Destiny and Freedom in Gate of the Heart
Posted by Sen on July 13, 2010
I’ve been reading Nader Saiedi’s Gate of the Heart and I’m boundlessly enthusiastic. It’s more than a milestone of Bahai Studies: it contains much understanding that will help many of us trying to live the life of Faith – which the Bab, I think, would call the life of the heart. With the author’s permission, I’m going to make paraphrases of some sections, starting with a section on the Bab’s teaching on Destiny on pages 210-216. One might think that this topic has been chewed for centuries and can yield no new flavours: one chooses to believe in predestination, or in absolute freedom, or one simply hopes that human freedom is somehow compatible with the divine decree. Saiedi’s argument does start rather slowly, but stick with it: he comes to a remarkable argument newly translated from the writings of the Bab.
The relation between freedom and divine predestination is raised directly at the level of human action, but destiny is actually a more general metaphysical principle and applies to any phenomenal event. In philosophical terms, the question of Destiny is related to the mystery of divine Action. Is God’s creative Action determined by the divine unconstrained Will, or is it dictated by the essences of things as a logical necessity? Are human actions determined by the divine Will, or are they products of human freedom? How can divine knowledge, which knows every event in advance, be compatible with human agency? How can actions be created by God yet caused by human beings? How can the essence of a thing be created by God and yet its choices – which are themselves rooted in that created essence – be free?
The first question, however, is – is God free? In Islamic philosophy, those who believe in the eternality of the essences, and particularly those who think that the eternal forms are present in the Essence of God, usually define divine Action as a determined event dictated by the logical necessities of those eternal essences. In contrast, those who emphasize the created and originated nature of the essences usually advocate the absolute freedom and agency of divine Action, holding that there is only one real cause and that is God. This perspective defines human action as determined by the divine creative Action.
For the Bab, the fact that creation belongs to the realm of divine creative Action, and not to the Essence of God, has far-reaching implications for the metaphysical question of freedom. The Bab frequently speaks of the difficulty and complexity of the nature of Destiny; in many of the tablets in which He addresses the topic, He refers the reader to the Commentary on the Letter Ha’. There He explains:
Indeed, all who have endeavoured to explain the problem of Destiny have advocated either absolute divine determinism or human choice, and thus all the philosophers have confessed their powerlessness to explain the truth of this question. Indeed, this verily is the truth, inasmuch as the philosophers wanted to explain the divine truth, the Middle Path between absolute determinism and absolute freedom, by proofs of reason, which is, however, impossible. For, verily, reason, even in its utmost level of abstraction, is confined to understanding mere limited phenomena, which fail to guide humans unto the summit of the delight of their heart. Thus, he who abideth upon the throne of the kingdom of reason hath no recourse but to believe in either absolute determinism or absolute freedom.
According to the Bab, when we are confronting the unconditional realm of infinity – in this case, the mystery of divine creation – we must approach the issue from the perspective of the heart, and with the eye of unity for it is only with this orientation that we can understand that the oppositions which apply to the phenomenal realm (as in the two mutually contradictory philosophical positions discussed) do not apply in the unseen realm of higher reality. The Bab writes: “ [T]hat which is beyond these two extremes, which is the Middle Path … can be comprehended by naught save the heart. God hath created the heart to understand His unity and transcendence, and it is through the heart that Divine Unity can be witnessed at the level of action.”
As the Bab mentions in the passage quoted earlier, usually the various theological schools have either affirmed human freedom at the expense of divine eternal creation, or advocated an absolute perpetual divine creation and determination at the expense of human agency. The Bab maintains that both these positions are inadequate and remote from the truth. The basic error in these traditional approaches is that they posit an absolute opposition between divine determination and phenomenal choice. Confirming the truth of a Shi‘ih Tradition attributed to Imam Sadiq, the Bab explains that it is the simultaneous truth of both divine determination and human freedom which is the true “Middle Path.” The stages of divine creative Action are a testimony to this truth: all things come into being through the conjunction of Will and Determination, existence and essence, the divine effulgence and the thing’s receptivity, divine determination and free choice.
Thus, according to the Bab, God has created not only human beings but all things in such a way that freedom is inherent in their very nature: it is embedded in their reality as a part of the process of creation. God has created human beings with freedom and has enabled them to be shaped in time in accordance with their own decisions and choices – for which they are inevitably accountable.
But how is God’s omniscience compatible with human freedom? The logical error has been to assume that God’s knowledge is comparable to human knowledge. But God’s knowledge is not an event in time, and it is not bound by the phenomenal, temporal logic of human knowledge. The divine knowledge of events before and after their occurrence is one and the same thing. It is thus a logical fallacy to deny human freedom on account of God’s omniscience.
The relation of divine causation and knowledge to human action cannot be comprehended within the categories of human reason. All human actions are supremely determined by divine Action, while they are simultaneously the product of human free will. At the level of divine creative Action, the first is the same as the last, and before is exactly the same as after.
The Bab frequently mentions the mystery of Destiny in the context of bearing witness to Divine Unity at the level of actions (tawhiid-i-af`al). According to Him, one must bear witness to Divine Unity at four levels: unity of essence, unity of attributes, unity of action, and unity of worship. The first act affirms the absolute transcendence of the divine Essence. The second emphasizes the unity of the divine attributes and the divine Essence, meaning that none can understand the divine attributes. The third pertains to the realm of divine Action. Here all events in the world, including human actions, are subject to absolute divine sovereignty. Finally, the fourth act implies that none can be worshipped except God. With respect to the third act, concerning the realm of divine Action, the Bab declares that “verily, the feet of all have slipped in their understanding of that Middle Path that streameth between the dual paths, the mystery of Destiny. It is through this station that the servants declare the unity of their Creator in the realm of actions.” The Bab explains that the knowledge of the secret of Destiny is concealed from the people, citing an Islamic tradition, but then he explains the mystery of Destiny as follows:
And the truth of this mystery is that none can behold the manifestation of the Action of God, as it befitteth Him, save through the very manifestation of the free choice of the things themselves …. Verily, at the time of action, the human being is the agent, who acteth by virtue of the Destiny-ordaining Action of the All-Knowing, the All-Informed …. Indeed, that free choice is bound to the existence of each thing, and naught is called into existence except through its free choice. Verily, at the primordial moment of choice, when God said unto the thing, “Am I not your Lord?” it would not have replied, “Yea,” had it been deprived of freedom of choice.”
The Bab’s interactive approach to human action is reflected in His reinterpretation of an Islamic Tradition which is usually taken as a definitive argument for total determinism. The Tradition says: “The Wicked is wicked in the Womb of his mother, and the just is just in the womb of his mother.” The literal meaning of this Tradition seems to deny any sense of human freedom. But the Bab interprets this Tradition in a way that indicates an interaction between the divine effulgence and human choice:
It is in the station of Destiny that pluralities appear, lights are distinguished from shadows, and essences are differentiated from attributes. It is by virtue of this station that the wicked becometh wicked on account of his free choice, and the just becometh just, through the grace of God, on account of his free choice. Thus Destiny is “the womb of the pure realm of contingency” and “the most great depth” …. Verily, the reason for the manifestation of these distinctions in the station of Destiny is the very manifestation of freedom inasmuch as, verily naught cometh into being in the world save through its own free choice. Though it is created free even in the station of the Will, its freedom is not reckoned by anyone except the Subtile, the All-Perceiving. The same is true with regard to the second station, for the aspect of the acceptance of good and evil is the third station, which cannot appear except after the union of the previous two stations [Will and Determination].
In the Bab’s interpretation of the Tradition, the “womb of his mother” is the station of Destiny, Where freedom is manifested through the “marriage” of existence and essence. As noted before, all reality is the product of the union of Will and Determination, or, symbolically, “Adam” and “Eve.” Together they create all the pluralities. Through that interaction, the faithful become differentiated from the faithless. Destiny is thus the realm of the conjunction of the divine effulgence and human receptivity and free choice. It is only at this station that freedom can manifest itself. In other words, the “womb of the mother” refers to the active choice of humans at the moment of the interaction of their existence and essence. The divine effulgence represents divine absolute determinism, and the essence of the thing represents its absolute freedom. It is however, only after the marriage of the two that the child of the Middle Path is created in the womb of the contingent world.
Abdu’l-Baha has also interpreted that same Tradition and has identified it as a reference to the realm of divine knowledge, a knowledge which neither precedes nor follows the reality of the things, for it is identical with their occurrence. Thus divine omniscience does not contradict human agency and causal efficacy. Both divine determinism and human freedom are simultaneously true. The link between the two is the fact that God has created human beings with freedom. That divine determinism, therefore, is the very source which has made human freedom possible.
In the Tradition mentioned earlier, Imam Ali had described Destiny as “a bountiful, surging ocean, which belongeth solely to God, exalted be His name and glory! Its fathomless depths extend between the heavens and the earth, its width between the East and the West. It is dark as the dusky night, filled with whales and serpents. At one time it riseth and at another it falleth. In its depths there shineth a Sun …. ” The Bab explains that this infinite ocean is more extended than the heaven of divine effulgence and the earth of receptive essences. It is the pure realm of contingency. It is “dark” because reason is unable to fathom its hidden mystery. However, in its depths shines the “sun” of the heart. It is through the perspective of the heart, seeing with the eye of God, that its truth can become manifest. “At one time it riseth” – that is, it is oriented toward the divine effulgence – “and at another it falleth” – that is, it is oriented toward the essence of the thing itself.” It is this surging and falling ocean that defines the reality of human action, the Middle Path between the two extremes.
The true Destiny of all things is the free choice of the good. All human beings are created capable of that choice, and the purpose of creation is the unity of that choice with the attainment of spiritual qualities and the recognition of God. In other words, when freedom is accompanied by the choice of the good, the end and purpose of creation – its true destiny – is realized. For humans to attain this destiny requires turning toward the divine effulgence and annihilating their own will in the Will of God. At that time their essences are as pure mirrors in which divine revelation is manifestly shining. That station is the station of the heart, the very station that makes possible the understanding of the secret of Destiny.
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