Archive for November 22nd, 2009

From Hogarth's 'The Rake's Progress'

What is Freedom?

This is a topic on which Bahá’u’lláh challenges many of our (mostly Western) assumptions. One such challenge is particularly difficult and particularly important.

Say: True liberty consisteth in man’s submission unto My commandments, little as ye know it. . . . 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.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Synopsis & Codification of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas: 123-5)

From His perspective dignity depends upon curtailing our freedom in certain respects. Liberty, in the sense of licence, debases people and they lose their dignity: they need restraints to protect them from their own ignorance. From a spiritual point of view, the best restraints are God’s commandments and obedience to them is true liberty. Licence traps us in the coils of appetite: obedience to God frees us from debasing desires.

Of course, as Eric Reitan makes plain, we must take care that the God that we follow is ‘worthy of worship.’ Other posts on this blog have explored the relationship between our ideas of God and our ideas of good and the implications that relationship has for our conduct. I won’t rehearse them all again here.

Here is one of the paradoxes of spiritual growth. We are prone to licence and cannot transcend this tendency and achieve true freedom except through the power of Divine Assistance which will involve self-restraint.

For far too many of us in the West, for whom dignity has become more or less synonymous with virtually unbridled self-determination, this is an awkward pill to swallow. Depriving ourselves of its medicinal potency will however only make a bad situation worse.

I accept that a significant number of people would not agree that the pill of Divine Assistance, the afterlife and/or a specific religious faith needs  be swallowed at all. We are perfectly capable, many would argue, of improving ourselves and our society without it.

Robert Wright‘s position on this is interesting. He writes:

Some people will take heart from the idea that to seek a personal salvation linked to social salvation is to align yourself with a cosmic purpose manifest in history, and some won’t (either because they don’t agree that the purpose is manifest or because they don’t care). But however you describe the linkage, whatever the nature of the incentive structure, the linkage will have to be made in a fair percentage of human beings around the world for it to work.

(The Evolution of God: page 441)

What should we use this kind of freedom for?

It is not only for our own benefit that we need to exercise restraint and cultivate virtues. We need to do this to improve society as a whole and build a better civilisation.

All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The Almighty beareth Me witness: To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth. Say: O friends! Drink your fill from this crystal stream that floweth through the heavenly grace of Him Who is the Lord of Names.

(Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh)

Unity underpins all the benefits that accrue including the dignity of all.

The Blessed Beauty said: “All are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch.” He likened the world of existence to one tree and all the souls to leaves, blossoms and fruits.  . . . Thus the friends of God . . . must purify their sight, and look upon mankind as the leaves, blossoms and fruits of the tree of creation, and must always be thinking of doing good to someone, of love, consideration, affection and assistance to somebody.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Bahá’í World Faith)

This degree of unity, respect for the dignity of all human beings and perfect justice are interlinked.

When perfect justice reigns in every country of the Eastern and Western World, then will the earth become a place of beauty. The dignity and equality of every servant of God will be acknowledged; the ideal of the solidarity of the human race, the true brotherhood of man, will be realized; and the glorious light of the Sun of Truth will illumine the souls of all men.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks: 7th Principle)

Such a state of affairs will not arise of its own accord:

It is . . .  clear that the emergence of this natural sense of human dignity and honour is the result of education.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The Secret of Divine Civilisation)

Virtue and the effort it entails need to be taught. A sense of dignity, other people’s and one’s own, is an essential part of what needs to be taught and will not develop without teaching.

Will this take long?

What implications have contemporary Bahá’í thinkers derived from these ideas?

There are many social evils antithetical to human dignity. Racism is one of the most pernicious. Achieving its eradication will not be simple, quick and effortless.

For too much of history, the evil of racism has violated human dignity. Its influence has retarded the development of its victims, corrupted its perpetrators and blighted human progress. Overcoming its devastating effects will thus require conscious, deliberate and sustained effort. Indeed, nothing short of genuine love, extreme patience, true humility and prayerful reflection will succeed in effacing its pernicious stain from human affairs. 

(BIC Document #01-0321, 2002, Page 2: Bahá’í International Community)

This statement could be applied unchanged with equal appropriateness and force to every corrupt attitude inimical to human dignity. It implies that solutions must be capable of crossing generational boundaries as well as those of class, gender and creed.

Education, then, emerges as an indispensable tool – a tool of active moral learning. To accomplish the broad objectives of ensuring the “full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity” and promoting “understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial, ethnic or religious groups,” education must strive to develop an integrated set of human capabilities-intellectual, artistic, social, moral and spiritual.  There is no other way to raise up positive social actors who are builders of amity and agents of service and probity.

(Bahá’í International Community: Belief and Tolerance)

There are also powerful interactions to consider, not least between the individual and the society of which (s)he is a part.

As a consequence of the deep connection between individual and social well-being, programmes of education need to instill in every child a two-fold moral purpose. The first relates to the process of personal transformation – of intellectual, material and spiritual growth. The second concerns the complex challenge of transforming the structures and processes of society itself.


The link between these concepts and the idea of World Citizenship is very clear.

Meeting the challenge to the education system to promote responsible global citizenship, the Bahá’í concept of World Citizenship begins with an acceptance of the oneness of the human family and the inter-connectedness of the nations of “the earth, our home.” While it encourages a sane and legitimate patriotism, it also insists upon a wider loyalty, a love of humanity as a whole. It does not, however, imply abandonment of legitimate loyalties, the suppression of cultural diversity, the abolition of national autonomy, or the imposition of uniformity. Its hallmark is “unity in diversity.”

(U.K. Bahá’í Community: Community Cohesion: a Bahá’í Perspective)

True freedom is not the same as individualism

The Prosperity of Human Kind explores these issues deeply and is worth quoting at length though selectively. It begins on this issue by saying:

Justice is the one power that can translate the dawning consciousness of humanity’s oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected.

And develops this further:

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. (My emphasis)

And culminates in an insight of astonishing reach and of great relevance to the nurturing and protection of human dignity:

At the heart of the discussion of a strategy of social and economic development, therefore, lies the issue of human rights. The shaping of such a strategy calls for the promotion of human rights to be freed from the grip of the false dichotomies that have for so long held it hostage. Concern that each human being should enjoy the freedom of thought and action conducive to his or her personal growth does not justify devotion to the cult of individualism that so deeply corrupts many areas of contemporary life. Nor does concern to ensure the welfare of society as a whole require a deification of the state as the supposed source of humanity’s well-being.

Goya's 'El Tres de Mayo'

In short, the enthronement of either individualism or state supremacy inevitably devalues human rights and thereby human dignity.

Its summarizing sentence at the end of this particular passage is masterly:

Only in a consultative framework made possible by the consciousness of the organic unity of humankind can all aspects of the concern for human rights find legitimate and creative expression.

In other words, the consciousness of the organic unity of humankind makes true consultation possible: such consultation allows us properly and effectively to express a concern for human rights (and dignity).


The section ends by discussing a central concept in Bahá’í spiritual administration – trusteeship – and extends its necessary application to the world as a whole.

Since the body of humankind is one and indivisible, each member of the race is born into the world as a trust of the whole. This trusteeship constitutes the moral foundation of most of the other rights – principally economic and social – which the instruments of the United Nations are attempting similarly to define. The security of the family and the home, the ownership of property, and the right to privacy are all implied in such a trusteeship. The obligations on the part of the community extend to the provision of employment, mental and physical health care, social security, fair wages, rest and recreation, and a host of other reasonable expectations on the part of the individual members of society.

Humanity dignity would be guaranteed in such a context. It is all but explicit that without it human dignity would not exist.

In Bahá’í discourse certain key concepts are connected and interdependent. These crucially include: unity, justice, submission to the Will of God, trusteeship, education, the individual, society, civilization, love, patience, consultation, human rights and human dignity.

It will be crucial to the well-being of future generations that as many of us as possible start or continue unpacking their implications without further delay and translating them as rapidly as possible into concerted and focused action.


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