Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Thought about Cain

"Hmmm. That's odd."

Yes, that's a reference to a recent article I wrote, but really, it's what I said. It was funny.

All right. I was sitting there reading the Bible (actually The Tanakh, the Jewish order of the Book), and I ran across the story of Cain and Abel. You remember, guy kills brother and tried to hide it. Pretty basic, right? That's what I thought.

Until I read it again.

You see, I am of the opinion that there is absolutely nothing in sacred Text that is an accident. I believe that it is all there for a very particular reason. Well, usually multiple reasons, but there for at least one reason. And so I was reading the story of Cain and Abel again.

After a period of time, Cain brought an offering to Hashem of the fruit of the ground; and as for Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and from their choicest. Hashem turned to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering he did not turn. This annoyed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell.
And Hashem said to Cain, 'Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it.'
Cain spoke with his brother Abel. And it happened when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.
Hashem said to Cain, 'Where is Abel your brother?'
And he said, 'I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?'
The He said, 'What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground! Therefore, you are cursed more than the ground...'

Now this seems fairly straightforward, but there is something that I noticed that I began to wonder about. It occurred to me that God did not seem to get upset upon the murder itself. Nor did He appear to get upset over the deliberate misdirection. Oh, I say misdirection, for it is possible that Cain did not know where Abel went. After all, do any of us truly know where someone goes when they die?

Anyways, it seems to me that God really got upset when Cain added the additional comment, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

I mean, let's face it. God knew what happened. There's no question of that. And the traditional supposition is that He gave Cain the opportunity to confess.

But if that's really the case, then why that momentary delay in God's response? Doesn't it make more sense for Cain to say, "I don't know", and then God to immediately reply, "What have you done?" And yet He doesn't. He waits, just for a moment, perhaps, but He waits.

I've been thinking about this for a while now, especially in relation to community development, and this is what I've come up with. While I am sure that God is not happy about Abel's murder, I think it is this last statement that actually changes things. Prior to this moment it seems that we all worked as a community. We all looked after each other. And while there might have been some disagreements, perhaps even leading to violence, we still all saw ourselves as part of community. You had the shepherds, as exemplified by Abel, and you had farmers, as shown by Cain, but they were all family, all part of the same organic whole. Of course you probably had the typical disagreements between the two groups, as to who had the right to which piece of land, whether for grazing or farming, but they were still together.

Oh, and you also had those who gave willingly to God and to the community, with radiant acquiescence, as seen by the longer and more detailed description of Abel's offering, and those who may have given only grudgingly, perhaps seen by the lack of detail of Cain's offering.

But even then, they were part of the community, and everyone looked after each other.

Now, however, something has changed. With that singular statement, easily the most famous in Genesis 4, something changed. When Cain asks, "Am I my brother's keeper", he is in effect saying that he does not feel that he is responsible for anyone but himself. He is no longer part of community. He is now thinking of himself before the community. And that is the beginning of a very long and tortuous road in history.

"What", God says, likely with infinite sadness, seeing this path before us, "have you done?"

So long as we think of ourselves, and our own needs, first before those of the community, we truly will be "cursed more than the ground".

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Thought on Unity, part 3 of 3

We began with the simple idea of seeing the world in terms of positive values, instead of opposites. Then we continued with the concept of seeing everything in terms of a giant spiral, in which creation moves from the micro levels up to macro levels.

My question, though, is what good does this do us? How can we apply this idea of the spiral in our daily life?

To start, I'd like to refine the spiral just a bit. Imagine, if you will, that the line of the spiral is a wall. Oh, but not your normal wall. No, that just wouldn't do. It's a really tiny wall, say even starting at the ground itself. And the further it moves away from the centre, the taller it gets. Where we are, as humans, we can easily see over the wall between us and the centre, but that part of the wall that is on the outer edge of us, we can't. It's too tall. It blocks our view.

Why is this important?

Simple. Everything in any of the various kingdoms can comprehend that which is before it, to some degree or another. Animals, after all, know which plants and minerals are good for them, and we understand a bit about animals and minerals. "(N)o lower degree", says Abdu'l-Baha, "can understand a higher, such comprehension being impossible." He goes on and explains, "The higher plane, however, understandeth the lower. The animal, for instance, comprehendeth the mineral and vegetable, the human understandeth the planes of the animal, vegetable and mineral. But the mineral cannot possibly understand the realms of man. And notwithstanding the fact that all these entities co-exist in the phenomenal world, even so, no lower degree can ever comprehend a higher." So this wall is just a way to explain why we only get a tiny glimpse into the next kingdom. And perhaps why many don't believe it exists. (They seem to figure that some exit from the spiral is just around the corner, just barely out of sight.)

So, what does this have to do with my daily life? Baha'u'llah, as I'm sure you well know, said that heaven was nearness to God. Well, what He actually said was, "They say: 'Where is Paradise, and where is Hell?' Say: 'The one is reunion with Me; the other thine own self, O thou who dost associate a partner with God and doubtest.'"

Oh, still not clear? Well, I was at a school recently in which Dr Nader Saiedi said that the Bab had defined heaven as "the fulfillment of one's potential". I cannot verify this quote, for it was, I believe, his own translation, but it sure accords with everything I've read from the Bab.

When I combine these two concepts, heaven being nearness to God, as well as fulfillment of one's potential, and then mix it in the blender of my brain with the concept of that spiral, this is what I get: We seem to be somewhere in this spiral, and have the potential to move either forwards or backwards on it a bit. Moving forwards, towards the spiritual realms, is the same as moving towards God and the fulfilling of our potential as human beings, which is likened unto heaven. If we fall prey to our selfish desires, then this is giving in to our animalistic nature, and this is moving backwards along the spiral, which is like hell.

Of course, now that I have peered into the blender of my mind, all sorts of other things begin to show themselves. Baha'u'llah, in the Seven Valleys, quotes a famous Hadith that says, "Knowledge is a single point, but the ignorant have multiplied it." Of course, there seem to be two basic branches of knowledge, namely science and religion.

Science is the discovery of the world around us, which is the acquisition of knowledge. It helps us understand how cause and effect work in the physical realm, and help us use that to our advantage. This is one way to move a little bit further around that spiral. Of course, how we use that knowledge is another thing altogether. If we use our knowledge to the benefit of the human race, then we are showing forth our virtues, helping them grow and develop, and this moves us even further around that spiral towards the outer edges. But if we use that knowledge solely for our own personal benefit, to feed our own selfish desires, then that is more animal-like and moves us further in the spiral, into the narrow portions of it.

What about religion? Well, true religion, as opposed to superstition or blind dogmatic belief, also helps us discover how the world functions. It helps us understand more about the spiritual side of cause and effect. Every religion out there gives us moral guidelines that are to our own benefit. They also provide guidance about what humanity needs at any given time, and where we should focus our attention.

In either case, science or religion, they both help us move further along that spiral of growth towards the outer layers, for we are helping develop our attribute of knowledge.

Well, presuming that we use that knowledge for good and the betterment of humanity.

But how else does this spiral help in my daily life? I remember a long time ago someone told me that one of my jobs in life was to help others develop their own potential. Now I think it is more than just that, I think I am also here to help all things develop their potential, not just other people.

Take a rock, for example. If the heaven of that rock is to fulfill its potential, then I can help it attain its own heaven by doing just that. How, I'm not exactly sure, but I like to think of my artwork as a step in that process.

I do know, though, that I could easily help it attain its own hell: Pollution.

I think that something is pollution only because it is not fulfilling its potential. When we look at something, like a piece of plastic, and only see a short-term use for it, like a bag, then once that use is done, it is considered garbage. And that must be like hell for that piece of plastic. I believe that our job as spiritual beings is to see the long-term use of everything, and ensure that it is used to the best of its ability.

When I think of the environmental movement, this is what I envision.

And you know what? The same goes for animals. If we see an elephant merely as a carrier for a piece of ivory, then we are denying the full magnificent reality of that animal.

It also goes for children. When educators see children in a class room merely as identical cogs in a machine, or as numbers by which they can get more funding, then that is a sign of the impending failure of the educational system, and a poor forecast for the future of the community.

This spiral helps me envision my own place in a very complex world, filled with incredible diversity. It helps me see how I can be of assistance to everything around me, from minerals to animals and even people. It also helps me envision my own goal in life, namely to try and move ever further around that bend.

And you know what? Some people would say that I've already succeeded! They would say that I'm already slightly around the bend.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Thought on Unity, part 2 of 3

Part 1 was basically about the idea of looking at the world in terms of zero to positive infinity, as opposed to negative infinity to positive infinity. Fairly straightforward, and we have the understanding of science to back it up.

This is about seeing the world in all its variety as part of a continuous whole.

For me, it all began with a book by Jane Harper, The Universe Within Us. I've written about it before, but it's still a great book filled with great insights. In the beginning of this book, Jane pointed out a quote from the Master that talks about levels of creation.

"When we consider the mineral, we find that it exists and is possessed of the power of affinity or combination. The vegetable possesses the qualities of the mineral plus the augmentative virtue or power of growth. It is, therefore, evident that the vegetable kingdom is superior to the mineral. The animal kingdom in turn possesses the qualities of the mineral and vegetable plus the five senses of perception whereof the kingdoms below it are lacking. Likewise, the power of memory inherent in the animal does not exist in the lower kingdoms.

Just as the animal is more noble than the vegetable and mineral, so man is superior to the animal. The animal is bereft of ideality -- that is to say, it is a captive of the world of nature and not in touch with that which lies within and beyond nature; it is without spiritual susceptibilities, deprived of the attractions of consciousness, unconscious of the world of God and incapable of deviating from the law of nature."

It goes on, of course, but this is enough to make the point. Needless to say, there are many other areas in which the Master describes reality in this manner.

What is interesting is how this differs from a common scientific view, which is not all that scientific any more, just common. This common view tends to see the world in terms of a giant pie. You take one giant slice and call it "minerals". You can take another giant slice and call it "vegetables". A third humongous slice would be "animals". We could then take the animal slice and further cut it up and name those smaller slices "insects", "vertebrates", mammals", and further slice them to become "felines", "canines", "hominids", and so on. The slice of the pie would get smaller and smaller as you continue to recognize more and more distinct species, or types.

This, however, does not accord with either reality or 'Abdu'l-Baha's statement.

You can rearrange these pie slices into concentric circles so that the mineral  kingdom is in the centre, surrounded by the vegetable kingdom, and then the animals, and so forth, but that still shows a hard and fast delineation between all the levels, which does not accord with reality.

In the end, no matter how we configure it, if there are sharp barriers between the minerals and the plants, or the plants and the animals, or even the animals and the humans, then it does not accord with reality.

I like to think of this as the Platypus-effect. Is the platypus a mammal, since it has mammary glands and nurses its young? But it lays eggs, therefore it can't be a mammal.

Well, you know what? Nature does not adjust itself to our definitions, for our convenience. We, instead, need to adjust our definitions to reflect reality.

And so Jane adjusted the concentric circles to do just that: She made them a continuous spiral.

If we consider the centre as the mineral kingdom, which shows the power of unity, then we can move outwards towards the vegetable kingdom, which demonstrates the power of growth. Of course, we all know that crystals show the power of growth, too, in a sense, so perhaps they are further around the curve, but not quite at the range where we might call them a vegetable.

Then there are those plants that show some animalistic qualities, such as the Venus flytrap, so perhaps they are somewhere closer to animals than minerals.

And while this is not a perfect model and does break down fairly quickly, it does teach us something. For one, it shows the essential unity and fluidity of creation. It also implies that there are things within the mineral kingdom, for a spiral never ends in the centre. It just gets too small for us to see. So perhaps within the mineral kingdom we can include the sub-atomic realm, which is made up of electrons, protons, neturons, quarks, and so forth, which are not really minerals in the strictest of definitions.

It also implies that we can move outwards in a never-ending path.

Perhaps from the animal kingdom it moves outwards towards the human realm, and from there into the spiritual realms. We can only get a glimpse of it right now, for the vast majority of it is just around the corner, or around the bend.

Or perhaps I've gone around the bend.

Either way, I like to think of creation in this way now. From zero to infinity. From the very basic particles of creation spiraling outwards towards God. No matter how I think of it, it is a path that I can continue to tread for the rest of time, moving ever-onwards, upwards, or outwards.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Thought on Unity, part 1 of 3

Many people see the world in terms of dichotomies. They believe that we are either right or wrong. It is, for them, a binary world made up of black and white stark contrasts.

But as I look outside my window this morning, I don't see a black and white world. I see a multicoloured variegated world, except for the sky. The sky is a fairly uniform grey this morning. But the world itself is filled with colours.

As I think about this view, I realize that there are no negatives in nature.

No, really, there aren't.

"Error", Abdu'l-Baha writes, "is lack of guidance; darkness is absence of light; ignorance is lack of knowledge; falsehood is lack of truthfulness; blindness is lack of sight; and deafness is lack of hearing."

Back to dichotomies. Many people see the world as a place where there is evil on one side and good on another, and somewhere in the middle is a nebulous zero. We start way at the left and somehow move more and more to the right. We're wrong, we're wrong, we're wrong, cross that zero and "poof" we're right. And when you cross that point you somehow become good, saved, a member of their religion, or some other sort of wondrous thing.

But this isn't really the case, is it? When you walk into a dark room and want to read a book, you don't somehow remove the darkness bit by bit, so that the room gets less and less dark, until there is no darkness left, and then begin to add light, do you?

No. You turn on the light.

I have talked about this for years, and it seems kind of strange to me to write this down after so long, but really, it seems more and more important these days.

Another way to look at it is with the idea that we crudely divide religions into two categories. The first are the salvation-based religions. We're either saved or we're damned. It's a very binary way of looking at the world, as I said above. We live our life and then we either go to heaven or hell. Of course, a major change occurred in that view over a thousand years ago when we could suddenly go to purgatory instead, but that's just a washing station on our way to heaven, so it's still heaven or hell. And this way of seeing the world around us is very divisive. You are either for us or against us. It's an us and them model that is not very conducive to either seeing strangers as part of your family nor for showing compassion. I mean, "I'm sorry you're going to hell" is not exactly a higher form of compassion.

The second type of religion would be a spiritual growth based religion. The model for this one would be to start at 0 and work your way towards infinity.

We begin with darkness and continually add more and more light. We begin with ignorance and continually add more and more knowledge. We know nothing of Baha'u'llah or God or any of the various spiritual issues, and continually increase our understanding day by day through reading, studying and applying what we learn.

We can never know infinity, can never get there, but we can always move further and further towards it.

And when we discuss spiritual issues with other people we understand what it is like to have not known something, for there was a time when we were learning, too. We also recognize that it is not strictly linear. There are some things that I have learned in my life, and other things you have learned in yours. It is only through each of sharing with the other that we can best increase our overall knowledge, and our insights into the Writings.

To me, this not only leads us to compassion, but also towards unity, for we are continually seeking to discover more. And we are open to learning what others have discovered, too. Nobody is "right" or "wrong". There is no dichotomy. We have all just learned different things and are all on that long road towards infinity together.

Of course, this doesn't always hold true in the microcosm of things. There are times when we are wrong. For example, if we try to claim that 2 + 2 = 5, our math teacher will mark it wrong. Or if, like I once did, we give a public talk about how marvelous it is that the Bab declared His mission on the first day of spring.

Fortunately for me, in that latter case, people had compassion and only corrected me later.