Bahá’u’lláh and the Houri of the Deep

There is an old mystical tradition in Islám, generally attributed to Sufis and Persian poets that represents God as “the beloved,” a beautiful “youth” who can sometimes border on the erotic. It seems to be that some more subversive poets such as Hafez made use of this equivocation between God and desire in taking license to celebrate wine, women, and song. Where did this sense of God as the obsession of a drunken lover come from? I haven’t studied this topic nearly enough to hope to have anything new to contribute on the matter, but here’s what I’ve got.

La Houri: Black-eyed beauty , 1919

Constant Montald: La Houri: Black-eyed beauty, 1919

Let’s go back to the old Zoroastrian tradition of Daena, the goddess or daemon that greets each soul three days after death. The old tradition says that good souls are greeted by a beautiful, even voluptuous maiden, but bad souls are greeted by an old hag. I composed (or perhaps plagiarized) a poem on the subject years ago. It turns out that Daena, that heavenly reward for the good and punishment for the wicked is really just a reflection of the soul’s own character, expressed esthetically and sexually. The “paradise” of this model is the paradise of one’s own character. As Heraclitus is known to have said, “character is destiny.”

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A Synthesis of Science and Religion

Thy will be done, O Universe!

Guy Murchie, The Seven Mysteries of Life, pg. 627

In the preface to his Seven Mysteries of Life, Guy Murchie wrote that when he had set out to write the book, he had intended the project to be an exploration of life in its entirety, but somewhere on that seventeen year journey he had discovered something — something philosophical. He reported that he’d discovered

fresh insights as to why the world is the way it is, where it is going and what it means … a discovery in philosophy.

This was quite a remarkable pronouncement. Unfortunately, the preface does not identify what these insights were. I can only make the considered guess that the discovery he speaks of is the set of mysteries which the title of the book refers to. The difficulty I have with that guess is that not all those seven mysteries — if they may justifiably be called mysteries — were all that new to the world.

The first mystery, the abstract nature of the universe, was something he’d already delved into in his previous book, Music of the Spheres.

This first mystery was never all that mysterious. It was really just a declaration of philosophical idealism, as well as a recognition that mathematics is everywhere in nature.

A rather generous definition of life?

A rather generous definition of "life"?

The next two mysteries were, though not commonly recognized, not all that new in 1978. The first of these, the interconnectedness of all creatures, was quite in vogue by 1978, and the second, the omnipresence of life, was just as fashionable, as evidenced by the advent of the Gaia Hypothesis.

Then came the ancient idea of Heraclitus and the Tao, canonized by Hegel, and echoed by the likes of Marx and Mao Zedong, that the world is a kind of embodied dialectic, a harmonious interaction of opposing principles. Murchie calls this dialectic the polarity principle.

contrast and struggle, … far from diluting beauty, only etch it deeper.

pp. 626–7

Appropriately, Murchie recognized that Heraclitus shared this deep insight with him:

wasn’t it Herakleitos of Ephesos who said, in the fifth century B.C., that “the way up and the way down are the same”? And wasn’t it he who later generalized the concept by adding, “it is sickness that makes health pleasant … weariness that precedes rest, hunger brings on plenty and evil leads to good”?

pp. 471–2; also see Music of the Spheres, pg. 522

And again:

Herakleitos who went so far as to declare Homer misguided when he prayed, “Would that strife might parish from among gods and men!” because the poet hadn’t realize he was asking for the destruction of the universe, since, should his prayer be answered, all things must pass away. Herakleitos obviously recognized the Polarity Principle and saw that “the sun is new every day” and “no man can step twice into the same river since the waters that flow upon him are ever fresh.”

pg. 495; also see Music of the Spheres, pg. 489

Murchie had been meditating on this polarity principle while writing Music of the Spheres, and, like Heraclitus, he took it very seriously:

I see the abstraction we have called Polarity transcending toward ultimate Divinity, …

pg. 627

Next came another principle that Murchie had visited often in Music of the Spheres, which he now had named transcendence. This was perhaps the most obscure of Murchie’s mysteries. He was not clear at all as to what he really meant by transcendence. He called it that because he wanted to give it a sense of spiritual progress, but what he meant, if one looks closely at his development of the idea, is closer to what might be called progressive perspectivism. This is where Murchie begins to tip his Bahá’í hand.

Looking at the development of the idea, we see that much of the chapter on transcendence dwells on the phenomenon of superorganism — an phenomenon that would certainly warrant its own chapter, but Murchie wants superorganism to serve another idea which he holds more dear; an idea that he had probably held dear since he became a Bahá’í.

What I think Murchie was attempting to express in speaking of this mystery of transcendence was the idea that what we see in the world can change radically with a change of perspective, and a little dialectical thinking. This perspectivism, he hoped, could give hope that life’s puzzles could be solved.

… we need even more the principles of polarity and transcendence if we are really to explain why adversity is important and (as I believe) actually vital to our progress as spiritual beings.

pg. 621

Note that Murchie speaks of transcendence as a principle, rather than a mystery.

Murchie continues to tell the reader what he’s ultimately after in making such use of this transcendence. He thinks the world is a “soul school.” He thinks the world is hear to facilitate the education of souls. He thinks the justification for evil in the world can be found in correcting our shortsightedness. In other words, Murchie was a Bahá’í, and he needed this principle of transcendence to make his theology practicable.

Thus at last we arrive at the only hypothesis for the troubled world that fits all the known facts — the hypothesis that the planet Earth is, in essence, a Soul School.

pg. 621

Yes, that’s quite a leap that Mr. Murchie was asking the reader to make, and it’s clear now why he needed polarity and transcendence to pull it off. I for one can feel his yearning for justification of evil, though I personally have not been able to make that leap.

Transcendence … is not material so much as mental. And, to an even greater degree, spiritual.

pg. 494

When Murchie used the term transcendence, he was actually leading up to the Bahá’í doctrine of spiritual progress, which is related to the Bahá’í doctrine of unification, which is where the idea of superorganism came in. It’s not immediately apparent that this was the case, as Murchie went to great lengths to make his argument sound scientific, but it was more a rhetorical argument that sought to appeal to the reader’s yearnings.

transcendence … the development of our perspectives on space and time as we grow older, … a wider awareness as one matures spiritually … from our present earthly finitude toward some sort of an Infinitude far beyond.

This was actually nothing new to Murchie. When he began to work on Seven Mysteries, he had been a Bahá’í for 23 years. What he called transcendence was really none other than the Bahá’í doctrine of the soul’s progress through the worlds of God.

Murchie puts this Bahá’í doctrine of spiritual progression and collectivization to work as he presents his sixth mystery,

Germination of Worlds

With this mystery, Murchie put the fledgling Gaia Hypothesis to work for a Bahá’í doctrine, just as he had put superorganism to work for two other Bahá’í doctrines. In this case, the Bahá’í doctrine to be corroborated was to be the blossoming of humanity with the arrival of the promised one of all ages, Bahá’u’lláh; the Bahá’í notion that the very order of the world was to be overturned in favor of a new World Order, and Bahá’ís had long considered the advancements in science to be products of this spiritual New Jerusalem.

Rhetorically, Murchie couldn’t afford to be too explicit, but he was explicit enough to list out a number of Bahá’í principles as characteristics as this coming of age of humanity:

  • elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty (pp. 577–8)
  • gender equality (pp. 579–82)
  • elimination of racial prejudice (pp. 579-82)
  • universal education (pp. 582–3)
  • universal auxiliary language (pp. 583–4)
  • world government (pp. 584-586)
  • progressive revelation (pg. 612)
  • harmony of science and religion (pg. 615)

One can imagine Murchie reading these items off a Bahá’í brochure as he composed this chapter. This is Murchie at his most transparent as a Bahá’í evangelist.

The Gaia Hypothesis, born in the 1960s and raised in the 1970s, was not categorically new. The idea that Earth is an organism is as old as the science of geology itself. The very word “Gaia,” as it was adopted by the formulators of the Gaia Hypothesis, had actually been coined by the father of geology, James Hutton. The idea that the world would someday blossom was as old as Zoroaster. What Murchie wanted from the Gaia Hypothesis was a scientific foundation for what Bahá’ís like him had long believed.

With Murchie’s final mystery, divinity, we finally see a topic that actually qualifies as a mystery. The point of discussing this topic was apparently to argue for the existence of God as a mysterious but necessary concept, primarily by citing the preponderance of order and non-randomness in the universe. Here Murchie brought his religiosity to the fore, and he used Bahá’í terminology, such as unknowable Essence and veil of Glory (pg. 627), in speaking of God.

It now seems obvious to me that Murchie had been consciously working on a synthesis of current science and his particular religion, and I think he did remarkably well. I’m not sure that he began the project with this goal in mind, but I believe it began to take form as a religious project when his interest in religion was revived in 1963, and began to see himself as a Bahá’í author. Seven Mysteries certainly gained him the favor of many Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís around the world. Notwithstanding the lack of structure and logical lapses in Murchie’s colorful elucidations, to say nothing of his endorsements of pseudoscience (pp. 306–7), he might have had more of an impact on the popularity of the Bahá’í Faith had it not been for more traditionalist forces simultaneously gaining ground in the Bahá’í world community. We can see those forces at work in Murchie’s late life as we read through his autobiography. As early as 1979, we find him defending his ideas against critics within the Bahá’í Faith; critics for whom the harmony of science and religion was perhaps a lower priority than it was for Mr. Murchie.

The Great Peace of the Magi

Plutarch, in his treatise on Isis and Osiris, describes the great peace that the Magi foretold:

But the time appointed by fate is coming, … when the earth becoming plain and level there shall be one life and one government of men, all happy and of one language.

It reminds me of the utopian visions that I was raised on as a young Baha’i, right down to world government and a universal language. I sometimes yearn for that innocent vision, yet there’s always that nagging suspicion that such utopian visions can be terribly hazardous, in that their luminous purity can blind us to the immediate realities that we must face as denizens of the real world.

Indeed, Heraclitus would certainly have regarded such utopianism as blasphemy, just as he complained regarding Homer’s prayer for a permanent peace.

Killing your Buddhas

Continuing our discussion of the correspondences between Heraclitus and the Zarathustras, we have the directive that each one find truth for oneself; that one must never follow. As the old Buddhist epigram goes, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, Kill him.” Heraclitus, likewise, bids his readers not to listen to him, but rather to the Logos. Heraclitus also says “eyes are better witnesses than ears.”

Peters Denial of Jesus

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, likewise, is intent upon shaking off his disciples, for their own good:

Verily, I counsel you: go away from me and guard yourselves against Zarathustra! And better still: be ashamed of him! Perhaps he has deceived you. … One repays a teacher poorly if one always remains only a student.

— Thus Spoke Zarathustra 1.22.3: On Bestowing Virtue

Zarathustra continues, cautioning his disciples against idolizing him:

You revere me; but what if your reverence should someday collapse? Be careful lest a statue fall and kill you!

— Thus Spoke Zarathustra 1.22.3: On Bestowing Virtue

As Heraclitus says, “I went in search of myself”, so Zarathustra instructs his disciples to do the same:

Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you.

— Thus Spoke Zarathustra 1.22.3: On Bestowing Virtue

This sounds curiously similar to the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus:

Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake. Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.

— John 13:37–38

In a sense, I can personally claim to have been similarly instructed by the Idol of my youth, Bahá’u’lláh, who chased me off with his manifold contradictions while he subtly—perhaps unintentionally—instructed me in the ways of divine Godlessness.

Unfortunately, I know of no doctrine of virtuous denial in Bahá’u’lláh’s writings.

Offender of the Faithful?

This blog got its name “Idol Chatter” for a reason, or even a couple of reasons. First of all, the blogger is a rather militant unitarian (note lowercase ‘u’). Secondly, he tries not to take his own chatter too seriously.

By “unitarian” is here meant anyone who recognizes the tendency of leaders, doctrines, and ideologies to become idols that stand in the way of our search for truth. Idolatry, according to this school of thought, is a mighty sly shape-shifting devil. As a former Unitarian minister once challenged us:

“We boast our emancipation from many superstitions; but if we have broken any idols, it is through a transfer of the idolatry.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Similarly, a Greek philosopher once cautioned:

“It is wise to listen not to me, but to the Logos, …” — Heraclitus

I use the term “unitarian” because this cautious mode of thinking is embodied in the Unitarian tradition, in which some Christians long ago determined that worshiping Jesus is missing the message of Jesus, who did not forbid blasphemy against himself, but rather forbade blasphemy against “the spirit”. It is the spirit of the message that gives life, he said, not the flesh of the messenger; not even the letter of the message.

In this sense, we can see that Jesus, whom some identify with the Logos, was not so different from Nietzsche’s anti-prophet Zarathustra:

“All the names of good and evil are parables: they do not declare, but only hint. Whoever among you seeks knowledge of them is a fool!” — Thus Spoke Zarathustra

The Great Iconoclast

Imagine if you will a medieval man, centuries after Christ, who was familiar with Judaism and Christianity. Imagine that this man was impressed by the Judaic aversion to idolatry, but also recognized Christ as a man—or messenger—of Truth. Imagine that he rejected the Trinity, and the notion that Jesus is God. Imagine that this man became quite well known for his opinion that Jesus is not God, such that we might consider him the first Unitarian. Imagine that he was a man of his time, and realizing the efficacy of power, mustered an army and ordered that army to pursue idolators and smash idols to the ends of the earth.

Let us call this man, for lack of a better name, Muhammad. Maybe this man was so single-minded about smashing idols that he might be called a prophet. Perhaps he was such a dedicated Unitarian that he rejected the very possibility of any religion other than the religion of Unitarianism, going so far as to call himself “the Seal of the Prophets”:

“Muhammad is not the father of any man among you, but he is the Apostle of God, and the seal of the prophets: and God knoweth all things.” Qur’an (Rodwell translation)

Let us further imagine that this man was seen by by his enemies as a militant religious fanatic and his followers as a crusader for his god Allah. Perhaps we can imagine that they had him wrong. Perhaps we can imagine that he was after something more fundamental, and that the rest—his doctrines, methods, and even his personal beliefs—was all circumstantial.

Idolatry in Islam

The man in the painting is not going bowling. If we look closely enough, we find that even Muhammad was an idolator; but who isn’t? Shall Muslims be permitted to rise above the man? Not if they continue to idolize him.

It is commonly understood that Islam means “submission”, but submission to what? Submission to Islam? Certainly not. That would be circular, would it not? It has always been understood to mean “submission to God”; but what is God? Is God to be taken as the Islamic image of God, “Allah”, or is God to be taken as that ultimate, unknowable creative essence behind—or within—things? Perhaps the core meaning of Islam is “submission to no idol, however subtle”.

“Seek knowledge even unto China” — Muhammad

If we were to take this as the essence of Islam, could this not be a religion of the future? Could we go so far as to say that Islam is faith in Reason? If this seems like too much of a stretch, can we at least see how Islam might be seen as a medieval attempt to free humanity of idolatry?

Let the true Muslims step forward to smash the idols of Islam.