Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Magic and Prayer

Although I've addressed the idea of a good God, evil and free will here and here, there are still many more questions that come in regarding this concept. A fascinating letter recently asked about witchcraft as described by Evans-Pritchard regarding the Azande. He wrote of a tragedy in which 2 people were killed while sitting in the shade of a grain elevator. The incident was blamed on witchcraft, although Evans-Pritchard showed that it was caused by termites.

"Of course," the Azande people said, "but why were those two sitting under it at that particular moment?"

You see, what they called witchcraft is little different from what some would say was bad luck, or others would attribute to God's will. The underlying question is that of synchronicity, or coincidence. In other words, why do these things happen? Or more to the point, what can we do about it?

In the example above, it was presumed that someone did something to cause these two people to have bad luck, for whatever motive. There was the assumption of causation on the part of an individual for a negative purpose (wow, that sure sounds technical). But was this the case?

The questions that I think we need to look at are a bit more tricky. Is there anything we can do to affect future events? Is there anything we can do to prevent something bad from happening?

What I would like to look at is the difference between this concept of witchcraft and our idea within the Baha'i Faith of prayer, as both of these are suggested by some as being able to have an effect.

Witchcraft, or magic, as I understand it, uses a set of rituals and physical objects in an attempt to alter the world around the user. It is defined as "the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature".

Prayer, according to the dictionary, is defined as "a spiritual communion with God or an object of worship, as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession".

The first presumes that the individual has control, or can have control, over what happens. It assumes that the individual will be able to alter the world around themselves without necessarily changing the individual involved.

The second recognizes that we are not in control. Things happen in the world over which we have no say. In the case of our prayers (remember, I am coming from a Baha'i perspective), it also asks God to help us develop the virtues that we require to either change the situation or deal with it.

The first is self-centred, the second is God-centred. The first wishes to change the world, while the second wishes to change the self.

Magic puts the individual in the center and seems to feed into the notion that we have this power. In the end, it seems to me that it does little more than feed the ego.

Prayer puts God in the center and aids in our spiritual growth.

(I'm beginning to wonder how many other times I can say that. Don't worry, I'll go on now.)

Actually, before I continue, let me take a moment to address the Major and Minor Plan's of God, as these seem to be of a related topic, namely how we can affect future events.

When I think of God's Will, it is, to me, like the Major Plan of God, as spoken of by the Guardian. For example, it is part of the Major Plan to see world peace, but how we get there is up to us.

I may be off base, but this is how I think of them: the Major Plan is like water running down a hill. It will always run down the hill. We can put a rock or stick in front of it and divert the course, slow it or even seem to stop it for a bit, but it will eventually end up downhill. This is like "God's Plan". Can we impede it? Of course. But we cannot prevent it.

There are certain things that are historical inevitables, like the railroad. It has been said that when a society requires a railroad, someone will invent it.

When the world needs peace, Someone will bring it.

Let's get back to the simple: what if I want to sell my house? Will prayers help? Well, I believe that they couldn't hurt, but I better make sure that it is in the best condition possible and priced right for a sale. It's the old "Trust in God and tie your camel" thing.

It reminds me of a story of 'Abdu'l-Baha. There were these two women who very much loved Him and wanted to make Him a cake. They prayed and they prayed and they prayed for the cake to turn be delicious and ended up bringing the poor thing to a crisp. With much shame and sadness they served it to Him, and He ate it with great delight. When they apologized for the state of the cake, He asked them what they had done. "Oh we read prayers for it turn out well." "Next time," He said, "try reading a cookbook."

Prayers only go so far. We should definitely pray, but should also be sure to set up circumstances as best we can for what we hope to achieve.

I could go on and on with this theme, but I think I'll finish with just one last point. (I am, after all, moving house today and need to get back to that.)

In the Tablet of Ahmad, we read "Should one who is in affliction or grief read this Tablet with absolute sincerity, God will dispel his sadness, solve his difficulties and remove his afflictions."

Look at the order of rewards (if that is the correct term): God will dispel our sadness, then solve our difficulties and rmove our afflictions. I realize it is not actually stated as a chronological thing, but what if we read it that way?

First, our sadness is gone. Sadness is an internal state, caused by our own perception of things. If our sadness is gone, most of our difficulties are also gone, for they are not seen as difficulties any more. Not all of them, of course, but a significant number of them.

Of those that are left, He will now solve our difficulties, those sources of trouble. But what does that mean? To solve means to explain, or clear up. It does not mean that they will be gone, but rather that we will understand them. At least, that's how I understand this phrase.

By this point, how many afflictions could possibly be left? An affliction is a cause of pain, either physical or mental. As most of that, again, is based on our point of view, and by this point our point of view has been shifted, it seems like the hard part is already done.

One example that works for me is that of illness. As we all know, most illness is brought on by ourselves, usually through lifestyle choices. If you smoke, you are more prone to certain illnesses. If you eat rich and fatty foods all the time, you are more pronce to different illnesses.

When you study the Writings and discover the gems of wisdom that speak of cleanliness and moderation, then you are more likely to change those behaviours and are more likely to become more healthy. If, by chance, you do get ill, you can say the healing prayers. You should, however, also seek the advice of a competent physician and follow their advice.

The illness may, in the end, prove terminal. B y understanding the nature of death, as explained by Baha'u'llah, and seeing the vision He has given us for the next world, we will see that death may be the perfect positive answer to our illness. It may not be the answer we want, nor the one we expect, but it can be the best one.

So, finally, to try and answer that original question, "What can we do to try and influence the future?" Well, trust in God. Oh, and tie your camel.

1 comment:

  1. haha, I love that. 'Trust in God and tie your camel.' But sadly, many people forget the 'tie your camel' part. They think God will just give them what they want. My mother is sort of between Protestant and Catholic, and has been trusting God for her health. But in her trust, she stopped taking her supplements. In the end, she got sick because she was trusting God, but forgot to tie her camel. Her health has improved now, but I get mad at the teachers they say that you've just got to have faith. God wants you to have faith, but He doesn't want you to be stupid! (just because He CAN heal you from a snake bite, does that mean you should go out and find a copperhead to annoy?)