Sunday, November 27, 2011

On Purity

The second of the three spiritual prerequisites for the success of all Bahá’í undertakings is that “of a chaste and holy life”, "with its implications of modesty, purity, temperance, decency, and clean-mindedness".  We are summoned to a life unsullied "by the indecencies, the vices, the false standards, which an inherently deficient moral code tolerates, perpetuates, and fosters,” [Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice, p. 31].

There is one level of understanding this requirement that is addressed primarily to the individual. No amount of social policies and societal restraints can equal the decisions and actions of individuals. If the individual is unconvinced, or gives in to temptation, then no amount of exhortations will have much effect. In this sense then we are all responsible for our own conditions.

We should adhere to purity in all its forms. By purity we strip away the mud that is clinging to us and become our true selves, pure and simple. Pure hands do not steal or cheat; pure tongues do not utter unseemly words, or tell untruths or lies; pure lives do not engage in sexual activity outside the sanctified fortress of marriage; pure minds do not engage in fanciful day-dreams; pure eyes do not see indecent exposures, inappropriate images, or pornography; pure people dress modestly; pure habits avoid sexual vices and false standards; pure conduct avoids dishonesty, unfair dealings, bribery, tyranny or oppression; pure intensions manifest themselves in pure actions, and in taking full responsibility after unintentional mishaps.

While the actual practical implications of these principles may differ from society to society, there is a growing body of research to suggest that there are many universal norms and principles. We do not subscribe to moral relativism.

But beyond appeals to the individuals, there are things that we can do, in our families, communities, and the society, to promote and foster purity.

In older times, say in a small community setting such as in a village, certain social inhibitions and pressures would act as restraints, and as a system of reward and punishment, to regulate people’s desires and appetites for instant gratification. Much of these restraints have evaporated in the social convulsions that have characterized what is ironically called modernization.  In fullness of time a New World Order will have other mechanisms in place to allow for all people to contribute to and benefit from global prosperity. But in this age of transition there are certain pernicious forces at work that influence the mind and hart of young people. And these are aggravated by a relentless media, in pursuit of corporate profits. We need to take collective action to minimize the effects of these forces on our families and communities.

As children grow up to become junior youth and then youth they are very perceptive. If the parents preach purity, but pursue a different agenda, these young minds are bright enough to detect the contradictions. It almost always comes to a choice between materialistic worldview and spiritual perception. Admiration for power, adoration of status, love of luxuries, attachment to frivolous pursuits, glorification of violence, and obsession with self-gratification are among the manifestations of a materialistic worldview. Can you formulate the opposite phrases that articulate spiritual perception?

The best method for a young person to demonstrate purity is not merely to avoid pollution of impurity, but to actively pursue an agenda that renounces materialism. A very good example of this is when a young person moves to a receptive neighborhood in his cluster, in the spirit of pioneering, and takes up the challenge of building a community using the methods and instruments of the training institute, building capacity in the inhabitants of that neighborhood, multiplying the core activities, and rising above the trivial considerations and pursuits of an ephemeral world. And if the parents do not emulate this heroic action, if they do not wholeheartedly, and financially, support it, then how can they believe that they have done all that is possible for the fostering of purity?

In study of this, the 33rd paragraph of the 28 December 2010 letter of the Universal House of Justice, the following questions come to mind.

  1. What are the forces at work on the hearts and minds of the young?
  2. To what extent are exhortations to remain pure and chaste effective?
  3. Isolation and despair, from which so many suffer, are products of what sort of an environment?
  4. What does an all-pervasive materialism have to do with impurity?
  5. What are the powers that flow through pure channels?

Baha’u’llah wrote: “O ye My loved ones! Suffer not the hem of My sacred vesture to be smirched and mired with the things of this world, and follow not the promptings of your evil and corrupt desires… O ye the beloved of the one true God! Pass beyond the narrow retreats of your evil and corrupt desires, and advance into the vast immensity of the realm of God, and abide ye in the meads of sanctity and of detachment, that the fragrance of your deeds may lead the whole of mankind to the ocean of God’s unfading glory.” [Baha'u'llah, quoted in the Advent of Divine Justice, p. 32]

Sunday, November 20, 2011

On Justice

The letter of 28 December 2010 of the Universal House of Justice identifies three “spiritual prerequisites for the success of all Baha'i undertakings”, and paragraph 32 of this message deals with the first of these prerequisites, namely a “rectitude of conduct.” We may imagine that this is only a quality of individuals in their personal dealings with others, not very different from a vague and pious – and often unsuccessful – call for personal morality. But in the original source of this idea, Shoghi Effendi in the Advent of Divine Justice, makes it clear that this is altogether a different concept described as “a high sense of moral rectitude in their social and administrative activities.” We will explore this concept a little more in this posting.

So what is meant by a rectitude of conduct in this context? Firstly it is “an abiding sense of undeviating justice, unobscured by the demoralizing influences which a corruption-ridden political life so strikingly manifests”. “This rectitude of conduct, with its implications of justice, equity, truthfulness, honesty, fair-mindedness, reliability, and trustworthiness, must distinguish every phase of the life of the Bahá’í community.” [Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice, p.23]

At the individual level justice is a faculty of human soul that enables each person to distinguish between truth and falsehood. At the social level justice is a principle that demands to be present in every consideration. It is a compass that helps all collective decision making to build unity.

Of course everyone must be just, both personally and collectively. But this appeal is in particular about the institutions using the principles of justice to arrive at collective decisions that everyone would be happy to follow. How will this principle apply to the work of the new institutions of the Faith, namely the cluster agencies of training institute coordinators, and the Area Teaching Committee?

The cluster agencies follow a pattern of consultation, action and reflection. If the proper principles of consultation are applied, it will lead to unity of thought, and the resulting decisions are seen as transparently fair by everyone. Only those who are actually arising for service will contribute to such a consultation. No one will come with a set of preconceived ideas and theoretical consideration, expecting that someone else will implement what he or she is recommending.

There is a relationship between unity and justice. The purpose of justice is to bring about unity. Justice is essential in a decision-making process that seeks to build unity. This is the opposite of when one group attempts to impose a set of ideas on others through contentious negotiation. Justice can curb tendencies towards manipulation and partisanship. This is a significant subject, and two good references that contain much explanation and analysis are Shoghi Effendi, Advent of Divine Justice, pp. 23 – 29, and Bahá’í International Community, The Prosperity of Humankind, pp. 18-21.

In the study of this paragraph the following questions are suggested:

  1. Why this spiritual prerequisite of rectitude of conduct particularly addressed to elected representatives of the community? 
  2. In what sense is the present day society a strangely disordered world?
  3. What are the evidences that political life everywhere has continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate in the intervening years?
  4. What is the list of institutions that will need to particularly implement this standard?

Baha’u’llah wrote: “The companions of God are, in this day, the lump that must leaven the peoples of the world. They must show forth such trustworthiness, such truthfulness and perseverance, such deeds and character that all mankind may profit by their example.” “I swear by Him Who is the Most Great Ocean! Within the very breath of such souls as are pure and sanctified far-reaching potentialities are hidden. So great are these potentialities that they exercise their influence upon all created things.”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Three Spiritual Prerequisites

Many years ago as I was reading and studying the Writings of Baha’u’llah, I came across a beautiful passage which I then memorized. At this time I cannot find an authorized version of its translation into English, so I will just share the jist of what I have memorized. In this passage Baha’u’llah essentially indicates that two things have always been acceptable in the sight of God: tears that are shed for fear of God, and drops of one’s blood that are shed in the path of God. He then goes on to say that since this second matter has been forbidden, a third has taken its place, and that is devoting ones life in the path of recognition of God, to get to know Him and to make Him known. If any of the readers of this blog are familiar with this passage, or can locate it in authorized translations, I would appreciate hearing from them.

Now I learn two things from the above passage. The first is that the reference to tears and blood may symbolize being and doing. When we transform our inner being and bring it to conform with the will of God we achieve a state of being that represents expanded consciousness, and a sense of purity. This is the “being” part. And when we arise to serve humanity, to help transform the society, and we are so steadfast that we can withstand any external pressure to the point of giving our lives for it, then this is the ultimate in “doing”.

The second thing that I learn from the above passage is that the requirement of service to humanity can change from time to time, and perhaps even from region to region, depending on the requirement of the historical moment. Early in the time of the Bab service would lead to great difficulties and even accepting martyrdom. Later in the latter part of the ministry of Baha’u’llah there was a greater acceptance of the Faith and this requirement was transformed to the requirement of devoting of one’s life to the recognition of God. In a similar way the teaching work was initially on the home front, and later the greatest service was to arise for pioneering in far off lands. Now that the Faith is so well established throughout the planet, the new requirement is of building of spiritual communities in our own neighborhoods and clusters.

Paragraph 31 of the letter of 28 December 2010 of the Universal House of Justice is the start of a new section in this message, and it addresses the question of spiritual prerequisites for the success of all Bahá’í undertakings. Study of this paragraph reminds me of that statement that I referred to above, and it occurs to me to be about "being". Unless we as individuals make an effort to continually advance in acquiring these spiritual qualities we cannot effectively contribute to the transformation of the society. These are the twofold moral purposes and they are intimately linked to one another. 

In study of this paragraph the following questions are suggested:
  1. What are the three duties of the Counsellors and their Auxiliaries?
  2. When did the Guardian write the Advent of Divine Justice?
  3. What was the occasion that prompted the Guardian to write this letter?
  4. How is this letter characterized by the House of Justice?
  5. What are the three spiritual prerequisites of all Bahá’í undertakings?
  6. What are the implications of the observations in this Book for the global effort of the Bahá’í community today?

Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, wrote that “The glowing tributes, so repeatedly and deservedly paid to the capacity, the spirit, the conduct, and the high rank, of the American believers, both individually and as an organic community, must, under no circumstances, be confounded with the characteristics and nature of the people from which God has raised them up. A sharp distinction between that community and that people must be made, and resolutely and fearlessly upheld, if we wish to give due recognition to the transmuting power of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh, in its impact on the lives and standards of those who have chosen to enlist under His banner. Otherwise, the supreme and distinguishing function of His Revelation, which is none other than the calling into being of a new race of men, will remain wholly unrecognized and completely obscured.”