Gender and the Divine World

gender and the divine

In Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings, God has no gender. Indeed, to think of God in anthropomorphic terms (as a kind of “super human”) is entirely imaginary.

To every discerning and illuminated heart it is evident that God, the unknowable Essence, the Divine Being, is immensely exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress. …[1]

However, the topic presents us with complexities. First, we have to pause to clarify our thinking about what we mean by “gender”. Gender has layered biological and cultural aspects and it is easy to mix them up. Aspects of gender such as “pink” and “blue” for example are recent – and purely cultural inventions, as are many of the ways we think of men and women. Statements which begin “woman are …”, “men are …” are profoundly influenced by cultural norms. They form part of what cultural scholars call our “social reality” – an ultimately imaginary world invented by human beings. Yet there is also a basis in reality to gender difference. To put it another way what we call “masculine qualities” and “feminine qualities” are real parts of the human experience – they are expressed by all human beings to varying degrees depending on the individual and cultural context. We might also pause to note that gender is connected with our material existence – yet human nature itself transcends physicality. Thus we might make a statement like “the soul has no gender”. Further, the question we ask: “What does it mean to be human/a woman/a man?” provides different insight, but might also mislead if not explored together.

A second complexity is that of the connections between language and culture. Language has culture embedded within it. For example, the pronoun “he” in English (which is used in reference to God) has a quite different usage than “he” in Arabic. English is largely gender neutral – thus the use of “he” is strongly connected with “male”. Arabic is somewhat like French or other Romance languages – where feminine and masculine gender are attached in an arbitrary way to non-animate objects such as trees, tables, the sky and earth. The sun, for example, is feminine whereas the moon is masculine. The phrase “He is God” which is a direct translation of the Arabic “Huwa’llah” thus has different resonances in the two languages. Another English translation might be “It is God” – although in English the term “it” is inadequate – as the word “it” objectifies in English – when God has a subjectivity transcending our human notions of subjectivity.

A third complexity is the inadequacy of language to express a spiritual world which is just at the boundaries of our perception. For example, even the qualities we ascribe to God, such as beauty, power, knowledge, existence, mercy, love etc, we can only understand by analogy to human or material qualities.  Of course, the analogy is very approximate.  And, is only a way of speaking about the divine – the inner reality of which transcends such descriptions. Thus in the long obligatory prayer, Bahá’u’lláh has given us, we find:

Too high art Thou for the praise of those who are nigh unto Thee to ascend unto the heaven of Thy nearness, or for the birds of the hearts of them who are devoted to Thee to attain to the door of Thy gate. I testify that Thou hast been sanctified above all attributes and holy above all names.[2]

Finally, this topic relates to the equality of men and women, which as we have seen, is a core principle of the Baha’i Faith.  It ought to be obvious enough that any understanding of the divine that devalues the feminine or seeks to place women in a subordinate role, is incoherent with that principle.  The very notion of gender is in a process of historical transition because of the increasing expression of equality of men and women in the world.

In this context, we may observe that the feminine is also connected with the divine world in Bahá’u’lláh’s writings. In the story of Majnun and Layli, the feminine Layli represents the beloved and the divine.

Another notable example is the figure of the Maid of Heaven, a figure who most proximately communicates to Bahá’u’lláh his mission. She is spoken about almost as the spiritual complement of Bahá’u’lláh’s physical being. For example:

She turned, and round her circled the inhabitants of both this world and the world to come. Rejoice! This is the Maid of Heaven, come with a mighty dispensation. She advanced, arrayed with a rare and glorious adorning, till she stood face to face before the Youth. Rejoice! This is the immortal Beauty, come with enchanting grace.[3]

In Abdu’l Baha’s writings this connection is also referred to:

Verily, verily, the new heaven and the new earth are come. The holy City, new Jerusalem, hath come down from on high in the form of a maid of heaven, veiled, beauteous, and unique, and prepared for reunion with her lovers on earth.[4]

Although Bahá’u’lláh’s physical body was male, his spiritual reality he has connected with feminine images. The Maid of Heaven appears from the earliest days of his mission when he was in the prison of Siyah-Chal:

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden—the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord—suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer being tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God’s honoured servants.

Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His Treasure, the Cause of God and His glory unto all who are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive. This is He Whose Presence is the ardent desire of the denizens of the Realm of eternity, and of them that dwell within the Tabernacle of glory, and yet from His Beauty do ye turn aside.[5]


 

(This article is the 145th in a series of what I hope will be 200 articles in 200 days for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh. The anniversary is being celebrated around the world on 21 and 22 October 2017, The articles are simply my personal reflections on Bahá’u’lláh’s life and work. Any errors or inadequacies in these articles are solely my responsibility.)

 

 

 

 

 

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