28 July 2009

On Behalf of the Village: neighborhood children's classes and the Baha'i child

As more communities begin to focus their attention outwards to the needs of children in their neighborhoods, one concern is repeatedly (and understandably) heard from parents who are also longstanding Baha'is —“what about my children?” The lessons in Ruhi Book 3 seem to focus almost exclusively on universal qualities of the spirit, and contain very little factual information about the Faith itself. While the second set of lessons from Book 3a revolve around the lives of the Bab and Baha'u'llah, few communities are aware of these lessons, and even fewer are implementing them in their classes. The same is said of junior youth groups. On the surface, it would appear our community has turned its collective back on a uniquely Baha'i education.

For the moment, let us set aside the many valuable arguments in defense of the Ruhi curriculum—that our children are immersed more than ever in the study and internalization of the Creative Word, that they are learning the essence of administration by beginning to consult, at the most basic level, on the application of the Writings in their lives, that they are learning to appreciate the spiritual rather than the material reality of the Manifestation of God from a remarkably early age. In fact, let us assume to be true what we so fear, that the children of Baha'is no longer receive the sort of Baha'i education as has been so valuable in past years. What then?

First, an honest look at the Baha'i education of the past. It was extremely effective—for some. These lucky children were enabled by nature, family support, chance, or grace with the inner strength and confidence to stand up to a society that contradicted every lesson taught at Baha'i School. Their knowledge of the principles of the Faith, of its noble history and peerless Administration gave them sufficient hope to carry on as co-constructors of the World Order of Baha'u'llah. What a wonderful accomplishment this was!

But what of the rest? What of those who were too timid, too isolated, too violently thrashed by the gales of materialism to resist their force? Many of these children, now grown into adulthood, were raised lovingly by the most devoted Baha'is, and their absence from among us is a constant source of heartache. As Baha'i individuals, communities, and institutions, we did our best to prepare these children for the world, and we failed.

Why? We did nothing wrong in attempting to educate the youngest members of our community. But it is not enough for us to prepare our children for the world, we must also change the world for our children.

Baha'is are often known to cite the African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child." But we need to realize that the Baha'i community is not a village. The village is where we live, eat, and work. The village is where our children meet their friends to play. The village is the neighborhood. And while the Baha'i community must work in love and unity for the education of its children, it cannot negate the profound influence of the village on these children's material and spiritual lives. Instead, the current global Plan is intent on the transformation of the village itself, so that this influence might reaffirm rather than destroy the faith of the child, whether or not she ever identifies as a Baha'i.

What might happen to the difficulties Baha'i children face in leading double lives when their classmates at school are the same ones struggling to exemplify moral and spiritual qualities in a neighbor's living room each week? What might come of their struggles with strangeness and isolation when they are regularly engaged in prayer and spiritual exploration with friends from many backgrounds and faiths? Are these not the very problems we had always hoped that a solid Baha'i education would solve?

Certainly, we cannot hope to establish genuinely successful children's classes on a massive scale by focusing too heavily inward, on the needs or our own children alone. But the love we bear them can act as a bridge between us and the love they have for their schoolmates and companions, kindling in us a passion for building a better world for all children, everywhere.

So we must ask ourselves: are we ready to extend our gaze beyond our doors and into the street, to work and strive on behalf of the village surrounding us? Because this is the task ahead of us.

It is only then that we can hope to raise a child.

27 July 2009

Gospel and Invitation

Through a series of three parables Jesus outlines a vision of social justice and redemption centered on the concept of invitation. The Gospel of Luke introduces the scene. “Now it happened that on a Sabbath day he had gone to share a meal in the house of one of the leading Pharisees; and they watched him closely.”[1] The reader should not mistake the concrete difference between “leading Pharisee” and “high priest.” To be a Pharisee is to be part of a particular Jewish reform movement. It’s not an official clerical position. Pharisees aren’t quite the establishment. But neither are they “with the people” so-to-speak. A man is present at the gathering who is afflicted with dropsy. Jesus addresses his other guests the question “Is it against the law to cure someone on the Sabbath, or not?” When they don’t have an answer for him he goes ahead and cures the man. He then addresses them again. “Which of you here, if his son falls into a well, or his ox, will not pull him out on a Sabbath day without any hesitation?” Once again, they have no answer for him. Jesus follows this with three parables each centered on the invitation of guests to a banquet.

In the first parable Jesus takes up the way people choose seats for themselves at dinners. The Gospel of Luke notes that Jesus “had noticed how [the guests] picked the places of honour.” He advises his listeners not to take seats of honour when they sit down. He states: “A more distinguished person than you may have been invited, and the person who invited you both may come and say, ‘Give up your place to this man.’ And then to your embarrassment, you will have to go and take the lowest place.” Instead, Jesus advises that a guest should seek out the lowest place so that the host might say, “my friend, move up higher.” Jesus recapitulates the parable with his signature promise: “For everyone who raises himself up will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be raised up.” With this parable Jesus highlights the spiritual danger of trying to exalt oneself in the eyes of others.

He continues this same theme with a second parable in which, this time, the listener is placed in the position of the host. Jesus begins: “When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relations or rich neighbours, in case they invite you back and so repay you.” This last part is the most striking. The problem that would arise from inviting these people is precisely that they might invite the listener back. By repaying their host, the occasion becomes a package of goods and services that are exchanged for others. It is not a free gift from one’s generosity. It is just another way of working oneself up the social ladder. In place of this Jesus advises: “No, when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; then you will be blessed, for they have no means to repay you and so you will be repaid when the upright rise again.” The element of exchange is retained. By inviting the downtrodden the host is repaid, but not with goods and services circulating within society. Instead, the host is redeemed on the Day of Resurrection. Jesus expands the scope of exchange beyond the confines of the world’s material dimension. In so doing, he opens up a vision of social action based squarely on the power of free generosity. Because one who lives by the Gospel is not motivated by material means, the social incapacities of the poor are no barrier to doing the right thing. In a world today where money secures a person’s ability to accumulate even more, and upward mobility is increasingly cut off by the very limitations one hopes to surpass, these are words to act by. Self-interest is inadequate to promote economic equality. The power of free-giving is essential to any pursuit of a more just society. Direct financial donation, is for a number of reasons, not the best way. But certainly, the gift of one’s creativity and sacrificial service in pursuit of new patterns of collective life can achieve a great deal. O Son of Man! Bestow My wealth upon My poor, that in heaven thou mayest draw from stores of unfading splendor and treasures of imperishable glory. But by My life! To offer up thy soul is a more glorious thing couldst thou but see with Mine eye.[2]

Jesus then offers the other guests a third parable. In this final parable he places God in the place of the host. A man has a great banquet and invites a large number or people. He sends his servant to gather them in. But rather than responding enthusiastically, they make excuses.

The first said, “I have bought a piece of land and must go and see it. Please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen and am on my way to try them out. Please accept my apologies.” Yet another said, “I have just got married and so am unable to come”

Instead of waiting until the next day to take care of their personal material affairs, the invited guests reject the generous offer. The host was by no means pleased to hear this. In a rage he instructs his servant: “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” His servant tells him that even after this has been done there is still room. The host then states: “Go to the open roads and the hedgerows and press people to come in, to make sure my house is full; because, I tell you, not one of those who were invited shall have a taste of my banquet.” Though at first they were the recipients of a privileged invitation, the host now ensures that as many people will enjoy the gifts they apathetically disregarded.

Give without hope of personal benefit. Look rather to God’s generosity, rejoicing therein.

[1] Lk 14.1-14
[2] HWA 57

21 July 2009

a Significant Advance

It seems to me that a significant advance in the process of entry by troops can consist of a community growing by 10-20% in the span of a year. But that's just accounting for enrollments and assumes that there is a vibrant, sustainable pattern of Baha'i life to which they're being introduced.

Just a thought.

20 July 2009

The Process of Authenticity Pt. 2/3

In the first part of this essay I spoke about opportunity to explore consciousness as a way past societies implicit philosophical and social determinism. It can be found here.

In the second part, I will review some of the writings of two of my favorite writers, Martin Heidegger's "Being and Time" and Paulo Freire's "Pedogogy of the Oppressed" on the nature and empowerment of "being", a term similar to that of "consciousness" and "ontology", all terms which will be used somewhat interchangeably.

Martin Heidegger, "Being and Time"

In "Being and Time" Martin Heidegger lays out the distinction between the study of the being of an entity, or ontology, and the study of the totality of entities, or ontic inquiry. He makes an example of the positive sciences, which are good at ontic inquiry, that is quantifying and categorizing the world. They are not, on the other hand, good at exploring the meaning of things. This might seem pseudo-metaphysical, but it actually preempts Thomas Kuhn’s breakthrough and widely acclaimed thinking on how paradigm shifts can fundamentally change the nature and boundaries of normal science, and catalyze scientific revolutions. For Heidegger, the "level which a science has reached is determined by how far it is capable of a crisis in its basic concepts". For science to reach this level of maturity, both the subjective bias and the conceptual capacity of the scientist must be acknowledged, explored, and discussed in the production of theory. The opportunity to experience a crises in our basic concepts is not just limited to science. It can happen in many aspects of our lives in two ways. We can ignore it until it hits us surprisingly and violently, or we can actively reflect and consult upon, even augment conceptual deconstruction and then evolution. Heidegger explores this human capacity in his description of the “being” of humans, which he calls Dasein. He defines Dasein as:

"an entity which does not just occur among other entities. Rather it is ontically distinguished by the fact that, in its very being, that being is an issue for it...Understanding of being is itself a definite characteristic of Dasein's being. Dasein is ontically distinctive in that it is ontilogical...Dasein understands itself in terms of existence-in terms of a possibility of itself: to be itself or not itself. Dasein has either chosen these possibilities itself, or got itself into them, or grown up in them already."

So in other words, we are beings who are aware of our own consciousness; we can think reality in terms of existential possibility, which can be pursued to a greater or lesser degree. Our fundamental limitation however is that our vision can be constrained by the limitations of our perceived 'world':

“In understanding its own Being, it has a tendency to do so in terms of that entity towards which it comports itself proximally and in a way which is essentially constant-in terms of the 'world'. In Dasein itself, and therefore in its own understanding of Being, the way the world is understood is, as we shall show, reflected back ontologically upon the way in which Dasein itself gets interpreted."

It can also be constrained by the limitations of our percieved history and upbringing.

"It is its past, whether explicitly or not. And this is so not only in that its past is, as it were, pushing itself along 'behind' it, and that Dasein possesses what is past as a property which is still present-at-hand and which sometimes has after-effects upon it."

But are we really limited by our immediate surroundings and upbringing? We can be. The ontological task is difficult because we are constantly pursuing this in terms of the world in which we find ourselves, and in terms of our historical inheritance. We are searching for authenticity, one that is impossible without the said constraints, but one in which we must rise above.

"In each case Dasein is its own possibility, and it 'has' this possibility, but not just as a property, as something present-at-hand would. And because Dasein is in each case essentially its own possibility, it can, in its very Being. 'choose' itself and win itself; it can also lose itself and never win itself; or only 'seem' to do so. But only in so far as it is essentially something which can be authentic-that is, something of its own-can it have lost itself and not yet won itself."

The very possibility of self discovery and authenticity is what can also deprive us of it. This implies that other beings, whether they are plants, animals, even rocks, can neither win, nor lose themselves. They exist but they do not reflect upon their existence. This limits their capacity of self discovery, but also protects them from the depths of self degradation and forgetfulness.

Paulo Freire, "Pedogogy of the Oppressed"

Paulo Freire was also interested in the ontological quest, and he spent most of his life seeking ways to restructure education and development in the promotion of it on a wide social scale. The biggest problem with development schemes in his mind was the oppression of an individuals being.

"To deny the importance of subjectivity in the process of transforming the world and history is naive and simplistic. It is to admit the impossible: a world without people. This objectivistic position is a ingenuous as that of subjectivism, which postulates people without a world. World and human beings do not exist apart from each other, they exist in constant interaction."

He was anxiously concerned with "oppression" which often meant real colonial and post-colonial subjugation, but also referred to a state of mind, not unlike Heidegger’s description of self-forgetfulness. This state of forgetfulness was not only prevalent among the oppressed, but also the oppressors, who lose their humanity even as they steal it from others. The next stage of cultural evolution requires a process of "humanization", in which all people have the opportunity to find their true and authentic selves.

"At all stages of their liberation, the oppressed must see themselves as women and men engaged in the ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human. Reflection and action become imperative when one does not erroneously attempt to dichotomize the content of humanity from its historical forms."

The problem, in his mind, was the very structure and expectations of society, beginning with the ideology and methodology of education, which in his mind was oppressive.

"The teacher student relationship often involves a narration that treats "reality as if it was motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to 'fill' the students with the contents of his narration-contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated, and alienating verbosity." The "banking" concept of education treats the teacher as a depositor of knowledge, and the student as the receptacle which will go about receiving, filing, and storing the deposits...it is the people themselves who are filed away." "The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed upon them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them."

So in the words of Heidegger, students are treated as ontic entities, capable of storing information but unable to develop a critical consciousness about them or the conceptual frameworks in which they are derived. To change this condition, he developed what he called the "pedagogical approach", which in his words involves:

"co-intentional education. Teachers and students (leadership and people), co-intent on reality, are both subjects, not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge. As they attain this knowledge of reality through common reflection and action, they discover themselves as its permanent re-creators. In this way, the presence of the oppressed in the struggle for their liberation will be what it should be: not pseudo-participation, but committed involvement."

Like Heidegger, Freire likened this to the process of authenticity. We live in a world which has brought about the possibilities of human consciousness, and is in turn defined by that consciousness. To become authentic is to live humanely and manifest the ability to name the world, and change it.

"Authentic reflection considers neither abstract man nor the world without people, but people in their relations with the world....The world which brings consciousness into existence becomes the world of that consciousness." "To exist, humanely, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming."

On a collective level, a process of dialogue is required.

"Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world in order to name the world...Dialogue is an existential necessity. Dialogue requires a profound love for the world and its people, and a great humility...not arrogance. The love must not take the form of domination, manifesting as sadism in the oppressor and masochism in the oppressed, but a commitment to others. Arrogance cause somebody to project ignorance onto somebody else and not perceive their own. Above all, dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human. Finally, true dialogue cannot exist unless the dialoguers engage in critical thinking-thinking which discerns an indivisible solidarity between the world and the people and admits of no dichotomy between them-thinking which perceives reality as process, as transformation, rather than as a static entity-thinking which does not separate itself from action, but constantly immerses itself in temporality without fear of the risks involved."

In an attempt to describe the historical process that he is engaged in, he outlined a theory of emergence that is almost teleological in nature. An unfolding of the Logos itself:

"The goal will no longer be to eliminate the risks of temporality by clutching to guaranteed space, but rather to temporalize space...The universe is revealed to me not as space, imposing a massive presence to which I can but adapt, but as a scope, a domain which takes shape as I act upon it. Human beings are because they are in a situation. And they will be more the more they not only critically reflect upon their existence but critically act upon it...Humankind emerge from their submersion and acquire the ability to intervene in reality as it is unveiled. Intervention in reality-historical awareness itself-thus represents a step forward from emergence..."

In my search, I have found this teleological process to be the most advanced both conceptually and operationally within the Baha'i Faith. Part 3 will focus on the Baha'i process of authenticity, and the spiritualization of being.

19 July 2009

Animal Companions in Life and Death, Part II

This essay was prompted from questions from a friend interested in the Bahá’í Faith and I did a quick search on Bahá’í-Library online, but I did not find any answers to the question of my satisfaction. There was a thread that began a couple of years ago on this topic with a nice compilation for a reply, but I felt it is due more treatment. This essay is meant as my own personal hermeneutic on the subject, based on what the Bahá’í Writings say on the reality of members of the animal kingdom and its relationship to the purely spiritual realm the Scriptures say that a person enters upon death. With this analysis of the Writings, I encourage Bahá’í friends to take on a much more nuanced approached to this question, rather than the simple, “When your animal dies they are gone forever.”

Many Bahá’ís who have taken a look at this question or heard from other Bahá’ís answer this question with a fairly accurate articulation of the Bahá’í view: "NO – animals do not have eternal souls that go to heaven.” However, there are many people who have very strong relationships with their pets and animals in general and just giving this somewhat over generalized answer can lack sensitivity as well as be missing a broad overview look of the Baha'i Writings on such a subject. Furthermore, with an expansive reading of the Writings and their description of spiritual and physical reality, another view might be developed. I am going to suggest that although it is true that the individual personality of an individual animal lasts only the span of its mortal life on earth, this personality or “spirit” that we attracted to is based on the eternal Signs and Attributes of God, which are our companions all the more substantially in the purely spiritual realm of existence that we enter upon death.

The common assumption that "no they don't" may be based on this record from `Abdu'l-Baha in London:
"When asked about the individual persistence of the animal's personality after death, 'Abdu'l-Bahá said: "Even the most developed dog has not the immortal soul of the man; yet the dog is perfect in its own place. You do not quarrel with a rose-tree because it cannot sing!"" (p. 97)

Other statements by `Abdu’l-Bahá seems to confirm this, such as the following in Some Answered Questions, p. 208:
“The animal spirit is the power of all the senses, which is realized from the composition and mingling of elements; when this composition decomposes, the power also perishes and becomes annihilated. It may be likened to this lamp: when the oil, wick and fire are combined, it is lighted; and when this combination is dissolved -- that is to say, when the combined parts are separated from one another -- the lamp also is extinguished.”

My own current understanding of the subject is that animals do not have an eternal rational soul in the sense that human beings do. Such an eternal ration soul is defined by being “engraved” with the “image” of God and “embraces the realities of things, and discovers the verities, properties and secrets of things.” It is created "to know Him and to love Him" and "reflect the greatness of His glory.” These eternal rational souls can "by virtue of their own innate powers" turn towards God, develop virtues, and play an integral part in helping "to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization." This soul will continue to progress after its separation from the body in spiritual realms, growing closer and closer to the Presence of God, and will associate and commune with fellow heavenly souls. These souls, also, to the extent of their purity and sanctity, radiate a light that "is responsible for the progress of the world and the advancement of its peoples. They are like unto leaven which leaveneth the world of being and constitute the animating force through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest." (This isn't meant to be a treatise on the rational soul but I do want to outline some broad features for the sake of the topic.)

The animal – as the Writings state – do not have an eternal rational soul in the sense that human beings do. However, the Writings delineate again and again that everything has a certain spirit in and of itself. `Abdu’l-Bahá – in His talks and writings – classifies things into the mineral kingdom, the vegetable kingdom, the animal kingdom, or the human kingdom and describe the different powers of each kingdom.

He characterizes the mineral as having the basic property of composition1 or cohesion2 as a result of its power of attraction3 or affinity.4 `Abdu’l-Bahá explains this property of composition is the mineral’s expression of love: “This power of attraction in the mineral world is love, the only expression of love the stone can manifest.”5

In these two passages quoted next, `Abdu’l-Bahá calls this power of attraction as the defining “spirit” of the mineral.

“As to the existence of spirit in the mineral: it is indubitable that minerals are endowed with a spirit and life according to the requirements of that stage. This unknown secret, too, hath become known unto the materialists who now maintain that all beings are endowed with life, even as He saith in the Qur'án, "All things are living."”6

“In the mineral world the spirit shows itself, but limited to that mineral condition. It is proved through science that the mineral has the power of attraction, the vegetable has the power of growth”7

`Abdu’l-Bahá explains that the spirit of the vegetable kingdom, meanwhile, in addition to the power of composition, is the power of growth: “The vegetable spirit is the power of growth which is brought about in the seed through the influence of other existences.”8 He also calls the power of growth as the power of augmentation9 and says that it exists in plant-life by its power of absorption10 of mineral elements. The power of cohesion, of cellular attraction, of absorption, and growth is the expression of love of a thing of the vegetable kingdom.10

Next comes the animal spirit. “The animal spirit is the power of all the senses,”11 says `Abdu’l-Bahá. “The distinctive virtue or plus of the animal is sense perception; it sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels.” 12 In it, the power of love, of attraction, “reveals itself in “certain emotions and sensibilities which produce instinctive fellowship and association. The animals are imbued with kindness and affinity which manifests itself among those of the same species.”13

He tells us that both animals and human beings have “physical sensations,” and so enjoins upon us to show the utmost kindness towards animals:

“Briefly, it is not only their fellow human beings that the beloved of God must treat with mercy and compassion, rather must they show forth the utmost loving-kindness to every living creature. For in all physical respects, and where the animal spirit is concerned, the selfsame feelings are shared by animal and man. Man hath not grasped this truth, however, and he believeth that physical sensations are confined to human beings, wherefore is he unjust to the animals, and cruel.

And yet in truth, what difference is there when it cometh to physical sensations? The feelings are one and the same, whether ye inflict pain on man or on beast. There is no difference here whatever. And indeed ye do worse to harm an animal, for man hath a language, he can lodge a complaint, he can cry out and moan; if injured he can have recourse to the authorities and these will protect him from his aggressor. But the hapless beast is mute, able neither to express its hurt nor take its case to the authorities. If a man inflict a thousand ills upon a beast, it can neither ward him off with speech nor hale him into court. Therefore is it essential that ye show forth the utmost consideration to the animal, and that ye be even kinder to him than to your fellow man.*

Train your children from their earliest days to be infinitely tender and loving to animals. If an animal be sick, let the children try to heal it, if it be hungry, let them feed it, if thirsty, let them quench its thirst, if weary, let them see that it rests.” 14

In this passage, He then goes on to caution us to have due care with ferocious or harmful animals, such as a bloodthirsty wolf, a poisonous snake, a rabid dog, and others. “Kindness to these is an injustice to human beings and to other animals as well. If, for example, ye be tender-hearted toward a wolf, this is but tyranny to a sheep, for a wolf will destroy a whole flock of sheep. A rabid dog, if given the chance, can kill a thousand animals and men.”

'Abdu'l-Bahá meanwhile “has indicated that in the future human beings will be vegetarians, but abstention from eating meat is not a law of this Dispensation.”
(26 April 1989, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer)

On using animals for food and clothing, the Universal House of Justice explains:
“Your concern for the prevention of cruelty to animals and for restraint in exploiting them unduly for food and other purposes is indeed praiseworthy; however, the House of Justice is not aware of any absolute prohibition in any Holy Book against the use of animals for food and clothing. As the laws brought by Bahá'u'lláh become known and operative throughout the world, we believe that humanity will find the proper balance in adjusting itself to nature and to the world of animals. As in so many other areas, the Teachings of Bahá'u'lláh in this regard follow the golden mean: kindness toward animals is definitely upheld, vegetarianism is encouraged, hunting is regulated, but certain latitude is left to individual conscience and in practical regard to the diversity of circumstances under which human beings live. For example, the indigenous peoples of the Arctic would be hard-pressed to subsist without recourse to animal products.”
(20 November 1992, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer)

In His talks and writings defining each kingdom, `Abdu’l-Bahá goes to lengths to distinguish the spirit of the animal from that of the human rational soul. It has the power of sense perception, He says “but is incapable in turn, of conscious ideation or reflection which characterize and differentiate the human kingdom.”12 It cannot think of things in the abstract and metaphorical in them selves and, from them, draw new conclusions.

`Abdu’l-Bahá says,

“From the visible it cannot draw conclusions regarding the invisible whereas the human mind from visible and known premises attains knowledge of the unknown and invisible. For instance, Christopher Columbus from information based upon known and provable facts drew conclusions which led him unerringly across the vast ocean to the unknown continent of America. Such power of accomplishment is beyond the range of animal intelligence. Therefore this power is a distinctive attribute of the human spirit and kingdom. The animal spirit cannot penetrate and discover the mysteries of things. It is a captive of the senses. No amount of teaching, for instance, would enable it to grasp the fact that the sun is stationary and the earth moves around it.”
(Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith, p. 260)

In another place, He describes the intellectual power of the human being to be that of comprehending universal principles: “intellectual characteristic…discovereth the realities of things and comprehendeth universal principles.”15

From this power, He says, human beings discover the secrets of nature and transcends its laws, inventing airplanes and rockets, trains, swift ships, the submarine, photography, sound recordings, telephone; it discovers, produces, and utilizes that once hidden energy of electricity.16 He further describes the unique powers of the rational soul to discover both the subtleties of the physical universe as well as the heavenly realms of God’s Kingdom:

“The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names -- the human spirit and the rational soul -- designate one thing. This spirit, which in the terminology of the philosophers is the rational soul, embraces all beings, and as far as human ability permits discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings. But the human spirit, unless assisted by the spirit of faith, does not become acquainted with the divine secrets and the heavenly realities. It is like a mirror which, although clear, polished and brilliant, is still in need of light. Until a ray of the sun reflects upon it, it cannot discover the heavenly secrets.” (Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 208)

We should note that in Some Answered Questions, p. 208, `Abdu’l-Bahá places the “spirit of faith” at a higher level than the human spirit itself, and the Holy Spirit above the spirit of faith.

He summarizes many of the abilities and capacities that distinguish the human kingdom from the animal kingdoms in this passage:

Nature is inert, man is progressive. Nature has no consciousness, man is endowed with it. Nature is without volition and acts perforce whereas man possesses a mighty will. Nature is incapable of discovering mysteries or realities whereas man is especially fitted to do so. Nature is not in touch with the realm of God, man is attuned to its evidences. Nature is uninformed of God, man is conscious of Him. Man acquires divine virtues, nature is denied them. Man can voluntarily discontinue vices, nature has no power to modify the influence of its instincts. Altogether it is evident that man is more noble and superior; that in him there is an ideal power surpassing nature. He has consciousness, volition, memory, intelligent power, divine attributes and virtues of which nature is completely deprived… therefore man is higher and nobler by reason of the ideal and heavenly force latent and manifest in him. (Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith, p. 236-237)

Besides the general spirit of each kingdom of existence, the Bahá’í Writings enunciate that each individual created thing is an expression of one of the names or attributes of God, and therefore its essential reality is a name or attribute of God. Here are some quotes that state this concept:

“Every created thing in the whole universe is…a revelation of His names…”17

“Know thou that every created thing is a sign of the revelation of God.”18

“The spiritual world is like unto the phenomenal world. They are the exact counterpart of each other. Whatever objects appear in this world of existence are the outer pictures of the world of heaven.” (`Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 9)

“…all things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them. Each according to its capacity, indicateth, and is expressive of, the knowledge of God. So potent and universal is this revelation, that it hath encompassed all things, visible and invisible…” (Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 100)

“Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing He hath shed the light of one of His names, and made it a recipient of the glory of one of His attributes. Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self. Alone of all created things man hath been singled out for so great a favor, so enduring a bounty.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 65)

Know thou that the Kingdom is the real world, and this nether place is only its shadow stretching out.” (Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 177)

“When, however, thou dost contemplate the innermost essence of all things, and the individuality of each, thou wilt…see the spreading rays of His Names and Attributes... And not an atom of all the atoms in existence, not a creature from amongst the creatures but speaketh His praise and telleth of His attributes and names… and none will gainsay this who hath ears to hear, eyes to see, and a mind that is sound.” (`Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 41)
Thus, each and every created thing is a sign or expression of at-least one of the names or attributes of God. Bahá’u’lláh, in the section of His Book of Certitude known as the “Tablet of the True Seeker” says that such a true seeker “will contemplate the manifest signs of the universe, and will penetrate the hidden mysteries of the soul… He will discover in all things the mysteries of divine Revelation and the evidences of an everlasting manifestation.”19 Thus, it is fun to think of the bed I sleep on as, perhaps, an expression of its essential reality of the name of God the Comforter; my desk I work on as the sign of the attribute of God the Supporter, or my sleeping cat sleeping with a smile of heavenly delight as a revelation of the quality of God, the Peaceful.

This gets us directly back to our central question: according to the Bahá’í Writings, do animals have eternal life? My answer to this is two-fold, dealing with the physical level and the spiritual essence of each created thing. On the purely physical level, as physicists say, no created thing can be created nor destroyed but can just change form. This is, in one sense – materially, their eternal life. This principle is delineated here:

Non-existence therefore is an expression applied to change of form, but this transformation can never be rightly considered annihilation, for the elements of composition are ever present and existent as we have seen in the journey of the atom through successive kingdoms, unimpaired; hence there is no death; life is everlasting. So to speak, when the atom entered into the composition of the tree, it died to the mineral kingdom, and when consumed by the animal, it died to the vegetable kingdom, and so on until its transference or transmutation into the kingdom of man; but throughout its traversing it was subject to transformation and not annihilation. Death therefore is applicable to a change or transference from one degree or condition to another. In the mineral realm there was a spirit of existence; in the world of plant life and organisms it reappeared as the vegetative spirit; thence it attained the animal spirit and finally aspired to the human spirit. These are degrees and changes but not obliteration; and this is a rational proof that man is everlasting, everliving. Therefore death is only a relative term implying change. For example, we will say that this light before me, having reappeared in another incandescent lamp, has died in the one and lives in the other. This is not death in reality. The perfections of the mineral are translated into the vegetable and from thence into the animal, the virtue always attaining a plus or superlative degree in the upward change. In each kingdom we find the same virtues manifesting themselves more fully, proving that the reality has been transferred from a lower to a higher form and kingdom of being. Therefore non-existence is only relative and absolute non-existence inconceivable. This rose in my hand will become disintegrated and its symmetry destroyed, but the elements of its composition remain changeless; nothing affects their elemental integrity. They cannot become non-existent; they are simply transferred from one state to another. (Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith - Abdu'l-Baha Section, p. 263)

My second answer to this question is in regards to the spiritual essence (or divine names and attributes) that each created thing expresses. The Writings say that the names and attributes of God endure eternally, just as heat and light are qualities of the sun and thus its perpetual companions. So, in a sense, that created thing endures forever, even though the “outer picture” of the divine attribute of which makes up that created thing will eventually decompose, be destroyed, and its elements become part of something else. The eternity of the names and attributes of God is expressed in the following two passages:

“It is clear and evident that when the veils that conceal the realities of the manifestations of the Names and Attributes of God, nay of all created things visible or invisible, have been rent asunder, nothing except the Sign of God will remain -- a sign which He, Himself, hath placed within these realities. This sign will endure as long as is the wish of the Lord thy God, the Lord of the heavens and of the earth.”20

“Physical bodies are transferred past one barrier after another, from one life to another, and all things are subject to transformation and change, save only the essence of existence itself -- since it is constant and immutable, and upon it is founded the life of every species and kind, of every contingent reality throughout the whole of creation.”21

The individual spirit of a pet lasts the span of their mortal life, but the attributes and names of God that they manifest are expressions of the eternal Attributes of God. Thus, what we are essentially attracted to in our animals - gentleness, gracefulness, devotion, joy, enthusiasm, tenderness, strength, sincerity, meekness, trust, etc. - are life-forces/attributes that are our companions even all the more in the Heaven of light and glory.

So, will your pets be with you in heaven? After reading a lot and considering closely these passages, my own conclusion is this: the outer picture or physical aspect of Figaro, Romeo, or Squeaker will not be in this realm of lights and pure spirit. However, the essential spiritual essence of Fido– the divine Names and Attributes his spirit, personality, and physical body expressed – will be even more substantially your companion and among the splendors and graces in this Kingdom of Love. Meanwhile, we should not consider “spiritual” as meaning a kind of wishful, imaginary, intellectualization or mist, but rather a kind of being that is on a higher level and more fundamental – more substantial and real – than the physical realm.

Bahá’u’lláh tells us that understanding this concept helps us to comprehend the awesome destiny that is potentially one’s own:

“If such be the blessings conferred on all created things, how superior must be the destiny of the true believer, whose existence and life are to be regarded as the originating purpose of all creation. Just as the conception of faith hath existed from the beginning that hath no beginning, and will endure till the end that hath no end, in like manner will the true believer eternally live and endure. His spirit will everlastingly circle round the Will of God. He will last as long as God, Himself, will last. He is revealed through the Revelation of God, and is hidden at His bidding. It is evident that the loftiest mansions in the Realm of Immortality have been ordained as the habitation of them that have truly believed in God and in His signs. Death can never invade that holy seat. Thus have We entrusted thee with the signs of thy Lord, that thou mayest persevere in thy love for Him, and be of them that comprehend this truth.”
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 140)

1 Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 29 & 267
2 Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 257
3 Abdu'l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 117
4 Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 4 & 79
5 Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 267
6 Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith, p. 337
7 Abdu'l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 117
8 Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith, p. 316
9 Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 29
10 Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 268

11 Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 208
12 Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith, p. 260
13 Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 268
14 Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 158-160

15 Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 61-62
16 Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 359; Some Answered Questions, p. 186
17 Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 159
18 Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 184
19 Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 196
20 Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 140
21 Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 157

18 July 2009

The Process of Authenticity Pt. 1/3

An unlikely commonality between some strands of religious thought and some strands of materialist philosophy is the idea that our actions and our fate is in many ways determined. From a religious point of view, if God is omniscient across time and space, than our fate is already known. This has not taken out the responsibility of choice in many religious doctrines, but some have taken this idea to the extreme. One of the main tenants of Calvinism in the 16th century was that of predestination, which asserted that the summation of our actions and the fate of our souls are already determined. This idea was taught mainly to believers already in the fold in order to assure them of their eventual salvation. It drew a lot of criticism as it implied that those who didn't fit the description of salvation were obviously not meant to be saved, not the most encouraging of doctrines.

From a strict materialist’s point of view, every thought we have or decision we make can be reduced to the neurological impulses in our brain, which in turn is a result of a clear string of logical events extending back to the beginning of the universe. Many scientists assert that in principle, if we had perfect information about the physical body and physical world in which they inhabit, than we could predict all of their future behavior. Moreover, if we had perfect information about an individual, we could actually know what it is like to be them.

While determinism is a philosophically challenging idea, its implicit paradigm in society is detrimental to motivation and creativity. Many of us go through life merely responding to the expectations and norms of our surroundings; as a
society we recycle many of the oppressive institutional norms and pathologies
without questioning their legitimacy. By exploring the idea of consciousness we can push past the philosophical and social strictures of determinism. We can move into a place of self awareness and even further into a place of self empowerment and authenticity. In this experiential realm, we are determined by nothing more than our own imagination. In part 2 of this essay I will explore this using some of the writings of Martin Heidegger on the nature of being, and Paulo Freire on the humanization of being. In part 3 I will explore writings of the Baha'i faith on the spiritualization of being, and the methodology that has been developed to manifest it on a collective level.

17 July 2009

Animal Companions in Life and Death

People who have animal companions are often distressed about the question of what happens to their cherished friends after their deaths. “No matter what anybody says, I know I’ll be with Dusty in Heaven,” somebody said. Another observed, “My cat will be in the same condition I will be after I die -- nowhere and nothing. It’s just a big, dark nothing.”

For the 15 years that I have been on donkey and dog email lists, people have been sending condolences to those whose pets have recently died, in the form of a poem called “The Rainbow Bridge.” (Rainbow Bridge) While some, thankfully, find the image comforting despite getting teary whenever they re-read it, we are left with the same question we started with. How do we truly know?

How do the Writings of the Baha’i Faith approach the question, then, and what conclusions can we draw from this guidance?

Shoghi Effendi, the late Guardian of the Faith, wrote to a believer: “Your letter clearly indicates that you are familiar with the teachings of the Faith, which state that the animal spirit is not immortal. As you are seeking some consolation, however, over the loss of your pet dog, you may recall the following statement of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Some Answered Questions: “The exaltation of the animal world is to possess perfect members, organs and powers, and to have all its needs supplied…. But real prosperity for the animal consists in passing from the animal world to the human world...”

When asked about the individual persistence of the animal’s personality after death, 'Abdu'l-Bahá said: “Even the most developed dog has not the immortal soul of the man; yet the dog is perfect in its own place.”

In 1995 the Universal House of Justice wrote: “For an animal, the joys and realities of life are basically physical and emotional. It neither possesses, nor can it understand, the spiritual reality of a human being. The world it inhabits is perfectly attuned to its needs and level of existence. If it were to be transported to a purely spiritual world, it would be deprived of all that it knows and values.”

So, the animal accepts life and death as they come to it, without question. Dusty didn’t lose any sleep wondering whether he would accompany his human companion through all the worlds of God. As my elderly cocker spaniel gazed at me with absolute trust, when I held her while a vet mercifully ended her life. The Universal House of Justice also says, however:

“As for a human soul who has known and loved an animal – those experiences, as memories, have become a part of his or her eternal life. This, indeed, is what happens to our relationship to all material things. They will eventually be dispersed, so all the physical beauties of this world will ultimately remain only in our memories; but, as such, they constitute an enrichment of our lives which will continue to develop in the spiritual worlds.”

Reflection on these statements coupled with my own experiences with both human and animal deaths in my own life resulted in an epiphany while talking to a friend who was mourning for her cat. In brief, it is clear from studying Baha’i and other scriptures, as well as science, that when a human dies, nothing of the person’s material life goes along with the departing human soul. Not an atom, not a quark, not a gluon. Yet Baha’i teachings as given above plus in numerous other sources make it clear that the human soul is immortal, that we retain our memories in the next world, and that our station there will be decided in large part by our spiritual development while we were on earth. Those who have loved one another here will continue on together “through all the worlds of God”, as Baha’u’llah stated when He declared that His beloved wife Navvab would be His consort through “all the worlds of God”. It appears that those who spent little time developing spiritual capacity in this world will be at a low level in the next, so low that to those above it appear appear unpleasant. A bit hellish, perhaps.

Thus, the love, comfort and experiences shared together by a human and an animal are imprinted into the human’s soul. One analogy might be that these emotional bonds are etched into the spirit as data is recorded on a DVD. And so the spirit reality of the animal individual becomes a part of the human’s immaterial being, to endure as long as the human cherishes it.


Here’s a blog about my relationship with an old mule who showed up at my place in need one morning: Train Wreck Brays

Prescribing Creativity

Baha'u'llah sets out a vision of religion in which both divine and human insight are employed to advance civilization. Both of these elements can be seen in the following quotation. The first sentence emphasizes the insight of God. The final sentence emphasizes the insight of human beings.

The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.[1]

With that said, the interaction between Divine and human insight informs the very structure by which Baha'u'llah issues laws and exhortations in His writings. His statements are neither highly specific nor excessively fluid. They advance through the interplay of clear instructions, on the one hand, and mandates for human innovation on the other. Sometimes they can be highly fluid; It behoveth them to cleave to whatsoever will, in this Day, be conducive to the exaltation of their stations, and to the promotion of their best interests.[2] Often they are very firm; It hath been ordained that obligatory prayer is to be performed by each of you individually.[3] But a great number of times, Baha’u’llah’s prescriptions lie somewhere imbetween. Take this passage as an example. Baha’u’llah writes that, they who are the people of God must, with fixed resolve and perfect confidence, keep their eyes directed towards the Day Spring of Glory, and be busied in whatever may be conducive to the betterment of the world and the education of its peoples.[4] Baha’u’llah does not specify exactly what contributes to this outcome. Certainly, the whole body of His specified laws is intended. But beyond that He calls for whatever may lead to this conclusion. The content of such action is left to the ingenuity and initiative of those who are to come after Him. Furthermore, the betterment of the world and the education of its peoples is not itself highly specific. Betterment couldn’t be a more general term. And there are many different types of education; how and towards what ends it should aim is left unclear. The aim prescribed by Baha’u’llah is itself in need of elucidation. He leaves a silence in His text. Certainly, this isn’t because Baha’u’llah is lacking in complete ideas, substituting vague platitudes for concrete initiatives. His writings are a treasury of bold and creative responses to the needs of that century. But His writings are not aimed for his century only. He instructed the Baha’is that a new Manifestation of God would not appear for at least another millennium. Many generations are addressed by Baha’u’llah’s writings, generations the specific contours of whose world cannot be delineated centuries in advance. In this exhortation Baha’u’llah guides His readers in certain directions. They must be busied. So they must not be passive and complacent. The world should be of interest to them in some way. So their spirituality should not idealize escaping from it. And these lines of action should involve education. Beyond simple observations like these, the content of the prescription is left to the initiative of future generations. Baha’u’llah inscribes a silence into the text on which readers must write with their own insight and deeds. The completion of His prescriptions, as fully-fledged lines of action, only comes when future generations sit down for consultation, and take up the task of putting them to work.

In the highly specified aspects of Baha’u’llah’s writings the reader draws on that which is potentially beyond human understanding. Their materiality as settled text opens readers to wisdom that is not their own. Certainly, there are many who would, through their own insight, focus their efforts on education. But whether that view would prevail is not clear. Many may pay it lip service, or find it suits their petty interests. But Baha’u’llah endorses it straight away and in other places offers guidance on the priorities that should inform such endeavors. He may not dictate lines of action. But He goes a long way to set the agenda for future generations. This act is the intervention of His other-worldly wisdom. It is made manifest in the flesh of vocabulary and grammar and reflected on the polished face of written words. Supplementing this is the insight to which He summons His readers. Guided by Baha’u’llah’s writings, the readers decide on the contours of their fulfillment. In doing so, they become more thoughtful, more engaged, bolder, and wiser than if they were left on their own. When Baha’u’llah gives them a whole page with which to write, they do not content themselves with a couple of sentence fragments and vague generalizations. They reach ever higher and dive ever deeper, stretching their capacities as prescription demands. The specifics and silence of Baha’u’llah’s writings complement each other. Through their interplay, the modes of Baha’i life take shape. Were His writings to consist only of specific laws we would might call it divine bureaucracy. Were they summons only to insight we might call it a philosophy of life. But this is neither bureaucracy nor philosophy. It is theology; a theology of human capacity.

[1] TU 1.4
[2] GWB IV p.6
[3] K12 p.25
[4] GWB CXXVI p.270

15 July 2009

A Process of Being

The nature of being has been a preoccupation of philosophers and religionists for quite some time. Martin Heidegger devoted his whole philosophical career to exploring this question, while Paulo Freire identified the "humanization" of being as a prerequisite to social transformation. Yet much of society is not conducive the exploration and empowerment of being. In most churches there is an asymmetry of power and responsibility. Most of the members come a few times a month to "do the church thing", without reflecting on how it relates to their lives and institutions. In the tyranny of a passive crowd our real potential and vulnerabilities are neglected. We become as empty beings. As Paulo Freire would put it, we function like banks where those who speak eloquently and can dominate a discussion can make their deposits.

In the Baha'i community there has been a significant shift in the past few years to hold activities in people’s homes instead of a centralized location. These activities are no longer events in which a few perform and the rest spectate. Instead, everything is viewed as a process of building capacity within ourselves and the community. Being a Baha'i means actively working to overcome the divisions which plague our society, not standing in the larger and larger rooms together until the whole world is enclosed.

A Baha'i study circle stands as a model of engaging people of very different bearings in a singular study of spiritual human potential, while at the same time providing the flexibility of dialogue and independent thought. In each study course, a new practice is introduced which builds capacity for service to the community. By completing the last study course people are trained to bring along others through this process. The more I look into the historical thinking on being and community empowerment the more I see the Baha'i institute process as the ideal model.

13 July 2009

Teaching-Learning in the Baha’i Faith

Often, Baha’is talk about how there are no clergy in the Baha’i faith. This deserves some explanation. Certainly, one aspect of clericalism is that on the one hand there is a small elite that teaches but is no longer in a learning mode and there is, on the other hand, the vast majority who show their piety first and foremost by learning from that small elite rather than teaching. And if they do teach, the focus is mostly on teaching others to learn from the elite. Aside from this sweeping generalization of how clergies function, let’s now turn to an example of how Baha’is do without them. It comes from the introduction entitle, “To the Collaborators” from Ruhi book two.

Here, the Ruhi Institute discusses the home visits to newly enrolled believers for which the second unit prepares participants. “For most of the students, this unit will be the first opportunity to study these particular themes at any depth. It is important to note that the knowledge they are acquiring is gained in the context of sharing it with others.” Often, the people making these visits are relatively new additions to the community themselves. It could be a great challenge for those making these visits to even pose as a learned one imparting knowledge to the ignorant. Often, more experienced Baha’is have a hard time connecting with their hosts. The hosts may feel intimidated by their knowledge, and may feel they have a long way to go to be a “real Baha’i.” But with newer Baha’is the situation is very different. The atmosphere of these visits is to be one in which the visitor comes to the home eager to share and learn with their hosts about something new and perhaps unfamiliar for both of them. Recipients of the visit feel at ease because they sense that the mark of a “real Baha’i” isn’t so much knowledge as it is learning and action. The aim is that collaborators approach teaching and learning as an integrated process. Learning about the faith goes hand in hand with the act of teaching the very same themes to others. The relationship between learning and teaching is not linear, with the first reaching its conclusion in the commencement of the second. The process is reciprocal. A collaborator is one who is always, in some way, in a process of both learning and teaching. After explaining the dynamics of this type of home visit, the institute continues along the same line. “It is hoped that this will set the stage for a life in which personal growth and service to others are seen as an integrated whole, and not as separate and sometimes conflicting ends.” Briefly touched on here, this passage illustrates the way in which the various aspects of one’s life are to be balanced with the action one takes amidst them. When the Ruhi Institute talks about living an integrated life, one meaning is that Baha’is are to integrate functions that might otherwise be divided between clergy and laity.

10 July 2009


Whose Order yields a world reversed?
-Roger White, The Witness of Pebbles

We wrestle with our diaries and datebooks
as though for our lives.
24 June, 25, 26, so that's the third of ...
Renaming our days in the language of divinity,
translating old gods and emperors into the script
of an untried life. Bahá, Jalál, Jamál ...
Workaday splendor? Entire weeks of beauty?
The new creation trumpets its challenge, an assault
on the everyday, every day: Rise then
unto that for which thou wast created!
But isn't that after sunset?
I don't know. Is it daylight savings time?
Damn it all!
Our halflight voices croak frustration,
not yet grown above cursing even God.
Disoriented days begin with supper now,
find their zenith in waking and prayer,
and in the overhead blaze that marks the final quarter,
we dissolve into our respective inabilities.
To my powerlessness and to Thy might.
To my poverty and to Thy wealth.
And then begin again. We, foreigners
to the very world we build, painstakingly translate
one word, one admonition, one commandment—
one day at a time. Badi, we will someday say,
overlooking the panorama of our accomplishment,
the fruits of a generation of moments
bent on metamorphosis.
Here we begin.

Deconstructing Negative U.S. Attitudes Toward Mexican Immigrants

Immigration is the worldwide phenomenon of people escaping oppression and or seeking a better life in a new country. I have taken a particular interest in the plight of Mexican immigrants into the U.S. and have often become brokenhearted when my fellow citizens take a negative view of their presence in general, and their humanity in particular. Back during a Republican primary debate, the subject of immigration reform came up. One of the candidates was speaking on his belief that all illegal immigrants should be shipped back to Mexico, a giant Berlin type wall should be built along the border, and English should be the exclusive national language. He reasoned this through his view that a level of homogeneity is what ties a country together, establishes a common identity, and reinforces a joint history. While some of the concerns are valid, I worry about the xenophobic tendencies that seem to be the implicit motivating force. I worry that they exist on a continuum of hatred, even if on the lower end, that finds its apex in the warped ideas of Hitler, who promoted exclusive racial identity to an almost metaphysical realm:

"The state is a racial organism"; "Nature... puts living creatures on this globe and watches the free play of forces. She then confers the master's right on her favorite child, the strongest in courage and industry...The stronger must dominate and not blend with the weaker, thus sacrificing his own greatness..."

As a Baha'i, I understand that racial diversity is one of the most important assets that we have as humans. Having immigrants among us gives a golden opportunity to grow spiritually, especially in perceived zero sum scenarios. It can also help to expand and enrich our perceptions and cultural life. By reaching out and integrating our efforts with those of different conceptual and cultural frameworks, we can hasten the arguably inevitable realization of the unity of humankind and deeply integrated norms of justice. I do think that there needs to be immigration reform that promotes both fairness and lawfulness, but when the emotional justifications against Mexican immigrants in general are deconstructed, it becomes hard to see how they don't arise from some point on the continuum of prejudice and even racism. I will attempt to deconstruct three emotional justifications against immigrants in general, the religious justification, the economic justification, and the national/cultural justification. I will spend the most time on the religious deconstruction because that is where I am most familiar.

The Religious Justification:

Compared to most advanced industrial nations, the United States is highly religious. While there is a great religious diversity, many of its beliefs and traditions come from a Protestant Christian inspiration. Mexican immigrants are also very religious, but they bring a whole different tradition of Christianity, Spanish Catholic mixed with a good deal of local fermentation, complete with home grown saints and prophetic visions. This religious culture is very foreign to many mainstream protestant neighborhoods. Here's a biblical explanation of why this shouldn't be a problem.

"The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." - Luke 6:5

This was a profound and controversial statement made by Jesus. It was a response to the Pharisees who criticized Him and His followers for eating and drinking on the Sabbath. A curious statement considering that he fully upheld the law.

"Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For Truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" - Matthew 5:17-19

The key concept here is that while he did not come to abolish the law, he did come to fulfill it. This distinction is key. Like in so many other cases, he uses a parable to draw the distinction:

"No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment; otherwise he will both tear the new, and the piece from the will will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins, and it will be spilled out, and the skins will be ruined. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins." - Luke 5:36-3

Jesus, "Lord of the Sabbath", announces that he is the new wine, and the grace and salvation that he provides is the new wineskin, the fulfillment of the law. The implication of this is that all humans now have access to salvation, not just the Jews who had controlled the physical means previously. As Paul is to state later:

"But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and the circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God." - Romans 2:29

To justify this concept, Jesus quotes the book of Isaiah:

"'The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every ravine shall be filled up, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough roads smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'" - Luke 3:4-6

This means that the gates had been opened, and all flesh now had access to the salvation of God, not just the Jews. Elsewhere he states:

"And not for the nation only, but that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad" - John 11:52

"And I have other sheep, which are not of this fold, I must bring them also, and they shall hear My voice; and they shall become one flock with one shepherd. " - John 10:16

Naturally this was not an easy thing for many to accept, even for many of his closest followers. Peter, whom Jesus proclaimed "you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my My church", was hesitant to allow non-Jews into the Church. If Peter was the rock of the church, then Paul was the vision. He consistently pursued the teaching of everybody, no matter the background:

"For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. for just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly..." - Romans 12:3-6

Eventually Peter did come around, but it took a direct exhortation from God:

"And on the next day, as they were on their way, and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry, and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he beheld the sky opened up, and a certain object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, 'Arise, Peter, kill and eat!' But Peter said, 'By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.' And again a voice came to him a second time, 'what God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy...' And as he talked with him, he entered, and found many people assembled. And he said to them, 'You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean...' 'I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to him.'" - Acts 10:9-35

One of the most compelling teachings of Jesus is unity in diversity. Through the spirit, people of all different colors, races, cultures, and customs can become united. In this realm, nobody can be considered above anybody else, a revolutionary teaching 2000 years ago and even today. Imagine if Christians had truly followed this guidance. They would not have engaged in colonization, slavery, war, and subjugation. In fact, many Christians acted like the Romans and the Pharisees who discriminated based upon race and nationality, effectively missing the point completely.

The Economic Justification:

A common argument against Mexican immigrants is that they push down wages of American workers, especially among high school dropouts. The evidence for this argument is inconclusive, and, in fact, there is a growing body of evidence against it. According to the 2000 census, immigrants made up 28 percent of workers without a high school education and 13 percent of total workers. George Borjas of Harvard University conducted a study comparing wage trends between groups with different education and work experience. By comparing groups with a large proportion of immigrants to groups with few immigrants, he concluded that, between 1980 and 2000, immigration caused wages to be 3 percent lower than they would have been. For high school dropouts, wages were 8 percent lower. Critics of immigration use this to support their case. They overlook what Borjas reports about immigrants' affect on investment. Firms who use cheaper immigrant labor use that surplus to invest more, creating more jobs in the process. Adjusted for capital stock, overall wages are unaffected and the loss of wages for high school dropouts is only 5 percent. Gianmarco Ottaviano of the University of Bologna and Giovanni Peri of the University of California-Davis point out that these findings should be adjusted, further considering that immigrants and natives often work in different types of jobs. Immigrants are often found doing construction, gardening and housework, while low-skilled natives often do logging and mining. Taking this into account, they conclude that Mexican immigrants' affect on the wages of high school dropouts is virtually nothing.

Much of the blame that Mexican immigrants get for taking jobs can be much better explained through the process of globalization. Freer economic trade has shone to produce net gains, but there are those who lose out in the process, especially those in the U.S. who are less educated. It is the role of the government to provide a safety net and promote retraining for a more advanced economy. By doing this Mexican immigration won't be perceived as much of a threat to employment. We should also be working to help Mexico improve its living conditions to the point that the desperate need to emigrate loses its salience.

The National/Cultural Justification:

I won't get too deep into this aspect because it is mainly philosophical. I have a firm conviction that no group of people can claim to have ultimate inheritance of any piece of land; clearly if we go back in history far enough, anthropological evidence shows that we all came from the same general region of Eastern Africa. That is not to say that one more powerful group has the right to displace another group, much like what happened to the Native Americans or Palestinians. There is clearly a direction in history towards greater cultural and political integration on a larger and larger scale. As technology and society advances, it becomes in peoples' economic best interest to engage with others on a larger and larger scale. If we think of nation states as fluid political, cultural, and economic constructs, then we must realize that the boundaries or composition of these constructs can and must change as realities on the ground change. Of course in the short term there is a natural need for the political jurisdiction by local authorities, proper documentation and regulation of the ebb and flow of population, property rights, the rule of law, and all the other good stuff of civil society, but that does not give anybody the inherent right to restrict the movement of others who are peacefully looking to find a better life for them and their families.

In conclusion, I am entirely convinced that it is necessary for all of us to shift a paradigm however implicit, that views diversity as a weakness, a deviation from some kind of over-romanticized cultural or national identity. By reaching out to all people, no matter how different they might seem to us, we can create a more unified world which is much greater than the sum of its parts.

"O contending peoples and kindred’s of the earth! Set your faces towards unity, and let the radiance of its light shine upon you. Gather ye together, and for the sake of God resolve to root out whatever is the source of contention amongst you. Then will the effulgence of the world's great Luminary envelop the whole earth, and its inhabitants become the citizens of one city, and the occupants of one and the same throne...There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are subjects of one God. " -Baha'u'llah

09 July 2009

A Heart is Beating in the Dark Chilled Night...

Close my eyes and go to sleep...

A heart is beating in the dark chilled night, rhythmically, frantically, and without permission. It is alone, and in this moment there is life. Amazing, what are the odds?

From a bird’s eye view, pan out into a speck, the scariest hilarity that I can think of is a brief pondering of an infinite universe. Too scary to maintain, too epic to handle and categorize, but yet there is life, what are the odds?

In every body, a heart is beating in the dark chilled night, rhythmically, frantically, and without permission. They are alone, and there is life in this moment, and these moments cannot be captured. Amazing, what are the odds?

We are alone. But we have each other to be alone with. If only we are brave enough to impale ourselves onto the spears of our intimacy fears. To finally confront, and to keep confronting those parts of ourselves that insist, scratch, scream, tear, bite, ravage, spit, sputter, spittle, spatter, spite, anger, agitate, and lobby for the advancement of the cause: a stoic self perception of being distant and autonomous. This is incredibly difficult and the odds are remote.

Broken into my waking... to find a warm body and two hearts beating in the dark chilled night, rhythmically, frantically, and without permission. We are alone and there is life, and we are in love in this moment. And in this moment we have captured each other. Amazing, what are the odds?

07 July 2009

Blogging the Giants of Atheism Pt. 1/3

Poking around on utube, I found this fascinating discussion between 4 of the most outspoken atheists out there today: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. I have watched four parts out of the twelve so far and have decided to start a 3 part series of my own, linking to four clips at a time and throwing out stream of consciousness reflections on what I watch. Here are the first four clips. I invite your own commentary on these videos!

Discussion - Part 1
Discussion - Part 2
Discussion - Part 3
Discussion - Part 4

So far most of what they say I agree with, except of course the atheism part. I have been a little disappointed by the fact that they haven't differentiated between rational faith and irrational faith. (for example accepting scientific empiricism vs. believing in a 6000 year old earth) I was happy in the beginning of the second clip when Harris allowed for the reality and language of supernatural experiences, if not supernatural reality itself. I was also appreciative of Hitchens (who I think in general to be an incredible charismatic and profoundly intelligent writer) disagree with Dennett that religious people claim not to doubt their faith, giving a few examples. Then Dawkins makes an unfair assertion in my view that people of faith pray over and over to brainwash themselves out of doubt. Not really. We pray because it invokes the experience of self sacrifice and oneness with our reality. We pray because we want to detach ourselves from our own ego and open up to love and compassion in our lives. I don't pray because I want to be cured of doubt. It would scare me if I had absolutely no doubt. Of course I doubt; there is no way to prove that I am praying to anything other than the floor and ceiling. But I feel that it is even harder to prove that something (the universe) came from nothing. Human consciousness has evolved the capacity for self reflection, scientific inquiry, and the conscious development of all virtues. It seems to me unlikely that this consciousness born out of some form in some galaxy was an accident. It seems to me likely that the universe itself is moving towards a greater perfection, one that will spawn in our day and age the unity of humankind. It is interesting to think of how the cells in a human body unite to form a human consciousness. What new meta consciousness will be created when humankind unites?

By the beginning of part 3, it is starting to feel like an atheism support group. The biggest frustration with watching this is that they are taking the most extreme examples of religious dogmatism and intolerance, and using them as examples of the delusion of belief. Why not instead argue the most rational forms of spiritual practice? Why not argue against Robert Wrights argument for purposeful directionality in a material universe? Why not argue against Adam Frank's promotion of spiritual experience without regard to religious reality?

Finally! by the middle of part 3 Dawkins suggests that there is a difference between sophisticated, nuanced professors of theology and the Jerry Falwells of the world. Then he says, which I agree with, that many of these said theologians will say one thing to each other and something much more dumbed down and literal to their congregation. I think that this has been a major problem with religion generally. The "flock" relies on the clergy for spiritual interpretation, and are then very susceptible to manipulation. In the Baha'i faith, we are all encouraged to independently investigate the truth. There is no clergy to interpret the writings for us. In fact, there is a highly developed process of study that relies on dialogue and practical application.

Interesting line by Harris: "What does moderation consist of, it consists of having lost faith in all of these propositions, or half of them because of the hammer blows of science." If religion is seen as a static belief not prone to evolution, then I agree. But, if religion is viewed as a constantly evolving structure, based upon the conceptual capacity of its adherents, then science can be seen as a necessary catalyst for religious evolution. And religion can be seen as the core human experience of the sacred that takes us beyond reductionist explanation, into a realm of meaning and motivation.

In the beginning of part 4, Dennit says that in fact the clergy deserve ridicule because they should know better. The flock should not be ridiculed because they are just placing their faith in a percieved authority. Good ol' Hitchens. He counters Harris and says that its the congregation who make a fool out of themselves. Also compares irrational believers to racists who claim that they know no better. Concludes by saying all those believing in religious superstition are open to ridicule.

Near the end of part 4, they argue that science is subject to competition and peer review, whereas religious theology is not. Dawkins makes the point that we don't understand quantum physics, but that it can still be used to make very accurate predictions and eventually we will understand it better. On the other hand, we don't understand the concept of the "Trinity" and it never will be understood, much less be used to make any kind of prediction. Again, while I agree with the said virtues of science, it does not address human motivation in an ontological manner. In a manner that is meaningfull in that we choose to give it meaning because it makes our life worth living. The "Trinity" was a theogical construct arising out of a projected ontological need, and was valuable for its time and place. In this day we can move on from antiquated theologies, but we shouldn't forget them.

A Compass Rose for the Path of Faith

At last, the tree of his longing yielded the fruit of despair, and the fire of his hope fell to ashes.

The Seven Valleys, p. 13

A lover feareth nothing and no harm can come nigh him: Thou seest him chill in the fire and dry in the sea.

The Seven Valleys, p. 9

Blessed are the steadfastly enduring, they that are patient under ills and hardships, who lament not over anything that befalleth them, and who tread the path of resignation....

Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 129

THE essence of these words is this: they that tread the path of faith, they that thirst for the wine of certitude, must cleanse themselves of all that is earthly -- their ears from idle talk, their minds from vain imaginings, their hearts from worldly affections, their eyes from that which perisheth.

Baha'u'llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 3

04 July 2009

Sacrifice and Sustainablity

The systematization of Baha'i activity means that mechanisms are provided by which every element of a line of action can be expanded in proportion to the growth of the whole. Children's classes, home visits to new believers, junior youth groups, etc. multiply in relation to each other. As new believers enter the faith, they are empowered to provide the services sustaining community life. Human resources are deployed in such a way that new human resources are in turn raised up. It's like the growth of a body. One leg doesn't grow way faster than the other. The skeleton grows at the same pace as the muscles that surround them. Etc.

This resolves a long-standing problem in social action so long as efforts are channeled into activities that further this systematization.

Sacrifice and sustainablity no longer pull in opposite directions. Greater levels of sacrifice lead to greater levels of sustainability. The harder a community pushes, the better prepared they will be to hand over responsibilities to new collaborators before existing collaborators descend into spirals of burnout.

The training and mobilization of human resources is an on-going cycle which, with every turn reinforces it's own stability.

Now, about moving out of that first cycle.....