Century of Light
Author: prepared "under the supervision of" the Universal House of Justice
Published: many editions, 2001 and later
Review by: John Taylor
When I read a book or movie review I want first to know, does the reviewer
recommend it? Yes or no? In a word, yes. Then I want to know why I should
read the review any further. A good review will keep me entertained long
enough to remember the book when I come across it. A better review will
give me reasons for reading it when I otherwise would not. The best review
will improve and enhance my appreciation enough to keep me reading the
book when I otherwise would set it aside. But a review can be too good. It
can be better than the book itself and make you say, "I read the review,
why should I read the book? Now I can flaunt its ideas confidently enough
to pretend that I read it, so why take the time to actually do so?"
Looking over what I have written here, I am very confident that there is
no danger that anyone will thus misuse this. It is just that Century of Light
came out so fast I did not see any reviews. So I wrote this one for
myself, to enhance my own appreciation. I have avoided covering the actual
contents of the book in question, just what I happened to be maundering
about at the time I was reading it, a personal response to a first
reading. For this work, like the Peace Message in the Eighties, clearly
merits repeated study and digestion. So I hope my questions and reactions
will, dear reader, accomplish the best and not the worst of what I myself
like to get out of a book review.
A few months ago, after sifting electronically through the mass of letters
from the House for the umpteenth time, I confess I started to wonder about
the leadership of the Faith. The only way to find out what the House had
to say on a given issue was to brace yourself for a tedious search safari
through a jungle of letters. Everything the House has done from a literary
point of view seemed to me to be reactive, in the form of letters written
in answer to questions. It was not just "some answered questions" but a
huge mass of answered questions. And unlike 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Some Answered
Questions, the original question is never included, so you end up having
to guess at what exactly they are addressing.
I would come away bleary eyed with the response and clarification. I
thought, without well-known and broadly publicized position statements the
same questions are being repeated over and over again. Homosexuality,
abortion, men on the House, infallibility of the House, successorship to
the Guardian, on and on. And what wasn't reaction was still epistolary,
the annual Ridvan letters, the Peace Message letter addressed to the
peoples of earth, and so forth. What research documents and policy
statements do come out tend to come from the Bahá'í International
Community at the United Nations, or from the House's own secretariat or
research department. Little comes direct.
So it was with some relief that I read in this year's Ridvan message that
the House had "commissioned" an historical work about the past century.
When I got my hands on the book my relief turned to delight. The great
works of history in the literature of the Faith, the stories of the
martyrs in Dawnbreakers, the magisterial God Passes By and the Guardian's
contextualizing master work, "The Promised Day is Come," all inspired in
me a great love for history, not to mention, I may add, a tendency to copy
the Guardian by writing sentences that accomplish several things and just
never seem to end. So what could be more exciting than this publication,
"Century of Light
?" To have one more historical work in the Faith, by none
other than the House of Justice, is nothing but joy upon joy.
Even if Century of Light
did not come from this authoritative source, this
book undoubtedly would still be the most important historical overview of
the Faith since God Passes By in the Forties. It is a worthy successor to
Promised Day is Come in that it sets out to give a perspective on the
Faith, on the world at large, and on the relation between the two. In fact
alternative titles might be "PDC, the Sequel," or "PDC, Sixty Years
Later." This is a brilliant encapsulation of the wrenching, confusing age
we call the Twentieth Century. In fact, far from being a passive or
reactive bit of leadership from the House, this is a frontal assault on
some deadly misconceptions about our era.
While very good on the early part of the century, the part to some extent
also covered by Promised Day is Come, I think the main interest of this
book is in how it deals with more recent events. Unlike most historical
summaries this work qualifies as a "first person" account of the viewpoint
of the leadership of the Faith in the century's latter years, the time
since Ridvan One Hundred, 119 BE, 1963 CE, when the House was first
elected. Here, for example, you can find the House's version of what the
Ruhi institutes are and how they fit into the progress of the Faith.
But wait. I am assuming that the authorship of this book is clearly the
Universal House. Who actually did write it? Nobody is credited. If you
want to quote the author in a footnote you are out of luck. You have to
think up something on your own to fill the "Author" field, or leave it
blank. Does this 145 page book really come direct from the house? What did
the House mean by saying they had "commissioned" it? I must say that in my
experience writing and editing newsletters, I have found that anonymity
does not work. Authors should be credited and not allowed to pass the buck
in the name of humility. Otherwise responsibility for a given fact or
opinion is unclear; a thousand problems arise because it is impossible to
know whom to blame or praise, whom to believe or whom to question.
However, this objection would have bothered me more ten years ago than
now. In that time the process of group writing, assisted by computers and
networks, has been refined and perfected. Group writing is a major part of
the information technology revolution. What used to be tedious filling in
of forms is now a participatory consultative process that involves all
levels of an organization equitably and painlessly. This magnifies the
creative and critical process. Groups are original and flexible in ways
that formerly only an individual genius could hope to be. Group writing is
saving organizations and corporations billions of dollars and giving them
efficiency unheard of in the history of human enterprise. Everyone who
works or thinks is writing together on the Web: one huge knowledge base of
humanity. This technology bids fair to make the notorious workings of
officialdom, commonly known by the slur of "bureaucracy," effective and
prompt for the first time ever.
Indeed to me this makes the Faith so topical, interesting and needed.
Bahá'u'lláh, through the principle of consultation, made organizational
work a spiritual process in a similar way to Zen with tea preparation. It
is a ceremony of enlightenment. Where technical means like group writing
leave off is at the human heart, which is precisely where the Bahá'í
teachings begin. So the anonymity of "Century of Light
" may perhaps be an
early fulfillment of the prediction and mandate the Guardian made when he
said that writing history is so important that in future historical works
will no longer be written by individuals but by groups.
That said, though, I can certainly see in this book the mark of the only
UHJ member I know personally, Doug Martin. Century of Light
is full of
Doug Martin-like historical insights and generalizations. It conveys his
sense of excitement and intimacy, though of course it lacks his
characteristic gifted aside and telling anecdote.
I will never forget when he spoke at the second ABS annual meeting
twenty-five years ago. He was a bit of a "Young Turk" then and unlike
other speakers he sat on the table, his legs casually splayed over the
edge. He recounted the life of Sarah Farmer and the weird and wonderful
visitors she invited to the institution that became known as Green Acre.
Without consulting any notes he waded through a mass of detail about
Farmer's life that would have stumped anyone there had they been asked to
retell similar facts about their own life. He is one of those rare
speakers and writers so brilliant that he fills me with awe and
admiration. My stomach soars when I hear him and my head tells me to
grovel on the floor before him and my conscience thinks that for anybody
else such groveling would be demeaning but for this kind of insight
groveling is the only appropriate tribute.
What other Bahá'í history would even mention such an oddball as Sarah
Farmer? Yet there she is, listed alongside Martha Root and all the other,
more familiar examples of early heroines of the Faith. Truly, the
rebellious spirit of the Sixties won out when Doug entered the mainstream!
And what a defender of the Faith he is! Man, you read Martin's paper, "The
Missionary as Historian," and any sort of logic or sense the enemies of
the Faith or the Covenant Breakers may have seemed to have is like some
filthy insect stomped upon and squashed, the heel twisted, jumped up and
down upon over and over until the bug is so exterminated it is not even a
smear on the ground. At least that is how I would have to act to get
Doug's points across. But he does it calmly, with aplomb and grace.
Afterwards you can only feel sorry for the poor fool unfortunate enough to
end up in the path of such a divine genius as this.
I hear that the Mayor of Mississaugua, Canada's third or fourth largest
city, has read this book and requested copies for her entire town council.
This I found surprising since reading it I only thought of it as for
believers. But I suppose that it can and will be applied directly to
teaching the faith as well.
Century of Light
includes new facts that I do not recall coming across
before. Not long ago our community had a discussion about what caused the
death of the Guardian. The closest we came was Ruhiyyih Khanum's
description of his passing in Priceless Pearl, which calls it heart
failure. On page 81 of Century of Light
I learn that his coronary
infarction was a result of "complications following an attack of Asiatic
influenza" which he caught in London. Didn't know that.
At one point I admit I thought I had found an inaccuracy, but of course we
are dealing with an infallible institution here (or at least someone or
something commissioned by this institution) and further investigation
proved myself wrong and them right. However, because it turned up some
interesting points I will go into detail on my humiliating
self-refutation. My supposed error came when Century of Light
(pages 71-2) about the birth of the UN, recounts how the Master predicted
that the flag of international peace would be raised in California, and
how this was fulfilled when in 1945 "...fifty nations adopted the charter
of the United Nations Organization, the name proposed for it by Franklin
Having just read Churchill's history of the Second World War it seemed to
me that Churchill was the one who proposed the name "United Nations."
Wrong! He pushed the idea of the body itself (in fact he made a better
proposal for its structure than what actually was adopted. Instead of
nations and an arbitrary "Security Council," his idea was that continents
and regions would be represented), but upon looking it up in Churchill's
Second Volume, "The Grand Alliance," I found that the name was indeed
first suggested by Roosevelt.
The name United Nations was born quite a long time before the 1945 event
in San Francisco, which of course was about year after the President's
death. In fact the term "United Nations" started when Churchill visited
with the President in Washington and Ottawa in late 1941 and early 1942.
There, in another example of group writing, they wrote a joint declaration
for the signatures of 22 nations fighting Hitler. Churchill recalls that
during the consultations the Russian representative was terrified about
how Stalin would react to its reference to "freedom of religion." He goes on:
"The title of "United Nations" was substituted by the President for that
of "Associated Powers." I thought this a great improvement. I showed my
friend the lines from Byron's Childe Harold...
'Here, where the sword United Nations drew,
Our countrymen were warring on
And this is much, and all which will not pass away.
"... The Declaration could not by itself win battles, but it set forth who
we were and what we were fighting for." (p.683)
Soon afterwards, United Nations became a common synonym for "Allies,"
meaning the nations united against Hitler and Tojo. Later the new
international body officially adopted Roosevelt's term, "United Nations."
But the reference to Byron interested me. Childe Harold is a poem about
travelling across Europe (a childe is, according to the cheat sheets,
either the eldest son, the heir apparent of a lord's family or a noble
knight-in-training). Churchill doesn't reference the quote and I failed to
find it in my own library. Fortunately my search skills are well honed,
having dealt with the writings of the House for so long, and I managed to
chase the couplet down on the Net. Canto III, though supposed to be the
best part of the poem, is rarely anthologized. Only after going through
three etext editions did I find the whole "Spenserian couplet," number 35,
of the third Canto. Here is the whole thing, which seems to be talking
about the victory of the allied monarchist forces over the Napoleon's
French at Waterloo:
The Psalmist number'd out the years of man:They are enough: and if thy
tale be true,Thou, who didst grudge him even that fleeting span,More than
enough, thou fatal Waterloo!Millions of tongues record thee, and anewTheir
children's lips shall echo them, and say --'Here, where the sword united
nations drew,Our countrymen were warring on that day!'And this is much,
and all which will not pass away.
So the first "united nations" were the kingly powers who came together to
defeat the reactionary dictator Napoleon at Waterloo. Byron, though a lord
himself, was a revolutionary and hated monarchy. This was in a time when
poets were like rock stars. I mean, like rock stars when they were still
rebels, before they became rich enough to become a corporate, aristocratic
establishment. Myself, I always was suspicious of rebels, who in reacting
seem as enslaved as the oppressor. In the 14th verse of an earlier Canto
Byron seems to agree. Mentioning a league of nations, he complains about
the flimsy unity of the alliances keeping Napoleon down:
Fit retribution! Gaul may champ the bit
And foam in fetters - but is Earth
Did nations combat to make One submit;
Or league to teach all
kings true sovereignty?
What! shall reviving Thraldom again be
patch'd-up idol of enlighten'd days?
Shall we, who struck the Lion down,
Pay the Wolf homage? proffering lowly gaze
And servile knees to
No; prove before ye praise!
Nations leagued together but, in the phrasing of the Tablet of Ahmad, they
"combined to assist one another" but did not really unite. This book,
Century of Light
, is the story, it seems to me, of how humanity continues
to try to learn real unity, the lesson rebels like Byron suggest, to
"teach all kings true sovereignty" and thus avoid "reviving Thraldoms" and
"patched up idols." In this century we put down lions like the Kaiser,
then Hitler, but left wolves like Stalin, the hit-man for Lenin, and,
worse, their idolatrous ideologies ruled over us all unchecked.
In fact the Century of Light
puts forth this rather shocking thesis:
communism was not defeated by capitalism, it actually won out. Its devil's
spawn, materialism, put its feet on the heads of both East and West and is
keeping all humanity down. Even the natural enemies of materialism, the
world's religious bodies, instead of leading development efforts, bent
down passively and blindly followed secular models for social change. The
people, when they left religion and science to fight it out, failed to
"prove before we praise."
Century of Light
tells the story of the struggle of the Bahá'í Faith to
give to the world a different model of world development and unification,
the cure for triumphant materialism. It has been an arduous journey. Here
is the story direct from the collective mouth of those who led it. They
tell all about what the House has been doing for the almost forty years of
their existence. Here are all the other balls they have been juggling
while people "out of the loop" like me complained about their not
producing enough original literary works.
According to this book the believers underwent a tremendous struggle and
long learning process in order to go beyond the Ten-Year Crusade's
"spiritual conquest of the planet." How were we to harmonize and reconcile
cultures who from the beginning were isolated, unchallenged rulers of
their own roosts? How do you draw out unity from all this diversity? Here
is the untold story of how this process advanced, how the Faith
consolidated broad and far-flung conquests. The book recounts the long and
painful process of refining method and the many surprising victories won
along the way. No doubt the leadership of the Faith was very busy ordering
the Order set in motion by Bahá'u'lláh.
This struggle is going on within the Faith and without. We are all, like
Bahá'u'lláh, exiles. We journey far from our true spiritual home,
remembering our true love, our true unity. In this creative travelling you
grow your true self. Out of all your loves, your pains and sacrifices come
something new. Byron wrote this, describing how he saw his creative
journey of exile through Europe in Childe Harold (III, 6):
'Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image, even as I
In life, in work, in love, in the newly opened Terraces in Haifa, in works
of history and poetry, we glimpse ourselves in a more intense light. We
are one, our earth is but one country. That is where the trail of
imagination is leading us. Here is the intensifying vision born in
Bahá'u'lláh's exile and laborious suffering. Century of Light
is the story
of how we are following the trail His exile blazed, of our collective
journey into a clearer, steadier and more infallible light than ever