Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Paragraph 25

Inasmuch as the Christian divines have failed to apprehend the meaning of these words, and did not recognize their object and purpose, and have clung to the literal interpretation of the words of Jesus, they therefore became deprived of the streaming grace of the Muhammadan Revelation and its showering bounties. The ignorant among the Christian community, following the example of the leaders of their faith, were likewise prevented from beholding the beauty of the King of glory, inasmuch as those signs which were to accompany the dawn of the sun of the Muhammadan Dispensation did not actually come to pass. Thus, ages have passed and centuries rolled away, and that most pure Spirit hath repaired unto the retreats of its ancient sovereignty. Once more hath the eternal Spirit breathed into the mystic trumpet, and caused the dead to speed out of their sepulchres of heedlessness and error unto the realm of guidance and grace. And yet, that expectant community still crieth out: When shall these things be? When shall the promised One, the object of our expectation, be made manifest, that we may arise for the triumph of His Cause, that we may sacrifice our substance for His sake, that we may offer up our lives in His path? In like manner, have such false imaginings caused other communities to stray from the Kawthar of the infinite mercy of Providence, and to be busied with their own idle thoughts.

As an introduction to the passage from Matthew 24, we might do well to ponder this paragraph for a bit. While we are not certain, it does seem to us that Baha'u'llah is giving us some further guidance about how to examine this passage.

He begins with a bit of a warning about taking things too literally.

Because the divines didn`t recognize the meaning of these words, Matthew 24, and took them literally, they missed Muahmmad and His coming. Because the divines missed it, their "ignorant" followers also missed it.

To us, the message is clear: do not take these words as literal. If we do, we run the risk of even more ages and centuries passing away before we are given the bounty of a new Message.

In our heart of hearts, we hear the lament, we know the passionate appeal that gives rise to the questions He quotes from that "expectant community". But in the background, we also hear His answer. When shall these things be? They are now. When will the Promised One arise? When will we be able to offer up everything in His path? Now, dear Friends. The time is now.

Again, we hear an echo of that phrase, "O the pity", and pray that its lament is not for us. Instead, we long to be one of those dead raised up by the trumpet blast, rushing to the realm of guidance and grace. Even then, before He even declared His mission, Baha'u'llah was keenly aware of the scarcity of time and encouraged us to hurry before it was too late.

This paragraph is, to us, a very sad one. Baha'u'llah seems to be lamenting the fact that many have missed the Messengers of God due to their literal interpretation, and their failure to understand the spirit of the Words. His grief is very real and heartfelt, and He seems to be warning us so that we don't fall into the same trap in the future.

Just in case we think this is only related to the Christian community, Baha'u'llah also points out that other communities have fallen victim to this same vain imagining. We hear another warning in the background. It seems as if He is warning us, the Baha'is, not to be overly literal with His own Writings. He seems to be guiding us to be aware of the spirit of the Words, and to always remember that if our understanding does not lead to unity, then we have missed something. We are not exempt from this test, either.

Looking a bit more at this idea of literal interpretation, we have often come across people in our teaching work who are firmly committed to their literal interpretation of their sacred Books. When speaking with them, we do not say that they are wrong, nor try to denigrate their ideas. Instead we point out that these Writings are sacred, and can be read on more than just a single level. With this in mind, we ask them what other meanings we can get out of it. This usually leads to a fruitful conversation with much learned on both our parts.

On the other hand, if we fall into the trap of thinking that the literal interpretation is wrong, then we also get into trouble. Don't forget, Baha'u'llah doesn't say that this interpretation is wrong. He merely says that these people cling to it. We need to be "detached from all that is in heaven and on earth", including our own understanding of the Writings. Taking the example of the stars falling from heaven, which He goes on for pages describing the spiritual meaning of, there was also the literal star fall of 1833, as described by William Sears in Thief in the Night.

As with everything in this Dispensation, it is all about unity. We need to find ways to bridge the gap between different understandings of the Writings. While the literal interpretation is one valid way of reading the Writings, it is not the only way. We believe that our job, as Baha'is, is to help others, and ourselves, to come to a greater and greater understanding of what is contained within the sacred Books.