been discredited. Alchemy has long been recognized as a complete waste of time to learn about. I may go about boasting of my vast knowledge of alchemy but nobody should be impressed because no good comes of such learning. Yet Baha'is allow themselves to be impressed by what theologians think constitutes knowledge of God, and we let these discredited professionals lead us down the garden path by studying what they think is important.

Is that not following the morning star as if it were the sun?

Consider this anecdote, which the Master often repeated when He was an old man. He was a child being dandled on the knee of Tahirih while Quddus and other prominent Babis were in an idle discussion of the usual theological hairsplitting. Did she go along? She was certainly qualified to talk with them as equals. No, she stopped it and said, essentially, that this is all a waste of time, that religion is not about words, it is an action, a leap of faith from prayer to action. Such talk is a waste of time and wisdom dictates that it be halted post haste. "Wisdom is before the face of one who has understanding, but the eyes of a fool wander to the ends of the earth." (Prov 17:24, WEB) Faith is reflection followed by sacrificial action, and talking about it does as much good as talking about alchemy.

Did the Master tell this anecdote disapprovingly, saying that we should not do what Tahirih did, we instead should involve ourselves wholly in theological blathering? No, he told the story advisedly. Be like Tahirih.

Well, what do we call this outburst of the greatest heroine of the Babis? Oldsters talk about a "senior moment" when they forget something, so let us call it a "Tahirih moment." A Tahirih moment comes when we remember what is surely one of the most important lessons of wisdom, that we should forget talk and act; when we realize that theology useless talk about what we cannot know, ever. A Tahirih moment is when we remember to forget what deserves to be forgotten, and when we go straight to the essence of the question, sacrificial action.

It is true that whereas in the West we stereotype women as artsy fartsy, spiritual, head in the clouds types, in Iran the stereotype is the opposite. Women are practical, hard headed thinkers and men are the poetic dreamers. In that case, Tahirih would have been making a contribution towards rebalancing her society back towards a balance with the women's perspective. So be it. Her point that theology is a waste of words and time still stands.

I once had a Tahirih moment. I was on the bus going from the mountain to downtown Hamilton. I had been sitting alone in my seat for the whole bus trip wading through several pages of dense text from Sartre's Being and Nothingness. Suddenly I grasped what he had been saying, but at the same time I realized that what he had said in ten pages of close reasoning could have been said in a musical phrase, a stanza of poetry, or in a flash of meditative reflection. It was interesting that it is possible to express this in words, but why? Why bother with this? If the shortest distance from point A to point B is a straight line, why go through C to Z before you reach B? Is it not a waste of time? Is it not better to do what science did with alchemy, that is, leave it aside as a wrong answer? There are an infinite number of wrong answers; and in life as in mathematics, we only have time to study the right ones.

I call this a Tahirih moment, but maybe I am being arrogant. A true Tahirih moment is the time when one decides to shut up and teach or pioneer, or to give to the fund until it hurts. Or, in the case of Tahirih and Quddus, to leave off all the garbage and palaver and start down the path to martyrdom. I call my moment that only because it helped me understand what a Tahirih moment is.

Certainly Baha'u'llah was of the opinion that words and learning do not matter a hang unless they bring about results. You should not call a skilled or learned person wise from the mere fact that they have learned a great deal. You should only call wise those who have brought their learning to a good, happy end, and who have followed the Law of God. He says, for instance, in the Kalimat-i-Firdousiyyih that,

"This Wronged One hath invariably treated the wise with affection. By the wise is meant men whose knowledge is not confined to mere words and whose lives have been fruitful and have produced enduring results. It is incumbent upon everyone to honour these blessed souls. Happy are they that observe God's precepts; happy are they that have recognized the Truth; happy are they that judge with fairness in all matters ..." (Tablets, 62)

Baha'u'llah offers Himself as an example, and then says that we all have an obligation to "honour these blessed souls." So Baha'i teaching is the reverse of anti-intellectual. Like the Jews, whose proportion of intellectual overachievers and Nobel Prize winners is partly attributable to the fact that Jewish culture values learning highly, Baha'is love and respect the learned. But only those who produce, not the poseurs and alchemists among them. And especially not the discredited theologians, who have made themselves the very personifications of sinister folly. Their mistake should be clear to all Baha'is, and we should steer well clear of their odour.

"Say, O people of the earth! Beware lest any reference to wisdom debar you from its Source or withhold you from the Dawning-Place thereof. Fix your hearts upon your Lord, the Educator, the All-Wise." (Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 149)

In the essay written yesterday, I mentioned that scientists are being implicitly arrogant by using the Latin word Scientia for their discipline, which implies that all other pursuits are not knowledge. I suggested we go back to the original name for it, natural philosophy. I did not mention another unfortunate name shift around that time. Before, the many disciplines we now call philosophy were called "metaphysics." A philosopher was a non-specialist, a generalist, by definition. Scientists and theologians were types of philosopher. Around the early 19th century, natural philosophers started calling themselves scientists and meta-physicians started calling themselves philosophers, leading to a terrible narrowing of what I think is the most important, universal and general way of understanding the world. Everybody, especially every intellectual, should be a philosopher first, and a specialist only afterwards.

Anyway, my friend Peter read that essay that and suggested that we could do the same for what Baha'is study, we could call it what the Master did, divine philosophy. The second volume of His talks in Paris, after all, was called, presumably with His knowledge and consent, Divine Philosophy. So when we sponsor a course, please, please do not call it theology, call it divine philosophy. Give Tahirih a chance.



Anonymous said...

Hi John!

I like the Tahirih moment idea. But to give more clarity to your story, here is the exact reference, where Tahirih addresses Vahid (not Quddus, who may have known better):

" "[1 'Abdu'l-Bahá relates, in the "Memorials of the Faithful" (p. 306), the circumstances of a visit paid by Vahid to Tahirih, while the latter was staying in the home of Bahá'u'lláh in Tihran. "Tahirih," He writes, "was listening from behind the veil to the utterances of Vahid, who was discoursing with fervour and eloquence on the signs and verses that bore witness to the advent of the new Manifestation. I was then a child and was sitting on her lap, as she followed the recital of the remarkable testimonies which flowed ceaselessly from the lips of that learned man. I well remember interrupted him, and, raising her voice, vehemently declared: 'O Yahya! Let deeds, not words, testify to thy faith, if thou art a man of true learning. Cease idly repeating the traditions of the past, for the day of service, of steadfast action, is come. Now is the time to show forth the true signs of God, to rend asunder the veils of idle fancy, to promote the Word of God, and to sacrifice ourselves in His path. Let deeds, not words, be our adorning.'"] " (Shoghi Effendi, The Dawn-Breakers, p. 286)


Weaner Pigs said...

I resent the nearly universal use of the phrase "senior moment." Though I work with geriatric people professionally, nearly all of whom experience some degree of memory loss, nevertheless, memory loss is the manifestation of a disease process, and not the natural condition of aging.

Arlene Sobhani, RN

Larry Rowe said...

Pure souls, such as Mirza Abu'l-Fadl, upon him be the Glory of God, spend their nights and days in demonstrating the truth of the Revelation, by adducing conclusive and brilliant proofs and expanding the verities of the Faith, by lifting the veils, promoting the religion of God and spreading His fragrances.
(From a Tablet, translated from the Persian) [30]

(Compilations, Scholarship, p. 10)

It is quite clear from what Abdu'l-Baha' himself says in the above that he considered Mirza Abu'l-Fadl to be conducting theological studies. Since he was a Baha'i this would clearly make him a Baha'i theologian.


Larry Rowe

Paul Hammond said...

Tahirih was basically a Babi fundamentalist who thought that all non-Babi books ought to be burned. Probably she was annoyed with Quddus because she though he should be picking up a gun rather than talking about God.

awhisperatdawn said...

"...I think Baha'is should recoil in horror at the very word "theology.""

John; If we stopped using every word that someone has misused our vocabulary would rapidly shrink to the point of being useless. As an example, we would no longer be allowed to use the word 'mother', since some idiot added a perverse association to that innocent term.

If a person likes hiking he might be referred to as a hiker, by himself or someone else. He doesn't have to toss the word because someone, disparagingly, has told him to take a hike.

Likewise, a person who explores sacred scripture, for the purpose of finding its meanings or carrying out its councils, can be said to be engaging in theology, or some other word that means the same thing.

I think that anyone in the world can be called:

theologian, scientist, artist, poet, author, dancer, inventor, chef, explorer, loiterer, tramp, dumpster-diver, activist, sht-disturber, counsellor, listener, philanthropist,

or any other title that describes his actions and interests.

The problem isn't really the words, is it?

-Peter Gardner

badijet@gmail.com said...


While I am grateful for any comment at all, I want to emphasize that I was suggesting that we use the term "divine philosopher" rather than theologian. A theologian is an academic branch of a profession that Baha'u'llah has forbidden.

Thus Mirza Abu'l-Fadl was a divine philosopher, not a theologian. Same way, we breath oxygen, not phlogistin, which was a term for a discredited theory.

The Master said that the true believers are the real philosophers. So it makes sense to call the study of Baha'i divine philosophy.

New theories have new terminology. Get used to it.

awhisperatdawn said...

Ya. I prefer 'divine philosopher' too. I guess what I don't like is being told that I can't use a word. Already, there are many useful words that have become politically incorrect. Doesn't that bug you too?