Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Winter Solstice

(this is a guest blog by my wife, Ann)
Hi there! I am writing this on the shortest day of the year. Last night apparently thousands of people visited Stonehenge to witness the sunset closest to the solstice, as presumably many people have done in the last few thousand years. Standing at the head of the avenue leading to the stones, the midwinter sunset is visible (weather permitting!) through the central arch.

It is easy to understand why those of us who live this far north should find this an important time of year – I, for one, feel greatly cheered by the prospect of more sunlight and the hope of summer! It is thought that it was the advent of farming (as a change from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle) which made marking the seasons so important – knowing when to sow crops, for a start. If we were going by what nature is doing in England at the moment, for example, we could easily think it was spring already and time to start planting! (We have had an exceptionally mild spell and around here we have daffodils flowering two or three months early.) Certainly those who built Stonehenge and other Neolithic monuments had a good knowledge of the movements of the sun, the moon and some of the planets.  Apparently even the Romans realised that the ancient Britons had far more astronomical knowledge than they did!

Actually, of course, the Stonehenge monument was built and rebuilt over a long period of time – more than a thousand years at least, so it is likely that knowledge increased during that time and that some beliefs changed. From a Bahá’í point of view, we understand that God has always sent His Messengers to earth – no part of the world has been left out, at any time in history. Of course, we only know about those Messengers who appeared before the advent of writing through the stories handed down through the generations. However, these provide plenty of evidence for Great Teachers in many parts of the world, such as among the native Americans, for instance.

We will never know the beliefs of the Stonehenge people, but we can know something about their civilisation. They were certainly organised enough to meet together at Stonehenge from all over Britain (even as far away as Orkney) and live, feast, and presumably worship together, not to mention working together to raise huge stones as monuments to their beliefs. They obviously had a certain degree of unity, even if it was only perhaps once a year. Now, thousands of years later, we can build on that idea, only this time we need to live and work in unity with the people of the whole world in order to achieve much greater monuments to our civilisation, such as equal opportunities, peace and justice for every single person. Then the people of the future will be able to look back in admiration and approval of what we have achieved. No doubt those people will have their own challenges, perhaps learning to live with people from other planets? At least they will have a Messenger for their own time to guide them.

Whatever happens, I suspect that if people are still living this far north, then at this time of year they will still welcome the prospect of more sunshine! 

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Space – The Final Frontier?

The news media in the United Kingdom have got very excited, because a British man has joined the crew of the International Space Station for a few months. The I.S.S. is jointly owned by 26 different nations, and has been crewed by people from at least 17 countries so far. The Station has a wide number of uses – the conduct of experiments, actual space research, the study of human biology, etc – and is probably thought of as the first stop on the way back to the moon, or a jumping-off point for Mars.

Bahá’ís believe that ours is not the only planet to carry life. Bahá’u’lláh stated that, “…every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute”. What is more, there will have been a least one “Prophet, bearing a Message…in each of the worlds whose number God, alone…can reckon”.

Bahá’u’lláh’s Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, gave a talk in Paris, in 1913, stressing that it was time to start making efforts to reach other planets. Of course, at the time, man had only just succeeded in flying an aircraft over the English Channel! But in the mind of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá space travel was the next step. It is a great pity that the powers of the time did not work together on this, but instead directed their efforts towards war.

While the astronauts are floating along the corridors of the space station, living and working together in friendship, the politicians down on the Earth’s surface, coming from the same countries, are still engrossed in conflict, instead of urgently tackling the planet’s many problems. It must be very obvious to the astronauts on the space station, as they look down, that the earth is one entity. Perhaps if the world’s leaders could be up there too, then they might understand things differently and be prompted to make greater efforts towards uniting the world and preserving the planet’s ecosystem.

Clearly, the ability of the major powers to suspend their rivalry and send Russian, American and British astronauts off together in the same capsule is in itself a positive sign. However, for all the co-operation in space, we are still lacking solutions to problems such as warfare, racism, starvation, disease, gender inequality, political boundaries, universal education, religious rivalry, etc, etc. But once we do begin to see mankind as one human family, and the whole earth as our home, we will be able to make exciting discoveries on the “final frontier”. As Bahá’u’lláh explained, “Know…of a truth that the worlds of God are countless in their number, and infinite in their range.”

Let’s see what’s out there!

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

A First for the World

Paris is in the news again – this time for positive reasons. The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) has come to an agreement, which 195 countries are signing up to. This is not yet the conference to end war. There is no agreement yet that all the world’s religions have the same source. This is not the gathering to ensure gender equality in every society, nor the one to explicitly proclaim the oneness of mankind. But it matters. This is the conference at which every country seems to recognise the need to act in order to avoid a man-made catastrophe, and by its very existence it is establishing that mankind is responsible for its own common future.

It is of supreme importance that the countries of the earth – so diverse in many ways – are all agreeing on something so significant. The intention is to limit the amount of climate change. The forests, the soil and the underlying sediments were all “carbon sinks”, meaning that much of the world’s surplus carbon was tied up in them. But for centuries, we have been burning coal and oil, chopping down the forests and allowing the soil to be eroded by wind and flood. Gradually, the carbon has gone up into the air as smoke and fumes. We need to reinstate the natural carbon cycle, in which plants take in the carbon dioxide breathed out by animals. The consumer-driven materialism, which has allowed man’s life to lose its connection with nature, and with any inner sense of spirituality, must be abandoned, with a return to a more natural rhythm of life. As Bahá’u’lláh expressed it: “The civilisation, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men... 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. Meditate on this, O people.”

We have to keep the different aspects of the earth in balance. As Bahá’u’lláh’s Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, put it: “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.”

Talking of the society of the future, Bahá’u’lláh predicted that rich people would voluntarily give some of their wealth to help others. At a global level, this is reflected in the new agreement, in that the equivalent of £65 billion will be given by the rich countries to the poor countries each year, to help them develop their economies using renewable technologies, which otherwise they would not be able to afford.

But climate change is not the only process driving vast numbers of people into starvation, into fleeing as refugees, into suffering and despair, because we still have conflict. Baseless ethnic rivalries, senseless religious jealousies, ideological or selfish political struggles all combine to hold back the era of peace and progress which most of mankind yearns for. The Climate Change Conference in Paris must surely be a precursor for the “vast, all-embracing assemblage of men” which Bahá’u’lláh stated “the rulers and kings of the earth must needs attend,” and which “must consider such ways and means as will lay the foundations of the world's Great Peace amongst men.”

If this first major, worldwide agreement on tackling climate change can be built upon, if our mutual interdependence can be fully recognised, if trust between countries can be increased and can eventually lead to the universal peace conference then this really will be a great achievement. In the Bahá’í view, there is a glorious future in the long term, which is well worth working towards: “The Lord of all mankind hath fashioned this human realm to be a Garden of Eden, an earthly paradise. If, as it must, it findeth the way to harmony and peace, to love and mutual trust, it will become a true abode of bliss, a place of manifold blessings and unending delights. Therein shall be revealed the excellence of humankind.”