The shapefulness of being

“And ever has it been known that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation,” writes Kahlil Gibran. Since becoming a Bahai a little over two years ago, I’ve intermittently struggled with the Faith’s various teachings on sexuality, but to some extent that struggle was not especially thorough. It wasn’t until I found myself, quietly and very gradually, entering a romantic relationship that seems capable of being something more than momentary, that I’ve had to really confront my feelings on this question — as Gibran so eloquently notes, it’s not until we have something to lose that we begin to think, and indeed feel, more seriously.

Being as I am a philosopher, I’ve sought an answer, however tentatively, through inquiry — consulting with companions, both those in and out of the Bahai community — and contemplation — realizing in meditation that the real question here, the one underlying all discussions of laws, both secular and sacred, is the mystery of why we’re embodied to begin with, whether as embodied minds acting in a civil community of other embodied minds (secular law) or embodied immaterial souls acting in a material-physical universe (sacred law).

I’ve had an especially fruitful exchange with a fellow philosopher in the Faith in particular, whom I shall refer to as Eau-du-pont out of respect for his desire for discretion on this topic. Eau-du-point is very knowledgeable of classical Babi and Bahai metaphysics, and has a deep appreciation for how metaphysics works behind the scenes of Bahai laws. Indeed, for my readers who are not yet familiar with the Bahai Faith, it’s difficult for me to explain in a few words how our community may understand law. That’s partially because our community itself is far from decided — which is fine, as we take that as a positive sign of our health and dynamism — and partially because we have already agreed upon the meaning of authority as something subtle, gentle and pedagogical.

So, if my Bahai readers will forgive the grievous brevity with which I shall offer up the following definition to my non-Bahai readers (and again, even here there’s a complexity, as our community also seems to be decreasingly interested in distinguishing between in- and out-group members), let it suffice to say for now that, although law is understood as something absolute, the path to submission is simultaneously understood as something relative: we each must approach the ocean of faith according to the sand-trails of our own lives, and not an abstract and impersonal salvifical super-highway.

My brief definition of the concept of law in our Faith actually has a speculative foundation to it, namely, how I’ve been lately reconceptualizing the place of the material and the physical in God’s creation in terms of ecology, something which I briefly mentioned in my post about the Musee Royale de l’Afrique Centrale in Belgium, and to which I now turn.

Again, whenever we talk about what the Bahai Writings, or any scripture or constitution, says about sexuality, or for that matter crime, governance, finances, and so on, what we’re really talking about is the physical, and more specifically, its role or place in the universe — “universe” here understood as encompassing both the measurable and the immeasurable, the empirical and the “impossible,” that is, the material and the spiritual. And, moreover, whenever we talk about the role or place of something, we’re really talking about that something’s purpose and value, that is, its worth.

For Eau-du-pont, the physical’s worth is, in itself, unimportant, essentially nothing more than a womb, a “temporary world of preparation”, and our bodies are like computer avatars, so that “even if [they are] injured or threatened in any way, we can rest assured that we ourselves are far away and unharmed,” adding, “That is why the Babi and Bahai martyrs could give away their bodies so freely: it is just like exiting a computer game or waking up from a dream. Real existence and the real world only come after death.”

But, I reply, what we do with the physical does seem to matter. Why else would it be so important to recognize the Manifestation of God in this life? Why else would our Faith’s Writings emphasize culture, civilization, professions, and so on? Why bother giving us bodies, and all the maniform plurality that comes with it, at all? Eau-du-pont replies,

The physical world’s existence is essential to human existence, because it provides a womb for the souls of humankind. Planets exist to provide habitation for humans. Society and civilization exist to develop spirituality. Of course, the Divine Will is interested in societal development, the development of technology, culture and human appreciation of beauty as each of these things are important for the development of spirituality. A situation will eventually exist wherein the vast majority of humankind will be enabled to enter the Abha Kingdom due to the existence of a spiritual civilization which mirrors the Divine Kingdom. The Physical World is intended to mirror the Divine Kingdom. So, of course, God loves this world. But there is no point in attachment to this world, because it is fleeting and temporary.

The two worlds (this and the next) are connected in a way that we do not understand in this world. I don’t think the spiritual world itself depends upon the physical, but human beings need both worlds to make adequate spiritual progress.

Eau-du-Pont’s thoughts are elegant and supply a good foil for my own (and I include his here so the reader can consider both and see where we resonate and where we might differ). Simply put, I think we religious believers tend to underestimate both the risk God has taken in having a Creation and the importance of that Creation’s physical and material aspects.

Now, I mean very specific things by “risk”, “physical” and “material”. With regards to the latter, the distinction lies in the fact that not everything that is material is also physical. Quarks and sub-atomic particles, for example, may be measured and tinkered with, but they cannot be touched, at least not in the same way that we might touch a lover or friend. Indeed, one could view the physical as the crystallization of the material — a view, by the way, that echoes a remark frequently heard in the Bahai community, namely, that the material is the crystallization of the spiritual. As a way of shorthand, I shall hereafter refer to the material-physical universe as the “empirical universe”, i.e., that portion of the total cosmos that we can touch and measure.

With regards to “risk”, which is the more fundamental term here, this is my reasoning: if God is the ultimate existent, then the universe and all its elements, including us, are relative existents, or in other words, mini- or demi-Gods. If so, then the universe teeters upon falling into polytheism, and thus, incoherence and non-being. That’s how deadly serious it is that we exist at all, and insofar that materiality and physicality are aspects of existence, then that’s how deadly serious it is that we are embodied, too.

Now, the “risk” isn’t entirely literal, because God isn’t actually gambling, at least not in any way that the human mind could comprehend. Nevertheless, my word choice is chiefly intended to convey the gravity, the fragility and the worthiness of existence — in philosophical terminology, our ontological dependency upon divine reality is purposive in a way that we can barely conceive. And again, keep in mind some caveats: first, that as far as I know, no scriptures of any religious tradition speak of Creation as “gambling”; second, in terms of philosophical traditions, Pascal is the most notable gambler, but he would be aghast at what I’m proposing, namely, that God has “calculated” that there’s a “benefit” of some kind in relative existence; and third, most of all, separate from traditions, this is also just my viewpoint, and should be treated strictly as such.

That brings me to “polytheism”. I’m talking metaphorically, but only to a point, because this does have historical and scriptural basis. Consider: human beings are increasingly demonstrating God-like abilities, particularly in the arena of manipulating nature, from cracking the atom to cracking the gene. Moreover, Baha’u’llah has written, “These energies with which the Day Star of the Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp.”

Now, despite the fact that the empirical universe is an important facet of that larger endeavor of existence, nevertheless, everyone can attest to what often feels like its jaggedness, its incompleteness. Aristotelian philosophers and modern physicists and evolutionists attribute this to the fact that the empirical universe is defined by motion or entropy or mutation, i.e., it’s constantly in a state of change. Immediately, this raises the question: toward what end is all this frothing change? I think that the old Aristotelian concept of the hylomorphism can be very useful to offer an answer.

Briefly, Aristotelian metaphysics proposes that all empirical existents are comprised of form and matter, e.g., catness and cat. Matter, called “potentiality” because of all the possible shapes it can take, is inert until it is combined with form, called “actuality” because of the way it can shape and motivate matter. Every union between the two is called a “hylomorphism” (for the curious: Greek “ὑλο” = “hylo” = “matter” + “μορφή” = “morphē” = “form”). However, the union may need to be fashioned and re-fashioned in a gradual process of perfection, in order to best manifest the form. Thus, for example, the amoeba of millions of years ago could not properly express catness (and even today’s cat may still not be the best possible hylomorphic union).

If all this sounds familiar to my Bahai readers, that’s because we hear Abdul-Baha employing hylomorphism theory in very innovative ways in Some Answered Questions, particularly where modern theories of evolution are concerned. So, you can probably guess how this can applied to the empirical universe’s character of motion, entropy and mutation: if the spiritual universe is the form of the empirical universe, then their hylomorphism is constantly in a state of striving for perfection, that is, the best possible expression of their intimate union.

Again, I remind the reader that I’m speaking somewhat metaphorically here. So, if I’m demonstrating insufficient finesse with either the subtleties of Aristotelian metaphysics, modern physics and evolution, or the Bahai Writings, please forgive me. However, if we accept this line of reasoning, then a new pathway opens before us: that the empirical universe is, at least some of the time, out of step with the spiritual universe. This casts new light upon the mission of all religions and of the Bahai Faith in particular, and with them, the ultimate motivation and aim of their laws, namely, that what we are seeking in things like the reconciliation of science and religion, the end of sexism and racism, fasting for nineteen days, abstaining from sex outside of marriage, and so on, is a re-harmonization of the spiritual and the empirical, that is, a more perfect hylomorphic union.

At this point, it would be profitable to now shift my metaphors away from Aristotle and toward the mangrove swamp: what we’re really talking about is a relationship between the spiritual and the empirical that is like an ecology, that is, an integrated system. The extent to which there is cross-fertilization between the two elements of the system is an important debate — Eau-du-Pont doesn’t seem to think there is, at least not directly or very strongly, while I do — but not immediately important for our purposes here. For now, this is what I want to focus upon: that the goal of religion is to bring the empirical back into its proper niche within the larger ecology. Without it, the ecology may be in danger, but even if it isn’t, it is certainly somehow less whole, less verdant. Our embodiment, as part of this vast lushness, must somehow be very key, even if ultimately it is only but one of its many elements.

There are many more interpretations to draw out from this viewpoint, from how we might be able to reconceptualize martyrdom to the role of the afterlife in ethics. However. I think this is an appropriate place to end this reflection, as today is Nawrúz, when we celebrate not only the end of the 19-Day Fast, but also the turn of seasons and the passage from fallowness to fertility, both empirical and spiritual. I’d like to close with a prayer given by Abdul-Baha on the occasion of his lecture to Northwestern University. This was the first Bahai prayer I had ever heard spoken out loud, and it was said by my friend Naisohn in 2009 during my first ever Fireside. It moved me deeply at the time, and has been a favorite ever since. I suspect you’ll find it very appropriate:

O God! We are as plants, and Thy bounty is as the rain; refresh and cause these plants to grow through Thy bestowal. We are Thy servants; free us from the fetters of material existence. We are ignorant; make us wise. We are dead; make us alive. We are material; endow us with spirit. We are deprived; make us the intimates of Thy mysteries. We are needy; enrich and bless us from Thy boundless treasury. O God! Resuscitate us; give us sight; give us hearing; familiarize us with the mysteries of life, so that the secrets of Thy kingdom may become revealed to us in this world of existence and we may confess Thy oneness. Every bestowal emanates from Thee; every benediction is Thine.

Thou art mighty. Thou art powerful. Thou art the Giver, and Thou art the Ever-Bounteous.

Note: the photograph that accompanies this post is by Nurzada Sultanova, who also took the photograph that accompanies “The Shapelessness of Being”. By the way, I hyperlinked above to the Bahai international website’s teachings on homosexuality, but for those of you who are curious, I do not experience same-sex desire; the relationship to which I refer above is the one with Liza, the young woman mentioned in my post about the Africa Museum, my muse “Hypatia”.

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