Friday, January 3, 2014

Right and Wrong and Progression

"What does it feel like when you're wrong?" That was the question asked by someone giving a talk at a TED conference. (This is the same talk I posted yesterday.) (And this is another of the articles I began some time ago, which has been sitting in my 'drafts' folder for the same "some time".)

As you can imagine, most people said things like "bad", "awful", "not fun", and so forth. But, as the speaker pointed out, that's not really the answer to the question. What they answered was, "What does it feel like when you realize you're wrong?"

The answer to her question is, "When you are wrong, it feels as if you are right."

And that, dear Reader, was such a profound statement of truth that I just had to sit up and pay attention to the rest of the video. As you can imagine, it really got me thinking.

In particular, it got me thinking about the concept of certitude, that feeling of being correct, and the Book of Certitude. You see, I'm not sure, but I don't think Baha'u'llah wants us to feel certainty when we are wrong. He wants us to be assured in that which we have verified.

Remember, this is one of the most important works He wrote. The Guardian refers to it as being "of unsurpassed pre-eminence among the writings of the Author of the Bahá'í Revelation". That's how important certitude is.

So looking at that Book for a moment, and re-examining it in light of this talk, I noticed a lot of things I hadn't seen before. Well, I had seen them, but I hadn't paid as close attention to them as perhaps I should have.

Most notably, I began to see His injunction to "consider the past" far more relevant to this train of thought. When I really begin to talk about religion with people, it is not the events of the past that they seem to disagree with, but the thoughts of the future. Now obviously this is not an absolute truth, but rather just a blanket observation. The problem, though, is that their view of the past may not be all that clear.

Looking at the past, as Baha'u'llah encourages us to do in the Kitab-i-Iqan, we will readily see that everything Baha'u'llah talks about regarding the other Messengers in those first couple of dozen pages we not only already know, but already agree with. Well, presuming we had heard of Hud or Salih, we already knew and agreed. And presuming, of course, that we actually had studied our own religion, for this Book was written to the Uncle of the Bab, and this man was a good Muslim as well as a scholar.

In other words, Baha'u'llah presumes that we already know a bit about what we believe.

And you know what? Chances are that we aren't wrong. But the chances are that we are not quite right either.

In the very beginning of the talk Kathryn Schulz refers to that time when she was looking at the strange Chinese symbol all across America. She was correct in that it was a strange symbol, for her, and that it did stand for something. But it took a moment of re-focus for her to realize what it really was.

I think Baha'u'llah gives us that moment of re-focus in the beginning of the Iqan.

Let's take a look, for example, at paragraph 7, which is chosen not at all at random:
Among the Prophets was Noah. For nine hundred and fifty years He prayerfully exhorted His people and summoned them to the haven of security and peace. None, however, heeded His call. Each day they inflicted on His blessed person such pain and suffering that no one believed He could survive. How frequently they denied Him, how malevolently they hinted their suspicion against Him! Thus it hath been revealed: "And as often as a company of His people passed by Him, they derided Him. To them He said: 'Though ye scoff at us now, we will scoff at you hereafter even as ye scoff at us. In the end ye shall know.'" Long afterward, He several times promised victory to His companions and fixed the hour thereof. But when the hour struck, the divine promise was not fulfilled. This caused a few among the small number of His followers to turn away from Him, and to this testify the records of the best-known books. These you must certainly have perused; if not, undoubtedly you will. Finally, as stated in books and traditions, there remained with Him only forty or seventy-two of His followers. At last from the depth of His being He cried aloud: "Lord! Leave not upon the land a single dweller from among the unbelievers."

Ok. Why this paragraph? Because I think we all know a bit about Noah. Oh, and this is where Baha'u'llah finishes talking about Noah. He doesn't go on and tell us the popular story that we all know. He doesn't mention the ark, the flood, the animals, nothing. Not a word.

You see, I think one of His purposes here was to help us recognize a Messenger of God. These qualities, these aspects of His life are what help us recognize Noah as a divine Messenger. They are what He has in common with all the other Messengers. The story of the flood and the ark are what make Him unique. And Baha'u'llah isn't interested here in what makes Noah unique. It is irrelevant to His argument. It is actually a distraction.

Instead, Baha'u'llah goes through paragraph after paragraph, page after page, re-telling us the stories that we already know. And He is showing us what we have failed to see all this time. He is showing to us what all the Messengers of God have in common.

Now again, it's not that we were wrong about Them. We recognized that They were special. Their stories have withstood millennia. That's pretty impressive.

But what He is doing here is casting Them all in a new light, and helping us, very slowly and very patiently, to become more certain in our own Faith. And to be fair, He is not, for example, lowering a Christian's view of Jesus. Instead, He is raising our view of all these other Messengers. He is not lowering Jesus. He is raising our understanding of Noah, Hud, Salih, Abraham, Moses, and all the other Messengers.

And when we realize that our previous view may not have been all that great, all that accurate, He gives us a chance to reflect, to ponder, to consider. Over 80 times He encourages us to do this.

Why? I think it is because He understands our very basic nature about the need to feel like we are right. And this is what Kathryn exposes in her talk.

I could go on here about the dangers of the ego, or how consultation helps lead us to a higher understanding than we previously had, or how humility helps us overcome so many obstacles in our life, but I won't. That's not what I wanted to discuss here. I only wanted to give you this little thought about feeling right, and how Baha'u'llah leads us through this minefield. Or, to use the Coyote analogy, safely past this cliff.

By taking a few dozen pages to carefully lead us from our old understanding of these ancient stories, He is giving us a chance to allow this "I'm right" reflex to subside, if we but take the time to reflect. Then He takes a single quote from Jesus regarding the Second Coming, Matthew 24:24, and spends over 100 pages analyzing it.

And what do we do? Well, I don't know about anyone else, but I would summarize all of it, over 200 pages, with the words "progressive revelation". And what an injustice that would be to anyone listening to me.

Baha'u'llah doesn't begin with anything controversial, or questionable. He begins with something He knows we already know. He carries us step by step through the entire train of thought. He gives us the time to think about what He's saying. He allows us to recognize the truth of His words, ever so patiently.

And, if that wasn't enough, He also tears down some silliness along the way. If there is an obvious argument that people have used for a long time, and it is patently false, He says so. If we toss out the idea that God's hands are tied because of what we have understood from a Holy Book, He reminds us that this is ridiculous. God can do whatever He wants. Do we believe that someone else's Holy Book is somehow incomplete or wrong and that this is why they have disbelieved? He says that this is open blasphemy, for God would never mis-lead His people. Do we believe that God has some sort of hand that will tear asunder the sky in the end days? That's just silly. Are the stars that shine in the night sky going to somehow fall onto the earth? Give me a break.

But all this time He trusts that we will examine these ideas of His with an open and sincere heart.

And if we feel that we are right, and He is wrong? He doesn't push the point. He just asks us to consider.

Because you know what? If He were to push the point, that would just get us to push back. And He is just trying to help us quell that very normal reaction.

So, yeah. I like this talk. Not because it helps me to be more certain in my faith, but because it helps me to understand what is going on in my own mind, in my own heart, when I think I'm right. And it helps me to be more compassionate to those who believe differently than I do.

I mean, I may be a Baha'i, but it doesn't mean that I understand what Baha'u'llah says better than anyone else. There may be something very obvious in the Writings that I have just mis-understood this whole time. I may be seeing that strange Chinese symbol instead of the picnic table.

(And here is the talk again, just so you don't have to search for it.)

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