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I’m leading a discussion group about the spiritual essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Its the second time I’m doing this and it is enjoyable and enriching. We use “Emerson as a Spiritual Guide” by Barry Andrews, published by Skinner House Books, Unitarian Universalist Association publishing house. I highly recommend the book to anyone who wants to learn more about Emerson’s spiritual writings.
In reading Emerson’s essay, The Over-Soul, I found this time that I have much more clarity. One passage struck me as particularly important: “For the soul is true to itself, and the man in whom it is shed abroad cannot wander from the present, which is infinite, to a future which would be finite.”
This is related to an idea that Joesph Campbell expressed — “Eternity has nothing to do with time.”
Why am I suddenly writing about this? First of all I need to get back blogging!! Secondly these assertions are helpful to me as I seek to be in the present and mindful of it. I thought they might be helpful to you.
What is the Will of God and why does it get blamed for bad things that happen to people?
Is there a God who will’s women to be raped so that a child can be conceived? Is there a God who sends storms and earthquakes to punish people who sin? Do storms appear in answer to the bad behavior of people?
Some people believe that God will do anything to create life – “Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, an Indiana Republican, turned a few heads and dropped a few jaws on Tuesday night when he said that pregnancies resulting from rape were “something that God intended to happen.”
Others pray to a God who gets angry and fly’s off the handle, indiscriminately destroying life and property because He doesn’t like the behavior of some people.
The Huffington Post reported this:
“Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of Westboro pastor Fred Phelps, has spewed a series of tweets about Hurricane Sandy since the storm first brewed in the Caribbean last week. “God sent the whirlwind. #ThankGodForRighteousJudgment,” Phelps-Roper tweeted after deaths were announced in Cuba.”
Phelps-Roper also cited President Obama and the gay and lesbian communities as the source of God’s wrath.
This God is like us. He gets angry and smites us when we displease him. In fact he is like our air force raining drone bombers on a village, going after bad actors and killing innocent civilians in the process. Some God. But of course that’s the God of the Old Testament. Just a little more evolved than the gods of Ancient Greece.
But a God who is so capricious? What if God, the creative force in the universe, simply is? Like the sun. Constant, implacable, disinterested in our affairs. A source of great power, creative energy and light. But not ever angry or glad, just there for us to turn to, to draw on and in existence since before people evolved on the planet, before there was a planet.
That’s the only God I can imagine or believe in. When the earth was a cruel place inhabited by monsters and slime – there was the creative force. When Hitler or Genghis Khan decided to kill his way to utopia – there was the creative force, being abused and misused beyond recognition. And also there for anyone who wanted to stand up to Hitler or Khan by fighting him or at least keeping up her spirit in the face of him.
This is the only creative force-god I can believe in. A God that is awesome but doesn’t anger, isn’t cruel (or kind) but just is. The angry vengeful God is the one that died because it never existed in the first place and people got tired of believing. People who blame storms and rapes on God are barking up a non-existent tree in my opinion.
The human qualities that are attributed to God are there because people project them. Some of us want a universe that has a ruler with personality and character. Its more friendly that way. Also less mysterious and much smaller.
All of this is conjecture of course. All of it – the Greek gods, the Old Testament God, the creative force. All attempts to make sense out of a vast universe that we barely understand, barely feel comfortable in.
So — I will not use the creative force against you if you don’t blame disasters and violent, cruel acts on your God. OK?
Religions tend to claim infallibility. Its either overt or implied — infallibility.
Perhaps this is a result of dealing with the infinite. If a being, text or object is infinite, perfect or immortal then it is infallible. But this idea raises questions: infallible when, were and to whom? Situational infallibility — is it possible?
We live a life wherein nothing is infallible. Some of us long for an absolute source of guidance.
Below is a post I wrote on Talisman9, a discussion group among Bahais, ex-Bahais and etc. Some background first. Many Bahais believe that the Bahai faith will become the state religion of one country then another and then finally at some point — of the world. They also believe that the governing body of the Bahais is in some matters infallible and will become the governing body of the world in the future. I am responding here to someone who I think believes both things.
Excellent post Alex — thank you for it.
I sincerely hope we will never have another “state religion.” How a state religion and at the same time the separation of church and state is possible eludes me. Your post implies that over time people will see the need for a state religion but I hope not.
“The Guardian’s vision of the future of the Baha’i Faith was inspired by God
(i.e. “infallible”). Accepting this we go on with our lives and try to help
the Faith as best we can, believing that eventually it will bear fruit no
matter how long that might take.”
You equate infallible with inspired by God. This is so very dangerous and extreme. Many ideas are inspired by spiritual sources, the ultimate source is of course ‘God’ the unknowable essence. Sublime poetry is inspired that way. Brilliant flashes of insight as well or at least so it seems to many. If we have tablets of stone that must be followed where is the room for further growth? Of course the Guardian’s vision included a succession of Guardians and that vision he himself rendered impossible. Why did this happen? It happened because people cannot infallibly foretell the future.
Inspired by God is a good term if its is used properly. Inspired by one’s muse perhaps an even better one (after all we can’t know God — “unknowable essence”) By used properly I mean that even ideas inspired by God must be tested and corrected if necessary. We have no choice in this matter as I think the history of Baha’i proves.
Infallibility does have its uses. It is the glue that holds many religions together. But as others have implied, it is only any good to those within the religion claiming this. It is of no use to outsiders and is in fact generally repellant to them (a paradox). And certainly any government that seeks guidance from an infallible source is a dangerous, potentially uncontrollable and monstrous thing. We humans are part of an organic, growing apparently flawed universe. Whether the universe is becoming more perfect or less is as unknowable as God herself. We do know that God makes mistakes — deformed babies born every day prove that.
I think seeking the infallible is not good for human nature — having been born into a world created by a fallible God we should use methods that allow for fallibility. Checks and balances, skepticism, rejection of “foolish consistency,” and a recognition that our progress will all ways be one of step wise refinement AKA taking two steps forward and one step back. No infallibility no matter how it is defined. Inspired by God does not mean — “oh than it must be true.” Not all inspirations are ‘true’ not all apply to this situation or that. All must be tested.
Bahia’s are taught not to judge God by human standards. Herein lies another danger. We have no standards other than those we ourselves have developed through the age-old process of formulate (through thought or inspiration), test, reformulate (seek further inspiration) — IOW step-wise refinement.
I have an old friend who was visited in a dream by Abdul Baha. He discussed an idea during that dream and than awoke to tell the world about it. It was a very good idea and my friend went on to develop it and it was a very good development. But I wish he had kept his dream a secret. It is very difficult to challenge an idea inspired by Abdul Baha. I’m pleased that the idea was developed and tested and proved to be good. But I am fearful of ideas that we can’t challenge.
Thanks again Alex for your good work.
I have often come across references to Immanuel Kant’s most famous work — “The Critique of Pure Reason.” So I finally decided to read it. One of the causes of this impulse is that I have a Kindle reader now and I felt that it might help me with this formidable task. So far I’ve read 10% of the book (according to my Kindle) and it turns out that the Kindle is an enormous aid to reading difficult material.
First of all when using a Kindle a reader has immediate access to a dictionary. Place the cursor next to a word and — bingo — there is the definition. And — as you read you will come across passages that have been highlighted by others. Pay attention to these — sometimes the highlighted passages are keys to understanding. And of course the reader can easily highlight passages for herself and read them later in summary together or singly.
What I’ve found really helpful is to be able to reference other texts along the way. I came across a book by Bertrand Russell entitled “The Problems of Philosophy.” This is a much lighter, shorter book that has a chapter called — “How A Priori Knowledge is Possible.” This book and especially the chapter on a priori knowledge, is very helpful in decoding what Kant was writing about and the points he was making. Russell disagrees with Kant’s conclusions but it is useful to note that Russell writes that there are many differing views among philosophers regarding what Kant’s point actually are. So Russell could be disagreeing with something that Kant did not mean to be saying!
So far I understand the purpose of “The Critique of Pure Reason” to be at least two fold: firstly to “… Make the experiment whether we may not be more successful in metaphysics, if we assume that the objects must conform to our cognition.” Kant writes that there is no good science of metaphysics. He wants to see if it is possible to change that. He wants to address the “… unavoidable problems of mere pure reason … God, freedom (of will), and immortality.” He writes that metaphysics has made miserable progress such that it does not exist as a science.
Secondly, knowledge of God and related concepts can’t be determined empirically, hence this knowledge might be determined via “synthetic a priori knowledge” — intuition, so to speak. But how does this work and can there be a science of it? In Kant’s attempt to define a science of intuition he writes “Time is the formal condition a priori of all phenomena whatsoever. Space, as the pure form of external intuition, is limited as a condition a priori to external phenomena along.”
BTW — a priori simply means preceding — a priori knowledge is that which is obtained prior to any experience in the world of evidence of that knowledge. Or so I understand thus far.
I was able to reference the Russell work and my notes on the Kant text via my Kindle — with great ease. Its simply an excellent aid to reading difficult material.
More to come in my blog about Kant, Russell and the Kindle.
I came across this quote “Anxiety is the fundamental mood of existence” — attributed to Martin Heidegger — in Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson. Markson also wrote that Van Gogh could make everything — even a pair of boots — seem to have anxiety. I don’t remember who he attributed that to.
Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a marvelous book — the height of the experimental novel, according to David Foster Wallace who committed suicide — probably due to his anxiety. But I don’t want to write about the book right now. I want to think out loud about the idea of Heidegger’s about the fundamental mood of life. Is it anxiety for most people? Is anxiety the fundamental mood of your life?
I discussed this with my wife. At first Aurora was skeptical. She is a very positive and cheerful person so ideas like this don’t usually sound right to her. Then, later after thinking for awhile she said something like — “you know it makes sense. We are in a mode (not mood) of survival — always deciding to flee or fight when pressured. And we are often pressured.”
Many of us feel like we are fighting a war. Business is war. The economy is survival of the fittest. In America when its time to file your income taxes it is always anxious time for most of us. We speak of the dog eat dog world. Even our holidays create anxiety. Getting away for a vacation is a source of anxiety for most of us too.
So is the purpose of philosophy and religion to help us over come this anxiety? There is another cause of anxiety — a kind of background noise for our existence as super-sentient beings — the knowledge of our impending, inevitable death. As I read about Buddhism I am learning that one purpose of meditation is to figure out how to deal with knowing that we will certainly die but at a time that is unknown and not of our choosing. Some Buddhists meditate on that daily and afterwards decide how to spend the day — which could be the last one for any living person.
Mortality is one of the truths about life Buddha woke up to. Its a pretty fundamental truth but many mortals do not face it until late in life if ever. By face it I mean think through what it means and how this knowledge should inform our daily life. Buddhist thinking has it that we can only be sure of the present moment. The past is gone, tomorrow may not come and is unknown if it does. Some western religions ask us to focus our attention on ‘the next life.’ Live in a way that will ensure entrance to heaven. Of course Buddhists — some Buddhists — believe in Karma and reincarnation. Karma = actions and the associated reaction of the laws associated with Karma. So this amounts to the same thing, I think.
Meditation is good practice whether dealing with mortality or trying to calm jittery nerves. So is being in nature if one really is there to enjoy it. Real work can also relieve anxiety but there isn’t as much of that around as there used to be. By real work I man doing something for the joy of the work itself and what it will accomplish. Some of us still have that kind of work, others seek it and make it out of an avocation. But there is no doubt that real work is a big help. And maybe the most favorable way to calm down to to help others. I think after meditation there are Buddhists who decide to do just that as well as Catholics, Unitarians and atheists as well.
I recently read a book entitled “Buddhism Without Beliefs” by Stephen Batchelor Its a condensed introduction to Buddhist practice and thinking without the mysticism. A little like Thomas Jefferson’s bible — Jefferson cut out all the mysticism and miracles from the New Testament and made a book that was mostly the sayings and wisdom of Jesus. I highly recommend it. It might help you deal with your anxiety — it helped me with mine.
This is a holiday season because we have always feared the darkness. Not so much now with electricity and enlightenment. Yet still we fear death because it is the dying of the light and might be painful. Today marks the longest night and shortest day. We no longer believe that our ceremonies and rituals are needed to ensure the rebirth of the light on earth, but what do we believe about death? James Carroll wrote a good column today in the Globe “Religion, science, and the solstice.” He concludes that knowledge is holy. But what of our knowledge of the soul and its rebirth after death? Is — as Carroll writes — today’s darkness tomorrow’s” light, or is it just more darkness?
Is our lack of knowledge proof that no rebirth is possible? I don’t think so. Yet we are in the dark about this in the same way as our ancestors were in the dark about the cycles of the earth thousands of years ago. I have faith in the economy of the universe — that nothing is wasted and that our essence has a future. Whether my consciousness survives remains for me to see (a contradiction — yes this is a contradiction and paradox). None of the proofs of the immortality of the human soul seem to work for me. And I observe no rituals to ensure its progress after death. Maybe I should seek some potent rituals designed for this purpose. Or maybe I should simply live my life knowing that I will eventually experience death and transfiguration — a process not to be feared because it is inevitable. As Baha’is chant — in the end “We will all verily abide by the will of God.”
What do you think? Do you fear that the light, once extinguished will not be reborn?
Elbert Hubbard was a prolific writer of the early twentieth century. He was a major figure in the Arts and Crafts movement having establish a hand crafted publishing house called Roycrofters, famous for beautiful, illuminated limited edition volumes, bound in leather.
His book “Hollyhocks and Goldenglow” is a collection of essays on topics from the Titanic to Abdul Baha. (I recently made an entry on the Talisman9 discussion forum about this and what follows was drawn from that post.)He writes movingly about the Titanic recounting the bravery, loyalty and love of Mrs. Straus who refused to leave her husband for a life boat. Ironically Hubbard and his wife, Alice perished three years later aboard the Lusitania. Survivors told stories of their courage, matching the characteristics of Mrs. Straus.
There is also an essay about Abdul Baha entitled “A Modern Prophet.” The first sentence reads “A very great man has recently visited America.” It continues: “So out of Persia comes Abdul Baha, who calls himself “The Servant of God.” His followers are called Bahais. This man has diverted one-third of the population of Persia from Mohammedanism. …. This man is the modern Messiah.”
I find this essay an engrossing report by a non-Baha’i. Particularly interesting is this:
“Christian Science interests Abdul Baha greatly. It is somewhat humiliating thing for us when we think that this new American religion was never heard of by Abdul Baha until recently. Now he has practically embraced it. He says it represents one arc of the great circle of truth, and that if he had learned nothing else from his trip to America but the truths of Christian Science, he would be amply repaid.He says he comes more as a learner than a teacher. Nevertheless, he is obliged to give out the light that has been given to him. He keeps the good by giving it away.He quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson freely, delights in Walt Whitman, and loves the memory of Tolstoy, and is on terms of great tenderness toward every good and noble thing that makes for human betterment.No man of recent times has shown such a magnificent affirmative spirit as this Abdul Baha.”
Hubbard was a prolific writer who is not very well known today — not the household word one might think he would be. (The exception might be his “Message to Garcia” that I believe was read in grade or high schools years ago.)His contemporaneous account of Abdul Baha’s visit is precious I think. There may be errors in the essay but it rings true. He doesn’t say that he met Abdul Baha but I think he must have. Does anyone have knowledge of this possible meeting? I find the comments about Christian Science, Emerson and Whitman intriguing and perfectly consistent with my mental and emotional image of Abdul Baha and his approach to life.The book is available as a reprint or as an antique in its original leather bound form if you can find it.I love the idea that Abdul Baha quoted Emerson and loved Whitman but this is the only reference to that I know of. I think many Baha’is would reject the idea. If you are a Baha’i what do you think? And please let me know of other references like this that you are aware of.Many thanks,Frank
“Night Walk” Photograph copyright Frank Winters a Canon G9 image
Luke 17:20, 21:
“And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, the kingdom cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here, or lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”
In the Baha’i writings the thirteenth Hidden Word says:
“O Son of Spirit!
I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal:
“The highest revelation is that God is in every man.”
And in his essay Nature he recounts a transcendental experience:
“Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God”
I believe that these passages refer to the same truth. That God is within each of us and that by turning within we may find God.
The quote from Baha’ullah is particularly interesting. Taken as a whole it seems to recount humankind’s evolution and self invention through Nature and the acquisition of knowledge. Nature is the clay of love. The essence of knowledge refers to the source of mankind’s mental growth and spiritual evolution as well as the process of discovery through science and intuition.
The Lord’s prayer says “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread…” Baha’is believe this refers to the time when Baha’ullah came to fulfill the prophecy. Many Christians believe this refers to a future time when Christ will return in the glory of the father and bring about the kingdom of God on earth.
But the kingdom of God is within you says Jesus. Baha’ullah says find Me within you. Emerson says he and all of us are the part and parcel of God.
That’s enough for me. The good news is that the kingdom can come for us in the here and now as can eternity, just as our daily bread comes. However, the kingdom is in the future for most of us because we have not achieved what Buddha called nirvana. But his views will wait for another time!
I am pleased to have reached this conclusion after thinking about these and other passages for months if not years. While I am open to finding a different meaning to them I find this understanding clear and helpful. Meditation will now be easier, I think.
A primary difficulty for me in accepting the Baha’i faith as the basis for belief is in the concept of the Covenant which says that God will send messengers every thousand years or so and humankind will accept and follow them. Baha’i believe that no direct contact with God is possible. All knowledge from God must come through a Manifestation, they believe — because that’s what Baha’ullah taught even though he also wrote the thirteenth Hidden Word.
Many Baha’is over the years have told me that they respect or are fond of Emerson yet he taught just the opposite from this fundamental (and somewhat fundamentalist) Baha’i belief. I think this is because Baha’i beliefs are inconsistent internally. Look at them or interpret them one way and they are aligned, for example, with Emerson. Take another look and they are not. But I imagine this is true of organized religion generally. (Of course I am not nearly knowledgeable enough to know if this is true.)
I’m interested in knowing what others think about this. What did Jesus mean? Are the passages above saying the same or similar things, or not? Do you feel that the Kingdom of God could possible be within you?
A street scene during an election year. We do have choices, don’t we?
The new movie about the life of Bob Dylan — “I’m not here” — has gotten raves. Dylan is played by 6 actors including a 14 year old black actor, Ricard Gere and Cate Blanchett. The movie apparently shows Dylan as a nonexistent shape shifter who changes as soon as his persona becomes intelligible.
Yep — that’s our Bob.
Would that we could learn from his life performance. Would that the rest of humanity could be like Bob, Norman Mailer (currently stirring things up in heaven) and Muhammad Ali who said something like “I don’t have to be like all you people want me to be — I can be whoever I want to be.” He said that after he became the Champ.
But we can’t be like that. We are stuck in the structure of society and economics. We must be who we are supposed to be because we got to live out our lives that way somehow (a little Dylan derivative text).
This is called structural prejudice by sociologists and other learned types. I’m going to delve into it and try to understand what that means and what if anything an individual can do about it.
Bigotry is pretty close to dead. It’s still alive but very subtle and not at all PC. The force that keeps people down is the force of the weight of the years and traditions that impel us to behave in ways that are counter to our better nature.
We are so damn smug and self centered. We are sure that we are God or no-god’s chosen bunch. Each ethnic group tends to feel this way — at least the ones I have experience with. We middle class types put real estate values above almost everything for god’s sake but do we do it because we can’t help it? Maybe, yet we must help.
Last Sunday Reverend Cindy challenged the congregation at First Parish Church to do something about racial inequity in Westford. Blacks earn 40% less than whites she said and there are only 62 whites in Westford. She asked two questions: “How can that be?” and “What are you going to do about it?”
Her suggestion was to give away 10% of our earnings. That might work — certainly if everyone did it it would help even things our.
But it got me thinking (thanks Cindy!) What is really wrong? I think it has to do with were we find ourselves today and our inability to reinvent ourselves. That’s what we need to do — reinvent ourselves – each and everyone of us.
Traditions are good unless they aren’t. We should question our traditional values all the time. Like Emerson taught. Face life each day and question our motives and what we feel we must do. Reinvent ourselves as often as possible.
I think this is what Henry Ford meant when he said “History is bunk!” Yeah, we need to learn from history but as soon as we feel it dictates our actions and thoughts we need to forget it and move on.
Just like Bob Dylan did/does.
Photo: The Christian Science Center at Night — sorry I don’t have any photos of Bahai temples (all the photos on my blog are mine –just a habit I like to keep) But Abdul Baha really liked Christian Science — I’ll blog about that someday soon — so its ok.
I just received an email message from a Baha’i scholar — Sen McGlinn. He is very learned — a graduate student of religion who has written a book entitled “Church and State: A Postmodern Theology” that postulates that Bahaullah meant for church and state to be seaparate. He was kicked out of the Bahai Faith as thanks for his efforts, but that’s another story.
Here is what he wrote:
On 23 Oct 2007 at 19:24, Frank Winters wrote:
“Now — when a writer — or Manifestation for that matter — uses the
term Most Great Infallibility, doesn’t that imply degrees? Most great,
somewhat great just plain great, not quite great and so on?”
That’s exactly what Baha’u’llah says. Not just several degrees, but
also several different kinds:
Know thou that the term ‘Infallibility’ hath numerous meanings and
divers stations. In one sense it is applicable to the One Whom God
hath made immune from error. Similarly it is applied to every soul
whom God hath guarded against sin, transgression, rebellion, impiety,
disbelief and the like. However, the Most Great Infallibility is
confined to the One Whose station is immeasurably exalted beyond
ordinances or prohibitions …
(Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 108)
Here is my reply:
The choice of the word infallible has to be unfortunate. If one leaves out the word and thinks about what Baha’ullah says then it is about being on the right path, I think. What might be a better word?
I tried inerrant but that means pretty much the same thing yet is has for me a connotation of travel to a goal so maybe its closer. Protected from getting off the path — is there a word for that? Steadfast?
‘Sigh’ — its another test. This is my primary argument with God: why all the tests? People need help not @#$% tests. Plain, clear language not flowery prose that could at times mean anything! Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King — better leaders than Baha’ullah or so it seems.
In the days when salvation was about individuals, tests made more sense. Now its the existence of the species that is at stake. Why test all of us in this way?
I’ll tell you why — the entity we call God is not only unknowable it is unthinking in the way we think. Logic has no place there. And God must be indifferent to the question of future human existence. As Baha’ullah says nothing we do has any effect on God whatsoever.
And …. wouldn’t it be great if, as Baha’ullah said, the books really were opened? Religion is still mumbo-jumbo to most people, even in the Baha’i era — if there is such a thing as that.
Well that’s the latest.
I’d like to get some comments on these posts — a number of people have been reading my first post about Baha’ullah — ‘seekers?’ Baha’is? Speak up — what do you think? I will not be hurt or offended if you say you are offended — just don’t tell me to shut up because after all its a free world, isn’t it?