Sunday, July 8, 2007

the Narcissism of Worship

Suratu'l Haykal: Epistle to Pope Pius IX 109

Say: Take heed lest your devotions withhold you from Him Who is the object of all devotion, or your worship debar you from Him Who is the object of all worship. Rend asunder the veils of your idle fancies! This is your Lord, the Almighty, the All-Knowing, Who hath come to quicken the world and unite all who dwell on earth.

Certainly, prayer and worship would be spectularly unorthodox if its purpose is to worship oneself and not God. But strangely enough, there is plenty of reason to believe that this is very common, if not the norm. The above passage from the Suratu'l'Haykal is a warning against this problem, highlighting the way that the very means of approach towards God can become obstacles to accomplishing their specific purpose.

If we take Baha'u'llah at his word in the Kitab-al-Iqan, then human beings can never engage with God as the absolute. This would be impossible because the two are essentially different from each other (think oil and water). Any engagement that humans would have would always be at the level of his manifest attributes and virtues (his "Names" in Islamic-Baha'i parlance). These are not God, but they are the signs of his dominion, and the effects of his "will." I want to frame this discussion in terms of this distinction between God as the absolute and God as manifest Names. Worship of God in this context would then be a sort of engagement with the divine attributes: his mercy, his wisdom, his justice, etc. After all, in the Long Obligatory Prayer the performer testifies Too high art Thou for the praise of those who are near unto Thee to ascend unto the heaven of Thy nearness. I know that this claim isn't exactly air tight, that prayer and worship is always an engagement with the divine names rather than the essence. But at the very least it helps show that Baha'i spirituality isn't so much oriented exclusively at a single transcendent being that is above and beyond all creation, as it is about the play of His "Light" within creation. Within the Baha'i faith this is usually associated with the Manifestations of God, and their unique gift of manifesting the divine spirity. But all people, and indeed all of creation is also involved to some extent in the manifestation of these same attributes and virtues. Below are two verses from the Arabic Hidden Words. They help illustrate the complex role that one's own self plays within this arrangement.

O SON OF BEING! Thou art My lamp and My light is in thee. Get thou from it thy radiance and seek none other than Me. For I have created thee rich and have bountifully shed My favor upon thee.

O YE SONS OF SPIRIT! Ye are My treasury, for in you I have treasured the pearls of My mysteries and the gems of My knowledge. Guard them from the strangers amidst My servants and from the ungodly amongst My people.

In both instances, the self is regarded as a sort of vehicle for the divine and that one's effectiveness as a vehicle is dependent upon one's spiritual efforts. Clearly, this possession of divine attributes is something that occurs in this world. It either is or is not happening right now within oneself and in one's surroundings. The divine is immanent, as is the capacity to protect and manifest that divinity. Since the ferrying of the divine attributes is dependent upon one's own efforts, the engagement with the divine is in many ways an effort to make one's self more effective at protecting and manifesting those signs of God within us. The great danger is that one might take a narcissistic pride in one's own success. At which point, prayer and worship can become the very barrier to submission before God. Here is another passage from the Suratu'l' Haykal.

Bring then into being, by Our leave, resplendent mirrors and exalted letters that shall testify to Thy sovereignty and dominion, bear witness to Thy might and glory, and be the manifestations of Thy Names amidst mankind.... Warn, then, these mirrors, once they have been made manifest, lest they swell with pride before their Creator and Fashioner when He appeareth amongst them, or let the trappings of leadership delude and debar them from bowing in submission before God, the Almighty, the All-Beauteous.

This isn't just a matter of abstract theologizing that only comes up when considering esoteric points of Baha'i thought. It's a matter that comes up everywhere at all times. It comes up everytime that public prayer is used as a form of social protest. It comes up whenever religious events become an occasion to contemplate how superior "we" are to the "them," whatever pejorative they're assigned. It comes up everytime a person shows satisfaction at the development of their spiritual practice. If I wanted to be more specific, I could continue until I get really, really annoying. All that needs to be said is that any recognition of goodness within oneself, whether or not it be by one's own merits is at the same time a recognition of the evil in others and their failure to come to the good. All of this is just patting oneself on the back, something not too far off from narcissism, which is self-worship almost by definition.

But isn't prayer a time to praise God? Of course it is. But the only means of approach is through the manifestation of his attributes and virtues in creation. And who is it that is most capable of manifesting those attributes and virtues. Chances are any given person is likely to say "people like me," "people associated with me," "People I aspire to emulate." They may even go for the gold and just say "me." As terrible as it sounds that last one just might be the most honest.

Anyhoo, before I wrap this up I want to say that this isn't just a problem for those communities who believe that we aproach God through his manifest attributes rather than directly. It's a problem with anyone who considers themselves or their community as a privileged vehicle or treasury of that which is most necessary, holy, useful, and good. That was the inspiration behind selecting the second quotation from the Hidden words that I used earlier. It shows the way that oneself and the community around it can become treasuries of the divine, which must be protected from outsiders. Furthermore this isn't just about religion. It's about any claim to goodness and its distribution in the world, and that such a claim is usually that it is most concentrated in something closely associated with oneself.

Perhaps I should end with a quote. I'm not going to comment on it specifically. But clearly, it's a response to the same issues I wanted to raise.

Man must be a lover of the light, no matter from what dayspring it may appear. He must be a lover of the rose, no matter in what soil it may be growing. He must be a seeker of the truth, no matter from what source it come. Attachment to the lantern is not loving the light. Attachment to the earth is not befitting, but enjoyment of the rose which develops from the soil is worthy. Devotion to the tree is profitless, but partaking of the fruit is beneficial.

-Abdu'l Baha