17 July 2009

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

1 comment:

  1. I like the analogy of the tree in many cases, in this case I think of the laws being the roots giving sustenance to the tree of human creativity, which can grow in any number of patterns and directions.

    I think also the concept of the Logos, in the sense of an unfolding creative principle in the universe. Both divine revelation and human creativity are manifestations of this