Friday, October 29, 2010

Geometry and Spirituality

A number of years ago, when I was in university, I took a course on Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry. What I found really fascinating was the idea of independence with Euclid's fifth postulate. What this means is that, if you want a really nice and tight-knit system of logic, you want your postulates to be as "small" as possible. You want to take as little for given as you can.

For centuries, mathematicians tried to find a cleaner system of postulates, to reduce what was taken for granted in that fifth one, to make sure that it didn't overlap any of the other four. Nobody could find one. Finally, someone had the idea of taking the opposite of that postulate and seeing if they could make a logically consistent new system. If they could, that meant that there was no overlap, and they could stop searching. Well, someone did and non-Euclidean geometry was born. It's a nice system, but you can't build a house with it.

Anyways, this idea of independence stuck with me. To be a really clean system, you had to ensure that there was no overlap in your givens, or in your definitions.

Now, fast-forward with me to a time after I declared (wheeee, I love fast forward).

There I was reading Shoghi Effendi's Advent of Divine Justice and I ran across his description of one of the "spiritual prerequisites of success, which constitute the bedrock on which the security of all teaching plans... and financial schemes, must ultimately rest" and "which the members of the American Bahá'í community will do well to ponder." As he said that we would do well to ponder it, I took him seriously and have tried my best since that fateful day.

As you know, he describes three prerequisites, and it should be noted that a prerequisite means that it is required beforehand. In other words, the security of all our teaching work depends upon us first increasing our abilities in these prerequisites. Of course, we'll never perfect them, for we are human and continually advancing in our abilities, but the greater our abilities, the greater our succcesses will be. Those prerequisites, and I'm sure you know them, but I'll put them here for ease of reference (for myself), are "a high sense of moral rectitude in their social and administrative activities, absolute chastity in their individual lives, and complete freedom from prejudice in their dealings with peoples of a different race, class, creed, or color."

Further along in the book Shoghi Effendi goes into some detail about each of these, including in his description of the first two a list of adjectives and implications, clarifying what he means for us. It is interesting to note that there is no such list with the third one, for freedom from prejudice is just freedom from prejudice. There are no further implications to it.
Of this moral rectitude, he says it implies "justice, equity, truthfulness, honesty, fair-mindedness, reliability, and trustworthiness". And that is where I stopped.
What was this list? Aren't justice and equity the same thing? What is the difference between truthfulness and honesty? Reliability and trustworthiness? And fair-mindedness sure seems like a part of justice and equity. In short, I thought it was sloppy.
And that was when I stopped again. You see, dear Reader, whenever I run across anything in the Writings that makes me instinctively think it is wrong or sloppy, that is my signal not to suppress the question, but to investigate further, for I know that the Writings are of a higher standard than my own deficient self.
So I began to look closer at the list, taking a cue from my non-Euclidean studies.
Is it possible to be truthful without being honest? Or vice verse? If so, then they are independent of each other and it is not sloppy.
Well, those were the easy ones. Truthfulness is that which accords with reality. It is objective and not changeable by us. We are irrelevant when it comes to truth. Honesty, however, is what we believe. It is hoped that the two will be close, but they do not have to be. If they are sufficiently far apart, then the poor unfortunate generally gets locked away until they can do no harm to others.

But if you're not sure what I mean by their independence from each other, here is a simple example that I've used before. (If you are, feel free to skip this paragraph. I don't mind.) Suppose you believed that I was 45 and told someone so, then you would honest, but not truthful. You would be honestly saying what you believed, but you'd still be wrong. Now suppose you were a bit of a joker and said, with a wink, "Mead is only 43." Well then you would truthful, but not honest. If, however, you took the time to find out for sure, asked me, or my mother, you would learn I am 43, and then you could honestly and truthfully pass that information on.
Honesty and truthfulness are, you see, independent of each other, even though it is hoped that they would overlap a lot.
What about justice, equity and fair-mindedness? Are those, also, independent of each other, even though we hope they may overlap?
Justice is the inherent quality of being righteous, which is why, I think, the second Hidden Words specifies seeing the world through your own eyes, and not those of your neighbour. If you only saw things through someone else's eyes, then this quality is not inherent within you.
In this instance, I believe Shoghi Effendi is referring to the ability of each member of an institution, and every individual one of us, to approach an issue in consultation with our own clear ideas, guided by the Writings, of course. We do not speak for others, but offer what we believe, in the hopes that it will help us find a clearer and higher truth or solution.

Equity, on the other hand (and I'm stepping out on a limb here, for I have never looked at this one before and am only trusting that I will find something different when I click over to the dictionary) is (ok, here I go) the quality of being fair and impartial in an equal manner (wow, it looks like the limb held).
Fair-mindedness? A bit more subtle in its distinction. Equity seems to be in the action end of things, while fair-mindedness seems to be in the decision side.
Can you be just and still be biased? I think so. Oh, not in an absolute sense, of course, but in a limited sense. You can definitely see things through your own eyes, and be completely biased in how you act. People who have vested interests do it all the time. They may feel they are getting what they deserve, which is an odd form of justice, but they are not being equitable or fair-minded.
It is also possible to act in such a manner that you give preference to someone or some group of people, but still make an equitable decision.
You can also be equitable without being just, again in a limited sense. People who only "do it by the book" are like that. They are not thinking for themselves, but merely following whatever rules they ascribe to, and sometimes those rules may provide great equity, but it still doesn't necessarily show fair-mindedness.

In this Faith of ours, we are to think for ourselves, while putting aside our own personal vested interests. Sometimes that interest may be our careers, or even something we strongly believe in that doesn't quite go with the Writings, or with the decision of an institution.
This is the challenge before all the members of institutions in our Faith. They are called upon to look at each and every issue with an eye to the Writings, treating every person in an equal manner, and find a solution to all problems that is just and fair. They have to consider the matter in their own heart, and not merely accept what someone else says is true.
As for reliability and trustworthiness, I think it is fairly evident how they are distinct from all the other attributes listed here.
Reliable means that we can count on them, but says nothing about what we can count on them doing. A kleptomaniac can be counted on stealing, so they are reliable, but not trustworthy. Someone else may be trustworthy, but not reliable. You may be able to count on them doing something, but they may always be late in doing it (which I guess is reliable in its own way).

No. It is only when we combine all of these qualities, all seven of them, that the world will see "a true pattern, in action, of something better than it already has".
And you can easily see how that would lead to an upsurge in the growth of the community, or why not having that would stagnate our growth. Oh, and this is only one of the three prerequisites. There are still two others.
When I look at all three, all I can think is, "Gee, oh, me try."  I really do.


  1. Great post!

    I have learned from my Discrete math class (and this has also applied very similarly to your understanding of the meaning of words) the difference between what is fair and what is equal. This is incredibly similar to the difference between justice and equity. All too often many people equate fairness to equality. Suppose an estate is being divided up among those who have each bid on it. The estate is divided up fairly among the heirs. It isn't always divided equally, where everyone gets the same thing or things with the same value.

    With justice in a court of law, the people in court do not receive equal treatment. They are seen as equals in the eyes of the law, but their treatment is not equal. As far as justice and equity goes outside of the court room, sometimes in life things go a way that is good for someone else and bad for another. This is sometimes just or unjust, but it rarely seems equal.

    I've learned that simple words can have many profound meanings. I am astonished by the wisdom of the Baha'i Writings every day. ;)

  2. I've been searching for a clear definition of the distinction between truthfulness and Honesty for a while. So glad you posted about it! when you look at it, it really seems quite clear...Truth is about the reality that exists separate from us, but that we are a part of. Trust the beloved Guardian to have mentioned them both. I'll have to read the advent of Divine Justice again for further understanding.