The main subject of this newsletter is a discussion of a presentation regarding the idea of spiritual “rebirth” in the Baha’i Faith. I think this concept is similar to what has recently been labelled as “transformation”. Perhaps if the person originally sharing this idea had used this label there would have been much less controversy.
The other subject discussed in this newsletter is a talk by Dr. Khan. At that time, of course, he was just a prominent member of the community (giving talks and so forth). But currently, he is a member of the House of Justice. Its noteworthy that the members of the class pull no punches in their commentary regarding his speech. This is rather unique as most Baha’is would just nod politely and smile. Generally, critical thought, especially when it brings you to directly oppose an idea being promoted by a prominent Baha’i, is discouraged.
We also gain insight into why Khan believes that building a temple is so important:
. . .for the money we spend on building Mashriqu’l-Adhkars we could endow a hospital or an agricultural college, but that Houses of Worship create a pattern which is a magnet for spiritual forces (ie, they are Collective Centers).
First, I wanted to point out a pet peeve of mine here. Referring to temples (such as the ones that we have around the world) as Mashriqu’l-Adhkhars is not at all accurate or truthful. Mashriqs are much, much more than just a lone building with nine sides. So much so, that we do not have a real Mashriqu’l-Adhkhar (yet).
Second, it is laughable to imagine that we label the temples as ‘collective centers’ and by virtue of doing so we somehow imbue them with some spiritual significance. If, as the class correctly points out, the point is to do the Divine Will, then anything that accomplishes this is pleasing to Him and will have spiritual significance. And that, according to the repeated and intense exhortations in the Writings, would include a hospital, a well to give clean water, schools, etc. (oh and by the way, the house of the elderly near the Chicago temple – which was not even run as a charity but as a for-profit business – was closed in the early 1990′s).
To me, Khan’s reasoning may seem outright silly but when you think about it, it fits with the actions taken by the AO. Unfortunately, it seems that other high ranking members of the AO share this warped logic.
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 . . .
STUDY CLASS NOTES, Vol. II, No. 17 (December, 1977)
It is a balmy summer day in 198-. Strolling in a crowded park you are approached by a smiling, pamphlet-wielding youth with eyes shining with fervor. Steppin in front of you to block your way he asks, “Have you been saved; have you been reborn?” Hesitating for a moment, trying to phrase an appropriate reply that will both communicate your love for this “veiled” soul and inform this misguided fanatic that Christ has returned in the person of Baha’u’llah to unite the world, you are shocked to hear this third question: “Have you heard of Baha’u’llah?” You manage to sputter, “But I, have heard of Baha’u’llah! I’m a Baha’i!” The young man replies joyously, “That’s wonderful. But, have you been reborn?”
What is going on here? This is not a “reborn” Christian fundamentalist fishing for man by witnessing to the power of the risen Lord Jesus. No, rather, this is a “born again” Baha’i quickening souls (non-Baha’i and Baha’i) with the healing message of Baha’u’llah. And, he is rattling off the same “rebirth,” “born again,” resurrection” terminology one might hear from an evangelical preacher.
Does this sound preposterous? Think this scene could never happen because the Baha’i Faith shuns such emotionally loaded terms as “rebirth,” “sin,” “judgement day” and the like? Guess again. According to a class Jon and Chris Hendershot of Manhattan Beach presented to our study group, it is not at all far-fetched. The concept of being “born again” not only transcends fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity, but forms a primary, essential part of Baha’i doctrine as well.
Jon reported on a series of classes he and Chris attended at the Bosch Baha’i School in November, Dr. Allan Ward’s “Baha’u’llah and Us.” He began by expressing sore discomfort at giving a report of someone else’s views. He felt uncomfortable because it seems impossible to give a completely accurate record of another’s thoughts. He felt the effort worthwhile, however, because Dr. Ward’s classes were very provocative – not merely intellectually, but spiritually as well. That is, Dr. Ward’s views demand a reevaluation of one’s own spiritual condition.
What follows, then, is a summary (with apologies to Dr. Ward) of what Jon said Dr. Ward said. There are also some critical comments by Jon on some of Dr. Ward’s principles views. Dr. Ward’s central thesis is that in addition to modern-day teachings, Baha’u’llah stresses the role of personal salvation for the individual, a concept Baha’is can and ought to use to transform their own spiritual conditions and in their attempts to reach Christians with the Faith.
Dr. Ward noted that there is a common set of symbols that Christianity and the Baha’i Faith share involving the use of terms like “rebirth” and “resurrection.” He quoted in this regard Baha’u’llah in the Kitab-i-Iqan (p.120):
“In every age and century, the purpose of the Prophets of God and their chosen ones hath been no other but to affirm the spiritual significance of the terms of ‘life,’ ‘resurrection,’ and ‘judgement.’ If one will ponder but for a while this utterance of Ali in his heart, one will surely discover all mysteries hidden in the terms ‘grave,’ ‘tomb,’ ‘sirat,’ ‘paradise,’ and ‘hell.’” (Sirat: literally, bridge or support; denotes the religion of God)
Abdu’l-Baha explains (Some Answered Questions, p.96) that the prophets use sensible terms to explain the reality of the spirit.
In the understanding of such symbols, it is important to know whether symbol refers to the animal self or the spiritual nature. Such terms as “Satan,” “blindness,” “dead,” “evil,” “sin,” “serpent,” “hell,” and “torture” can be understood only through the concept of the animal or lower nature.
In Promulgation of Universal Peace (p.179), Abdu’l-Baha states that the animal’s propensities are to “eat, drink, wander about, and sleep.”
Men are “blind” to the spiritual existence (Reality of Man, p.14) when their desires are centered on the physical world. The “dead” are those “who are deprived of the spirit of the love of God and have not a share of the sanctified eternal life” ((Some Answered Questions, p.69). “Satan” and other terms such as “devil,” “Evil Whisperer,” and “Evil one” refer to the lower nature.
God, however, has never created anything “evil.” Dr. Ward asserted that anything which does not live up to its potential is evil. “Sin” is any action that stems from us when we are not living up to our potential. “Serpent” represents attachment to this world and constitutes sin. “Hell” and “torture” refer to the spiritual condition of someone who lives only in the lower nature and is veiled from God and his higher nature.
The higher or spiritual nature refers to man’s capacity to reflect the attributes of God. This concept is important for understanding such symbols as “rebirth,” “second birth,” “spiritual birth,” “saint,” “angel,” “baptism,” “water,” “fire,” and “salvation.”
“Rebirth,” “second birth,” and “spiritual birth” all refer to the process or event of leaving the life of the lower nature for the life of the higher nature. Dr. Ward called “rebirth” the conscious control of the animal self. Detachment from the lower nature and becoming motivated by divine virtues and the love of God characterize this process or event. A “saint” or “angel” is a person who has become free of the animal nature.
“Baptism” is a symbol of the repentance of all sins. Baptismal “water” is divine knowledge while baptismal “fire” is the love of God.
Many Baha’is, according to Dr. Ward, do not relate to Baha’u’llah as a personal savior in the way that Christians regard Jesus. But, Baha’u’llah is our personal savior – He is the One Who comes to save us from our animal self. Thus, “salvation” is freedom from the lower nature.
Another difference between Baha’is and Christians is that Christians often say that if you accept Jesus you are reborn (“Christians are not better than other people, just forgiven.”) However, when we accept Baha’u’llah, we are not necessarily reborn. Acceptance is but a doorway to rebirth. And, even then not all Baha’is attain it. This dichotomy is emphasized by Shoghi Effendi when he pointed out (Baha’i News, No. 241) that there are two kinds of Baha’is: those whose religion is Baha’i and those who live their lives for the Faith. Dr. Ward also noted that Abdu’l-Baha (Star of the West, Vol. III, No.4, pp.6-7) stated that by 1911 all Americans would have become Baha’is if the believers had become true Baha’is.
Touching on a controversial point, Jon said that Dr. Ward asserted that complete rebirth is possible only for Baha’is. His source was Abdu’l-Baha, p.408 of Baha’i World Faith: The Baha’is “…must arise to perform good deeds according to divine instructions, so that they may guide the people with heavenly actions an dmanners: – to such an extent that all the inhabitants of the world may draw conclusions from their behavior and deeds, that these persons are Baha’is. For the manifestation of such deeds and actions from anybody else except Baha’is is impossible and impracticable.”
Dr. Ward asserted that the process of rebirth is not some obscure, arcane mystery that is discovered only after a lifetime of self-mortification and patient meditation. Dr. Ward said that Baha’u’llah indicates in The Seven Valleys that it can happen in the twinkling of an eye or in 100,000 years. But, often Baha’is do not make enough of an effort to change themselves, merely saying that eventually they will change, after all, no one is perfect. This is a copout that only perpetuates imperfections, leads to difficulties, often despondency, and certainly does not attract anyone to the Faith. In this regard, Shoghi Effendi wrote (Baha’i Administration, p.66):
“One thing and only one thing will unfailingly and alone secure the undoubted triumph of this sacred Cause, namely, the extent to which our own inner life and private character mirror forth in their manifold aspects the splendor of those eternal principles proclaimed by Baha’u’llah.”
Dr. Ward asserted that the section of the Kitab-i-Iqan (pp.192-196) which many Baha’is call the “Tablet of the True Seeker” enumerates 31 conditions that must be attained before rebirth is possible. Some of these are: cleanse the heart from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge; purge the breast of every defilement; never seek to exalt one’s self above anyone; refrain from idle talk; be free from inordinate desires’ and, to put one’s trust in God.
Dr. Ward also indicated that you can tell persons who have been reborn by their faces. Their faces become “Joyous and beaming with light.” (Baha’i World Faith, p.118) The Kitab-i-Iqan (p.196) also enumerates other characteristics of a reborn person: darkenss of error will be dispelled; spirit of kindess wafter over his soul; mists of doubts and misgivings will be dissipated; lights of knowledge and certitude will enter his being.
In our study class, all this did not go down without some disgruntled harrumping. It was pointed out, for example, that some of Dr. Ward’s most important points were buttressed with quotations from Promulgation of Universal Peace, Paris Talks and pilgrims’ notes, while more authoritative sources were ignored. Also, it was argued that some quotations did not justify the conclusions that were drawn by Dr. Ward. For example, several alternative interpretations could be found for the quotations Dr. Ward used to support the idea that only Baha’is can become fully reborn.
Also it was argued that Dr. Ward’s emphasis on the Christian idiom in the Baha’i Writings misses the dominant theme – the unity of mankind – of the Baha’i Faith. Dr. Ward also was accused of trying to reduce the Baha’i message to Christian terminology and force the Faith into a Christian framework simply as an expedient [way] to attract Christians to the Faith. One criticism of the doctor’s approach dismissed it as “warmed over Christianity.” Other reactions noted that, contrary to what Dr. Ward reported, there is no universal set of religious symbols, not even in the Baha’i Faith itself. Sometimes terms are used in abstract, sometimes as concrete examples, and sometimes, in different places, to convey different meanings.
Perhaps the most concerned criticism that was leveled came in response to an impression Dr. Ward’s thesis – perhaps inadvertently created; that spiritual rebirth for a Baha’i can and sould be a relatively short-term process which, once attained, influences all susequent behavior. For one thing, it was argued, this thinking is potentially dangerous if it leads to a kind of class distinction among Baha’is – for instance, the “reborn” and, on some lower level, those who still are wrestling with their animal desires. Moreover, it was noted that some of the more pre-eminent Baha’is, including a few of the Cause’s most loyal and praised servants, suffered personal problems (drinking, wenching, you name it) virtually all their lives. It was felt that some individual described by Abdu’l-Baha as a “saint” could be found to support this view, although none was produced.
Furthermore, none of the materials drawn on to support this idea seemed to characterize rebirth as reaching a plateau where the animal self is quelled via some kind of break-through experience and then entering the gradual process of drawing closer to God. The quotations used by Dr. Ward could be used equally well to support the view that there is only one process – moving slowly or rapidly – from the animal to the spiritual.
Joe did not attempt to defend the view that only Baha’is can become completely reborn. The evidence was not felt to be persuasive. He did not try to defend Dr. Ward’s basic view that there is rebirth and then a gradual growth beyond that and that this experience should not take such a long time. Jon argued that the so-called “Tablet of the True Seeker” seems to emphasize some kind of awakening experience from which further growth can develop:
“Only when the lamp of search, of earnest striving, of longing desire, of passionate devotion, of fervid love, of rapture, and exstasy, is kindled within the seeker’s heart, and the breeze of His loving-kindness is wafted upon his sould, will the darkness of error be dispelled, the mists of doubts and misgivings be dissipated, and the lights of knowledge and certitude envelop his being. At that hour will the mystic Herald, bearing the joyful tidings of the Spirit, shine forth from the City of God resplendent as the morn, and, through the trumpte-blast of knowledge, will awaken the heart, the soul and the spirit from the slumber of negligence.”
Furthermore, this is a constant theme of both Abdu’l-Baha in his talks in Promulgation of Universal Peace and of Shoghi Effendi (as quoted in Baha’i Administration above).
Finally, there was this reaction to Dr. Ward’s thesis about similarities in motive and intent between Christianity and the Faith. It is preferable for the Baha’is to be different and distinct as a means of attracting people, rather than to identify with Christianity with emphasis on some kind of “me, too” religious terminology and practice as a means of siphoning off Christians into the Baha’i Faith. Our teaching successes to date have come when we have presented our religion as an alternative to prevailing spiritual thought, not as some modernized extention of today’s practices.
Part two of our class also dealt with a presentation first made at Bosch Baha’i School. In this instance, the review presented by Chris Herndershot, was a videotape shown at the school. The tape, of Dr. Peter Khan, was on “Collective Centers,” what these are and how they affect the Baha’i Faith.
The term “collective centers” first (and, as far as can be determined, only) appears in Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablets of the Divine Plan. The Master defines a collective center as anything that functions to unify interests or people. Examples He gives of collective centers are political alliances, patriotism and the unity of ideals (whatever that is). Contrasting these with religion, Abdu’l-Baha writes that the Divine Collective Center surpasses nationalism, political interests, and cultural interests as rallying points.
Taking off from that position, Dr. Khan (in the videotape Chris reported on) cited three underlying principles of collective centers: the interaction of matter and spirit, the principle of magnetism and the principle of evolution. In brief, Dr. Khan said Abdu’l-Baha characterized all creation as interaction between matter and spirit. Spirit manifests itself by movement, cohesion, growth, and developemtn. Love derives from the existence of spirit. Love impresses itself on the atoms. Spririt is the life of the form. With regard to magnetsm, Dr. Khan said by serving the Cause, the Baha’is become like magnets and attract the aid of God. When a pattern of behavior corresponds to the Divine Will, it attracts a level of spirit. And, finally, as to evolution, he said that when Baha’is create an entity or an action that attracts teh Divine spirit, the spirit works on the entity and changes it. The activity then evolves and becomes a greater, more effective creation.
Chris reported that it is Dr. Khan’s view that when Abdu’l-Baha talked about “collective centers,” He meant patterns of arrangement that correspond to Divine Will. If the activities of the Baha’is correspond to Divine Will, they will act as magnets and thereby attract Divine spirit and become conducive to unity, happiness and progress. This, in turn, makes the Baha’is spiritual magnets to the world at large and, it is through this device, that man progresses. Relating to the practical level, Dr. Khan noted that the power of prayer is divine magnet. Supplication aids the individual. The action of reciting a prayer is a pattern to attract divine confirmations. Through meditation, we receive the blessings of the Holy Spirit, and also set a life pattern in our being. He also related the principle of collective centers to the construction of Houses of Worship. By erecting these religious edifices, we are heeding a Divine Command, and creating a magnet for spiritual forces. Dr. Khan related each aspect of the Five Year Plan to collective conferences, forming Local Spiritual Assemblies, etc. In summary, Dr. Khan said that if we abide by what the Manifestation says to do, we can become Collective Centers. He said that the structure of the Five Year Plan fits into Collecive Centers and that the function of the Universal House of Justice in giving us the Five Year Plan is to create agencies so that the powr of the Holy Spirit is attracted, greater spirit will flow, and the world will be affected.
This was all received with something less than a standing ovation. One class member dismissed Dr. Khan’s thesis as “a big non-sequitur,” saying if we do the things that Baha’u’llah tells us and because He tells us to, all this talk about collecive centers is irrelevant. It was also argued that Dr. Khan’s talk sounds impressive but, when boiled down to its essentials, goes nowhere and says nothing. A lot of high falutin’ jargon is spewed out, but it’s mostly pap and window dressing. Dr. Khan said that for the money we spend on building Mashriqu’l-Adhkars we could endow a hospital or an agricultural college, but that Houses of Worship create a pattern which is a magnet for spiritual forces (ie, they are Collective Centers). One class member pointed out that construction of a hospital can be as much of a collective center as anything else and can please the Divine Will. The fact that there is a home for the elderly as an adjunt to the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmetter should prove this point.
MAIL: We are hoping to encourage more feedback from our readers and broaden our base of support. So, from time to time, and as space permits, we’ll include some comments we get via the mail. Herewith a sampling. Dr. John B. Cornell, a dentist in Reedley, California, wrote us recently about the issue of individual initiative and the Baha’i Faith, noting in part:
“It is refreshing to see that you believe in individual initiative and in the right to present your own opinions. I had quite a struggle for this when I was a student in dental school. The leaders of the Baha’i community were the domineering type who thought it quite heretical of me to think that I had a right to my own opinions. That is why I wrote to the Guardian, who replied that we all have a right to our opinions, we are bound to think differently. His statement to me to this effect appears in the December, 1947, Baha’i News on page 3.
My own observation is that a large segment of the Baha’i population considers initiative to be heretical, on the grounds that everything must come from the top down. They reason that we should not do any original thinking because the Universal House of Justice will decide everything for us. This is one reason why we emphasized in our study course on Baha’i law that national assemblies are to be as independent as possible. I think the same principle applies to local assemblies and also to individuals, to allow them as much independence and initiative as possible. I believe that our Baha’i Faith teaches a maximum of individual responsability and initiative.
It appears to me that we have an orthodox element in the Cause that believes that a few of the elite have the responsability to do all our thinking for us. Sometimes this is quite openly expressed and sometimes it is quite subtle, like saying that what we need to do is to pray more. You and I would be more likely to say that what we need to do is to study the writings more. There is a big difference. Those who spend all their time praying instead of studying will need to be told what to do; while students of the writings are likely to be doing a lot of their own thinking and then some of the leaders will not be so needed to do all our thinking for us.”
And, we also got these nice words from Sandy Parr Tjitendero, a Baha’i pioneer in Lusaka, Zambia, now back in the US for a while. She wrote, “…please rush me copies of the newsletters. They are a real bright spot in the lives of the pioneers here. So much of our teaching work is only basics of the Faith over and over again that you can’t imagine how stimulating and uplifting your newsletters are!”
FUTURE FROLICS: Our next class will be held on Sunday, January 8, 1978 at 2 pm in the home of Mehrdad Amanat [Ed. personal home address and phone number follows]. The topic will be a report on the annual meeting of the Canadian Association for Studies of the Baha’i Faith, held in Vancouver, BC over the New Year’s weekend. Tony Lee and Bob Ballenger have promised a stupifyingly boring review of the conference and papers presented at it.
The original scanned documents can be found here.