Thursday, August 7, 2008

Restless Souls

I've just finished reading "Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality" by Leigh Eric Schmidt, and I thought it would be relevant for unenrolled Baha'is to know that independent spirituality is not just some fly-by-night thing that the Baby Boomers invented, but has a long history of its own, dating back to the 1830s. And, Baha'is are very much a part of that history.

An entire chapter is devoted to telling the story of Sarah Farmer and Green Acre. She started it in 1894, right after the Parliament of World Religions, and it was an important meeting place for almost every unorthodox form of spirituality around at the time: Transcendentalists, Vedantists, Theosophists, Christian Scientists, New Thought, and the like. She wanted it to be dedicated to the ideal of peace between religions -- I noted on the Green Acre website that the green-letttered Peace Flag that Sarah flew over the original Greenacre still flies there. But there were tensions, and these tensions became even worse when Sarah herself became a Baha'i, and this chapter dwells on the problem of what happens when an independent seeker actually finds something. Poor Sarah got pressures from Baha'is (including 'Abdu'l-Baha') to make Green Acre a center for teaching the Baha'i Faith, her old associates thought she had betrayed the cause of religious liberalism by submitting herself to "the Persian Revelation". The strain of trying to juggle these competing interests took a great toll on her physical and mental health. But its an interesting read -- one of her best friends, Sara Bull, was among the first practitioners of yoga in this country. (I was pleasantly surprised to see that Green Acre's current schedule includes a yoga class.) Green Acre was not only an important landmark for Baha'is, but in the history of alternative religion in America.

Moving further into the book, I was caught by Thomas Kelly's approach, since it seemed similar to my own;

Kelly, in effect, shifted away from the Trancendentalist emphasis on ephemeral moments of spiritual awareness --"the flickering of our psychic states" -- to sustained "inward practices of the mind." Not transient states of mystic consciousness, but continuous habits of daily devotion -- these were Kelly's chief pursuit: "Practice comes first in religion".

This is, at least one answer, to those who criticize unaffiliated spirituality as essentially a lot of romantic slosh with no real substance.

The book, in its last chapter, actually goes into some of those criticisms, particularly by conservative Christians. One thing that Schmidt points out is that there are some -- gays stand out particularly as one such group -- that don't fit very well into organized religion. I would also include those of a less social temperament. Certainly, introverts have a tough time in the Baha'i community -- and they probably do in other communities as well. The orthodox want these folks to either change themselves in order to fit into a community or to just forget about God. Well, too bad, because that doesn't happen -- Americans have been charting their own spiritual path for many generations now, and they will continue to do so. It's as old an American tradition as the revival meeting.


Fred Ziffel said...

"Green Acres" -- I loved that programme. Eva Gabor as Lisa Douglas, saying "Dahling" all the time and that hilarious Arnold the pig!

Green acres is the place to be
Farm living is the life for me
Land spreading out,
so far and wide
Keep Manhattan,
just give me that countryside.

New York
is where I'd rather stay
I get allergic smelling hay
I just adore a penthouse view
Darling, I love you,
but give me Park Avenue.

The Chores
The Stores
Fresh air
Times Square

You are my wife. Goodbye city life.
Green Acres, we are there!

Anonymous said...

Of particular interest to me are the words of 'Abdu'l-Baha in his correspondence with Farmer:

"The mouldered, two thousand years old superstitions of the heedless, ignorant peoples, whether of Europe or Asia should not be spread in that revered gathering place," written with reference to "the spurious, decayed and unproductive trees" of the "old sects."

It seems 'Abdu'l-Baha identified certain (unspecified) components of the "old sects" as superstitions that should be abandoned. Is it necessary to feed an idol in order to enter into the practice of meditation? Most devout Hindus (some of my friends among them) would answer with an unqualified "yes."

I imagine that, while the Brahmins would argue that one cannot separate external devotion from internal practice, 'Abdu'l-Baha might argue that one cannot separate external practice from internal devotion. The shift in emphasis is subtle but critical; the devil (or the idol) is indeed in the details.


Anonymous said...

I'm one of those unsocial types who became a Baha'i but was never really able to fit into the community (or any community.) But my goal is to eventually become active in the local Baha'i group. But I know I can't force myself to do it because I tried before and it just doesn't work. I've started meditating (I don't like that word but don't have another one to use. I'm not trying to reach any spiritual state but rather am trying to step aside from my body to be able to identify more with my spiritual side) in hopes that it will help me deal with a personal weakness that I think makes me more of a hindrance than a help in any group. I do have a real sense now that God is leading me.

Anonymous said...

Karen &all,

This book on Esalen (a new age spiritual commune and think tank in Big Sur, California) might be of interest:

Esalen was at least partly influenced by the Sri Aurobindo variant of Integral Thought/Theory.

Integral Thought contains most of what introvert ex/bahais are probably interested in. It embraces both rational inquiry and "trancendence".

Integral thought contains the main thing missing from bahai: it not only accepts scientific evolution, it makes it central to understanding how spirituality has developed in various cultures.

Integral thought replaces the sloppy thinking of Progressive Revelation with a postmodernish perspective on psychosocial developmental "stages".

Integral theory has been applied in business, science, social activism, social justice and many of the leaders of peace movements throughout the world support integralism.

Integral community is more new age and has more Buddhist/Yogic/Hindu influences than some ex/bahais might be comfortable with.

Integralists are very concerned with spirituality and capitalism, something that bahai tends to be lacking in.

Eric P.
(ex-bahai, after 30+ years)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, the URL got chopped.

The book is:

America and the Religion of No Religion
Jeffrey J. Kripal

(ISBN-10: 0-226-45369-3)

"Set against the heady backdrop of California during the revolutionary 1960s, Esalen recounts in fascinating detail how these two maverick thinkers sought to fuse the spiritual revelations of the East with the scientific revolutions of the West, or to combine the very best elements of Zen Buddhism, Western psychology, and Indian yoga into a decidedly utopian vision that rejected the dogmas of conventional religion. In their religion of no religion, the natural world was just as crucial as the spiritual one, science and faith not only commingled but became staunch allies, and the enlightenment of the body could lead to the full realization of our development as human beings."