Saturday 25 November 2023

“Earthshot” – into the future


Each year, the Earthshot organisation awards prizes to groups who have innovative and practical ideas for improving our physical environment. These could be for restoring nature, cleaning the air, reviving the oceans, lessening waste or for preventing climate change. Within each category, three groups are nominated and one is ultimately chosen each year as the prize-winner for that category. The £1 million prize then enables the group to move their project forward at a faster rate.

The Earthshot process is the brainchild of Prince William, heir to the British throne. Personally, I regard this as significant. The Bahá’í view of kingship is rather different from the traditional understanding of a king’s role, and Bahá’u’lláh (the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith) was clear that this institution, like all others in human society, will evolve and change. William’s inauguration of the Earthshot process shows a judicious use of his prominent status in promoting something for the general good.

A related, but also notable, aspect of the Earthshot process is that a prominent member of a royal family, the crown prince no less, is working alongside people from different backgrounds as part of a team. This fits in perfectly with Bahá’u’lláh’s injunction to all mankind to do away with divisions of all kinds: “Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land.”

William’s father, the present King Charles III, has himself always been noted for his love of nature and for his disappointment with the way that many parts of society seem to regard it as unimportant. Bahá’u’lláh Himself was an ardent lover of nature, and took great pleasure in being among the trees, flowers, fields and creatures. His many long years of unjust imprisonment deprived Him of His natural enjoyment of the outdoors. Bahá’u’lláh (speaking as the Voice of God) wrote about Nature: “Say: Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator… Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise… it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp.” This is a powerful statement of its importance.

If we are to protect nature, we need to give far more attention to everything which affects the environment. Bahá’u’lláh specifically warned that everything has to be in moderation, and foresaw the over-development in which we seem to be actively engaged: “If carried to excess, civilisation will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation.” He urged us to see all creation as one entity: “…even as the human body in this world which is outwardly composed of different limbs and organs, is in reality a closely integrated, coherent entity, similarly the structure of the physical world is like unto a single being whose limbs and members are inseparably linked together.” A conscious understanding of this point on the part of businessmen, politicians and administrators - and, indeed, all of us -  would lessen the damage which is unwittingly done.

In all these initiatives, there is a need for mankind to work together. The planet will not be preserved by having two hundred nations each seeking to make itself more powerful than the others. Bahá’ís see the need for oneness – everybody working together in a common goal. Bahá’ís see that our future lies in the evolution of a world society. To achieve this, we need to abandon warfare and destruction, and even aggressive competition. While conflict divides us, we are unable to function as one species, as one people, and different parts of the planet will continue to work against one another. The Earthshot prizes do not yet cover this aspect of our dilemma, and perhaps additional categories of prize could be established for ideas which promote the unity of the human world and thus preserve and restore nature.

Earthshot is currently playing its part in helping to restore our environment. Meanwhile, the climate change conference, COP 28, is meeting in Dubai next week. Perhaps the spirit of Earthshot can permeate this conference, and the nations of the world will be able to recognise that we are one people, the inhabitants of our world. Then we can work together so that we are able to claim our inheritance – a beautiful, harmonious world.

Sunday 8 October 2023

Freedom to speak?


Recently there was an incident in which a political commentator on a TV show uttered some intensely critical and personal remarks about another journalist with whose opinions he did not agree. The show’s host did nothing to stop this, resulting in his suspension from his job. The commentator himself has lost his job as a result of his remarks. This incident highlighted a wide range of issues. The ones which I will deal with in this particular blog are those which, in a general way, concern freedom of speech, freedom of opinion and respect for others.

The Bahá’í Faith has teachings on all of these issues. One of the most basic of the Bahá’í principles is that each individual has the right and duty to seek out the truth. The right to free expression is a natural accompaniment to this: “at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views.” This principle applies throughout society, including those people working in the news media, who have a particular duty to investigate the truth and make it known.

Bahá’u’lláh specifically addressed journalists on more than one occasion: “In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.” The same principle, of course, applies to subsequent news formats, such as radio, television, the internet and social media.

Clearly, the ideal of freedom of expression and the reporting of the truth are both essential to human life and healthy societies. The news media should not be manipulated by small elements within society or used for propaganda purposes. Generations of the oppressed have fought and died in order to voice freely their ideals, their concerns and needs. Yet the freedom of individuals to express themselves needs to be tempered by the principle of moderation. Bahá’u’lláh stressed that when liberty passes beyond the limits of moderation, the result can be disastrous. In all aspects of communication, from the freedom of the press to the language we use in our everyday conversations or social media posts, true freedom of expression requires moderation in our choice of words. Only when we show respect for others and their ideas will freedom of speech become a force for peace and unity in the world.

Among the critical factors in determining the effects of speech for good or evil are the following: content, accuracy, style, tact, wisdom and timeliness. By addressing themselves to these concerns, Bahá’ís are striving to achieve a new etiquette of expression which is worthy of the approaching maturity of the human race. We should always speak the truth - in newspapers, on social media or elsewhere - and not deliberately try to mislead anyone.

Unfortunately, with the proliferation of social media has come the opportunity for people to say unpleasant things online which they would probably never say to a person’s face. We must always be very careful not to be critical of others or to say anything which might upset someone. “One word,” Bahá’u’lláh wrote, “hath the influence of spring and causeth hearts to become fresh and verdant, while another is like unto blight which causeth the blossoms and flowers to wither.” We can disagree with someone’s views, but politely. Denigrating a fellow journalist does not, unfortunately, lead to a useful and uplifting discussion of the facts. Bahá’ís look forward to a society in which freedom of speech underpins a just and equitable world order, and in which respect for others supports social harmony and universal progress. We can all play our part in this.

Monday 28 August 2023

Nature is God’s will

One morning recently, I was looking out of our patio window, and noticed a fair-sized moth flitting from flower to flower on our Buddleia bush. I thought, “It must be a Silver Y moth”. These are easily identified because on the underwing there is a silver mark like the letter “Y”, which shows up against the plain brown colour of the rest of the wing. These moths usually seem to arrive from the continent in late summer, when and if the Painted Lady butterflies arrive, and they flutter their wings constantly. Well this year, I haven’t seen either a Painted Lady or a Silver Y moth, so I thought I would go and look at this one. When I got to it, I realised that it was actually a Hummingbird hawk moth, hovering higher above the flowers than the Silver Y moths ever do, because it has a long proboscis, which it directs down each tiny Buddleia flower.

I have seen one before, but high above me, so this time I was able to see it up close. It was perhaps two inches from front to back, and it really did seem like a tiny humming-bird, except that it had feelers/antennae stuck on the front of its head, like a joke from a science fiction movie! It does look more like a bird than an insect: not only was it hovering, with wings beating at about 80 times a second, but its eyes look compact, right in the middle of the side of the head, as on most birds. Most bees, wasps and flies have enormous compound eyes taking up the whole side of the head, and quite often the same colour as the rest of the head.

Anyway, it has set me thinking. I have probably never written a blog about the Bahá’í attitude to nature. So I decided to write this one. Bahá’u’lláh loved nature – the trees, flowers, birds, and probably also the insects. The only story I am aware of which involves Bahá’u’lláh and insects was in His later years. There was a garden which the Bahá’ís had created for Bahá’u’lláh. Pilgrims who had been able to visit Him had brought plants, walking six hundred or more miles from Persia to see Him, and keeping the plants alive at all costs! One day, a small swarm of locusts had arrived in the garden, so Abu’l-Qasim, the gardener, was going frantic. He had been devoting every day to tending and nurturing these precious plants, and now thousands of locusts were busily munching away at everything that was green, particularly the trees that provided the shade for the garden. He begged Bahá’u’lláh to send the locusts away, but Bahá’u’lláh Himself had no animosity towards the locusts at all, and replied: “The locusts must be fed; let them be.” But He could see how upset Abu’l-Qasim was, so He stood up and addressed the locusts: “Abu’l-Qasim does not want you here; God protect you!” Then, according to the story, he simply lifted the hem of his robe a little, and the locusts all took off and headed away from the garden.

Bahá’u’lláh always taught kindness to animals, and even made it an aspect of someone’s personal spiritual search. He listed several specific points of behaviour which any seeker after truth should manifest, and concluded with: “That seeker should also… show kindness to animals.” Presumably, judging by this story, that includes insects! 

On nature, Bahá’u’lláh wrote (as the mouthpiece of God):
“Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment.
Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world. It is a dispensation of Providence ordained by the Ordainer, the All-Wise. Were anyone to affirm that it is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion.
It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp. Indeed a man of insight can perceive naught therein save the effulgent splendour of Our Name, the Creator.
Say: This is an existence which knoweth no decay, and Nature itself is lost in bewilderment before its revelations, its compelling evidences and its effulgent glory which have encompassed the universe.”

So: Nature is God’s Will. It is His creation. In the second sentence (“Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes…”) Bahá’u’lláh clearly affirms that it gradually diversifies (which science now confirms). In the last sentence it says: “It is an existence which knows no decay.” As decay is constant at the micro level, Bahá’u’lláh was clearly talking about Nature at the macro level. I take the sentence to mean that we can never destroy it altogether. In another piece, Bahá’u’lláh wrote: “All praise be to God Who hath adorned the world with an ornament, and arrayed it with a vesture, of which it can be despoiled by no earthly power, however mighty its battalions, however vast its wealth, however profound its influence.” I have always found this very reassuring. We can never totally destroy life on this planet, it will always regenerate eventually. But we can do a great deal of damage, to all life on Earth, actually destroying our own environment – after all, we depend on plant life for our food. We also depend on plants giving out oxygen, and so on. The planet will not tolerate us tampering with methane levels, carbon dioxide levels, temperature levels, etc. But… after man has messed it up, Nature comes back! Think of Chernobyl. Think of how nature reclaims gravel pits, and what happens when factories get knocked down.

And all this was sparked off by having a moth visit my garden! Nature is special – and God meant it to be.

Saturday 1 July 2023

Making the world a better place


Politicians in the United Kingdom are struggling to reduce the flow of people coming into the country across the English Channel. There are recognised, or “legal”, ways of applying for the right to move to Britain, and there are unrecognised, or “illegal” ways of arriving in the country, often used by those who do not qualify for the “legal” means. Many thousands of people each year are leaving unhappy countries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, and sadly a certain number of them are dying at sea between France and England. Similar migration attempts are made to reach the United States, Australia or Europe, and, as we have seen recently, many also die crossing the Mediterranean. Clearly, not everybody in the world can live in the same few richer and safer countries, so it is imperative to tackle the underlying causes which drive people to take such risks, and to make everywhere a good place to live.

There is no single reason which leads people to try to reach the United Kingdom, suffering danger, privation and even death in the process. But most of the people in this continuous migration are escaping either persecution, war or poverty. Sadly, the problem will only get worse, because climate change is likely to increase migration. It is the poorer countries which are likely to suffer from climate change the most. As areas become uninhabitable because people are unable to grow enough food – due to heatwaves, droughts or floods - they will be forced to move elsewhere. This is happening already. As this increases, it is bound to cause conflict. These, then, are the underlying problems which we should be setting out to solve.

So, how do we solve the problems of persecution, war, poverty and climate change? How do we make the world a better place? This is something which is very close to the heart of a Bahá’í. Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, described the purpose of His revelation like this: “My object is none other than the betterment of the world and the tranquillity of its peoples.” This is the aim of all the Bahá’í spiritual and social initiatives. Bahá’u’lláh also urged every individual to: “Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self.” If our priority is the good of the world, we will not always be thinking of our own narrow interest. In any case, we should know that ultimately the good of the individual lies in the good of the whole.

The first problem mentioned above is persecution. Recognition of the fact that we are all one human race will go a long way towards removing this problem. In the Bahá’í writings it says, “O Thou kind Lord! Thou hast created all humanity from the same stock. Thou hast decreed that all shall belong to the same household.” Likewise an acceptance that all genuine religions come from God should lessen the amount of religious persecution in the world. They all teach us to love God and to love one another. Bahá’u’lláh wrote: “It is clear and evident to thee that all the Prophets are the Temples of the Cause of God, Who have appeared clothed in divers attire. If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold Them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith.” Acceptance of every human being as part of our world family, and every religion as part of God’s plan, will help to ensure that we treat everyone equally.

The second problem is war. This is a difficult one for individuals to influence in the short term, but there are still some things that we can do. In the words of the song - “We need peace, let it begin with me”. Bahá’u’lláh put forward a plan for a world peace conference and for collective security, which I have described in some detail in another blog (“It doesn’t have to be like this”, February, 2022). We can press for this world peace conference through our political representatives, and can also press for changes to the United Nations Organisation, to make it fairer and more representative of the world. These are things which the Bahá’í International Community continues to do. In our individual lives, we can make sure that we are friendly to everyone, listen to their point of view and agree to disagree where necessary, ensuring that we never make enemies and that we remain on good terms with everyone we meet. Peace between individuals leads ultimately to peace between nations.

The third problem is poverty. Greater economic freedom for the individual should encourage personal initiative and also investment in the less developed countries. Bahá’ís actively encourage social enterprises in many of these countries, generating income for people in the poorer parts of the world. At the international level, as long as every country seeks to gain advantage for itself, it is always likely that others will be disadvantaged as a result. This disparity between richer and poorer countries is a root cause of the drive towards migration, as people look for opportunities for a better life. Bahá’ís initiate, encourage and support grass roots social development projects in every country and in every area where they live. In many places, training is provided for people (especially women) who want to run their own micro business, and micro finance is made accessible through community banks. If people are empowered to improve their own lives, there will be no need for them to move elsewhere.

The fourth problem is climate change. Taking only what we need from the earth, rather than buying or using things which we don’t really need, will help avoid the worst of climate change. We can all contribute – we all know we should “reduce, reuse, recycle”.

The above are some of the steps that we can take to bring about the betterment of the world and so remove the reasons for people to take great risks in migrating to other countries.  We need to be pressing for all our fellow human beings to have greater freedoms: political, religious and economic. All this means raising our awareness to a higher level, and not restricting ourselves to our own personal situation. We need, in our communication with our elected representatives, in our private conversations and in our daily actions, to always promote the good of the whole world, and not just our own little portion of it. If we really want to save people’s lives, we have to work actively towards solving the fundamental problems in the world, which lead people to risk their lives in small boats.

Friday 7 April 2023

The Bahá’í view of Easter

At the time of writing, we are entering the Easter period, which is the most important Christian festival. It is a time of sadness and joy, as Jesus sacrificed Himself for the good of the world, then showed that He was still a living force. Bahá’ís revere Jesus as a Manifestation of God – someone who manifests or shows the qualities of God to the human world and leads it onward.

A Manifestation of God is a great religious teacher Who brings the Message of God for each age and thereby infuses new life into the age in which He lives. He is not an ordinary human being. Neither is He God Himself – He is a perfect mirror Who reflects divine qualities to mankind. He is a “Son of God”. A completely selfless soul, every Manifestation of God has suffered and sacrificed His whole life for the sake of humanity.

The Bahá’í explanation of religion centres on a principle known as Progressive Revelation: each Manifestation of God brings the perfect Message for His time. The Message is the same one divine teaching – of love, compassion, forgiveness, understanding and truthfulness, but re-stated and re-presented in a form perfect for the needs of the time. The spiritual teachings may be expanded but remain the same in essence. The main changes are to the social teachings which are developed according to the needs of the age. In this day, Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings centre on world unity, world justice and world peace.

Bahá’u’lláh paid tribute to Jesus and His importance to humanity: “Know thou that when the Son of Man yielded up His breath to God, the whole creation wept with a great weeping. By sacrificing Himself, however, a fresh capacity was infused into all created things.”

The idea that by executing the Manifestation of God, this will lead to the extermination of His teachings and His following, has always proved futile. One thousand eight hundred years after the execution of Jesus at the hands of the civil and religious authorities, the leaders of Persia executed the Báb, Who claimed that He was heralding a new age of religious advancement. By killing Him, they simply prepared the stage for Bahá’u’lláh and His revelation. In the same way, the killing of Jesus did not put an end to His teachings or to His following. His disciples realised that this new religion – or new phase of religion – was alive, and needed to be offered to the world. Jesus no longer needed to be a physical presence in the world, His spiritual presence was real and powerful enough.

Jesus humbly referred to Himself as the Son of Man, but was referred to by others as a “Son of God”. In this age, Bahá’u’lláh is of the same station. He is the Return of Christ, come “in the Glory of the Father” -  His name means “the Glory of God”. Bahá’ís believe that Bahá’u’lláh was the Promised One of all religions of the past – the great World Teacher come to unite humanity. This does not make any of the previous Manifestations of God, such as Jesus or Muhammad, any less important – certainly not. They were central to the progress of humanity, just as Bahá’u’lláh is now. They took humanity forward, materially as well as spiritually. In the future there will be more Manifestations - Messengers from God - because God will never leave humanity without guidance. Each stage of our growth and development needs this divine guidance. But we should never forget the immense sacrifices made for our sakes by Those Who have brought us to where we are now - particularly at this time of year, His Holiness Jesus Christ. 

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday 21 January 2023

World Religion Day


The third Sunday in January is known as World Religion Day. This annual event was initiated by the Bahá’ís of the United States as far back as 1950, and has been celebrated by many Bahá’í communities around the world since then. There are perhaps a dozen religions which are frequently named as “World Religions”, and in former times they were often seen as rivals to one another. The Bahá’í view is quite different – they are all one in origin and one in essence. Looked at across the world, they can be seen as branches of one tree. Looked at from the point of view of the time of their creation, they can be seen as chapters in one book. From a Bahá’í point of view, there is just one religion – the religion of God. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh: “This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.”

World Religion Day has spread in such a way that it is now marked by various bodies, not just by the Bahá’ís, and is celebrated in various countries. The exact format of the day is not as important as the message – that all the world religions are one. It may be a small gathering of friends and neighbours, or sometimes a public meeting, with representatives of various religious traditions. It often leads to both the participants and the observers remarking how similar the religions are in their purpose and goals. Two different people told me personally this year about schools which had used the theme of World Religion Day to illustrate the commonalities between the religions.

The Bahá’í goal in holding World Religion Day celebrations is to ensure that all the world religions are increasingly seen as one religion – the religion of God. This idea is seen as an essential component in the realisation of the oneness of all mankind. In His talk on “The Seven Candles of Unity”, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (the son of Bahá’u’lláh) said: “The fourth candle is unity in religion, which is the cornerstone of the foundation itself, and which, by the power of God, will be revealed in all its splendour.”

A classic example of the similarity of religions in their core teachings – on personal behaviour – is what is often referred to as “The Golden Rule”. In the Hindu Scriptures we find the following: “Do naught to others which would cause pain if done to you.” Judaism has: “What is hateful to you do not do unto your neighbour.” The Zoroastrian Scriptures say: “Do unto others all that which is well for oneself.” The same teaching is found in Buddhism: “Treat not others in ways that they would find hurtful.” In Christianity we find it as: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In Islam it states: “None of you is a believer until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself.” Sikhism states the same teaching as: “Treat others as you would be treated yourself.” In the Bahá’í Faith the same message reappears as: “Lay not on any soul a load which ye would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things ye would not desire for yourselves.” Each of the other world religions not quoted here has a similar verse in its scriptures.

In the past, there was a tendency to think that the various religions were worshipping different gods, but there is a wide understanding now that every religion is ultimately worshipping the same one Creative Force, the Unknown, the Unknowable. Different religions, and indeed different languages, have different names for this Creator, but they are all actually worshipping the same one God. In the Bahá’í view, the world religions all have the same Divine origin. World Religion Day exists to celebrate the existence and the relationship between all of them, and to overcome the separateness of past times. Bahá’u’lláh wrote: "Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship." World Religion Day is a way of bringing this vision nearer to reality.



Saturday 14 January 2023

If all the world were one…


This Planet B slogan, used by those protesting about climate change, cleverly points out the obvious – that we are all in this together. Climate change is a problem which faces the whole world, but we are not yet solving it as one people. We all share one planet, but we do not function together as if we realised this. If all the world’s people were treated as one people, and all the world were treated as one country, we would be several steps nearer to consciously living as one planet. If we regarded ourselves as one people, we would not feel the need to compete for resources with all other nations, or fear that they might be gaining an advantage over us. Of course we would need some kind of world administration, some sort of shared government, in order to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and to co-ordinate action as quickly as possible.  There is no “Planet B”, so we need to make “Planet A” – the Earth – work properly, as nature intended. As God intended.

We are destroying the environment. We are endlessly causing worse climate change. But at the same time, we have some nations – just portions of the world – which assume that they have the right to ignore the problems which everyone else can see so clearly, and take actions which make the problems even worse, either through aggressive military action or through short-sighted economic policies. We need to all feel that we are sharing this Earth together, and are taking ownership of the world together, and not have each nation trying to prove something to the rest of the world. If the world were seen as one, no part of the world would have the right, the authority, or even the motive to attack another part.

If the world were treated as one entity, one community, it would help if there was also a shared communication system. At the technological level, new initiatives towards such a shared system are happening constantly, but at the more basic level of direct human communication – language – there is no universal system yet. Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, urged the governments of the world to “convene a gathering and choose one of the (various) languages, and likewise one of the existing scripts, or else to create a new language and a new script to be taught to children in schools throughout the world. They would, in this way, be acquiring only two languages, one their own native tongue, the other the language in which all the peoples of the world would converse.” The principle is clear: there should be a shared world language chosen, but every nation or people will continue to use their own language.

Somehow, over the course of the relatively near future, the necessary world level of administration will have to come about. It will have to be some sort of federation, so that everyone feels that it belongs to them, and not to somebody else. No part of the world should feel more important, and no part of the world should feel either dominated or ignored. There should still be a national body in each part of the world, but fully integrated with its neighbours and with the world government. Local culture should be encouraged to flourish, so that every people feels proud of its role alongside its fellow peoples.

To make this world community work, we would ideally require a common set of goals, and/or a common philosophy. At a deep level, religion has often underpinned society through such a common philosophy, although at a surface level, religious quarrels and rivalry have often eroded this very sense of shared civilisation. The whole world now needs to develop a shared philosophy or shared belief. Bahá’u’lláh, when writing to Queen Victoria on this subject, wrote: “That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith.” One thing that will make a huge difference, and pave the way for this “common Faith”, is the recognition that every religion has insights to offer, that every religion has truth enshrined within it, that every religion was divinely-inspired.

We all know that the planet is one. We all know that the human race is one, from a scientific point of view. We need to take that oneness on board as a spiritual and cultural concept also. Bahá’u’lláh wrote: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” If we all take this to heart, there will be no need of a Planet B - we can make a success of Planet A.