Thought Experiment

If you are willing to play a little game, I want to try something.

I want you to think back and try to remember all the times you have either read or heard of letters from your National Spiritual Assembly. Ofcourse, you won’t recall every single incident but rather try to get an over all idea of what you do remember.

Now, think back and recall how many times they spoke about the financial needs of the Baha’i funds.

And how many times they talked about teaching the Faith.

ok…got it?

Now I want you to try something else.

Cast your thoughts back and recall how many times you have read a letter from your NSA reinforcing the many Writings about charity and the exhortations for the Baha’is to arise and serve their fellow man.

And how many times have you read from your NSA about the importance of helping the needy, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, befriending the marginalized, as Baha’u’llah instructed all Baha’is to do, and as Abdu’l-Baha demonstrated as the perfect exemplar?

ok… Done? Alright.

Now, imagine what sort of community you would have and what sort of effect on the world the Baha’is would have if we inverted the priorities of the NSAs around the world.

Go ahead, play along…its just a thought experiment. Close your eyes for one moment and imagine the kind of community you would see.

That’s it. Yup, pretty short thought experiment.

I’ll leave it to you to decide if it has any merit.

And if you like, you can leave a little response (even anonymously) in the comments section below to share what your personal thought experiment was like.

LA Study Class Newsletter [#24]

SKIP TO NEWSLETTER
My Notes:

This latest edition of the LA Class Newsletter deals with Pilgrim’s Notes. If you are unfamiliar with that term, it means notes taken by individual Baha’is of conversations between themselves and central Figures of the Faith (Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi). Usually they contain a diary like account of the travel to Israel, topics of conversations and other general impressions or reflections. They are informal and of dubious quality since they are not an direct audio recording nor instantaneous transcripts. Rather they are the product of a fallible memory. Yet, historians and scholars of the Baha’i Faith do use them as one of their sources. Also, Pilgrim’s Notes have varying levels of quality. Some can be ‘checked’ against other Pilgrim’s Notes while some were even submitted to the central figure themselves and sent back to the individual believer as ‘confirmed’.

Back in the 1970s, without the marvel of the internet as a central repository of knowledge, there wasn’t an easy way to access such dispersed personal accounts. This is why they were so much more special back then. As you will see below, it was a real treat for Baha’is to read and examine a real Pilgrim’s Note. If you’re interested to find more, a good place to start is here.

If this is your first newsletter, you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.

On with the 70’s class . . .

[START DOCUMENT]
Hermosa Beach, California 90254
Local Slogan: “Amnesty for Darth Vader.”

February, 1978
Vol. III, No. 2

DUE TO CIRCUMSTANCES BEYOND OUR CONTROL… The series of recent rainstorms that have buffetted California unfortunately disrupted the roads between Los Angeles and the northern part of the state. The closure of the roads unfortunately forced our scheduled guest speaker, Dr. John Cornell, of Reedley, California, to cancel out. We are rescheduling his talk on BAHA’I JUSTICE for our next class meeting, which will be on SUNDAY, MARCH 12, AT 3 PM (not on March 5 as planned during our last session). The class on March 12 will be held at the home of Tony Lee, [Ed: personal home address and phone number follows].

To fill the breach at our February session, we discussed topics we’d like to see presented at upcoming classes and came up with these ideas: asking Dr. Dorothy Nelson, member of the United States National Spiritual Assembly, to talk on the crisis in the Five Year Plan; Burl Bullock, on developments at the National Center (he has just returned to southern California from a stint in Wilmette); Auxiliary Board member Joyce Dahl on current activities and events in her job to protect the Faith in California; Paula Wahlstrom’s review of Elena Marsella’s book The Quest for Eden; and Jon Hendershot’s paper on Shoghi Effendi, public image and private personality.

WORKS IN PROGRESS: Hendershot unveiled some of the work he has been doing on his paper, which is based on a review of pilgrims’ notes taken during the Guardian’s time. (Incidentally, Jon has nine sets of such notes, but admits the scarcity of the documents hampers the effectiveness of his study. Would those having access to pilgrims’ notes please contact Jon at [Ed. personal home address follows], and either offer him photocopies of or access to pilgrims’ notes in their possession.)

Discussing the background of such notes, Hendershot said the written recollections, sometimes passed from person to person, usually consists of the “juicy parts” of Shoghi Effendi’s table talks with the context of his remarks almost always missing. Part of the problem with pilgrims’ notes is that they are rife with misspellings and other copyist mistakes which may further erode the authenticity of the documents. Even so, they provide a firsthand view of Shoghi Effendi from other than official sources and, Hendershot noted, give a perspective seldome seen elsewhere.

Pilgrims’ notes have a kind of “bastard aura” about them – unofficial but tolerated. They also have undergone a transformation from being an accepted source of Baha’i information to something on the level of an underground newspaper. In Abdu’l-Baha’s time, for example, pilgrims’ notes formed the basis of several early books on the Faith and the Master’s life. But, during Shoghi Effendi’s tenure, such notes, while tolerated, were discouraged.

This split view persists to this day, with one fraction arguing that pilgrims’ notes amount to discredited Baha’i history of questionable accuracy, neither authentic in character nor sanctioned in existence. On the other side, it is argued that those observers who met the Guardian were sincere believers who had no reason to distort the information they heard, and are reliable historical witnesses and ought to be granted credence as such.

Mr. Hendershot also wondered out loud whether pilgrims’ notes have died out all together. He said that he had not seen or heard of anyone circulating pilgrims’ notes of any visit to Haifa since the passing of the Guardian. Are there any notes or comments of the Hands or the House of Justice floating around?

Hendershot said the calamity was a lively and frequent topic of conversation at the dinner table, at least according to the pilgrims’ notes he had read. Shoghi Effendi speculated on the topic at some length, taking a prophetic role and forecasting the impact of catastrophic events in some detail. (However, Ramiz Maher, who attended the class, said none of the Persian pilgrims’ notes with which he was familiar ever mentioned Shoghi Effendi discussing the calamity.)

To provide a sample of what he was talking about, Hendershot produced a photocopy of excerpts of pilgrim’s notes taken by Alice Dudley when she was in Haifa in April, 1957, only a few months before the Guardian died [Ed. also see the analysis of same here]. The notes consisted of three pages of rambling, single-spaced, typewritten notes that were almost exclusively concerned with the calamity. Herewith are some samples:

According to her notes, Shoghi Effendi predicted an atomic war between the United States and the Soviet Union, identifying this as the calamity and calling it a retributive measure from God. American Baha’is would become refugees in other nations because major cities in the United States would be destroyed in the holocaust. The Guardian predicted that cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco would “evaporate”. The United States would suffer the most because it is the “most materialistic” nation on earth. Western European and the Societ Union also would suffer as a consequence of the calamity. Abdu’l-Baha’s trip to the West was meanst to awaken the United States to the peril facing it, but it was a failure because it did not achieve that end. (Hendershot pointed out that the Master’s trip to America is reported in other Baha’i accounts as a great success. However, he noted that a closer look reveals that, while Abdu’l-Baha’s reception and treatment in America was a success, the reaction to Him by the Americans was more of a failure.)

Alice Dudley’s notes report Shoghi Effendi as saying the world needs a “bloodletting” to ease its overpopulation problems, specifically citing the Guardian as identifying China, India and Japan as places he meant. The Guardian said he “gave up” warning the Baha’is about the dangers of the calamity because they did not heed his statements.

(Tom Kavelin, who attended the class session, said he met Ruhiyyih Khanum, Shoghi Effendi’s wife, in 965, and asked her specifically if the Guardian said the world needed a “bloodletting” to deal with its overpopulation problems. He said that she denied that Shoghi Effendi had ever said anything like that, and that such remarks were uncharacteristic of the Guardian. However, Hendershot noted that the Dudley notes had been sent to Haifa for verification of accuracy and that Ruhiyyih Khanum herself had signed the notes as being substantively correct.)

According to the Dudley notes, one of the western pilgrims asked Shoghi Effendi how Baha’i pioneers overseas should deal with Christian missionaries. The reply, according to the notes, was that Baha’is should be “careful with governments, but reckless with missionaries.” In other passages, the Dudley notes report the Guardian as expressing disappointment in the attitudes and actions of white Baha’is as regards to black Americans and adding that there should be more intermarriage between white and black Baha’is. He also said American Baha’is should deliberately reduce their standard of living in order to contribute more money to the Fund.

These remarks touched off a lively discussion among class members about how accurate Shoghi Effendi’s predictions were. Is the Guardian to be regarded as an infallible historical source? As it happens, this same issue came up more than a year ago when our study class was just getting started. A letter to the Universal House of Justice on the subject of the Guardian’s historical infalliblity elicited the reply that Shoghi Effendi’s freedom from error related only to matters affecting the Cause and the interpretation of Baha’u’llah’s teachings. Otherwise, the House replied, the Guardian was not to be regarded as a flawless source of knowledge.

FEEDBACK: We have (courtesy of Tony Lee) a letter from Peter Smith regarding some points raised when John Hendershot reported on Dr. Allan Ward’s ideas of “born again Baha’is.” Smith writes:

… Dr. Ward’s thesis is certainly provocative and asks useful questions – in that the fundamentalist Christian rebuke that ‘I know I’m saved, how about you?’ is not an easy one to answer – at least if one remains polite and still endeavors to communicate with, rather than merely ‘talk at’ the individual concerned.

However, to simply compare ‘key words’ and imply a similar symbolic value within two very different religious contexts sems to me invalid. Implicit within the citations from the New Testament is a particular interpretative stance (which is not stated) namely what one might term fundamentalist, evangelical Protestantism. Christians aree not agreed as to the relative significance of ‘faith’ and ‘works’, nor as to the operation of ‘grace’ in the world. (Baha’is all too often seem to present a monolithic picture of Christianity in their writings and talks). To take this particular interpretation of Jesus’ teachings and simply transfer it into a Baha’i context does not seem to either illuminate the Baha’i teachings or to provide an honest or secure bridge by which Christians might ‘cross over’ into belief in Baha’u’llah.

As to what Baha’i teachings are on this matter, my own belief is that Baha’u’llah provides a path of illumination rather than an experience or surety of salvation. ‘And how often hath a devout believer at the hour of his soul’s ascension, been so changed as to fall into the nethermost fire.’

If one want to meaningfully compare religious symbols, then a comparison between Sufi and Baha’i ideas might be a more profitable endeavour.

As I would understand it, by becoming a Baha’i, an individual makes a qualitative change in his spiritual state, but does not however guarantee thereby his ultimate spiritual well-being. In addition to the obvious pitfalls (covenant-breaking, disobedience to the Baha’i law) he must also conted with his own (inherent?) selfishness and must, if he want to advance, follow the path of the true seeker, a parth which indeed may be passed in the flicker of an eyelid or a millenia, but a path also which does not really have an end in that there is never a stage of human spiritual perfection which cannot be bettered; even the saints seek to be yet nearer to God.

What Baha’u’llah has done (I believe) has provided the Baha’is with a law (in the broadest sense of that term) which if you like, provides a way, a path of spiritual progress, which they are bidden to follow in order to become more illumined. The individual Baha’i has the choice of whether or not to take that path. One of the severe threats to that progress is to compare oneself with others (especially favorably) in terms of degree of spiritual progress. If ever Baha’is did think of themselves as being better than their co-religionists on account of their own spiritual station then that station would presumably erode at some pace.

On a vaguely related issue I note that some Baha’is already have developed teaching techniques which remind me at any rate of evangelical Christian ‘street ploys’. At the Champagne-Urbana Conference we had the fascinating spectacle of a group of Californian (!) youth demonstrating how easy it was to get declarations by stopping people in the street (not necessarily a bad thing in itself) and asking if the person believed in world unity (or some such) and – wait for it – slowly nodding their head so as to encourage the person to agree! and then saying have you heard of Baha’u’llah (head nodding), or after another question, so you must be a Baha’i (head nodding). The only difference is that whilst the Christian evangelical applies spiritual blackmail, the ‘Baha’i Head Nodder’ (new sect) applies hypnotism. If this continues we might as well all go off and join Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Church of Christ the Kidnapped’ where adherents are continually looking over their shoulder and under the table in case the kidnapped Christ should be there.

Hoping this finds you spiritual,
Warmest Baha’i-born-again-love,

Peter.

PS Special attachments to force a continual ‘saved’ smile and special ointments to give the eyes that requisit lustrous shine are now available.

Our report on Alan Coupe’s paper about “Zarathustra and the Baha’i Faith” elicited a letter from Betty Conow of Hacienda Heights, California, from which these excerpts are taken:

…The religion of Zarathustra, known to the West as Zorastrianism or Mazdeanism, is not altogether shrouded in mystery. In the old Avestan dialect, Zarathustra meant ‘golden light’ or ‘ray of God,’ (Holy Spirit). By a curious muddling of language and ideas, the name ‘Zoroaster’ from ‘zero’ meaning a magical circle and ‘aster’ from Astarte or Ishtar, the old Babylonian goddess, when put together denoted a priest of the inner circle worship of Astarte, and was the title the Greeks gave to Zarathustra, assuming it was all part of the same ethnic and linguistic background…

…When Zarathustra lived is still unresolved. The Western world places him between 600 and 500 BC based upon the dates of Darius, the great Persian king who was the first documented Mazdean. At the other extreme Zarathustra has been placed as far back as 7000 BC. This date was ascribed by Hermippus of Alexandria who was supposed to have read the original and authentic books of the Mazdeans, since, as tradition related, …one copy only of the original Avesta was salvaged when Alexander’s soldiers burned the library at Persepolis. This copy was purported to have shown Zarathustra as having lived 5000 years before the fall of Troy, this latter event hacing occurred about 2000 BC. Aristotle placed him at 6000 BC, other Greek scholars at about 1000 BC and Bunson, the Orientalist, placed him at 3784BC, precisely. Shoghi Effendi accepted the date of about 1000BC.

The rise of Western philosophy in Greece in the 7th century before Christ might well be due to the introduction of Zoroastrian beliefs into Greece at that time. From Thales to Pythagoras to Parmenides this more mystical element is apparent. IT is in the fragments of the enigmatic Heracleitus that Zoroastrian philosophy is the most obvious.

Heracleitus attempted to solve the riddle of the Universe by seeing essence and appearances as one continuum of reality. This ever changing flux both emanated and was one with the Logos, the One (God) in whic all things had their origin, and which was symbolized by Fire, or the primordial energy. Reality only seemed to consist of opposites; true reality was a constant flux or motion in which this duality was ever moving and transforming itself in a dynamic balance. Thsi principle, the ‘paradox of opposites’ is a fundamental teaching in Zoroastrianism, and is, of course, expressed in almost all Eastern philosophies and religions as the male/female principle, yang and yin, positive and negative, etc… This motion was a necessary conflict between opposites which allowed the Cosmos itself to be sustained. This harmony or balance is maintained as the battle between good and evil, the forces of light over darkness, strength over weakness, etc. in an eternal display of cyclical equilibrium…

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: The Baha’i Faith will be the subject of a seminar on April 15 and 16 at the University of Lancaster in England. See the announcement at the end of this newsletter. For further information about costs and registration, please write to Peter Smith at the address provided.

CLASS GROUNDRULES: At the last class, it was decided to reprint the groundrules for this study class which were agreed upon at its first session on October 30th, 1976. They are:

1) There should be no topics which are barred from discussion, no questions which cannot be asked, and no opinions which cannot be put forth openly. No subjects will be regarded as taboo. Rather, the floor will be open to all themes.

2) During the course of the discussion it will be regarded as improper for anyone to question another speaker’s faith in Baha’u’llah, his commitment to the Covenant or his devotion to the Faith or its Central Figures. We all enter the discussion as Baha’is with a common commitment to beliefs which is beyond challenge or suspicion.

3) Ideas and points of view will inevitably differ. Everyone who speaks should expect that his ideas will be challenged and should be prepared to support them with evidence which will be acceptable to others.

4) The discussion will be intellectual (in the best sense of the word). This is not to say that we will not discuss feelings or that the discussion will be pedantic or obscure. Rather is meant that we are interacting with each other on a level of ideas (not of personality or emotion) and that the goal of the discussions will be an exchange of ideas, not emotions (though such an exchange will hopefully prove to be meaninful and emotionally satisfying.)

FUTURE FUNNIES: Our next class, in which we hope to lure Dr. John Cornell of Reedley down south (God willing and the roads don’t close) is set for Sunday, March 12, at 3 pm note the change in time from our usual 2 pm, its ’cause of the Fast), at Tony Lee’s notorious gangland hideaway, [Ed. home address follows].

After that, we’ll be meeting on Sunday, April 2, at our regular time of 2 pm in the home of Richard Bruce, [Ed. home address follows]. At that time, we hope to have Dr. Dorothy Nelson as our guest speaker.


UNIVERSITY OF LANCASTER
DEPARTMENT OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES, DEPARTMENT OF SOCIOLOGY
BAHAI STUDIES SEMINAR
Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th April 1978