The following musings consider how very difficult it is to believe, for any thoughtful, awake individual, that a fellow human could ever be a voice of the divine, more, in Bahá'í parlance, a Manifestation of God, in a transcendent, numinous degree. With the accumulated dissappointments that human folly and human wisdom both have furnished us throughout our history, never more so than in the 20th century, with the betrayals of so many hopes by so many leaders, teachers, philosophers, gurus, caudillos, revolutionaries, both the nefarious and the well-meaning, to believe that from our familiar, imperfect human fabric could come a divinely perfect, absolutely flawless pattern, would seem to be to ask too much. And yet, as Bahá'ís, we recognise in a Persian nobleman of the 19th century, Mirza Husayn Ali, a perfection compelling enough to place capitals before His name, and see in His humanity, the Manifestation of God, Bahá'u'lláh, and in His teachings the remedy that a travailing world, mostly unawares, is seeking. What, subjectively, does such a leap against common sense, entail?
Many and high are the claims associated with the Founding Figure of a world religion. Their startling and frequently iconic elements come to dominate the image that we form of Him to the extent of overwhelming our earthly, but in truth no less startling, point of encounter with that same prophetic figure. In the case of Bahá'u'lláh, Prophet-Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, this is so to a pronounced degree, the claims advanced being superlative to the point of astonishment.
"Verily I say, this is the Day in which mankind can behold the Face, and hear the Voice, of the Promised One. The Call of God hath been raised, and the light of His countenance hath been lifted up upon men. It behoveth every man to blot out the trace of every idle word from the tablet of his heart, and to gaze, with an open and unbiased mind, on the signs of His Revelation, the proofs of His Mission, and the tokens of His glory." (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, section VII)
Our first instinct, upon being brought to an encounter with such remote, such far suspended words, is to reach out, to attempt immediately to fasten somehow upon their contents in full flight, without pausing to take in the unmeasured feat of their having reached our ears in the first place. It is to remain unapprehending of a compelling tale implicit - unsyllabled and untold - in the trajectory traversed by those actual words, not in claimed heavens beyond our reach and ken, but in the prosaic earth that bears alike, and bears in common, our feet of clay, and prophets' own.
It is in fact, counter-intuitively, our shared human condition with that putative prophetic figure that makes it possible for our sobered sight (for life takes care more soon than late to rein in our flights of fancy) to dare to see beyond the human: to yield perhaps uneasily to a sense of Divinity transcendent in the soul of an otherwise merely remarkable human being.
'Errare humanum est', the old wrinkled pirate in the adventures of Asterix was fond of repeating with each new sinking of his ship - to the perennial irritation of his captain. Any dimly honest introspection will touch without much seeking (more were too much) the tender spots where we find our own too personal confirmation of that melancholy, else compassionate and consoling maxim.
And if to be human is to err, we must know better than to seek redemption in however heavenly a human's voice. We should know, surely by now, that heaven is too large to fit into the upright frame of the unplumed, smooth-skinned biped that is man. We should know better, all the more with so much red and bloodied history behind us, than, as Marx might put it (Groucho, not Karl), join a club that would have one like us, a fellow human, for its prophet.
And yet, historically, something stops us again and again from resting in such good old common sense. Something pricks us in our complacent wisdom. Something inconveniently insists in our wistfulness and just won't let it lie. It is the indefatigable consciousness that, if to be human is to err, yet to err is to have dreamt, or sought or tried or dared to yearn or yet aspire unto something other than our error, something which in erring was intuited but mistook, misplaced, misdone, was misadventured. It is to affirm that before, and after, and above our error, was and is the faint, yet lingering trace of a pure, or at any rate purer intention, or conception, or reality, than its crude and at times devastatingly destructive trail of unintended consequence.
And here lies an asymmetry that gives birth to human thirst and human tragedy, and to nobility, and genuine heroism, to compassion, and defiant joy of the impossible experienced, the redemptive surprise of grace. I refer to the uncomfortable realization that, notwithstanding our limited capacity, we come to the world equipped with an infinite thirst, and are fated to live in the paradox of our apprehension of immensity, and our experience of constraint, our indwelling yearning for transcendence, and the very limitations on which our experience of transcendence is, by definition, grounded. And this, said the Persian to the Theban at the banquet table, is the bitterest sorrow: 'to abound in knowledge and yet have no power over action' (Herodotus 9:16).
For it is not capriciousness impels us to more, to all, in our loves and our desires, whether as children or grown adults (for though we learn in adulthood, as learn we must, to tame and domesticate our will to possess all that our irrepressibly unsated hunger desires, our insatisfaction still wags its tail with every morsel in anticipation of more, even in the foreknowledge that less is forthcoming).
It is rather that deep within, for some consciously, for others, just beyond the limen of awareness, stirs the intuition of totality, not as a thing external to ourselves which indifferently contains us as one more constituent atom, but rather as constituent of ourselves, totality as contained within us: not as an item is contained in a box, but as is a feeling in a melody, contained not so much inside, as through us, as if totality in some sense was us, yea, and more than us.
It is as if at the back of our minds we carried the feeling that it was so nearly within our gift - on the tip of our tongue - to join the letters kaf and nun, the cosmic B and E, and that, just beyond recall, but only just, awaited in readiness the words we at some indeterminate occasion ('when was it?') were the first in existence to ever pronounce: Fiat Lux!
And there was light.
What a contradiction! We go about in earnest or by default collecting evidence of our frailty, piling up conclusive proof of our fragility, disavowing whatever magic we may have invested in our innocence, and then knowingly embark on dreams and enterprises and loves and gambles beyond our capacity to realize. Sartre's vacillating Hugo in that relentless play, Les mains sales, on the verge of a terrible deed and a terrible error he's struggling to commit, gives a fellow youth, in passing, non-sequitur, the advice that life itself, and history, would give those who ponder on the lessons afforded by the pageant of youthful dreams with their stillborn issue:
‘Te charge pas de ce que tu ne peut pas faire. Apres ca, ca pese trop lourd... Je ne sais pas si vous avez remarquee: c'est pas commode d'etre jeune.’
'Take on nothing that you cannot do. After that, it weighs too heavily... I don't know if you have noticed: it's not comfortable being young.'
And so, reckless youth gives way to cautionary maturity. Santa takes visa. The grand Houdini drowns in the chains he himself selects to exhibit his ingenuity. They were too heavy.
We arrive at the 21st century with our innocence broken, no longer prey to the tragic, collective aspirations that inflamed our imaginations and convulsed our history in Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes. We now know better: it can't be done, and after that it is too heavy. So much hope betrayed, so many dreams discarded, cheapened or trademarked, mass produced and commercialized. Socialism, Democracy, Revolution, Empire, the American Dream, Woodstock, Esperanto, the United Nations, internationalism, multiculturalism, political correctness, political activism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the European Union, country, planet and religion: gone are the dreams, only pragmatism remains.
We remain active, but compartmentalized. We work for the possible, not for the best. We'll work with many for a moment, only with a few for a long time. We'll join no communities, we'll follow no man, we'll think thrice before marrying, we'll embrace no flag. We'll not be labeled, will not be defined. And if we are called by a Dreamer, to dream the Dream of Humankind, we'll remember the betrayals of last century, and, leaving Virgil to Dante, taking Candide as our guide, we'll not hesitate to reply:
'C'est bien cela, mais allons cultiver notre jardin.'
'All that is very well, but let us cultivate our garden.'
Pero sa muove, as Galileo was said to have written in his prison, in the midst of his capitulation. And yet it moves. There are still, even now, after everything, after so much, many, me too, incorrigibly, who grant all this and simply dream again, and again, and then again, without reneging or detracting one jot or tittle from the peripateia, the dramatic fall from great heights, that has accompanied, in the long run, each and every one of our elaborate and millennial dreams, time after time, after time, after time.
And still and all, these many recalcitrant children of our century do affirm, do steadfastly maintain with Emerson, that, in the matter of human aspiration, 'the appeal to experience, is forever invalid and vain. We give the past to the objector, and yet we hope... We grant that human life is mean; but how did we find out that it was mean? What is the ground of this uneasiness of ours; of this old discontent? What is the universal sense of want and ignorance, but the innuendo by which the soul makes its enormous claim? ...The philosophy of six thousand years has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. In its experiments there has always remained, in the last analysis, a residuum it could not resolve. Man is a stream whose source is hidden. Our being is descended into us from we know not whence. The most exact calculator has no prescience that somewhat incalculable may not balk the very next moment.' (The Oversoul)
And it is this capacity to be surprised by abundance that keeps us receptive, sometimes against our protestations and better judgment, to the irruption of unexpected magic into our lives, to taking on that which we cannot do, and perchance doing it beautifully: to falling in love; to baring our irredeemably solitary sorrow to a listening ear, and finding in it the capacity to hear; to finding in the glance of our child the confidence to believe in the embrace of life; to be capable of discerning, in a fellow human being, dazzling suns of interminable light.
And at such momentary instants of dramatic epochee, when we involuntarily, joyfully and astonishedly suspend our disbelief long enough to take in life emerging naked and enravishing like Venus from the deep, we find our voice once more in Sartre's desperate, if not despairing Hugo:
'Et ca aussi c'est de la comedie. Tout ca! Tout ce que je vous dis la. Vous croyez peut etre que je suis desespere? Pas du tout: je joue la comedie du desespoir. Est ce qu'on peut en sortir?'
'And that too is a play. All that! Everything I was saying to you. You believe perhaps that I am desperate? Not at all: I act the play of despair. Can one exit from it?'
This is, indeed, a pressing question, recurrent in the life of the individual who would approach with sincerity the hard business of living, and more urgent perhaps than ever for a global society whose will to act, whose will to consciously build a functional world order, seems paralyzed by a despairing poverty of aspiration.
'I act the play of despair. Can one exit from it?'
We know that, on a personal level, even at our most desperate, despondent periods of defeat, moments come intermittently that interrupt us with a smile. From a good comedy on television, to a newborn's random gurgle, from a sudden thing of beauty to a dish that was just right, from a book that reshapes our insights, to a chat that changes our life.
The answer, then, to our question, is that one can, in fact, authentically, and legitimately, transcend the narratives, the tedious or self-defeating enactments of past experience, by a moment that fills its gaps.
An instant, it will be objected, is an instant, and a life is a life. But - in this too Emerson had something to say - 'There is a difference between one and another hour of life in their authority and subsequent effect. Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all experiences.' (The Oversoul)
So what does all this have to do with the figure of Bahá'u'lláh? It is that, before faith, our starting point is no more, but no less, than the fragile dignity of our common humanity. That everything in our experience should predispose us to reduce the Prophetic Figure that confronts us to the fallible clay out of which we ourselves are kneaded. And it is that same predisposition that equips us to distinguish in so familiar a play, a new Character. It is, if it be there, the capacity of this new Character to tap into and fulfill that part of our human paradox that aspires beyond our incapacity, that subjective sense of the totality within us, that is capable of engendering an Emersonian 'moment of faith', weighing more than all the years of life without it. It is a test, simultaneous and reciprocal, of the authenticity of the Prophet's claim to the Real, and of our openness to receive the Real into our ever approximate actuality, the duration and degree to which that moment of faith is capable of suspending our well grounded disbelief in the transcendent possibilities of our own nature, not in the abstract, but in the irreducibly personal, which alone can motivate the motion of our inner life.
There is more. Going about our business generations and societies distant from the person of Bahá'u'lláh, the degree to which His entry into history may be regarded as remarkable, may be judged by the chain of impacts and transmissions necessary for so improbable a scenario as is your reading, even now, these words about that Person, first written by a lonesome Mexican in a far-flung island on the outer edge of Africa, continuing to extend a multiplied 'moment of faith' carried from mouth to mouth, passed on from heart to heart, journeyed with, traveller by traveller, from shore to shore, country to country, city to city, hamlet to hamlet, home to scattered home, handed down and lived vicariously from year to year, and decade to decade, past a century and onto a second century, and still counting, memorialized and appropriated, identity by identity, race by race, nation by nation, tribe by tribe, from tens, to hundreds, to one thousand and more than one thousand fractious ethnicities with all their divergent prejudices and dreams, and arriving to me, for one, in the utterly inauspicious, suburban English neighbourhood of Beeston, Nottingham, no less than miraculously, from its genesis in that pestiferous and now inextant dungeon where the Qajar Emperor Nasiri'd-Din did gaol a cast-out, ragged and humiliated scion of the Persian nobility, before exiling Him to the far reaches of a moribund Ottoman empire.
How did notice of Bahá'u'lláh arrive to you from that black pit, by what tortuous trajectory, by what chain of events, as you might be able now to trace it with approximate exactitude? Attempt the exercise, and marvel at the result.
It is likewise as a human, indeed, with a personal history, a history dramatic but familiar also, that Bahá'u'lláh would have been encountered by His contemporaries, and it would have had to have been something exceptional in His very humanity that would alone have led those that came to believe to entertain the possibility of a higher reality in Him.
Some would have met, and others heard of the precocious Child of the talented and ill-starred minister, Mirza Abbas Buzurg, in the dangerous gossip of court circles, where reputations were made and unmade, and insinuation could be enough to lose a man his position, his freedom, and his head.
They might have sighed condescendingly, genuinely commiserated, or pompously moralised about the terrible misfortune that befell Bahá'u'lláh's father, beginning with a great flood that rose from the mountains of Mazindaran and swept up his splendorous house, as an omen and figure of the more terrible flood of calamity that would bring down his household, a flood long in rising, and unchained by one fugitive word critical of the prime minister's petty murder of his best friend, in a confidence betrayed by a disloyal correspondent, that made the young, uncannily perceptive Child, be witness to the decimation of His father's fortunes and his independence; the humiliating, excruciatingly public and vindictive dissolution of a truly catastrophic royal marriage; the painful, and for a child no doubt agonic spectacle of his father's bastinado by the prime minister's agents and collaborators; the fragmentation and dispersion of his household, and his father’s premature death in isolation and despair.
Or they might have nodded sagely at the undiminished brightness of that Youth's prospects,even in the wake of His father's reverses, noting admiringly the early signs of skill at the perilous game of navigating despotic favour and steering a path across the shallows of paranoid and ephemeral cabals of patronage, emerging unscathed, repeatedly, from frontal contests with the same prime minister who was the architect of His father's fall.
They might have marvelled at and celebrated the geniality of His intercourse, the vigour of His intellect, the liberality of His hospitality and the abundance of His charity. They might also have expressed astonishment or concern at His disregard for personal advancement, his aloofness from political intrigue, and his religious preoccupations. They would undoubtedly have been perplexed and troubled by His eventual advocacy of the religious conflagration which a young Shirazi Mercer had enkindled with His claim to be the Instrument for the advent of the promised Day of God. Many would have felt themselves compelled to join Him at all costs, or impede Him by any means, in His fearless and ensorcelling summons to the Cause of Siyyid Ali Muhammad, the Bab.
But nothing, nothing could have prepared them, or perhaps us, to see in Him the Manifestation of the Godhead, the Inaugurator of a five thousand century prophetic cycle, or, in purely worldly terms, the force capable of fulfilling, and recasting, the Message announced by the Bab, and imparting it to every single country of an as yet well nigh interminable world - against the combined efforts of two emperors and the categorical, mortal fatwas of the highest and most powerful guardians and regulators of Islamic doctrine, from the mujtahids of Persia to the Ulama of al-Azhar.
Once more, we, like they, are challenged to discern, in the familiarity of Mirza Husayn Ali's humanity, the unfamiliar element that produces in our hearts the subjective certitude in His reality as the Glory of God, as Bahá'u'lláh, a realization that, if it be true, must rank as the supreme fulfilment of our soul's inherent, inborn search for Truth.
To do so, to glimpse the subtle element, the elusive inner logic, to locate the unfolding, of divine manifestation in an otherwise recognizably human personality, we must venture into the objective facts of what must remain an inaccessible, and in the final analysis, if we have the intellectual humility to recognize it, an incomprehensible subjective experience of divine revelation.
This frank acknowledgement of limitation is an absolutely critical point of departure. For in seeking to understand the subjective experience of a fellow human being, in understanding their self-descriptions of inner states and transitions, we inevitably proceed by analogy. No man can know, nor is a man ever likely to do so, what it feels like to give birth to a child. One may, I speak here as a man, seek in women's descriptions handholds for one's own experience, analogies to one's own sensations, and perhaps one will find enough to evoke memories of pain, of wonder, of anxiety, of concentration, of exhaustion. One might even find that he is better able than less capable speakers, by dint of eloquence, to describe, transmit and integrate the descriptions received from various women, to convey in words the nature of the experience. But a man will still be none the wiser, not a hair's breadth closer to comprehending what it is like to have a new life beating within one's body and to perform the arduous miracle of ushering it into extra-uterine life.
Similarly, who can lay claim to be able to grasp, let alone interpret or explain the intensely private, incommunicable experience that gives birth in a single heart to a future world religion? Who would be so arrogant as to pronounce him or herself on the meaning of a Prophet's subjective experience of God, beyond possibly presenting, ever tentatively, His own statements on the subject? Even these statements must be understood not as explanations or straightforward descriptions of subjective experience, but as oblique analogies to a reality and experience deemed to be ineffable, and beyond language's capacity to apprehend or yet approximate. They must be understood, not as transparent, unambiguous expressions of spontaneous self-exposure, but as didactic compromises with our capacity of comprehension, designed, not to evoke in the reader familiarity with an experience that less than ten men in recorded history may be said with any plausibility to have experienced (engendering, each one, a whole civilization), but rather to affect our own sense of identity and our relationship and response to that Prophetic Figure.
To analyze human psychology and social organization with a theoretical and conceptual framework derived from the study and description of the most complex and sophisticated apes, would be to do violence to the infinitely richer complexities of human interaction, notwithstanding concrete points of close and even startling similarity that push back the boundaries of our distinctive natures. It is hard to see how one would describe in simian terms Milo's Venus, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Rumi's Mathnavi, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Dome of the Sistine Chapel. One would be hard put to place, even in the most exquisitely tender mating rituals of the gorilla or the chimpanzee, the odes of Pablo Neruda.
It would seem no less fatuous to attempt to reduce to conceptual models derived from the normal fabric of human consciousness the self-awareness of Souls Whose thoughts and ways tower so far above the commonality of mankind as to bring within their aggregated compass the vast majority of mankind, including its most distinguished and influential individuals. To say of such Souls that they felt this, or they thought that, beyond the apparently unambiguous self-descriptions in their writings, is to presume too much, as would any such statement with regards to human thoughts and feelings that started from the conceptual framework of zoology. At most we can say, such a Soul said this, or acted thus, which may raise the following questions, and evoke the following responses in the reader, or the beholder. When we understand that no statement from such a Educator is gratuitous, and that access to their inner experience is a foregone matter, we may more profitably ask ourselves, what response could this disclosure be sought to trigger in the reader, what notion, what aesthetic, what relationship to implant in the reader, rather than what does it tell us about what was going on in the depths of His mysterious heart.
With this in mind, we can venture, if curiosity, else devotion, spurs us, with stumbling feet into Bahá'u'lláh's descriptions of His encounter with the Divine from the perspective of the human in Him, and in His words find a bridge to our own deeply personal, truly human, ever approximate and potentially life-changing encounter with Him.