Ocean of faith
A year ago today I joined the Baha’i Faith. To commemorate the occasion, what follows is an account of the night when I made the big decision; some of you may recognize the story from an e-mail I wrote the next day. I’ll write about the journey leading up to this fateful night, and where I am a year later, in a (near-)future post.
On 23 February, 2009, I was visiting Princeton University to discuss my Master’s thesis from the summer and, more generally, my future, with Professor Michael Cook. I had a few hours before our meeting, during which I spent time in the famed Firestone Library.
By then I had already been investigating the Baha’i Faith for several months, having completed The Hidden Words, the Kitab-i-Aqdas, and now nearing the end of the Kitab-i-Iqan. So, my curiosity was piqued when I encountered a book entitled, Revisioning the Sacred: New Perspectives on Baha’i Theology. One entry in particular moved me, “The Possibilities of Existential Theism on a Baha’i Theology” by Jack McLean. Something about McLean’s essay snared me.
There were several passages that really caught my attention, all pertaining to the authenticity and subjectivity of the scholar. I’ve made a separate post compiled of these elsewhere, but here’s the penultimate one:
[Bahá'u'lláh writes:] “The story is told of a mystic knower, who went on a journey with a learned grammarian as his companion. They came to the shore of the Sea of Grandeur. The knower straightway flung himself into the waves, but the grammarian stood lost in his reasonings, which were as words that are written on water.
“The knower called out to him, ‘Why dost thou not follow?’ The grammarian answered, ‘O Brother, I dare not advance. I must needs go back again.’ Then the knower cried, ‘Forget what thou didst read in the books of Sibavayh and Qawlavayh, of Ibn-i-Hájib and Ibn-i-Málik, and cross the water.’”
[...] Bahá’u'lláh then quotes from Rúmí’s Mathnaví: “The death of self is needed here, not rhetoric/Be nothing, then, and walk upon the waves.” Although this mini-tale could easily lend itself to lengthy commentary, there are three elements which link it to existential concerns.
First, there is the wholehearted commitment to the life of faith exemplified by the mystic knower who is very reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s Abraham as the “knight of faith”, the one who makes that supreme act of will, the “leap of faith”, and summoning up courage, walks across the water.
In the story of the mystic and the grammarian, it is the heroic self of the true believer that emerges when the mystic knower casts behind him the despair and doubt that is left in reason’s wake, and leaps into the Sea of Reality.
By taking this “leap of faith”, the seeker finds the courage to defy the violence of logic and the dictates of reason that command the protection and preservation of self. But instead of sinking beneath the waves and drowning, the mystic knower defies gravity, rises above and walks on water.
McLean’s words and the image of the Grammarian and the Mystic were in the back of my mind as Professor Cook and I had our discussion. We covered many topics, and I recall him remarking that I had much in the way of “exuberance” but are “afraid to channel it”. Incidentally, it was also during this conversation that the decision was made for me to go to Leuven.
On the train ride back to Philly I finally completed the Kitab-i-Iqan. Somehow, the song “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails emerged from somewhere in the recesses of my memory. The guitar riff in particular seemed to get stuck in repeat, playing over and over again. I began to hum it, meditating while doing so: I like the Baha’i Faith, but I’m reluctant to join. Why? What’s preventing me?
As I reflected, seeming to sink deeper into myself, the guitar riff simplified and gained an echo. It was then that I finally hit upon the reason: Baha’u'llah’s claim to be a Manifestation of God, especially in the nineteenth century (of all eras!), was outrageous — and that was precisely the crux. You see, I really believe in the soul. Was I willing to stake my personal salvation upon this man? What if he was a madman, or worse, a deceiver?
One of my oldest fears, since childhood, has been the idea of a Ruthless God. What if the divine does not tolerate mistakes? If you choose the wrong creed, to Hell you’ll go! It was my own private version of Descartes’ prosecutionary “Evil Genius” and was tangled up in all my terrors and feelings of profound personal inadequacy. Moreover, this fear was at the root of my traditional avoidance of commitment — a kind of metaphysical survival mechanism.
But then, in that moment on the train, the song began to deepen. The guitar chords now sounded like pulsating, rhythmic rolls of thunder, reverberating through my entire inner world. I opened my eyes and saw myself, arms and legs spread, floating atop a vast ocean beneath a roiling tempest. For a moment I feared sinking, and then a rush ran through me. I felt like crying tears of release: letting the waves take me to whatever distant shore lay beyond the storming horizon.
When I returned to my apartment in Philadelphia, I felt the an overpowering urge to look for a pamphlet I received from the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly of the United States. It included a gold-colored membership application form to which, for some reason, I felt very attached. However, I had lost the pamphlet months previously, with no recollection of where it could possibly be. Now, I found it, laying in plain sight. It seemed like a quiet confirmation.