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Archive for January, 2019

Question: What do you say regarding the theory of the evolution of beings to which certain European philosophers subscribe?

Answer. . . . Briefly, this question comes down to the originality or non-originality of the species, that is, whether the essence of the human species was fixed from the very origin or whether it subsequently came from the animals.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá Some Answered Questions – 2014 edition – page 220,  quoted from the earlier edition in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief edited by Keven Brown – page 45)

A friend recommended I read Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver.

‘If you only read one book in the next 12 months, let it be this one,’ he insisted.

To be honest, of late I’ve not taken much pleasure in novels. I’m a bit stuck in the past. Apart from Nakhjavani’s The Woman Who Read Too Much,in recent days I’ve usually drawn a blank with anything later than Virginia Woolf.

Not so this time though.

I recently battled to define the balance successful novels need to strike if they are to hold the reader’s attention. For me, they should ideally combine the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in the memory. If authors stray too far from some form of narrative it is possible they might diminish the long-term impact of their books on the reader. From the reviews I skimmed Unsheltered looked like it would manage to avoid that trap.

I checked that my local Waterstones had a copy and dashed down there to get it. I hadn’t much time before I was due to meet my wife in town. I scanned all the shelves and was frustrated not to be able to find it anywhere.

There was an irritating queue at the counter. I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes to go. I slotted in at the back of the queue.

‘Thank you for your help,’ the woman at the front enthused, as she struggled with her bags, purse and cards.

‘I’m really looking forward to reading this,’ she droned on as she was forcing the book into a spare corner of her M&S bag, dropping her points card on the floor as she did so.

With relief I saw her pick up her card, stuff it back into her wallet and stagger out of the shop with her bags.

The person in front handed over his paperback and was gone in seconds, thank God.

‘Can I help?’ the familiar face behind the till enquired, her hand poised over the keyboard as I approached with my notebook in hand. She knew me well enough to realise she might have an online search on her hands.

‘I hope so,’ I smiled. ‘I’m looking for Kingsolver’s Unsheltered,’ I explained. ‘It says on your website you’ve got it here but I couldn’t find it anywhere. It’s not on the new stack or the main novels section.’

I took a quick look behind me to see if anyone was waiting. Thankfully no one was. I’d’ve been as irritating as the bag lady if there had been, blethering as I was.

‘I’ll just check for you. I won’t be a moment.’

She headed straight for the new stack I’d just searched carefully through.

She found it within seconds.

‘So it wasn’t stored in alphabetical order,’ I said, feeling slightly embarrassed as it had obviously been in plain sight.

‘No, we stack them in order of priority. We put the best ones near the top.’

‘Ah! I’ll try and remember that next time.’

‘Do you want to buy it?’

Usually I would scan a £20 book before risking a purchase, but there was no time for that.

‘I do,’ I said at the same time as wondering whether this might be a big mistake.

‘Do you need a bag?’

‘No, I’ve got one here.’

I had my points card and my cash in hand, paid for the book, picked it up, shoving my receipt hastily inside, fumbled it into the Waterstones bag I always carried with me and hurried to the exit. Time was running out, and so should I.

. . . .

I couldn’t wait to get home. I didn’t contradict my wife when she supposed I had work to do. There was work, it was true, but I wanted to squeeze in an extra few moments to taste the opening pages.

At first I thought I might have made a mistake. The opening didn’t grip me as I’d hoped. Dialogues about the state of a building aren’t my cup of tea. I had to get on with my work at this point and found it hard to stop beating myself up for wasting my money again by buying in haste a book I didn’t like.

As soon as I could, I beat a retreat to an armchair with a coffee and the book. I needed to find out if I’d thrown my money away.

Within 13 pages I was hooked. A death is almost bound to get my attention. I could barely put it down. Every spare moment after that I stepped back into the double worlds of this enthralling novel. The stepping between the past and present reminded me of A S Byatt’s Possession, though the themes are different. Kingsolver is more concerned with how the two periods in history echo each other: bigotry, inequality, denialism and so on.

In terms of the nineteenth century story line, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the passionate resistance to it are a main thread. In terms of the twentieth century it’s our similar and far more potentially threatening commitment to unsustainable economic growth.

Either way it matches my current preoccupations since the cruise by emphasising from early on our connection with nature. Mary Treat tries to convey to Thatcher Greenwood what sustains her relationship with plants (page 83):

‘I become attached, you see. After so many months with these plants, observing them intimately, I begin to feel as if we are of the same world.’

‘But you are of the same world, of course.’

Within four days of buying it I had finished it. I was scribbling in my diary quotes from the closing chapters, so I wouldn’t forget them.

The moment, for example, when Thatcher, the main character from the nineteenth century, an invention of the author, refrains from telling Mary Treat, a real-life courageous female pioneering scientist of the time and respected correspondent of Darwin’s, that ‘he could see her soul. It was a giant redwood.’

This had not been the first such quote. Willa, the main contemporary character, ‘looked at the oak over their heads. Its trunk was a monument to resilience and its branches to tenderness.’ That resonates with the part of me that wrote the poem Oak in Winter.

Also in September I published on this blog a sequence about becoming an Ent. I wrote:

I came to feel a powerful affinity with trees. It was as though at some deep level I feel as though I am a tree, an image of myself I need to hold onto. It represents patiently and resiliently operating in a long time scale, rooted in the earth but reaching after the sun – in effect constituting a kind of bridge between earth and heaven, something we all have the potential to be.

What makes the book so marvellous for me is that it brings together both that aspect of my inner life and my reactions to the society we live in. For example, towards the end of the book, Tig, Willa’s daughter declares vehemently, ‘The free market has exactly the same morality as a cancer cell.’

Now that I have finished the book, and am experiencing that strangely bereft feeling that comes when you can’t step back into the fascinating world of a superb fiction, I find myself taking stock.

I thought I had made it clear to myself that from now hearticulture is my calling. I thought that would make it easy to decide what I needed to do and what would be a waste of time.

‘Was reading novels like this a waste of time?’ I found myself thinking. ‘You told yourself you’d focus on poetry.’

‘Well, yes,’ I replied to myself. ‘But compared to this most of the poetry I’ve got on my shelves is boring. I only really like about half a dozen poets and the rest I rarely look at.’

‘And anyway,’ another part of my head chipped in, ‘Wading through too much poetry wouldn’t be much better than drowning yourself in novels.’

The words of Unsheltered came back to me again, ones I’d resonated to almost in tears as I read them the first time: ‘Mary had lived with her discipline. Both of them had, she and Thatcher, with an integrity that led them to give up, practically speaking, their lives. . . Willa ached for a devotion like that, something to move her beyond herself.’

I began to wonder whether all this might be a sign that I wasn’t completely on board with my hearticulture plan in the context of my Bahá’í convictions, as I’d fooled myself into believing I had. Was I now calling my calling into question? Perhaps I still haven’t found out what, given my current levels of energy, I should be focusing my time on for the rest of my life, over and above the obvious commitments I have.

Where was all this taking me?

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Trees

It’s only fair to explain that this poem would never have been written without the inspiration of The Overstory by Richard Powers. It’s a powerful and inspiring book, despite the inevitable flaws in so ambitious a novel about the vexed relationship between people and trees.

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The planetary health diet allows an average of 2,500 calories per day. Photograph: Molly Katzen/Eat Forum

If last Saturday’s link to an article recommending a vegan diet as an individual’s most effective single response to climate change was too big a pill to swallow, how about this one. More recent research makes more moderate and perhaps more potentially popular recommendations. Below is a short extract: for the full text see link.

The first science-based diet that tackles both the poor food eaten by billions of people and averts global environmental catastrophe has been devised. It requires huge cuts in red meat-eating in western countries and radical changes across the world.

The “planetary health diet” was created by an international commission seeking to draw up guidelines that provide nutritious food to the world’s fast-growing population. At the same time, the diet addresses the major role of farming – especially livestock – in driving climate change, the destruction of wildlife and the pollution of rivers and oceans.

Globally, the diet requires red meat and sugar consumption to be cut by half, while vegetables, fruit, pulses and nuts must double. But in specific places the changes are stark. North Americans need to eat 84% less red meat but six times more beans and lentils. For Europeans, eating 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds meets the guidelines.

. . . 

“The planetary health diet is based on really hard epidemiological evidence, where researchers followed large cohorts of people for decades,” said Marco Springmann at Oxford University and part of the commission. “It so happens that if you put all that evidence together you get a diet that looks similar to some of the healthiest diets that exist in the real world.”

The report acknowledges the radical change it advocates and the difficulty of achieving it: “Humanity has never aimed to change the global food system on the scale envisioned. Achieving this goal will require rapid adoption of numerous changes and unprecedented global collaboration and commitment: nothing less than a Great Food Transformation.”

But it notes that major global changes have occurred before, such as the Green Revolution that hugely increased food supplies in the 1960s. Moves to tax red meat, prevent the expansion of farmland and protect swathes of ocean must all be considered, the commission said.

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It’s taken me only just over a year to get round to finishing The Islamic Enlightenment: the modern struggle between faith and reason by Christopher Bellaigue, which by my standards is not too bad.

I finally got hooked by it. It’s fascinating for a number of reasons that the subtitle summarises. But that is not all.

Bellaigue deals with three middle-eastern contexts in his book on the Islamic Enlightment: Iran, Egypt and Turkey. It is not surprising therefore that he should spend a significant number of pages dealing with the impact on Iran of the Bábí and Bahá’í movements, as he terms them.

There was at least one major surprise to me in his account. More of that later.

He deals at length with the reign of Nasrudin Shah. Within that there is a short section on the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, with regular references to their influence at different points throughout the later sections.

I bought it partly because a review also contained the following: ‘The story of the Persian feminist-martyr Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani [Qurrat al-Ayn], who read too much, wrote too much and, veil-less, promoted the social vision of the Bahá’ís (a united, anti-nationalist, monolingual world), is poignantly told.’ It describes her as one of the ‘brave radicals’ adding she is ‘Iran’s first feminist.’

More of the details of that in a moment.

Though her review effectively quotes the title of a book The Woman Who Read Too Much, Bettany Hughes doesn’t mention it. Alberto Manguel’s review captures the essence of the book, which suggests that it provides an important supplement to any more conventional historical approach. He wrote:

Less interested in theology than in literature, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani has chosen to construct, around the figure of Táhirih, a complex fragmented portrait that brings to literary life not only the remarkable personality of someone little known in the west, but also the convoluted Persia of the 19th century, treacherous and bloodthirsty.

The Báb and Bahá’u’lláh

Bellaigue’s account of the Bábí/Bahá’í impact on Iranian society begins on page 140:

The Bábí movement, which began in the 1840s, went on to become an important catalyst of social progressiveness in mid-nineteenth century Iran, promoting interreligious peace, social equality between the sexes and revolutionary anti-monarchism.

He oddly describes it as based on ‘secularism’ as well as ‘internationalism, and the rejection of war.’ He goes on to describe its survival ‘to the present day’ in the form of ‘Bahaism which emerged from Babism in the late nineteenth century’ adding that this ‘qualifies it for inclusion in any narrative about modernisation in the Middle East.’

It was, he explains, experienced as ‘a mortal threat to Islam,’ which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Bábís. For this reason hostility towards it continues in Iran to the present day. Even though he sees ‘the theology of Bahaism’ as ‘a little whacky’ he concedes that ‘the social vision was anything but.’ It transcended any Islamic perspective in its ‘vision of consultative democracy,’ in the ‘distinction it made between religion and politics’ and in ‘its promotion of a world civilisation united by a common language.’

Bellaigue concludes his account of this ‘movement’ by saying ‘Having declared the redundancy of the Muslim clergy, Bahá’u’lláh and his son and successor, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, proposed one of the most enlightened social systems of the time.’

Given the persecution it endured, he notes as surprising Bahá’u’lláh’s declaration concerning ‘the abolition of war’ and His forbidding the ‘denigrating of other religions.’ He points out the Bahá’í Faith’s continuing ‘efforts to live in peace with Islam,’ which continues to be largely rejected within the country of its birth, Iran.

Tahirih, aka Qurrat al-Ayn

Belaigue’s account of Tahirih, aka Qurrat al-Ayn, begins (page 147) by claiming she is ‘one of the most remarkable characters in nineteenth century Iranian history. She is both a feminist icon and the mediaeval saint.’

He recounts her early life and then focuses on perhaps the most famous incident in her entire life apart from her leaving of it – her appearing unveiled at the conference of Badasht (page 151).

Qurrat al-Ayn’s removal of the veil was a blatant rejection of the Prophet Muhammad’s command to his followers, set down in a famous hadith, that ‘when you ask of them [the wives of the Prophet] anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain.’

He then explains a crucial ambiguity:

‘Curtain’ and ‘veil’ are the same word in Arabic, and this ambiguous hadith is the basis on which the practice of veiling women has been sanctified.

After the conference, when the participants were marching north, ‘the sight of an unveiled Qurrat al-Ayn chanting prayers alongside Quddus prompted a group of villagers to attack them. Several Bábís were killed; the rest fled.’

I think it important to mention here that, while noting the intensity of her religious faith, Bellaigue, for obvious reasons given the theme of his book, looks particularly at the political legacy and inspiration of Qurrat al-Ayn. There is another important aspect of her life that needs to be included if we are to achieve anything life a complete sense of her contribution to our culture.

This can be accessed not just from Bahá’í sources. There is a book I discovered in the rich seams of Hay-on-Wye’s bookmines: Veils and Words: the emerging voices of Iranian women writersby Farzaneh Milani. On page 93 she quotes in translation the following poem:

I would explain all my grief
Dot by dot, point by point
If heart to heart we talk
And face to face we meet.

To catch a glimpse of thee
I am wandering like a breeze
From house to house, door to door
Place to place, street to street.

In separation from thee
The blood of my heart gushes out of my eyes
In torrent after torrent, river after river
Wave after wave, stream after stream.

This afflicted heart of mine
Has woven your love
To the stuff of life
Strand by strand, thread to thread.

I think that should be enough to indicate that she was a poet and writer of considerable power.

Milani argues that (page 90): ‘Tahereh’s contribution to the history of women’s writing in Iran is invaluable: she proves that women could think, write, and reason like men – in public and for the public. Such actions set her apart from her contemporaries and confer upon her an inalienable precedence.’

Sadly, this view was not yet widely shared outside the Bahá’í community at the time of her writing in 1992, 140 years after Tahirih’s murder, which, coincidentally, was also the anniversary of the death of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith :

Whether because she has been deemed to too offensive, too dangerous, or too minor a literary personage, no article, let alone a full-length book, has been written either on work, or on her life as a struggle for gaining a public voice.

Her poetry is also challenging, something else that might militate against its wider acceptance (page 91):

Some of Tahereh’s poems are difficult to understand. Their language is rich in abstractions. She not only mixes Arabic with Persian but also makes repeated allusions to Bábí jargon and codes. Her religious convictions saturate her poetry and set her verse on fire. They glow in her poetry like a flame that burns every obstacle away.

Her life and verse complemented and, in one way at least, seemingly contradicted each other (page 93):

If self-assertion is a cardinal tenet of Tahereh’s life, self-denial and self-effacement are key elements of her poetry. The themes of love, union, and ecstasy relate to mystic and spiritual experience.

In the end, there is perhaps more mystery than certainty about the facts of Tahereh/Qurrat al-Ayn’s life, as Bahiyyih Nakhjavani suggests in the Afterword to her absorbing novel The Woman Who Read Too Much:

We know more about what is not known than what is. Her date of birth, for example, is uncertain. The exact circumstances of her death are equally unclear. The details of her marriage and divorce are ambiguous, as is the question of whether she abandoned her children or were they were taken from her.

And the list continues for half a page (p 316). What is beyond argument is what her life stood for and what she died for, and the lasting impact that has had on the course of history since then.

An Unexpected Influence

Returning to Bellaigue’s book in which there are other incidental references to the Bahá’í Faith, as I finished The Islamic Enlightenment, I found an extremely interesting piece of history that I‘d never heard of before. It happened in the reign of Muzzafar al-Din. Bellaigue writes (page 238-39): ‘in January 1906 the shah, embarrassed by the forthrightness of the opposition that had established itself at Shah Abdulazim, and disquieted by strikes in the bazaars, agreed to convene a ‘House of Justice,’ a body made up of influential men that would adjudicate on the complaints of the people, dimly inspired by the(banned) Bábí councils of the same name.’ Later though, the shah’s ‘health had taken a turn for the worse and the government had no intention of carrying out his promise to set up a House of Justice.’

I decided to check this out. I clearly should’ve read further into Moojan Momen’s collection of Western accounts of Bábí and Bahá’í history, which was the first book I pulled off the shelf to check, (page 354 – my bookmark is stuck at the previous page – I got close but not close enough). He quotes, ‘In December 1905, as a result of.a large crowd taking sanctuary in the shrine of Shah ‘Abdu’l-‘Azím near Tihrán, the Shah agreed to dismiss ‘Aynu’d-Dawlih and convene an ‘Adálat-Khánih (House of Justice). Whatever was meant by the latter, the Shah, after the dispersion of the crowd at Shah ‘Abdu’l-‘Azím, showed no intention of fulfilling his promises.’

There are probably many other equally hidden influences on history originating in the Bábí and Bahá’í ‘movements,’ as Bellaigue terms them.

On the whole, and not only for his references to the spiritual path I have chosen to follow, this is a valuable account of one region’s attempt to reconcile its religious history with the pressures of modernity. There is clearly still a long way to go.

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Lost Connections

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, about his journey out of the medication trap surrounding depression. I’ve been recommending it to anyone I know who seems to have been struggling with similar issues. A close friend in Australia was initially intending to borrow the book from her library but the waiting list was so long, even though they had several copies in stock, she gave up and bought her own copy, which she is now lending to others. This gives a pretty clear indication of just how many people in our society are fighting these same battles.

For some reason I never found time to do a proper review of his book, and things have moved on since then, but I thought it was still important to mention it here before I move onto to fresh woods and pastures new.

So, what strange tracks have I been wandering along recently?

Three recent books kept me hooked from start to finish, a pretty unusual state of affairs as my habit is to move from uncompleted book to uncompleted book, sometimes only coming back to finish the first one in the sequence years after starting it.

Not quite so this time.

I obviously got a lot out of the first two books, my most recently purchased. I won’t be dwelling on them at great length though. They both tackled closely related subjects in slightly different ways.

How the World Thinks

Julian Baggini’s How the World Thinks is, as its sub-title spells out, a philosopher’s take on the world of ideas. It’s refreshing because it sets out to modify our Western tendency to think that ours is the only approach. His book is devoted to undermining this arrogant complacency and is replete with telling points such as (page 24):

It is perhaps no coincidence that insight as a source of knowledge is stressed most in the traditions the West finds least philosophical. Western philosophy’s self-image has largely been constructed by distancing itself from ideas of the philosopher as a sage or guru who penetrates the deep mysteries of the universe like some kind of seer. This distancing has blinded it to the obvious truth that all good philosophy requires some kind of insight.

And concerning a broader sense of what aesthetic means in Eastern traditions (page 294):

One problem I as a Westerner have understanding this is that the primary connotations of aestheticfor me concern art,… But the original, broader meaning of aesthetic is ‘relating to felt experience’… It was only later in the nineteenth century that the meaning ‘concerned with beauty’ became common. To say that Japanese philosophy is aesthetic rather than conceptual is not primarily to say that it is concerned with the appreciation of beauty – artistic, natural or otherwise – but that it centred on the experiential.

He spreads his net very widely over a number of topics and a vast range of traditions.

Living with the Gods

As does Neil McGregor in his book, Living with the Gods: on beliefs and peoples. Although Braggini dealt with spiritual and moral systems of thought, McGregor is more focused on religious traditions. He has a lighter touch and uses colourful illustrations to bring his points to life.

He deals with important issues that resonate across traditions such as (page 385) ‘the growing trend towards literalist readings of holy texts,’ which need to be taken poetically or mythically. This trend reinforces the tendency we are seeing across the world of faiths and ideologies to develop ever fiercer levels of conviction.

Another that crops up in his book is our different relationships with the natural world, for instance in the Yup’ik culture of south-west Alaska (page 70) which asserts ‘a respectful, entirely equal partnership between animals and humans, where the animals have a real agency,[something which is] almost impossible for a highly urbanised society to grasp. Most foreign to us is perhaps its assumption of such close inter-connectedness and mutual obligation.’

What’s Missing?

Given that both books cover such a wide spectrum of beliefs and world views, it was a shade disappointing to find that they neither of them mentioned the Bahá’í take on some of their issues, even though it would have been relevant, and one of them even quotes from a book by Christopher Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment: the modern struggle between faith and reason,that doesn’t fall into that trap. More of that next time.

What issues do they each raise on which the Bahá’í perspective might have shed some light? A couple of examples will have to suffice.

Braggini first

Braggini deals at some length with the complex issue of the relationship between the individual and the community.

In his discussion of the self in the third part of his book (pages 175-220), he explains two concepts: the relational self and the atomised self. Although the Japanese are identified in our minds with a ‘collectivist’ emphasis (page 194) this is too simplistic. A leading figure in the Kyoto school (page 195) ‘stressed that nothing in this philosophy is against individualism’ and that ‘individualism and egoism must be strictly distinguished.’ He also discusses (page 201) the ‘default conception of self in Africa’ as ‘a relational one. One manifestation of this is the South African concept of ubuntu. This word defies translation but means something like ‘humanity towards others’ or ‘the universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.’ He believes that the individualism of our Western culture came about ‘as soon as selves were conceived in Platonic terms. Unlike the relational selves of East Asian thought, such selves are discrete, self-contained. They may interact and cooperate with others but each is a separate unit, entire unto itself.’

His concluding section of this part discusses the concepts of integrity and intimacy. He feels that ‘a lot of what is going wrong in the West is a breakdown of a stable equilibrium between intimacy and integrity. Consider the distinction in terms of autonomy and belonging. More of one inevitably leaves us with less of the other, and in the West the autonomy culture has become so dominant it has squeezed out belonging.’

What might the Bahá’í point of view add to this?

There is the obvious aspect: the core belief that all humanity is one. Also the powerful sense, as expressed by its central body in 2001 that there has to be ‘a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’

That may not deal clearly enough with the question of the best relationship between the individual and the community. The Bahá’í NGO addresses that more adequately in The Prosperity of Humankind.They wrote:

Human society is composed not of a mass of merely differentiated cells but of associations of individuals . . . As social organization has increased, the scope for the expression of the capacities latent in each human being has correspondingly expanded. Because the relationship between the individual and society is a reciprocal one, the transformation now required must occur simultaneously within human consciousness and the structure of social institutions. . . in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. . . .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. Far otherwise: the history of the present century shows all too clearly that such ideologies and the partisan agendas to which they give rise have been themselves the principal enemies of the interests they purport to serve. 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. . . . Present-day conceptions of what is natural and appropriate in relationships — among human beings themselves, between human beings and nature, between the individual and society, and between the members of society and its institutions — reflect levels of understanding arrived at by the human race during earlier and less mature stages in its development. If humanity is indeed coming of age, if all the inhabitants of the planet constitute a single people, . . . — then existing conceptions that were born out of ignorance of these emerging realities have to be recast.

I have cherry-picked key points from across a number of pages to try and illustrate that this perspective is adding something significant into the mix: first, the idea of the global family of humanity and, secondly, the notion that we have an understanding of our relationships that has evolved in the past but now needs to evolve far beyond its current level.

In a letter written to all Bahá’ís throughout the world in March 2017, our central body went into more detail about the implications of this for our economic system:

The welfare of any segment of humanity is inextricably bound up with the welfare of the whole. Humanity’s collective life suffers when any one group thinks of its own well-being in isolation from that of its neighbours’ or pursues economic gain without regard for how the natural environment, which provides sustenance for all, is affected. A stubborn obstruction, then, stands in the way of meaningful social progress: time and again, avarice and self-interest prevail at the expense of the common good. Unconscionable quantities of wealth are being amassed, and the instability this creates is made worse by how income and opportunity are spread so unevenly both between nations and within nations. But it need not be so. However much such conditions are the outcome of history, they do not have to define the future, and even if current approaches to economic life satisfied humanity’s stage of adolescence, they are certainly inadequate for its dawning age of maturity. There is no justification for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples. The teachings of the Faith leave no room for doubt: there is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization o f wealth and resources.

This not only refers to the same idea of human progress, but also extends its reference to the relationship between the individual and society from the socio-political sphere to the economic one.

That’s the main reason why I feel the absence of an awareness of the Bahá’í perspective significantly reduces the sought-for inclusiveness of this otherwise excellent book. He is the writer who refers to Bellaigue’s book in a discussion of Islam (page 48), which means he should have had some idea of where the Bahá’í Faith is coming from.

McGregor next

I can deal with McGregor more briefly. He discusses polytheism at some length (pages 322 passim). He is concerned to examine how monotheism has tended throughout its history to be more intolerant than polytheism in terms of the societies it shapes. He is not simplistic about this though (page 329): ‘But as we shall see  . . . polytheism, no less than monotheism, can in the modern world also provide a vehicle for exclusion and political intolerance.’

The potential Bahá’í contribution here can be stated briefly. As far as I am aware the Bahá’í Faith is the first major monotheistic religion explicitly to accept that Hinduism, a polytheistic Eastern religion, completely separate from the tradition of the so-called ‘people of the book,’ is a valid divinely inspired faith. Not only that but it explicitly includes Buddhism and, not so surprisingly given its country of origin, Zoroastrianism, in the same category. The international Bahá’í website lists the founders of the great faiths as follows: ‘Throughout the ages, humanity’s spiritual, intellectual and moral capacities have been cultivated by the Founders of the great religions, among them Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and—in more recent times—the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.’

This is not so significant an omission, perhaps, given the nature of his book, but it indicates that he fails to mention a monotheistic faith that has enshrined an inclusiveness that hopefully will avoid the intolerance trap.

Time to move on.

The last book in today’s list is Bellaigue’s on the Islamic Enlightenment.

More of that next time.

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Cattle at an illegal settlement in the Jamanxim National Forest, state of Para, northern Brazil, November 29, 2009. With 1,3 million hectares, the Jamanxim National Forest is today a microsm that replicates what happens in the Amazon, where thousands of hectares of land are prey of illegal woodcutters, stock breeders and gold miners. Photograph: Antonio Scorza/AFP/Getty Images

Recent research has prompted me to consider moving towards a vegan diet. I was nearly there anyway, in that I eat soya yoghurt and use oat milk, rather than the dairy versions. Cheese has been my Achilles heel. I have now found many acceptable vegan cheeses and hope also to persuade myself to use soya milk in coffee. A step at a time! I will be returning to this topic more fully next month. Below is a short extract from the triggering article: for the full text see link.

Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.

The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.

The new analysis shows that while meat and dairy provide just 18% of calories and 37% of protein, it uses the vast majority – 83% – of farmland and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. Other recent research shows 86% of all land mammals are now livestock or humans. The scientists also found that even the very lowest impact meat and dairy products still cause much more environmental harm than the least sustainable vegetable and cereal growing.

. . .

The study, published in the journal Science, created a huge dataset based on almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries and covering 40 food products that represent 90% of all that is eaten. It assessed the full impact of these foods, from farm to fork, on land use, climate change emissions, freshwater use and water pollution (eutrophication) and air pollution (acidification).

“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” said Joseph Poore, at the University of Oxford, UK, who led the research. “It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” he said, as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.

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After my somewhat heated encounter with my parliament of selves I had hoped that they’d stay out of my dreams for that night at least and give me time to think. Fat chance.

It felt as though I hadn’t been asleep long, though it was way past halfway through the night. For some reason I found myself walking along Edgar Street towards the Courtyard Theatre. I think I was expecting to join a meeting of the Death Café. I went to the counter as usual to get my decaf cappuccino. I sensed something was not quite right when I bumped into Ian. He had died recently but was standing there ordering his usual hot chocolate.

‘We’re not in the usual place,’ he said. ‘We’re up near the Arts and Crafts bit.’

‘Let’s hope they don’t have a rock band next door like last time we were in there.’ I didn’t feel it would be quite right to ask him how he was.

As he picked up his chocolate, he said, ‘You go on ahead. There’s someone over there I need to talk to,’ gesturing towards a woman in the far corner holding a scythe.

I couldn’t get my coffee quickly enough. I dashed off upstairs, spilling it all over the free biscuit in my saucer in my haste to escape, hoping its cellophane wrapping would protect it.

On the next floor, between me and my destination, a group of skeletons in evening dress were practising the salsa, Mediterranean cruise-style. I had to creep cautiously around the wall protecting my coffee as best I could from swinging bones.

As I opened the door of the meeting room I realised I was in deep trouble. I could hear the strains of Hotel California coming from the next room. As soon as I stepped through the door, there they all were, every single member of my parliament of selves, including the toddler. There was no backing out.

‘Hi. Good to see you all,’ I lied.

‘Don’t lie,’ Mires grinned. ‘You’ve been dreading this. Anyway you’re here, and we thought this was the best place to meet. It’s where you claim you can come to have deep conversations about things that really matter, and that’s just what we all want to do isn’t it?’

‘I suppose it is,’ I grudgingly agreed.

‘There’s a chair over there for you,’ Pindance said, pointing to a place across the table from her.

As she spoke and I walked through the room to my place at the table, the words of the song next door came through the wall.

Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave!’

‘Thanks,’ I thought. ‘Just what I wanted to hear.’

But I knew that in a sense it was completely true. This was a group of people from whom I could never be free. I had to find a way of integrating our different agendas to create some kind of effective unity, a sense of common purpose.

‘Is it OK if I act as a kind of chairperson here?’ Humfreeze asked.

As he spoke I tried to calm my nerves by pouring the coffee from my saucer into my cup and rescuing the biscuit.

‘I guess so,’ was my faint response.

‘OK, then. Let’s get started. You know already that Indie wants to know how the child fits in with your plan, and that Emma values her projects and Wordless his poems beyond almost anything else. So, we probably don’t need to rehash all that, do we?’

‘No, definitely not.’

‘Right. So I’m going to ask Fred to share where he is coming from. OK, Fred?’

‘No problem.’ Fred cleared his throat to give himself time to clear his head.

‘In a way I’m a bit more anxious even than the others about where I fit in exactly.’

‘Why’s that?’ I asked. ‘We’re both trained in psychology.’

‘Well, yes, but the problem is that you’re an applied psychologist, while I’m more interested in the theory. So, your take on it will be closer to what Emma wants as an activist and is probably OK with Chris because of all this mindfulness stuff you do nowadays.’

Humfreeze grimaced but kept his mouth shut. Pancake didn’t look convinced either.

‘I get your point. I think I’ll be able to reassure you on that issue later.’

My hands shook slightly as I peeled the dripping cellophane off the biscuit. It wasn’t too damp in the end thankfully.

‘Good. I hope so. I do realise that my anxieties about my more academic approach is probably a bit the same as Chris’s need to take meditation far deeper than mindfulness as currently practised can ever go. We both share an interest in mystical states after all. But I’d better let Chris unpack all that. I think I’ve said all I need to say for now. Over to you, Chris.’

‘Thanks for that piece of clarification, Fred. I think you’re absolutely right. Meditation though for me goes even beyond transient mystical states. I’m really worried that this hearticulture idea will mean we end up being jacks of all trades and masters of none, if you see what I mean. I see different meditative practices as requiring a huge investment of time if we are to change evanescent states of mind into abiding traits, permanent dispositions to act, think and feel in creative and life-enhancing ways. Dabbling in all the bits and pieces you have stuck in that diagram, Pete, will leave us all frustrated amateurs rather than accomplished professionals. D’you get my point, Pete?’

‘Absolutely. You’re describing the sharp horns of a dilemma that has bedevilled me most of my adult life. I have too many interests to become a real expert in any. That’s why the hearticulture idea was such a breakthrough. Anyway, I’d better wait until I’m sure you’ve all said all you need to say before I try to explain.’

‘Anything that anyone else wants to throw into the mix?’ Humfreeze looked around searchingly.

Pindance, who was cradling the sleeping toddler at this point, stared hard at me across the table.

‘You know, don’t you, that I will never collude with any plan you have that doesn’t take this small child properly into account. Whether we all realise it or not, and even though he can barely speak as yet so is nowhere near as eloquent in expressing his needs as we are, our fulfilment absolutely depends upon caring properly for him so that he can thrive.’

‘Believe it or not, I agree with you completely, Emma, and I think my model does rise to that huge challenge. When you are all ready I’ll try to explain.’

‘Are we all done then?’ asked Humfreeze. After a short silence he decided they were and turned to me.

‘Over to you then. Convince us if you can.’

My heart was beating fast. The critical moment had arrived. I drained the last of my coffee.

‘I’d like to take it up from the challenge Indie left me with. My answer starts from the dream you are all familiar with, the hearth dream. I won’t go over it in detail at all, but you remember the powerful charge it has had and still has.’

They all nodded.

‘I’ll just focus on the word hearth and its implications for our present purposes. It combines heart and earth. When I was born, for the reasons we discovered in our last exploration together, part of me stayed buried in my heart, almost stillborn in a way with the force of amniotic grief, as though it was in a grave underground, in the earth. The work we did made it clear that the chamber of my heart that contained the child was more of a womb than a tomb. Even so I have an intensely strong feeling that this part of our family, as it were, has a strong affinity with the earth, even more than yours, Emma, in spite of your strong desire to campaign on environmental issues. The child’s connection is an intense emotional and intuitive bond.’

The intent silence with which they were listening was almost scary. My throat felt really dry. I asked for some water before I could continue. I took a sip before I marched on.

‘You may feel that what I am going to say is simply a joke but it’s not. I feel that the child needs a name that belongs to the earth but connects him as deeply with me as well. I would like for us to agree to call him Peat Humus.’

The tension in the room broke into gales of laughter.

‘You can’t be serious,’ Pancake howled.

‘I am. Really I am. Think about it. He doesn’t have to mix out there in the world. He doesn’t need a birth certificate or a passport. What he needs and what we need is the most powerful reminder of his true nature and of the deep and powerful connection our hearts have to forge, not just with the transcendent realm of the spirit, but also with the earth upon which our material selves ultimately depend. Our heart is the bridge between spirit and matter and this will help us always remember that. When our hearts and the earth are consciously and closely connected we have our hearth, a symbol of our true home and safety.’

‘I think I’m beginning to see where you are coming from,’ Pindance whispered, rocking the child gently as she spoke. Wordless, the nature poet with writer’s block, couldn’t have looked more pleased.

The others didn’t seem so sure.

‘And after we name the child so, then we can go on to see how the words heart and earth can also be used to remind us of how our different aims and skills are ultimately unified. The letters of the words can be used to remind us of the arts, for your poems, Bill, and of action, for your preferred way, Emma, and of reflection, Chris, and teaching, Indie, and the head’s deep experience, Fred. I know that’s not perfect, but it’s as far as I have got at present, except to say that hearticulture, to be effective, needs to draw on all your disciplines and modus operandi. It needs to keep them all in balance though, at the same time, rather than have any one of them dominating and becoming a single area of expertise for its own sake.’

I paused at that point to check out the reception I was getting. There was a puzzled frown on all their faces and an unhappy exchange of glances between Pancake, Humfreeze, and Mires. Maybe they weren’t happy that the word for their passion in life had only its first letter. Wordless was bought off by the presence of the word art as a whole and the connection with nature in particular, and Pindance was perhaps somewhat reassured by my sense of the infant’s importance.

I pressed on regardless.

‘Hearticulture is the discipline at which I want to become as expert as I can, and that will only be possible if we all pool our preferences and skills and work towards the same end. That may be tough sometimes, because it won’t allow any of us to become the world expert poet, psychologist, meditator/mystic, activist, teacher we might dearly love to be. What it does mean though is that as a unified team we can be an expert hearticulturalist, before I die and take you all with me.’

I was relieved to see that cracked a smile on everyone’s face.

‘To be honest though that’s not why I’m doing it. The satisfaction of hearticulture will come simply from practising it however badly, and in that way learning to do it better. This is what needs to be done for its own sake, while all our other arts and skills are practised for hearticulture’s sake. All my life, I suspect, I’ve been unconsciously striving to achieve a creative fusion of all our different strands of activity, and now it seems we have achieved it. I think it will work because, for me and hopefully for all of you as well, the heart is at the core of us all and is a bridge between matter and spirit, earth and heaven. Does that make sense? Can we all pull together with this?’

There was a long silence. Faintly from the other room I could hear the words of Gerry Rafferty’s under-rated song and felt them ease my heart:

If you travel blindly, if you fall
The truth is there to set you free
And when your heart can see just one thing in this life
We’ll set out on the journey
Find a ship to take us on the way.

It seemed to go some way towards easing the angst of all the others as well.

‘I think I can begin to see how this might work,’ Wordless shared, ‘how it will stop us fighting each other over whose pet project should have priority, how it will help us recognise that everything we come across can be tested for whether it furthers this aim or not, and if it does we can all pool our skills together for the best possible result, and if it does not, we can just forget it and move on where possible.’ Strong feelings were making the usually carefully coherent Wordless hard to follow.

Not everybody was nodding as he spoke. The art, in a heart connected with nature, had got him on board at least. The rest, except perhaps for Pindance, were not so sure.

Just at this point, my wife got out of bed and woke me up. That was unfortunate but I hope it didn’t matter, because perhaps for the first time in my life it felt as though I might just have found a way to bring all my warring selves together in peace at last, and I at least had a clear and practicable sense of what I needed to do with the rest of my life and best of all, how I needed to do it.

I had come a long way from my diary entry of 17 years ago when I was struggling yet again to work out what my priorities really were, with only the metaphor of ‘carpenter of minds’ to help me, and I wrote, wondering whether underneath it all I really wanted to be a writer:

Many writers have been completely self-centred. They have, in the cliché, perfected the art but not the life. At present I think it’s fair to say I am perfecting neither the art nor the life. To paraphrase Landor:

I strove with some, I almost loved my wife,
Nature neglected, next to nature art –
Somehow lost contact with the fire of life.
It sinks but I’m not ready to depart.

Only half a joke really. I’m getting older and losing energy year by year. My poem The Quarry seems truer by the minute. If I’m not careful there’ll be no time, no energy left, and nothing done, unless being a carpenter of minds part-time face to face has been enough.

Let’s hope I have enough effective reminders in place to keep the train of this new plan on the rails and moving forwards. Only time will tell. It wouldn’t be the first time if I have mistaken a stopover for my destination.

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