This is a long post. I probably will not post anything more personal or more important than this (so if it makes you queasy, avert your gaze now). It's been bubbling in my head for most of this week. My friend Don Bader and I were on another hike this Tuesday morning, and he was asking me about one of my Seven Random Facts. There I had written:
I’m a practical idealist. I believe the paradigms that govern society and human relations have worked well for a long time, but are proving themselves woefully inadequate for an emerging global civilization. I see the accelerating turbulence in human society as the death pangs of the current defective order. Instead of trying to fix these dying paradigms, I work to help establish the foundations of the systems that I’m convinced will rise up and redefine our world over the next century. That's why I don't complain much or criticize the way things are. I'm a builder.So here goes explaining that.
On the eve of the prior day, May 23, a meeting was taking place in a room, on the second floor of a modest home, in a dusty corner of the city of Shiraz, in southern
The acceptance of this claim by his guest
Revolutions come upon us quietly, like on “little cat’s feet” (as in Carl Sandburg’s Fog). This week, Bahá’ís around the world
Now, I’ll admit, I’m a skeptic. I hear things like this and I raise my eyebrows, have my doubts. Religion, of any ilk, is not exactly a trustworthy institution these days. The existence of a divine being who intervenes in human affairs, in my affairs, in the affairs of anyone, is questionable. Yet, I count myself among one of those 5 million people. Why? How can a scientist, a thinker, a skeptic like me, come to accept that some person has some special access to some remote unseen source of knowledge, and that that knowledge is relevant enough to my life that I’m going to change what I do based upon it?
First, I think I have to ask myself, is it possible that such a being, a messenger or manifestation of the Divine exists? Is it possible? Might it be true? For the answers, I look to the pattern of history. Civilizations have been born in many ways. One of the most frequent and enduring is the civilization that is born because of an individual who proclaims “I am not an average human.” The pattern has been that these individuals proclaim that they are not expounding their own philosophy, but are relaying a message, or being a mouthpiece or manifesting the Divine. They state that they have come to revitalize humanity and that this task is not of their own volition. They gain nothing from it other than pain, suffering, exile, and often death.
History knows these individuals by the names of
“...A community of believers forms around this focal centre of spiritual life and authority; a new system of values begins to reorder both consciousness and behavior; the arts and sciences respond; a restructuring of laws and of the administration of social affairs takes place. Slowly, but irresistibly, a new civilization emerges, one that so fulfils the ideals and so engages the capacities of millions of human beings that it does indeed constitute a new world, a world far more real to those who ‘live, move, and have their being’ in it than the earthly foundations on which it rests. Throughout the centuries that follow, society continues to depend for its cohesion and self-confidence primarily on the spiritual impulse that gave it birth.”
I cannot deny that this has occurred repeatedly. And it has occurred for each of these divine Manifestations. On this basis, I accept that there is validity to their messages, their teachings, their claims of the existence of something outside our ken. I accept that Manifestations of the Divine enter the world at rare intervals and release creative forces that revolutionize life.
But the question of God still remains in the mind of the skeptic. If you’ve noticed, I’ve been careful not to even use the word “God” until now. (I wanted to tell you that the content of Samuel Morse’s first message, but didn’t because it contained the word “God.”) I suppose I’ve been cautious because I assume I’m talking to other skeptics, scientists, and pragmatists. I don’t want to close minds by using a word that is fraught with so many assumptions and difficulties.
My best friend is what I call a "born again atheist.” He’s not an “anti-theist” that is, he’s not against God. He just doesn’t believe that “God” exists. What I’ve learned from him, and from others who claim that “God does not exist” or who are doubtful about the existence of God is that they are not rejecting the mystical or the divine or the transcendent. They rejecting a particular concept of God.
They (and I) accept that things exist that cannot be grasped, that the senses cannot contain, that are unfathomable, mystical, spiritual, infinite. Every time they (and I) look up at the night sky and contemplate that it doesn’t end -- that there is no edge (and if there is, what would be on the “outside” of it?) we accept the existence of the infinite even though we don’t understand it. It’s staring back at us with the eyes of all those galaxies we can’t even see. So it is not this concept of “God the mysterious” or “God the infinite” that people reject. Most doubters and skeptics reject the concept of anthropomorphizing God: God as dude, who behaves like most other dudes, only bigger and way more extreme.
Bahá’u’lláh explains God as an “unknowable essence.” My mind can accept this God – a source of creative energy. I can also accept that any attempt to describe this unknowable essence must of necessity fall short. The human mind cannot contain the infinite. Anything we say is speculative. This is not to say that the descriptions of God in ages past were incorrect. They were simply describing the abstract, the indescribable, in terms that could be grasped by minds of those times. As the child grows and becomes capable of grasping the abstract, so descriptions of God change and evolve from age to age. Thus the prior concepts of “God” are not intrinsically “wrong” or in conflict with one another. I can live with all of that.
God as “unknowable essence,” as a source of creative energy, is not something I have to blindly “believe in.” I can actually experience this God. Every day I see signs of the unknowable essence. From the unwinding of a double helix of DNA to the pulsating beauty of retinal blood vessels, to the sounds of my children laughing, I see traces of this unknowable essence, of transcendence that is God. I’m content to not try to understand it beyond that. God, the unknowable essence, I can believe in.
So, I accept that there is God, the unknowable essence. I accept, (because history seems to clearly prove), that this unknowable essence does intervene in human affairs from time to time in a very concentrated way through the agency of these Manifestations of the Divine. But am I saying that they are all the same? Am I saying that the religions they founded all are true? Am I saying that their source is the same and therefore that God and Allah and Yahweh and Jehovah are all the same? Yep.
Huh? If that’s the case, why am I a Bahá’í? Why choose a specific Faith above another? Why am I not a follower of
However, their social teachings – those that guide the complexities of society -- are not the same. They change from time to time in accordance to the circumstances of humanity at the time of their appearance: one says you can divorce, another says you can’t. Eat pork; eat what you want. Have four wives; don’t have four wives. These differences exist not because of intrinsic differences between the Manifestations or of their source. The differences in the social teachings exist only because of the circumstances of humanity at a particular time and place in history. Math for one grade is different than math for a different grade, not because the teachers are in conflict, but because the students are different. The religions are not really different religions. They are manifestations of one common faith. We just haven't recognized that. Once humanity understands this, religious strife will fade.
The spiritual teachings of long ago are still valid today. This is the reason millions of people continue to find sustenance in faiths that are thousands of years old. However, people are increasingly disillusioned by their religions (or any religion) because they do not appear to address the needs of the age, they do not appear to be relevant to life in the 21st century.
This set of ideas on the progressive nature of religion is the fundamental essence of the teachings of the Divine Manifestation in this day: there is only one “God”; the same “God” has sent these Divine Manifestations from time to time to educate humanity. Bahá’u’lláh is the most recent of these Manifestations with guidance from the Divine to move humanity to its next level of development – to a global civilization based upon the fundamental principle of the oneness of humankind.
The spiritual laws today are the same as those of all the previous iterations of the Divine Manifestation. The social teachings are renewed for the emerging global society. Their mere enunciation over 150 years ago unleashed the forces which propelled them in the forefront of the standards of civil society. When they were place before humanity by Bahá’u’lláh at that time, they were unthinkable, punishable:
- The independent search after truth, unfettered by superstition or tradition;
- The oneness of the entire human race, the pivotal principle and fundamental doctrine of the Faith;
- The basic unity of all religions;
- The condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class or national;
- The harmony which must exist between religion and science;
- The equality of men and women, the two wings on which the bird of human kind is able to soar;
- The introduction of compulsory education;
- The adoption of a universal auxiliary language;
- The abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty;
- The institution of a world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations;
- The exaltation of work, performed in the spirit of service, to the rank of worship;
- The glorification of justice as the ruling principle in human society,
- And the establishment of a permanent and universal peace as the supreme goal of all mankind
That’s what excites me. That’s what makes this week and the anniversary of that conversation so profound. That’s why I’m optimistic about the future of humanity, despite the darkness on the immediate horizon. That’s why I don’t scratch my head and wonder, “What in the world happened in the middle of the 19th century that has caused humanity to progress further in the past 150 years than it had in thousands of years? What’s the source of the revolution and upheaval in human affairs that is taking place?” This guidance is what gives me the tools to help build systems that will redefine our world over the coming centuries. It is the basis for the new paradigm I refer to. Samuel Morse's devise, without the wires and the keys and the clicking is the cell phone in my pocket. The revolution is visible. I, the skeptic, the scientist, the thinker, have heard little cat’s feet upon which the revolution arrived. The paradigm makes sense, both to my mind and to my heart.