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.

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9 thoughts on “Seeing ourselves in our religions

  1. PS — There are two posts listed as “Possibly Related” entitled, “The Religion of Snobs” and “Bahais Don`t Need the Guardianship”. These are selected by the WordPress computer system, not by me, and I cannot remove them from my post. Needless to say, I do not agree with their content.

  2. PPS — If my Baha’i readers are reminded of the difficulties our community had with thinkers like Juan Cole and Senn McGlinn, don’t be surprised, because the controversies involving these two minds has definitely been in the back of my head. After all, I am also an aspiring Baha’i scholar, intellectual, and radical, so this is an issue I better deal with now, within myself and generally, before I end up doing something to hurt myself or the community later. Moreover, it’s a tragedy whenever our community loses a good thinker, especially one like McGlinn, to the thinker’s inability to detach from his own passions. Inshallah, I intend to avoid such a fate.

  3. PPPS — The Baha’i community has all sorts of uses for psychologists, lawyers, scientists, and every other imaginable PhD, but what about philosophy or history? What can an intellectual do for the community?

    I once asked a Baha’i here in Leuven for his thoughts. Of all things, he made a Babylon 5 reference, quoting a character: “In every war, the good guys have vast armadas and huge weapons, but they only ever need one superweapon.”

    That’s what the intellectual is in the Baha’i community: the heavyweight who gets called in, usually as a defender of the faith, when matters have gotten ugly. I immediately think of Germany’s Udo Schraefer, and that’s who I would like to be.

    But in saying that, I also recognize that the choice is not ultimately up to me. C’est la vie, c’est la foi.

  4. As my English is not well… Religion in our century, society of knowledge, is some of question that we need. Everybody has his own visions but is still war because of religion. For me- Religion is the war. Nobody has right but everybody want to have right. I think we feel that we are litlle that’s the way we need God, some absolute. Some power. If God is real we know it – when we died, or no. I’m not afraid of death. It’s secret way to find out more about world. GREETINKS.Ana.

  5. I really like what you said about private property, that deserves its own blog. I know that we can’t take any of this stuff with us, but I never fully verbalized that we can’t even take our soul. I think its great that you take these things head on, but if Juan Cole is right, then they’re knocking on your door right now in the vast Baha’i conspiracy, haha.

  6. From Baha’i Views:

    Thank you, Christopher, for bringing your blog to my attention. I will look forward to following your content. Baha’u’llah calls upon us to use our intellect. May your efforts to establish a blog that is intellectually stimulating as well as spiritually enlighted be blessed!

    One thought I might share is that I don’t see the members of my Baha’i community as a part of one faction or another. For me the Faith is free of factionalism. The following is from the Baha’i website for the United States:

    “Despite efforts by individuals to divert authority to themselves, the Baha’i community is a single, united body, free of schisms or factions. The Baha’i Faith is thus the first religion in history that has survived its critical first century with its unity firmly established. ‘Were it not for the protecting power of the Covenant to guard the impregnable fort of the Cause of God,’ said Abdu’l-Baha, ‘there would arise among the Baha’is, in one day, a thousand different sects as was the case in former ages.'”

  7. Thank you Chris! I do not feel capable to react to your thoughts right now, but I sent the URL to Marco, who probably has some ideas about it. There are some interesting new Baha’i books that might interest you: “The Forces of Our Time” by H.Dunbar; “Social Reality” by Paul Lample; and “Beyond the Culture of Contest” by Michael Carlberg, all available through the Baha’i publishing trust in England.

  8. It is funny the extremes that we humans tend to take. There are so many quotes from the Baha`i Writings that one could use to back either of the two concepts. So what do we do? We choose those quotes that match our pre-conceived vision and forget the rest.

    The Writings talk about moderation, and as the following two quotes from Baha’u’llah state,

    “That which hath been made manifest in this preeminent, this most exalted Revelation, stands unparalleled in the annals of the past, nor will future ages witness its like.”

    “The world’s equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind’s ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System — the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed.”

    These quotes indicate to me that we have no means to conceive of the system that is yet to be built, and as Shoghi Effendi stated:

    “The Bahá’í Commonwealth of the future, of which this vast Administrative Order is the sole framework, is, both in theory and practice, not only unique in the entire history of political institutions, but can find no parallel in the annals of any of the world’s recognized religious systems. No form of democratic government; no system of autocracy or of dictatorship, whether monarchical or republican; no intermediary scheme of a purely aristocratic order; nor even any of the recognized types of theocracy, whether it be the Hebrew Commonwealth, or the various Christian ecclesiastical organizations, or the Imamate or the Caliphate in Islam — none of these can be identified or be said to conform with the Administrative Order which the master-hand of its perfect Architect has fashioned.

    “This new-born Administrative Order incorporates within its structure certain elements which are to be found in each of the three recognized forms of secular government, without being in any sense a mere replica of any one of them, and without introducing within its machinery any of the objectionable features which they inherently possess. It blends and harmonizes, as no government fashioned by mortal hands has as yet accomplished, the salutary truths which each of these systems undoubtedly contains without vitiating the integrity of those God-given verities on which it is ultimately founded.”

    How was that for quotation bashing? ;-)

  9. Dear friend,

    The issues you are touching are highly complex, and the social impacts of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation have not been scientifically analyzed, let alone understood. Bahá’ís must undertake tremendous efforts in this direction.

    With great sympathy I noticed that you are studying philosophy, which is an excellent condition for the necessary theological reflection. As far as I understood, private property is not banned in Bahá’í teachings, but there are abundant moral prescriptions, appeals, warnings destined to protect the poor, to prevent excessive poverty and excessive wealth. Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on justice are numerous. I dealt with them in my Bahá’í Ethics in Light of Scripture (Oxford 2009, vol. 2, pp. 429ff.).

    As I perceived from your letter with sympathy, you are aware that one must take heed of the danger of reading one’s own theories into our religion as you formulated it in the last para of one of your letters.

    With loving greetings,

    Udo Schaefer

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