Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Let the Renaissance Begin

He is, and should for all time be regarded, first and foremost, as the Center and Pivot of Bahá'u'lláh's peerless and all-enfolding Covenant, His most exalted handiwork, the stainless Mirror of His light, the perfect Exemplar of His teachings, the unerring Interpreter of His Word, the embodiment of every Bahá'í ideal, the incarnation of every Bahá'í virtue . . . Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 134.

This photograph of Abdu’l-Baha’s hand, from the book Written in Light, edited by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, was taken before Abdu’l-Baha started allowing himself to be freely documented with cameras.

In 1903, Helen Coles was so insistent that she be allowed to take his picture that at last Abdu’l-Baha relented and said that she could photograph his hand. She did, and the picture was eagerly viewed by a select few of the believers when she returned home. It was termed “the hand that holds the world.” --Written in Light, p. 4.

I still keep a picture of Abdu’l-Baha by my bedside. My reluctance to recycle it or pass it on is part superstition, part loyal affection. I’m not sure he was a great thinker, but I am sure he was a great person, and I still like having him around.

In a discussion-group exchange on sexuality and the Baha’i Faith which has been preserved at Baha’i Library Online, Baha’i scholar R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram said many interesting and insightful things, as he had a habit of doing; I highly recommend the full read (link). Midway through the document he says, “I have copies of hundreds of pages of wonderful pilgrim notes that would be problematic to publish.” He continues,

Abdu'l- Baha was a very physical person and interacted very physically with those around him. He touched, patted, held, stroked hands, arms and shoulders of both men and women while talking with them. He put his arm around people. He stroked their hair. He had a great sense of humor and indulged in horse play when in groups of men, slapping faces and bopping people with his umbrella. (He was also known for his extensive repertoire of dirty jokes in Turkish.)

Judging from the sample summary Jackson gives, those problematic pages would be wonderful to publish. He goes on,

The response of many American women to him was also very physical, indeed could be profoundly sexual. At that time in the US, the epitome of male sexual attraction was a mature, bearded man. There were a large number of sects started in the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s by imposing, bearded men who gathered a disproportionately female following. In almost every one, these women were sexually exploited. One of the remarkable things about Abdu'l-Bahá is that there is not the faintest trace of a shred of a hint that he ever took advantage of the way women responded to him. And there certainly would have been no objection on the part of many if he had tried. One of the beliefs of the American Bahá'í community at that time was that there was to be a third Manifestation for this dispensation born in America and there was quite an eagerness to be the mother. . . . Abdu'l-Bahá both accepted the intensity of people's feelings for him and attempted to direct that intensity into suitable channels. Indeed, he even accepted the propriety of intense love relationships between men and women within the faith as long as that love did not lead to illicit sexual activity. (This is documented in both pilgrim notes and tablets. Some of the individuals involved in these couples were married to other people at the time.)

Oh, that sexy Abdu’l-Baha and those horny American women. I sympathize with the women; I might well have had a yen for him myself.

I wish Jackson had lived to write a biography of Abdu’l-Baha and a book on sexuality and the Faith and a whole bunch of other books. He didn’t, damn him. But what he left behind, bless him, is suggestive. The paragraph I have quoted above ends with this observation,

Now, it hardly needs to be said that anything that even comes close to sex is a frontline freakout issue. But, how can we possibly understand Abdu'l-Bahá's relationship with the community, or indeed the issues involved in current interpersonal relations, without looking at such evidence?

I’ve always felt, in a rather vague, unarticulated, possibly indefensible way, that the full benefit of Abdu’l-Baha was not accruing to the community of Baha’is. There was a Baha’i children’s song I knew: “I am a Baha’i, I am a Baha’i, Abdu’l-Baha’s my example.” Every time I sang the song with kids I thought, “In what way do we take Abdu’l-Baha as our example? In what way do we hope these kids will take him as their example?” I’m sure many Baha’is can answer those questions in very personal ways. I’d love to hear those answers. To me, at that time, the words of the song suggested that stories about him ought to have a much greater place in our community life than I experienced. They could be keys to interpreting Baha’ullah’s own writings. They could influence administrative decisions. They could trigger a renaissance of dirty jokes on Mt. Carmel.

I know those stories can’t have the standing of authoritative writings, but surely Abdu’l-Baha’s example was in his living as well as his words. Though he’s not around any more, the stories about him are. That is what we have to tell us what kind of figure he cut in the world. Where is the line between what they can be and what they can’t or shouldn’t be? If I was still a Baha’i, I think I would give more attention to those stories and the possibilities on the right side of the line.

Regardless, the stories about him are enjoyable, and that seems reason enough to grant them generous space.

At the second Baha’i World Congress, in 1992, an elderly American woman who had met Abdu’l-Baha as a child told the story of her encounter. I wrote it up as a short story a couple of years later, fictionalizing a little to put flesh on its bones. Probably a sin in the book of some. Oh well. I rooted the story out of an old file-folder recently and deleted enough extraneous words to make the prose minimally presentable. I still wince a bit when I read it, but here it is. I remembered the story well enough to write it down, but not the name of the teller. Can you tell me whose story this is? I’d love to know.

A Visitor

Elizabeth sat on the stairs in the entry hall picking dirt from under her fingernails. She was grumpy and bored. She kicked the bottom step with her heels and listened to the grandfather clock mark the passage of time. She watched a small spider making its web between the rungs of the railing then mashed it between her fingers and wiped it on her pants.

“Come here and change into a nice dress,” Mrs. Campbell called from upstairs. “A visitor is coming today.”

“I don't want to,” Elizabeth replied, too quietly to be heard on the second floor. Adults were not to be trusted; they didn’t like naughty children. Only Mama and Papa could be trusted.

Suddenly the room felt different, bright. Elizabeth smiled and giggled to herself as if she were being lightly tickled. Through the window she could still see the cloudy dark sky and the drizzle that had thwarted her morning plans for playing in the garden. But inside the house, at least in that room, it was sunny and warm. “Maybe I will change my clothes,” she thought.

Bouncing up the stairs she called, “Mrs. Campbell, I want to wear my very best dress! And I need a pencil and a piece of paper please.”

Mrs. Campbell was waiting with the dress in hand, so glad to get the girl into something presentable that she made no demands as to washing before dressing. Elizabeth took the pencil and paper and scribbled purposefully until the marks seemed complete. Then she descended the stairs to wait.

Almost immediately a knock came at the door. The sunshine is here, she thought. She opened the door and greeted a short elderly man in a long white robe. If she hadn’t been so immediately held by his eyes Elizabeth would have thought he looked quite silly walking around in a nightgown. Age had bleached his full beard and the curly wisps of hair that poked out from under his turban.

Elizabeth handed him the piece of paper covered in scribbles. “This is a prayer for you,” she said.

“Thank you,” he replied as he bent forward to receive the gift.

Just then Papa rushed in from the back of the house to greet the guest himself. Elizabeth felt robbed.

Papa walked him through the living room to the sun porch where Mama lay sleeping, sick with tuberculosis. Elizabeth was not allowed in the room, but she peeked through the tall French doors and watched. The visitor stood by the side of the bed and looked at Mama’s face a long time. He put his left hand firmly on her left hand. Then with his right he touched her forehead. Elizabeth imagined the warmth of his hands. She wished that she herself was ill.

Very slowly he removed his hand from Mama’s face. He stood perfectly still. He closed his eyes and seemed to be saying something, although no sound came from his lips. The room had been stuffy and awful since Mama took ill; it now felt fresh. Elizabeth, who could hardly sit still five minutes was startled when the visitor lifted his face. He looked at Papa and smiled. “She will be fine,” he said.

Papa seemed confused and surprised. The visitor indicated with a nod of his head that he would like to sit in the living room, and Papa graciously led him there, calling to Mrs. Campbell to prepare some tea. As the two men passed Elizabeth standing at the door, the visitor smiled at her, and she knew she was invited too.

The visitor surveyed the room, its fine furnishings, the paintings on the walls, the glass and porcelain vases. “You have a beautiful house, Mr. James,” he said. “I hope someday it is a beautiful home.”

Papa straitened his vest and cleared his throat nervously. Just then Mrs. Campbell entered with the tea tray. She served the two men and turned to leave. The visitor stopped her with a touch on her arm and silently indicated Elizabeth sitting slumped in a chair across the room. She was not usually in the room when Mr. James received guests, and she certainly never took tea with them. But the visitor insisted in his silent way. So Mrs. Campbell took another cup and saucer from the cupboard and poured Miss. Elizabeth some tea.

Elizabeth sat up straight in her chair and received the cup. She tried to sip like an adult. Papa and the visitor began talking in earnest. She didn’t follow their conversation of words. She was wrapped in her own conversation with the visitor. At least they seemed be speaking, she and the man with the white beard, in smiles and glances. “This is a man who likes naughty children,” she thought. Certainly he had come to see her just as much as he had come to see Papa.

The men’s conversation continued for perhaps an hour, but not more. Then Papa walked the visitor to the door. The white-haired man smiled at Elizabeth, and then he was gone.

She sat on the steps for a while remembering the morning. Maybe there were three adults who could be trusted.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Mind of the Big Lesson-Plan Maker

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?