“Peace is not merely the absence of war”

From Gaudium et Spes, one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, promulgated in 1965:

Peace is not merely the absence of war; nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies; nor is it brought about by dictatorship. Instead, it is rightly and appropriately called an enterprise of justice. Peace results from that order structured into human society by its divine Founder, and actualized by men as they thirst after ever greater justice. The common good of humanity finds its ultimate meaning in the eternal law. But since the concrete demands of this common good are constantly changing as time goes on, peace is never attained once and for all, but must be built up ceaselessly. Moreover, since the human will is unsteady and wounded by sin, the achievement of peace requires a constant mastering of passions and the vigilance of lawful authority.

But this is not enough. This peace on earth cannot be obtained unless personal well-being is safeguarded and men freely and trustingly share with one another the riches of their inner spirits and their talents. A firm determination to respect other men and peoples and their dignity, as well as the studied practice of brotherhood are absolutely necessary for the establishment of peace. Hence peace is likewise the fruit of love, which goes beyond what justice can provide.

That earthly peace which arises from love of neighbor symbolizes and results from the peace of Christ which radiates from God the Father. For by the cross the incarnate Son, the prince of peace reconciled all men with God. By thus restoring all men to the unity of one people and one body, He slew hatred in His own flesh; and, after being lifted on high by His resurrection, He poured forth the spirit of love into the hearts of men.

For this reason, all Christians are urgently summoned to do in love what the truth requires, and to join with all true peacemakers in pleading for peace and bringing it about.

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New resources page

If you look at the top of the page you’ll see a new tab, “Resources,” next to “Front Page” and “About.” This was inspired by a recent reading of Mirza Abu’l-Fadl Gulpaygani. I would like to post a response to his work, but much of his apologetic work on behalf of the Faith consists of making spurious attacks on Christianity. It occurred to me that before I can put together a defense, I first have to marshall historical evidence. So the Resources page was born.

It will consist of links to other websites that discuss various aspects of Catholic doctrine and history that are often brought up in Baha’i teaching. So far I have only added links relating to slavery, but many more topics will be added over time.

A clash of histories

In paragraph 23 of the Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, the Universal House of Justice says,

From its [religion’s] counsels the rational soul has derived encouragement in overcoming limits imposed by the world and in fulfilling itself.

I’m not sure what exactly this sentence is talking about. I mean, I agree with it, but when I think about it, it could mean almost anything. Not only that, but the wording could just as easily apply to things besides religion. Try it. Replace the word religion with something else, like science for example, or poetry. The sentence is just as meaningful.

Baha’is are trying to overcome the barriers that divide the human race. For that, I applaud them. But there is a grave problem in how they’re going about it. There is a built-in contradiction in the Baha’i Faith.

On the one hand, Baha’is insist there is a common ground uniting all religions, and they believe that by emphasizing this common ground, they can help to overcome religious divisions. The problem is that reducing religion to a lowest common denominator just empties it of any real meaning. It becomes nothing more than vapid platitudes.

But then on the other hand, the Baha’i Faith is a whole belief system unto itself, different from any other (although bearing a striking resemblance to Islam). It has beliefs that are uncompromising, like the oneness of God, or that the human being is fundamentally a spirit, or that the afterlife involves progressing through the worlds of God. People came to Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha and asked them specific questions, and got specific answers.

It sometimes happens that people join the Faith thinking it allows them to do and believe anything they want. Then they suddenly find out they’re not supposed to believe in reincarnation anymore, or they can’t drink beer, or they can’t worship Ganesh, or any of a hundred thousand other things that followers of other religions do or believe. So religion isn’t just the vapid cloud portrayed in some Baha’i teaching material (like this Letter). Religion, true religion, is the Baha’i Faith, and everything else is a pale copy of that.

The Universal House of Justice goes on to say,

As the name implies, religion has simultaneously been the chief force binding diverse peoples together in ever larger and more complex societies through which the individual capacities thus released can find expression.

When I was a Baha’i, there were two timelines of world history in my head. One was the timeline of Manifestations, each revealing a succeeding chapter in God’s eternally unfolding religion. The other was the gradual rise of civilization through successively more complex stages: family, tribe, city-state, nation-state, and culiminating in world unity.

What was never explained to me was how these two timelines fit together. Which Manifestation caused which advancement in civilizational complexity? Granted not every Manifestation has to have brought one about, but clearly some of them had to. Can anyone give me an answer? I mean an informed answer, involving reference to specific historical or archaeological evidence.

There have been two significant changes in social complexity in human history. One was the Neolithic “Revolution”, when agriculture was adopted in the late Stone Age. I use inverted commas because it was a centuries-long process, but it was revolutionizing all the same. The second one was the Industrial Revolution, a much more rapid event. Between these two events lots of things happened. Millions of people were born and died, empires rose and fell, cities were built and fell into ruin – but there was no significant change in the overall complexity of human life. And it was during that period that all the Manifestations of God listed in your Baha’i pamphlet lived, except for the Bab and Baha’u’llah.

In other words, the idea that the Manifestations of God motivated this process – from family to tribe to city-state to nation – is a fiction. These stages all pre-date the earliest Manifestations on the Baha’is’ list. The transition from family to tribe happened many tens of thousands of years ago. Towns start to appear during the Neolithic period. State societies first formed in the Middle East in the third millenium BC, and in India, China and Greece in the following millenium.

On the other hand, the nation-state as we know it today – that is, a state society based on the national or ethnic identity of its members – is comparatively recent. It emerged in the nineteenth century. That conveniently coincides with the Twin Manifestations of the Baha’i Era – the only time the two timelines coincide in real life. Er… that is, it would be convenient, except they weren’t supposed to usher in the nation-state.

Now let’s remember that the UHJ is telling the leaders of the other religions that they need to put aside their differences and unite on what they have in common. Presenting this vision of world history does not help their case. How can they hope to persuade non-Baha’is if the evidence they present cannot be verified through historical evidence, and can only be believed if you have the faith of a Baha’i.

Finishing the paragraph,

The great advantage of the present age is the perspective that makes it possible for the entire human race to see this civilizing process as a single phenomenon, the ever-recurring encounters of our world with the world of God.

No, the present age doesn’t give us this perspective. The Baha’i Central Figures do.

There’s nothing special about the modern age in making such a perspective possible. People have always travelled around and met foreigners with strange customs. To hear Baha’is talk you’d think everyone before 1844 lived under a rock. And suddenly everyone became aware that there are other religions besides their own. Jews awoke one day to learn there’s such a thing as Muslims. Buddhists were surprised to find that the world was not entirely composed of Buddhists.

This notion would be patronizing if it weren’t so naive. There’s nothing new about the Baha’i perspective on religions. People have always been aware that there were religions other than their own. And the mental strategies for dealing with this diversity have always been the same. You either regard all religions as essentially talking about the same thing, or you see your religion as true and all others as false, or you fall somewhere in between.

The “insuperable wall” between Heaven and Earth

My commentary on the Letter to the World’s Religious Leaders is drawing to a close. I’ll just do one or two posts on the topic after this one. Right now I would like to make a comment on one sentence in paragraph 20:

Together with the crumbling of barriers separating peoples, our age is witnessing the dissolution of the once insuperable wall that the past assumed would forever separate the life of Heaven from the life of Earth.

I’m confused as to what this means. Who in the past assumed there was an insuperable wall between the life of Heaven and the life of Earth? This notion is foreign to Christianity.

Perhaps a Christian could say that after the Fall of Adam, there was a wall between Heaven and Earth, presented allegorically by an angel with a flaming sword keeping people out of Eden. But that wall was destroyed by Christ. Christ’s coming into the world and redeeming the world reestablished the link between Heaven and Earth that had been impaired (a more accurate term than “insuperably” blocked) by the Fall. Ever since the events of Christ’s life, there has been a continuous and unbroken link between Heaven and Earth.

There are many ways in which this is manifested in the Catholic belief system. For example, we have the veneration of saints. When we pray to saints (who we believe to be in heaven), we are assuming there is no “wall” between us and them. We are all, those who have died and those still on the earth, part of the same Church, and therefore linked through Christ to each other.

Another example of how Catholics don’t believe (and never have believed) there to be a wall separating Heaven and Earth are what are called sacramentals. These are objects used for religious purposes that have been blessed, so they have a special spiritual potency. Holy water, rosaries, and crucifixes are examples of sacramentals. We believe that when a priest blesses a sacramental, grace from God is infused into that object. Certainly we would not believe that if we thought there was a “wall” separating Heaven and Earth.

Cardinal Arinze celebrating the EucharistThe most important way, for Catholics, in which Heaven and Earth meet is the Eucharist. When we go to Mass on Sunday (or any day of the week), what we essentially do is engage in a long, communal prayer. The culmination of this prayer is the Eucharist, when bread and wine are offered to God, and God changes them into the Body and Blood of Christ. So when we consume the Eucharist, we are literally eating God.

There is no possibility a Catholic who believes in the teachings of the Church would imagine there is a wall separating Heaven from Earth. And these are ancient teachings and practices, long predating the inception of the Baha’i Faith.

That said, why does the Universal House of Justice say that “the past” (whoever that refers to) assumed there was an insuperable wall separating the life of Heaven from the life of Earth? Perhaps they mean that religious life was seen as strictly separate from mundane life. But anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history prior to, say, 1750 will know that such a separation was the rare exception rather than the rule. It is only those of us unfortunate enough to live in the long shadow of the “Enlightenment” who are prone to such a fallacy.

Later in the same paragraph the Universal House of Justice says,

As the age-old promise of a world animated by principles of justice slowly takes on the character of a realistic goal, meeting the needs of the soul and those of society will increasingly be seen as reciprocal aspects of a mature spiritual life.

What are the needs of society, as distinct from the needs of the soul? I don’t even know how to respond to this, because I’m not really sure what the UHJ is talking about. Are they saying religious leaders of the past took no concern for social problems like poverty or social, political or legal injustice? That would be patently absurd. I can’t bring myself to believe the members of the UHJ would be so obtuse as to make that claim, especially in a letter addressed to the modern successors of those religious leaders. But what did they then mean by the statement?