Warning: Heavy Irony Ahead
The God of progressive revelation is shockingly inept. He sends Jesus, His messenger and a perfect mirror of His divinity, with instructions exactly appropriate for the needs of humanity at that time and for the next seven or so centuries but neglects to emphasize the importance of getting the message written down. Instead, the guy wanders around the countryside healing people, speaking in riddles, and selecting a fickle, slow-brained, and foolish band of disciples to found his church. Or maybe he didn’t. We don’t really know because, damn it, he apparently only wrote in the sand.
So—if the Baha’i corrections to the Christian story are, in fact, correct—when the Gospel started to be recorded some decades later, everything was already all wrong: Jesus was God, the bread and wine were not just symbols, and Christ’s physical body had risen from the dead. One can almost hear God exclaiming “Jee-zus!” in exasperation as He bangs His glorious brow on the walls of heaven. But, c’mon, He has only Himself to blame. Jesus was, after all, a perfect reflection.
And, really, what could be expected from a God who, the last time around, thought that stoning for any little offense was just what humanity needed and that genocide in the service of land grabbing was progress? Or was all that nasty stuff just human distortion of divine intentions? We, the intractable students, could always be to blame.
But I beg you, oh believers in progressive revelation, don’t edit out as mere corruption of the truth that story of Noah, passed out drunk and naked, so incongruous with his status as unblemished mirror of the Celestial Beauty. God himself has good reason to drown his despair with earthly spirits, so why not one appointed to carry out his plan—so simple, neat, and reasonable, yet ineffectual in a world that will have nothing of tidiness and rationality?
The foundational mistake must have been making the creature in the image of the Creator. We humans do have a way of making things up, telling stories, and creating new stuff. Perhaps Noah had a vision of 2008 in which the failed, corrupted, and lifeless revelation of Jesus, fueled by pesky human ingenuity, would keep sprouting new forms (not all nice) and popping up everywhere like an invasive species, while a small band of intrepid Baha’is, holding their heads high, would chant
The old religions are passé,
Baha’i alone is for today!
as they hold aloft the Kitab-i-Aqdas and march into the bright new tomorrow.
We are in that future now. Entry by troops is happening, but those crazy Africans and South Americans have got it all wrong. They are supposed to be joining Ruhi study groups en masse, not opening a new Pentecostal center every week in Rio and Nairobi.
All this despite the infinite wisdom of the five-, three-, and one-year plans. God should have known, must have known, that even this latest and greatest, hot-off-the-assembly-line dispensation, with its anti-schism super-plus covenant, was doomed to failure when that Shoghi couldn’t even follow simple instructions and write a freakin’ will. The new infallibility protocol is buggy, big-time. Vet your code, man!—I mean, God.
Enough irony, Ms. Leaf. Say what you mean.
Okay. I don’t like the Baha’i doctrine of progressive revelation any more.
It was the hook that first snagged me for the Faith. But its tidy narrative has little to do with actual religious history. I've been harsh with my ironic take, to make a point, yet I've hardly touched what could be said. And the God implied by that trim tale is to me unbearable. If God has been rolling out revelations like new versions of Windows Operating System for soul and society—well—I think I’ll take the gas pipe, thank you. Ditto if we’ve been failing a very good K-12 curriculum.
Maybe some eloquent Baha’is with good depth perception will define a new way of speaking of progressive revelation that is worthy. Maybe they already have and I just haven’t read any of it. I believe if you’re going to reject something you should reckon with the best of what it can be, not just the worst of what it is. So bring it on.
But I don’t like the view of revelation as communiqué from God, message transmission with varying degrees of noise on the line. I don’t like the neat divide between human and divine implied. And I don’t like being cast in the great tale as corruptor, not creator. The House likes to say that Baha’i institutions will succeed where others have failed because they are ordained by Baha’u’llah, manifestation of God. From God: success, triumph, glory! Made by humans: nice try, doomed to fail.
Scripture is more like a slug to the gut and a whisper in the ear than a set of age-appropriate instructions. And we made it. We have been discovering holiness and creating God for a long, long time. In the last few thousand years we’ve made records of our joy and folly to pass on. Baha’i rhetoric claims the relatively simple provenance of Baha’u’llah’s writings as a great advantage—the message got through this time. And atheist or otherwise debunking rhetoric often cites the humanness of Baha’i or other scriptures to knock them down. Both groups assume the same idea of revelation, only one thinks it is obviously happening and the other thinks it obviously isn’t.
I think scripture, and more broadly religion, is collaboration, human expressions inspired by divine presence. With a lot of foolishness—and worse—mixed in. Scriptures are not trap doors leading away from our own responsibility—God said it, I believe it, that settles it. No, they are testimony; they are invitation.
I know that my view doesn’t sit prettily with Baha’i beliefs about Baha’u’llah and his compositions. Nor with those of Biblical literalists. Nor those of most Muslims concerning the Qur’an. But even if God does send messages through Messengers, then what? The problems of interpretation and response remain. And they depend on whom you believe God is.
I believe that God is not a distant schoolmaster.
God is a small child whose excitement at your return home shows in the rapid action of her knees as her figure bobs up and down. She toddles forward a few slow steps, pauses to set down her toy guitar, then runs as best she can, all enthusiasm. How will you receive her? What great play do you make for her delight?
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Warning: Heavy Irony Ahead