Friday, December 9, 2011

Another Question

I made a big mistake yesterday, and I'm sorry for it. When I was writing, I was a bit disturbed by some comments that were made to me over the past weekend at a craft fair. As you may know, I make chain-mail artwork for a living. It's an odd, but fun, profession, and I really enjoy it. (There's a sample below.)

So there I was, with a star on the table, and someone asked me about it. They asked me if it was a religious symbol. I explained that it was, for me, a symbol of the Baha'i Faith. Well, this led to quite the tirade and I really had to ask this person to leave, or I was going to call for security. Although I had thought that I put that behind me, it seems that I was still reacting a bit when I wrote yesterday's article.

And one commenter, "Me", thought that I was reacting to them. Although I apologized in the comments below them, I wanted to be a bit more public about it.

I also wanted to draw attention to an observation they made in another comment. It was quite a good one. They reiterated my statement that I am a Baha'i because I consider Baha'u'llah's view of the world better than my own.

Well, let me go into that a bit more, for my answer may seem a bit glib, or maybe even shallow. And that just won't do (he says, in his best Victorian accent). So let me go back a bit, and maybe even offer an analogy.

To start, I do not believe that my view of the world is perfect. Not at all. I see many things that I have learned over the years, and there are many more things that I would love to learn. If my view were perfect, then I could never learn anything new.

Some say that the wisest philosopher of all time was Socrates, because he knew what he was ignorant of. (I was about to say that he knew what he didn't know, but that just sounds like a zen thing.) And so I went into my study of religion without the presupposition that I knew it all. That's not to say that I went in blindly accepting everything. Of course not. I went into it with the various faculties and talents that I have been endowed with, such as reason, intelligence, compassion, sincerity, humility and so on. I also went in with my own personal life experience.

One of the first things I recognized was that most people don't actually read their own sacred texts. The second thing was that most people's actions actually contradicted what their sacred books said.

And that led me to use one of the greatest tools I've even been given: the ability to read things for myself. Instead of taking other people's "word for it", I actually went back to the teachings themselves. Now I can't read Greek, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic or any other language except for English, so I've had to make do with translations. But if you get enough translations, and read some of the commentaries on the them, you often get a good idea of what was trying to be conveyed. That's what I went with.

I also made the decision, which was quite conscious, to accept that there were wisdoms that were not readily evident in the literal reading of the various sacred texts. I figured that they must be considered sacred for a reason. Especially if they've been considered so for so long. Therefore, when I read the order of creation in Genesis, and recognized that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 give a different order of creation, I had a choice. I could either dismiss the whole thing as silly, or I could presume that there is a wisdom in telling the story in a different way.

Rather than throwing out the walnut with the shell, to use a phrase, I decided to look further into it.

Yes, there was a contradiction, but so what. It doesn't impact how we live our life, does it? Well, it may, but I don't believe it should. At least, it doesn't impact how I live mine.

Oh wait. Yes it does.


I'm so glad you asked, dear Reader.

I see this as a clue that there are things about the sacred that are not able to be understood by the rational mind. It's not that they are irrational, but rather non-rational. Or perhaps super-rational. They make a sense that is more than the mere literal sense we have come to value too highly in the West. (Oh, it's not that the literal and linear perspective is bad, but it is not the only perspective. Other ways of seeing things are good, too.)

In other words, how you perceive the order of creation depends on your point of view. There is more than one way to understand it. From a purely biological perspective, we can see that animals came about before humanity. And yet from a philosophical perspective, we could argue that they weren't really animals until humanity had reached a point where we could define them as such.

In some of His talks, 'Abdu'l-Baha refers to humanity as having always existed. As the earth is only a few billion years old, how could humanity have existed before the planet? Is He wrong? Or is He speaking in a different sense? A more poetical sense? Or perhaps in a more universal sense? And is this denying the concept of evolution?

In one of His talks He admits the reality that evolutionary change has occurred. But then He goes on to say, "Man from the beginning was in this perfect form and composition, and possessed capacity and aptitude for acquiring material and spiritual perfections, and was the manifestation of these words, 'We will make man in Our image and likeness.' He has only become more pleasing, more beautiful, and more graceful." So here He seems to be talking about the latent qualities that make Man distinctive, not the form.

In other words, it all goes back to how we define our terms.

But let me point out something else, too. This sense of humility, recognizing that we don't know everything, is something that we all do. We go to see a doctor because they know more about medicine and the body than we do. But I, for one, won't just accept any doctor's word for it. They may be a total bozo, for all I know. Or maybe they are in the pocket of the drug corporations and will prescribe something for any reason at all. I just don't know. And so, before I commit myself to the care of a physician, I do a bit of research. I check out their references, usually on-line. I go in and talk to them. While they may think that they are interviewing me to see if I can be their patient, I am also interviewing them to see if they can be my doctor. Once I am satisfied that they are competent, than I will prefer their opinion about my health to my own. Of course, this also requires that I am honest with them and give them regular feedback, for doctor's can make mistakes, too. If a physician prescribes some medicine, I will take it in all faith. But if, by some odd chance, I have an adverse reaction to it, then I will inform them immediately and they will prescribe something else.

The same goes for teachers. If I want to enroll in a course, I want to be sure that the teacher actually knows their subject. I'll look into their credentials and if I am satisfied, then I will take the course, investing both my time and my money. One of the reasons we have universities is so that we don't need to do all that footwork. Once I trust the university's criteria, then I will trust all the professors there.

It was with this open-minded, humble approach that I began my investigation into religions. It took me over 5 years to become convinced that Baha'u'llah's perspective was far superior to my own. There were many things during that time that I disagreed with, but I kept looking. His explanations of other religions convinced me that the differences we see today are either due to the climate in which they were revealed, or misunderstandings after the fact.

Let me give some examples that were used in the comments the other day (just because they were so good). Look at the Trinity. While this may be a fundamental part of some sects of Christianity, it is not part of the original doctrine. It wasn't until the end of the fourth century, after much debate, arguing and even killing, that this concept was formulated in the way we know it today. And so I would argue that it is a sectarian understanding, and not part of the original teachings. You only need to read the New Testament to recognize that the word "trinity" isn't even in there, although it is easy to see some of the basic concepts that led to it. It is easy to pick out the seeds that grew into that tree.

Baptism is another example. While most Christian sects agree that baptism is a good thing, there was much debate over how to do it. Do you sprinkle the water on? Do you immerse the person? And who really cares? Do the one that feels right to you, is my opinion. Does that mean that one is right and the other way is wrong? I don't think so. I believe that it is the intention by which one does the act that is significant.

It was also mentioned that Jews don't accept  that a Messiah has appeared, and therefore the Baha'i Faith denies this basic doctrinal part of Judaism. Well, no. We agree that Jews don't recognize a Messiah, and that is why they are still Jewish. This is part of free-will. We will not force them to accept Jesus, or Muhammad, or even Baha'u'llah. This is their path, and we encourage it. When talking about the importance of the interfaith movement, the Universal House of Justice said, "Far from challenging the validity of any of the great revealed faiths, the principle has the capacity to ensure their continuing relevance." From my understanding, it seems that our role, as Baha'is, is to ensure the relevance of all people's Faiths, and not to try and force them to wear our team jacket. And so many Jews are awaiting the promised Messiah. We encourage them to keep looking, especially in light of their own teachings. But we encourage them to investigate for themselves, and not merely take their leader's word for it, nor even the general feeling of their community. Investigate for yourself, is a primal part of the Baha'i Faith.

Also, in regards to the "finality" is Muhammad within Islam, again this is not part of the doctrine. The Qur'an refers to Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets. What we understand by that is personal interpretation. Many Muslims see it as a statement of finality, whereas I see it as a statement of position. Sort of like the seal on a bottle of wine. At some point you remove the seal and pour the wine out to drink it. (Unless you're Muslim, Baha'i or a member AA.)

Anyways, this was quite lengthy, but I hope it better explains what I mean when I say that Baha'u'llah has a better perspective than I do. I am not merely giving over all responsibility in my life to Him, for that would be a denial of free-will and... well, responsibility. Instead, it is a recognition that if He says something I don't understand, then I will presume He is correct and seek to try and understand what He means, especially in relation to the rest of His teachings.


  1. (Part 1)

    What are you trying to do, keep me writing for eternity to you? At the end of the day, you made your choice. I don't think we can argue that your path is your own and that we are all entitled to believe what we want. I'm glad you have a place of peace.

    However, I can't leave this discussion without adding my own thoughts to your response. Of course.

    You said "Look at the Trinity. While this may be a fundamental part of some sects of Christianity, it is not part of the original doctrine." I believe it is more accurate to say Most Christians believe in the Trinity - Catholics (1 Billion Followers) and most Protestant denominations (Hundreds of millions).

    You said " You only need to read the New Testament to recognize that the word "trinity" isn't even in there." It is certainly implied on many occasions, thus the understanding by a predominate of believers. You know Baha'u'llah seems to have known little about Eastern religions in his writings - Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism for example. He wrote almost nothing about these despite billions of human beings being inspired by these traditions. Are we to say he didn't have an understanding or can we say his text needn't outright imply it as far as universal harmony amongst all faiths?

    As far as Baptism in concerned, it is not required for one to be saved. It doesn't affect your salvation according mainstream theology.

    The Jews are still searching for the Messiah. It is clear in the Torah that certain criteria must be met. It is difficult to imagine their Book has been corrupted when there exists so many ancient manuscripts that support their text word for word - never mind their incredible oral tradition of passing their faith from one generation to another. Of course the Baha'i' faith has the advantage of coming thousands of years later with the advent of the printing press. What impresses me about the jewish faith is that others can come to G-d without ascribing to their faith. That Jews are the "choose people" in the respect of living up to what G-d commands them as a peoples, rather then proselytizing their beliefs. They have certainly gone through a lot and considering their small numbers (15 Million) they have certainly impacted the world - that would include Christianity, islam, and Baha'i'. I do recognize that your faith does share some aspects to Judaism - Baha'u'llah cherry picked well.

  2. (Part 2)

    Yes, you are correct that Muhammad (pbuh) is believed to be the last prophet, not messenger. This is something I know about since I once was a Muslim. When the Quran and hadiths say that the prophet Muhammad is the final prophet, it means that he will be the final prophet sent to mankind with a revelation from God. Secondly, it means there will be no new prophets coming after him with a different book being given to them by God, with different regulations and rules etcetera. Even for the minority of Muslims the Shai, they rejected Baha'u'llah because he basically rejected the Qur'an.

    You know, when one is a believer of a religion you can literally shake them until they are blue-in-the-face to convince them of its "flaws"...but they have Faith (there is no intellectual reasoning here, this is phenomena that brings you to God). Stephen Hawking doesn't believe in God at all - nobody can deny him of his genius. But it isn't about human reasoning, God is beyond that. So, when a human writes out a Book and says it is from God I wonder about it. If God has a message for humans than why does it always seem corrupted and why do we have these divisions when so many are yearning for God? Mankind, anything he touches will be very much human and ceases to be divine. You faith has these same flaws. Again, it would manifest to global importance if it truly touched the hearts of many. it seems, if my calculations are correct, that 1 in 850 people on earth are of the Baha'i' faith. It's not only that, but a one-size-fits-all mass theology serves to only alienate anyone and everyone who wishes to pursue spiritually inspired and independent investigations of the "truth. I guess what is important here is that the Universal House of JusticeI doesn't believe that eventually all the peoples and nations of the world should come under the authority of Baha'i. Overall, it seems like a religion in the background and doesn't seem to pose any realistic threat or influence on our planet.

    I believe in God. I'm still searching for that peace you have.

    Anyway, I enjoyed talking to you and I think I'll end our little talk as in the end you may say "tomato" and I say "tomato." Or in my Victorian accent you say "Good morning" and I say "Good Evening."

    Take care Mead ;)

  3. Thank you, "Me", for your beautiful and insightful comments (once again). Yes, some of the ideas of the Trinity are implied in the New Testament, but it still isn't actually there. There are other ways to interpret those statements. And even though the vast majority of Christians accept it today, doesn't mean that it is inherent within the teachings of Jesus, nor the only way to interpret it.

    Personally, I'm a big lover of the mirror analogy. You have the sun (like God) shining the rays of the sun (like the Holy Spirit) upon a mirror (like Jesus). You can point to the reflection of the sun in the mirror and say "That's the sun", and you're correct. Someone else can point to the same thing and say "Well, that's just a mirror", and they're correct, too.

    As for eastern religions, just because He didn't write about them doesn't mean that He knew nothing of them. I'm sure there are many things that Jesus knew that He didn't share. Come to think of it, He even said that.

    Oh, and I think that anyone who claims that a sacred Book is corrupted is a bozo. So I think we fully agree on that.

    And yes, I love the idea in Judaism, as well as the Baha'i Faith, that there are many paths to the same Creator. It really does help mitigate the prejudice, or triumphalism. (One of my favorite questions growing up Jewish was asking what we were chosen for.)

    Anyways, in the end, I value your comments. They are well thought out. They are expressed with courtesy. And they show a perspective that is new to me. What more can I ask for?

    Someday I would love to read more about your beliefs (which is a bit different from your thoughts on my beliefs), and what you have found in your search. I'll throw in a few prayers that you find your own peace (as opposed to finding mine).

    Take care, my friend. :)

  4. Dear Mead, I've been reading your postings frequently but haven't felt prompted to comment until now. These recent exchanges you've had with "me" and others were obviously very stimulating and consciousness-raising. For me, as a Baha'i, I have come to recognize that one of the most valuable contributions Baha'u'llah has made to "religion" is to show the way out of the fundamental problem and conflict of finality and exclusivity. We find finality statements in all religions, not just Islam. Christians are as adamant about their finality as are Muslims about theirs. Baha'u'llah demonstrates the resolution of the issue with reasonable argument and by reference to sacred texts and interpretation, as you know. Regarding the "Seal of the Prophets" issue and finality in Islam, I have found Christopher Buck's article from 2007, Beyond the Seal of the Prophets: Baha'u'llah's Book of Certitude to be a wonderful reference when one gets deeper into a conversation about it, with a Muslim friend. For example, Dr. Buck discusses the Qur'an 33:40 text and the necessity of referencing it to a text four verses letter. We can also consider the Remembrance of God term from the Qur'an as well as a way to understand the continuation of revelation.

    In some of my conversations I have had, I noted the above, but also a powerful text from the Qur'an which reads in translation as follows: "Every nation has its appointed time, and when their appointed time comes they cannot keep it back an hour, nor can they bring it on. O sons of Adam! verily, there will come to you apostles from amongst you, narrating unto you my signs; then whoso fears God and does what is right, there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve." This is from the seventh Surih, "Al Aaraf."

    It seems to be a clear statement that each "nation" (that is, each people gathered under the shadow of a Prophet/Manifestation of God) will have their ending time, when a new Prophet will arise from amongst them. This second sentence is remarkably similar -- nearly identical -- to the text from Deuteronomy 18:15-19 in which Moses observes that another prophet, just like Him, will eventually come. Christians like to interpret this statement as a prophecy for the coming of Christ. But we can see that it has a more general sense; that each revelation, although complete and unchanging on its own standing, will indeed end "at its appointed time" and a new one commence. We all know what happens upon the arrival of this new One, the event associated with our understanding of resurrection, day of judgement, and so on.

    Briefly to expand on useful texts, I have found the text at Hosea 6 to be very useful as it seems to describe the coming and going of the Manifestation of God in the way we Baha'is understand it, by analogy with the sunrise or with the appearance of the springtime. It is one of the most useful and persuasive texts I have been able to locate in the Bible. If we believe that a religion is final, we may as well believe that the sun will not rise tomorrow.

  5. To continue ...

    Being an entomologist by training, I also like to use the analogy of insect development. This is in reference to finality and the "seal" issue under discussion. Take a butterfly in its development. The first instar caterpillar hatches from the egg. It is very small and insignificant, and can be taken to represent by analogy the earliest religion of man with its associated Manifestation. Then that caterpillar molts, ends its term, yet becomes the next instar or stage of caterpillar (the arrival of the next Manifestation, similar to but different from the previous one; growth and change has occurred). The molt is traumatic and involves leaving something behind (the old skin, representing the old law and teachings appropriate for the past age but not for the coming one). The newly molted caterpillar is also vulnerable until its body hardens and expands. This process of molt and grow continues in progression through several caterpillar instars until the caterpillar reaches its final and last instar ... there will be no more caterpillars after this one, so it is like a "seal" of the caterpillars that have preceded it, all the same individual but different and changed. This last instar caterpillar (the "seal" of the caterpillars) then undergoes a molt, but now the insect is a pupa or chrysalis: a dramatically transforming form of the insect which is intermediate between the caterpillar forms and the beautiful adult butterfly that will come after it. The pupa lasts only a very short time, but its change is incredibly dramatic in form. It even has stub wings, eyes, legs, but none of them are used while it is a pupa; they are only forms to prepare for the coming adult. This last instar caterpillar is like Islam, and the pupa is like the Revelation of the Bab with its short but highly transformative and intermediate nature. There occurs another molt, and the beautiful butterfly appears from the pupa, here representing by analogy the Revelation of Baha'u'llah and the initiation of an entirely new order.