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In 1844, the birth year of the Baha’i Faith, a U. S. Patent Office official declared that his office should close its doors, for – in his opinion – everything worthwhile had already been invented! Yet, less than sixty years later, enterprising creative geniuses registered world-changing inventions such as the telegraph, telephone, automobile, motion pictures, and airplane.
How can we understand the generating impulse for this kind of rapid and massive advancement of civilization, this enormous outburst of creative energy in such a short span of historical time? Social scientist Riane Eisler observes:
Of all life forms on this planet, only we can plant and harvest fields, compose poetry and music, seek truth and justice, teach a child to read and write…. Because of our unique ability to imagine new realities and realize these through ever more advanced technologies, we are quite literally partners in our own evolution. – The Chalice and the Blade, pp. xiii-xiv.
If humanity partners with nature in our own evolution, as Eisler suggests, then we live in a time of profound and rapid evolutionary growth in personal, cultural and global capacity. Baha’is believe such periods in human history happen when a new messenger of God appears, as Baha’u’llah did in the 19th Century, releasing an unprecedented flood of new creative energy and knowledge.
Affirming the high and unique station of man, Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, writes about the ultimate creative genius, God:
Having created the world and all that liveth and moveth therein, He, through the direct operation of His unconstrained and sovereign Will, chose to confer upon man the unique distinction and capacity to know Him and to love Him – a capacity that must needs be regarded as the generating impulse and the primary purpose underlying the whole of creation….Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing He hath shed the light of one of His names, and made it a recipient of the glory of one of His attributes. Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self. Alone of all created things man hath been singled out for so great a favor, so enduring a bounty. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 65.
I’ve personally seen this startling phenomena play out in my work. I am occasionally invited to serve as an evaluator on juries of international, as well as national, piano competitions. Over the years, I’ve been quite amazed to see how the technical evolution of young pianists has advanced. The proof is in the daunting and technically difficult repertoire younger and younger performers can increasingly accomplish, despite statements that some works by the Spanish Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) and the Russian Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) – composed within one or two decades of the above-mentioned inventions − were “unplayable”.
The outer, technical, advancement of these musicians may be partially explained by the discovery of “mirror neurons” in the brain, or the capacity to imitate others in a goal-directed way. But what about the inner, more creative advancement as musicians – the capacity to express, to communicate, to mold sound into non-verbal thoughts and architecture, to go beyond the musical notes on a page? Are these too governed by “imitation”?
Despite their technical excellence, rarely did these young musicians reveal the ability to truly communicate and move the listener. The development of an inner life, so necessary for artistic maturity, has been frequently lacking — or was, at best, on a level inferior to the outer, technical acuity.
I heard one unforgettable exception recently, the performance of a young blind girl, whose simple and beautiful rendition left all but one jury member spellbound. The remaining jury member contested that his colleagues seemed overly sympathetic because of the girl’s disability. I quickly retorted that her brother, who also was visually handicapped, did not move us in the same way, and pointed out that his sister did indeed possess some special inner quality that could be felt and heard in the beautiful music she made.
The need for musical development, so often based on spiritual understanding, to keep pace with the acquisition of technical skills challenges everyone in our fast-paced times. However, the remedy for this disparity between the outer and inner artistic attainments, and its resulting positive outcome, have been optimistically addressed by the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi:
It is certain that with the spread of the spirit of Baha’u’llah a new era will dawn in art and literature. Whereas before the form was perfect but the spirit was lacking, now there will be a glorious spirit embodied in a form immeasurably improved by the quickening genius of the world. – The Importance of the Arts in Promoting the Faith, p. 28).