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The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son

As part of the counterbalance to my recent posts on death and suffering I thought it was about time I republished something a bit more positive. So, here’s another post from 2009.

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.

Retreating Tide

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.

Cragged HillBetween 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.

The Shrine of the Bab at Night

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.

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There’s a sequence coming up that relates to the issue discussed in my very first sequence of posts in 2009. It seemed a good excuse to republish them at this point. They will be posted on consecutive days. 

plato-platypus

Can you take it with you when you die?
A very rich man was close to death. As death grew closer he grew more and more unhappy at the idea of leaving all his wealth behind. Night and day he prayed fervently to God: “God! I know everything is possible to you. I beseech you to let me take some of my riches with me when I die.”

This went on for days without an answer. Finally, after hours of constant prayer, he heard a voice from the sky say: “Very well. You can take what ever will fit into one small suitcase.”

The man was overjoyed and spent at least a minute thanking his maker effusively before he set about the important work of deciding what to take. After long hours of solitary  deliberation he made up his mind that the best thing to do was fill his suitcase with gold bars. This he did at the dead of night and dragged the suitcase to his bedside.

Much to the mystification of his family he insisted on keeping the suitcase at the side of his bed from then on.

Sure enough, on the night he died God kept his promise and he found himself at the gates of heaven dragging his heavy case towards Saint Peter. But St Peter found the situation highly irregular and wouldn’t let him take the suitcase in with him.

“But God has given me a special dispensation. I can take just one case of worldly goods into heaven with me,” the man insisted desperately. Saint Peter, inwardly thinking this was all some kind of delusion, reluctantly sent an angel off to ask God what the deal was here.

Ten thousand years later (our time but in a twinkling of an eye up there) the angel returned and to the astonishment of Saint Peter, confirmed the man’s story.

“Streuth!” the Saint muttered, having been too busy to update his oaths since the population explosion of the twentieth century, “I’d better let you in then. But I can’t let you through these gates until I’ve seen what’s in that suitcase. You can’t be too careful, even in heaven. The devil still has some scary tricks up his sleeve.”

So, the man proudly opened his suitcase to display the wonders of his wealth. Saint Peter’s eyebrows shot up over his head: “All this hassle and you brought paving stones!”

[I have adapted this joke  from a wonderful book called “Plato and a Platypus walk into a bar . . . understanding philosophy through jokes”  – pages 177-178]

The joke has more than one sting to it.

We know we couldn’t take a suitcase up to heaven and, in the present security conscious climate, you’d probably be gunned down by a guardian angel long before you got within ten thousand leagues of the pearly gates if you were foolish enough to try. We may even feel there is no heaven to which we could carry anything at all. If there is a heaven and, when we go, we could take with us the stuff that is precious to us here, it would count for next to nothing up there anyway.

Image scanned from the cover of the Norton Coleridge

Image scanned from the cover of the Norton Coleridge

What can’t be lost in a shipwreck?

“You possess only what will not be lost in a shipwreck.”

[El Gazali: I met this first in Tahir Shah’s “In Arabian Nights” ]

And what is that exactly?

To the materialist it’s obvious. There is nothing that can’t be lost in a shipwreck – goods, friends, family, consciousness, individuality, life itself. (Well, strictly speaking you probably won’t lose your house in a shipwreck exactly, but you get the point.) Nothing left over. Death = zero, the great black void. All that remains of you lies rather than lives, for a few more years, in the memories of those you leave behind. And when they die too, those few faint traces of your life die with them.

Those who feel there might be something else can give a different answer, with very varying degrees of confidence admittedly. “My mind lives on,’ they might say, “because I have an immortal soul. And I’ll meet my loved ones on the other side.”

“Yeh, right!” the sceptic responds, shaking his head at the follies of his fellows. Too many people, he feels, still believe too many impossible things before breakfast and for the rest of the day as well!

Most of the answers in the monotheistic religions I grew up with take on some variation of the “I’ll meet my loved ones” form.

In the East – and it’s India, China and the Far East I’m thinking of here – they’re not so sure about whether I have a soul in exactly that sense and whether I will remember who I was in the shape I take on next. I was put off Buddhism, many years ago, when I attended a talk by a Tibetan monk, who insisted I could well come back as a rat or a dog.

This seemed a far cry from the sophisticated analysis of mental states I had come to admire so much from reading about Buddhism’s core teachings and about the meditative experience, which I was experimenting with myself at the time. While other views of reincarnation are less shape-shiftingly dissonant with our sense of self, they all entail a greater reduction in our sense of who we are than the Christian or Islamic traditions do.

Eastern traditions would generally agree, though, that my mind is able to function in some way and to some degree independently of my brain and that therefore there will be something that is not lost in the shipwreck, though it may not be immediately recognisable to me or anyone else who knew me.  The Dalai Lama, for example, is extremely sceptical about Western near death experiences (NDEs) that describe being met by loved ones after what may or not be an experience of death as it will really be. He feels the predeceased would already have been reincarnated and therefore unavailable. They’d be otherwise engaged, so to speak, unavoidably detained elsewhere, reaping what they had sown perhaps among the scent-drenched pleasures of a dog’s life, if my unfortunate and possibly misleading encounter with the monk is anything to go by.

The Bahá’í view is that we take with us into the next life what we have made of our souls in this one. This world is the womb of the next.

The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh LXXXI).

What we have learned of love and wisdom, what has nurtured our innate character – the soul, goes with us. We leave all else behind. Clearly that matters to me as an individual if I am a believer: why should it matter to you if you are not?

That is something we can explore together in the next post.

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Seven Years

At this time of remembrance of the seven Bahá’í leaders unjustly imprisoned still after seven years this prayer seems a fitting response to the injustice of their predicament. I am therefore republishing it for the first time since my first post in 2009. At our Nineteen Day meeting in Hereford, at the close of the devotional, we played this moving chant. Seven candles were glowing as we listened, one for each of the imprisoned souls.

I know it is already posted on Bahá’í Views but this chanted prayer is so hauntingly beautiful that I feel it needs to be shared with as many people as possible.

The provisional translation into English is on Iran Press Watch who are sharing this authentic prayer of Bahá’u’lláh in Arabic for the protection and delivery of Bahá’í prisoners. This prayer is accompanied by special instructions revealed by Bahá’u’lláh pertaining to its use.

Bahá’u’lláh instructs that believers must detach themselves and recite this prayer nine times.

He is, in truth, the Omnipotent, the Unconstrained! O Lord of Names and Fashioner of the Heavens! Free Thy lovers from the prison of the enemy. Verily, Thou art the Sovereign Ordainer of Thine irrevocable decree. He who alone shineth resplendent on the horizon of creation. O Everlasting Root! By the life of the All-Glorious, deprive them not of hope, nay rather aid and assist them. Verily, Thou rulest as Thou pleasest and within Thy grasp lie the kingdoms of creation. The fangs of Thine enemies have been whetted, ready to bite into the flesh of Thy lovers. Protect these companions, O Thou Who rulest over all humankind and art the Judge on the Day of Judgement.

Seven Candles in the Dark

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Pan of Arc

I am embarking on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This post was first published in 2009.

Yes, I can spell better than that. I know the title is a silly joke but it captures my mood of the moment very well.

Currently circumstances are pushing me to think hard about what I would describe myself as doing as a Bahá’í, about what I think is the core purpose of the Bahá’í community, and most of all about what I think the work of all human beings is most concerned with. In the end, I have concluded,  all those three descriptions come down to the same thing.

And what is that exactly?

Responsibility for the Welfare of the Entire Human Family

I can’t do better than use the words of the central governing body of the Bahá’í community:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

 For ‘individuals’ I think it’s fair to read ‘everyone’ whether Bahá’í or not

 This passage was written when a major building project  at the Bahá’í World Centre had been completed. The project was of great spiritual significance to the Bahá’í community world-wide. The buildings form an arc around Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, a place already of symbolic importance within Judaism, Christianity and Islam:

In mainstream Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought, it is Elijah that is indelibly associated with the mountain, and he is regarded as having sometimes resided in a grotto on the mountain. In the Books of Kings, Elijah is described as challenging 450 prophets of a particular Baal to a contest at the altar on Mount Carmel to determine whose deity was genuinely in control of the Kingdom of Israel; since the narrative is set during the rule of Ahab and his association with the Phoenicians, biblical scholars suspect that the Baal in question was probably Melqart.

(See Wikipedia entry for a full background)

The word ‘arc’ becomes a pun when this semi-circle of buildings is seen as a symbol of our strivings as Bahá’ís to work alongside others to build a social system that will become a point of refuge for a beleaguered humanity in crisis rather in the same way as the Ark Noah built did physically in the Biblical story of a flooded world.  Bahá’u’lláh Himself points this out:

Call out to Zion, O Carmel, and announce the joyful tidings: He that was hidden from mortal eyes is come! . . . . . Oh, how I long to announce unto every spot on the surface of the earth, and to carry to each one of its cities, the glad-tidings of this Revelation—a Revelation to which the heart of Sinai hath been attracted, and in whose name the Burning Bush is calling: “Unto God, the Lord of Lords, belong the kingdoms of earth and heaven.” Verily this is the Day in which both land and sea rejoice at this announcement, the Day for which have been laid up those things which God, through a bounty beyond the ken of mortal mind or heart, hath destined for revelation. Ere long will God sail His Ark upon thee, and will manifest the people of Bahá who have been mentioned in the Book of Names.

(Tablet of Carmel)

There are two points perhaps worth making here.

Are We Utopians?

The first relates to what what some may feel is the utopianism of these ideas. The very word utopia, which means ‘nowhere’, contains the seeds of some of this contempt. John Gray in his anti-utopian book Black Mass is keen to remind us of this as is Chris Hedges in his intriguing book I don’t believe in atheists. They are also both deeply suspicious of the tendency towards self-righteous violence that seems inseparable from the behaviour of all those who feel they know what’s best for us in the long run, no matter what the cost.

[After the Enlightenment] [t]error in the name of utopian ideals would rise again and again in the coming centuries.

(Hedges: page 19)

And Hedges, who is attacking a secular utopianism that does not accept humanity’s proness to sin, goes on to say (pages 57-58):

Those who believe human beings can be morally reformed are . . . . suicidal. . . . [The delusions of a utopian vision] seem to elevate the deluded, especially those who are deemed to be favoured by race or nature, above other forms of life. This lack of reverence, this refusal to see that we exist as an integrated whole, blinds humankind to its vulnerability, the fragility of life and human weakness. These delusions are part of a worldview that places itself and its selfish desires and dreams before the protection of life itself.

A main charge is also that, for all utopians, the ends will come to justify all means no matter how horrific.

It is important to emphasise here that, while Bahá’ís yearn to help create a more just society, we also recognise that this is an evolutionary process that will take many generations and requires love and patience as well as the passage of a vast amount of time. We also recognise that we, as imperfect human beings, contain the seeds of the very problems  in society we are hoping to help solve with this empowering vision of humanity’s potential and that it would be very easy for us to betray the blueprint of the Divine Arkitect by, for example, the same kind of self-righteous impatience as has bedevilled such utopian projects as the English, French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions (not all them religious, it is worth noting).

Empowerment

The second relates to the difference between patronising or exploitative rescue and empathic empowerment. We are not saying we already know exactly how to fix a broken world at the level of practical action. Nor are we saying that there are not multitudes of other compassionate and self-sacrificing people with decades of experience in tackling aspects of the challenges that face us all. That would be arrogant and self-deluded.Building Project

There are two things though that mean we can  contribute something special, we would say unique. We have a concept of unity expressed in a body of spiritual, organisational and practical teachings and we are learning to apply this systematically and world-wide in our daily lives (for a fuller explanation of this see Baha’i Epistolary). However, what makes up this special contribution is not just the concepts, though they evince a high level of originality and coherence,  nor simply the experience of applying them, though to some degree this makes up in rich diversity for what it  lacks in duration and size given the newness of the Faith on the world scene.

There is a third key ingredient, not unique to us but rare in the world,  which hopefully will militate against utopian self-righteousness and the destructive arrogance that goes with it. We are striving, with a keen sense of our own frailty, to empower ourselves to respond more effectively to the needs of all humanity to be empowered. We are striving to become capable of enabling others to respond to their particular challenges in their own way.  We feel we can  bring extremely useful tools to that process while having a huge amount to learn from others at the same time.

There are service projects in many places in the world that dwarf what we are currently doing as Baha’is. I’ve just been reading about the Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. They provide child care for thousands of children every Sunday. Their vast array of buildings is open seven days a week for dawn till dusk. They have banks, pharmacies and schools as well as counselling and guidance groups. They help people prepare for tests, fill out tax forms and buy houses, as well as offering classes in martial arts. Their marketing of what they offer is second to none. In fact, they base their operation on the ‘same principle as all successful businesses: putting the customer first.’ (For a fuller description see  God Is Back by Micklethwait and Wooldridge pages 183-187).

That last sentence is the give away. Too many projects are driven by the desire to provide what they see people as needing and will eagerly consume, but in a predefined and often formulaic way. There is an emphasis on the passive consumption of what is on offer.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge go on to describe (page 187) how ‘many megapreachers have begun to worry that they are producing a tribe of spectators who regards religion as nothing more than spectacle.’ Some are attempting to address this problem. They have not escaped being labelled the ‘Disneyfication of religion’ and ‘Christianity Lite’ (page 189), charges which the authors feel are a touch too dismissive. However, their measured summary of what is happening highlights a major problem:

. . . . the target audience for the megachurches consists of baby boomers who left the church in adolescence, who don’t feel comfortable with overt displays of religiosity, who dread turning into their parents, and who apply the same consumerist mentality to spiritual life as they do to every other aspect of experience.

The Bahá’í model in contrast emphasises, from a non-negotiable set of spiritual principles that are seen as absolutes, that it is imperative to enable people to become active participants in change, in the process of deciding what to do and doing it. In the old adage, it is teaching people to fish rather than giving them fish — an ideal that, sadly, all too few social development projects exemplify. It is not providing something that, if you were no longer there, could not be sustainably provided by those whom you are seeking to help.

Arc building siteI visited Mount Carmel as the buildings referred to earlier were nearing completion. On my return to the UK I wrote the poem that I will be republishing soon – Carpenters of Minds.

It describes the beauty of the whole environment, where there were, though, still many traces of a work in progress such as you can see on any building site — sacks of concrete, exposed foundations, ladders, cranes, piles of stone, heaps of rubble. You could see plain evidence of the hard work and planning that had gone into the process. At the end of the poem, realising how similar in some ways was the work of building a new kind of society, I wrote:

But who are the masons, the carpenters of minds, who will raise
up the New Jerusalem from this dust?           “Why you, of course!” He says.Wordsworth was clear: getting and spending we lay waste our powers.

. . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  In this brief pause
I half-sense some hope of beauty in this building site of ours.
But who are the masons, the carpenters of minds, who will raise
up the New Jerusalem from this dust?  “Why you, of course!” He says.

So, anyone want a job working for the Divine Arkitect? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Don’t miss out! And the job spec says that, while being a Bahá’í may be desirable, it’s not essential. We want to work with anyone who wants to create a better world with love, patience and empowerment.

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Cherie Blair has written a strong piece today drawing attention to the situation of the  Bahá’ís in Iran. She states:

The campaign against the Baha’i community reached a new intensity last spring when its seven-strong national leadership was arrested in dawn raids. More than a year after detention without charge or access to a lawyer, the prisoners’ families have finally been told a court date has been set for this Saturday.
We don’t yet know the charges. But Iranian news reports have suggested that the national committee stands accused of everything from “espionage for Israel” to “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”. Such charges carry very serious penalties in Iran, including the death penalty.
What is also very worrying are reports that the case will be heard by the same Revolutionary Court that recently tried, in secret, the US journalist Roxana Saberi. After proceedings lasting only one day, she was sentenced to eight years in jail.

The campaign against the Baha’i community reached a new intensity last spring when its seven-strong national leadership was arrested in dawn raids. More than a year after detention without charge or access to a lawyer, the prisoners’ families have finally been told a court date has been set for this Saturday.

We don’t yet know the charges. But Iranian news reports have suggested that the national committee stands accused of everything from “espionage for Israel” to “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”. Such charges carry very serious penalties in Iran, including the death penalty.

What is also very worrying are reports that the case will be heard by the same Revolutionary Court that recently tried, in secret, the US journalist Roxana Saberi. After proceedings lasting only one day, she was sentenced to eight years in jail.

It was only after the international outcry at this parody of justice and the severity of the sentence that she received another trial. This reduced her sentence to a two-year term that was suspended on appeal.

We need the same international pressure now, before the court case, to ensure the seven men and women receive a fair trial and a chance of justice. They must be given full access to their lawyers, who must have time to prepare their defence. The court proceedings must be open to independent observation.

For the full article follow the link at the top of this post. For more UK related background see bahainews-uk.

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Pan of Arc

Yes, I can spell better than that. I know the title is a silly joke but it captures my mood of the moment very well.

Currently circumstances are pushing me to think hard about what I would describe myself as doing as a Bahá’í, about what I think is the core purpose of the Bahá’í community, and most of all about what I think the work of all human beings is most concerned with. In the end, I have concluded,  all those three descriptions come down to the same thing.

And what is that exactly?

Responsibility for the Welfare of the Entire Human Family

I can’t do better than use the words of the central governing body of the Bahá’í community:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

 For ‘individuals’ I think it’s fair to read ‘everyone’ whether Bahá’í or not

 This passage was written when a major building project  at the Bahá’í World Centre had been completed. The project was of great spiritual significance to the Bahá’í community world-wide. The buildings form an arc around Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, a place already of symbolic importance within Judaism, Christianity and Islam:

In mainstream Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought, it is Elijah that is indelibly associated with the mountain, and he is regarded as having sometimes resided in a grotto on the mountain. In the Books of Kings, Elijah is described as challenging 450 prophets of a particular Baal to a contest at the altar on Mount Carmel to determine whose deity was genuinely in control of the Kingdom of Israel; since the narrative is set during the rule of Ahab and his association with the Phoenicians, biblical scholars suspect that the Baal in question was probably Melqart.

(See Wikipedia entry for a full background)

The word ‘arc’ becomes a pun when this semi-circle of buildings is seen as a symbol of our strivings as Bahá’ís to work alongside others to build a social system that will become a point of refuge for a beleaguered humanity in crisis rather in the same way as the Ark Noah built did physically in the Biblical story of a flooded world.  Bahá’u’lláh Himself points this out:

Call out to Zion, O Carmel, and announce the joyful tidings: He that was hidden from mortal eyes is come! . . . . . Oh, how I long to announce unto every spot on the surface of the earth, and to carry to each one of its cities, the glad-tidings of this Revelation—a Revelation to which the heart of Sinai hath been attracted, and in whose name the Burning Bush is calling: “Unto God, the Lord of Lords, belong the kingdoms of earth and heaven.” Verily this is the Day in which both land and sea rejoice at this announcement, the Day for which have been laid up those things which God, through a bounty beyond the ken of mortal mind or heart, hath destined for revelation. Ere long will God sail His Ark upon thee, and will manifest the people of Bahá who have been mentioned in the Book of Names.

(Tablet of Carmel

There are two points perhaps worth making here.

Are We Utopians?

The first relates to what what some may feel is the utopianism of these ideas. The very word utopia, which means ‘nowhere’, contains the seeds of some of this contempt. John Gray in his anti-utopian book Black Mass is keen to remind us of this as is Chris Hedges in his intriguing book I don’t believe in atheists. They are also both deeply suspicious of the tendency towards self-righteous violence that seems inseparable from the behaviour of all those who feel they know what’s best for us in the long run, no matter what the cost.

[After the Enlightenment] [t]error in the name of utopian ideals would rise again and again in the coming centuries.

(Hedges: page 19)

And Hedges, who is attacking a secular utopianism that does not accept humanity’s proness to sin, goes on to say (pages 57-58):

Those who believe human beings can be morally reformed are . . . . suicidal. . . . [The delusions of a utopian vision] seem to elevate the deluded, especially those who are deemed to be favoured by race or nature, above other forms of life. This lack of reverence, this refusal to see that we exist as an integrated whole, blinds humankind to its vulnerability, the fragility of life and human weakness. These delusions are part of a worldview that places itself and its selfish desires and dreams before the protection of life itself.

A main charge is also that, for all utopians, the ends will come to justify all means no matter how horrific.

It is important to emphasise here that, while Bahá’ís yearn to help create a more just society, we also recognise that this is an evolutionary process that will take many generations and requires love and patience as well as the passage of a vast amount of time. We also recognise that we, as imperfect human beings, contain the seeds of the very problems  in society we are hoping to help solve with this empowering vision of humanity’s potential and that it would be very easy for us to betray the blueprint of the Divine Arkitect by, for example, the same kind of self-righteous impatience as has bedevilled such utopian projects as the English, French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions (not all them religious, it is worth noting). 

Empowerment

The second relates to the difference between patronising or exploitative rescue and empathic empowerment. We are not saying we already know exactly how to fix a broken world at the level of practical action. Nor are we saying that there are not multitudes of other compassionate and self-sacrificing people with decades of experience in tackling aspects of the challenges that face us all. That would be arrogant and self-deluded.Building Project

There are two things though that mean we can  contribute something special, we would say unique. We have a concept of unity expressed in a body of spiritual, organisational and practical teachings and we are learning to apply this systematically and world-wide in our daily lives (for a fuller explanation of this see Baha’i Epistolary). However, what makes up this special contribution is not just the concepts, though they evince a high level of originality and coherence,  nor simply the experience of applying them, though to some degree this makes up in rich diversity for what it  lacks in duration and size given the newness of the Faith on the world scene.

There is a third key ingredient, not unique to us but rare in the world,  which hopefully will militate against utopian self-righteousness and the destructive arrogance that goes with it. We are striving, with a keen sense of our own frailty, to empower ourselves to respond more effectively to the needs of all humanity to be empowered. We are striving to become capable of enabling others to respond to their particular challenges in their own way.  We feel we can  bring extremely useful tools to that process while having a huge amount to learn from others at the same time. 

There are service projects in many places in the world that dwarf what we are currently doing as Baha’is. I’ve just been reading about the Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. They provide child care for thousands of children every Sunday. Their vast array of buildings is open seven days a week for dawn till dusk. They have banks, pharmacies and schools as well as counselling and guidance groups. They help people prepare for tests, fill out tax forms and buy houses, as well as offering classes in martial arts. Their marketing of what they offer is second to none. In fact, they base their operation on the ‘same principle as all successful businesses: putting the customer first.’ (For a fuller description see  God Is Back by Micklethwait and Wooldridge pages 183-187). 

That last sentence is the give away. Too many projects are driven by the desire to provide what they see people as needing and will eagerly consume, but in a predefined and often formulaic way. There is an emphasis on the passive consumption of what is on offer.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge go on to describe (page 187) how ‘many megapreachers have begun to worry that they are producing a tribe of spectators who regards religion as nothing more than spectacle.’ Some are attempting to address this problem. They have not escaped being labelled the ‘Disneyfication of religion’ and ‘Christianity Lite’ (page 189), charges which the authors feel are a touch too dismissive. However, their measured summary of what is happening highlights a major problem:

. . . . the target audience for the megachurches consists of baby boomers who left the church in adolescence, who don’t feel comfortable with overt displays of religiosity, who dread turning into their parents, and who apply the same consumerist mentality to spiritual life as they do to every other aspect of experience.

The Bahá’í model in contrast emphasises, from a non-negotiable set of spiritual principles that are seen as absolutes, that it is imperative to enable people to become active participants in change, in the process of deciding what to do and doing it. In the old adage, it is teaching people to fish rather than giving them fish — an ideal that, sadly, all too few social development projects exemplify. It is not providing something that, if you were no longer there, could not be sustainably provided by those whom you are seeking to help.

Arc building siteI visited Mount Carmel as the buildings referred to earlier were nearing completion. On my return to the UK I wrote the poem that features at the end of the earlier post Degrees of Conviction. It describes the beauty of the whole environment, where there were, though, still many traces of a work in progress such as you can see on any building site — sacks of concrete, exposed foundations, ladders, cranes, piles of stone, heaps of rubble. You could see plain evidence of the hard work and planning that had gone into the process. At the end of the poem, realising how similar in some ways was the work of building a new kind of society, I wrote:

But who are the masons, the carpenters of minds, who will raise
up the New Jerusalem from this dust?           “Why you, of course!” He says.Wordsworth was clear: getting and spending we lay waste our powers.

“. . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  In this brief pause/ I half-sense some hope of beauty in this building site of ours./ But who are the masons, the carpenters of minds, who will raise/ up the New Jerusalem from this dust?  “Why you, of course!” He says.”

So, anyone want a job working for the Divine Arkitect? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Don’t miss out! And the job spec says that, while being a Bahá’í may be desirable, it’s not essential. We want to work with anyone who wants to create a better world with love, patience and empowerment.

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Evin Prison

There is a piece in the New Statesman from yesterday that is well worth a look. It opens:

Earlier this week, US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was freed from prison in Iran after having her sentence for “spying” reduced. The charge, which she strongly denied, sparked international attention and calls for her release, which has now been widely welcomed.
But Ms Saberi leaves behind her many other inmates in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison whose “crimes” against the Iranian state are also open to question.
Thursday (14 May) marks the first anniversary of the arrest and detention of seven prominent members of the Baha’i faith, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority.
The five men and two women made up an informal national committee, serving the needs of the country’s 300,000 strong Baha’i community in the absence of formal Baha’i institutions, which are outlawed. Their committee – which had operated with the full knowledge of the authorities – along with all local ad hoc Baha’i administrations – was disbanded in March this year in a gesture of good will from the peaceful and law-abiding Baha’is to their government.
In the one year since their incarceration, the seven detainees have faced no charges nor have they been allowed access to their legal counsel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr Shirin Ebadi. They have faced spurious accusations of “espionage for Israel”, and “insulting religious sanctities”.

Earlier this week, US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was freed from prison in Iran after having her sentence for “spying” reduced. The charge, which she strongly denied, sparked international attention and calls for her release, which has now been widely welcomed.

But Ms Saberi leaves behind her many other inmates in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison whose “crimes” against the Iranian state are also open to question.

Thursday (14 May) marks the first anniversary of the arrest and detention of seven prominent members of the Baha’i faith, Iran’s largest non-Muslim religious minority.

The five men and two women made up an informal national committee, serving the needs of the country’s 300,000 strong Baha’i community in the absence of formal Baha’i institutions, which are outlawed. Their committee – which had operated with the full knowledge of the authorities – along with all local ad hoc Baha’i administrations – was disbanded in March this year in a gesture of good will from the peaceful and law-abiding Baha’is to their government.

In the one year since their incarceration, the seven detainees have faced no charges nor have they been allowed access to their legal counsel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr Shirin Ebadi. They have faced spurious accusations of “espionage for Israel”, and “insulting religious sanctities”.

[For the full story follow the link. There is also an update on Baha’i Explorer. A complete overview can be found at the Human Rights link  and an excellent piece on the overall context by Bernd Kaussler at Open Democracy.]

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