Being Wary of False Dichotomies


For the past few days I’ve had the pleasure of re-reading what I think is one of the best works of history ever: Baha’u’llah: The King of Glory by Hand of the Cause of God Hasan M. Balyuzi.

There are many outstanding qualities of Baha’u’llah that shine through in this monumental narrative, and one that particularly struck me from His youth was the way in which He would resolve complicated questions with simple and elegant solutions. At the age of 15, Baha’u’llah would be in discussions with learned divines who were tying themselves into knots with complicated theological discussions, and He would stun them with answers that were straightforward yet profound.

Abdu’l-Baha, too, displayed this quality. It is striking to read through His speeches in the West and to see how He presents profound concepts in such an apparently straightforward way.

This quality of elegance through simplicity calls to mind a passage in God Passes By about an incident described by Nabil:

I, myself with two others, lived in a room which was devoid of furniture. Baha’u’llah entered it one day, and, looking about Him, remarked: ‘Its emptiness pleases me. In My estimation it is preferable to many a spacious palace, inasmuch as the beloved of God are occupied in it with the remembrance of the Incomparable Friend, with hearts that are wholly emptied of the dross of this world.’” His own life was characterized by that same austerity, and evinced that same simplicity which marked the lives of His beloved companions.

These thoughts also bring to mind a fascinating statement made by Baha’u’llah in The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf:

How often have things been simple and easy of accomplishment, and yet most men have been heedless, and busied themselves with that which wasteth their time!

How can this profound statement impact our lives today?

Clearly there are numerous implications, but one, I think, relates to the caution given by the Universal House of Justice in its 28 December 2010 message about, “the tendency to perceive dichotomies where, in fact, there are none.” The House of Justice states:

How encouraged we have been to note that many of the misunderstandings of the past have fallen away as appreciation for the provisions of the Plan has grown. Expansion and consolidation, individual action and collective campaigns, refinement of the inner character and consecration to selfless service—the harmonious relationship between these facets of Baha’i life is now readily acknowledged. It brings us equal pleasure to know that the friends are on their guard, lest new false dichotomies be allowed to pervade their thinking. They are well aware that the diverse elements of a programme of growth are complementary. The tendency to see activities, and the agencies that support them, in competition with one another, a tendency so common in society at large, is being avoided by the community.

It is also interesting to note that, immediately after this astounding statement by Baha’u’llah in Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, “How often have things been simple and easy of accomplishment…”,Baha’u’llah relates an incident concerning language:

One day, while in Constantinople, Kamal Pasha visited this Wronged One. Our conversation turned upon topics profitable unto man. He said that he had learned several languages. In reply We observed: “You have wasted your life. It beseemeth you and the other officials of the Government to convene a gathering and choose one of the divers languages, and likewise one of the existing scripts, or else to create a new language and a new script to be taught 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. Were men to take fast hold on that which hath been mentioned, the whole earth would come to be regarded as one country, and the people would be relieved and freed from the necessity of acquiring and teaching different languages.

These thoughts lead me to wonder to what degree we are conscious of our use of language, and when are we unnecessarily complicating our thinking, our conversations, our lives, by language? It’s a fascinating subject that maybe can be explored further in the future.

All these thoughts also call to mind the weighty statement made by Baha’u’llah in the “Words of Wisdom” about “the essence of faith”:

The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds; he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life.

On that note, I think I’d better stop writing and get on with some deeds or I’ll be in big trouble. Till next time, wishing you all the best in an abundance of deeds and elegant, non-dichotomous thoughts occupied in “remembrance of the Incomparable Friend.”

About the Author

Shastri currently lives in the United States, he previously lived in Israel, Australia and Singapore. He is passionate about increasing public awareness of the Baha'i Faith through the media and writes columns about the Faith for the Huffington Post.

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Discussion 19 Comments

  1. thank you for this—I love it—it reminds me of the way taking sides, or competition, is such a part of every part of our culture that it’s like the air we breathe and we don’t even notice it anymore. it’s a kind of daily practice of “everything is everything”. one moment i have in my everyday life is affirming “Christ is Baha’u’llah. Baha’u’llah is Christ”. My daughter goes to a Christian school and i have to admit that it is a test for me sometimes when i see language in her work that i could read as making His Holiness Jesus the Christ superior to other Prophets. Yes, He is the only Son of God. And Baha’u’llah is the return of the Son of God. There is no “competition” between them: to imagine that there is would be a false dichotomy. And the reality is elegant simplicity! I know you were writing mainly about loftier matters, but this element of competition in the sense of creating either/ors really struck a chord with me.

    1. that was beautiful and so true. A Place for Us right? Somewhere where we’re unedsrtood and not understated, a place we are joined and not judged. I pray for that day for all of us as moms. GORGEOUS!Kir recently posted..

  2. I adore Balyuzi’s book on Abdu’l-Baha. I read it when it first was published, and I had incredible dreams, and my soul soared to the hevens. it was a difficult time in my life. I love your blog; and I totally wish you well.

  3. As always a thoughtful article. As one of the librarians for the Royal Falcon Baha’i School Jan. 24-26, 2014 at Pensacola Beach, Florida I am inspired about your pick of Baha’u’llah: The King of Glory by Hand of the Cause of God Hasan M. Balyuzi.as one of the best books written on history. Looks like a perfect selection for our book store. Thank you..

  4. Baha’u’llah expands, in the same vein as your fine article – as to easiness of accompishment though this pusilanimous and privileged polyglot can’t or won’t accept the truth despite many audiences with Him – in the very next lines that you’ve wisely extracted from The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, published in 1891:

    “When in Our presence he [Kamal Pasha, a high ranking Turkish minister at the Ottoman court of Sultan ‘Abdu’l-‘Azíz] acquiesced, and even evinced great joy and complete satisfaction. We then told him to lay this matter before the officials and Ministers of the government, in order that it might be put into effect throughout the different countries. However, although he often returned to see Us after this, he never again referred to this subject,[the principle of a universal auxiliary language] although that which had been suggested is conducive to the concord and the unity of the peoples of the world.

    “We fain would hope that the Persian government will adopt it and carry it out. At present, a new language and a new script have been devised. If thou desirest, We will communicate them to thee. Our purpose is that all men may cleave unto that which will reduce unnecessary labour and exertion, so that their days may be befittingly spent and ended. God, verily, is the Helper, the Knower, the Ordainer, the Omniscient.”

    To the best of my knowledge no government official of the era inquired about this new language/script which had just been devised. Bahá’u’lláh ascended soon after in 1892 by which time Esperanto was a five-year-old whose fame had already been bruited abroad. In April 1890, after the invention of Esperanto yet slightly before Bahá’u’lláh’s referring to a devised new language and script, the famous English orientalist Professor E. G. Browne had the great honour of several audiences with Him, during which, the language issue may have been discussed. ” No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain! A mild and dignified voice bid me be seated… ” are the words of that Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge Universtiy in England to describe Bahá’u’lláh. Esperanto is called the planned or devised language by its admirers while some pejoratively refer to this planned device, so esteemed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, as the ‘artificial language’.

    Baha’i love

    Paul

  5. Fantastic post! I really enjoyed reading it, and believe me, I’ve been the victim of people trying to see dichotomy i what should be “unity in diversity”! Well written!

  6. False dichotomies are just one of many literary and philosophical problems that arise in discussions and relationships. If one wanted to place the problem of false dichotomies in some academic category, philosophy and language, literary criticism and psychology might be four of the relevant disciplines within which it would be discussed. For some exposure to these fields, readers might like to go to my website which provides some multi-faceted approaches to these human and interpersonal skill problems. There are no quick fixes or simple recipies, though; readers with the interest might like to browse through several of the sub-categories of my site. If you do not find my writing and my approaches attractive, just stop reading. This link will take you there: http://www.ronpriceepoch.com/

    1. Ron. Is the Universal House of Justice perhaps encouraging us to become free of the illusions of duality? I find the language they use to be exciting but I struggle to understand and comply.
      Is the dichotomy of good and evil a false one? Aren’t all dichotomies, differences, conflicts false, limiting, ilusory?

  7. Someone please tell me what dichotomy is and maybe some examples of false dichotomies old and ‘new.’
    Ron, are you sure there are no quick fixes or simple recipies? I bet there are. Like spiritual solutions.

    1. Hi Allen! I guess Things Like treating deepenings and study circles, direct teaching and indirect teaching, new administrative features and ole, as competitive or mutually exclusive constitute some of the new false dichotomies we ought ro avoid. These are caused by our own yearning for simplicity and magic formulas for success. Just my two cents!

  8. Allen, dichotomy, as a term was not so popular way back in the dark ages when I was at school in the 1950s
    It has several meanings today and gets much traction in our era
    Its etymology from the Greek about two (di) ears brings to my mind the notions of confusion and even obscurantism in the hands of the cunning

    ‘False dichotemies’ sounds even more problematic, if, as, or when deployed for example by self seeking elements in religion,
    who for the lust for leadership or out of ignorance obfuscate matters by deflecting one away from simple spiritual truths
    and solutions, i.e..simple and clear solutions revealed in posts above from the hand of Baha’u’llah

    You’re absolutely right. The solutions and the truth are always pure and always simple – eventually – to paraphrase Wilde.
    If spiritual solutions were obscure or intentionally obscured by hypocrites how is the ordinary person to find Baha’u’llah?
    Explained by Him is the role of leaders in religion who have led the masses astray

    My copy of Some Answered Qustions is not at hand but I think the Master addresses there your point about the lack of positive evil in the world.

    Baha’i love

    PS The worst enemies of our Faith, as in past Dispensations, are to be found in the Faith; our external enemies can be dealt with easily.
    Our internal enemies will soon be overcome with a madness and they too will be brushed aside, the Master has explained..
    This time around, as we have the Writings, one will never be led astray for long provided one investigates the truth for oneself.
    Again, clear proof, that the fundamental Baha’i principles are the first step to spiritual questions and for realizing the triumph of the Cause, i.e. enrolment growth

  9. When you encounter show ponies and amateurs such as me it’s essential to check the truth for your self.

    In my last post I contradicted rather than paraphrased Oscar Wilde who actually said now that I’ve looked it up:

    “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest.

    I had in mind some fundamental matters in the Faith that are pure and simple. The truth i m o is always pure and always simple – eventually! An English idiom comes to mind too, albeit age reveals some sexism and time its incompleteness: Everything comes to him who waits – and waits.

    When the Master opens topic 74 in Some Answered Qustions about The Nonexistence of Evil with :
    – The true explanation of this subject is very difficult –
    He ain’t kidding

  10. Wonderful article!! Just a tiny note, the quote “the tendency to perceive dichotomies where, in fact, there are none.” is from the letter of 28 December 2010, not Ridvan message.

    1. Thank you so much for noticing the error and for bringing it to our attention! We’ll be sure to correct it!

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