“If we believe that God is located in the heavens, then the birds would be more fortunate than we”

Pope Benedict at midnight Mass

Here are some excerpts from the pope’s sermon at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve:

Saint John, in his Gospel, went to the heart of the matter, giving added depth to Saint Luke’s brief account of the situation in Bethlehem: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not”. …

These words refer ultimately to us, to each individual and to society as a whole. Do we have time for our neighbour who is in need of a word from us, from me, or in need of my affection? For the sufferer who is in need of help? For the fugitive or the refugee who is seeking asylum? Do we have time and space for God? Can he enter into our lives? Does he find room in us, or have we occupied all the available space in our thoughts, our actions, our lives for ourselves? …

In the stable at Bethlehem, Heaven and Earth meet. Heaven has come down to Earth. For this reason, a light shines from the stable for all times; for this reason joy is enkindled there; for this reason song is born there.

At the end of our Christmas meditation I should like to quote a remarkable passage from Saint Augustine. Interpreting the invocation in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in Heaven”, he asks: what is this – Heaven? And where is Heaven? Then comes a surprising response: “… who art in Heaven – that means: in the saints and in the just. Yes, the heavens are the highest bodies in the universe, but they are still bodies, which cannot exist except in a given location. Yet if we believe that God is located in the heavens, meaning in the highest parts of the world, then the birds would be more fortunate than we, since they would live closer to God. Yet it is not written: ‘The Lord is close to those who dwell on the heights or on the mountains’, but rather: ‘the Lord is close to the brokenhearted’, an expression which refers to humility. Just as the sinner is called ‘Earth’, so by contrast the just man can be called ‘Heaven’.”

Heaven does not belong to the geography of space, but to the geography of the heart. And the heart of God, during the Holy Night, stooped down to the stable: the humility of God is Heaven. And if we approach this humility, then we touch Heaven. Then the Earth too is made new. With the humility of the shepherds, let us set out, during this Holy Night, towards the Child in the stable! Let us touch God’s humility, God’s heart! Then his joy will touch us and will make the world more radiant. Amen.

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Any thoughts on the blog design?

I’m experimenting with some changes to the blog’s look. I wanted to keep the old look but with three columns instead of two (kind of like what Barney Leith switched to a short time ago), but WordPress.com doesn’t provide that option. So I’m trying this one out. Any thoughts, feelings, concerns? Do you prefer the old look or the new, or are you indifferent?

As one might expect, I believe in the divine right of bloggers. I’ll just do what I want anyway, but don’t let that stop you from speaking up. We live in a democracy, after all.

The sidebars et cetera will be in a state of disarray for a few days, but posting and commenting will continue as normal.

Christmas in Iran

Courtesy of Lew Rockwell by way of Andrew Cusack. They have more pictures. Take a look.

“The mystery of new birth shone upon us”

Adoration of the Magi

The following is from a letter written by St. Leo the Great, who was bishop of Rome from 440 to 461:

To speak of our Lord, the son of the blessed Virgin Mary, as true and perfect man is of no value to us if we do not believe that he is descended from the line of ancestors set out in the Gospel. Matthew’s gospel begins by setting out “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham,” and then traces his human descent by bringing his ancestral line down to his mother’s husband, Joseph. On the other hand, Luke traces his parentage backward step by step to the actual father of mankind, to show that both the first and the last Adam share the same nature.

No doubt the Son of God in his omnipotence could have taught and sanctified men by appearing to them in a semblance of human form as he did to the patriarchs and prophets, when for instance he engaged in a wrestling contest or entered into conversation with them, or when he accepted their hospitality and even ate the food they set before him. But these appearances were only types, signs that mysteriously foretold the coming of one who would take a true human nature from the stock of the patriarchs who had gone before him.

No mere figure, then, fulfilled the mystery of our reconciliation with God, ordained from all eternity. The Holy Spirit had not yet come upon the Virgin nor had the power of the Most High overshadowed her, so that within her spotless womb Wisdom might build itself a house and the Word become flesh. The divine nature and the nature of a servant were to be united in one person so that the Creator of time might be born in time, and he through whom all things were made might be brought forth in their midst.

For unless the new man, by being made “in the likeness of sinful humanity,” had taken on himself the nature of our first parents, unless he had stooped to be one in substance with his mother while sharing the Father’s substance and, being alone free from sin, united our nature to his, the whole human race would still be held captive under the dominion of Satan.

The Conqueror’s victory would have profited us nothing if the battle had been fought outside our human condition. But through this wonderful blending the mystery of new birth shone upon us, so that through the same Spirit by whom Christ was conceived and brought forth we too might be born again in a spiritual birth; and in consequence the evangelist declares the faithful to “have been born not of blood, nor of the desire of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

Moojan Momen is right

A few days ago I became aware of this new article by Moojan Momen discussing the ex-Baha’i phenomenon, “Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha’i Community”. (The version Momen submitted to the journal Religion may be read here. The journal posts the abstract here.)

Momen’s argument is that you see this new phenomenon emerging in the Baha’i community in the past 25 years or so – a community of ex-Baha’is has developed. It used to be that someone who didn’t like the Faith would go and become an ex-Baha’i by themselves, criticizing the Faith on their own. But in recent years some of these people have formed a community. Isn’t that strange? What changed? Why now, and why has it taken this form? These are the kind of questions this article is seeking to answer.

I read some responses on the web by various ex-Baha’is. None of them like the piece. Some were sarcastic (a little puerile, don’t you think?), some were dismissive, some attempted rebuttals (none of them very effective), and some were even angry and hostile. I’m really puzzled by all this, because it seems to me Momen is on to something.

When I left the Baha’i community I looked on the Internet for an ex-Baha’i community. Not that I wanted to “join” one, but I wanted to know if my thoughts were shared by others, and if there were people out there who could help me think things through. There was a community, all right, but they couldn’t help me. All they wanted to do was talk about the evil, dictatorial “AO” all day. I couldn’t relate to that at all, because, though I had had some bad experiences with the administration (anyone who’s in the community longer than six months is going to face that), they weren’t anything to merit getting one’s panties in a wad years after the fact. I was kind of perplexed by these people. It didn’t sound like they had belonged to any Baha’i Faith that I had experienced.

And you know what? They act exactly the way Momen describes them:

[Various episodes] are told and retold in apostate e-mails and on apostate websites and indeed have now become so firmly a part of the apostate mythology that they no longer need to be recounted in full, a single word or phrase is sufficient to invoke their mythological presence.

I haven’t done any social scientific research, so I can’t confirm in a scholarly way what Momen is saying, but it certainly agrees with what I’ve seen anecdotally. I have also seen a canonical narrative constructed, a set of events and historical figures that have taken on legendary status. And it revolves around… [cue dissonant chord] the AO!

What a bunch of losers. They construct a whole groupthink around the accusation that the AO enforces groupthink.

A few points to clear up:

1) “Marginality and Apostasy” is an academic article. It uses the term “apostate” according to how it is defined in the academic literature. If you think you’re scoring points by quoting the dictionary definition of “apostate”, you’re missing the point.

2) Once again, “Marginality and Apostasy” is an academic article. It thus makes a scholarly argument that contributes to the religious studies literature. The article, the real article, is being posted in an academic journal to be read by people with PhDs. It is not an Internet flame war. If you respond to it as if it were, you’re missing the point.

3) As an academic article, it is not enough to refute it by noting that some of his facts are wrong. It is helpful and valuable to note those mistakes. Based on reading some of the ex-Baha’i responses, it appears he may have made some factual errors with regard to some of his case studies. By all means address these. Every academic article and book is a work in progress. But if you’re trying to prove him wrong overall, then you also have to take his main argument into account.

Momen wouldn’t have had any reason to include me in his article even if he knew about me, since I don’t fit with the crowd he set out to explain. But reading his article still caused me to think about what I’m doing with this blog. And since this post is a break from my normal subject matter anyway, allow me a moment of self-reflection:

I suppose it’s inevitable that my blog would be lumped in with the “ex-Baha’i” crowd. Baha’i websites don’t acknowledge this blog, and ex-Baha’is of various sorts link to it. So both Baha’is and ex-Baha’is seem to agree on the category I belong in. But this categorization is arbitrary. In some ways I have more in common with Glenford Mitchell than I do with most ex-Baha’is. In other ways, they’re both pretty far from where I am.

To use the terminology Momen uses in his article, I was a leavetaker. I simply lost my faith in Baha’u’llah and stopped participating in the community. Momen uses Bromley’s definition of apostate: “[the term refers] not to ordinary religious leavetakers . . . but to that subset of leavetakers who are involved in contested exits and affiliate with an oppositional coalition”. My exit was not contested, and I did not affiliate with an oppositional coalition. I didn’t join an ex-Baha’i community (although I might have if I had found one I could relate to). But I did join the Christian community, and I formed a Christian identity that has pretty much entirely replaced my old Baha’i identity. Then, after all that, I got onto the Internet to defend Christianity from Baha’i polemics.

Granted, I am an ex-Baha’i in the sense that I used to be a Baha’i and then I stopped believing in it. But that doesn’t put me in the same tradition as Juan Cole, Karen Bacquet and Alison Marshal. I am rather in the same tradition as Augustine of Hippo, Francis de Sales and John Henry Newman – defenders of the Gospel from those who would distort it. Unlike most active ex-Baha’is, my goal here is not to attack the administration or call for a change in the Baha’i community. I’m here to engage the Baha’i discourse from outside it.

Oneness of shepherd, oneness of sheep

Continuing the theme begun in the last post, I’m responding to this quote from Shoghi Effendi, which represents a very common misconception among Baha’is:

Nowhere in the Gospels do we find any reference to the unity of nations or the unification of mankind as a whole. When Jesus spoke to those around Him, He addressed them primarily as individuals rather than as component parts of one universal, indivisible entity.

Rather than put together a lot of Bible quotes in one post, I’m posting a little bit at a time of passages from throughout the Bible. This post looks at the Gospel of John, chapters 10 and 11. I suggest you read them in their entirety – or better yet, read the entire Gospel. It won’t take that long, only a couple of hours. Go ahead; I’ll wait.

Done? Okay, let’s look at a few verses more closely, starting with chapter 10. This is the Good Shepherd discourse, where he says he is the shepherd and his sheep know his voice.

I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Notice how he uses the metaphors of the flock and the sheepfold. Christians aren’t individual sheep. They are members of something larger – the universal flock. He doesn’t just save each sheep one by one. He gathers his sheep together.

Now look at chapter 11. Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead…

Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.” He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to kill him.

Did you catch that last part? Jesus was going to gather into one the dispersed children of God.

‘Nuff said.

But just in case it isn’t, I’ll continue posting passages from the Bible on this theme. One cannot read a single verse in isolation. Just as the various passages of the Bible were written in a larger context, so must they be read in a larger context. When it comes to the New Testament, you can’t really appreciate it unless you have the Old Testament background. You also need the New Testament letters and apocalypse to get a contemporaneous context for what is being said in the Gospels. So this series of posts will look at the whole Bible, since that is the only way to correct Shoghi Effendi’s misinformation.