Friday, December 29, 2017

Depths of the Ocean

I've been studying the Kitab-i-Iqan for a number of years with my good friend, Samuel. Now, on the surface that looks pretty good, but really it doesn't tell you much. It only tells you the book, the individual, and that it's been at least two years, because, after all, two is a number, and it is plural. But really, it's been over 17 years.

It's been quite the journey.

And you know what? I feel like it's only begun.

Just the other day, a friend and I decided to look at the Iqan together here, while our children are taking part in a junior youth group. It keeps us out of their hair, and gives us something to do at the same time.

To give you an idea of what we've been doing, let me just say that we noticed that the following outline helped us break down the book into sizable chunks that we could begin to digest. The numbers refer to the paragraphs, not pages.

1 - 2  An introduction to the goal of our search.
3 - 6  Consider the past, and reflect
7 - 17  Messengers of the past
  • 7 - 8 Noah
  • 9  Hud
  • 10  Salih
  • 11 Abraham
  • 12  Moses
  • 13 - 16 Reasons for the denials
    • 13 "What could have caused such contention and conflict?"
    • 14 The motives of the people
    • 15 The motives of the clergy
    • 16 Ignorance - the main reason for denial
  • 17 Jesus
18 - 23 The Eternal Covenant

  • 18 Introduction
  • 19 "I will return"
  • 20 Unity of the Messengers
  • 21 - 23 "When will You return?
Of course, that is only the beginning. From there, paragraph 24 appears to us to be the major theme and outline for the rest of Part 1, in which Baha'u'llah looks at each phrase in the quote form Jesus (Matthew 24) and opens it up for us.

But looking at the beginning of the book again, with my friend Soraya, she pointed out things that I had never noticed before, or maybe noticed, but hadn't figured out a rationale for yet. For example, in paragraph 2, Baha'u'llah mentions that we must cleanse "(our) ears from idle talk, (our) ears from vain imaginings, (our) hearts from worldly affections, (our) eyes from that which perisheth." I mean, I noticed that He said this, and that He focused on a few attributes, but I never realized that there was a bit of a path there. It begins with the ears. We listen to what others say. This affects our mind, the way we think about things. That, in turn, affects our heart. This is one of the reasons that materialism is so dangerous. It sets our heart to focusing on the material things of life, encouraging us to neglect the more important things. This, in its own turn, changes how we see the world around us. It is like when we are happy, all seems beautiful in the world. But when we are sad, even the most beautiful thing fails to move us. And so, right at the very beginning, He is placing within this beautiful text clues about how we work, what it means for us to be human beings.

That was the beginning of realizing once again how valuable it is to study the Writings with others. Just the other night, during the junior youth group, we continued our study. We read paragraphs 7 - 12. This is what I mean about the outline helping us break it down into bite-size digestible chunks. We noticed that it was a reasonable amount, and it brought us to the end of a section.

What caught our attention was at the end of paragraph 8: "...the Almighty hath tried, and will continue to try, His servants, so that light may be distinguished from darkness, truth from falsehood, right from wrong, guidance from error, happiness from misery, and roses from thorns."

This was a passage I had flagged way back when Samuel and I began our own study. I sensed that there was a path there, but for the life of me, I couldn't see what it was.

That night, I feel like I began to get a glimpse. Perhaps it was Soraya, and her particular perspective that I value so much, or maybe the fact that we were fasting at the time, or more likely some combination of the two. Either way, a glimpse into this passage was offered me, for which I am very grateful.

Breaking it down into phrases, we see:

  • light from darkness
  • truth from falsehood
  • right from wrong
  • guidance form error
  • happiness from misery
  • roses from thorns

They are, of course, sets of pairs. No great insight there.

Light and dark, though, are the very most basic elements of creation, straight from Genesis 1, and that beginning of creation. From the darkness, God brought forth the light, and thus creation is occurring. Oh, that's not a typo. In the Hebrew, the verb is more accurately translated as "In the beginning of God's creating the heavens and the earth..." It is still happening.

Anyways, from there we get truth and falsehood. Truth is defined as "that which conforms to reality", so something already exists. Truth merely expresses what has been created.

Right and wrong move up a level or complexity, for now we are dealing with moral issues.

Guidance move us up yet another level, for this comes down from God, and following this guidance leads us to that next step, happiness.

Finally, you have the roses and the thorns. The roses are presumably referring to those parts of the flowers that are attractive, from their colour and their scent, which have become that symbol of love in many cultures. The thorns, however, are that part of the same flower which repel.

Looking at those 6 pairs, if we follow the words on the left, we end up us roses, points of attractive beauty in the garden of delight. if we follow that path on the right-hand side, we become like the thorns. The choice is up to us.

This book really is quite astonishing, and its depths really are unfathomable.  I would so love to read what gems you have found in it.

Monday, December 25, 2017


One of my favorite things to do, as you may know, dear Reader, is to look at a single word throughout the Writings and see what I can glean from that. So imagine my surprise when I saw someone on-line doing just this with the word "sweetness" the other day. To be fair, they just copied and pasted a series of quotes with the word, and no analysis, so I thought I'd fill that gap.

And what word was it? I'm glad you asked.

It was sweet.

No, I mean, it was the word "sweet". Well, actually, "sweetness", but close enough.

Anyways, before I begin to look at that, I want to share a bit of a thought about sweetness itself.

What is sweet? It is the taste sensation we get when tasting something that has sugars in it.

Now, some people freak out when they hear the word sugar, thinking that anything with sugar is bad. The problem is, even if you are diabetic, you need sugars to live. This is what gives energy to your body's cells. Without sugars, you die. Plain and simple.

On the other hand, refined sugars are not good for you.

But what are refined sugars? Well, they are sugars that have been taken out of context. Beets, for example, are good for you, especially in borscht. Mmm. I love borscht. Hey, maybe I'll make some borscht for lunch today. I have a few beets in the fridge that need eating. And I can add in a nice vegetable stock, along with a few.... Oh, sorry.

Where was I?

Refined sugars. Yeah. Thanks.

Beets are good for you, but when you mush them and mash them, liquefy them, and separate out all the sugars from the rest of the beet, those sugars are no longer good for your body unless you're a hummingbird. And when you consider how fast a hummingbird's heart has to beat, that just makes sense. But hummingbirds, alas, we are not. Instead, these refined sugars, white sugars, give us a sudden buzzing boost and then are quickly used up, dropping us as fast as they let us up. They are not satisfying in the long run, and can even damage us if we subject ourselves to too much of them.

But what, I hear you saying, does this have to do with Baha'u'llah's quotes, all quoted at the bottom of this article, with the word "sweetness" in them? I'm glad you asked, dear Reader. It's one of the things that makes writings these articles so much easier, your questions.

Well, let's look at one: "Pleasant is the utterance of the Friend: Where is the soul who will taste its sweetness..."

Obviously "sweetness" is referring to the Word of God here, and in many of the quotes. In others He uses it to refer to His "remembrance and praise" and also to the liberty that is found in "complete servitude to God", but mostly to His Words.

So, looking at the sugar metaphor, we can see that it is through these words that we get life. After all, without simple sugars, our cells have no energy and we die. So, too, without the simple truths in these words, we die in spirit. Oh, and that refers to all sacred Text, as far as I'm aware. It is these simple truths that we find throughout cultures all over the world, and even in the heart of the sciences, but that's surely for another article.

However, and this is a big however, if we take these things out of context, refine them to extract just the white sugar out of it, so to speak, then we find that they are actually bad for us.

What do I mean? Well, remember all the horrors in history that have occurred due to people taking religious things out of context. To me, that's a perfect example.

Another example is the phrase "turn the other cheek". I've written about this before, but let me just say it again. If you look in the Bible, you won't find that phrase in there. After all, what does it mean? Basically, it means if someone slugs you, let him slug you again. What does anyone learn? Well, for me, I'd learn pain, but I think I'd rather pass on that. Oh, and the aggressor learns that they can just beat up whoever they want. Again, I think I'll pass. If you go back to the source, though, Matthew 5:39 and the surrounding story, it specifies "If a man strikes you on the right cheek". That's pretty specific. So, by acting it out, you quickly realize that the person striking you on your right cheek is either left-handed, which is rare, or they are backhanding you. They are slapping you, as if in insult. And if you offer them your other cheek, your left one, then if they strike again, in the same manner, they will strike you square in the face. This raises the level of aggression beyond what is considered reasonable. After all, slapping someone in insult is considered reasonable by many, although it used to lead to duels. But striking someone in the face goes beyond an unspoken limit. And that's where the lesson is. By simply turning your other cheek to them, they will either back down, having learned shame, a  good spiritual lesson, or strike again, earning the condemnation of those around, which teaches the lesson of collective security, another good spiritual lesson. But by extracting that little bit of refined sugar, "turn the other cheek", it's no longer a useful lesson. It no longer provides the life that is so needed.

So, what do I get out of all this? Well, it's like food. Eat the whole food, not just the refined sugars. Read the whole of a quote, not just a small portion. Take things in context, for out of context that can be very damaging. They may look good in the short term, but can have devastating long-term consequences.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Were any man to taste the sweetness of the words which the lips of the All-Merciful have willed to utter, he would, though the treasures of the earth be in his possession, renounce them one and all, that he might vindicate the truth of even one of His commandments, shining above the day spring of His bountiful care and loving-kindness.
(Baha'u'llah, The Most Holy Book, p. 20, paragraph 3)

O servants! Pleasant is the utterance of the Friend: Where is the soul who will taste its sweetness, and where is the ear that will hearken unto it? Well is it with him who, in this day, communeth with the Friend and in His path renounceth and forsaketh all save Him, that he may behold a new world and gain admittance to the everlasting paradise.
(Baha'u'llah, Tabernacle of Unity, p. 70, paragraph 4.10)

Were ye to taste of the sweetness of the sayings of the All-Merciful, ye would unhesitatingly forsake your selves, and would lay down your lives for the Well-Beloved.
(Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 84)

The liberty that profiteth you is to be found nowhere except in complete servitude unto God, the Eternal Truth. Whoso hath tasted of its sweetness will refuse to barter it for all the dominion of earth and heaven.
(Baha'u'llah, The Most Holy Book, p. 64, paragraph 125)

Were any man to ponder in his heart that which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed and to taste of its sweetness, he would, of a certainty, find himself emptied and delivered from his own desires, and utterly subservient to the Will of the Almighty. Happy is the man that hath attained so high a station, and hath not deprived himself of so bountiful a grace.
(Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 343)

Cause me to taste, O my Lord, the divine sweetness of Thy remembrance and praise. I swear by Thy might! Whosoever tasteth of its sweetness will rid himself of all attachment to the world and all that is therein, and will set his face towards Thee, cleansed from the remembrance of any one except Thee.
(Prayers and Meditations by Baha'u'llah LVI, p. 82)

Blessed is he that hath tasted of the sweetness of Thy remembrance and praise. Nothing, not even the arising of all the peoples of the whole world to assail him, can hinder such a man from directing his steps towards the paths of Thy pleasure and the ways of Thy Cause.
(Prayers and Meditations by Baha'u'llah CXX, p. 205)

Monday, December 18, 2017

Of Miracles and Magic

"Papa", my son asked me on the way to his bus this morning, "what is a miracle?"

The question arose because in recent days we have seen a lot of disparaging comments on-line from people who claim to be Baha'is, sadly enough, ridiculing people who believe in miracles. Now, I say that they claim to be Baha'i because, honestly, I don't know them, so they might or might not be. I have no idea. Personally, I can't imagine anyone who is a Baha'i ridiculing anyone for any belief, but what do I know. I'm just one Baha'i, and whatever I say here is only my own personal opinion, as I so love to point out.

But Shoghi's question was a good one, and so I decided to turn it back on him.

"Well, I don't really know. What does a miracle mean to you?" Always a great tactic, turning a question around on someone.

He thought about it and kind of stumbled with "It's something that happens that can't really happen... I mean, it's something that can't really occur."

"Like magic?"

"Yeah. It's something that can't happen, so it really doesn't exist."

"Really?" I was curious about this idea, so I decided to try a thought experiment. "Suppose you saw someone pick up a little metal box, touch it and then begin talking to someone through it. Would that be magic?"

"That depends."

"On what?"

"It would depend on what the box is, and who they're talking to."

"Well, what if you saw someone take a straight white stick and wave it over the ground and then suddenly a plant started to grow. Would that be magic?"

"Of course."


"Because that can't happen."

"Are you sure?" And with that he began to really look thoughtful. "Suppose it was a thousand years ago, or even a hundred, or actually even only thirty years ago, and you saw this person with a cel phone. Imagine seeing them touching it and then begin talking to someone. Would that be magic?"

"Oh," he began to understand, "no. It would just be something that they didn't understand yet. So, with the stick, it could be something that works, but we just don't know how yet."

You see, dear Reader, what Shoghi understood at that moment was that many things we consider miracles are just something that we haven't understood how to do yet. As Arthur Clarke so famously put it, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Now, take a careful look at this quote from Baha'u'llah.
"We entreat Our loved ones not to besmirch the hem of Our raiment with the dust of falsehood, neither to allow references to what they have regarded as miracles and prodigies to debase Our rank and station, or to mar the purity and sanctity of Our name."

Does He say that miracles don't exist? No. He says that we should not "allow references to what (we) have regarded as miracles and prodigies to debase (His) rank and station..." In other words, in my opinion, it means that we shouldn't regard Him as a Manifestation because of these miracles, but rather because of what He teaches. We shouldn't claim the wonder of the Kitab-i-Iqan because it was revealed in under three days, but rather claim it because of what it says. But that last is beside the point.

In regard to miracles, let's take a careful look at one that is reported about Baha'u'llah, namely that of the mulberry tree. As you know, the gardener was getting upset because he always had to clean under the mulberry tree because of all the fruit it dropped. Really annoying, as anyone who has ever had one knows. After a bit of pleading, Baha'u'llah agreed to take care of it. The tree never gave fruit again.

Miracle? Well, sure.

Magic? Why not?

Science? Well, yes, too. Mulberry trees are known to change their gender in the middle of their life. We know this, now.

In the end, what is the difference between any of these?

Or let's look at another famous miracle in the history of the Faith: the martyrdom of the Bab. You are surely familiar with the story of how He was suspended, with Anis, before 750 riflemen. They all fired, and after the smoke cleared, He was gone. Anis was unharmed, and the Bab was nowhere to be seen. After properly freaking out, they found Him back in His cell finishing a letter He had been dictating before being so rudely interrupted.

Miracle? Well, sure.

Magic? Why not?

Science? Let's consider. The head of the militia, Sam Khan, had spoken to the Bab beforehand and said that he couldn't see that the Bab had done anything wrong. He asked that he, as a good Christian, be excused from this task, but the Bab told him not to worry. He said that he was hired to do a job and God would not hold him accountable. I am certain that Sam Khan told his people about this, and I can easily imagine each of them thinking, "I don't want to be the one to kill Him" and raising their rifle to fire high. I can easily imagine this. Does that detract from the story? Not a bit. After all, which is more miraculous: God being a bag of hot air and moving the bullets out of the way, or changing the hearts of all 750 hardened military dudes? I vote for the latter.

And again, what difference does it make? Miracle, magic and science are so easily confused due to our limited understanding.

The Universal House of Justice said it so well when they wrote: "To any of your friends who are confused on this issue, you can explain that the principle of harmony between religion and science, while it enables us, with the help of reason, to see through the falsity of superstitions, does not imply that truth is limited to what can be explained by current scientific concepts. Not only do all religions have their miracles and mysteries, but religion itself, and certain fundamental religious concepts, such as the nature of the Manifestations of God, are far from being explicable by present-day scientific theories."

Or, in a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, "To reject miracles on the ground that they imply a breach of the laws of nature is a very shallow, well-nigh a stupid argument..." One of my favorite lines. I really like a faith that can, in an official letter from a centre of authority, call an argument shallow and stupid. It's kind of refreshing. Can't you just see the Guardian sighing in frustration at the letter that provoked this response? Oh, and even though it was only "written on behalf of the Guardian", Shoghi Effendi still read it and approved its being sent. So, yes, it is official, before any nitpickers out there try to minimize it.

But let me address one other point here which I did not talk about with my son, only because his bus arrived.

There are some Baha'is out there who are claiming that if it is not scientific, we don't believe it. They say that anyone who does believe in anything remotely miraculous or magical must somehow be ignorant or stupid.

Well, ignorant I would agree with. After all, ignorant just means we don't know. And if we knew how something happened or worked, then it wouldn't be miraculous. We would be able to explain it.

Anyways, the issue I would point out is that of prayer.

"You pray", I want to ask these people, "don't you? You say your obligatory prayer every day."

"Of course", I can hear them say. "Baha'u'llah commanded us to do so."

"What is the difference? Do you truly understand the dynamics of how prayer works? Can you explain in scientific terms what is happening? How is the effect of prayer any different from what others call magic?"

You see, dear Reader, when we accept that the miraculous does occur, even though it is not a proof of a Manifestation's authority and power, then we allow ourselves to begin to learn about the wonder of creation from all sorts of sources. We teach our children of the dreams that Baha'u'llah's father had, and I'll tell you, the Shamen I have spoken with have helped me gain a far greater appreciation of this story. We teach our children of the importance of nature, and I truly believe we can learn a lot about this from the great teachers in the animist religions.

As the House of Justice pointed out in that quote above, the Faith can help us sift through "the falsity of superstitions", but once we remove that, we can better see the truths that lay latent within those teachings.