Monday, December 28, 2015

The Victory

"What's happened to science fiction?" My wife asked me that question the other day, after hearing about the various on-line rants against Finn, one of the main characters in the new Star Wars movie. In case you missed it, there were a number of people up in arms over the idea that one of the main characters would be... uhm... well... not pale in skin tone. (I guess they figured Chewie was ok, since he wasn't human.)

And this was following the absolutely stupid movement earlier this year called "Sad Puppies", in which some yahoos were starting a movement in the Hugo awards, the fan elected science fiction awards, to get the awards to go back to "white guys". They were upset that so many Black people and women were winning these awards, and they said that science fiction was more properly written by White guys.

For a genre that has always been so forward thinking, producing such works as the early Star Trek, in which one of the leads was a Black woman, in which they had an inter-racial kiss at a time when that was practically unthinkable on public television, and in which inter-species kisses were the norm, this current movement within science fiction seems way out of line.

Science fiction has always been something of a barometer, showing where the current trends seem to be leading us, highlighting the promise of a good future, reminding us of the shackles from the past that are holding us back, and encouraging us to always push our boundaries.

So, what happened?

Simple: It became popular.

Up until the 80's, you were basically ostracized if you were a science fiction fan. It was the realm of nerdy geeks who were phenomenally hormonally challenged, generally wore extra-thick glasses, dressed abysmally for the time, were socially inept, and a large portion of them were of a large portion, especially if they were female. While they may have had brains, that was about all they had. At least, that was the general perception.

It wasn't until Star Wars paved the way for massive blockbusters that science fiction began to be accepted as a respectable genre.

Then we began to get writers who were both excellent story-tellers and good writers at the same time. Before that, they were generally one or the other. When you re-read a lot of the "classic" works from before that time, they really are either poorly written, or unbelievable in their characters.

But now, it is socially acceptable to be a fan.

It reminds me of early Christianity, in a way. At the time of the Apostles, it wasn't easy to be Christian. Whereas today, many Christians expect to get into heaven, at that time, they expected to get crucified. Some talk about this so-called "war" on Christianity, but fail to remember when there really was a war on that noble faith. If you wanted to be Christian at that time, you were in serious danger. Just declaring your faith required a phenomenal amount of courage.

Today? Well, today, Christianity as we see it in practice reflects the norm of our society because it is the norm of our society. You see the extremes within it, because there are the extremes without it.

The same is now true with science fiction fandom. Previously, it was not socially accepted, and to be a fan, you really were outside the norm. But as it has become accepted, it has also grown to include the fringes of our society. And so, since we see this racist sexism gaining momentum in the general public, we expect to see it with the realm of fandom.

But I am sure you are asking what does this have to do with the Baha'i Faith. I'm glad you asked, dear Reader.

There is a quote I have long heard, read many times, and still wonder about. It is from Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah (CL, if you are wondering, which is found on page 319):
When the victory arriveth, every man shall profess himself as believer and shall hasten to the shelter of God’s Faith. Happy are they who in the days of world-encompassing trials have stood fast in the Cause and refused to swerve from its truth.
This has often been quoted to me as a statement of how the Faith will grow until every person on the planet is Baha'i. "Isn't it wonderful?" And yet, I wonder.

Baha'u'llah doesn't seem to be saying, as I read it, that everyone shall be a believer. He says that they will profess to be one. And when I look that word up in the dictionary, it is the second and third definitions that say this word means to "openly declare" or "affirm". The first definition is "to lay claim to, often insincerely; to pretend to". Now I know that there are times when the Guardian, who translated the original word here as "profess", used the second or third definition for his translation work. Ruhiyyih Khanum says this, and I believe her. But what was the intention here? I don't know.

But I do know that since it became easy to be a Christian, the sincerity of some believers has often been called into question. And when it became easy to be a science fiction fan, some of the basic precepts of science fiction have been called into question.

When the victory arrives, when we no longer have to face those earth-shattering tests that the early Baha'is and Babis faced, it will be easy to declare oneself. I am certain that everyone will profess their faith in it. I have no doubt about that.

But, as Muhammad said, "Think because you say you believe you will not be tested?"

Sure, all will profess. But happy are those who will have stood firm during those promised "days of world-encompassing trials".

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The History of the Decline and Fall...

For quite a long time now I have known that one of the Guardian's favorite books was The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, who, interestingly enough, was not descended from the apes of the same name. They were merely another branch of the same family tree. This book was so much a part of his life, the Guardian's, not the Gibbon-guy, that Ruhiyyih Khanum said that he always had a volume of it with him when he traveled. There was even a volume of it on his bedside table when he passed away.

But wait, a volume? Yes, a volume.

This book, which is inappropriately called a book, is actually a series of 6 books, which are more appropriately called tomes, by those in the know. And remember, this was written at a time long before the decline and fall of attention spans which has resulted in the people of today being accused of no longer being able to pay attention for more than the length of a sound byte, as well as novels no longer being considered for publication unless they are more than 7 volumes in length. It was, in fact, published between 1776 and 1789, which may explain why the US won their revolution: too many British soldiers were back at home in their barracks reading the latest volume.

Anyways, I've been reading more about the Guardian as of late, and ran across, a few times, the notion that these books highly influenced the Guardian's translation work. You see, Shoghi Effendi studied English at Oxford to gain a better ability in his work to translate the Writings. While there he ran across these books, which is not difficult as they seem to be a favorite past-time of Oxfordites. (Oxfordonians?) Having never read them during my own time there, I decided to finally break down and give them a shot, this after many years of hearing about these incredibly long books that are the bane of students everywhere, except Oxford it seems. They are the last in line of a series of highly intimidating books that many people run across in their life, but rarely read; the others being Moby Dick for high schoolers, War and Peace for undergrads, and The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for post-grads. You may notice that this list of quintessentially intimidating books begins at high school. The reason for this is that for most students pre-high school, all books are intimidating.

So there I was, looking for a free copy that I could download to my handy dandy, trusty e-reader, which I rarely use, so I thought it might be appropriate for this, when lo! and behold, there were many. Thirty seconds to download, plus another thirty minutes to remember how to transfer it from my computer to my handy dandy, trusty e-reader, and there. I had it. A complete edition of Edward Gibbon's massive work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Complete with footnotes.

With great eagerness, and, I must admit, a mild sense of trepidation, as well as a freshly brewed steaming hot cup of tea, I cracked open the first volume.

Well, not really. What I actually did was slide my index finger across the screen, which isn't really quite as satisfying.

But open it, I did.

And there, in Gibbon's preface, was an answer to something I had long wondered about: "I shall soon revisit the banks of the Lake of Lausanne, a country which I have known and loved from my early youth. Under a mild government, amidst a beauteous landscape, in a life of leisure and independence, and among a people of easy and elegant manners, I have enjoyed, and may again hope to enjoy, the varied pleasures of retirement and society."

All right, all right, I know. This doesn't really seem like anything to do with the Baha'i Faith, or with the history of Rome, but please, bear with me. This is what went through my mind when I read this.

I had long wondered why Shoghi Effendi chose Switzerland for his place of retreat when he had to retire from the Holy Land. And there, to me, was something of an answer.

Just imagine, the young Shoghi Effendi is at Oxford, and falls in love with the use of language in this remarkable book (s). Then, just as he is beginning to really cherish it, mere months later, he is called back to the Holy Land upon the passing of his Grandfather, 'Abdu'l-Baha. Upon his return he learns of his appointment as the Guardian and shortly thereafter finds himself needing to go away for a short retirement.

Doesn't this just sound like the ideal place? "A mild government"? "A beauteous landscape"? "A life of leisure and independence"? "People of easy and elegant manners"?

Of course it came to his mind as the perfect place to recuperate and prepare himself for this life long work.

There, in the opening pages, in the preface itself, and not even in the full of the volume itself, I had already come to a, albeit slightly, better understanding of something about the Guardian as a person.

He goes on, in this same preface, to explain his choice of spelling and place references: "The prophet Mohammed can no longer be stripped of the famous, though improper, appellation of Mahomet: the well-known cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo, would almost be lost in the strange descriptions of Haleb, Demashk, and Al Cahira: the titles and offices of the Ottoman empire are fashioned by the practice of three hundred years..." He adds "our most correct writers have retrenched the Al, the superfluous article, from the Koran; and we escape an ambiguous termination, by adopting Moslem instead of Musulman, in the plural number", thereby showing a degree of respect for the original language that many of his contemporaries ignored.

Of course the Guardian was impressed. It is, in fact, something similar to what he himself did with the transliteration and systematization of the Persian names for the Baha'i Faith.

Just a few pages later, we also find such beautiful tidbits of wisdom and comment that influence the entire history from Gibbon's perspective: "as long as mankind shall continue to bestow more liberal applause on their destroyers than on their benefactors, the thirst of military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted characters."

The other thing that I am certain attracted the Guardian was the obvious link of the rise of Christianity to the ascendancy of Rome, coupled with the decline of both, and the supersedence of Islam. Surely he saw direct parallel to Islam, modern Western society and the Baha'i Faith.

After all, we can easily read today into the very opening passages quoted here: "In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. The image of a free constitution was preserved with decent reverence: the Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government."

We can readily see ourselves, sitting in our warm homes with our computers and various devices, enjoying and abusing "the advantages of luxury". We hear the ringing praises of the US constitution verging on the border of reverence. And we daily read the news of the "barbarians at the gate" and can easily see the collapse, as prophesied by the Founders of our Faith, of our own civilization. How could the Guardian not be fascinated by this? Already I can see Gibbon's own warning echoed in the Guardian's own works, such as "The Promised Day is Come".

I may only be a few pages into it, but I am already looking forward to delving further into this volume (s) that had such an influence on the style of language the Guardian used in his translation of the priceless Words of the Founders of our Faith.

By the way, for those interested, here are the two Gibbons mentioned above; the author, and one of the authors cousins (with child).

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Sun

A minister of a local church recently interviewed me as part of a series of sermons he was giving on Jesus through the eyes of non-Christians. In the interview, one of my responses was based on the Master's oft-used analogy of God as the sun. I cannot recall the question that prompted this response, but I ran into this same minister a few weeks ago and he said that this response was the most thought-provoking analogy he had heard. He even used that part of the interview a few times over the course of these sermons.

Why, I wondered. What is it about this analogy that is so profound?

The quote comes from 'Abdu'l-Baha, in The Promulgation of Universal Peace. "How shall we know God? We know Him by His attributes. We know Him by His signs. We know Him by His names. We know not what the reality of the sun is, but we know the sun by the ray, by the heat, by its efficacy and penetration."

The basic idea is that God is like the sun. Not only do we get all our light from this bright orb, but all life on this planet is directly dependent upon it. (All right, I know there are a few organisms that live off the various acids and heat from the heat vents in the oceans, but please, you get the idea.) Now, this sounds good up to this point, and is, in fact, fairly basic (which is why I'm not mentioning the acid-eating stuff in the ocean).

But we can go a bit deeper. For example, we understand that we can never know the sun directly. If we were to even begin to approach it, we would be incinerated long before ever getting there. Science fiction movies notwithstanding, we are unable to even send a probe there. In fact, all we can ever know about the sun is only knowable through its rays. Granted, we can know an awful lot about the sun from its rays, but still it is incredible to realize that everything we do know about it has only been gleaned from these few rays that happen to fall upon our tiny little planet. In terms of the sun itself, these few rays are barely worth mentioning.

To me, this is an example of how inaccessible God is to us, puny portals that we be.

Of course, one could argue that it also means that God doesn't give a squat about us, being so insignificant, and the amount of energy needed to sustain us being so meager. But there I would disagree. If the sun were sentient, then I am certain that nothing would please it more than to see its energy put to good use, say by growing all the plants on the planet. Similarly, I believe that God does actually like to see us benefit from our creation, just as a parent enjoys seeing their child do well. I believe that God does want us to be happy and to prosper and grow.

Also, I believe that this analogy helps us to come together as people of different beliefs.

How, you may ask? Simple.

When speaking with this minister, I used the example of a mirror reflecting the light of the sun. One could point to the mirror and truly say "That's the sun." They would be right, indicating the reflection they are seeing. At the same time, another person can come along and say, "No, that's just a mirror." Of course, they're correct, too. It's all a matter of perspective. Oh, and also not insisting that your own view is the only one. This allowed us both to understand that the other person's view of Jesus was more really little more than a difference of terms. We recognized that we both loved and revered Jesus.

Another thing it does is get us to ask the relationship between us and the sun. Whose relation to the sun is the most appropriate? Is it the individual working on their tan on the beach? Or the dancer on the hill at the solstice? Is it the couple who work in their garden in the spring? Or the scientist who is studying the sun? You see, dear Reader, everyone gets something out of it, but not everyone gets the same thing, and that's ok. We are free to allow each other to get what they need, knowing there is always more. We also understand that none of what we do here on earth changes the sun itself. In fact, what we do in relation to the sun changes us.

Just as our relation to God has no effect on God, but ultimately changes who we are.