Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Embrace the Truth

In this entry I'm going to write something about an experience I had in a Baha'i study class. Many people are familiar with Bible Study Classes, a form of social activity in which people gather, often in a home or church, to study scriptures together. Baha'is do this as well, but we have a few different ways of doing it. We have "deepenings" or "classes" in which just about anything could be the topic. Some of these can involve intensive study, while others are just casual conversations about some aspect of religion. Sometimes Baha'is will study other religions or scriptures from any of the various faith traditions. More often in the past decade, Baha'is have been studying Ruhi Books in "study circles" that meet to study Baha'i scripture and history.

These classes include homework assignments and reflection exercises, designed to help people actually change their lives. In particular, the people who promote these Ruhi courses hope that Baha'is will offer these classes to friends and associates, who will take from these classes some good spiritual insight, and apply this in daily life. The books encourage people to do more prayer, live in accordance with religious teachings about virtues, and spend more of their time visiting people, praying with people, talking about religion with people, showing concern, listening to what others have to say, and that sort of thing. There is some emphasis on learning how to tell stories about the Baha'i Faith, and plenty of stuff about how great it is to be a Baha'i, and it's pretty obviously a hope of the authors that people who go through these study circles will like what they experience, and will either become friendly to the Baha'i Faith or else actually join it.

In 2005 I wrote a little essay about what I thought about Ruhi courses. I'm not quite as worried about them as I was then, but I'm still having some mixed feelings about how they are used.

I'm currently attending a "Book Four" class in one of these Ruhi Study Circles. The purpose of this class is to help participants understand how significant Baha'is think their Baha'i Revelation is, and ensure that participants can tell a few things about the lives of Ali Muhammad Shirazi "The Gate" (the Bab) and Husayn Ali Nuri "Glory of God" (Baha'u'llah). There are already many good short biographies of these Central Figures available online at various web pages.

On page 13 of this Ruhi Book Four we find the following quotation from The Great Announcement to Mankind, a tablet revealed by Baha'u'llah, and found in its entirety in The Proclamation of Baha'u'llah (starting on page 111 in my 1978 edition). Typically, the citation in the Ruhi Book only refers to Gleanings passage 70, perhaps because Gleanings is more widely translated and available.

Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths. Take heed that ye do not vacillate in your determination to embrace the truth of this Cause—a Cause through which the potentialities of the might of God have been revealed, and His sovereignty established.

The quotation does not go on to include the rest of this paragraph, but I'll include it here:

With faces beaming with joy, hasten ye unto Him. This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future. Let him that seeketh, attain it; and as to him that hath refused to seek it—verily, God is Self-Sufficient, above any need of His creatures. . . .

It's a nice passage. The wording is interesting. If we want to be literal in our understanding, it's asking us to embrace the truth of the Cause, rather than the Cause itself. The Cause possesses a truth, and we should be determined to embrace that truth. If we do a literal reading of the text, it's only asking for us to be determined to embrace the truth. That's different than asking us to embrace the Cause, if you see what I mean. The scripture is asking for us to be determined to do something, and it's not directly and literally asking us to do that, only to be determined to do that. It's nice, because if you believe that the "truth of the Cause" is beyond our ability to fully grasp or understand, (as I do) then the Spirit that moved Baha'u'llah to reveal this allowed for this distinction.

That bit about "His sovereignty established" is perplexing in some ways. If you include the rest of the passage, as I have done above, and the Ruhi editors have not, you get that bit about God being "Self-Sufficient and above any needs of His creatures." So, it would seem God's sovereignty is independent of any needs we have, and would exist whether or not we were aware of God's sovereignty, yet in this same paragraph we have the idea that "this Cause" has established God's sovereignty. Clearly this requires some mind-stretching and openness to creative thinking. I happen to think religious scriptures are full of such stuff, although the literally minded among the atheists dismiss this as nonsense or contradiction.

And which Cause is this that we're talking about? The Ruhi courses seem to have an agenda of setting out the Baha'i Faith as a unique and new religion quite apart from other religions. It is that, in some respects, but it's also a religion that claims all the religions are one. That is, whether a person takes on the identity of a "Baha'i" or a "Christian" or whatever, one is drawing from the same God, the same spiritual principles, and the same Cause. Clearly God's sovereignty was established by all the religions that we can place in history before the Baha'i Faith, and so this "Cause" we're identifying with in this passage is that universal and transcendent Cause. It's the Baha'i Cause, but it's also the Cause of all true religion. So, this is an inclusive truth that would include all that is good and true in other religions, and would exclude any falseness that might happen to be temporarily associated with the Baha'i Faith. Or so it seems to me.

The conclusion of the paragraph makes this reading more likely to my mind, as it goes on about the "changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future." Such phrases call to my mind the ideas in the Baha'i Faith of all the religions being part of a single process. It also reminds me of teachings about some aspects of religion being "changeless" (this changeless stuff includes the universal ethical principles such as avoiding lying, deceit, murder, theft, cruelty, and instead showing more generosity, kindness, honesty, love, peacefulness, and virtue.)

It seems to me that one could easily read this as a call to the higher and more abstract Cause. The Baha'i Faith, as an organized religion to which I belong, with its administration, it's social teachings, it's events and books and traditions, is a manifestation of the Cause. To some degree it's an embodiment. Sometimes, perhaps often, it's the most perfect and direct embodiment of the Cause accessible to humans in our day. After all, we who are part of the Baha'i Faith are consciously trying to model our community on the revealed writings of Baha'u'llah and the interpretations of His son, 'Abdu'l-Baha. But I think any Baha'i who thinks critically is aware that the Baha'i Faith as an organized religion, as an actual community of fallible humans and institutions, doesn't always live up to the highest potentials and ideals of the higher abstract Cause mentioned in this passage. Some of us (I don't think I'm alone in thinking this) in the Baha'i Faith sometimes feel other people, outside of our organized religion, are ahead of the "Baha'is" in getting certain points of this higher abstract Cause right.

Well, the Ruhi editors aren't evidently interested in facilitating those sorts of thoughts. The discussion question #12 that follows the quotation reads, "How is our spiritual energy affected if we vacillate in accepting the Truth of His Cause in its entirety?" That's clearly an invitation for people to respond with opinions that relate to the passage. But how will readers who are new to the Faith take the quotation? Will they understand "Truth of His Cause" to be "the fact that this Cause is true and worthy of your belief and loyalty" or will they take it to be "the Truth of the Cause of God and religion, a truth that lies very much central in the teachings and ideas found in this Revelation from Baha'u'llah, which may or may not be manifested (to greater or lesser degrees) in the Baha'i Faith as an organized religion?"

I was facilitating the class, and I pointed out that the last part of discussion question #12 was added in by the editors. The original text says nothing about "accepting the Truth of His Cause in its entirety." Also, if you read the whole tablet, it's kept ambiguous whether this is "Baha'u'llah's Cause" or "God's Cause" or whether we mortals can even make a distinction between those two, since God is unknowable to us. This use (by the Ruhi editors) of "His Cause" instead of "God's Cause" or "This Cause" puts the focus on Baha'u'llah. This may be where the focus should be, or it may not. The point is, the discussion question has changed the ambiguity and higher-level abstractions in the original text and asked participants to react to a statement more clearly centered on Baha'u'llah and the Baha'i Faith, rather than God and the "changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future."

When I pointed out the problems with inserting the phrase "in its entirety" I met with some of the typical remarks I often hear from my co-religionists. A favorite one is "you can't pick and choose. You must accept everything." Bad logic, of course, but it's a popular notion. I responded as I often do, with the idea that if you accept everything in its entirety, then you accept the Kitab-i-Iqan, our "Book of Certitude," in which Baha'u'llah reveals to us that much scripture is in the language of metaphor, and not to be taken literally. You must also accept the idea that we should use science and our rational thinking to enhance our understanding of our religion. You can't reject that, because if you take the Baha'i Faith in its entirety, you can't get away from such fundamental teachings. And, with that said, we do in fact pick and choose. The Baha'i book of laws (the "Most Great Book") suggests that we be buried in caskets of crystal, but few Baha'is do this. Arsonists are to be burned, but no Baha'i seriously advocates for us to use branding or burning-at-the-stake as a punishment for arson. A law that men should not grow their hair beyond their ears is probably a polite way of forbidding men from engaging in sex work, if you understand the 19th century Persian context into which that Book was revealed. Clearly one can see in photographs that 'Abdu'l-Baha, our perfect example, didn't follow that law literally. So, we Baha'is do pick and choose which rules or teachings we accept literally and which we take metaphorically, and without any authorized interpreter left on this mortal plane, we really don't have any persons with authority to tell us when we are correct or incorrect in our interpretations and understandings of the many metaphorical teachings. So often the scriptures are abstract, and rarely are they concrete or specific. So, we're left to be mature and thoughtful and rational, and take things as best we may. So, this is a religion where we do some picking and choosing.

That's how I see it, at any rate. The Ruhi course can facilitate some good thinking about what we mean by "the Truth of this Cause." What is "This Cause" and what is the truth of it? What does it mean to be have a "determination to embrace" something abstract like a "truth" of a cause? Is whatever original word that gets translated into English as "embrace" relate to the passionate feelings described in the rest of the quotation (that Ruhi editors have omitted), "faces beaming with joy"? In what ways is "This Cause" the Baha'i Faith as a specific religion, and in what ways is "This Cause" a sort of metareligion, a sort of collective religion of all true religions? This would be good to discuss, and I think ideas people gained by struggling with such questions would help them use speech and thought to more fruitfully teach the Baha'i Revelation, both as a general renewal of all the religious verities (and the world needs that), and as a specific religion into which, by the way, we would welcome you if you care to join, and if you don't care to join, we at least could use your good will.

The quality of the Ruhi experience will depend largely upon how people overcome the limitations of the discussion questions and the limitations of the selected quotations. Of course there will be such limitations, as these Ruhi books are supposed to provide basic information, easily accessible to people all over the planet, at all stages of educational attainment. It's up to us, as people participating in these Ruhi courses, to make them work for us, to use them to help us transform our thinking, and our habits of daily living, and our lifestyles, so that our lives become more centered around social interactions and service and prayer and associated aspects of the spiritual life.


Baquia said...

"A law that men should not grow their hair beyond their ears is
probably a polite way of forbidding men from engaging in sex work, if
you understand the 19th century Persian context into which that Book was revealed."

Can you explain this a bit more?

Eric Hadley-Ives said...

I picked up the idea about hair length prohibitions being a subtle reference to sex work from a dialogue between some Baha'i scholars. The conversation took place via e-mail in some discussion list I was part of back in the late 1990s, perhaps in 1997 or 1998. I may have the actual posts on a hard drive on one of my old computers sitting in the basement, but I have some memory of the discussion in my brain. Evidently there was a class of young male prostitute in 19th century Iran that had a particular way of appearing, and this style included having long hair. The long hair was a signal to potential customers that these young men were available.

I'm fairly certain that one of the scholars participating in this discussion was the late R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram. You could read his paper, The Provisions for Sexuality in the Kitab-i-Aqdas in the Context of Late Nineteenth Century Eastern and Western Sexual Ideologies at the Baha'i Library. The article doesn't mention the long hair law, but it offers some interesting personal views on the Kitab-i-Aqdas.

I think my larger point is that we do some picking and choosing among various Baha'i laws and teachings, and that really can't be helped, the various directives we've received from Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha leave us with a system in which we must sometimes choose between superficially contradictory teachings.

I could have used other examples. The Kitab-i-Aqdas mentions that Baha'is must have no more than two wives (implied; or husbands), but 'Abdu'l-Baha interprets this as "only one," but if you look at other sources (especially things 'Abdu'l-Baha wrote when his half-brother was attacking him by accusing him of changing Baha'u'llah's religion), a different view appears (hey, that's a link to your blog, Baquia!).

We have similar issues with the pronouncements that Baha'u'llah or 'Abdu'l-Baha is infallible. What does "infallible" mean? Some understandings of the term would be contradicted by some things that Baha'u'llah or 'Abdu'l-Baha wrote that are quite clearly not accurate, so, we as Baha'is must choose what we understand "infallible" to mean, and not blindly suppose that we know what it means.

Shoghi Effendi emphasized, in his published work (The Promised Day is Come) that the Baha'i Faith accepts, at least to some degree, the idea of relative truth. So, part of not picking and choosing is accepting the official Baha'i statements that compel us to do some picking and choosing. The Baha'i religion assumes a well-educated body of believers who prize critical thinking (rational faculties), and who accept as a core belief the idea that some aspects of religious teachings are appropriate according to contextual considerations (culture, time in history, readiness of people to listen or understand, etc.) That's my answer for my co-religionists who tell me "we can't pick and choose."

Matt said...

A very good post, my friend. You and I seem to think alike, as I have had many internal dialogs with myself veering into very similar conclusions and thoughts you so eloquently expressed here. My favorite bit is about some of your co-religionists saying you "can't pick and choose", and your rebuttal. In truth, everyone in the world picks and chooses, especially in our strange era of history where we are practically being smothered by information overload. I know Muslims who practice Yoga, Christians who believe in Muhammad, Baha'is who would rather go to a Mosque than Feast, Jews who know more about Buddhism than they do Judaism, etc, etc, the list goes on and on and on and on... :)

At any rate, a very good blog my friend, and I hope to read more like it in the future.

Be Real,
Be Good,

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,

The answer is in the quote you refer to.

We are to immerse ourselves in the ocean of Baha'ullah's words to seek pearls of wisdom -- another way of saying to cherry pick.

In that ocean as well as pearls are the impediments to discernment of the pearls -- the veils Baha'ullah refers to elsewhere. We must see past the sea weed, rocks and brackish water to find the hidden oysters with the hidden pearls.

The contradictions and circular writing are included in the ocean as impediments to help us develop our powers of discernment, or so it seems to me. (Yet none of the contradictions are necessarily incorrect, they might simply be incoherent to us at times as they refer in the same or different passages to various levels of reality.)

Pearls of wisdom are not served up to us on a silver platter -- we need to find them while swimming in the ocean -- a difficult but rewarding task.

Take Care,

Mavaddat said...

Hi Eric,

This is a fascinating topic you have raised. I have collected my thoughts about this question of picking and choosing and written them in my own personal blog.

I'd love to get your thoughts, if you have any time!


Aliza said...

thanks for taking the time to write this, eric. i really enjoyed it.

steve said...

The comment about the growth of hair beyond the lobe of the ears is bizarre.

The text refers to hear extending "beyond" the ear not "below" the ear. As men age they grow hair in their ears, Baha'u'llah is just indicating that the refined individual would keep this hair under control. In some cultures this hair is valued,and indeed waxed and groomed like a moustache. The longest ear hair recorded by the Guiness book of records is some seven centimetres. Try googling "ear hair".

Because there is no rule about the length of hair "below" the ear both Abdu'l-Baha and Baha'u'llah wore it long.