Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for March, 2009

eiffel-tower-heightRecently Zarin and I went to Paris to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary. As part of that experience, we dithered about whether to go up the Eiffel Tower or not. When we arrived the queue for the one pier that seemed to be open was massive. Judging by the half-an-hour-from-here sign it would have taken us an hour and a half to buy two 12-euro tickets to wait for the next empty lift to the top.

As we were walking away feeling it wouldn’t be worth the wait, we realised that, although the other pier at that end of the tower was completely deserted except for a couple of people sitting on the steps, it was not in fact shut.  It led to the stairs at a cost of four euros each to get to the top.

So, we decided to go for it. One third the price, no wait, great views en route and healthy exercise. Who could resist it?

Well, apparently more than 100 people were bravely resisting any impulse to take that option and were instead choosing with steely resolution to wait 90 minutes or more in a biting wind to pay 12 euros for a cramped ride with poor visibility.

q-for-lift-1When we were at the top, enjoying the great views, I decided I must photograph this strange phenomenon, in case it was simply too incredible to be believed only on my say-so. Above is the photo of the lift queue that was growing rapidly as I took the shot when we returned to ground level: you can see the white top of a small shelter in the distance.

The half-hour queue in close-up below gives a better feel for the numbers of people involved.

q4lift-2By contrast, though there were more people queuing for the stairs than when we first arrived, the queue was still pretty short. The man with the hood in the photo below is the back of the queue and only just outside the same kind of white shelter as you can barely see in the distance in the first picture.

staircase-queueI have reflected long and hard over the many possible explanations:

1. People wanted to give the maximum possible support to the French economy.

2. Most people took one look at the total height of the tower, multiplied it by the size of their waistline and took the safer option.

3. Very few people were prepared to risk losing face by giving the impression that they were too skint to take the lift.

4. Most people wanted to make the whole experience last. I suspect we were up and down the tower before the end of the original queue made it to the lift. It is only possible to go as far as the second platform, 680 steps up: you don’t get to play with the telecommunications mast on the very top. Vertiginous fantasies of that kind may have put some people off the idea of climbing.

5. There is, of course, the totally ridiculous possibility that it was simply because we are all so used to getting into a car and being carried everywhere that walking was absolutely the last thought in most people’s mind. ‘Walking? Remind me – how do I do that again?’

Any other explanations would be received with interest.

eiffel-mirror

Read Full Post »

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending time we find them there.

(‘Mending Wall‘, Robert Frost, Selected Poems, page 43)

wall

In the closing decades of the last century the Berlin wall tumbled. Nor was it only in the landscape that we found this happening. Such collapses were and still are transforming our inscape as well.

The Bahá’í Revelation, Bahá’ís believe, has a crucial part to play in helping the dismantling of the barricades within and between people. We are a kind of catalyst in that it is by our transformation as Bahá’ís that this process will be accelerated and, even better, by borrowing our ideas and practices everyone, whether a Bahá’í or not, can join in the work of bringing down the barricades.

In the concluding post of the sequence on Conviction I threatened to return to some aspects of the Bahá’í prescription for living in a way that could, if given the chance by a sufficient number of people, change the direction of civilization for the better.

I’m now delivering on that threat and going to attempt to demonstrate that one exportable aspect unique to the Bahá’í life has an especially strong bearing on this problem of walls: consultation. There are others that I don’t mention here that would have the same effect. Another, meditation, which I will deal with very briefly, is not unique to the Faith.

Meditation, for an individual, seems to be equivalent to consultation for the group. It serves the same purposes and requires and creates the same personal qualities. They both grow from and result in unity and in detachment, which may in any case be one and the same process and end-state.

I apologise for this post’s being so long but it didn’t seem possible to split it without  making the theme hard to follow.

Consultation

The purpose is to emphasize the statement that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion . . .

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace: page 72)

We have to remain mindful, though we often forget, that investigating the truth is a goal whose pursuit does not guarantee that we will always find it. What we can do though is be resolute in developing increasing levels of humility about the value of our opinions, so that the consensus becomes richer and an ever closer approximation to the particular truth under investigation. Developing that kind of humility in such an opinionated world is easier said than done.

Some questions might still come to mind. Why is it so difficult to treat our own opinions as simply contributions to a consensus? How can we learn to do that? Is the investigation of the truth the only purpose of consultation or are there others?

Turning to the literature of the Bahá’í Faith should assist us. For example Bahá’u’lláh writes :

Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.’

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, pages 168-9)

lightIf we are in the dark, some light, however little, will help – even a match will be better than nothing. Even though the light we create will never rival the sun’s, it will often be quite good enough to help us find our way forwards. But it will work best when we combine our lights together rather than shielding them to ourselves. That is what consultation can do: polishing our own mirror in meditation helps us, as we will briefly see later, bring a brighter light to the process of consultation.

Why is letting go and sharing our light so hard? How can we learn to do it?

Peter Senge, a systems theorist, in The Fifth Discipline (pages 8-9), argues that we all operate upon ‘mental models’ or ‘mental maps’ (page 239) which are

deeply ingrained assumptions, generalisations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behaviour.

And on page 185:

all we ever have are assumptions, never truths, that we always see the world through our mental models and that the mental models are always incomplete.

He asserts (page 182) that:

. . . decision-making processes could be transformed if people became more able to surface and discuss more productively their different ways of looking at the world.

These assumptions are deeply ingrained because we have often formed them in childhood or adolescence, they have seen us through difficulties or even kept us alive, and they seem to make sense of our sometimes overwhelming experiences. We are not inclined to leave go of them too easily nor do we look charitably upon those who threaten them by argument or action. So, we protect our little candle and don’t readily let it pool its light with everyone else’s.

Blocks

Peter Koestenbaum in his book ‘New Image of the Person: theTheory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy’ states that:

‘[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.’

By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.

An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:

. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .’

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions.

Amongst the prerequisites listed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for those who take counsel together is ‘detachment from all save God.’ In the Tablets written after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas Bahá’u’lláh explains what it takes to be detached:

The essence of detachment is for man to turn his face towards the courts of the Lord, to enter His Presence, behold His Countenance, and stand witness before Him.

It’s fairly clear that such an awareness will entail a great deal of work on practising the presence of God. If we can maintain such a sense of His Presence then it is extremely unlikely that we would be inclined pig-headedly to bludgeon our friends, family, colleagues and neighbours into submission with our opinions.  It feels like a lifetime’s work to get to this point though.

Detachment as a Process

Is this becoming one of those counsels of despair which can seem so characteristic of the spiritual life? Can we only consult if we are completely detached? If not shouldn’t we bother?

Perhaps though detachment is more of a process than an end-state at least in this life.

Koestenbaum supports this view (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . .  there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.

We need to consider the possibility that consultation is also a process that can help us become more detached. If so, it’s goal is clearly more than simply the investigation of truth. It is a spiritual discipline in itself and leads to personal as well as group transformation. It perhaps could rightly be called a Bahá’í yoga.

Maybe now would be a good time to shift our attention from consultation to a brief consideration of meditation before looking at how the two processes work together. They may be mutually reinforcing: they may even effectively be the same thing!

Meditation

The wine of renunciation must needs be quaffed, the lofty heights of detachment must needs be attained, and the meditation referred to in the words “One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious must needs be observed, . . .’

(Bahá’u’lláh: The Kitáb-i-Íqán, page 238)

At first sight an equivalence between meditation and consultation, of the kind I am speculating about, seems unlikely. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Paris Talks (page 174):

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things it one time – he cannot both speak and meditate.

Consultation, at least in Western Europe and the United States, is not conspicuous for its silences. Have we drawn a blank?

‘It is an axiomatic fact,’ He continues,

that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.

Perhaps not. We are, in a sense, consulting, though with our higher Selves rather than with other people. Such inner speech seems to require an absence of outer speech, but it may nonetheless be a form of consultation. We are suspending our usual assumptions and opening ourselves up to other possibilities. He goes onto say:

The spirit of man is itself informed and strengthened during meditation; through it affairs of which man knew nothing are unfolded before his view. Through it he receives Divine inspiration, through it he receives heavenly food.

Do Consultation and Meditation Reinforce Each Other?

When we suspend our assumptions in this way, we receive intimations of a higher and more accurate kind. This sounds remarkably similar to the understanding achieved in consultation. It seems possible , at least in principle, to use meditation to improve our consultation skills and consultation perhaps to practise and refine our meditation. It also raises the question whether consultation, at least in the West, would benefit from more silence.

We know it requires detachment. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continues:

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

One possible way of conceptualising detachment, orr at least a result of it, is freedom from our animal nature as described here.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:

Regarding the statement in ‘The Hidden Words’, that man must renounce his own self, the meaning, is that he must renounce his inordinate desires, his selfish purposes and the promptings of his human self, and seek out the holy breathings of the spirit . . . . ..

(Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 207)

Meditation, then, might help us achieve the detachment necessary for consultation. Consultation will almost certainly strengthen our ability to be detached and thereby facilitate our meditation. They are clearly not unrelated disciplines sharing as they do this same outcome.

We also have to be open to the views of other people when we consult and to the Bahá’í Scriptures when we meditate upon them or to the promptings of our higher self when we commune with it in meditation. So these two skills are not all that different either: they both enhance our understanding of reality.

In the end, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that meditation will help us consult and consulting will help us meditate. It certainly seems to me that meditation and consultation used in conjunction as the Bahá’í Faith recommends would constitute a wrecking ball of sufficient power to bring even the most obdurate of our dividing walls crashing to the ground and pave the way for greater unity within and between us. Such a degree of unity is imperative if we are to become capable of solving the problems that currently confront us.

Consultation has links with justice, too complex to go into now, which add further strength to this position:

To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

(From Section II: The Prosperity of Humankind)

fallen-wall

Read Full Post »

The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son

The Limitations of the Word

Is conversion always the right word to describe what happens when someone changes from one belief system to another?

It certainly captures for most people a key aspect of the experience. On the other hand I think it’s missing something.

When I look back at my whole life trajectory from the moment I said to my mother I was not a Catholic anymore to when I made the declaration of intent we shorthand as becoming a Baha’i, I was on a quest. In fact I still am. I was searching for something then with rather more desperation than I search now.

The quest had its roots partly in suffering. My own early experiences of pain – mine, my parent’s and a world’s recently at war –  seemed partly responsible for this search mode. I once wrote this poem.

Just rose thorns scratching at my window pane!
How many times I’ve moved to open up
only to calm my straying arm again.
Hope will maintain a vigil till wind drop.
I am no Heathcliff, lost no Catherine:
what need to answer every scratch and tap?
I have my dead, it’s true, padding within,
around the cage of memory, a map
of all my days for them to roam across,
bloodless symbols, reverberating boards,
stench: unfree, never still.  I’d grieve no loss
of them -
. . . . . . . . . yet something there is I yearn towards,
strain ears eyes after, a presence I have
sought since mourner I grew, without a grave.

Quest

But I don’t want to explore the issue of quest from this angle in this post – maybe in another post later. What I’m after here is to determine, if I can, whether the suffering hypothesis explains my search with nothing left over.

I’m a died-in the-wool anti-reductionist as those who read this blog regularly will already know to their cost. So, it should come as no surprise to hear me conclude that I think there’s a huge amount left over.

I can trace back one part of the leftover aspects to an experience in church when I was very young. Everyone was bowing down at the same point in the Mass and I asked my mother in a whisper why they were doing this and she replied, in a way which she thought fitting for my age and degree of understanding, ‘Because it’s too beautiful to look at.’

This was a challenge too difficult to resist. Something that beautiful and I couldn’t look! This I must see.

And I looked up and I looked round everywhere. All there was was the same old altar, the same old pictures of the stations of the cross, the same old man in a funny dress standing in front of the altar.

The only difference was this big round golden thing he was holding above his head. This seemed to be the object everyone was bowing to, but I didn’t get it. It was quite pretty but definitely not too beautiful to look at. I detected a trace of thirst in me then which grew stronger with the years. It was more than curiosity: it was fueled by a faith that things could be adequately explained.

To call it a thirst for truth in me at that age would be pretentious but it had the same parched quality: the difference was in degree not kind. (It’s the Baha’i Fast as I am writing this so perhaps my choice of metaphor is a bit predictable.)

A Need for Understanding

In my posts about conviction I quoted Fromm‘s idea that there is a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being which cries out to be filled with a suitable object of devotion.

I didn’t go on to make completely clear that there is not only a feeling component to this but a thinking one as well. We need not just to organise our lives around an object or objects of devotion, but we need understanding too. For things to mean something there has to be an intellectual satisfaction as well as an emotional connection. Those two aspects are contained in the word meaning in any case. We need a coherent meaning system, with which we can securely identify, to guide us in life. If we can’t get hold of a good one, a bad one will do instead. Ditchwater’s better than nothing to a man dying of thirst.

I was being driven even at that early age by a need to understand, and to understand in ways that made real sense to me not just in hand-me-down terms that people were fobbing me off with. The Faith I now belong to endorses that need as one that arises from our deepest nature, from our very soul as we would say.

So, I shut the door of the Catholic Church behind me and stepped into the back lanes of agnosticism. It wasn’t long before I was on the beach of atheism watching the tide of faith go out beyond eye-shot.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

(Matthew Arnold)

Not that it worried me consciously.

I wanted to look the hard facts of the world full in the face, see reality for what it was without all that mumbo-jumbo/hocus-pocus/smoke-and mirrors stuff (delete according to your particular distastes). I felt I had found the bed-rock of a firm and true understanding (except I was writing poems about search for reasons I didn’t understand at all).

Still, I stuck with my supposedly godless views because I thought they made sense of everything. I didn’t see it as a faith, which it is – just as much a leap in the dark as any other faith might be and ultimately far more unsatisfactory than many others which accept that there is a God. I had simply made a god of nothing since to believe in Nothing is an act of faith.

I congratulated myself on the hard-headed no-nonsense courage I was displaying by seeing the world as meaningless. I chuckled appreciatively over Castaneda‘s concept of ‘controlled folly’ in his books about the Yaqui Indian ‘way of the warrior:’ you know the world means nothing but you choose to give it a meaning none the less in a brave act of defiant self-assertion.

I plunged into left-wing politics and became ‘a fellow traveller.’ I couldn’t quite make the leap into becoming a real socialist: something held me back. When I began working in mental health and went to see a therapist, we decided that the epitaph engraved in big letters on my tombstone would be, ‘He died with his options open.’ I was very reluctant to make any kind of commitment.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Yet at the same time there was this restless seeking after an indefinable something. Because I shared Chekhov‘s revulsion from violence and lies I stepped away from the radical socialism I was toying with. Even milder versions that eschewed violence in my eyes seemed, like everyone else seeking power, far too keen on lies. The ends always justified the meanest means. In some incoherent way I was expressing that I valued truth more than power except I could never have put it like that at the time.

This drove me to psychology (of which there has been more than enough in these pages already and there is plenty more to come). And that led onto Buddhism which seemed a conveniently atheistical religion with a sophisticated psychology. Choosing to investigate that at the same time as I studied psychology was a no-brainer for me.

My career as a truth-seeker strongly resembles John Donne‘s description:

. . . . . . . . . On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

I came to a point in my life where the ideals of communism -‘ from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ – seemed to me to have been betrayed by all of its followers that had actually got into power. For example, far from rescuing the bulk of Europe from tyranny, the war against Hitler, with supreme irony, handed whole swathes of the continent over to a tyranny of an equally repellent kind.

On the other hand, Buddhism, which still seems to me a religion of great beauty, depth and power though I never threw in my lot with it, disappointed for a different reason.

I was impressed painfully by its combination of deep spirituality and practical inefficacy in the modern world. I had been haunted since the end of the Vietnam War by a potent symbol of this: those images of Buddhist monks burning themselves to death in the streets. The most widespread effects of these supremely compassionate acts of courageous self-immolation seemed to be futile if passionate demonstrations by the well-meaning and a series of tasteless jokes of the ‘What’s little and yellow and burns with a blue flame?’ variety, which combined racism and cruelty in about equal proportions.

Without knowing it at the time I longed, from the deepest levels of my being, for a pattern of belief, a meaning system, that could combine effective social action with moral restraints strong enough to prevent that social action becoming a source of oppression.

To embark now, after 1500 words, on a tale of how I found the Faith would test the patience of potential saints. Suffice it to say that I believed then, 27 years ago, that the Baha’i Faith offers just such a system and I believe it still. Hence this post.

What’s this got to do with conversion not being the right word?

Oh, I almost forgot!

The whole point of starting this story was to use my experience to indicate that the word conversion is missing something. When I became a Bahá’í I did not feel I was abandoning a previous belief system to adopt another quite different one. Anything but.

I felt I was finding a system of belief and practice that exactly corresponded to what I had always believed, could never have articulated so well and had always wanted to find in someone or something else apart from somewhere behind a fog in my own mind.

So strong was the sense of home-coming that when I went on pilgrimage four years later, I ended up weeping at the gates near the Shrine of the Báb, overcome by waves of relief and gratitude, such as a person who had been decades in exile might feel after a long and arduous journey as he looked down from a nearby hill top on the sunlit roofs of his birthplace.

It made sense of the phrase used by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to describe faith: ‘conscious knowledge.’ Till I found the Bahá’í Faith, it seems to me, my faith was unconscious, blind, deaf, dumb and desperate.

Of course, my journey of discovery is not over. It would be very boring if it was. Becoming a Baha’i, as I said at the beginning, is a declaration of intent. I am constantly working at improving my understanding of its teachings and striving to increase my love for God through interacting with the Words of Bahá’u’lláh and reflecting on His life.

But as I said, the search is now a lot less desperate. I’m not at sea now in a storm, at the mercy of the waves, nor even on that desolate beach. I’m on dry land under a bright sun and feel I am moving forwards in something far closer to the right direction.

I just need to remember to keep looking at the map, that’s all. Carrying it in my back pocket doesn’t work too well.

Read Full Post »

My mind . . . . .

Yet knows that to be choked with hate

May well be of all evil chances chief.

If there’s no hatred in a mind

Assault and battery of the wind

Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘Prayer for My Daughter‘)

A World-Embracing Vision

A central concept in Bahá’í discourse, as could be inferred from previous posts, is the heart. This is used to refer to the core of our being. It is not purely emotional, though emotion is an important factor.

In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love.

(Persian Hidden Words: No. 3)

It also involves insight. Bahá’u’lláh uses the phrase ‘understanding heart’ on a number of occasions.

There is more to it even than that. In previous posts about the self and the soul I have explored the implications of the way that Bahá’u’lláh describes the heart either as a ‘mirror’ or a ‘garden.’ I won’t be revisiting those considerations here but they are relevant to this theme.

I want to look at another angle on the heart which Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly refers to.

In the Hidden Words (Persian: No.27) He writes:

All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory; yet thou didst give My home and dwelling to another than Me and whenever the manifestation of My holiness sought His own abode, a stranger found He there, and, homeless, hastened to the sanctuary of the Beloved.

The meaning is clear. Like an addict we fill our hearts with junk as an addict blocks his receptors with heroin so that the appropriate ‘occupant’ is denied access and we do not function properly. We are in a real sense poisoned.

sunset-21Bahá’u’lláh is equally clear about the advice He gives:

Return, then, and cleave wholly unto God, and cleanse thine heart from the world and all its vanities, and suffer not the love of any stranger to enter and dwell therein. Not until thou dost purify thine heart from every trace of such love can the brightness of the light of God shed its radiance upon it, for to none hath God given more than one heart. . . . . . And as the human heart, as fashioned by God, is one and undivided, it behoveth thee to take heed that its affections be, also, one and undivided. Cleave thou, therefore, with the whole affection of thine heart, unto His love, and withdraw it from the love of any one besides Him, that He may aid thee to immerse thyself in the ocean of His unity, and enable thee to become a true upholder of His oneness. God is My witness.

(Gleanings: CXIV)

Though it is easier said than done, of course, this has several important implications.

We are often divided within ourselves, worshipping more than one false god. We are divided from other people when we perceive them to be worshipping other gods than ours. This warps the proper functioning of the heart. It prevents us from becoming ‘a true upholder of His oneness,’ people who see all of humanity as our business and behave accordingly.

Bahá’u’lláh observed:

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: pages 164-165)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá developed the same theme:

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 76)

Note that transcending such divisions within and between people is linked with a unifying devotion to an inclusive and loving God: if we worship an exclusive and narrow god our divisions and conflicts will be exacerbated.

There is a key passage in the Arabic Hidden Words (No. 68) which assists in helping us understand the spiritual dynamics here:

Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

Oneness and detachment are inextricably linked. Only when we detach ourselves from false gods can we integrate all aspects of ourselves, bring our divided loyalties together under one banner, and see ourselves at one with all humankind. When we dismantle the barriers within us we can also dismantle those between us. Only then can the expression of unity come from the depths of our being and manifest itself in actions and words that are a seamless fabric of complete integrity harmonised with all humanity. The process of striving to achieve this state in this physical world is a slow and painful one but cannot be evaded if we are to live a full and fulfilling life, as against an empty, sterile and potentially destructive one. Above all it involves expressing a sense of common humanity in action regardless of how we feel sometimes: positive values are a better guide to consistently positive action than feelings that can shift swiftly from light to dark and back again.

Without such a radical integration we will not be able to achieve the world embracing vision required of us if the problems confronting our civilisation are to have any hope of resolution. Anything less runs a very strong risk of perpetuating prejudice, conflict, discrimination and all the evils such as pogroms that have their roots in such heart-felt and deep-seated divisions.

We must be careful not to substitute some limited idea of God of our own devising for the limitless experience of love that is the one true God beyond all description. That way hatred lies. It is the ‘rose’ of love that we must plant in the garden of our hearts, not its daisy or its dandelion, though either of those would certainly be better than the stinging nettle of animosity, but probably not up to meeting the challenges that this shrinking and diverse world is currently throwing at us.

Planting the most inclusive and embracing flower of love in our hearts that we are capable of is the indispensable precursor to the positive personal transformation of a radical kind that is demanded of us now.

The Method

Without some plan of action, what I have described may well of course turn out to be empty rhetoric. Every great world religion has described in detail the steps we need to take to perfect ourselves once we have placed its message in our heart of hearts.

Buddhism is perhaps the clearest in its ways of doing this, with its four noble truths and eightfold path. Also its system of psychological understanding is second to none, which is perhaps why current psychological approaches to distress are borrowing so heavily from it, for example in the concept of mindfulness.

The Baha’i Faith is a much younger tradition but is unique in combining recommendations for individual spiritual development, such as prayer and reflection (in the sense I have discussed in detail in previous posts) with prescriptions for expressing spiritual understanding collectively in the special conditions of the modern world. There are two key components of this.

First, consultation, which is a spiritual and disciplined form of non-adversarial decision-making. Second is a way of organising a global network of like-minded people, which combines democratic elections with authority held collectively by an assembly. There is neither priesthood nor presidency. The system allows for a flexible process of responding to what we learn from experience: there is nothing fossilised about it.

I believe there is much to learn from the Baha’i model that can be successfully applied in our lives whether we decide to join the Baha’i community or not. The learning is readily transferable to almost any benign context.

An Appeal to our Better Selves

After such a long post as this, now is not the time to go into this in detail but the many links from this blog will introduce these ideas in accessible form. I intend to return to this aspect of the issue in due course.

I would like instead to close with the words of a powerful message, sent by our governing body at the Baha’i World Centre to the world’s religious leaders in 2002. It stated in its introduction:

Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism.

They continued:

The consequences, in terms of human well-being, have been ruinous. It is surely unnecessary to cite in detail the horrors being visited upon hapless populations today by outbursts of fanaticism that shame the name of religion.

All is not lost, they argue:

Each of the great faiths can adduce impressive and credible testimony to its efficacy in nurturing moral character. Similarly, no one could convincingly argue that doctrines attached to one particular belief system have been either more or less prolific in generating bigotry and superstition than those attached to any other.

They assert their conviction:

. . . that interfaith discourse, if it is to contribute meaningfully to healing the ills that afflict a desperate humanity, must now address honestly and without further evasion the implications of the over-arching truth that called the movement into being: that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

And they close with the following appeal:

The crisis calls on religious leadership for a break with the past as decisive as those that opened the way for society to address equally corrosive prejudices of race, gender and nation. Whatever justification exists for exercising influence in matters of conscience lies in serving the well-being of humankind.

This is work that we can all support, wherever we are and in whatever God we do or do not believe. We should not just leave it to our leaders.

Read Full Post »

Confessions Cartoon

This comes from the Censeo site, whose dark humour captures the predicament of the Bahá’ís in Iran very well.

There is also a powerful video based on ‘Persepolis’ at this link.

Read Full Post »

Though I have already put a link to this item under Breaking News, it seemed so important that it was better to include it as a post in its own right. There is more information at the Bahá’í World News Service.

The Baha’i International Community has issued an open letter to Iran’s prosecutor general outlining the tragic history of the persecution of Baha’is in that country, explaining their innocence in the face of accusations made by the government, and asking for fairness in any upcoming trial of seven Baha’i prisoners.

Sent late yesterday by email to Ayatollah Qorban-Ali Dorri-Najafabadi, the letter also suggests that the government’s continued oppression of Baha’is will ultimately have a wide impact on Iranian society as a whole.

“Your Honor, the decisions to be taken by the judiciary in Iran in the coming days will have implications that extend well beyond the Baha’i community in that land – what is at stake is the very cause of the freedom of conscience for all the peoples of your nation,” said the six-page letter, dated 4 March 2009.

“It is our hope that, for the sanctity of Islam and the honor of Iran, the judiciary will be fair in its judgment.”

The letter comes after a series of statements from Ayatollah Najafabadi quoted in the Iranian news media leveling charges at the Baha’is and stating that the ad hoc arrangements that tend to the spiritual and social affairs of the Baha’i community of Iran are illegal.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will not allow any movement to harm the national security through illegal and unauthorized organizational activities,” he said, referring specifically to Baha’is, according to an account published by the Islamic Republic News Agency.

The seven members of the group that had been coordinating the affairs of the Baha’is at the national level and who have been in prison for some 10 months, responded to the declaration from their prison cell. They stated that if the current arrangements for administering the affairs of the Baha’i community are no longer acceptable to the government, to bring them to a close would not present a major obstacle. They said this is now being done, to further demonstrate the goodwill that the Baha’is have consistently shown to the government for the past 30 years.

The letter, which was also sent to the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations and published late yesterday on the Web site of the United Nations office of the Baha’i International Community, carefully outlines the facts of the oppression of the Iranian Baha’i community since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979.

“While the harassment and ill-treatment of Baha’is continued uninterrupted during this period, they have been taken to new levels of intensity in recent years as certain elements that have historically been bent on the destruction of the Baha’i community have assumed growing influence in the affairs of the country,” says the Baha’i International Community in the communication.

It notes that it was only in response to that persecution that small ad hoc groups were set up to “tend to the spiritual and social needs” of Iran’s 300,000 Baha’is – and that for more than 20 years the government has worked with those structures.

At the national level, the group was known as the “Yaran,” which means “Friends” in Persian. The “Khademin,” or “Those Who Serve,” performed a similar function at the local level.

“Then last year the seven members of the Yaran were imprisoned, one of them in March and the remaining six in May. … The conditions of their incarceration have varied in degree of severity over the course of the past several months, with the five male members confined at one time to a cell no more than ten square meters in size, with no bed,” the Baha’i International Community points out.

The seven are Mrs. Fariba Kamalabadi, Mr. Jamaloddin Khanjani, Mr. Afif Naeimi, Mr. Saeid Rezaie, Mrs. Mahvash Sabet, Mr. Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Mr. Vahid Tizfahm. All but one of the group were arrested on 14 May 2008 at their homes in Tehran. Mrs. Sabet was arrested on 5 March 2008 while in Mashhad.

“Finally,” the letter continues, “after some nine months of imprisonment, during which time not a shred of evidence could be found linking the members of the Yaran to any wrongdoing, they were accused of ‘espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and propaganda against the Islamic Republic,’ and it has been announced that their case will soon be submitted to court with a request for indictment.

“This announcement was followed almost immediately by news reports which indicated that you had written to the Minister of Intelligence stating that the existence of the Yaran and the Khademin in Iran is illegal, while at the same time raising the question of the constitutional right of Iranian citizens to freedom of belief. You then made an official announcement to this effect.

“Your Honor, the events of recent years and the nature of the accusations made raise questions in the mind of every unbiased observer as to the intent behind the systematic perpetration of injustice against the Baha’is of Iran. Even if there might have been some misunderstandings about the motives of the Baha’i community during the early turbulent days of the revolution, how can such suspicions persist today? Can it be that any member of the esteemed government of Iran truly believes the false accusations which have been perpetuated about the Baha’is in that country?”

The letter also notes that many prominent Iranians have recently arisen to defend Baha’is, linking the overall struggle for human rights in Iran and the situation of the Baha’is.

“And we hear in the voices raised by so many Iranians in defense of their Baha’i compatriots echoes from their country’s glorious past. What we cannot help noting, with much gratitude towards them in our hearts, is that a majority of those coming out in support of the beleaguered Baha’i community are themselves suffering similar oppression as students and academics, as journalists and social activists, as artists and poets, as progressive thinkers and proponents of women’s rights, and even as ordinary citizens.”

To read the full letter, go to this link.

Read Full Post »

The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,

The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That

Samual Johnson

Samuel Johnson

they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 690 other followers