Saturday, April 19, 2008

Looking In, Looking Out

Over on Correlating there's a very interesting articleabout the Baha'i prohibition of asceticism.

Baha’u’llah tells us repeatedly not to follow the past in blind imitation, and to break off the shackles of learned knowledge. Doing that, being able to stand in a position where you can accurately see what parts of your beliefs match the Divine Word and what parts are culturally inherited it much more difficult than it might appear.Sociology would never frame the issue that way, as cultural versus Divine understanding, but the issue is ultimately the same – we see the world through our culture and that presents a dilemma. To describe the world we need language and concepts, categories and vocabulary, all of which are culturally derived. The very tools we have, in other words, to distance ourselves from our cultural understanding are the essence of that culture itself. Our culture is a web we can never fully untangle ourselves from.

I agree with this, and go even farther: Revelation itself comes to us filtered through a particular cultural lens. The Manifestation is human -- he speaks a particular language and lives in a particular time and place. If he wasn't, human beings would find him incomprehensible. There is no such thing as a "divine understanding" in this world -- everyone is going to view the revelation through a particular lens, bounded by their own culture, language, and experience.

However, the references in the Writings to "blind imitation" aren't really talking about "the past" in general, but mean the Shi'ih practice of taqlid, which is where a person chooses a particular cleric to follow, accepting his rulings on Islamic law without question. It is my understanding that, likewise, the knowledge that is condemned in the Writings is the result of clerical training, which can put a lot of weight into minutiae and tradition. It's a bit like Jesus condemning the Pharisees -- Baha'u'llah is warning against the excesses of religious specialists.

What David says about only having cultural tools to free ourselves from the culture we are in is interesting. I'd say that even whether or not we think it's a good idea to transcend our own culture is, to some extent, culturally bound. There's a lot of self-critique in the West, where anything and anyone is fair game for a challenge; I'm not that sure that's true of other places in the world. It would be a fascinating thing to look at -- how other cultures critique themselves, or even if they do.

I found this very interesting:

Knowing God, we are told by Baha’u’llah, comes about by acquiring God’s attributes – that is, we know and worship God by becoming more just, more compassionate, more merciful and so on. What I see as important here is that all of God’s attributes only have meaning in relation to other people. That is, there is no sensible way for me to talk about my striving to be more just that is decontextualized from concrete interaction with other people. Simply, God’s attributes only have meaning if they are attributes toward something. We say God is just because He is just toward us. Similarly we cannot speak of ourselves striving to be more just without grounding it in actual interactions, actual targets toward which we aim to behave more justly. How much we are being just or compassionate or any other attribute is understood and measured only in relation to our actions toward other people. On this level the ban on asceticism is straightforward – we cannot acquire attributes without other people because we need other people to be acting towards. The Guardian tells us that the center of religion is the individual’s mystic relationship with God, but even prayer and meditation center on the acquisition of God’s attributes. In solitude we pray to God for strength to become more merciful and we mediate, taking ourselves to account, for how merciful we have actually been.

The world's great mystics are known to us because they did, at some point, come out of the cloister and interact with others -- or even interacted with others within the cloister, which, after all, is a community. A person needs the solitude to reflect, to gain the perspective and detachment necessary to develop spiritually, but David's essential insight -- that divine qualities mean nothing outside of relationship -- is correct. We learn, both by experiences with others, and during the quiet contemplation of how those experiences have affected us.

Sen McGlinn has often discussed the duality theme found in the Baha'i Writings, particularly as reflected in the institutional structure, but I've always meant to write something up on how this duality reflects this looking inward(spirituality and worship) and looking outward(service and action). Maybe someday.

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