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Baha’is are encouraged to find correspondences to our Faith’s principles, to take note of parallel efforts by like-minded thinkers and activists also engaged in mitigating the pain of the world.
Jacob Needleman, a philosopher who lauds America’s brilliance in science and technology but who also decries its receding spirituality, strikes me as a perfect example.
Needleman argues for a self-conscious, collective search for a new, more robust ethical and spiritual ground in America – for what he calls a transcendent “religious sensibility,” beyond any extant religious or philosophical tradition – if America is to emerge whole and enduring as the freedom-loving light of the world.
Needleman admonishes the American citizenry that it will need “more than moral or patriotic fervor, more than believing or rejecting fixed concepts about democracy and liberty. It will demand a new effort of thought, an effort to sound new depths of the idea of America.” In his book The American Soul, he wrote:
The life of the nation as a whole must proceed within the fabric of religious or religiously moral ideals. There can be no democracy and no social survival where the social order is based on the self-interest of the parts or the individual. … This is the mystery of the American nation, the paradox that has nourished much that is alive in America for over two hundred years: there must be religion …
The problem is deep and the cure radical – spiritual and religious, for sure. Needleman said “It is anything but childish or naïve if it is [understood] mythically as a new form of enactment of a drama that is timeless and ever new, a drama of the human struggle to receive the dispensation of Heaven.”
… the story of America … takes on a new meaning and serves a purpose appropriate to our era: the search for the knowledge of how to become genuine men and women, through the nourishment of the soul. We seek neither to revile nor to romanticize the actions and actors of America’s past. But the cultural hero of the present age is the Seeker …
Such a seeker must surely show forth a visionary courage equivalent to what Frederick Douglass embodied in his escape from slavery. To escape is to throw off whatsoever has kept us intellectually and spiritually enslaved, if you will, to unshackle ourselves from those half-hearted excuses and time-honored cliches used to avoid looking deep within with an honest eye.
But then to search and to find a more justice-minded space in which to begin one’s life anew, precisely what Douglass accomplished, is necessary, too.
So, if you feel inclined to believe that we are on the cusp of a spiritual crisis, or on the verge of collective, transformative change, or both, listen to these words of Baha’u’llah, as to how to escape and how to search:
When a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading unto the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. He must purge his breast, which is the sanctuary of the abiding love of the Beloved, of every defilement, and sanctify his soul from all that pertaineth to water and clay, from all shadowy and ephemeral attachments. He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth. Even as thou dost witness in this Day how most of the people, because of such love and hate, are bereft of the immortal Face, have strayed far from the Embodiments of the Divine mysteries, and, shepherdless, are roaming through the wilderness of oblivion and error.
The purpose of such heart-cleansing effort is to free ourselves of all self-serving and flimsy rationalizations, and thus create space in which to re-imagine and to reinvent. When we do so, we pull back the chrysalis so as to behold the flower – we crack the acorn in order to release the oak.
Even Seattle rapper Macklemore concedes that such psychic preparation is necessary before receiving a new, creative, and inspirational truth. Recently he told NPR’s Scott Simon that:
Each album is a process of self-discovery. My job as an artist is to peel away, to excavate, to exfoliate, to make sure that the spirit is vulnerable in purest form so that I can feel something and be a conduit for whatever is flowing through at that moment.
Writing in the 19th century, Baha’u’llah said it this way:
Only when the lamp of search, of earnest striving, of longing desire, of passionate devotion, of fervid love, of rapture, and ecstasy, is kindled within the seeker’s heart, and the breeze of His loving-kindness is wafted upon his soul, will the darkness of error be dispelled, the mists of doubts and misgivings be dissipated, and the lights of knowledge and certitude envelop his being.
Such a profound search gives way to clarity of thought and deepened self-knowledge, at the very least, but for a Baha’i-in-the-making, it is the pathway to a new ear, new eye, new heart, and a new mind, a new heaven and a new earth, and the will to traverse the path to a sustainable religious sensibility.
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The fundamental search for truth on any level or in any context is sure to provoke the natural resistance and fear latent in the status quo. This kind of deep search requires stamina and courage, and a longing for the confirmations of the Holy Spirit:
At that hour will the Mystic Herald, bearing the joyful tidings of the Spirit, shine forth from the City of God resplendent as the morn, and, through the trumpet-blast of knowledge, will awaken the heart, the soul, and the spirit from the slumber of heedlessness. Then will the manifold favors and outpouring grace of the holy and everlasting Spirit confer such new life upon the seeker that he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind. He will contemplate the manifest signs of the universe, and will penetrate the hidden mysteries of the soul.
Everyone who yearns for new life can undertake the search for a radiant religious and spiritual sensibility – while standing in the flame of the love of the Creator, and with the light of kindness, love, and a yearning for justice lighting the way.
Bradford Miller is a retired educator. His most recent book, Sickness, Death, and Resurrection of Holden Caulfield, is available on Amazon.