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.

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