Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Controversial Quote

“Know thou for a certainty that whoso disbelieveth in God is neither trustworthy nor truthful. This, indeed, is the truth, the undoubted truth. He that acteth treacherously towards God will, also, act treacherously towards his king. Nothing whatever can deter such a man from evil, nothing can hinder him from betraying his neighbour, nothing can induce him to walk uprightly.”

The above is a quote from Baha'u'llah that was cited on Facebook yesterday. The individual who cited it said, "I find it highly controversial and would love assistance in explaining it!"

Well, of course. On the surface, it sure seems controversial to me, too. But, when I think about Baha'u'llah's overall teachings, I have to wonder if I'm missing something. Let's see.

To start, if we want, we can check out the source of the quote, which is Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, passage number CXIV. It is an extract from a letter to Sultan Abdu'l-Aziz, and is cautioning him about his ministers. While some people have tried to imply that this only in relation to those ministers, I don't see that limitation in the quote, or in the context of the whole passage. But, to be fair, there are some aspects of it that definitely do apply.

That said, let's look at this passage and see what it does say, and also what it does not.

To start, the first thing that I notice is that Baha'u'llah seems to be describing two sets of people here: those who disbelieve in God, and those who act treacherously towards God. They are you will note, not quite the same. Well, they are, in fact, quite different.

In terms of the first, He says that this person is neither trustworthy nor truthful.

What is "trustworthy"? Well, quite simply, it means to worthy of trust, deserving of confidence. It also means reliable. And this, to me, is the sticking point. Here, perhaps, it might be worth remembering that He is talking to the Sultan. He is also, more specifically, talking about his advisors. In the previous paragraph, He cautions the Sultan not to gather "around thee such ministers as follow the desires of a corrupt inclination". We can easily understand why. So in terms of this, perhaps He is reminding the Sultan that a theist who is concerned about the wrath of God is less likely to be corrupted. They are more likely to follow the laws of God and strive to look after the best interests of the people, and less likely to be susceptible to bribery. Now, this is not to say that all theists are incorruptible. Not at all. But rather to point out that the short list  of who to consider might best be in that pool.

As far as truthful goes, that, to me, is self-evident.  Remember, truthfulness us not the same as honesty. Honesty has to do with what you believe. Truthfulness has to do with reality. If you believe something that is not true, then you can be honest about it, while still not being truthful. So Baha'u'llah is just saying that they are wrong, plain and simple. There doesn't seem to be any moral judgment in that statement, beyond saying that they are wrong. He is also not saying that there is a proof of God's existence, nor even offering one. He is just  pointing out that God exists, and that this is a truth, whether or not we believe it.

Again, I'm not seeing this particular passage as a heavy-handed condemnation of the atheist, as much as just a simple, unemotional statement. When it comes to standing up for ones values, a staunch believer will do even unto death, but someone without that assurance of the afterlife will not. They are, perhaps, worthy of a degree of trust, but completely trustworthy. They may have some degree of truthfulness, but are missing a basic point.

This is just how I read it, and I am not, of course, an authority. It's only my own opinion, so you can take it or leave it. For me, it's how I make sense of this first part of the quote.

Now there is the second part of this quote: "He that acteth treacherously towards God..." Well, nothing good can really result from that.

And just to be clear, acting treacherously towards God is not the same as not believing in Him. When you act treacherously towards someone, you betray their trust. Again, Baha'u'llah is cautioning the Sultan about his advisors. They are betraying God, Who has placed the peoples of the realm under the custodianship of the Sultan and his advisers. They are clearly betraying this trust. And if they betray this fairly basic trust bestowed upon them by God, their very job, then what it is to stop them from betraying their King?

That, to me, is the basic point of the second part of this paragraph. If they are willing to violate the command of God, their very position as advisor of the realm, then you better watch out. If the threat of divine  retribution doesn't stop them, then what will? "Nothing whatever can deter such a man from evil, nothing can hinder him from betraying his neighbour, nothing can induce him to walk uprightly."

Ok. That's a condemnation. No getting around it.

In other words, if they don't believe in God, you may want to be cautious about putting them in a high position of trust or power. But if they betray God Himself, then don't even think about it.

So, next time I'm in a position of hiring those great advisors of the realm, at least I have some guidance to fall back on. Good to know.

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