Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hey, It’s Masá’il!

My favorite month in the Baha’i calendar! I think the month named “Questions” should be a nineteen-day extravaganza of inquiry. If Questions is an attribute or name of God, then it seems improper for Baha’is to keep their questions tucked away. What would happen if during this month all Baha’is looked inside, into the shadowy corners of their minds and hearts, and coaxed out all unspoken questions . . .?

Why haven’t more of the Bab’s writings been translated? How do we know when the Universal House of Justice is legislating, and has it ever legislated on anything? Why isn’t Khadíjih Bagum one of the Letters of the Living? How much is the salary of the Secretary of the U.S. NSA? Do sexually active gay Baha’is have their administrative rights removed more often than violent abusers? Do violent abusers ever have their administrative rights removed? Are the violations against Iranian Baha’is by the Iranian government the only government abuses of human rights that Baha’is are allowed to speak out about and organize to stop?

Does a paper on which the text of the long healing prayer is printed have magical healing powers, as suggested in the prayer? Does my membership in the Baha’i community hinder or help my spiritual growth? My intellectual growth? Is teaching the Faith proselytizing by a different name? Why are there so few excellent books in the secondary literature of the Faith? Has pre-publication review been in the best interest of the Faith’s development? How can cannabis damage the soul? How can Baha’is resolve feelings of guilt for past actions? If Baha’i houses of worship are supposed to be places we go to hear the word of God recited, why aren’t acoustics the top priority in design instead of appearance? Shouldn’t the Temple of Light be the temple of sound and spoken word?

Diverse, perplexing, and unanswered questions: Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Question: How can “questions” be an attribute of God? God is glory. God is beauty. God is light. God is mercy. God is perfection. God is might. God is knowledge. God is power. God is “questions”? How? I don’t know . . . but I like it. Perhaps “questions” as a divine attribute is a way of naming the divine relationship to our free will, God’s wondering what we will choose, the self-chosen not-knowing of the All Knowing.

When I think about questions as something holy in us, an attribute of God that we are to reflect, I think of curiosity, of openness, of knowing that one doesn’t know. Questions imply a relationship between the asker and the truth, between the questioner and the world. By questioning, the intellect approaches the divine with its own proper need, the need to know, to understand. Is there a God? How do I know? What good is God anyway? The questions of the mind blend with the questions of the heart. And when we bring our questions to each other, something happens. Both by our questions and by our responses to the questions of others we reveal ourselves. Questions can be creative. Questions create community.

Independent investigation of truth is proclaimed as a primary principal of the Baha’i Faith. I wonder, though, is there even such a thing as independent investigation of truth? Can we seek truth without being in conversation? Can we come to the truth without each other? And what if we do? So I’ve come to the truth, all by my lonesome. Great. The truth is, we are not independent. We are always interdependent. And our search for truth is in community, a community of shared language, of shared history, story, and culture, or, at the very least, shared humanity. Nor can the divinity of questions be realized if we are in isolation from each other. The questions need the community and the community needs the questions.

But questions are nothing much if they do not lead to any exploration of possible answers. Or if the answers are predetermined. And if the answers are not predetermined, then they will not be the same for everyone in the community. Do people slip from active participation in Baha’i community, are they marginalized or kicked out, not merely because of this or that hot-button issue—although that is certainly there—but because of a collective and institutional discomfort with questions, their contagiousness, and the diversity and change which an open-ended creative relationship to the truth must yield?

Not only do we reveal ourselves in our responses to our own and other people’s questions, but we also reveal our theology and our relationship to the divine. If a religious community does not allow questions, real questions, open questions, challenging questions, and if it doesn’t want the people who question, who manifest this divine attribute, then I wonder what kind of God that community serves. Aren’t questions an expression of our desire for the unknown? The paradox at the heart of Baha’i faith—that we are created to “know” and “worship” (short obligatory prayer) what “minds cannot grasp . . . nor hearts contain” (Arabic Hidden Words)—is a paradox which, if lived, must yield questions and more questions.

Can the Baha’i Faith be a community that lives its questions? Or is it bound to be a community of quick answers? Are the principles of the Faith ready answers to our troubles, or arrows pointing in the directions where productive questions lie? The unity of humanity: What is unity? Why are we divided? Who is my neighbor? Do I feel heard? Do I listen to others? Is unity necessarily good? How does God want us to live our unity?

Questions lead to other questions. How is it that neither unity nor oneness is among the divine attributes on the calendrical list? How can our Baha’i community collectively manifest those that are, such as mercy, light, honor, dominion, and might? How will we know that the power we manifest is a proper reflection of divine power?

One way is to question the community's exercise of power. Looking at this list of attributes, “questions” seems to me the safeguard of all. A community must question itself as it attempts to reflect the divine in its collective life.

In the Kitab-i-Aqdas (p. 64), Baha’u’llah says:

In the Bayán it had been forbidden you to ask Us questions. The Lord hath now relieved you of this prohibition, that ye may be free to ask what you need to ask, but not such idle questions as those on which the men of former times were wont to dwell. Fear God, and be ye of the righteous! Ask ye that which shall be of profit to you in the Cause of God and His dominion, for the portals of His tender compassion have been opened before all who dwell in heaven and on earth.

This admonition can easily be used to maintain the status quo. If there are questions which the fear of God should keep us from asking—a proposition I’m not ready to affirm—they will likely be suspiciously close to the questions that most need to be asked. The questions “which shall be of profit to you in the Cause of God” may therefore look to some like a threat to the Cause of God. Who will decide which questions can be asked? Faith is a risky affair. If Baha’is err in the direction of checking questions to protect the Cause of God, they may protect themselves from their heart’s desire.

I think allowing questions is closely akin to allowing God, and that is our job, to allow God, to allow the mystery of our own hearts, the uncertainty of our lives, the fragility of our hope. I think it’s possible to live in holiness without answers, but I don’t think it’s possible to live in holiness without questions.

What do you think?