04 May 2010

Love of Others: The Light and the Lamp

More often than I think is justified, love is held up as the panacea for all the worlds problems. If only we showed more love for foreigners, we wouldn't have so many wars, if only we loved those less fortunate than us, we wouldn't have so much poverty. If only there was more love, people would feel less need for material goods. One famous artist has affirmed, "All you need is love." Perhaps, but only if we have a clear vision of what we mean by love. It seems to me, not nearly enough attention goes to fundamental questions about love and its place in society. Love is taken as something self-evident, already understood, and only in need of being spread further. I want to focus on the question of where our love should be directed, of what is most worthy of our love. And I think a very useful starting point can be found in passages from the Baha'i Writings discussing love shown towards the founders of the world's religions. I think they provide concepts with which we can rethink our approach to personal relationships, and beyond that, to the life of society.

In the Kitab-i-Iqan Baha'u'llah explains that a Manifestation of God is the revelation of God's names and attributes within a human being. This means that someone like Jesus, Moses, or the Bab were flesh and blood humans just like any of us. But through them God had displayed to the world qualities pertaining to himself, such as power, wisdom, mercy, generosity, and the like. In this way, humans come to have knowledge of God and his will for that era.

Baha'u'llah draws a clear distinction between the names and attributes of God and the human vehicle for their manifestation. I think this distinction can be very useful if applied to the way we show love towads others. Perhaps, it is better to love the good qualities a person displays or could display rather than that person as that person. Or rather than seeking justice for those we love, maybe its better to love justice itself, even if those who most benefit do not receive our affection. I think this is one implication of 'Abdu'l-Baha's call for us to be lovers of the light and not of the lamp from which it is shining.

If we are lovers of the light we adore it in whatever lamp it may become manifest but if we love the lamp itself and the light is transferred to another lamp we will never accept nor sanction it. Therefore we must follow and adore the virtues revealed in the Messengers of God, whether in Abraham, Moses, Jesus, or other prophets but we must not adhere to and adore the lamp. (FWU p.16)
The immediate context of 'Abdu'l-Baha's discussion is religious identification, sectarianism, and independent investigation in matters of faith. But the scope of these concepts can easily be expanded. Every individual shows a number of personal qualites, many of them good, many of them bad. The bearer of these qualities can be thought of as a lamp, the good qualities as rays of light, and the bad qualities as soot that obstructs that light. For us to be lovers of the light and not the lamp is to love the good qualities in a person and not just that person as that person. When we love something or someone we want them to flourish. Thus, if we love a good quality in ourselves and others, such as compassion, joyfulness, or critical thinking, we do what we can to develop that quality. And if we love a person, we want them to flourish. But for a person to truly flourish is for them to develop their better qualities.

For example, Alicia and Beatriz are good friends. Alicia is thoughtful, honest, and hard-working. But she also has a sharp tongue and is always tearing other people down. Beatriz loves her friend. But more importantly, she loves kindness and sees what a destructive impact Alicia's shart tongue has on her relationships with other people. To love Alicia, simply as Alicia, would be to stand by her friend, right or wrong, whether or not she displays qualities that are good for herself and others. But if Beatriz puts her love of kindness first, she will try to develop that quality of kindness in herself, help Alicia see the value of it, and assist her in her own efforts to speak with kindness to others. In this way, Beatriz helps both Alicia and the quality of kindness to flourish.

If we are lovers just of the person, we may be tempted to excuse and even promote their bad qualities, such as vengefulness or sloth, and even go so far as to say it is a requirement of love! The same is true of self-love. It seems to me there is more attention right now to raising the self-esteem of young people than there is to developing personal qualities worthy of that esteem. Because of this, self-esteem often gives rise to egotism. But if we direct our love first and foremost to the development of good qualities, then we also show love to the people who benefit from the display of those qualities. We can show love to both the light and the lamp if we let our love for the light guide our love for the lamp.

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