Posts Tagged ‘Socrates’

In the kingdom (or is it the mall?) of the West, consciousness has lifted the transcendent ever higher and further away from actual life. The bridgeable chasm has become a cosmic void.

(James Hillman – The Soul’s Code: in search of character & calling – page 110)

Sharon Rawlette put me on to Leslie Kean’s brilliant and rigorous exploration of the evidence for an afterlife, Surviving Death. It was a compelling and inspiring read that triggered me to go back and re-read a book – David Fontana’s Is There an Afterlife? – which I had read long before I started blogging and from which I took no systematic notes.

As I went back over Fontana’s book I slowly became aware that there was a key issue I needed to explore that is flagged up strongly in both books. I decided that this took precedence for me at this point over their impressive research, because the feeling came through strongly from both writers that no matter how compelling the evidence and no matter how rigorous their presentation of it, there would be obdurate resistance to even considering it let alone accepting it. As I will examine later in this post such denial of legitimate evidence is far from uncommon in our supposedly scientific culture, and is not confined to matters of the spirit.

A key passage from Fontana reads (page 94):

We can go further and say that not only is the dogmatic approach by materialistic science to the mysteries of the human mind misleading it reveals a disturbing ignorance. Ignorance is not so much the act of not knowing something, it is the act of not knowing something but claiming to know. . . . . . Lacking any personal acquaintance with inner spiritual or psychic experiences, the materialistic scientist ‘knows’ that those who have such experiences are wrong in their interpretation of them, while he or she is of course right.

This insight follows immediately after his account of the life and death of Socrates and the conclusions he draws from that (page 93):

How interesting that nearly two and a half thousand years ago Socrates was giving very much the same explanation of mediumistic gifts and their inhibition by the conscious mind that we might give today. This brings home to us an essential but often forgotten truth, namely that the knowledge of the spiritual dimension possessed by the ancients has hardly been bettered. The myth of eternal progress in human understanding, which lies behind so much of our delusory intellectual arrogance in modern times, can clearly be seen at least in spiritual matters for what it is, a myth.

In his view we have sold ‘the birthright of our innate spiritual wisdom for the mess of potage of material progress.’

The arrogance of our ignorance goes back a long way and across more than one dimension of human experience.

Take for example John Fitzgerald Medina’s exploration of the misguided attitude of the European settlers to the native American mode of agriculture in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology.

The sophistication of the Native American model lay not just in politics (pages 199-200):

Contrary to the American colonists’ misinformed judgements, much evidence now exists to show that the American Indians were in fact, quite adept at cultivating a large variety of plants in a diversity of climates, soils, and environmental conditions. They utilised the Earths resources wisely, gently, and reverently.

This system may be at least equal if not superior to our environmentally disastrous monoculture (pages 201-02):

Unlike the Europeans, who planted row after row of the same plants, the Indians throughout North and Central America cultivated small plots of land that often looked like wild, haphazard gardens. . . . Scientific studies have shown that such Indian-style plots, call milpas in Mexico, are resilient to pests and weeds and protect the topsoil from erosion. . . . . .

Modern agronomists marvel at the simplicity and productivity of Indian-style agricultural plots, and some are actively studying it as an alternative to the European style, monocultural plantation form of farming, which leads to widespread soil erosion and degradation of topsoil due to the massive use of chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers.

Nonetheless, in the arrogance of our ignorance we dispossessed the native Americans of their land in the mistaken conviction that we knew better and they just didn’t know how to grow crops properly, justifying our actions by a distortion of scripture.

The irrigation system in ancient India was similarly disparaged with drastic consequences. Fred Pearce explains in his 2006 book, When the Rivers Run Dry (pages 301-02):

Until the early nineteenth century, much of India was irrigated from shallow mud-walled reservoirs in valley bottoms that captured the monsoon rains in summer. The Indians called them tanka, a word the English adopted into their own language as tanks.

Most of the tanks were quite small, covering a hectare at most, and irrigating perhaps twenty hectares. Farmers scooped the water from the tanks, diverted it down channels onto fields, or left it to sink into the soil and refill their wells. . . . Farmers guarded the slimy nutrient-rich mud in their tanks almost as much as the water. They dug it out to put onto their land, and turned silted-up former tanks into new farmland.

. . . The system thrived until the British took charge in India. . . . The British water engineers largely ignored the village tanks, apparently not realising that they were how India fed itself. . . . As the British and later the Indian government itself promoted more modern water gathering technologies, they gradually fell into disuse, but today, as the formal irrigation systems established on the Western model fail across the country, and as farmers are having to pump from ever greater depths to retrieve underground water, the old tanks are starting to be restored.

Before we get too smug about it, we need to realise that this kind of blindness is as prevalent as ever.

Sometimes it’s entirely wilful as with Holocaust denial, where the evidence is unquestionable and easily accessed. Sometimes it’s partly motivated by self-interest or an ostrich approach where keeping our head in the sand seems less of a problem than facing up to reality, but also the sheer complexity of an issue such a climate change can make denial seem rational in the face of such demanding data. I’ve dealt with the complexity issue elsewhere on this blog so won’t rehearse it all here.

My long-standing personal commitment to investigating issues for myself and checking out the evidence carefully has been further reinforced by the faith I have chosen to follow. Bahá’í Scripture is unequivocal on this issue. We must investigate for ourselves if truth and justice are to be well served (see link for a fuller exploration of this theme).

At the individual level justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, Justice is ‘the best beloved of all things[1]’ since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or group.

(Prosperity of Humankind – Section II)

There is no get-out clause:

If, in the Day when all the peoples of the earth will be gathered together, any man should, whilst standing in the presence of God, be asked: ‘Wherefore hast thou disbelieved in My beauty and turned away from My Self?’ and if such a man should reply and say: ‘Inasmuch as all men have erred, and none hath been found willing to turn his face to the Truth, I, too, following their example, have grievously failed to recognize the Beauty of the Eternal,’ such a plea will, assuredly, be rejected.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh – LXXV)

I won’t labour the point any further. In the next post I’ll move onto to considering further implications.


[1] Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh, Arabic No: 2.

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Candle ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Only as humanity comes to understand the implications of what occurred during this period of history will it be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead. The value of the contribution we as Bahá’ís can make to the process demands that we ourselves grasp the significance of the historic transformation wrought by the twentieth century.

(Century of Light – page 0)

The reason I gave recently for my being triggered to step back somewhat from blogging was the increased demand on my time. This was mostly from a particular project – the preparation of a series of eight workshops for a Bahá’í summer school. I thought it might be worth posting the material on this blog to see if it proves useful to others. Here is the first post of eight. I will be posting them on Mondays and Thursdays over four weeks. Century of Light is a key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (1 Our Roles in the World). I find I have learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days.

The Overview

Century of Light challenges both every Bahá’í and all other citizens of this changing world, to gain a clear understanding of the conditions that face us, now that the processes of the 20th Century have done their work. What we will hope to achieve in this series of workshops is:

  1. To understand something of those processes;
  2. To begin to understand what they are compelling us to do in consequence;
  3. To glimpse at least in part how the vision of three key agents of change – ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice –can enable us all to rise more effectively to the challenges that confront us.

This first session will touch on all these themes at some point, but will mainly focus on the relationship between what the Bahá’ís are attempting to do and what the rest of humankind needs to do.


Memorising (to be read in your own time after the session)

Eknath Easwaran

Eknath Easwaran

Socrates was very concerned about the invention of the alphabet and the reading it brought with it. He feared that human memory would be destroyed. What he would have had to say about the iPhone and the internet I can barely begin to imagine.

The Faith attaches great importance to memorising quotations from the Bahá’í Writings. There are several reasons for this, including the usefulness of such quotations in conversation to convey the ideas of the Faith in their original form rather than in one’s own translation. Another key reason, in addition to the benefits of enhancing the power of our memory, something which our reliance on electronic devices is seriously diminishing, is that the internalisation of truths in this way changes our inner being to some degree. We can enhance that effect by using, in our quiet periods of meditation, the quotations we have memorised.

These are significant benefits, as Eknath Easwaran explains in his excellent and accessible book Meditation: common sense directions for an uncommon life

Among the advice he gives is this (Pages 39-40):

In meditation, the passage becomes imprinted on our consciousness. As we drive it deeper and deeper, the words come to life within us, transforming all our thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds. . . . . As you commit a new passage to memory, it is good to spend some time reflecting on the meaning of the words and their practical application to your life. But please don’t do this while you are actually meditating. . . . . And avoid choosing passages that are negative, that take a harsh and difficult view of the body, of our past mistakes, or of life in the world. We want to draw on our positive side, our higher Self, and the passages should move you to become steadfast, compassionate, and wise.

Lasse Thoresen, in his thoughtful book Unlocking the Gate of the Heart which explores meditation from a Bahá’í viewpoint, reinforces basically the same idea (pages 91-92):

Whether we are conscious of it or not, a passage we know by heart will always be with us wherever we may go, whether we are asleep or awake. We have fed our subconscious with the words of God, allowing them to work within us and appear in our consciousness when we have need for them, perhaps as a part of new insight.

It seemed a good idea therefore to introduce right at the start of this sequence of workshops a technique for making memorising easier. The method I am quoting here has been adapted from a way of memorising poetry. I sorry to say that I have no record of whose original idea I have borrowed here.

This is the method:

How to Learn Passages: 

  1. Read the passage once. Then divide it into convenient short sections, each equivalent to a line of poetry.
  2. Now read the first section out loud. Take your eyes from the page and immediately say the section again. Glance back to make sure you got it right. If you made a mistake, try again. Now do the same with the second section. Repeat the procedure for every section in the passage.
  3. Go back to the beginning. This time, read the first two sections out loud, look away and repeat them aloud. Check. If you made a mistake, try again. Now move onto the next two sections, going through the whole passage two sections at a time.
  4. Repeat the passage three sections at a time, then four sections at a time, then five and then six. By the sixth pass, no matter how long the passage, you will have memorised it.
  5. Recite the whole passage just before going to bed at night.
  6. Crucial: stop thinking about the passage. Your sleeping mind is very important for memory.
  7. The next day, you should find (after a glance at the first section to bump-start your memory) that you can recite the whole passage.

In using this method I have found it important, if I am to retain the whole passage permanently, I need to slowly reduce the frequency of repeating it over a reasonable period of time. At first, perhaps for a week, I repeat it every night. Then every other, then every third night and so on until I repeat it only once per week. I can then choose to use it whenever I wish in my daily meditations. It is important to keep it fresh by revisiting it occasionally, maybe once every month or two in this way. We’ll be talking about how to build a memorised passage into a daily meditation later.

I would like to ask everyone to choose, perhaps from the ones we’ll be using today, a passage from Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings – for a Bahá’í these are the most powerful, along with the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, for developing spiritual insight – and then use the method above to commit it to memory. We will be looking tomorrow at an approach to using a memorised passage in quiet reflection.


A. Dipping our Toes in the Deep Water

It is easier to clarify what we need to be doing, if we first look at a quotation from a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for 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. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

Taking this together with a longer quotation from the Century of Light helps us gain a better understanding of what is meant here (page 94):

Realisation of the uniqueness of what Bahá’u’lláh has brought into being opens the imagination to the contribution that the Cause can make to the unification of humankind and the building of a global society. The immediate responsibility of establishing world government rests on the shoulders of the nation-states. What the Bahá’í community is called on to do, at this stage in humanity’s social and political evolution, is to contribute by every means in its power to the creation of conditions that will encourage and facilitate this enormously demanding undertaking. In the same way that Bahá’u’lláh assured the monarchs of His day that “It is not Our wish to lay hands on your kingdoms”, so the Bahá’í community has no political agenda, abstains from all involvement in partisan activity, and accepts unreservedly the authority of civil government in public affairs. Whatever concern Bahá’ís may have about current conditions or about the needs of their own members is expressed through constitutional channels.

The power that the Cause possesses to influence the course of history thus lies not only in the spiritual potency of its message but in the example it provides. “So powerful is the light of unity,” Bahá’u’lláh asserts, “that it can illuminate the whole earth.” The oneness of humankind embodied in the Faith represents, as Shoghi Effendi emphasized, “no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope”. The organic unity of the body of believers – and the Administrative Order that makes it possible – are evidences of what Shoghi Effendi termed “the society-building power which their Faith possesses.”

Questions for General Discussion (to orient us to some of the issues we will be returning to in more detail later)

To tackle these questions briefly at this point, we need to break into four groups – one for each question. We’ll use the counting system for this, everyone numbering off from 1 to 4. Notes should be taken of the points made to they can be reported back to everyone at the end of the consultation period.

  1. Our society seems to have built its institutions around adversarial processes – political parties in parliament, prosecution and defence in a courtroom and competing contenders in the global market place. Do we agree that this kind of approach will no longer solve our problems? If so, why not? If not, how can they ever succeed?
  2. Does the solution put forward by the Universal House of Justice seem likely to be more effective, ie that ‘each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family’? If so, how? If not, why not?
  3. The role of Bahá’ís in relation to others is at least partly captured in the words of the House when they say Bahá’ís should be ‘awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.’ How easy is that going to be? What problems might lie ahead as Bahá’ís try to do that, both within the Bahá’í community and in the wider community as well? How are those problems to be transcended?
  4. We will be returning later in these workshops to the question of a world government. Clearly many problems lie ahead in terms of the eventual realisation of that idea. At this point can we speculate a little as to what conditions might ‘encourage and facilitate this enormously demanding undertaking’? Given that a Bahá’í ‘abstains from all involvement in partisan activity’ how exactly would the Bahá’í community create the necessary conditions for world government to be realised?



Getting a Glimpse of Unity

(Page 68): In acknowledging the darkness that widespread godlessness, violence and creeping immorality was engendering, Shoghi Effendi described the role that Bahá’ís everywhere must play as instruments of the transforming power of the new Revelation:

Theirs is the duty to hold, aloft and undimmed, the torch of Divine guidance, as the shades of night descend upon, and ultimately envelop the entire human race. Theirs is the function, amidst its tumults, perils and agonies, to witness to the vision, and proclaim the approach, of that re-created society, that Christ-promised Kingdom, that World Order whose generative impulse is the spirit of none other than Bahá’u’lláh Himself, whose dominion is the entire planet, whose watchword is unity, whose animating power is the force of Justice, whose directive purpose is the reign of righteousness and truth, and whose supreme glory is the complete, the undisturbed and everlasting felicity of the whole of human kind.

Before we look at a quotation from Bahá’u’lláh as a way of going even more deeply into the core concept animating the Bahá’í community and which we believe to be the key principle upon which the whole world now needs to operate, we need to consider briefly the quotation above, particularly the words of Shoghi Effendi, someone whose exact significance in the Faith and whose writings we will be returning to in more detail in a later workshop. He is describing the exact nature of the torch Bahá’ís believe we are holding high up in the darkness of these difficult days: the ‘dominion’ is the ‘entire planet,’ the ‘watchword is unity,’ and it will benefit the ‘whole of human kind’ animated by ‘the force of Justice’ and directed by the aim ‘of righteousness and truth.’

What do we feel is the relationship between these ideas? Is there an organising principle that holds them together? If so, what is it? If not why are they placed here in such close association?

It may be useful also to bear in mind the words of Bahá’u’lláh when He wrote:

This Wronged One exhorteth the peoples of the world to observe tolerance and righteousness, which are two lights amidst the darkness of the world and two educators for the edification of mankind. Happy are they who have attained thereto and woe betide the heedless.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh: page 36)

And likewise He saith: The heaven of true understanding shineth resplendent with the light of two luminaries: tolerance and righteousness.

O my friend! Vast oceans lie enshrined within this brief saying. Blessed are they who appreciate its value, drink deep therefrom and grasp its meaning, and woe betide the heedless. This lowly one entreateth the people of the world to observe fairness, that their tender, their delicate and precious hearing which hath been created to hearken unto the words of wisdom may be freed from impediments and from such allusions, idle fancies or vain imaginings as ‘cannot fatten nor appease the hunger’, so that the true Counsellor may be graciously inclined to set forth that which is the source of blessing for mankind and of the highest good for all nations.

(ibid: page 170)

Does this help in integrating the elements referred to by Shoghi Effendi?

Beginning to Unpack Some Implications

Perhaps most importantly of all we read:

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No. 68)

We will be returning once more to this topic in later workshops.

  1. So, briefly, what do we think it means to be ‘even as one soul’?
  2. What might be the connection between ‘oneness’ and ‘detachment’?
  3. How important is it that our actions and our ‘inmost being’ should harmonise?

This is dealt with to some degree in more straightforward prose in Century of Light (pages 114 & 136):

Bahá’u’llah’s mission is not limited to the building of the Bahá’í community. The Revelation of God has come for the whole of humanity, and it will win the support of the institutions of society to the extent that they find in its example encouragement and inspiration for their efforts to lay the foundations of a just society.

. . . . . for a Bahá’í the ultimate issues are spiritual. The Cause is not a political party nor an ideology, much less an engine for political agitation against this or that social wrong. The process of transformation it has set in motion advances by inducing a fundamental change of consciousness, and the challenge it poses to everyone who would serve it is to free oneself from attachment to inherited assumptions and preferences that are irreconcilable with the Will of God for humanity’s coming of age.

For these two questions Groups 1 and 3 combine together to tackle question (1), as do groups 2 and 4 to tackle question (2). Note taking and reporting to be as before.

  1. Why might it be necessary to ‘free oneself from attachment to inherited assumptions and preferences’ before we can move forward in the way that God requires of us?
  2. How does the harmony between our inner being and our actions empower our example?

The Beginnings of a Breakthrough?

This is something to which we will return in more detail after the third workshop, which will look at the components of the wreck that we were left with in the last century and whose negative influence persists to some extent to this day.

Page 99: Although the breakdown of society was creating problems for Bahá’í administrative institutions, a related effect was to generate a greatly increased interest in the message of the Cause. . . .

As believers from urban centres set out on sustained campaigns to reach the mass of the world’s peoples living in villages and rural areas, they encountered a receptivity to Bahá’u’lláh’s message far beyond anything they had imagined possible.

Page 138: Shoghi Effendi describes this process of world unification as the “Major Plan” of God, whose operation will continue, gathering force and momentum, until the human race has been united in a global society that has banished war and taken charge of its collective destiny. What the struggles of the twentieth century achieved was the fundamental change of direction the Divine purpose required. The change is irreversible. There is no way back to an earlier state of affairs, however greatly some elements of society may, from time to time, be tempted to seek one.

The importance of the historic breakthrough that has thus occurred is in no way minimized by recognition that the process has barely begun.

Discuss, keeping to the same two groups, allocating questions on the same basis. Note taking and reporting to be as before.

  1. Why do we think that the receptivity to Bahá’u’lláh’s message should have been so significantly increased?
  2. The Major Plan of God, as we will come to understand in more detail, is for the whole of humanity to carry forward. Do we all feel, looking back on our own experiences, that there was a fundamental change of direction in the 20th Century?

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