Posted on May 21st, 2011 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Congregation, Philosophy, Popular Culture, Social Issues, Theology, Topic of the Week, Uncategorized
Tagged with Baha'i, Baha'i Faith, Baha'u'llah, realist, realsism, Schewel, Universal House of Justice
I hear this expression quite frequently these days, “I am a realist…,” particularly when I speak about the Bahá’í Faith’s view of humanity’s future. I explain that for Bahá’ís no matter how sophisticated or well intentioned any political, economic, or technological program may be, a spiritual revival born of the consciousness of the organic unity of humanity is prerequisite for their success. Nevertheless, peace will be achieved. As Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, explains, “these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the 'Most Great Peace' shall come." Then comes the fated response from my interlocutor: “Ben, I am a realist…”
Most often some sort of brutal assessment of how things really work or what really motivates human beings follows: The world is corrupt and built upon lies. It is only for money’s sake that things actually happen. If we want to make the world a better place, if we actually want peace, we have to accept these uncomfortable truths and adjust our efforts accordingly. Because that is how things actually happen.
I am stunned by this word “actually,” my breath knocked out by the force of its obviousness. It is as if my interlocutor invokes the very success of science in his tone, challenging me with a kind of mocking incredulity to generate any empirical data to the contrary: Our most advanced understanding of economics, evolution, international relations, the brute fact of human barbarism arising time and time again throughout history, they all affirm Hobbes dizzying insight: ‘the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’
Yet, he tells me, peace is possible: We can build a better world, as long as we remain firmly rooted in the sometimes uncomfortable truths of reality, and are not whisked away by one or another romantic utopian allure. But religion? You think religion can actually change anything, even more some obscure new religion with only five or six million followers? Look at how many wars have been fought over religion throughout history, how many people have died because of their unwavering allegiance to some theological schema. It was only by pushing religion out of the public sphere that the great liberating force of democracy was born in Europe, perfected in the United States, and is now spreading to the whole world under the generally beneficial influence of the free market. What could religion possibly add?
Yes, the Bahá’í Faith does have praiseworthy principles – the harmony of science and religion, the equality of men and women, the need to eradicate all forms of prejudice, the independent investigation of truth, universal education, world peace – but you do not need to be a Bahá’í to believe these. Furthermore, the Bahá’í Faith is still young, its members enthusiastic and idealistic. Soon enough the Bahá’í Faith will be corrupted like all the rest, particularly if it becomes the next great world religion as Bahá’í seem to believe.
I admit, there may be some cultural and psychological value to religious community, narrative, yadda yadda, all that stuff, but can you honestly say that it does more good then harm? If you want some kind of religion, why not be a Buddhist? At best you will have better concentration, and if you go totally fanatic wacko then you’ll just end up in a mountain monastery somewhere not hurting anybody.
Though I have acquired enough tricks throughout my education to respond to each and every one of these points, no argument hides the fact that this logic is still sickly seductive both to myself and people of faith throughout the world. We have been raised in a culture of doubt, and whether we like it or not we have received our patterns of thought from this culture. In fact, it will not be until the kind of social-spiritual transformation I mentioned above takes place that such patterns of thought will loosen their grip upon our lives.
Still I must respond, even if only to that “realist” voice of protest that leaps up within my breast from time to time, naming the Bahá’í vision as just one more utopian fantasy, because spirit is real and the Bahá’í Faith is realist. The following excerpt from a 1974 letter written by the Universal House of Justice in response to a question from a Bahá’í concerning the proper response to material suffering, explains perfectly the orientation of the Bahá’í Faith’s realism:
“The principal cause of this suffering, which one can witness wherever one turns, is thecorruption of human morals and the prevalence of prejudice, suspicion, hatred, untrustworthiness, selfishness and tyranny among men. It is not merely material well- being that people need. What they desperately need is to know how to live their lives -- they need to know who they are, to what purpose they exist, and how they should act towards one another; and, once they know the answers to these questions they need to be helped to gradually apply these answers to everyday behaviour. It is to the solution of this basic problem of mankind that the greater part of all our energy and resources should be directed.
“Because of such an attitude…Bahá'ís are often accused of holding aloof from the ‘real problems’ of their fellowmen. But when we hear this accusation let us not forget that those who make it are usually idealistic materialists to whom material good is the only ‘real’ good, whereas we know that the working of the material world is merely a reflection of spiritual conditions and until the spiritual conditions can be changed there can be no lasting change for the better in material affairs.
“We should also remember that most people have no clear concept of the sort of world they wish to build, nor how to go about building it. Even those who are concerned to improve conditions are therefore reduced to combating every apparent evil that takes their attention. Willingness to fight against evils, whether in the form of conditions or embodied in evil men, has thus become for most people the touchstone by which they judge a person's moral worth. Baha'is, on the other hand, know the goal they are working towards and know what they must do, step by step, to attain it. Their whole energy is directed towards the building of the good, a good which has such a positive strength that in the face of it the multitude of evils -- which are in essence negative -- will fade away and be no more. To enter into the quixotic tournament of demolishing one by one the evils in the world is, to a Baha'i, a vain waste of time and effort. His whole life is directed towards proclaiming the Message of Bahá'u'lláh, reviving the spiritual life of his fellowmen, uniting them in a divinely created World Order, and then, as the Order grows in strength and influence, he will see the power of that Message transforming the whole human society and progressively solving the problems and removing the injustices which have so long bedevilled the world.”
Check out my blog, In the Midst of the Plan: A Bahá'í's Philosophical Reflections
Ben Schewel, 24, is a Bahá'í and doctoral student in philosophy at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, studying process philosophy, focusing in particular on questions of history, science, and religion. Ben is very involved in the Bahá’í community’s projects of social and economic development (http://www.ruhi.org/).