The seeking scholar

This post serves as an appendix to “Ocean of Faith”.  It includes some of the key passages from the essay, “The Possibilities of Existential Theism on a Baha’i Theology” by Jack McLean, which backgrounded my decision to join the Baha’i Faith.  It’s a profoundly rich essay which I will probably read and re-read over the next many years.  To Professor McLean, from one seeking scholar to another: thank God for you, sir.

Scholars generally speak through an objective-detached mode of discourse. Yet there is still much room for the scholar to speak  through the subjective-engaged mode as a persona. The persona reflects the scholar’s vision of the truth expressed in a characteristic voice of the experiencing subject who is as much advocate of personal vision as detached analyst. The voice in the subjective-engaged mode would reflect the experiences and perceptions of the real self. This move toward authenticity in scholarship would offer the reader the scholar/writer’s experience of divine subjectivity in a spirit of intersubjective communion.

In the search for truth, which `Abdu’l-Bahá has called “the first teaching of Bahá’u’lláh” and Shoghi Effendi a “primary duty”, there is always a seeking subject. This seeking subject gives meaning to the spiritual world order, for without the truth-seeker there would be no application of spiritual principles or values in the world. […] The search for truth is rather a movement toward the depths of the center of being, what St. Paul called “the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians:10).

In Bahá’í perspective, this vécu or Existenz of the believer, the lived experience, aims at transformation or insight, a shift in consciousness, or a deepening of the spirit of wisdom, dynamics that point in large part to the great purposes of religion. This necessary connection between philosophy and life as Lebensphilosphie is what lies behind Ludwig Feuerbach’s remark: “Do not wish to be a philosopher in contrast to being a man…do not think as a thinker…think as a living, real being. think in existence.”

Existential theism moreover values the personal. It puts the person above the proposition. “Personal” refers here to a perceptible, dynamic, interactive, and fully alive dimension that glimpses into the intimacies of the drama of the soul and the transpersonal space shared by the community of persons. Buber writes that “…every genuine religious experience has an open or a hidden personal character, for it is spoken out of a concrete situation in which the person takes part as a person”.  This “hidden personal character” indicates that the personal also contains elements of the esoteric or the mysterious.

In the existential moment, the believer comes face to face with the lower self, either in oneself or others, which Shoghi Effendi writes can develop — at the extreme end of the spectrum — into “a monster of selfishness”.  […] The existential moment is a moment of high realism.  It catapults the believer into the realm of the real. It makes theoretical concerns comparatively unreal by the imposition of its unavoidable stark realism.

[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.


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