January 2011 Archives

Baha'i Pilgrimage, pt 6: Ridvan Garden

January 11, 2011

While it was unfortunate that we were not able to see the Shrine of the Báb in all its golden-domed grandeur (covered over during on-going rehab), we had the bounty of being only the third pilgrim group to visit the restored Ridván Garden outside of 'Akká. The Bahá'í World News Service has an excellent article, from October 2010, on the restoration work and the history of the garden: Holy place restoration sheds light on region's heritage.

It is indeed a beautiful and calming place, and one can well imagine the relief of leaving the horrid conditions of the city to spend a few hours in joyful company on the island. This entire complex is filled with trees and plants descended from those brought across the deserts by pilgrims from Persia (as mentioned somewhere in The Chosen Highway), particularly cypress, pomegranate, and various citrus fruits (the tangerines were ripe and wonderful!). The peace and tranquility in this site, which is only a few hundred yards from apartment buildings, could easily send one into a rapturous state.

Entrance to the Garden of Ridván, which is outside Akka and very near "Napeoleon's Hill" (under which lies the ancient city of 'Akká. This website has an satellite image showing "Tell Akko" (Napoleon Hill / old city), and just below it, past the apartments, you can see the trees of the Ridván Garden site.

Standing on the "mainland", with the rocks in the foreground being the other side of the near channel, the benches mark the far side of the small island.

At the very back the island, the small brick structure is the former donkey-driven pump for the fountain. The channel seen here was recreated in the last few years, after the British had drained the area in the early 20th century.

The "verdant isle" of the Ridván Garden, with a young citrus grove and the 100+ year old palm (the skinny one).

The small house where Bahá'u'lláh would sleep when visiting the Ridván Garden.

Restored fountain.

Restored buildings at the site of ancient grain mills, behind the small house.

This mulberry tree was witness to Bahá'u'lláh's visits to the island in the 1880s.

On a windy day, I marvelled at the longevity of this skinny date palm, which was alive during the time of Bahá'u'lláh's visits to the island.

(Reconstructed) seat where Bahá'u'lláh' would sit when picnicing at the Ridván Garden.

Seeing God Through Nature; Pantheism and Panentheism

January 8, 2011

A friend recently told me about this passage from the collection of Bahá'u'lláh's writings called Prayers and Meditations. In Facebook conversation I've been talking about my limited and impersonal understanding of "God". This passage might seem a bit paradoxical to that viewpoint, at first glance. The paradox is because of my inability to precisely describe the nuance of a belief that lies somewhere between the poles of atheism and personal theism, without recourse to philosophical language (the best "school of thought" to describe my own core belief has always been panentheism).

I am well aware, O my Lord, that I have been so carried away by the clear tokens of Thy loving-kindness, and so completely inebriated with the wine of Thine utterance, that whatever I behold I readily discover that it maketh Thee known unto me, and it remindeth me of Thy signs, and of Thy tokens, and of Thy testimonies. By Thy glory! Every time I lift up mine eyes unto Thy heaven, I call to mind Thy highness and Thy loftiness, and Thine incomparable glory and greatness; and every time I turn my gaze to Thine earth, I am made to recognize the evidences of Thy power and the tokens of Thy bounty. And when I behold the sea, I find that it speaketh to me of Thy majesty, and of the potency of Thy might, and of Thy sovereignty and Thy grandeur. And at whatever time I contemplate the mountains, I am led to discover the ensigns of Thy victory and the standards of Thine omnipotence.

Bahá'u'lláh, Prayers and Meditations, p271-2; worth reading more of the "meditation" surrounding this particular paragraph

Now, this particular paragraph could lead one to assume that Bahá'u'lláh is positing a pantheistic viewpoint of God. Other parts of the meditation offer a more personal/anthropomorphic approach. However, elswhere we are warned about literal reliance on anthropomorphism:

However, let none construe these utterances to be anthropomorphism, nor see in them the descent of the worlds of God into the grades of the creatures; nor should they lead thine Eminence to such assumptions. For God is, in His Essence, holy above ascent and descent, entrance and exit; He hath through all eternity been free of the attributes of human creatures, and ever will remain so. No man hath ever known Him; no soul hath ever found the pathway to His Being. Every mystic knower hath wandered far astray in the valley of the knowledge of Him; every saint hath lost his way in seeking to comprehend His Essence. Sanctified is He above the understanding of the wise; exalted is He above the knowledge of the knowing! The way is barred and to seek it is impiety; His proof is His signs; His being is His evidence.

Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, p22-3

The reason for the anthropomorphic-seeming statements is not stated; I can only assume that the terminology is used as a metaphorical device that helps us puny humans connect to this inscrutable force-Being. But of pantheism itself, 'Abdu'l-Bahá makes clear that this concept is too limiting of God in His Father's theology (Some Answered Questions, p290-6; the discussion of this concept is too philosophical, and wrapped around particular Súfí beliefs, for quoting any particular part here).

From these passages, and others yet to be quoted, I find space in the Bahá'í Faith for my demi-belief, my panentheism that admits of an impersonal "divinity" that is both immanent and transcendant. It would be arrogant in the extreme to assume my belief is the correct one; rather, it is simply my way of getting by, and helping me to focus on becoming a better person and creating a better civilization. It doesn't matter to me if it is ultimately right or wrong; if it helps anyone else see a way to connect their own souls to the Supreme Being, then I am happy for them.

'Abdu'l-Baha on the Fallibility of Human Conceptions of God

January 2, 2011

In responding to a friend about the nature of the "god concept" in the Bahá'í Faith, I began to collect a number of passages and add a few comments as to why I chose them. And then I found this hitherto unknown (to me) statement from 'Abdu'l-Bahá. It could not be more plain, and completely justifies what a fellow Bahá'í once said to an atheistically-inclined friend: "I don't believe in the same God you don't believe in."

This people, all of them, have pictured a god in the realm of the mind, and worship that image which they have made for themselves. And yet that image is comprehended, the human mind being the comprehender thereof, and certainly the comprehender is greater than that which lieth within its grasp; for imagination is but the branch, while mind is the root; and certainly the root is greater than the branch. Consider then, how all the peoples of the world are bowing the knee to a fancy of their own contriving, how they have created a creator within their own minds, and they call it the Fashioner of all that is—whereas in truth it is but an illusion. Thus are the people worshiping only an error of perception.

But that Essence of Essences, that Invisible of Invisibles, is sanctified above all human speculation, and never to be overtaken by the mind of man. Never shall that immemorial Reality lodge within the compass of a contingent being. His is another realm, and of that realm no understanding can be won. No access can be gained thereto; all entry is forbidden there. The utmost one can say is that Its existence can be proved, but the conditions of Its existence are unknown.

That such an Essence doth exist, the philosophers and learned doctors one and all have understood; but whenever they tried to learn something of Its being, they were left bewildered and dismayed, and at the end, despairing, their hopes in ruins, they went their way, out of this life. For to comprehend the state and the inner mystery of that Essence of Essences, that Most Secret of Secrets, one needs must have another power and other faculties; and such a power, such faculties would be more than humankind can bear, wherefore no word of Him can come to them.

Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, number 24

The futility of trying to understand God – leaving one "despairing, ... hopes in ruin" – reminds me of the Buddha's parable of the poisoned arrow, which I first encountered in Huston Smith's World Religions. In it He describes a man who dies of an arrow wound because he is insistent on learning everything about the arrow and the person who shot it. Rather, he should focus on his actions and suffering in the here and now, not on the essence of metaphysics.

Baha'i Pilgrimage, pt 5: More Birds, Plants, and a Bee

January 1, 2011

There is more to show about the holy sites and places visited, but first I want to share some miscellaneous photos of birds, fruits, trees, and a bee.

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