Essay: Faith vs Religion: My Personal Exploration of Spirituality and the Baha'i Faith.

During my recent residency at Vermont College, a friend told me a metaphor for religion that bears repeating: “Religion is like a supermarket. We enter with needs and wants, and we go through filling our basket with these things. But we do not have to buy everything in the store.” I found this anecdote particularly relevant to my own search for spirituality. It sums up my philosophy on organized religion remarkably well.

I was born and raised as a Baha’i. In fact, my namesake was a writer who chronicled the early days of the Baha’i Faith (a hefty tome called The Dawnbreakers). The basis of the religion is that Baha’u’llah is the most recent messenger of God, one of a long line that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, and Muhammad. The Baha’i Faith’s core beliefs revolve around the concept of world unity and equality.

All in all, those seem to be a pretty solid groundwork to base a religion on. It stands to reason that since humanity continues to grow and mature, the Word of God must be updated from time to time. This is further obviated by man’s fallible nature: considering the known level of corruption that has existed in the seat of power of various religions in the past, it is not outside the realm of possibility that the original message is not nearly as pure as it once was. And as for the principles for a religion to teach, compassion and equality are really rather high on the list of ideals I’d like to see encouraged.

I was one of four Baha’i children in my school district (two families: my brother and I, and the other family had two girls). Growing up, I always looked forward to Baha’i holy days, because it meant that I had an excused absence from school on those days, which our community would often do interesting things for (one holy day that happens in October, we would hike a mountain each year and say prayers at the top, things like that). Really, it was a rather nice religion to be raised a part of. That said, at this point in my life, I am really more of a “lapsed Baha’i” than anything else.

There are reasons for this. At the surface, there is the frustration in being part of a minority, and regularly having to explain what the religion is about. Also, there was the frustration of school functions which were largely christian in nature (and let’s not forget the mandatory “non-denominational” services with the Boy Scouts). These frustrations weren’t exactly conducive to following your own beliefs.

On a more personal level, the religion itself pushed me away. While I like what the Faith teaches, the great majority of Baha’is I’ve met were well meaning, very nice, intelligent, and FLUFFY, for lack of a better term. When I say “fluffy”, I mean that it feels like they are “born-again”, and are trying to be EXTRA loving and religious in order to make up for lost time. I don’t think this make them bad people, but it does make me uncomfortable at some fundamental level. I feel that while we should always strive for excellence, we must also balance that with moderation: anything taken to an extreme, including religion, isn’t healthy. Please also note that I am making a distinction between religion, and faith. It is an important distinction, and really the crux of what I’m talking about.

I believe in Baha’u’llah. I believe in God or at least some sort of higher power that may as well be called such. Also, I like what the Baha’i Faith teaches as a basis for religion, but it is the religion (and really all others I’ve run into) that I am bothered with. I am an introvert and a generally private individual (this paper, itself, has taken a great deal of tooth-pulling to even write), and find myself somewhat irritated that others try to foist their take on what is at its core a personal relationship with one’s connection to the universe, for the sake of organization. We as a society busy ourselves by meddling in the personal lives of our neighbors rather than realizing that it is not our place to judge the actions of others. This is the difference between faith and religion: faith is by its nature private, it is the communion between god and yourself. Faith is the contemplation and belief in certain things (whether it is the nature of the universe, or guidelines for better living in the here and now). Religion is taking faith and making it a spectacle. It compartmentalizes and socializes belief, so that instead of gleaning your own conclusions (going back to the supermarket metaphor, buying the things on YOUR list), you are told what you should believe (everyone receives the same “rations”).

And instead of realizing this and doing my own thing and not worrying about the rest, thus living a fuller, richer spiritual life, I get worked up about it. I spend my energy railing about how frustrating and disillusioning organized religion is in an age of distributed communication and knowledge, where it is easy to find the holes and flaws in any religion. Of course there are flaws in religion. They’re made by man. We’re not perfect. That doesn’t mean the principles of and the basis for the religion is wrong.

What I’m saying is that there should be more effort made to separate the religion (the structure) from the faith (the content). Let people make decisions for themselves, give them the material to make educated choices, and see what happens. If someone decides that they want to combine aspects of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Baha’i, then so be it, more power to them. That doesn’t mean that the next person won’t decide that a combination of Judaism and Hinduism is a better fit for themselves. Let us as a race awaken into a Collective Conscious (vs unconscious), and bring it all back to what really matters: the individual’s relationship with God.

Essay: An Examination of "The Tablet of the Holy Mariner"

Written by Baha’u’llah in 1863, The Tablet of the Holy Mariner is considered one of the few pieces that directly deals with the mystical side of the Baha’i Faith. Most of it is building upon pre-established concepts gathered from Gnosticism and Sufism in particular (the sea of light, the ark of belief, a multitiered heaven of which the higher levels are unattainable, the maiden of heaven, et cetera). This is actually somewhat comforting, since it indicates that the latest manifestation truly is just an update to the prior manifestations, whose Word had become muddied over time.

To give a quick summation of the story, it begins by explaining a bit of our past: namely that the faithful had been brought before heaven, where the believers had been cleansed of self and passion, and given entrance to God’s holy realm. These believers sought higher into the heavens than God had decreed for them, and he punished them with a flaming meteor, and sent them back into the mortal world, where they were ordered to abide until such a time that they were ready for that higher level. Someone called the maiden of heaven, whom had never been known to speak (“no ear through all eternity hath ever heard,” line 61), came before the Celestial Concourse and stated that only those who had achieved true faithfulness in the Arabian Youth could enter the highest heaven. She sent one of her handmaidens down into the world to look for people who had achieved this. The handmaiden returned in such despair at the lack of true faith that she released her spirit and was sent into the presence of God. The story ends with the other handmaidens grieving violently for their dead sister.

While the story itself is interesting, what is far more intriguing is the particular phrasing and specific details of the story. These details tend to leap out due to the format of the story, broken into lines separated by the phrase “Glorified be our Lord, the All-Glorious!” Because the flow of the story is broken up like this, it becomes easier to focus on each line separately. (The counterpoint to this is that it is harder to capture the piece as a whole, without writing down the lines yourself.)

Personally, I view this tablet as an interpretive story, a history-through-parable. In particular, extrapolative history, dealing with what we call “prehistory” (the period between when homo sapiens first appear and when our first recorded civilization appears). This tablet serves as a remarkable collection of information available for interpretation. Given my predisposition towards science fiction, my personal interpretation of the tablet deals primarily with the thought of Man having a prior advanced civilization, possibly space-faring. The opening line deals with an “ark of eternity” and a “Celestial Concourse,” which could be interpreted as a space-faring ship. This ship is then “launched upon the ancient sea” (again, a “sea of stars” is a common literary metaphor, and would not seem out of place in this situation), and is filled with dwellers of “divine attributes” (most religions have ties between wisdom/knowledge and a divine source). They are told not to “tarry in the snow-white spot” which could possibly be some form of faster than light travel such as “hyperspace”, and that they are free to “wing through space even as the favored birds in the realm of eternal reunion,” at which point a “burning meteor cast them out” (a meteor destroys our access to “hyperspace”, or possibly impacts our planet and decimates all life on it, destroying whatever civilization there was). Man is returned to dwell in the mortal, mundane world. After a period of time, the “maid of heaven” (another advanced race? A surviving remnant of our own species?) sends her “maidservant” (a scouting expedition?) to search out signs of the “Youth that hath been hidden within the tabernacle of light” (our prior advanced civilization?). This maidservant finds none, and dies in despair.

While this interpretation is simplified and clearly science-fiction, the basic concepts are not outside the realm of possibility. Archaeologists have been able to place the origin of homo sapiens at roughly 140,000 BC (possibly earlier), and a fairly broad dispersal of man as long ago as 40,000 BC. But the first signs of civilization we have is 7000-5000 BC (depending on who you talk to). We have very little clue what happened during the intervening millennia. There is evidence of several worldwide catastrophes, including significant volcanic activity, global flooding, possibly meteor impacts, and recent evidence to suggest that the earth’s poles shifted at least once during that time. That is all in addition to at least one massive ice age that could have quite easily blotted out any sign of prior civilization that may have otherwise survived the other disasters. Considering how much of our past has been lost purely of our own accord (book burnings, holy wars, censorship, vandalism, cities getting sacked, plagues, et cetera) this is all well within the realm of possibility. Further suggesting prior civilization is the amount of unaccounted-for time compared to how quickly we’ve built our current civilization. It somehow doesn’t ring true that given around 140,000 years, no civilization was created.

That is of course just one interpretation; there are many possibilities as to what exactly it means. Regardless of its true meaning, the Tablet of the Holy Mariner is a fascinating piece of writing, and well worth the effort to read it, if only for the marvelous ideas it presents.

Essay: The World Wobbled: A Search for Spiritual Philosophy

I strongly believe that it is necessary to maintain a positive outlook on life, to treat other individuals compassionately, and to appreciate the little things in life just as much (if not more so) than the big things. I disagree with the frenetic pace our current society is trying to thrive upon, and for the longest time had “Festina Lente” (Make Haste Slowly) as my catch phrase for life. I believe all these things, and yet somewhere along the way, I seem to have lost sight of that, swept up in the currents of everyday life, and I’m not even sure when or where it happened.

So, let’s go back. Perhaps not to the beginning, but certainly to a point when I had solidly come to these conclusions on living a peaceful, happy life, and had not yet let myself become caught up in the rushing mentality. After all, it is only through identifying your problems that you can ever truly hope to combat them.

Seventh grade was a very, very good year for me. After hitting the proverbial “bottom rung” on the social ladder in sixth grade, I simply stopped caring about that, and instead dove into a broad spectrum of books (though primarily science fiction), reading about 90% of Robert A. Heinlein’s works, the entire Dune saga, and a wealth of pulp fiction by masters such as Robert Silverberg and Isaac Asimov. This reading trend continued into eighth grade, when I also read the Dragonriders of Pern series, and Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany (I’ll come back to this book in a moment). In addition to reading, I began pursuing my own education, studying statistics and basic chemistry on my own time. I’d begun to adopt the philosophy of “Never Hurry” from Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, a concept that appealed to me right from the start. After all, what is the point in rushing? That is not to say to not move quickly, but why rush? Why stress about the little things? Be aware of them, acknowledge them, and at the same time acknowledge what you are capable of affecting, and let the rest go. If we try to shoulder the burden of the world, all we end up with is a broken back.

Contrary to what it may seem like, that was NOT a recipe for laziness. I am not now, nor was I then saying you shouldn’t do anything. Rather, I’m saying take responsibility for yourself, do what YOU are capable of, and don’t worry about the rest. That worry is a little death that eats you away at your foundation until you finally just crumble.

This philosophy continued to grow and solidify as I read more, and experienced more situations which proved the validity of my budding outlook. A particularly influential book for me was Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. The book explores the concept of amorality (vs morality or immorality) in a backdrop of a semi-post-apocalyptic city, a place choked with smoke and an erratic, shifting geography. I first read it in eighth grade, and I’ve continued to read it once a year ever since. I’ve never been able to fully explain why I read it every year, merely that it generates a certain mood that I find appealing. Not through any specific action that any character takes, nor any event in the story, so much as just the general demeanor of the book: there is a sense of presence and self awareness and letting go that is ultimately appealing, and generally succeeds in crossing over into my every day life.

It is worth noting that I haven’t had a chance to reread Dhalgren in the past two years, or really much recreational entertainment at all. Not for lack of desire, mind you, but through lack of finding the time necessary to get through the 800 page book. Thinking about it, I’ve felt burdened by a weight of “responsibility” (real or perceived), even when I’m consciously making the choice to go play a game, or read a book, or watch a movie. I can’t relax. So is my not having made time for my annual tradition a cause, or an effect of this? Perhaps a bit more digging is in order.

High school left me frustrated by my peers and in a state of depression. I would talk passionately and intensely about a wide variety of topics, but never with any luck in finding like-minded individuals. It left me disillusioned until I started to do theater, where at least they were passionate about SOMETHING (namely, melodrama, but that is unfortunately part and parcel with high school drama programs). I continued to work steadily with the theater program through the rest of school, which did a lot in terms of keeping me sane. The actors’ antics and melodramatic politics kept me distinctly aware of just how much those things really didn’t matter in the long run. Thinking about it, though, I avoided supervisory roles whenever possible while there (and later). Not because I couldn’t have done it, but because I didn’t want the additional responsibility.

Thinking about it, that may well be it. In the past two or three years, I have taken on additional responsibilities, perhaps some that I wasn’t necessarily ready for, but felt I had to do. Somewhere in the back of my head, something is screaming that I’m on the right track, so let’s continue. If I’ve been taking on new responsibilities over the past few years, and it is over the past few years that I have been feeling more and more rushed and restricted and otherwise not myself or who I want to be.

So I suppose the question to ask myself is, what do I want to do about it? It isn’t like I can just ignore my responsibilities, nor is saying “Well, I guess this is just going to have to be my new outlook,” an acceptable answer. I think identifying that I need to learn to cope with responsibility is a good first step. Now I need to act on it. I need to start doing what I can and genuinely letting go of the rest. I need to start affirming to myself that my passions ARE in fact a worthwhile pursuit of their own accord, and that now is a perfect time to work on those passions. I need to start thinking about what I want out of life, and stop worrying about what others want from me or think of me. I need find a new sanctuary that I can find my own pace in. I need to LET GO.

But mostly, I think I need to go reread Dhalgren.

Annotation: Baha’i Prayers

Perhaps this isn’t true for others, but I have discovered that after one hundred and fifty pages of prayers expounding on the glories of the Almighty, my eyes just started to glaze over. By the end of the 267 page collection, I was frankly beginning to think that if God is so damn great, then maybe He could afford to be a bit more modest. I realize that is a bit unfair: prayers are meant to be taken in relatively small doses, not read through as a book.

The particular version I read through is the one I was given in 1989 by my parents. Despite having read specific prayers out of it on many occasions, I’d never actually read through the entire thing. Though not immediately relevant to the topic, I would like to say I was quite impressed with the binding and typography in this book: it is significantly more readable than many other more modern books, in my opinion. I think typography is to some degree a lost art, form taking precedence over function in recently published novels and magazines.

Baha’i Prayers is a collection of prayers from the three major individuals from the Faith: Baha’u’llah, The Bab, and Abdu’l-Baha. It’s organized first by type of prayer (obligatory, general, or occasional), and then by topic. The topic categories are somewhat arbitrary (“Forgiveness” discusses God forgiving you for the sins you’ve done, for instance, rather than supplicating to find the strength to forgive), but beyond trying to figure out whether the category was talking about what you were asking for or asking for more of, it actually was pretty reasonably arranged.

There are a few prayers that I am particularly fond of. First and foremost is one that is called the Remover of Difficulties: “Is there any Remover of difficulties save God? Say: Praised be God! He is God! All are His servants, and all abide by His bidding!” (The Bab 28). I’ve found this to be particularly useful as a litany or mantra, because of how short it is. It provides something to focus on rather than whatever it is that is troubling you. Frankly, I think it is the prayer that I most identify with (in an ideal world, anyway). The general sentiment I get out of this prayer is that sometimes you just need to let go and let things work out on their own (let God handle it). It’s a philosophy I find I agree with pretty strongly: we free up far more time for things we WANT to do, if we stop stressing over the things that we DON’T want to do. (That is not to say that you can choose to not do them: the point of a prayer like this is to help put you in the right mindset to get through something, not to just avoid it with the belief that someone else will do it.)

Another prayer that I found interesting (and had not realized had been included) was the Tablet of the Holy Mariner, which is considered to be the primary writing on mysticism in the Baha’i Faith. It has a different arrangement than the other prayers and writings I’ve seen, done more as a form of epic poem or parable. The story it tells is broken up, however, as each line is separated by the phrase, “Glorified be my Lord, the All-Glorious!” I found the story interesting, though convoluted at the end (I reread the passage three times, and I’m still having a bit of trouble following it). Particular passages leave me intrigued as to what exactly Baha’u’llah meant when he wrote it. It is a topic better devoted to its own essay, however, so I’ll only point out one in particular, before I move on:

They have desired to ascend unto that state which the Lord hath ordained to be above their stations.
Glorified be my Lord, the All-Glorious!
Whereupon the burning meteor cast them out from that abide in the Kingdom of His Presence,
Glorified be my Lord, the All-Glorious! (Baha’u’llah 224)

Given my penchant for science fiction and extrapolative history, this passage (and the rest of the piece) really just fascinates the hell out of me. It suggests a far more robust past than we currently give our ancestors credit for (despite the monumental amount of information that we lost in the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, and the numerous book burnings that have occurred over the past two thousand years in both eastern and western civilizations).

This is an excellent collection of Baha’i prayers. It is not all of them, but it is a fairly respectable number, and successfully captures the breadth of topics and the style of Baha’i prayers. There is a capacity for spiritual exploration here found by reflecting on various prayers, but I will say again: it is far better in small doses than it is read straight through.

Baha’u’llah, et al. Baha’i Prayers. Baha’i Publishing Trust.

Annotation: The Secret of Divine Civilization

Before I get into the details of this book, I thought I’d start by giving a bit of background on Abdu’l-Baha. He was born in 1844, and spent most of his life in exile or imprisonment beside his father, Baha’u’llah. Baha’u’llah was first thrown into prison when Abdu’l-Baha was 8; a few months later, he was released and forced into exile to Baghdad. This was when Abdu’l-Baha began sharing the same fate as his father, continuing in a state of exile or imprisonment until he was finally released in 1908. That’s 56 years of imprisonment or forced exile, including after the death of Baha’u’llah, after which Abdu’l-Baha took over Guardianship of the Faith. Despite this extended period of exile and imprisonment, Abdu’l-Baha was extremely well read and intelligent, and spoke at length about a great many topics with rather remarkable precision. One of the topics he wrote about was a diatribe about the steps necessary to establish an effective, long lasting, healthy civilization.

The Secret of Divine Civilization feels to a certain extent like the culmination of years of Abdu’l-Baha’s frustration at the idiocy and ignorance being practiced in Persia at the time. Frankly, I can’t blame him. His calls for reform have still not been heeded, even though they seem to make eminent sense on every count. He calls for at least basic education in every town (compulsory if needs be), he urges the Muslim population to re-embrace science and technology, pointing out with a variety of scriptures from the Qu’ran exactly why these are not bad things simply because they have been already embraced by other cultures. Several times through the book, he pauses to readdress one particular passage that the Imams and other religious leaders have latched onto and propagandized to the masses. One of the last times he brings it up really sums it up best:

The Source of Divine wisdom, that Manifestation of Universal Prophethood (Muhammad), encouraging mankind to acquire sciences and arts and similar advantages has commanded them to seek these even in the furthermost reaches of China; yet the incompetent and caviling doctors forbid this, offering as their justification the saying, ‘He who imitates a people is one of them.’ They have not even grasped what is meant by the ‘imitation’ referred to, nor do they know that the Divine religions enjoin upon and encourage all the faithful to adopt such principles as will conduce to continuous improvements, and to acquire from other peoples sciences and arts. (99)

This really grasps the overall mood of the writing in this piece. It is pretty clear that he loved Persia, and was frustrated at just how much it had fallen into ignorance and disrepair.

Something that I find particularly interesting is the emphasis on Persia. His commentary is pretty directly aimed at the Middle East, with an expectation that once Persia gets its act together, that civilization will revive and sweep the world as the dominant unifying force in the world. Assuming the entire region isn’t glassed over in the not-too-distant future, this isn’t that far outside the realm of possibility. If they merely reclaimed their heritage and instituted social reforms (health, education, technology), they could easily become a major force to be reckoned with on both a cultural and a political front. I’m not entirely sure how this change could be implemented, considering the stranglehold the current leaders in the region have over the populace, but I do strongly feel that it is a change that NEEDS to happen, for both regional and global benefit.

One of the other things that I found interesting about this book was the random, seemingly esoteric bits of information that were included. For instance, though soap has been around for millennia, modern soap is credited as an invention by Abdu’llah Buni, a Muslim. He also goes into the history of the nation of Israel (which had not yet reformed at the time of his writing), commenting on the multiple times they were invaded by various cultures, including by Nebuchadnezzar, and that these invasions and dispersals had been foretold as inevitable as they became too prideful and veered from the true intent of their religious teachings. Though he never said it bluntly, it was fairly apparent that he was casting the same aspersions on the Islamic culture. Of course, the first random thing that I noticed in the work was an Islamic parable about a king who decreed “a day of death” where any who came before him on that day would be put to death. The parable continues as the king goes hunting, and becomes separated from his retinue, and is taken in by a desert family. The king promises them aid should they ever need it, and a few years later, the head of the family shows up coincidentally on the day of the dead. The king didn’t want to kill him, and the man asked for a foregoance for a period of one year (until the next day of death) to set his affairs in order. The king agreed, assuming this would be the last time he saw the man. A year later to the day, the man showed up. The king was surprised, and asked him why he would willingly go to his death. The man’s reply was that he would not refute an oath, and that he had faith in his God. He then explained about his God and Christianity, which so moved the king that he abolished the day of death and became a Christian that day.

The parable makes sense within the context of the writing, as Abdu’l-Baha is using it as an example of how living an upright and proper life can do far more to spread the Word of God than living as a “Prophet of the Sword.” It just surprised me a little, because I’d never seen or heard of Abdu’l-Baha using parable in his writings. I really don’t think this says much other than that the majority of what I’ve read up to this point has not been source material (as this is), so much as consolidations of various passages and writings, collected for “ease”. Though I see the benefit and merits of the collections, there is a certain something to be said for reading the source material in its entirety, instead.

Considering the current state of world affairs, I found this book extremely topical, with a lot of very worthwhile information and ideas. If even some of the advice given in this book were followed, I think we would all be better off. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone seeking further insight into the ideals and philosophy of the Baha’i Faith.

Abdu’l-Baha. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1990.

Annotation: The Hidden Words

I’m not exactly sure how to define The Hidden Words. They aren’t prayers (though you could use them as such), nor are they stories, or rules (per se — some feel like they come close). I suppose they could be considered meditations or explorations, and that would come closest to defining where they fit as a collection of writing.

I’m going to have to do some digging to see if this is the complete “Hidden Words,” or if it’s a selection from them: the title is a little ambiguous, in my opinion. The book is fairly small, with a small but readable typeface, and really trims away anything extraneous: the introduction/preface is one page, most of which is taken up by explaining how the book is arranged, and it doesn’t bother with an actual table of contents. The first half is a collection of Hidden Words translated from Arabic. The second half is a collection of Hidden Words translated from Persian. A few pages at the end discuss the basic principles of the Baha’i Faith and the rules we live by, and a brief biography of who Baha’u’llah was.

Of the two collections, I far prefer the Persian translations. The Arabic seems more terse, and almost accusatory compared to the Persian Words. I am not sure if this is because they were written at different times, or if it is just part of the nature of the differences between the two languages. Despite the Persian Writings being longer and more complex, I found them easier to read and understand by a significant margin. While I suppose part of this is perhaps the quality of translation, I think there is something more to it as well. I felt less like I was getting admonished and more like I was getting informed, which is a pretty significant difference, in my opinion.

Allusions to the past seem to interest me in particular, so it should be no surprise that the selection that most caught my eye was one Baha’u’llah wrote reflecting in the covenant made on Mount Paran when Muhammad gathered his army of 10,000 men to take back Mecca. It reads:

Call ye to mind that covenant ye have entered into with Me upon Mount Paran, situate within the hallowed precincts of Zaman. I have taken to witness the concourse on high and the dwellers in the city of eternity, yet now none do I find faithful unto the covenant. Of a certainty pride and rebellion have effaced it from the hearts, in such wise that no trace thereof remaineth. Yet knowing this, I waited and disclosed it not. (Baha’u’llah, 71)

After reading this passage, I became curious as to what exactly he was talking about, finally managing to track down that Mount Paran is a mountain in Pakistan, and is a key holy place in Islamic scripture (though they are not necessarily the same mountains… it is a source of great debate, according to The gist of the quoted passage, as far as I can tell, is a rather directed indictment of the Imams and other religious leaders of Islam, stating that the true intent and nature of Islam has become corrupted and changed. I am definitely intrigued by the concept of searching through other comments such as these and discovering more and more back story as to what exactly Baha’u’llah was referencing.

I may be jumping the gun in saying this, but I do expect that I’ll be returning to the Hidden Words on more than one occasion, as my depth of understanding grows, reassessing what I’ve already read. I do strongly suspect that there is a lot more buried under the surface of these writings that is worth examining.

Baha’u’llah. The Hidden Words: Selected Writings of Baha’u’llah. Baha’i Publishing Trust.

Annotation: Abdul-Baha, Einstein, and Ether

While not directly relating to spirituality or mysticism, I recently came across a small book about the Faith’s take on modern science, in particular the 19th century concept of Ether. It interested me, and seemed topical enough to read and comment on. The book is short, and consists of a great deal of reiterating the same point over and over again, the entire piece written as a counterpoint to some scientists’ refutation of Abdu’l-Baha’s infallibility (and by inference, Baha’u’llah’s infallibility), based on some statements Abdu’l-Baha made in reference to Ether around the turn of the century. Even the brevity of this book still felt too long to the point of irrelevance: it makes a valid point combined with defensive spin doctoring, which frankly I think could have been addressed with a single page containing Abdu’l-Baha’s actual commentary and an explanation thereof.

The whole hullabaloo is silly. The concept of Ether (the mechanical, physical medium found in space which facilitates the passage of light, not the chemical) has been largely discredited for years, disproved shortly after the turn of the century by Einstein with a specialized application of the Theory of Relativity. Unfortunately, Abdu’l-Baha made several references to Ether over the course of his Guardianship (along with a variety of other scientific breakthroughs that have all since proven to be true), and this has been apparently an arguing point for scientists to disprove the claims of Baha’u’llah’s divinity (since Abdu’l-Baha was Baha’u’llah’s son and the Guardian of the Faith after Baha’u’llah passed on, he was theoretically infallible).

It’s true, he comments on Ether on several occasions. The only issue here is that the scientists who are arguing against the Baha’i Faith are ignoring the fact that he also explicitly qualified the use of the term as an intellectual concept, not a mechanical medium. Much in the same way that there is a current push to return to using the term ether (or aether) as a conceptual terminology for the space-time “fabric.” Abdu’l-Baha applied precisely the same attributes to Ether as Einstein did to his Space-Time fabric: it is a difference in terminology, not in idea.

That’s all. It’s really that simple. What I just explained in two paragraphs is really all that Matthews says. He just says it over the course of a few pages (albeit with a bit more background, explanation, and quotes from relevant sources), and then reiterates the exact same information again, repeating this process for a good 40 pages (as I said, this was not a very long book). He comments on the independent conclusions found by a group of scholars examining the subject down in Australia. He adds quotes from the Universal House of Justice’s take on the matter, which is just another reiteration of the same information, namely that Abdu’l-Baha was talking about a concept, not the physical medium known as Ether. He adds quotes of various prominent scientists, Einstein included, who use the term Ether in exactly the same way.

I understand that he really wanted to hammer his point home, but to a certain extent it felt like he was just padding the length in order to justify the cost of the book. Not only was it lengthened by the heavy use of quotes and citations, but the references list of where he got his information was easily an extra 6 pages. I will admit that I have a certain bias in favor of brevity, thus I do think that sometimes you just need to know where to stop.

Matthews, Gary L. Abdu’l-Baha, Einstein, and Ether. Stonehaven Press.

Annotation: The Kitab-i-Aqdas

The Kitab-i-Aqdas is the most holy book in the Baha’i Faith, declaring the rules and guidelines for man to live by for the next thousand years. It was originally written in formal Persian by Baha’u’llah, and was later mostly translated into English by Shoghi Effendi, his great grandson. After Shoghi Effendi’s death, the Universal House of Justice (the guiding body for the religion) finished the translation. Unlike (for instance) the Bible, the rules to live by are not related through stories or analogy: they are straightforward, direct and to the point. I’m not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing: while it is far more precise (a good thing when the rules have to last a thousand years), I feel a little frustrated at the lack of new information, the unlocking of the mysteries of our relationship with God and the higher existence. While I understand that those were released in other tablets, I guess I was still expecting at least a small nod to the spiritual side of things.

The particular edition of the Kitab-i-Aqdas that I read also included elaborations and explanations collected by the Universal House of Justice, as well as two introductions (one written by the House, the other written by Shoghi Effendi). This was kind of frustrating because both introductions essentially talked about the same things: when it was written, why it was withheld for nearly 20 years after it was written before Baha’u’llah released it, and a basic summary of the key items to pay attention to. You would think, considering how much the introductions (the House one especially) build up the Kitab-i-Aqdas, that the book itself would be rather large: it’s 70 pages, followed by another 70 pages of some questions answered by Baha’u’llah and some accompanying texts, and then 90 pages of “notes” collected by the House to clarify things brought up in the previous text.

The actual text of the Kitab-i-Aqdas is rather readable. While the translations are somewhat colloquial to the era (lots of “thee”s “hath”s and “verily”s), the messages Baha’u’llah was trying to convey are very clear and to the point. A great deal of the text is taken up with negating or altering the rules of the work that came before (though, true to form, it primarily deals with the rules of the most immediately previous religion, which in turn dealt with the rules of the previous religion before that, et cetera). The guidelines for inheritance, burial, and marriage are also addressed directly and at length, several of which were particularly interesting. For instance, while it does explicitly allow the possibility of having two spouses, it places a caveat of absolute equality and fairness for both wives (for instance) that effectively precludes current society’s use of that law. There are a few rules and guidelines like that throughout the work, things that Baha’u’llah felt necessary to explicitly include, but likewise was sure that we were not yet ready to deal with. This does suggest, though, that at some point in the next thousand years, we WILL reach a point of social maturity to handle it.

The emphasis of most of the rules is on the family. He makes a point of frowning heavily on divorce, but acknowledges that sometimes it is necessary, and provides specific provisions to follow if divorce is necessary. Adultery is explicitly damned, but with a monetary punishment, not physical. (19 mithqals of gold… roughly 2.227 troy ounces. This cost doubles every time it happens.) I consider this rather forward thinking compared to the punishment for adultery in previous religions. As a counterpoint to the lack of physical punishment in situations such as that, Baha’u’llah is quite explicit on the penalties for murder and arson, encouraging the death penalty for those actions. In the questions and answers, he elaborates that life imprisonment is also acceptable.

I’ve digressed. Returning to the family emphasis in the writing, it is rather clearly exhibited in the guidelines for inheritance, which in fact take up several pages of the primary body of text, detailing a share based system of division. Once the cost of the funeral arrangements have been made (the deceased is to be wrapped in clean silk or cotton with a ring on one finger that is inscribed with the saying “I come forth from God, and return unto Him, detached from all save Him, holding fast to His Name, the Merciful, the Compassionate.”) and the huququllah is paid (“the Right of God,” a bounty paid to the Universal House of Justice in certain circumstances), the rest of the estate is divided up with the children receiving the largest share, followed by the wife, then the siblings, et cetera, all the way out to teachers. I do find it interesting that Baha’u’llah takes so much time to work out such a specific detail for inheritance when there is also a provision that all individuals upon reaching adulthood should make a will for themselves — the rules for inheritance in the Kitab-i-Aqdas are only for cases where there is no will or that the will enters attestation.

I’m not really sure what my reaction to this book is. On one level, I really appreciate the succinct nature of it, but at the same time, it does very little to satisfy my curiosity as a spiritual seeker. I am left very much in the same sentiment that I’ve been in for some time: while I believe in the message, I am to some extent a “lapsed Baha’i,” choosing to operate very much on my own amalgam of beliefs with only a loose structure provided by the Faith. While it was good to gain the insight of the original text and to know precisely what is expected of me from the religion, I find that I am losing my sense of wonder in the world, and worry a great deal that I won’t recover that very vital aspect of who I am. It is an incredible sense of loss that religion, as yet, has not assuaged.

Baha’u’llah. The Kitab-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book. Baha’i Publishing Trust.