Seeing ourselves in our religions
As I get older (and granted, I’m far from elderly), I surprise myself by how I seem to get more radical, but not blindly so. My misgivings toward capitalism in general run deeper and deeper. Yet, I also surprise myself in the way that my perhaps peculiar brand of Leftism apparently has some bourgeois limits.
For one, I am not so foolish as to identify capitalism with democracy, although of course they both share roots in liberalism. Moreover, I also make the perhaps bold distinction between democracy and methodology — something which most Americans don’t like to try.
The way I see it, for all of liberal democracy’s many strengths, it has become a breeding ground for discord. I am critical of the system for the ways it manufactures consent, inspires egotism, partisanship, and mediocrity among public servants and the political class, and inevitably strips agency from the citizenry. There has to be a better way of being democratic, of avoiding the short-sighted self-destructive cycles of liberalism without resorting to the sophistries of traditional Marxism.
For another, in light of the uprising in Kyrgyzstan and subsequent land seizures by impoverished citizens of that nation, I’ve had to seriously confront myself about my feelings toward private property. After all, it’s easy to say I’m a Leftist, but Marx et al were prophetically correct that atomistic individualistic private property is at the core of capitalism, so am I willing to put my money where my mouth is? The answer is: not yet.
There are two reasons for my equivocal answer. On the one hand, there were the Jewish and Protestant values I grew up with of hard personal labor, not to mention the hard lessons of my family’s struggles with money taught me about the need for thriftiness. However, at a more profound level is the sense of ownership itself, of possessing if nothing else one’s inner world and ultimate destiny. Private property, then, is ultimately about the immortal soul.
On the other hand, for precisely that reason and perhaps quite paradoxically, I believe that private property is anathema for human beings. If all the prophets, reformers, and revolutionaries of history did not realize that in the least their salvation lied in relinquishing their own selves, then humanity would have remained lion food on the savanna eons ago. Private property, then, is an educational tool: it must cultivate within us a disciplined sense of self that ultimately becomes the theater of relinquishment and sacrifice, a process that must happen if the self is to finally become what it was meant to be all along — a mirror or manifestation of the divine.
That in the end we actually own nothing, not even our own soul, is the penultimate ironic lesson of private property. The question is: how the heck do we make a political, economic, and social system around that principle? I think we Baha’is are trying to do precisely that, but here’s where I run into another difficulty, namely, the danger of reading my own politics and theories into my religion.
It’s something we’re all in danger of, and I’ve noticed it especially when I’ve discussed with Baha’is from different parts of the world. Sometimes religious believers directly reflect the societies whence they come. For example, because we Baha’is believe that our community’s Administrative Order shall eventually become the model for the new world order, if not the global government itself, we are confronted with the question of whether we believe in the separation of church and state or theocracy. Not surprisingly, American Baha’is argue the former, Persians the latter.
Sometimes believers reflect what they feel their society lacks. I’m a prime example of this as an American Baha’i: my society has very little in the way of a social safety net, not to mention an internationalist sensibility, hence why I tend to envision the Baha’i Faith as a kind of “divine communism”. Persian Baha’is, on the other hand, are horrified by the idea, precisely because of the collectivist nature of their society and its struggles with ethnic and religious minorities. For them, the Baha’i Faith is instead a kind of “divine capitalism”.
Yet, like any religion, the Baha’i Faith is neither of these ideologies, nor any other such pat labels. We must be careful not to make our religion into nothing more than mirrors of ourselves. That doesn’t mean the debate has to be closed — to the contrary, I’m going to badger my fellow Baha’is about the virtues of a “divine communism”. If I end being called the “Red Baha’i”, then I say, “Great!”
But it does mean we need to apply the ultimate lesson of private property to that most prized of personal possessions, our opinions. We need to detach and offer them to the altar of the future, because in the end, God and history, in the form of the collective decisions of Baha’is and non-Baha’is in response to the vicissitudes of on-going life, are going to decide what the Baha’i Faith really is.