Monday, May 23, 2011

A Baha'i Trilemma?

Baha'i gardens in Haifa, taken by David Shankbone.
I have always been struck by the stories of Christ calling the disciples in the gospels; here is Peter, bent over his fishing, or Matthew, making his rounds of collecting taxes for the Romans and, all at once, they hear Christ's words: "follow me," and no sooner is it said than the net and the ledger sheet is laid aside and they are following a man they have never met to who-knows-where. What sort of person does it take to leave everything and follow? What sort of man does it take to call and be obeyed so instantly?

Religions invariably become recognizable and comfortable institutions in time, with well-defined expectations and heavy theological tomes to line a bookshelf. But before all that, there is a teacher and a disciple, an unknown beckoning and a seeker willing to leave the everyday behind -- how many of us have the sort of personalities to lay down our nets and follow?

We would be right to be cautious, because not all the teachers who can issue that sort of call, and not all the people who will follow, are necessarily rightly guided. Examples are not hard to find of charismatic men leading trusting disciples to perdition, not salvation. Jim Jones, an ardent communist and atheist who used religious charlatanry to dupe his followers into joining his socialist utopia in Guyana, where he predated sexually on men and women and eventually orchestrated a mass suicide which was the single greatest loss of American life in peace time until 9/11. Shoko Asahara, whose Aum Shinrikyo cult released poison sarin gas in a crowded Tokyo subway in the hopes of touching off Armageddon. David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, who collected around himself separatists who amassed a cache of weaponry and then died by the scores in a conflagration after the federal government cornered him while trying to investigate claims that he was molesting the children of his followers. Or the leader of the Heaven's Gate cult, Marshall Applewhite, who organized a mass suicide in the hopes of catching a ride on a UFO following in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet. Significantly, all of these men claimed to be the Second Coming of Christ.

"Lord, liar or lunatic" is the fundamental problem, as the great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis put it. Someone who advanced the kind of claims that Christ did could not have simply been a wise but merely human teacher, like Confucius or Plato. Based on his to claims to divinity, he must have been either a crooked mountebank, a raving lunatic, or God. But if he was a mere charlatan, why have his moral teachings astonished the world with their perspicacity? Why would a charlatan face a cruel death for the sake of a lie? And madmen don't found great religions or enlighten then world with their teachings. The ones that even come close, like Jim Jones or Charles Manson, usually succumb to their debilities. Therefore, the only plausible claim is that Jesus really was God.

The Baha'i faith would modify this picture somewhat. Lewis was committed to the traditional Christian belief that Christ was God incarnate; as the Nicene Creed expressed it, Jesus was co-substantial with God. Baha'is hold it to be impossible that God, who is infinite, could in any substantial sense become finite. On the other hand, Baha'is do hold that Christ was a Manifestation of God, a perfect human mirror of God's essence. One can look into a mirror and say, "I see God," because the mirror reflects God as a mirror might perfectly reflect the sun; but the mirror is not co-substantial with the sun.

Nevertheless, the force of the trilemma is unimpaired from the Baha'i perspective. One must be either a lunatic or an outrageous liar to claim the sort of divinity that Christ claimed and it not be true. But Baha'is would point out that it was not only Jesus who made such claims! Baha'u'llah claimed to be the Second Coming of Christ -- was he a Lord, liar or lunatic? The more I learn about his life and teachings, the less plausible the "liar" or "lunatic" options sound...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Let the competition commence!

I have been to a few commencement ceremonies, and recently I had the privilege of attending my sister's graduation from community college. On the whole, I have noticed a few constants: there are the student speeches, which usually sound as if they are reciting the menu to a restaurant they have never been to; parents engaged in a great deal of vulgar hooting when their child's name is read, as if he were the academic equivalent of Albert Pujols or Justin Bieber; the students, basking in this temporary, ritualized sort of celebrity.

Another feature is the "elder statesman" speech. Often, though not always, delivered by some political figure of stature, its content is strictly dictated by an unspoken but pervasive formula. It begins with a word or two of background, to the effect of, "We live in a rapidly changing, globalized world." There is certainly some truth to this, and the students feel a twinge of pleasurable recognition of this idea so often repeated by the media, political figures, and in other fora of public opinion. This is quickly followed by what we might call the education-as-international-competition trope: "And America needs well educated citizens to compete with the rest of the world." One might even get the impression that this is all America needs education for, and, were it not for this Hobbesean international arena, we would much rather be doing something else. The point is usually driven home with a tricolon: "We must out-research, out-develop, and out-work the rest of the world."

"We're ready to crush the world!"
This picture of the international economy as a zero-sum scramble for scarce resources is far more blatant in its aggression than most of the signals the academy sends on these issues. Schools on every level talk a good game about forming tolerant, enlightened global citizens. Perhaps all that is supposed to mean is, "We intend to form you to feel comfortable going anywhere in the world to set up the system that will allow America to win and exploit their natural resources," whether with the help of a briefcase or a bayonet. You will be prepared to function as a cog in the global technocracy that will allow us, dadgum it, to win!

It does not seem difficult to imagine a different message that could be sent at commencement -- a different portrait, one of America in need of educated citizens to help it cooperate with and understand the rest of the world for the sake of common goals, like peace and justice. Citizens to help us live within our environmental means in a way that leads to thrift, abundance and a just distribution of resources. Then we could truly "begin."