My personal reflections on this blog take inspiration from the Bahá’í teachings.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

Baha'u'llah: God-sent quickener of mankind

6 comments

This article arises from a discussion that I have been having with Paul S. Pruett on his blog, "Pensees".

Paul,

Your most recent comment is very direct in raising the issue as to the Baha'i Faith being "the true religion" in the eyes of its followers. The implicit question is whether the Baha'is see their religion as the best or only path to salvation.

It must be admitted that one does not choose to be a follower of Baha'u'llah because of finding His teachings merely rather pleasant and congenial. Much more than this, in the eyes of His followers, Baha'u'llah is the defining Figure of a new age in the spiritual and social evolution of mankind, that began with His appearance in the nineteenth century. So yes, in such terms salvation today does depend ultimately on our turning towards Baha'u'llah. But His wisdom is of the unseen Kingdom far beyond mortal ken, and His salvation is of a breadth that encompasses everyone and affirms the salvation that the followers of all religions find in their own faiths. It deplores religious fanaticism and the anathematizing of others based on theological disagreements. It acknowledges the power for good that continues to be channelled through other religions. It upholds the absolute independance of God who saves (and judges) whom He will in accordance with a person's inner character rather than outward appearances.

The Baha'i teachings also deeply revere individual freedom of conscience. In matters of faith, everyone must have unrestricted freedom to decide with their own minds and hearts as to what they believe.

"Convictions and ideas are within the scope of the comprehension of the King of kings, not of kings; and soul and conscience are between the fingers of control of the Lord of hearts, not of His servants."

('Abdu'l-Baha)
The summons issued by Baha'u'llah with Divine authority is for the world in the fullness of time to become united in one common faith, and it was His mission to establish that faith, which has a Covenant, laws and institutions that comprise "the Ark of eternal salvation" for the peoples of the earth. Spiritually, then, the quintessence of faith in this day is to believe in Baha'u'llah and to live accordingly. On the other hand, this does not imply a binary choice between declaring one's faith in Baha'u'llah or facing the fires of eternal damnation. In this sense, there is no thin but impervious line of separation that can be stated in some simple formula, between those who are acceptable and not acceptable in God's sight. Rather, there is a range of responses to Him, and even the smallest of positive responses does not go unnoticed and unrewarded.

"To 'get to heaven' as you say is dependent on two things -- faith in the Manifestation of God in His Day, in other words in this Age in Baha'u'llah; and good deeds, in other words living to the best of our ability a noble life and doing unto others as we would be done by. But we must always remember that our existence and everything we have or ever will have is dependent upon the Mercy of God and His Bounty, and therefore He can accept into His heaven, which is really nearness to Him, even the lowliest if He pleases. We always have the hope of receiving His Mercy if we reach out for it."

(Shoghi Effendi)
"Concerning your question whether a soul can receive knowledge of the Truth in the world beyond. Such a knowledge is surely possible, and is but a sign of the loving Mercy of the Almighty. We can, through our prayers, help every soul to gradually attain this high station, even if it has failed to reach it in this world. The progress of the soul does not come to an end with death. It rather starts along a new line. Baha'u'llah teaches that great far- reaching possibilities await the soul in the other world. Spiritual progress in that realm is infinite, and no man, while on this earth, can visualize its full power and extent."

(Shoghi Effendi)

You wrote at an earlier stage in the discussion:

"I am asking the question that a lost soul might ask —- one who does not know the demands of your God but knows enough about himself to realize he is in need of something. I am asking the question, 'What must he do to be saved?'"

The question asked by this lost soul brings to mind these words of Baha'u'llah:

"What 'oppression' is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it? For opinions have sorely differed, and the ways unto the attainment of God have multiplied."

Baha'u'llah offers liberation to the soul who is oppressed by this confused state of affairs, through the guidance that He gives as the Manifestation of God for this age. This pure and authentic guidance cuts like a bright light through the gloom of conflicting "opinions" and "ways unto the attainment of God" that have "multiplied" through the idle speculations and fruitless philosophies dreamed up by fallible human beings.

Throughout past ages, God has always given guidance to mankind through His Prophets:

"Moreover He hath in every age and cycle, in conformity with His transcendent wisdom, sent forth a divine Messenger to revive the dispirited and despondent souls with the living waters of His utterance, One Who is indeed the Expounder, the true Interpreter, inasmuch as man is unable to comprehend that which hath streamed forth from the Pen of Glory and is recorded in His heavenly Books."

(Baha'u'llah)

You suggested that if the Manifestations of God are all bringers of the Divine message, it seems to be a contradictory message, or ineffectual, since it does not sink in and has to be repeated.

God constantly repeats His message, not because of any inadequacy on the part of the chosen Messengers, but because (1) human beings, often "unable to comprehend that which hath streamed forth from the Pen of Glory", tend to misinterpret the Divine Message, so corrections are needed and (2) God releases, as time goes by, an increasing measure of Divine knowledge, which brings ever nearer the establishment of His Kingdom on earth.

In our own age, God has not been silent; He has not abandoned His creatures. More than this, we live in a momentous age when Divine grace has been poured out more copiously than ever before.

"The Revelation which, from time immemorial, hath been acclaimed as the Purpose and Promise of all the Prophets of God, and the most cherished Desire of His Messengers, hath now, by virtue of the pervasive Will of the Almighty and at His irresistible bidding, been revealed unto men. The advent of such a Revelation hath been heralded in all the sacred Scriptures. Behold how, notwithstanding such an announcement, mankind hath strayed from its path and shut out itself from its glory."

(Baha'u'llah)

The world is in turmoil because God is bringing about a great transformation in its affairs. Baha'u'llah is the herald of that transformation. The severe difficulties the world faces arise from its having paid little heed to Baha'u'llah. Hell exists, even on earth, wherever the Word of God is shut out. Paradise draws near, where His Word is heard and obeyed.

You are right then, in a sense, when you observe that for a Baha'i, "... the bottom line for salvation is that you believe that Baha'i is the true religion and you must see everything through its lens and practice its doctrines." However, you are also right in another sense when you suggest alternatively that "the Baha'i[s] are ... very liberal in their theology". The "liberal" aspect in Baha'i theology arises from belief that all religions together essentially comprise a single religion and all mankind are under the guidance and protection of one God. The Baha'is do not consider themselves inherently more enlightened as individuals than the followers of other religions, nor do we disregard the spiritual insights offered by others, nor assume that our neighbours of different faiths are destined upon their deaths for the fires of hell. Yet our very "liberalism" rests on the authority of Baha'u'llah, so it is a liberalism in vision, attitudes, and world-view, and not with regard to fundamental principles. The Manifestation of God is in our eyes infallible. We are staunch in upholding this rather unfashionable idea.

The Baha'i teachings do not overlook the differences between religions, but rather explain the reasons for such differences, correct errors that have been introduced by theologians over the course of centuries, and provide keys that resolve apparent contradictions. An example of reconciling contradictions concerns the difference that you allude to between the Muslim and Christian beliefs about Jesus' crucifixion. An authoritative statement of the Baha'i position on this is as follows: "The crucifixion as recounted in the New Testament is correct. The meaning of the Qur'anic version is that the spirit of Christ was not Crucified. There is no conflict between the two."

Contradictions often appear when things are understood on the wrong level. For example, among the Jews there was a widespread expectation that the Messiah would be a king. When He appeared amongst them as a man of humble background, those who thought this way, mocked Him. A crown of thorns was placed upon His head, which in spiritual terms was a crown of glory.

The resolution to the misunderstanding current amongst the people of those times is that Christ's kingdom was not of this world.

A great many of the misunderstandings in religion arise from a literal interpretation of statements that are intended symbolically and spiritually.

Obviously your other point about differences between Christian and Islamic beliefs on salvation raises a much more complex subject. You wrote: "Christianity teaches that you don't earn salvation; you depend upon the atonement of Jesus, who is God incarnate. Islam seems to teach that your good works (such as adhering to the 5 Pillars) must outweigh your bad."

Let's explore these apparent polarities of "faith" and "works". Asking whether salvation is attained through faith or by good deeds is a bit like asking whether light is comprised of waves or particles. The answer is, "both". And depending which aspect you focus on, you might be misled into thinking it is either one or the other.

The concept of "salvation" refers to being saved from the condition of alienation from God that is suffered by man in his "natural", unredeemed, state. In this state we are under the control of the biological urges of our bodily nature, and of various egotistical self-seeking drives. This condition is the opposite of Godliness. All the attributes of goodness, all the virtues, are from God. To be lacking in virtue, then, is to be far from God. To become virtuous is to become nearer to God. Nearness is likeness. "If ye love me, keep my commandments." (Jesus)

"O thou who art attracted to the Kingdom of God! Every soul seeketh an object and cherisheth a desire, and day and night striveth to attain his aim. One craveth riches, another thirsteth for glory and still another yearneth for fame, for art, for prosperity and the like. Yet finally all are doomed to loss and disappointment. One and all they leave behind them all that is theirs and empty-handed hasten to the realm beyond, and all their labours shall be in vain. To dust they shall all return, denuded, depressed, disheartened and in utter despair.

"But, praised be the Lord, thou art engaged in that which secureth for thee a gain that shall eternally endure; and that is naught but thine attraction to the Kingdom of God, thy faith, and thy knowledge, the enlightenment of thine heart, and thine earnest endeavour to promote the Divine Teachings.

"Verily this gift is imperishable and this wealth is a treasure from on high!"

('Abdu'l-Baha)

"For the life of the flesh is common to both men and animals, whereas the life of the spirit is possessed only by the pure in heart who have quaffed from the ocean of faith and partaken of the fruit of certitude. This life knoweth no death, and this existence is crowned by immortality. Even as it hath been said: 'He who is a true believer liveth both in this world and in the world to come.'"

(Baha'u'llah)


How do we draw nearer to God, acquiring "Divine" qualities and virtues? This is impossible without faith. So faith is the first step, and steadfastness in faith is required throughout the journey. For it is a journey, not a one-time event. To be "born again" into the light of belief is to embark on a new stage; it is not the end of the road.

As the Qur'an says, "Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, 'We believe,' and that they will not be tested?" Jesus' parable of the sower makes the same point. Not all the seed that is cast on the soil of the human heart by the Word of God germinates; and not all that germinates grows long enough to become a shrub; and not all that grows into a shrub survives to become a tree. Along the way, when tested by the heat of the sun or by harsh winds, faith can wither and die. What keeps it alive to the end? Well, action is required, such as prayer, study of the Word and reflection upon it, fellowship with other believers, and service to humanity. Always, faith and action are intertwined.

"Let the flame of the love of God burn brightly within your radiant hearts. Feed it with the oil of Divine guidance, and protect it within the shelter of your constancy. Guard it within the globe of trust and detachment from all else but God, so that the evil whisperings of the ungodly may not extinguish its light."

(Baha'u'llah)

"Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints..."

(St. Paul)

Islam emphasises practicing the five pillars for the same reason that Christians say grace before meals, attend Church on Sundays, give to charity, recite creeds and confessions of faith in their worship services, and endeavour to treat others with love and compassion. These acts give structure to the life of faith, individually and collectively, and keep faith alive.

So far as I understand, the doctrine that faith and action are closely intertwined is taught by Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, various branches of Protestantism, and by Islam, as well as the Baha'i Faith. If there are differences to be identified on the theology of faith and works, the differences within Christianity are probably greater than any differences there may be between, say, Catholic, Islamic, and Baha'i views. Therefore, the core ideas behind the doctrines of salvation do not markedly distinguish Christianity from Islam or the Baha'i Faith.

If the journey of faith is perilous, how can we pursue it with confidence? The key to this is that faith denotes trust in God. So long as we trust in Him, we shall remain safe. Trustworthiness itself is of God, so God can be trusted. "In Him let the trusting trust." (Baha'u'llah)

The misfortunes of life can undermine our faith if we let this happen, for we might begin to say, "I trusted God, but He let me down".

"Blessed is the man that hath acknowledged his belief in God and in His signs, and recognized that 'He shall not be asked of His doings.' Such a recognition hath been made by God the ornament of every belief, and its very foundation. Upon it must depend the acceptance of every goodly deed."

(Baha'u'llah)

The phrase, "He shall not be asked of His doings" has many implications, one of which is that we should welcome the misfortunes of life as gifts from God in disguise. This attitude preserves faith. As St. Paul said, "For them who believe, all things work together for good."

It is our response to God's grace, revealed through His Prophets and Messengers, that saves us, in the Baha'i view.

"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast."

(St. Paul)


"We are cognizant of thy righteous deeds, though they shall avail thee nothing; for the whole object of such righteousness is but recognition of God, thy Lord, and undoubted faith in the Words revealed by Him."

(The Bab)


"It is evident that the loftiest mansions in the Realm of Immortality have been ordained as the habitation of them that have truly believed in God and in His signs."

(Baha'u'llah)

What does it mean, to "truly believe in God and in His signs"?

Although Moses did not fail in the Mission entrusted to Him by God, the followers of the religion of Moses, in the majority, rejected Christ when He appeared. The people of that day held to the outward form of the teachings of Moses but were unaware of their true meaning. They looked and looked, but did not see.

Jesus said to them pointedly that if they were true followers of Moses, they would have accepted Him. But only a mere handful did in fact recognize that He was "the Light of the world". The appearance of Jesus, then, was a "Day of Judgement" for the followers of Moses. This is why Jesus said that He brought a sword, that divided brother against brother. Not that he advocated violence, but some accepted Him, and others rejected Him, so His word was like a sword that cut cleanly down the middle, sometimes separating believer from unbeliever within a single family.

"Nothing whatsoever shall, in this Day, be accepted from you, though ye continue to worship and prostrate yourselves before God throughout the eternity of His dominion. For all things are dependent upon His Will, and the worth of all acts is conditioned upon His acceptance and pleasure. The whole universe is but a handful of clay in His grasp. Unless one recognize God and love Him, his cry shall not be heard by God in this Day. This is of the essence of His Faith, did ye but know it."

(Baha'u'llah)


Again, Baha'u'llah warns that pious acts of worship are of no benefit: "Unless one recognize God and love Him".

By "recognize God", Baha'u'llah means, recognize the Manifestation of God for this Day, this being Himself.

The Message of Baha'u'llah, then, is a profoundly challenging message. The appearance of Baha'u'llah is again, a Day of Judgement. More than this, it is the supreme Day of Judgement, the Day foretold in the prophecies of all religions. For the Announcement that God makes through Baha'u'llah marks the end of night and the dawn of the age of light, a light that will steadily rise to its zenith, when the Kingdom of God shall be established on earth. This is the age for the gathering together of all mankind under the shelter of God's Holy law. Indeed, the teachings of Baha'u'llah are the holy city, the new Jerusalem, come down from heaven, foreseen by the author of the Book of Revelation.

The duty of the Baha'is, then, is this:

"Wherefore, O ye beloved of God, offer up thanks that ye have, in the day of the dawning, turned your faces unto the Light of the World and beheld its splendours. Ye have received a share of the light of truth, ye have enjoyed a portion of those blessings that endure forever; and therefore, as a returning of thanks for this bounty, rest ye not for a moment, sit ye not silent, carry to men's ears the glad tidings of the Kingdom, spread far and wide the Word of God."

('Abdu'l-Baha)

The message of Baha'u'llah although a challenging message is also the only real basis for the hope of peace and reconciliation amongst the peoples of the world. We, the human race, have been slow to accept Him and are paying a heavy price for it in bloodshed and chaos that could have been avoided if His message had been heeded by more people sooner. The Baha'i message contains its stern admonishments, but as I mentioned before, it does not ultimately make the sharp distinctions between believer and non-believer that tended to be made in past dispensations. There are many degrees of response to the Message, and to the degree that people respond positively to it, to that degree God's mercies surround us. The worst response, of course, is that of the active opponents who defame Baha'u'llah and persecute His followers, even to the extent of imprisoning them and killing them on account of their belief. A grave responsibility rests upon their heads.

The teachings of the Baha'i Faith are circulating in the body politic and leavening the life of the world, even where they are not identified with their Source.

The Message of Baha'u'llah is that this is the day for the unification of mankind. Those who work for peace and reconciliation are therefore acting in obedience to the Divine command. For this reason, they are not merely "treating the symptom". The very act of working for the unity of mankind attracts divine blessings, for this is what God wants. He wants His creatures to be united and for war to cease.

God's mercy encompasses the whole of mankind. His justice calls to account all mankind.

"I swear by Thy might, O my God! Wert Thou to regard Thy servants according to their deserts in Thy days, they would assuredly merit naught except Thy chastisement and torment. Thou art, however, the One Who is of great bounteousness, Whose grace is immense. Look not down upon them, O my God, with the glance of Thy justice, but rather with the eyes of Thy tender compassions and mercies. Do, then, with them according to what beseemeth Thy generosity and bountiful favor. Potent art Thou to do whatsoever may please Thee. Incomparable art Thou. No God is there beside Thee, the Lord of the throne on high and of earth below, the Ruler of this world and of the world to come. Thou art the God of Bounty, the Ever-Forgiving, the Great Giver, the Most Generous."

(Baha'u'llah)

I accept then, what Martin Luther said about Jesus being the way to salvation:

"Man may forever do as he will, he can never enter heaven unless God takes the first step with his Word, which offers him divine grace and enlightens his heart so as to get upon the right way. This right way, however, is the Lord Jesus Christ. Whoever desires to seek another way, as the great multitudes venture to do by means of their own works, has already missed the right way..."

The authority of Jesus in this context needs to be understood spiritually. Particularly in His own Day and until the coming of Muhammad, Jesus was the representative of God on earth, "the Light of the World". To reject Jesus was to shut out the light. To accept Him was to enter the presence of God. Further, the reality of Jesus is eternal and has never died, and His light continues to shine, still mediating salvation today.

The Manifestations of God are all One and the same in their identity as the Word of God. The inner reality of their being is the Holy Spirit. To believe in Jesus is to believe in Baha'u'llah.

Baha'u'llah is indeed the return of Christ. This is something to ponder, without haste.

The mission of Christ was to save souls. The mission of Baha'u'llah is to save mankind as a whole.

"The Revelation associated with the Faith of Jesus Christ focused attention primarily on the redemption of the individual and the molding of his conduct, and stressed, as its central theme, the necessity of inculcating a high standard of morality and discipline into man, as the fundamental unit in human society. Nowhere in the Gospels do we find any reference to the unity of nations or the unification of mankind as a whole. When Jesus spoke to those around Him, He addressed them primarily as individuals rather than as component parts of one universal, indivisible entity. The whole surface of the earth was as yet unexplored, and the organization of all its peoples and nations as one unit could, consequently, not be envisaged, how much less proclaimed or established. What other interpretation can be given to these words, addressed specifically by Bahá'u'lláh to the followers of the Gospel, in which the fundamental distinction between the Mission of Jesus Christ, concerning primarily the individual, and His own Message, directed more particularly to mankind as a whole, has been definitely established: 'Verily, He [Jesus] said: "Come ye after Me, and I will make you to become fishers of men." In this day, however, We say: 'Come ye after Me, that We may make you to become the quickeners of mankind.'""

(Shoghi Effendi)

The seeking soul who accepts Baha'u'llah finds light upon light and a great amount of work to be done in service to the Kingdom of God, conferring joy, both in this world and in the next.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Whirlwind

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This poem is a response to Angela Shortt's "Unbidden like surise".

Whirlwind


As if a cosmic whirlwind passes by
The stars careen across a churning sky

Primeval constellations fly apart
Propelled in gyres no instrument can chart

This storm must blow and nothing block its course
The gods themselves shall not resist its force

Not Hera nor Apollo stand their ground
When age-old bonds of hate have been unbound

Yet harpies, howling, grieve to see the fall
Of hallowed ways that keep the world in thrall

The woeful clamour of their carping jive
Invokes a day when naught but death may thrive

Such dire drones would send me to despair

Were they alone to wail upon the air


Were not a greater Voice to call the dance

That moves all life at springtime's brisk advance

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Ramadan poems

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American poet Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore has been posting a series of poems reflecting on the Ramadan Fast. He is a master wordsmith. I can well identify with his poetry of the Fast, for it captures the experience of fasting superbly well. It resonates with my experience of the Baha'i Fast (which comes round every year in March).

As Moore writes of Ramadan:

each year it makes its visit, and year after
year it builds up to be a
sweet thing,

-- Quoted from "The Inevitable" from Ramadan Sonnets

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

A creature adapted for wonder

8 comments


"Religion functions at the boundary where the knowable faces the unknown and the unknowable," says Bruce Deverell, in this "guest" contribution. This post is written in response to Dan Rhoads' post on his Migrations blog, Religion and Ethnocentrism: Is Religion Adaptive?


Religion and Ethnocentrism
Is Religion Adaptive?

Mechanisms by which religion
may have positively impacted
adaptive fitness

How might they have occurred?

A response

Dan, I hope you don't mind me joining in the discussion. Our son John Bryden shared your blog site with me. I have been a bit slow to respond. My brain has not adapted to sending well thought out arguments in quick time on the internet which blogging seems to require.

I am conscious of dealing with someone from a different tribe!

My response is based on my experience of living and working in the Pacific Islands for most of our working lives (as a Protestantminister). Recently I have renewed my involvement in interfaith dialogue and have visited a Moslem Mosque and attended the combined annual meeting of the Council of Christians and Jews and the Council of Christians and Moslems in Auckland with a woman from each faith talking about preparing food for special celebrations. This involvement will keep me in touch with the religious side of the discussion.

I am also drawing on the five books that I have been reading in thepast year or two including my introduction to the book Pacific Rituals: Living or Dying (details below). I do not normally read widely on asubject but select a book which may reflect original thinking in aparticular area and stay with that over a period of time. These five books provide me with different perspectives that may be more or less pertinent to the issues you raise.

But first I try to identify clarify my understanding of religion and religious experience in a series of assertions about religion and religious experience that I have called 'thesis' statements. This is followed by some definitions of religion. (It is not clear to me from your first article what your understanding of religion is).

Religion and Religious Experience

WONDER

God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity,
but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance,
renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.
Dag Hammarskjold, former General Secretary of the United Nations, in Markings p64

Theses

Human beings have always lived in a known world surrounded by the unknown. “Scientific knowledge is like an island in an ocean of the unknown” (statement by a bioethicist in a BBC interview).

Religion functions at the boundary where the knowable faces the unknown and the unknowable. The boundary changes with the increase of knowledge but a boundary remains. The boundary can also be thought of as a horizon. (Rosenberg)

The response of awe, fear, wonder, dread in the face of events and experiences which transcend normal knowledge, explanation and understanding is at the very heart of human experience that may be called religious. This experience is not confined to 'religious' people.

Human communities have special places, people, times, events... which are believed to be sacred (tapu) and filled with a special kind of holy power (mana). These sacred places,objects, times, words...must not be lightly played around with as they seem to have a fundamental function of giving order and meaning to society over a period of time.

Rituals are the means by which these events and experiences are symbolised, remembered and relived from generation to generation and recognised as sacred. Rituals are a focal point for understanding religions. (Pacific Rituals)

Humans are conscious beings with the ability not only to know but to know that they know (the capacity for conscious reflection), and to know that they are known. This capacity gives humans knowledge of their world involving recognising, reflecting, remembering , imagining, naming, symbolising, ritualising...

From the beginning of history humans sought to name in a personal way these difficult to understand and explain events and experiences which impinge on their daily lives. Such events seem to reveal some kind of intervening living presence and intention. Human beings want to give names to these experiences that are personal, whether they be regarded as spirits, gods, some kind of supreme being or simply forces of nature.

When religious people or scientists lose the sense of wonder they begin to find it hard to adapt – they die (Hammarskjold above).

Some Definitions of Religion

Some definitions of religion from the The Oxford Shorter Dictionary in historical order:
  • religion (Latin): an obligation (as of an oath), a bond between man and the gods, reverence for the gods;
1. A state of life bound by monastic vows; the religious life
2. Action or conduct indicating a belief in, reverence for, and desire to please, a divine ruling power; the exercise or practice or rites or observances implying this.
3. A particular system of faith and worship.
4. Recognition on the part of man of some higher unseen power as having control of his destiny, as being entitle to obedience, reverences, and worship; the general mental and moral attitude resulting from this relief, with reference to its effect upon the individual or the community; personal or general acceptance of this feelings a standard of spiritual and practical life.

A tribe is a territorial social organisation of people descended from a common ancestor. Territorial boundaries protect the tribe but they are also places where interaction takes place with others. Since they are often places of uncertainty and dispute they are often regarded as taboo areas.

Perspectives from Books I have been Reading

In this my first response I list the five books I have been reading with a brief indication of their subject matter and a hint of potential relevance to your statement that “a more rigorous explanation of the mechanisms by which religion may have positively impacted adaptive fitness. How might that have occurred?”

Then I provide a summary of Barbour's understanding of where the theory of evolution is at now. I have also included the part of my introductory essay in Pacific Rituals which focusses on continuity and change.

In each of these books I am struggling with material that is beyond me. I am like a blind man touching different parts of the elephant and trying to make sense of it all with my limited faculties!

Pacific Rituals:Living or Dying is an edited collection of essays written by undergraduate theological students at the Pacific Theological College, Suva, Fiji. The students attempted to describe traditional rituals, most still being practised, from different their island cultures. My introductory essay raises the question implied in the title as to how rituals can and do adapt to the modern world and how they can contribute to that adaptation or stifle it. (see below for an extract)

Barbour's Nature, Human Nature, and God has provided me with the opportunity to catch a glimpse of how Darwin's theory of biological evolution is itself evolving. This raises questions about how the present thinking about the theory of evolution in biology affects our thinking about how religions evolve and how they change and adapt.

Rosenberg's Abraham: the First Biographical History has given me a whole new perspective on understanding the roots of Abram's story in the Sumerian culture. Rosenberg argues that the Sumerians were clear about the boundary between the known and the unknown and as they “pushed back the boundary of the unknowable” they “allowed religion its own realm”.

Rosenberg's careful study gives an imaginative account of how Abram's family migrated from the declining civilisation of Sumer towards a more or less unknown land and future. What were the essential elements of the Sumerian culture that they took with them? How did they respond to the gods of the new land? How did they adapt the world view of the Sumerians as they arrived in the land of promise?

Rosenberg's careful and imaginative study of the changing contexts of the writing of the different strands of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Torah, show a process of adaptation to changing events and circumstances. In particular his study of how the name of Yahweh evolved in the story portrayed in the first written strand of the Torah (The “J” or Yahwist document) provides a fascinating picture of how the naming of this somewhat elusive and unpredictable presence named Yahweh evolved in the story of Abram/Abraham. This continued in the long process of writing the Hebrew Scriptures through critical events over many centuries.

This, as well as other recent Old Testament scholarship, makes the study of the Hebrew Scriptures an important case study of the question “do religions adapt and if so how?” What about other world religions?

The French atheistic antiphilosopher Bardiou in his book Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism sees St Paul as a the “militant figure” who “is a poet-thinker of the event”. The book provides an extremely important way of thinking in terms of the universal. Perhaps the focus on events and the crucial role of how the original thinker with poetic imagination can be a deciding factor as to whether the religious response may positively impact adaptive fitness.

Paul Davies' The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? puts everything in the big picture of the evolving universe. He writes: “For life to evolve, and then to evolve into conscious beings like ourselves, certain conditions have to be satisfied”. These include: a good supply of the various elements needed to make biomass, this life encouraging setting has to remain benign for a long time, the universe must be sufficiently old and cool to permit complex chemistry, it has to be orderly enough to permit untrammelled formation of galaxies and stars, there has to be the right sorts of forces acting between particles of matter to make stable atoms, complex molecules, planets and stars. If almost any of the basic features of the universe , from the properties of atoms to the distribution of galaxies, were different, life would probably be impossible....The universe seems just right for life in many intriguing ways....”. Religions too have long periods of equilibrium which may make it difficult to adapt to change when relative equilibrium is punctuated by unexpected events.

Evolution

The theory of evolution has been evolving. Barbour has written many important books on the relation of science and religion. I have been trying to grasp hold of what this means by wrestling with Ian Barbour's book Nature, Human Nature, and God. In chapter 2 he gives an account of where the theory of evolution is at now.

The following is my summary of the key points.See Barbour pp12-14

Darwin's theory

In Darwin's day, Newtonian mechanics was looked on as the form of science that other sciences should emulate. The Newtonian viewpoint was atomistic, deterministic, and reductionist. It was believed that the behaviour of all systems is determined by a few simple laws governing the behaviour of their smallest components. Change was thought to be the result of external forces, such as gravity acting on bodies that are themselves essentially passive. Darwin agreed with the philosophers of science who held that Newtonian physics represented the ideal for all sciences, and his theory of evolution shared many of its assumptions (Barbour p11).

Expansion of Darwinism
Some biologists postulate that:
  • selection occurs at many levels:
  • evolution has long periods of relatively little change indispersed with bursts of rapid speciation (punctuated equilibrium);
  • natural selection has many different causes;
  • internal drives drives and novel actions of organisms can initiate evolutionary changes;the autonomy of biology from physics.
Beyond Darwinism

Future understanding of evolution may be enhanced by recent work on chaos and complexity, evolution as a product of self-organisation as well as chance, new advances in embryology and developmental biology, how developmental patterns are constrained by hierarchical organisation and the possibility of a paradigm shift from Darwinism to something beyond Darwin's theory.

Self organisation, indeterminacy, top-down causality and communication of information need to be taken into account in evolutionary theory.

How does the present thinking about the theory of evolution in biology affect your thinking about how religions evolve and how they change and adapt?


Rituals: Continuity and Change

This excerpt from my introduction to Pacific Rituals: Living or Dying focusses on the issues of continuity and change. It puts the issue of religious change into a community rather than an individualist context.

In oral societies particularly, continuity is preserved by a special emphasis on conservation of forms, symbols, formulaic expressions and ritual structures, and a resistance to change. "All sacred things must be kept in their place" (Levi-Strauss 1970:10). Rituals keep sacred things in place. Nevertheless living rituals are changeable. They can adapt to situation, circumstance, people and a changing world. So while rituals conserve the traditions, the values, the central symbols of a people, they can also be sources of creativity and change. They are not unthinking human activities — or need not be so.

Susanne Langer (1976) puts forward the thesis that all human symbolising activity may rightly be called thinking. In this light the complex symbolical activity of rituals reflects intelligent corporate human behaviour. And intelligence can be seen as the adaptation of the inward sense of meaning, identity and understanding to the realities of the external world. Since rituals are human activities they contain within them the possibility and promise of adaptation and change. They can be changed, and they can also be sources of change.

Devilish or Divine

Rituals have a special way of making possible and nurturing creativity in human culture and society, and facilitating its expression. This is perhaps because on the one hand the ritual puts people in touch with hidden and unconscious sources of their being both as individuals and as a community,and on the other because they provide a symbol system with which to explore and express the unspeakable. So words, music and movements of a Fijian meke, or ritual dance can be dreamed up for a special occasion or event and enable people to make sense of the new by using the forms of the old. Or a Samoan orator working with the traditional structure and language forms of the formal orator's speech can creatively transcend the formal structure, and express what has not been expressed before in a way that leads people to a new level of perception and understanding that enables them to embrace the new in a memorable way. A living ritual conserves what is potentially creative.

Not all change, however, is creatively good. There is something very ambiguous about human ritual behaviour. It is difficult to talk about this dimension without using religious terminology. Rituals can be devilish or divine. They can be seen as human creations which are the gifts of the gods. But they can also be recognised as being captured by diabolical forces which distort, confuse, destroy. The word symbol comes from the Greek word symbolos meaning to throw or cast together. Symbols bring many things together in a single complex whole. They create a sense of wholeness. The word diabolical however comes from the Greek word diabolos, meaning to throw apart, to scatter. The diabolical scatters, causing fragmentation, disorder, chaos. It is a strange contradiction that symbols can become diabolical. And what is true of symbols is also true of rituals.

Susanne Langer uses the words (1953:46) "semblance" and "illusion" to indicate the transparent nature of humanly created art forms. The symbolic forms used in different kinds of art are humanly created semblances or illusions which enable the unspeakable inner experience of different kinds of reality to be known, expressed, talked about, and analysed. So rituals too are humanly created illusions which are at the same time the gifts of the gods. Their reality is not in what they are, but in what they point to, what they represent, what they convey to us, what they put us in touch with. And what they put us in touch with is not the tangible but the intangible, not the seeable but the unseeable, not the experience of the ordinary but the experience of transcendence in and through the ordinary and the physical. For example through the illusions of gesture and dance the sense of power and presence is conveyed and through music, time takes on the dimension of the eternal. Architecture creates an illusion of cultic or cultured space and drama gives an illusion of action directed towards the future out of the past (Langer 1953, Collins 1983:98ff). Through the combination of these created illusions in ritual the transcendent is experienced in indefinable but real ways, and life itself takes on a new dimension.

Since they have this character of humanly created illusions however, rituals may also delude. When the illusion is treated as the reality there is idolatry. So rituals may lead to a deeper and truer perception of reality, but they may also lead people to live in an imaginary world out of touch with reality. They may hold people in a past which can no longer exist and prevent them from facing the realities of the present. They may make a certain kind of order possible that contains the seeds of chaos and destruction; They may project an illusory hope for the future which cannot be fulfilled. They may give an illusion of power that may lead to delusions of grandeur and to paranoia. They may let loose hidden powers which can disrupt, distort and destroy. To play around with rituals and misuse them can be dangerous. But to find in them the sacred source of that which is creative of life, wholeness, healing, is to discover a transformative power in society which enables people to live into the future out of the present through the presence of the remembered past.

Some Final Comments

My background and reading has put the issues you raise into a different and broader context. I realise that I have not responded directly to many of the issues you have raised in your first article – particularly the issue of ethnocentrism in religion. That will have to wait!

But in the light of your comment that 'the capacity for religion can be described as arising from a “loose confederacy of separate modules in the human brain”' I would like to know more about what that means. What kinds of changes take place in the brains for example of birds and humans as they adapt or fail to adapt to new situations?

Bruce

References
  • Barbour, Ian. 2002. Nature, Human Nature and God. Augsburg: Fortress Press
  • Bardiou, Alain. 2003. Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism. Translated by Ray Brassier. Stanford: Stanford University Press
  • Davies, Paul. 2006. The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? London: Allen Lane
  • Deverell, Gweneth & Bruce John (eds). 1986: Pacific Rituals: Living or Dying. Suva. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.
  • Rosenberg, David. 2006. Abraham: The First Historical Biography. New York: Basic Books.