Paradise and Paradigm, by Christopher Buck:
Paradise and Paradigm: Key Symbols in Persian Christianity and the Bahá'í Faith
Author: Christopher Buck
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany, 1999, xvii + 402 pp.
Distributed by Kalimat Press as Volume Ten of the series Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions
Review by: Harold Coward
The purpose of this book is to compare key symbols in pre-Muslim Persian
(Sassanian) Christianity, especially in the writings of Ephrem the Syrian,
with the late-nineteenth century Persian religion of the
Bahá'ís, which is post-Islamic and centered in the writings of
Bahá'u'lláh. The focus of the analysis is on symbols having to
do with paradise. The exhaustive approach adopted by the author renders the
book also an excellent introduction to early Syriac Christianity and to the
Bahá'í tradition both in terms of their histories and main
Methodological issues for doing such a comparative study are carefully
analyzed in Chapter One. The author states the hypothesis that grounds his
study as follows: "Formal comparison of early Syriac Christianity and the
Bábí Faith is constrained by their paradigms (respectively,
transformational purity and concentric unity), by which all phenomenological
parallels must be interpreted." (p. 33) In outlining the history and beliefs
of Syriac Christianity in Ephrem's writings, Buck identifies three
dimensions of symbols: Nature, Scripture, and Sacrament. Among these the
Syriac view of paradise, as restoration of humanity to its original state
before the Fall, is its central feature. "Paradise" is the key symbol into
which all others feed — it is the ideal to be achieved. Purity is the
means. For Ephrem, Christ was the purifier of all. Purification of the body
and its senses is the means for the realization of the beatific vision of
paradise. Purity, for Syriac Christianity, was "transformational" and led to
an angelic life "that transcends sexuality, in a convenantal betrothal to
Christ "in a positive embrace of the body, pressed into the service of
Christ and the Church, on the battlefield of free will." (p. 134) Purity,
concludes Buck, was the paradigm of the early Syriac Christian worldview in
which God, through Christ, would bring humans back to their original state
before the Fall and into Paradise.
After a very useful history of the origins of the Bahá'í
Faith, the author focuses on "unity" as the key Bahá'í symbol of Paradise.
Major Bahá'í symbols such as "The Promised One," "The
Covenant," "Illumination," "Lover and Beloved," "The Maid of Heaven," and
"The Crimson Ark" are all found to be structured around ideals of unity
— from a heart-to-world nexus to a unity of thought and purpose in
world undertakings. Unlike the fourth-century Syriac otherworldly focus, the
nineteenth-century Bahá'í paradigm of concentric unity is "the
organizing principle behind almost every glimpse of paradise
Bahá'u'lláh offers." (p. 225) Jesus Christ is included in this
scenario as having introduced a saving power not only into individual souls
but into civilization itself (as seen in its masterpieces of art, its
discoveries of science, etc) — a gradual process in which the advent of
Bahá'u'lláh is the crowning event of salvation history.
In both the Syriac and the Bahá'í traditions, says Buck, the
devotee, even at the highest level of the mystical vision, will not see God.
For both religions, God is inscrutable. Rather, it is the savior figure of
Christ or of Bahá'u'lláh with whom one unites at the highest
mystical level. In both cases, however, a vision of Paradise predominates.
Ephrem's Syriac Christian vision is of a purity (made possible by Christ)
that "cures." "It cleanses one's soul of the 'disease' of mortality. It
restores primordial immortality. Life in paradise, in both worlds is for the
pure. The pure in heart are Christians who are sexually pure and morally
stainless." (p. 288) In contrast the Bahá'í texts suggest that
Paradise is the ideal of perfection may take hold within the heart of the
individual and within a society that has achieved concentric levels of
unity. "Paradise is realized in this world by leading an exemplary
Bahá'í life and in helping to build a more just and virtuous
society. It is also the afterworld of the pious who have first tried to
create Paradise on earth. It includes not only pious Bahá'í
but also those who followed the rules of conduct as laid down by Jesus." (p.
Paradise symbolism, concludes Buck, "is the heart of the
Bahá'í conception of unity, concentrically conceived as
widening circles of unity, from self to society, and from one's very soul to
the Deity beyond unity." (p. 311) Although this book is clearly written, it
is too exhaustive for the undergraduate student or the general reader.
However, it is a must for university libraries and for faculty/graduate
student readers of the Christian, Islamic and Bahá'í traditions. It is a
model for careful comparative analysis between religions.