Sunday, December 23, 2007

Revelation and Concealment: a Scandal

Below are three quotations. The first is by the Bab and is from His crowning work "the Persian Bayan." The second is from the book "Colonial fantasies: Towards a feminist reading of Orientalism" by Meyda Yegenoglu. Her book is a study of colonizer attitudes towards veiled women within their imperial holdings. The passage is a summary of the problem that colonizers faced in the veiling of the "oriental woman." The third is from Baha'u'llah's "the Seven Valleys" and is easily one of His most perplexing statements in the book if not in the whole sum of His writings already translated into English. All three quotations deal with the dynamic of revelation and concealment. The theme of veiling is important inasmuch as it is one of the most important images used in Sufi and Baha'i writings to illustrate the transcendence of God, and the romantic relationship we have with the veiled Beloved.

The revelation of the Divine Reality hath everlastingly been identical with its concealment and its concealment identical with its revelation. That which is intended by ‘Revelation of God’ is the Tree of divine Truth that betokeneth none but Him, and it is this divine Tree that hath raised and will raise up Messengers, and hath revealed and will ever reveal Scriptures. From eternity unto eternity this Tree of divine Truth hath served and will ever serve as the throne of the revelation and concealment of God among His creatures, and in every age is made manifest through whomsoever He pleaseth.

-the Bab from the Persian Bayan

The veil gives rise to meditation: if they wear a mask, or masquerade or conceal themselves, then there must be a behind-the-mask, a knowledge that is kept secret from us. The mystery that is assumed to be concealed by the veil is unconcealed by giving a figural representation to this mask and to the act of masquerading as an enigmatic figure. However, what is thus unconcealed, i.e. the "masquerade," the "veil," is the act of concealment itself. The veiled existence is the very truth of Oriental women; they seem to exist always in this deceptive manner.

-Meyda Yegenoglu in Colonial fantasies: Towards a feminist reading of Orientalism

Pay particular attention to the term veils of light in this final passage.

In this city, even the veils of light are split asunder and vanish away. “His beauty hath no veiling save light, His face no covering save revelation.” How strange that while the Beloved is visible as the sun, yet the heedless still hunt after tinsel and base metal. Yea, the intensity of His revelation hath covered Him, and the fullness of His shining forth hath hidden Him.

-Baha'u'llah in the Seven Valleys: the Valley of True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness

Light, a symbol of Divine Revelation, and its reflection in creation is the image at the heart of Baha'u'llah's doctrine of the Manifestation of God. If the Manifestation is the light of God, then this final passage raises strange questions about what is meant by the veils of light are split asunder and vanish away. Suddenly, the moments of Revelation or Manifestation (these two terms are not necessarily used in the same way) are not so simple. Just look at it! Light is the barrier and not the intermediary! In Baha'i writings that's scandalous! But multiple passages bear witness to this stunning assertion. After all, the revelation of the Divine Reality hath everlastingly been identical with its concealment and its concealment identical with its revelation.

So what does this make of the Manifestation of God? Is He a partial Manifestation, e.g. in Exodus 33.23 when Moses is shown God's "back" (Exodus 33.23)? Is the Manifestation of God an outright deception, a mask, a surrogate, something put in place of a full Revelation which in numerous places Baha'u'llah states would result in one's....well.....uh....."physical and/or psychological undoing?" In other words, is the Manifestation of God a means of approach or an actual detour? Perhaps my formulation of this dilemna is entirely misguided. Regardless, Baha'u'llah's writings give no easy answers. Instead, the series of passages bearing on these issues raise more questions than answers.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Unity, Teaching, and the Definition of a Baha'i

Below are two quotations. One from Baha'u'llah. Another from Abdu'l Baha. Both speak of an age in which the human race will all be part of one religion. The latter is most likely a commentary on the former. Both of these passages are followed by scathing criticisms of the clergy who in both past and present have obstructed the unifying missions of the Manifestations of God. Together they can support a very lively discussion on Baha'i teachings on the unity of religion.

That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith.

(Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 90)

The day is coming when all the religions of the world will unite, for in principle they are one already. There is no need for division, seeing that it is only the outward forms that separate them. Among the sons of men some souls are suffering through ignorance, let us hasten to teach them; others are like children needing care and education until they are grown, and some are sick -- to these we must carry Divine healing. Whether ignorant, childish or sick, they must be loved and helped, and not disliked because of their imperfection.

(Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 120)

The above quotation from Baha'u'llah can often be rather intimidating. No doubt the scariest part is His apparent rejection of religious diversity, that all people will share one common Faith. In this interpretation, the healing of all the world would be that everybody would be Baha'i and that Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, etc. would disappear from the face of the earth. This of course would cause major chafing with Baha'u'llah's other teachings on the importance of good-will towards the followers of other religions.

Abdu'l Baha though articulates this future unification in a different way. All the religions of the world will unite. As Baha'u'llah's right hand man throughout His ministry and as the authorized interpreter of His words this passage from His Paris Talks should be taken very seriously in understanding the above quotation from Baha'u'llah. Rather than the domination of one central position outward over all others, Abdu'l Baha sees this event as a merging inward of many different positions into one. The old religions remain intact. They still exist. But the important part is that they come to an understanding of themselves as fundamentally united. That this has not already happened (as it should have) is the result of ignorance. This leads Abdu'l Baha to the exhortation, let us hasten to teach them.

The important word here is teach. Typically this word is associated with efforts to expand and consolidate membership in the Baha'i community. But in this context its not really about membership. It's about the diffusion of Baha'u'llah's teachings as they apply to other religions. Abdu'l Baha is not interested in poaching people from other religions. In this passage this is not teaching. Rather, teaching is acquainting people with the essentials of their own religion as revealed again by the Manifestation of God for this day, Baha'u'llah. And if this is what is meant by teaching the Cause of Baha'u'llah in the mind of Abdu'l Baha then that brings into view the very definition for being a Baha'i.

Below is another passage, this time from the collection Abdu'l Baha in London.

A student of the modern methods of the higher criticism asked 'Abdu'l-Bahá if he would do well to continue in the church with which he had been associated all his life, and whose language was full of meaning to him. 'Abdu'l-Bahá answered: "You must not dissociate yourself from it. Know this; the Kingdom of God is not in any Society; some seekers go through many Societies as a traveller goes through many cities till he reach his destination. If you belong to a Society already do not forsake your brothers. You can be a Bahá'í-Christian, a Bahá'í-Freemason, a Bahá'í-Jew, a Bahá'í-Muhammadan. The number nine contains eight, and seven, and all the other numbers, and does not deny any of them. Do not distress or deny anyone by saying 'He is not a Bahá'í!' He will be known by his deeds. There are no secrets among Bahá'ís; a Bahá'í does not hide anything."

(Abdu'l-Baha, Abdu'l-Baha in London, p. 97)

The fascinating line here is the Kingdom of God is not in any Society. The usage here of the word "society" is that of an organization, a concrete gathering of people with membership rolls, meetings, dues, etc. i.e the National Geographic Society. In this sense the Baha'i teachings are not constrained to any one organization or society, but are instead free to be applied in their fullness within a variety of already existing communities. Certainly there is a specifically "Baha'i" community. Its maturation into a distinct body was only just beginning when Abdu'l Baha made these statements in London. But that does not detract from the wide applicability that Abdu'l Baha saw for His father's teachings. The triumph of the Baha'i faith in this context does not necessarily mean universal membership in the Baha'i World Faith. So what it means is a coming age in which the practitioners of the world's religions look upon each other as companions on a common spiritual journey and co-workers on a single divine project.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Abdu'l Baha and the Religious Society of Friends

For some time I've wondered about the compatibility between Baha'i and Quaker teachings. Certainly, there are many areas of overlap, the emphasis on social justice, the lack of a clergy, spirit-led decisionmaking, and a vision of the end-times that places the action of an individual soul at the center of God's saving plan. But one point at which I thought the similarity ended was the means by which God reveals His will to humanity. For Baha'is, God reveals His will through His Manifestations. This happens only once in a great while. For Quakers, the will of God is revealed through the leadings of the Spirit. And this can be as commonplace as eating or waking. Certainly I've butchered and way oversimplified each tradition's understanding of divine Revelation, but up until now I've always had to rely on my own endeavor to explore this issue. I have long suspected that at some point in his travels to the West Abdu'l Baha came across Quakers, and might have said a thing or two about their faith. But I've never come across anything specific. As it turns out though, such an encounter is recorded in the most obvious place to look: Paris Talks, a compilation of talks he gave while in Europe.

So here it is.

As it turns out, Abdu'l Baha seems to regard Baha'i and Quaker conceptions of Divine Revelation as more compatible than I personally have given them credit for. As for the Persian "Society of Friends" that he mentions, I have no idea who he's talking about. They sound cool though, just like their English counterparts.