Of Sawdust and Speckled Trout: Remembering my grandfather, Horace Harold Seale

It’s hard to believe my grandfather died more than 30 years ago. I was 18; he was 77. In middle age I have come to realize how quickly the characters of our lives recede from memory if their details aren’t jotted down somewhere. Here is a character I wish to remember, and one I wish for my sons and their children to meet.

Ave_Pop

Pop and me, during a family trip to South Padre Island c. 1977

Some knew him as Horace, others as Harold, some as H.H., and his younger brother, simply as “Brother.” My brothers and cousins and I knew him as “Pop.”

Pop stood an inch or two over six feet. “Rawboned” describes his frame well. He had big hands and feet, boney elbows. I don’t remember him ever wearing anything but size 13 Hush Puppies, and usually a one-piece khaki work outfit, stained with smudges of wood glue or varnish. In many ways — his height, his frame, his round-shouldered posture, his high hairline and straight, silver, combed-back hair, his raspy tenor voice and old-Texas cadence — he resembled the resident of the White House during the year of my birth, Lyndon Johnson, ranch version.

He had light blue eyes that turned down at the outer edges in a way that made his face default to a gentle, friendly expression. I now realize after discovering older family photos that he inherited those blue eyes from his grandmother, whose Irish parents had given them to her. He wore gold-framed aviator glasses when I knew him. Meaty jaws rendered his face oval. He had a thick, proud nose the shape of which I’ve never seen exactly on anyone else, and he had no visible lips, just a short slit below the nose. His forehead looked as if someone had pinged it a half-dozen times with a hammer, dented from some horrible Medieval operation he had had as a boy to remove cysts.

Horace Harold Seale was born farther west than anyone else in my family before him or since — Uvalde, Texas, 1907.  His father, Horace Bradford Seale, was a grocer, and, still susceptible to the pioneers’ wanderlust, had moved out there to try to make a go of it. But he extended credit to too many neighbors who never paid up. He went bust and they retreated back to East Texas, where my grandfather grew up near his mother’s family, the Brownings, in Athens.

HoraceHaroldSeale

In the 1930s

After marrying my grandmother, who had their first three children, including my father, in Athens, he moved the family to the big city — Fort Worth. But a cousin of his had moved down to the Rio Grande Valley to farm in Cameron County, and on visits, Pop had liked what he’d seen. The area’s agriculture was all well and good — endless fields of cabbage and onions and sorghum and cotton and especially citrus. But what really got his attention was the fishing.

When my dad reached high school, Pop bought a few acres near the small town of La Feria, built a modest but comfortable house on it, and moved the family to the border. Part of the reason for the move to this unfamiliar region was, again, the pioneer’s imperative he carried in his blood — to do what his great-grandfather had done in 1835: move to the very edge of the English-speaking world and make his fortune as a farmer.  His father had failed in his push to the west; maybe he could push to the south. He bought a tractor and planted lemon trees. By the time I came along, the tractor was a rusting hulk that sat behind their house, a novelty my brothers and I would climb on. The farming never took off, but the fishing did.

And so he fell back on the trade he had learned in Fort Worth, repairing air conditioners and refrigerators, and kept right on fishing the flats of South Padre’s Laguna Madre and the brackish mouth of the Arroyo Colorado. He took me fishing alone on several memorable trips. We stayed up past midnight on the muddy banks of the Arroyo, shouting to each other over the roar of the gas-powered generator that ran the flood lights that lured the specks and catfish in. We waded the sandy flats of the Laguna Madre. His 6’2″ frame never looked bigger than when we stopped so he could pop a nitroglycerin tablet to calm his angina, and I, at perhaps 11, pondered the prospect of dragging him a thousand yards back to shore.

In La Feria he would live out his days, and in that pale green house surrounded by palm trees and bougainvilleas and mesquites, we would visit him and my grandmother, whom we called “Nannah,” in the Southern tradition, one Sunday a month, with them making the drive to McAllen to see us as often. Watching him pull up in our driveway and unpacking his big frame from their red VW Bug was something just short of a circus act. I remember him jangling his keys and change in the deep pockets of his high-waisted pants when he would enter our house, excited to see us but unsure what to do with his big bony hands. As soon as we boys would move in for a hug, he would seize us with those massive claws and tickle us mercilessly, his smiling eyes beaming a pseudo-sadistic ecstasy.

 

Pop_Redfish

Pop displaying the real reason he moved the family to South Texas,
with a red drum and a speckled trout, pipe tucked in shirt pocket.

About those glue-stained coveralls, Pop was a master carpenter, and after retiring from a long career as an air-conditioner and refrigerator repairman, he spent thousands of hours in a cinderblock detached garage that he had built as a shop and that sat on the corner of his property a few feet off the access road of Exp. 83. There he built and refurbished furniture under the name “Sealecraft.” For a long time, I thought that had been his lifelong job, but it was just a sideline and a way to bring in a little spending money in retirement so that he and Nannah could afford long road trips — Nova Scotia, Yosemite — in the Chevy van customized by him for camping.

PopCandlesticks         PopsCandlesticksTable

Pop was especially good at turning, and I inherited a few of his pieces that preserve his lathe-smanship — four candlesticks and a nice little three-legged side table that resides in my son’s room

 

I spent many hours with him in that shop, not so much watching him work — or I would have learned more — as working in parallel. When the garage door went up, the smell of saw dust and stain and varnish wafted out to us. Inside, the concrete floor of the shop held a table saw, drill press, table sander, a tall workbench with a heavy vice, a lathe, bench-mounted miter box, and my favorite, the band saw. To this day, I could diagram the entire shop floor placing each tool within a couple of feet of its actual station. In the darkened southwest corner stood an unenclosed toilet that no longer worked.

In the northwest corner of the shop stood a large three-tiered lumber rack, and on the floor beneath it, a cardboard refrigerator box laid on its side with the top cut off to hold scraps. The rule was that I could use anything I found in that box to build with. I still have two pieces, a ship and box that I made to hold my beloved Chronicles of Narnia set. Many times, perhaps every time, I was left to work in the shop on my own, I pushed too hard or twisted the work to quickly and snapped his bandsaw blade. Sheepishly, I’d slink into the house to inform him I’d broken the blade. With straight-faced resignation and admirable self control, he’d rise from his recliner, take his leave from Notre Dame vs. Stanford or Dallas vs. Washington, and walk with me out to the shop to put on a new blade.

NarniaCabinet

Two of my particle board scrap masterpieces that have survived the years

 

Pop watched a lot of football. But he was a reader too. I remember a copy of Michener’s Centennial sitting on the little side-table that held his pipe and ash tray next to his recliner.

He enjoyed telling stories and his cadence and accent make me think that his was the closest to an “old Texas” voice I will ever hear. His exclamations always started with “Why ….” as in, “Why, that dog comes over and starts lickin’ me like he’s known me all my life.” That was another thing — stories were always told in the present tense.

He was born to another time, and that came out now and then, like with the “Why …” or when he called pants “britches” or “trousers.” Other terminology marked the different eras too. Mexican-Americans were “Mexicans” — although in his defense, living only 10 miles from the Rio Grande, often they were in fact Mexicans. African-Americans were cringe-inducing “nigroes.” When I consider that his own grandfather owned slaves, his occasional linguistic shortcuts and shortcomings grow less remarkable, and I appreciate the cultural distance traveled in only two generations. Though I was not a sophisticated observer, I never detected any philosophy in him but live-and-let-live.

Every time we ate at Nannah’s and Pop’s, Pop led grace before we ate, and it was the exact same prayer each and every time. It was heartfelt, but one prayer was identical to the next, both in the text and the inflection. It went:

“Heavenly Father, accept our thanks for these and all thy blessings. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and our hands to Thy service. Pardon our sins and save us. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Nannah was the cook of the family, but when Pop was left to his own devices, he was known to get two pieces of bread, spread them with mayonnaise, then get out a brisket or a ham, trim the fat off the meat, and put the fat on the sandwich and the meat back in the fridge.

Like almost everyone in mid-century, he had smoked cigarettes earlier in life, but he had switched to a pipe by the time we came around. The sweet smell of pipe smoke takes me directly back to that time and place. He died of lung cancer in May 1984.

When I think of Pop, I smell sawdust and pipe smoke. I hear keys jingling in deep pockets, the roar of a table saw or of a light plant generator, and Pat Summerall 30 percent too loud. I feel his enormous, gnarled hands mercilessly digging at my ribs. I see his index finger rubbing glue over a dowel and hear him explaining to me that you have to let it get tacky before you put it together with the other piece. I see his size 13 Hush Puppies, and his blue-gray smiling eyes.

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What Grace Is

Under ancient live oaks
My son and I hang in hammocks
Opposite edges of the campsite
Like fruit,
His small green hammock having ripened
Into my double-wide red one
As if a time-lapse split-screen.

Two-thirty a.m.
And the ash still invisibly exhales
A feeble tendril of smoke between us
The gentle rain,
Barely more than mist,
Begins to fall.

Silently — I cannot wake the scouts or other dads —
I rise to sitting
Slip my feet into hiking boots like house slippers
Shuffle clumsily to him.
I move the camp chair that holds his sneakers
Under his tarp.
Now they will be dry for him
When he stirs in five hours.

It hits me, maybe for the first time,
What grace is:
It is all that The Parent does for us
That we sleep right through,
Softly snoring sweet oblivion
Under rain-heavy clouds.
Being spared that which we never even knew
Was threatening.
Unknown unknowns.
Dry tennis shoes.

Supporting Cast

Down with a sore back
And in need of my twenty-year doctor
I look for a number,
Conjoining my city with his name
The search engine returns a patient’s comment:
“Rest in Peace, Dr. Jackson. 58 is much too young.”

And just like that, he is gone.
I check the date and blink my disbelief;
He has been dead two years.
Didn’t he adjust me six months ago?
More than seven hundred days he lived unchanged
In the white noise of my consciousness but there alive as ever
Though odd I hadn’t gotten a postcard reminder:
“Take action, call Jackson”
Nor a call from a friendly but ever new receptionist
Inquiring after my health.
My mind suspended him in the interim, no less vivid,
Gently scolding me for eschewing regular maintenance
And only coming to him in pain.
Would not God say the same in soothing tones of concern?
Was I doing my stretches?
Was I building core strength?

I scroll down his obituary.
I never knew he loved music,
That he wrote and played as did I.
How would I know to ask?
Nor did he know me outside those
Semi-annual twenty minutes
And the twin data points
Of my desk job and family.
I was one of hundreds to him,
As he was one of hundreds to me.
With a random comment and the right volley,
Who’s to say we might not have been friends?
Good friends? Best friends?

How many others, members of my supporting cast,
Touch me in the eccentric revolutions of daily life?
Bus driver waiting patiently.
Barista whose name I almost have.
They are ever present but at arm’s length
My shyness or theirs
The fact of an economic transaction
Tamping down the potential of friendship.
The ubiquity of interaction
Numbing us to the glory of genuineness,
The disease of the city.
Selling out intimacy: Welcome to Costco; I love you.

And yet they are a comfort
Until I one day circle back in pain
To find one gone
And the prospect of friendship
Gone with the transaction
Neither knew was the last.

–for Donald Vance Jackson. Thank you.

And the Secret to Life Is …

[This essay was originally published in four parts on BahaiTeachings.org as “The Universal Secret to Success.”]

Many people have floated theories about the secret of life: Woody Allen said that 80 percent of life is just showing up. James Taylor sang that the secret to life is enjoying the passage of time. Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, proposed that the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, was … 42. Unfortunately no one knows what the question is, and so an enormous planet-sized organic supercomputer was designed to ferret out the question over a period of 7.5 million years, and the computer was named “Earth.”

On some level, I could get behind all of those theories. But I now have one that, after my own forty-something years, I’m completely convinced of. I hasten to add that I have not discovered it in the way that Newton discovered gravity or Einstein relativity. Rather I am claiming this in the way I also claim to have once discovered that stoves can be hot. That is, I have now discovered for myself something that many, many others discovered before me. And here it is …

Success in life, whether at the individual level or at the collective, comes from honoring, above all else, process. Now, “process” is not a word that gets our blood pumping. It conjures bureaucrats at their desks stamping files and consulting thick binders of regulations, hardly the stuff of inspiration. But hear me out.

The history of humanity is largely the story of people striving for goals and, naturally enough, striving for them in what they see as the most efficient way possible: “Our goal is to have more food. That tribe over there has more food. Therefore the most efficient way for us to get more food is to move over there and kill them.” Instead of “food” we can substitute the words “gold,” “silver,” “horses,” “oil,” “land,” “stock,” “votes,” and we can substitute the word “kill” with “defeat,” “marginalize,” or “disadvantage.” But the pattern is all the same: we’ll get what we want in the most efficient way, and usually that is at someone else’s expense.

This wouldn’t surprise an alien observer of our species, as we evolved up through nature and this ruthless efficiency is the way nature works: in nature, the end always justifies the means. Nothing in nature would even consider the means and the ends to be separate things, and so neither did we until relatively recently.

Most people, when pressed, now will concede that there are some areas in which the end does not justify the means: the end of gaining food, would not justify the means of stealing it.

The radical position I have come to over many years and as the result of having my nose bloodied many times by life is this: that not only does the end sometimes not justify the means, but that the end never justifies the means. And what the Universe is trying to teach us throughout history over and over again until we get it, is that there are no caveats to this, no end-runs, no short-cuts. It’s a spiritual law that is as hard and fast as any physical law.

Here’s a framework for understanding this idea. Think of all of our actions as the product of both ideas and processes, each of those falling into good or bad categories, like this:

  • Bad idea + wrong process = bad outcome

  • Good idea + wrong process = bad outcome

  • Good idea + right process = good outcome

And finally — and this is the kicker:

  • Bad idea + right process = good outcome

In other words, process is king. Process is all.

But if process is all, then we’d better have a good way of discerning what constitutes right process. How do we know when we’re adhering to right process and when we’re not? Because in this scheme, that’s the key to everything, the key, as it were, to the kingdom.

After many years of thinking about this (and many failed attempts to be happy using other more popular ideas) it seems irrefutable to me that the Universe rewards humans for only one thing in the long run: acting in the spirit of unity. This is the grand unifying theory (not coincidentally) of spirituality and therefore of ultimate success. And of course, it is the central theme and whole purpose of the Baha’i Faith.

This might all sound reasonable enough, as we all project our own thoughts and preferences on what it means to strive for this all-important “unity.” But before we nod in agreement and wave this off as just garden-variety common sense, let’s run the idea through a few case studies.

We can begin with the most blatant example of ends used to justify means: war. In war we seek the destruction of an enemy for some supposed greater good. But there is inevitably a problem, and Gandhi put his finger on it when he famously said, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” Understanding both our human myopia and amnesia is key to getting this. In the short run, war can appear to fix all sorts of things. But in the long run it inevitably either creates more problems than solves, or delays the solving of the real problem. At the other end, we tend quickly to forget the horrors of war, while we glorify its trappings in parades, ceremonies, air shows, and reenactments. (The Baha’i Faith is not a pacifist religion; the Founders do prescribe military action in the interest of collective security. But the world political unity under which such action would be desirable is so distant that the Faith’s teachings do not support waging war under any current scenario.)

But war is only the most extreme example. Politics as currently practiced is war less the physical violence (usually). So while vastly preferable to war, it is hardly the best we can do. Politics offers a vivid example of the end-justifies-means mindset. Again and again we see the pattern: a young, idealistic person enters the world of political involvement to “make a difference,” a praiseworthy and virtuous motive. She ran for office in her high school and was elected. In college she got involved by volunteering in a presidential campaign, and now that she’s out of law school, has a fire in her belly to run for office and right wrongs she sees all around her.

To the immense pride of her parents and former teachers, she gets elected. Now, at last, she is in a position to start making those changes for which her soul has longed. But first, she quickly comes to the realization that she cannot change the world if she doesn’t stay in office. So if Day One was a celebration of her first election, Day Two begins her next campaign. Unless she possesses superhuman virtues, the pressures of office and frustration with process lead her inexorably toward cutting corners. Moreover, to get reelected, she must fight, and fighting involves bragging about her own accomplishments and belittling the views and accomplishments of her competitors — hardly spiritually uplifting activity. In some cases, slowly, almost imperceptibly, corruption follows.

Multinational corporate practice or any practice that subjugates one people in the world to another falls under the heading of marginalization, which is against the spirit of unity. Lavish spending on luxury items when millions go without essentials shows in yet another way how far we are from unity. The Baha’i fix to these gross inequalities and the pooling of wealth is meaningful profit-sharing for every worker in the hierarchy.

So right out of the gate we have three topics — war, politics, and greed — that dominate our news cycle, and all, as practiced today, are rigorously working against the idea of unity.

But we also see the process play out in less obvious ways. Take the idea of transcendence. Transcendence is good idea, but when we try a shortcut to attain the sensation of transcendence, like drugs, we’ve selected the wrong process, and that yields a bad outcome. Good idea + wrong process = bad outcome. On the other hand: Transcendence (good idea) + prayer and meditation (right process) = good outcome.

Sex, most would concede, seems like a pretty good idea on any given day. But process matters. When we follow right process — getting married first — we run a better chance of getting the ideal outcome: children raised in a well-supported home, as well as the sex (although, granted, the presence of the former is not always conducive to the latter). When we dismiss that process, we usually get bad outcomes: disease, abortion, dysfunctional relationships, greater poverty, greater stress, disjointed society.

The passage of time can deceive us into thinking that good ideas alone equal progress. Something will be erected that is seemingly indestructible, but there is a bug in its operating system, there is a corruption hidden deep inside it that dooms it from the start.

An ancient Egyptian would have gazed on the pyramids and reasonably assumed that their civilization would stand just as long as these magnificent structures. The machine ran for centuries, but was doomed to conk because something in it did not honor unity (much to the contrary, it relied on slavery).

The Roman Empire outwardly was majestic in every way, but the process was corrupt: slavery, blood games, hedonism, corruption, oppression. The machine ran, but was doomed to conk.

For its part, the lasting success of the United States, I believe, has been achieved in direct proportion to its unity and its unifying work in the world. I do not mean this in the way the world currently measures power and success, but in the legacy it will leave to the world. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, it has achieved an astonishing pluralism and, as the oldest republic in the world, has been a critical crucible of democracy and rule of law in the modern world. The United Nations, likewise, will be only as successful as is its members’ authentic commitment to unity.

As mentioned, many people smarter than me came to this conclusion long ago, and I will now put a name to this idea. It is called deontological ethics, and it stands in opposition to consequentialism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was the main purveyor of this idea in modern times, though, of course, the ancient Greeks got to it first as they did almost everything else.

If there is a poster boy for the other side, it is Machiavelli, who gave us: “It  is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both,” and, “Men  should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot,” as well as “It is much more secure to be feared than to be loved.”

The poet Paulo Coelho wrote “…the ends do not justify the means. Because there are no ends, there are only means…”  He goes beyond Kant’s simple dichotomy and recognizes the timelessness of existence. If you consider your existence as eternal, then process becomes all.  If there is truly no end to the life of the human soul – something every great faith tells us – then the concept of “ends” becomes somewhat meaningless.

When we think of the equation “bad idea + right process = good outcome,” we can think of Abdu’l-Baha’s guidance for governance: “…I swear by the one true God, it is better that all should agree on a wrong decision, than for one right vote to be singled out, inasmuch as single votes can be sources of dissension, which lead to ruin. Whereas, if in one case they take a wrong decision, in a hundred other cases they will adopt right decisions, and concord and unity are preserved. This will offset any deficiency, and will eventually lead to the righting of the wrong.”

So in addition to unity attracting divine confirmations, there also is a sort of divinely protected numbers game in which by casting our lot with unity, we will come out way ahead purely in terms of the massive increase in productivity that unified action results in.

We get another glimpse of the phenomenon of mistakes being righted in a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an aggrieved community member having a dispute with his Local Spiritual Assembly: “As you know, you are free to request the Assembly to reconsider its decision. However, you may wish to weigh this course of action against the reaction it could produce, and which may cause you further stress. In some cases, it is preferable if one accepts humbly the view of the Assembly in a spirit of sacrifice, and without further dispute. Then, any wrong decision will eventually be set right. When the believers act submissively and in a spirit of self-effacement it attracts the good pleasure of God, which in itself serves as a consolation to their hearts.” (From a letter dated 12 September 1988)

Understanding the primacy of unity is the key to understanding Baha’i teachings on every topic. The Faith can hold that a certain practice is wrong, but how that wrong is righted is just as important as the wrong itself. For example, the Baha’i Faith teaches that the soul associates with the body at conception, and therefore it follows that abortion is wrong. But we are told, almost in the same breath, that we should not make this subject the cause of divisiveness and that we should scrupulously avoid becoming entangled in the political controversy.

This aversion to divisiveness extends across all matters. If we seek to fix a problem through any sort of divisive action, we’ve created a situation in which the “cure is worse than the disease.” Accordingly Baha’is might march in a demonstration “for race unity” but would not be tempted to participate in a “protest against racism.” Mother Teresa captured this idea. When once she was asked if she would participate in a Vietnam War protest, she said, “No, but if you hold a march for peace, I will be there.”

Baha’u’llah wrote, “Beware lest ye contend with any one, nay strive to make him aware of the truth with kindly manner and most convincing exhortations.” And again, “Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 279, p. 216)

Being “for race unity and peace” instead of “against racism and war” might seem like simply playing games with words, but it is not. The difference is profound. If we are to change the world in a lasting way, we must change it through the power of attraction. The planet will be saved by a great joining, an ingathering, by, in modern parlance, a glorious “opt in” — and not by the means that fill our history books — the overpowering of one group by another.

Why Baha’i? It Comes Down to Five Questions

A little more than 10 years ago, I decided to become a Baha’i. It was a momentous event in my life, yet one I did not see coming. I was not friends with any Baha’is at the time, and had only met two in my life.

For having no personal tie to this religion, it was a decision that seemed to come suddenly, as if it were an inescapable fate. But when I search my past for early signs that I might have landed in this theological place, I wind up with a startling realization. More than anyone else, my decision to become a Baha’i might be attributable to … C.S. Lewis. Yes, I’m referring to the most celebrated Christian theologian of modern history.

I say this primarily for one reason, which is that when I was about 27, I read his masterwork of popular theology Mere Christianity, in which he asserted the following:

“Religion involves a series of statements about facts, which must be either true or false. If they are true, one set of conclusions will follow about the sailing of the human fleet: if they are false, quite a different set.”

When I reread Lewis today, there is a great deal with which I disagree. (This is not the place to catalogue those divergences.) But the statement above I found to be not only self-evident but supremely valuable and underappreciated. Though I may not have realized it, I clenched this nugget of truth tightly as the sometimes stormy events of my life rolled by and my circumstances changed. Truth is not relative. Not everything is a matter of perspective or semantics or psychology.

Over time, the questions I had about God, spirituality, and religion gelled into five, each of which, if answered in what I believed to be the sensible way, compelled me on to the next question, and finally, inescapably, to my embrace of the Baha’i Faith.

It might seem odd that five questions could compell someone anywhere on or off the religious spectrum to such a specific association. It’s sort of like saying I could get from my office in downtown Austin, Texas, to Moxie’s Classic Grill at the Intercity Mall in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with only five turns. But as it happens, I could do just that. You see, it’s not the distance travelled, but making the right decisions at the right junctures that leads you to that classic grill. And if it still seems odd or unlikely, C.S. Lewis himself might have said it best:

“Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd… Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity.  It is a religion you could not have guessed….”

Question 1: Is there a God?

In my analogy of getting from downtown Austin to Thunder Bay, Ontario, with five turns, the trick, of course, is that the vast majority of the drive is on a single road, Interstate 35. The most important turn I make, then, is getting going the right direction on I-35 once I get there. If I get there and somehow enter the highway going south instead of north, then virtually no number of turns will get me to Moxie’s Classic Grill. So it pays to take our time and really nail that first crucial decision; it’s the foundation for everything that comes after it.

First, we have to say upfront that there can be no proof of God nor disproof of God; God is both unprovable and nonfalsifiable, so if you’re looking for proof you can skip the rest of the essay. Of course, this is far from saying there is no evidence of God. Indeed, He has left His fingerprints on everything. The incomparable interdependent genius of nature is often presented as Exhibit A that there is some kind of intelligence at work in whatever force is continuously creating the universe — a force far, far beyond our own intelligence. This may be affirming for those who already believe, but skeptics may counter that this is not in and of itself proof of anything more than that nature’s laws can produce amazing results.

What cannot be so easily batted away, in my opinion, is how and why human beings are inspired by that nature, and by many other parts of life that would not seem to be necessary for our biological survival, as nature would dictate. Science can explain the optics of a fiery sunset, but it cannot explain why that sunset can also bring tears to the eyes of the viewer. The meaning with which we imbue our world is inexplicable in purely evolutionary terms. Group psychology, evolutionary psychology, and brain chemistry can explain many behaviors, but deep and spiritual love one for another? Sacrifice and even martyrdom to an ideal? Passion for art? I think not. These simply do not appear to be the province of the material world, and at the very least are not qualities found anywhere outside ourselves. To try to reduce all human experience to the cold calculations of natural law simply seems a stretch, let alone to assign the love and inspiration one feels in her own life to mere calculations — no matter how complex — seems to be a contortion designed merely to relieve oneself from considering the ramifcations of a non-material plane.

Our old friend C.S. Lewis masterfully points out the contradiction in nihilism:

“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”

This deserves meditation.

I empathize with those who don’t believe in God, for many reasons, not least on grounds that the universe often appears to be coldly indifferent to us. Disease and starvation beset innocent children. Those who eat right and exercise keel over from a heart attack, while the greedy, not the meek, appear to inherit the earth. A deeper reading however shows that the vast majority of humanity’s wounds are self-inflicted and more often than not because we have stubbornly ignored the advice of God’s messengers. For those few wounds that are not, we can conclude that volatility in the universe must exist for free will to exist. This volatility can come at a harsh price. We can also conclude that, while there may be a life after death, in this life God seems to place a premium on collective progress, often at the expense of individual welfare.

Is it rational to believe in something for which there is no proof? For some people, the answer is no, though I suspect if one scratched the surface he would find they apply this logic selectively. For me, it is entirely rational to proclaim belief in something for which there may be no conclusive proof but for which the cumulative evidence is not only sufficient but overwhelming. For me, God is squarely in this category.

Question 2. Is God “personal”?

If you believe that God exists, the next split on the decision tree seems to be whether you believe God is “personal” or a creative but blind force. Most religions agree that God is personal, for quite a logical reason:

If God exists, then by definition He must be vastly superior to anything in His creation. Since we are a part of that creation, and we know a thing or two about ourselves, we can assume that God must contain all the capacities of the human (plus infinitely more). Therefore, if one human capacity is the ability to love, then God must have that ability, and more. If one human capacity is to discern and value justice, then God must know and value justice. If another human capacity is compassion, then God must also contain that, and so forth. Carried to its logical conclusion, if one capacity of humans is to discipline their children out of love, then God too must have this capacity and to an even greater degree. Carefully applied, this line of logic gives motive and rich texture to humanity’s ongoing relationship with its Creator.

As a corollary, God could not contain negative traits of humans as those are clearly the absence of the good. Rage is the absence of patience. Boastfulness, the absence of humility, etc. Dark is not an extant thing but rather the absence of light.

This is not anthropomorphizing God… “Humans do X so God must do X because we’re obviously very close to gods.” Rather, it’s simple logic: any being contains the capacities of any lower being. Vegetables have the capacity of minerals, yet more. Animals have the capacities of vegetables, yet more. Humans have the capacities of animals, yet more. And so forth.

Another frequent corollary to this distinction of God as “personal” is that God can and does intervene in human affairs. This belief is the basis for prayers of supplication. For me, God by definition has two qualities: omnipotence and will. By definition, God does what He wants. That’s what it means to be God. And if He does what He wants, it stands to reason He would want to interact with His creation in all sorts of ways, just as a loving parent wants to interact with her child.

And just as a loving parent teaches her child to use its words and ask for what it wants as opposed to demanding, complaining, or merely suffering, it seems God has encouraged us similarly to use words and thoughts to ask for what we want and need — a crucial link in the developmental process be it for an individual or a sentient species.

Question 3. How would a “personal God” interact with us?

If you agree God exists and that God is “personal,” then it is a relatively short step to believe that God would desire, and therefore create, a means to that end — a way to establish a “personal” relationship. But the nature of God appears to be such that there can be no direct contact between Creator and creation. Perhaps it’s like the sun and the earth. The former is too powerful to directly contact the latter without destroying or subsuming it. For creation to exist, there seems to need to be a remove, in Baha’i parlance, a “tree beyond which there is no passing.”

If omnipotent, then God could prove His existence to us if He wanted to. The fact that He doesn’t points to His unwillingness to do so. The likely reason for this is that proof would obviate the need for faith, and a close reading of the scriptures of the world reveals the critical role of faith. There must be something about faith that is critical to the process of growth. To survive, let alone to grow, a child must have faith in the parent.

But if humans are as children to this spiritual parent, then it is natural that the parent hire a teacher to help them advance. We see education as a fundamental and universal right in the material world. And it stands to reason that if God is personal, then, motivated by love, He would desire our growth and therefore need to concoct a process to stimulate that growth.

And when we look at the sweep of civilization we see just such a process has played out. The rise of humanity has not been a smooth ascending line. Rather, advancement in civilization comes in sudden and erratic fits and starts. This is one of the great mysteries of our own history — how, in the space of about 6,000 years, within a species timeframe of perhaps 1 million years, civilizations all over the world blossomed seemingly spontaneously.

Certainly, their progress was not precisely uniformed, and heaven knows that civilization is still very much a work in progress. But viewed in the full scope of history, everything around us that we enjoy has sprung into being in the relative blink of an eye. Indeed, when you really put civilizations under a microscope, you see a remarkable thing: that the greatest ones sprang into being as the result of a single person. Hebrew civilization traces itself to Abraham, and, as a second, solidifying force, to Moses. Christendom traces itself to the appearance of a single figure, Jesus Christ. Islamic civilization, which most scholars agree ushered Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance and in turn the Enlightenment, traces back to the Prophet Muhammad. The vast and predominately peaceful and compassionate Buddhist civilization sprang into being because of a single person. And so it goes. Is this merely coincidence, or is something more profound at work here?

In my faith we believe this phenomenon is no coincidence, and we call each of the Founders of those world faiths “Manifestations of God.” If we’re trying to discover the way in which God tries to reach humanity, we don’t need to look farther than these Figures. Humans need teachers whom they can understand, who speak their language, and for the most part live among them. These teachers need to share enough of the people’s culture so that they can find an audience — use the common vocabulary, wear the clothing, tell the stories and reference the texts — but also challenge those cultures.

Indeed, they usually challenge them in ways that land them in jail or get them executed. Indeed, these few people down the ages are thought to constitute a special class of souls, and in their own individualized ways, they are each perfect reflections of God’s attributes. They are not God, and are not gods, but rather are humans employed by God to be His messengers, to teach His children. The side effect is that each time one appears, he renews civilization. Through them, God “dispenses” His next round of lessons for humanity. They appear to be sent strategically to certain populations at certain times to have the greatest impact and to teach human populations in an age-appropriate way.

I was speaking at a Unitarian Universalist church recently when, after my talk, an earnest gentleman approached me and, with furrowed brow, asked, “Now… I want to know … deep down in your heart of hearts, do you really believe that a man can be the mouthpiece of God?” I said, “I get the gist of your question, and I understand the hesitance. But I think nature gives us the model of what is happening here. To create a new human body, we don’t need all the cells of the body contributing equally. Indeed, it only takes one sperm cell out of millions to fertilize the egg and bring that new body into existence, to be that primal cause. I think that’s what’s happening with these Manifestations.” He nodded, furrowed his brow again, deeper in thought, shook my hand, and strolled away.

Another question within this larger question of how God would interact with us is, are we done learning? If you believe that the prophet or founder of your religion is the last that will ever appear to humanity, then you must also believe that we have done all the learning we can, that humanity is as advanced as it will ever be, and that civilization is in its final form. All I can say when I look around is, I certainly hope not!

Baha’is believe that God has led humans to increasingly advanced stages of civilization over the years through the appearance of these great teachers. It’s an idea known as “progressive revelation.” Many religions have an implicit belief in progressive revelation. For example, in Judaism, believers hold Abraham as the patriarch of the Jewish people, but later, revere Moses as the founder of the religion itself. And after Moses, there appears a whole series of prophets they believe brought the Word of God to the Israelites through different eras. Christians believe in the divine authority of all of those prophets, but then of course add John the Baptist and, in a class of His own, Jesus Christ. Muslims hold all of those figures in reverence and add Muhammad. What all of these world religions have in common, though, is that they believe their prophet or prophets were the last, this despite another shared tradition among them all that claims there will be another in the future who will unite humanity in a golden age or kingdom of heaven on earth.

To me, it just seems unlikely on its face that if God were a loving God, He would say, “Okay, that’s it! That’s all I’m saying! You people can figure out the rest on your own!” And even if you hold that position, it seems painfully obvious just by looking around that we haven’t figured it out on our own. To the contrary, it appears it’s high time God sent someone to give us the keys to success in this strange and new world we call the modern age.

Question 4. Who is the teacher for today?

If you believe that God exists, accept that God is personal, extrapolate that a personal God would want to teach us, and can see that human civilization is obviously far from having learned all it’s capable of, the next logical question is, who is the teacher for today?

There have been scads of people who have raised their hands and claim to be the spokespersons for God for today. David Koresh, Jim Jones, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, and many others have claimed this. Indeed, in the mid 19th century, following the appearance of a Persian prophet known as The Bab, no fewer than 24 men claimed to be the fulfillment of The Bab’s prophecy.

With the luxury of more than a century and a half between then and now, it is fairly plain to see that only one of them was correct. His name, for which the Baha’i Faith takes its name, was Baha’u’llah.

I was on Baha’i pilgrimage in Haifa, Israel, and had just finished answering my Jewish American roommate’s questions about the Baha’i Faith, when he grinned and said, “It takes a lot of chutzpah to claim you’re a messenger from God.” I thought about his comment for a long time, and when I returned home, I sent him an e-mail, and said, “You may have been right about that, but as we say in Texas, it ain’t bragging if it’s true.”

There are myriad reasons that I believe Baha’u’llah’s claim to be God’s teacher for today. But here are the biggest:

  • The power of His words. It was common in the time of Baha’u’llah for people to expect miracles from those who professed divine authority. And while accounts of Baha’u’llah’s life are replete with miraculous happenings, Baha’u’llah Himself discounted the ability of these events to convince anyone not “in the room.” Instead, He said, the most convincing evidence of an authentic Messenger of God is the power of His words. This is for the reason that they are not really His words at all, but the words of God. This is something that cannot be explained or conveyed by a third party like myself. All I can do is point you to the words. If they touch your heart and mind the way they touch mine, then that is all I can do.
  • Layer upon the power of His words the testament of His life story. That story is beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice it to say for now that the history of the Faith, and in particular the history of this figure, reads like the story of a real religion. There is drama upon a sweeping historical stage here that is not like religious “fan fiction” that sometimes crops up in modern times seemingly as a sort of cheap imitation of historic religions of the past. Here, in this history, still so accessible to us though little realized by wider society, is the dawning of a new age, the sacrifice of tens of thousands, and stories that fill books and testify to the authenticity of this great new religion.
  • As part of that life story, we must look at and admit that the effect He had on those around Him was astonishing. We can only appreciate this at a remove, but reading accounts written by so many different people leaves little doubt that the force of Baha’u’llah’s personality was miraculous in its effect. Political oppressors, jailers, and even would-be assassins transformed into among His most devoted followers.
  • Baha’u’llah fulfilled the messianic prophecies of every world religion. This is a somewhat more esoteric area of study, one that takes effort and discernment, but for those of us who put stock in the writings and prophecies of the world’s great religions, it is an area of abundant confirmation.
  • Finally, He was the one who articulated the very idea of progressive revelation. If we’re looking for the successor to this great chain of teachers, who better than the one who pointed out that there was a chain at all?

Question 5. Where is the teacher’s classroom?

We’re almost to Moxie’s Classic Grill, but let’s not get lost inside the mall! For there is one last critical step, or turn, to make.

It’s well and good to admire the ideals for which Baha’u’llah stood and the way in which He lived His majestic life. But how do we know that the Baha’i Faith, as it exists today, is really what He had in mind? In other words, if Baha’u’llah is God’s teacher for today, then how do we know the Baha’i Faith is His classroom?

Perhaps Jesus said it best when He said, according to Matthew 7:15:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.  16 You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? 17 Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”

By their fruits, you will know them. Today, we have a luxury, almost 170 years by which to judge the intentions and the efficacy of the Baha’i Faith. Not every soul who has entered this Faith has been committed to keeping it unified. But those who have tried to create splinter groups within the Baha’i Faith have come to utter nothingness.

Meanwhile, the institution that has remained faithful to the line of authority set in motion by Baha’u’llah — namely that after His passing, His followers should follow His son Abdu’l-Baha, and then His great-grandson Shoghi Effendi, and then the elected body called the Universal House of Justice — this institution has flourished in a breathtaking display of what happens when the work of women and men is aligned with the intention, protection, and confirmation of God.

In seventeen decades, the Baha’i Faith has become the second-most geographically widespread religion in the world, with a dazzling array of ethnicities and former members of every world religion bolstering its ranks day by day. In my mind’s eye, I see the timeless and monumental architecture and gardens of the Faith’s holy places — the Shrines of the Bab and Baha’u’llah in the Holy Land, and the magnificent Baha’i Houses of Worship now on nearly every continent — as the outward manifestation of the beauty, robustness, and permanence of this profound spritual planetary germination.

* * *

To sum up, we can articulate this theological chain of inference this way:

  1. If the universe, then God.
  2. If us, then a personal God.
  3. If a personal God, then Messengers.
  4. If Messengers, then Baha’u’llah.
  5. If Baha’u’llah, then the Baha’i Faith.

Why am I a Baha’i? That is why.

“I Won’t Back Down” … for the Baha’is in Iran

In 2008, seven Baha’i leaders in Iran — known as the Yaran — were imprisoned on false charges with a 20-year sentence. On the fifth anniversary of their imprisonment, the Baha’i world is raising awareness of them and asking everyone to contact their own national governmental leaders with the request that they condemn the imprisonment of these seven specifically as well as all prisoners of conscience. Despite their rhetoric, Iranian leaders are sensitive to international opinion and susceptible to international pressure. This classic song, first recorded by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, seems to say it all.