Mixed Salad of Thoughts

Friday, March 04, 2011

Following the Rules Pt. 1

[Note: this is the first part of what I intend to be a two part post. Edits to this post may be made as the second half is finished and edited.]

I've once again been trolling through some of my old blog posts (both published and unpublished) and marveling at the range of topics I've covered (is it still vanity if I can't even remember doing it?) In 2007 I wrote a blog post that dealt with a topic I've been discussing and thinking about frequently of late.

If I remember correctly, the impetus for the conversation I was having in that post had to do with religion and the multitude of laws or "rules" that its followers were told to obey. The person I was communicating with was not religious and believed that, while there might be a spiritual value to an individual participating in religion, that religion itself was perhaps too strict and that its precepts and rules should be regarded individually for their value. I assume it would follow that these rules should therefore be abandoned if their results could not be seen/quantified, and/or proven (or possibly if they prove too inconvenient to follow?) It is a discussion that I have heard echoed several times throughout my life.

In that post I seem to be defending these rules using an argument that rules create a structure in which creativity and communication often flourish and that we cannot actually judge a rule until we have embraced it and worked within its boundaries to see all of its effects. I compared it to the training musicians have that allow them to play in harmony together as a band or the frame and tension a partner dancer uses to communicate with their partner. Without these rules the chaos of the individual can never experience the joy of the whole.

While I still think there is some value to that argument, today I'd like to approach the subject from a different angle. It is perhaps a bit more personal for me to talk about my own religion and beliefs not in some abstract way, but as an individual believer so I apologize in advance if some of my viewpoints stray from an objective voice or if my thoughts on some matters do not seem fully formed. Like the rest of the world, I'm a work in progress.

I am a Baha'i. I am one of millions of Baha'is around the world. I am not an authority on my religion, I am not a perfect Baha'i and many times I wouldn't even say I'm a very good one. The Baha'i Faith, whether you've heard of it or not, is considered one of the world's major religions. It has a central figure (Baha'u'llah), volumes upon volumes of Holy Writings, a calendar with 9 Holy Days, a Holy Land, and a book of laws. It is sometimes difficult for people new to the knowledge of the Baha'i Faith to grasp the size and complexity of teachings and laws, but I am fairly certain it would be just as baffling to try to understand the whole of Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam if you had no prior knowledge of them.

Baha'is believe in God, and believe the teachings of Baha'u'llah are the teachings of God on Earth. As such it would be easy enough to simply say that as a Baha'i I must blindly follow the laws because God told me to, but I think this simple acceptance leaves no room for any sort of explanation for the non-believer. It is the age old excuse of "I don't need proof I have faith" which seems to do nothing towards acceptance and only makes the speaker sound to the non-believer as if their rules and beliefs are unfounded and unexplainable. So in these two posts I will attempt to explain my reason(s) for believing that following the laws of my religion are important.

Let me make it clear that as much as I love a thorough, logical argument there are likely to be many instances in which I must still resort to saying "because I believe" and I ask that you look at these as simply a case-study for the thoughts of a believer. This post is not about my religion per se and its intention is not to try to convert a reader to my thoughts or beliefs, but simply to explain, for those who have asked and for those that might be curious, why it is I try to follow these laws. Additionally I do not make claim that my reasoning is true for all people of religious beliefs or even other Baha'is, and although in some cases these beliefs might be similar, each individual is unique and must therefore have their own unique relationship with God and religion.


First off some background: I live in Chicago, the third largest city in the United States. I have friends of diverse backgrounds but the majority of them are college-educated and reside somewhere in the range of the middle class. True to that demographic a large number of my friends are Atheists, agnostic, or are not involved in any sort of organized religion. The most common instance for someone to find out about the laws or restrictions of my religion is when they ask me why I don't drink. The second most common instance occurs during the 19 days of the Baha'i Fast when I have to explain why I'm not eating. Responses for both range from curiosity to disgust. I don't know how many times I've had someone just look at me and say rather sadly, “Why would you do that to yourself?” as if I were involved in some sort of hideous self-mutilation rather than the minimally invasive restricting of food and drink for 12 hrs or as simple as abstaining from alcohol.

More and more I've come to realize that a large part of this gap between me and the people I'm talking to is due to American culture as it is today. It seems the average American has little to no real grasp of, or experience with sacrifice. Sacrifice and self-restraint are key ideas in religious teachings of many religions but are often looked at by American society as if some sort of barbaric Medieval torture. I know that sacrifice was a component in our American culture just a few generations ago. During the second World War the nation began rationing supplies and recycling metal. People bought war bonds and men signed up to voluntarily serve in the military. The war efforts were pushed as needing the collaboration and support of each individual and people believed in their “patriotic duty” to help these efforts. These were all examples of people sacrificing for the greater cause. But then those same people had just survived the Great Depression. They had experienced suffering and many had learned to work as a community to help each other out. My own grandmother had a “brother” who was taken in by the family when a neighbor could no longer afford to take care of him. I struggle to imagine any circumstance that would draw out these qualities and universal commitment towards a common goal in our society today. Despite our economic down-turn I look around and see the level of “sacrifice” this recession has led to for many amounts to waiting an extra month before upgrading to the newest, sleekest smart phone on the market or forgoing their annual or semi-annual vacation in favor of a stay-cation. Is it any wonder that sacrifice is a foreign concept?

In fact I can greatly attribute a good amount my perspective on sacrifice to having been a foreigner. For a year before going to college I lived and did service work in southern Africa. I lived in several countries and stayed in everything from mud brick homes with grass thatch roofs in Malawian villages to a lovely apartment in a chic neighborhood in Cape Town. But regardless of where I was during that year, poverty was never far away. When I returned to the States I found it difficult to fathom that the frivolous purchase of a candy bar in the check-out lane was enough money to feed someone for a week in Malawi, or that I could buy a shirt with the money necessary to send a girl to school for a year. All of these years later these thoughts still linger. To sacrifice something is to “endure the loss” of that thing. How can I possibly say I'm sacrificing when I have a house full of objects, closets full of clothes and so much food that invariably some of it will go bad before I have a chance to eat it? I am so shrouded and pillowed in my consumer goods that it would take a significant blow for me to be able to feel or endure any sort of loss. Natural disasters in recent years have brought record donations from Americans, and while I applaud the sense of connection and humanity of those actions I still feel that they have come, for the most part, as one-time donations of those watching and reading emotionally and making an empathetic gesture within their comfort range. Most will feel fulfilled with that one action and will no longer feel the need for additional donations. How many have made gestures that made a real difference in their own personal comforts to improve the lives of others?

More on consumerism, will-power/determination, and commitment/relationships in Part 2...

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