Thursday, December 4, 2014


Oneness. What a strange word.

What does it mean, one with that suffix of -ness? Happiness means having the quality of being happy. So presumably oneness means having the quality of being one.

What does it mean to be one?

I'm reminded of the story of the little boy who came home from his Baha'i children's class and was asked what he learned. "I learned that God is one", he said to his parents delight, "and I am five."

Oneness. The quality of being one? Again, it's a strange word, if you think about it. A statement of something being singular. Many have used the analogy of the fingers and the "oneness of our hand", but is that an accurate analogy? We have five fingers on each hand (come on, give me a break, the thumb is a finger for all intents and purposes), and yet they are essentially part of the same hand. One. Yet, at the same time, aren't they actually five? If you break one of them, the others still work, despite the very real pain. Although the underlying structure shows that they are a part of the same unifying hand, are they not actually separate at some other level?

The answer to that, of course, as with most questions in religion, is both yes and no.

To better understand this idea, I often think about history. We speak of World War 1 and World War 2 as if they were two separate events. We learn about them as two different wars in recent history. We say that the first one began and ended sometime in the teen years of the twentieth century, and the second one somehow spontaneously began in September of 1939, if you decide to start with Hitler's attacks on neighbouring countries.

But they can also be seen as part of one continual process. World War 2 finds its immediate beginnings in the Treaty of Versailles, that unjust treaty that saw the conclusion of hostilities in World War 1. In fact, we could even argue that World War 1 was a necessary outcome of the various treaties that began in the 19th century. The case could even be made that many of the subsequent wars were and are a continuation of the colonial attitudes of the various treaties that ended World War 2.

History, as I have learned, is not a series of randomly occurring separate events. It is the unfolding of the continual process of human development over a vast span of time.

Total aside, and a bit of a rant: I used to own a copy of a book, "The Timetables of History", which I am glad to have long since sold enabling my precious limited bookshelf space to accommodate far more relevant volumes. When I first picked it up, way back in the mid-80s, I loved it for the way that it showed what happened when in the long history of humanity, neatly dividing the various events into simplistic categories, such as "science", "politics", "arts", "religion", "entertainment", "sports" and so on. But even then I wondered why sports and entertainment were in two categories, for wasn't sports, as they defined it, just another form of entertainment? This book was quite good in terms of history further back than 200 years, but as it got more recent, it became more and more ridiculous. It put into context major European events like the signing of the Magna Carta in relation to, say, Da Vinci, which was quite interesting, but ignored most events outside of Europe and post-colonial North America. When it came to more recent events, it, for some absurd reason that I never quite understood, included such "world shaking" events as the Dallas Cowboys winning the Super Bowl. While it was really wonderful to have something that helped me see when different events occurred in relation to each other, this book had the unfortunate side effect of making it seem like history revolved around the European perspective, and that all these events were somehow disconnected from each other. Worse, though, from my own opinion, it made it seem like more and more astonishing things were happening today, inappropriately elevating the inconsequential to be somehow more significant, a trend we see all too often in the hyper-inflated, sensationalist news of today.

Anyways, back to the idea of "oneness".

I can speak of my childhood, adolescence and adult life as if they are separate from each other, but I am still only one person. While I continue to grow and develop, I am still me. But, of course, things change. Those priorities I had when I was a child are quite different from my priorities today. What I considered important then is often considered by me as trivial today. Those things that I value today were often completely beyond my vision earlier. Although I have changed, and continue to change, I am still me, one, singular, and indivisible. And although I appear to be separate from all those around me, like the fingers of a hand, am I? Really?

Before I look at that important question (which would have been beyond my vision when I was a child), I want to take a look at something else we often talk about when speaking about oneness: religion. We very flippantly speak of the "oneness of religion", as if all religions are somehow identical, except for those pesky social laws which some would seem to imply only confuse the issue, of course. We even cite that great statement from "One Common Faith" in which it says in so quotable a manner, "...there is but one religion. Religion is religion, as science is science." That's a direct quote. You can check it if you want. Page 33. (You're welcome.)

But what is the context of this quote? Great question. And interesting, too, for here is more of that quote: While it is true to speak of the unity of all religions, understanding of the context is vital. At the deepest level, as Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes, there is but one religion. Religion is religion, as science is science. The one discerns and articulates the values unfolding progressively through Divine revelation; the other is the instrumentality through which the human mind explores and is able to exert its influence ever more precisely over the phenomenal world. The one defines goals that serve the evolutionary process; the other assists in their attainment. Together, they constitute the dual knowledge system impelling the advance of civilization. Each is hailed by the Master as an “effulgence of the Sun of Truth”.

Got that? "Context is vital". While the oneness and unity of religion is true at the deepest level, on the surface there are some very significant differences. Different fingers; one hand. The pinkie is not the same as the thumb. And if you flip someone your index finger, the connotation is quite different from showing them another finger in its singularity.

So back to my original question: What is oneness? Well, to start, I think it is like unity, in that it doesn't necessarily mean a synonymy. I believe that when Baha'u'llah says "all men shall be regarded as one soul" He isn't saying that we are literally one soul in billions of bodies, but rather that we shall see each other as if we are one soul. We shall truly regard one another as ourselves.

In terms of religion, it means that we need to be careful when talking about it. To flippantly say that religions are one is to ignore the implications of this statement being true only at "the deepest levels". Instead, we can think it about it in terms of what Baha'u'llah says about people: regard them as one soul. We can respect all faiths, all religions, because others do. We can see them as one, in spite of, or perhaps despite of, their differences. I often say that respecting other people's faith doesn't mean that I believe it. It means that I respect your belief not because I believe it is sacred, but because you do.

Of course, this is also within a higher context. Any religion that preaches hatred goes against the very basis of religion.

What is oneness? Well, as a child recently said to me, "It is like being on the same team." The individual members each have their roles and positions, but only when they work in total harmony can the collective become a team.

So when I speak of oneness, I don't necessarily speak of everything being identical. Instead, I think of it all as serving the same purpose. And that, to me, is why I can think of all religions as being one, and God, too, as being singular.

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