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Paradise Is Always a Garden: The Baha’i Thing, From Then to Nearly Now

After finishing this piece, I learned of the passing of a great pillar of the Canadian Baha’i community, not to mention an internationally renowned painter. His name was Otto Donald Rogers, “Don” to most who knew him. He was a quietly magnificent human being, and I’d like to retroactively offer this as a small tribute to a great man. Peace to his family and friends.  
[12-minute read]
A rather different (shorter) version of this piece appears at the Baha’i Teachings website: click here for Part 1, here for Part 2

Maybe you’ve been obsessing about the NHL or NBA playoffs. (No Canadian teams left in the quest for the hockey grail. No LeBron, no more Spurs.) Or wondering if spring will ever come. (Spoiler: it will. It’s underway. Just ask flood victims all over everywhere, but don’t mention climate change. That would be rude!) But for the Baha’is, it’s coming near the end of the “Most Great Festival” of the Baha’i calendar, and I’m all in.

This is not the original Najibiyyih Garden that Baha’u’llah called Paradise, but it evokes the same spirit.

This festival is called “Ridván”, an Arabic word meaning “paradise”, and the best my Canadian mouth can manage is something like ‘Rez-VAHN’. It’s a 12-day period that celebrates the public “mission statement” of the Faith’s founder, Bahá’u’lláh, in a Baghdad garden in 1863. This Persian nobleman, already stripped of wealth and social status and banished from his homeland, was turning a supposedly humiliating further exile into, well, a mighty big party now celebrated by millions around the globe. It’s Day 11. Two nights ago I prayed and partied with a small group not far from my house. I’ll do it again tomorrow night on Day 12, but on April 21, I joined in with a big crowd of Baha’is and their friends for the Big Ridvan Opening, where we were invited to consider how the Baha’i community got from 1863 Baghdad obscurity to the world-wide reach it has today. I’ve been trying to follow Baha’u’llah’s mighty System of knowledge and practice for a long time now. Sometimes it feels I haven’t gotten very far, but I’m still walking, and the Baha’i Big Picture is bright and ever-developing.

Anyway, it all got me thinking about histories: my own, that of the Baha’i community over the past century and a half, and even of earlier crossings into New Millennium territory.

And I thought: I would have made a very poor 1st– or 2nd-century Christian. I would’ve wanted the Kingdom to come NOW! But the growth of Christianity was slow, and the times were confusing. Heck, Pope Gregory wouldn’t be born for centuries, so the Gregorian calendar that dates our lives based on Jesus’s life hadn’t been invented; 100 years after Christ, the word “Christian” was just beginning to distinguish this tiny community from the many other Jewish cults and sects that had arisen. Even 300 years after the life of Jesus Christ, His followers were found only in tiny pockets in what we call the “Middle East”¹, Turkey, northern Africa and southern Europe, basically within a few donkey-days journey of the Mediterranean Sea. They were just beginning to organize their scriptures and get their doctrines and dogmas together, 325 years after Christ’s life, and the Christians wouldn’t become a major population even in the Mediterranean region until the 6th century. Today, it’s the most widespread religion in the world, of course, and we all take its supernatural degree of influence and prestige for granted. But I would have been so impatient as an early Christian!

¹ Ever noticed how Eurocentric that term is? As if everyplace should be measured from London or Paris (which, for many centuries, it was.)

So listen: when I joined the Baha’i community as a 1970s teenager, I began to wonder, Why are other faith groups, often younger than we are, seeming to grow so much faster than we are? I was noticing the Hare Krishna chants on Toronto streets, or the sudden North American splash, in news media and in recruitment, of the Unification Church, the so-called “Moonies”. I wasn’t tempted to join them, or even emulate their methods, but their bursts of public prominence bugged me.  A wise Baha’i elder answered our youthful questions in his deep, heavily accented but utterly logical way. (If you want to channel the voice of Dr. Danesh, imagine American diplomat Henry Kissinger, but with a Persian rather than a German accent, and with a devotion to the psychology of peace and justice rather than to strategies of conflict.) He calmly explained it this way: Think about what we are trying to grow. If you look at two plants in their first season of growth – one of them a pumpkin, one of them an oak tree – your conclusion might be easy. The pumpkin is obviously more impressive, vines and bright flowers and, within months, gigantic orange fruits! Meanwhile, the oak looks like a tender, fruitless twig. The community of Baha’u’llah is growing like an oak tree; as impressive as pumpkins seem to be, at the end of a year you have a few pumpkin pies and maybe a rotting jack-o-lantern, and that’s it.

That made sense to me then. (The reference to pie and jack-o-lanterns is probably mine, but you get the point.) There must have been a host of movements, 1900 years ago, that would have soundly defeated the Christians on a “Most Likely To Succeed” ballot. But the followers of Jesus, in the above analogy, were a slow-growing but eventually mighty oak tree, not a flash-in-the-pumpkin-pie-pan. I still have a lot to learn about patience, but the evolution of the Baha’i community, from its quietly intimate beginnings in the rose-coloured Garden of Ridvan to what I see now, is enough – barely – to keep me hopeful and sane. It’s over 150 years since Baha’u’llah announced his mission in Baghdad, which isn’t as long ago as our present-focussed obsessions and shortening attention spans can make it seem. His writings confidently predicted the growth of world-wide attention to his teachings and of the community that would arise in his name:

It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and, with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness….Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.

The original “Ridvan” garden, on the shores of the Tigris River in Baghdad. There were roses, roses and nightingales, and joy.

Ridvan now feels like a mighty Declaration, but back then even an attentive neutral observer might have missed the planting of that seed. Baha’u’llah confirmed publicly, to only a few people, what many of his family and friends had quietly known: that he was the one who would lead us to the long-promised day of peace and justice. He thus transformed his upcoming banishment into his modern community’s greatest festival. So how did we get HERE from back THERE? The Baha’is then were few in number, decimated by persecution, and frankly their fellowship seemed like a rather hopeless little twig. I seized on five pivotal years in the steady, seemingly unspectacular growth of the Baha’i community into the beautiful young tree it is today. Here is annual snapshot number one:

 

1892. My father’s parents were young, and would soon meet each other. It’s a little over 125 years since then, the year when Baha’u’llah passed away, leaving his son and family and a still-tiny band of followers to carry on the astounding, world-changing mission he had described and put into motion. Baha’u’llah (an Arabic term, meaning “splendour/light of God”) was not much more widely known than Jesus Christ (“the anointed one”) had been on the cross. His son, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, still a prisoner of the Turkish empire, was left to encourage and inspire a few thousand believers, in a few Middle Eastern countries, to live as his father had prescribed, and to tell the world of Baha’u’llah’s message of world peace, world unity, and the essential oneness of humanity. Good luck with that, folks! But listen: they began.

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Marilynne Robinson (on civilization)

May she keep on teaching and writing. Marilynne Robinson, photo from an article in The Guardian newspaper.

[3-minute read]

We hear it all the time. Human beings are naturally aggressive. We have always had wars, and we always will. Some of the more pessimistic among us – and listen, such people are not deranged; there are reasons aplenty to cast a stink-eye on our history  – go so far as to suggest that war is the natural condition of human societies, and that peace is an intermittent and temporary reprieve. This is nonsense.

Among many other reasons, it is foolish to think this way because, first, it is too easy, and second, it is too damned discouraging. Third, and most important, to consider warfare as our default mode is slippery and false because it allows us to excuse and even justify  (to ourselves, to our fellow foreign policy analysts, to our tough-on-crime cronies, to any of our partners-in-expediency) the use of brutal methods to address problems. Meanwhile, we routinely fall into the lazy assumption that human beings have hair-trigger predispositions towards violence or other anti-social qualities, yet most of us wouldn’t say this about the people that we actually know and interact with. (“People are AWFUL! Well, not my people, they’re mostly pretty great but, you know, those people out there…”)     

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What Do We Remember?

First I tweeted, then I thought.

Typical.

Beautiful. Nothing wrong with this. Except --

Beautiful. Nothing wrong with this. Except —

I retweeted sharp, moving, bitterly lovely and earnest images: helmet and bayonet, Canadian flag, grey beret-wearing veteran among poppies in remembrance of long-lost ever-youthful brothers in arms. It’s only natural: I’m touched by the loss of “my guys”. They’re mine because even though nearly all Canadian war dead fought under a different flag than the one I’ve lived my life under, they came from places I’ve been, or want to. I’ve recited the poems, sung the songs, seen the films. I used to have McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” by heart (the poppies blow), yes, and McGee’s “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth / And danced the sky on laughter-silvered wings…”, and a long time ago I read Timothy Findley’s The Wars like I was in one.

(Well, I know. John Gillespie McGee was American, but his “High Flight” poem celebrated his epiphany as a soaring fighter pilot for the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was dead, at age 19, not long after he wrote how he “wheeled and soared and swung / High in the sunlit silence”. It was a training accident. He hadn’t even had the chance to fight for honour, freedom or anything.)

A British man named Laurence Binyon wrote “For the Fallen” as the Great War was swinging into high gear in the late summer of 1914.

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‘Abdu’l-Baha (on truth and national limitations)

His father called him "the Master". He preferred to be known as a servant.

His father called him “the Master”. He preferred to be known as a servant.

He was a big story in 1912, but aside from the Baha’i community and its friends, few remember ‘Abdu’l-Baha Abbas. For 239 days, he travelled about North America to considerable acclaim: he was heralded in newspapers from Montreal to San Francisco, New York to Chicago as an “Oriental Seer”, the “Baha’i Prophet”, as a “Wonderful Persian Mystic” and “Apostle of Peace”. He gave hundreds of talks in synagogues, churches, universities, public auditoriums and private homes. His topics were many, but the central core of his message was one of spiritual awakening, the hard but necessary road to global peace, and the essential oneness of all faiths, races and peoples. Imagine: 1912.

On May 3, ‘Abdu’l-Baha (it means something like “servant of the Glory”) spoke at the Hotel Plaza in Chicago. He analyzed what factors led to the advancement of civilization and the living of an ethical, productive life. He pointed towards what he called “universal educators”, those historical sources of spiritual, intellectual and material guidance around whom whole systems of belief and practice have arisen. Given where he was, Jesus Christ was his main example.

The quote below almost seemed a throwaway line given at the end of the talk.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower (on the price we pay for war)

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Was it politics-as-usual, war-by-other-means, or were his words the earnest thought of a man who really knew the price of war?

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) was the Supreme Allied Commander by the end of World War II, first military head of N.A.T.O., and then a landslide Republican winner of the 1952 U.S. Presidential election. He served two terms as President, during which the Cold War deepened and America prospered mightily. This quotation comes from his widely broadcast and historically notable 1953 “Chance for Peace” address, sometimes known as the “Cross of Iron” speech. Even Wikipedia notes the “debatable” sincerity of his words, and yet they are urgent and fine and no less true today.

He elaborated the purely economic price of the arms race like this:

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‘Abdu’l-Baha (“never the twain”?)

The East and the West must unite to give to each other what is lacking. This union will bring about a true civilization, where the spiritual is expressed and carried out in the material….We all, the Eastern and the Western nations, must strive day and night with heart and soul to achieve this high ideal, to cement the unity between all the nations of the earth. Every heart will then be refreshed, all eyes will be opened, the most wonderful power will be given, the happiness of humanity will be assured.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in 1911. (1911!) From Paris Talks, p. 21

Just Human Nature?

Have you ever noticed how gloomy we are in the way we talk about ourselves? About our species, I mean. Someone cheats – on his taxes, on her partner – and we shrug and mutter, “Well, it’s only human nature.” Over and over, we sing the same mournful refrain in response to signs of dishonesty, selfishness and aggression, most often evident among people that we don’t know.

I find this bizarre. I think we need to reclaim this phrase, and shout Now THAT’S human nature! whenever we catch people in acts like this: pushing a stranger’s car out of the snow; smiling at small children; preserving history or restoring spoiled habitats; singing the good old songs; standing against injustice; jumping into icy water or burning houses to save another. I don’t mean that lying and brutality don’t happen, only that they are not the default mode of the human system.

It reminds me of the view of history as one unrelieved tale of war, tragedy and competition. If this was true, how could we have cities and art and temples and enduring music? War destroys quickly, and this is the horror, but it is also the exception. If war and aggression were the rule, we’d have destroyed ourselves long ago. If it were otherwise, how could any of the cooperative projects and personal accomplishments of human beings remain? The King James Bible, Chartres Cathedral, Réal Madrid CF, the computer program on which I write: pick your favourite example of human enterprise and progress, and know that it required time and peace to be built.

And if our human nature is nothing but self-interest and negativity, how have we survived? (Just give us time, I hear some of you muttering. We’re working on it.) We can be beastly to each other, but we can also be angels. When we think of our friends, our family, the colleagues we know and respect, we don’t assume as some sort of default stance that they are “only out for themselves”, “naturally aggressive” or, God forbid, “born in sin”. Oh, we screw up. We are in constant need of education. Most of the time, though, most of us are just ordinary Janes and Jamals who are trying to be useful, wanting to enjoy the company of others and to leave some legacy of goodness behind. It’s only human nature, after all.

(And here’s Waldo! Ralph Waldo Emerson, that is, with his description of humans being at their best, the success that, in our heart of hearts, most of us want more than anything else:

To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends, to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others, to leave the world a little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition, to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.