09 February 2010

The Baha’i Faith and Health Care

Culminating in this past year, American society has for decades been grappling with a mounting crisis in the delivery of health care. Costs of medical care have risen sharply, while access to the means to pay for that treatment has exceeded the reach of a growing number of Americans. This past year, the eyes of the nation, even the world, have been on Washington D.C. as legislators address, or rather not address, the issues at hand. A bill may yet be signed into law. However as the tragic spectacle has unfolded, the American people have perhaps never been more conscious of the dysfunction and deterioration of those institutions charged with advancing the common interest. Cynicism and disillusionment are rife. And the heart of any devoted servant of Baha’u’llah cannot remain unmoved at the sight of such affliction. But now, wherever expansion and consolidation of the Baha’i community gathers steam, Baha’is can also focus their energies on social action and efforts to contribute to the discourse of the broader society. With that said, I’d like to share some thoughts on what the Baha’i Faith has to offer efforts to promote the health and physical well-being of individuals and communities.

First, I think it is important to consider the general framework within which the Baha’i Faith approaches this and many other issues. If this general picture is set forth, the significance of specific features becomes clearer. It seems to me that this framework consists in the integration of spiritual and material development. Insights drawn from Divine Revelation must go hand-in-hand with those taken from modern science, inasmuch as the lives of soul and body are intertwined by their very nature. Two passages from the writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha illustrate this.

Praise be to God that thou hast two powers: one to undertake physical healing and the other spiritual healing. Matters related to man's spirit have a great effect on his bodily condition. For instance, thou shouldst impart gladness to thy patient, give him comfort and joy, and bring him to ecstasy and exultation. How often hath it occurred that this hath caused early recovery. Therefore, treat thou the sick with both powers.[1]

Hence, both kinds of treatment [spiritual and material] should be followed; they are not contradictory. Therefore thou shouldst also accept physical remedies inasmuch as these too have come from the mercy and favour of God, Who hath revealed and made manifest medical science so that His servants may profit from this kind of treatment also.[2]

In the writings of the Bab, Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha, personal health is approached as an element of moral conduct. They forbade the smoking of tobacco and opium, the consumption of alcohol. Their promotion of cleanliness made them pioneers in public health and the prevention of diseases in 19th and early 20th century Iran. Baha’u’llah mandated that his followers consult with competent physicians in times of ill-health.

Resort ye, in times of sickness, to competent physicians; We have not set aside the use of material means, rather have We confirmed it through this Pen, which God hath made to be the Dawning-place of His shining and glorious Cause.[3]

In his writings, ‘Abdu’l-Baha promotes a diet based on simple foods that maintain the natural equilibrium of the human body and a minimum of meat. He goes as far as to argue that, with the development of science, doctors and patients will one day be capable of treating illnesses through the regulation of diet. He observes that societies have by and large turned away from the simple foods for which the body was designed, and attributes this defect to humanity’s subservience to its lustful appetites. One common feature of these diverse remedies is that they all concern one’s day-to-day life, and involve personal discipline and spiritual focus. This is especially seen in ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s warning against ‘lustful appetites.’

The essay continues just a little below.

[1] Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, 130.1 pp.58-9
[2] Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, 133.2 pp.60
[3] Kitab-i-Aqdas 113 pp.60

a Continuation

I think one limitation of this past year’s health care debate is that its focus was almost solely on the means by which to pay for trips to the hospital and visits to doctors. This is of course essential, especially in a society as sick as ours. But health care isn’t just about receiving treatments once people get sick. It’s also about promoting healthy lifestyles that prevent people from getting sick. In this light, health care reform is too broad of a project to be dealt with only by legislators. The generality of the people must contribute their share to the transformation of society if wider problems are to be properly addressed. This can be seen in the gulf between scientific knowledge and its practice by individuals. As the twentieth century wore on, the importance of diet, exercise, and other personal choices became became especially clear to doctors and other advocates of personal health. However in many nations, but especially the United States, the implementation of these scientific insights has proved difficult. A doctor can tell the patient exactly what lifestyle choices she needs to make if she is to correct her unhealthy, often deadly, course. But if the patient doesn’t lift a finger to change her habits, and asks for a prescription for drugs instead, there is little the doctor can do. This suggests that the health crisis is symptomatic of a spiritual crisis, or at the very least an educational crisis.

It is in this light that the Baha’i perspective on health demonstrates its wisdom. For Baha’is, it is a spiritual duty to study useful sciences and apply them to the benefit of oneself and others. And for Baha’is, the life of the soul begins in this world and continues on towards God in other worlds after this one. The focus of spiritual development may be the progress of the soul after this life, but the desire to serve God and benefit humanity that this practice develops can have an impact in this life as well. Namely, it can free a person from slavery to unhealthy appetites and reinforce the discipline needed to care for the body each of us has been given by God.

And what is to be done?

For Baha’is, I think what is essential is that they continue to multiply and develop those programs that have been developed for the training and spiritual education of individuals, e.g. children’s classes, junior youth groups, and study circles. As these lines of action advance, the process of learning they engender can be extended to include lines of action that train and mobilize human resources for the promotion of healthy lifestyles.

And for all people, whether they are enrolled in the Baha’i community or not, they can get involved with activities in their community and contribute to broader public discussions focused on the application of scientific knowledge in our daily lives. This can be pursued through a variety of institutions. Schools, employers, clergy, unions, and other community organizations are all well placed to respond in some measure. But most importantly, we can’t assume our own helplessness. We must promote reform at both an individual and collective level. We must raise consciousness and build confidence that our health is in our own hands, and that initiative, good planning, and effective implementation can transform the world around us. ‘Abdu’l-Baha writes,

Endeavor, ceaseless endeavor is required. Nothing short of an indomitable determination can possibly achieve it. Many a cause which past ages have regarded as purely visionary, yet in this day has become most easy and practicable.[1]

And in conclusion, ‘Abdu’l-Baha writes elsewhere,

Is any larger bounty conceivable than this, that an individual, looking within himself, should find that by the confirming grace of God, he has become the cause of peace and well-being, of happiness and advantage to his fellow men? No, by the one true God, there is no greater bliss, no more complete delight.[2]

[1][1] The Secret of Divine Civilization pp.66
[2] The Secret of Divine Civilization pp.2-3

Inapropriate Discussions

I was recently around a couple people discussing sexuality, taking what they considered an enlightened and ultimately materialistic stance. What they were saying really saddened me, and I felt the urge to champion a Baha'i view of marriage yet also a powerlessness to do so.

Defending sexual restraint, procreation based marriages, modesty and monogamy has become associated with bigotry, closed-mindedness, and cruelty. This is understandable given the level of cruelty exercised by both extremes of the western sexual revolution, a battle that still rages on despite what people may think. So divisive have been the arguments, so despicable the tactics, that it is now impossible for anyone to even bring up the subject of sexuality without being classified by listeners as belonging to one of the traditional sides, as being guilty of these crimes. Ultimately however both sides have exercised the same fundamental fallacies.

Modern approaches to understanding human behavior are all guilty of taking a far too material approach, and this is especially poignant in regards to sexuality with it's extreme physical, emotional, interpersonal and societal dimensions. But even more detrimental than rampant materialism is the view that human beings are innately selfish beings who exist to consume, that we are little more than a sum of desires we must either fulfill or repress. Such a perspective is inherently material. Which is why, when groups on either side of the self-imposed divide attempt to incorporate spirituality into their views of sexuality, their attempts reek of hypocrisy to their detractors.

But the fallacies and hypocrisies go far beyond this one aspect of human existence. The simple and fragmented philosophies and beliefs, be they scientific, religious, political, or any other have brought us to a point where they must be integrated, where every aspect of our existence must be integrated. This is essential to our continued well-being and survival. No longer can we as a species tolerate any hypocrisy, any compartmentalization of virtue, any willful ignorance of the dimensions of our reality or the repercussions of our thoughts, attitudes, words, and, most importantly, our actions.

The Baha'i view of humanity stands in opposition to the current fragmented approaches. We are both spiritual beings and material beings. Neither of these realities is evil. Both have value. The spiritual and material realities must be harmonized.

Furthermore, humanity is not merely an aggregate of individuals, nor is the individual a helpless mote at the mercy of the unrelentingly winds of social change which they have no control over. Rather we are all participants in a system of exquisite sophistication. In same way that the physical cells within our bodies each interact to ensure the health of the whole organism, must we seek at every turn to serve the whole of humanity in this most critical point in it's development.

Only once we have collectively adopted a holistic view of human reality, recognizing the essential interplay between the material and spiritual, the individual and collective, can we address issues like sexuality. Until then any attempt will only end in misunderstanding, hypocrisy, division, and cruelty.

06 February 2010

Learning for a New Civilization

This is an introduction to a broader set of ideas. So long as I persevere with this project in the short term, this will lead into examinations of the difference between deepening and training, a fundamental critique of the concept of “Baha’i scholarship” that I think is implied in the contemporary emphasis on training, some thoughts on how in the near future Baha’is might find themselves contributing to the discourse of the broader society, and perhaps a re-visitation of the role of the human form within the mission of Baha’u’llah, a long-standing project of mine.

In my fifteen months at the Baha’i World Centre I have been blessed with hearing many profound insights from individuals who serve here. A great many of them have come from talks and personal conversations with members of The Universal House of Justice and the International Teaching Center. Others came from contact with learned and experienced staff members, pilgrims from all over the world, and youth volunteers serving beside me. However, it seems the most profound thing I have heard here came from a simple gardener who, to his and my seeming at the time, was merely making excuses for not following the commandment of Baha’u’llah to read the Baha’i Writings every day.

One Tuesday evening after a pilgrim farewell, he and I were having a warm conversation at the Pilgrim Reception Centre on Hatzionut Street. I had mentioned how happy I was to have read Ruhiyyih Khanum’s The Priceless Pearl, and Youness Khan’s Memories of Nine Years in Akka while I was here in the Holy Land. He then noted that he hadn’t done much reading while serving at that World Centre. In part, this had to do with the hard manual labor required of all gardeners tending the terraces. But he mentioned also that this was because while here he hadn’t had many opportunities to share Baha’u’llah’s message with others. He explained that the only time he would ever be inspired to read the Bahá’í Writings was when someone he was teaching put to him a question he didn’t feel qualified to answer. Reading the Writings every day was easy for him when he was at home because he was constantly engaged in the teaching work. However while serving at the World Centre the well had so to speak “dried up.” Thus, he hadn’t been keeping up with Baha’u’llah’s commandment to read the Writings every day.

Many weeks later, the profundity of what he had described began to dawn on me. Reading the Writings every day and teaching the Baha’i Faith regularly are both commands of Baha’u’llah. But he did not isolate the practice of one from the other. The knowledge he gained from study of the Writings was a direct reflection of the needs he was encountering in his interactions with others. He studied the Writings out of consciousness of the needs of others. Action and learning were integrated into one forward movement that didn’t waste energy on mere erudition.

Looking back, it seems to be that this gardener’s approach to learning and knowledge is a radical departure from the norms of the world’s dominant educational systems. For him, learning proceeds spontaneously from feelings of solidarity and the desire to see the progress of others. It assumes correctly that the motive force behind all research is to provide intellectual tools for the advancement of some particular project, rather than the mere beholding and accurate description of “objects.” This allows my friend to consciously place learning at the disposal of a project for justice, rather than unconsciously affirm false “realities” that are useful to oppressive projects at work within society, e.g. racism, militarism, sexism, free-market plunder, etc. He knows why he is learning, and it proceeds directly from his desire to be of service to others.

Fortunately for us, this gardener is not alone. The approach to learning he exemplifies is in many respects the one employed in contemporary efforts to expand and consolidate the Baha’i community. We would do well to take a broad perspective on the constellation of junior youth groups, study circles, reflection meetings, and other sites for “learning in action” with which the Baha’i world has become familiar in the past decade. More than just ad hoc methods developed to systematize the growth of the Bahá’í community, I think this mode of action is an early stage in a grand experiment, which in time could revolutionize the broader society’s approach to research and knowledge in general. As the Baha’i world sets its sights on social action and contributing to the discourse of the broader society we would do well to take the mode of learning promoted in the Ruhi curriculum as a model for building a new civilization, one in which solidarity and social progress are the motive forces of collective life.