Web Talk No. 6 Now on YouTube: Dr. Sandra Lynn Hutchison Offers a Technique for Accessing the Meaning of the Bahá’í Revelation
For a religion that has no clergy and that exhorts its followers to seek truth independently, what could be more helpful than a talk explaining one method for understanding the deeper meanings of Bahá’í texts? That is exactly what Dr. Sandra Lynn Hutchison did on June 7 when she spoke on “Windows on Divine Wisdom: Accessing the Meaning of the Bahá’í Revelation.” Her talk was the sixth in the series of Web Talks marking the twentieth anniversary of the Wilmette Institute. You can find the Web Talk and the PowerPoint she used at http://wilmetteinstitute.org; click on the “Web Talk” tab, then scroll to the bottom of the list for Dr. Hutchison’s talk.
Dr. Hutchison began her forty-five minute talk by quoting Bahá’u’lláh’s exhortation about studying His revelation: “Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths.” She said she drew on two skill sets to develop her “simple technique” for reading the Bahá’í writings: she holds a doctorate in English literature, and she worked for two-and-a-half years in the English section of the Research Department at the Bahá’í World Center in Haifa, Israel.
She noted that learning to “immerse” oneself in the Bahá’í writings is not easy because of the nature of the texts and the volume of the writings (Bahá’u’lláh penned some 18,000 works; the Báb, 2,000; and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 30,000). Moreover, Bahá’u’lláh warns us that, if we do not read correctly, we will not find the “hidden gift.” The passage from Bahá’u’lláh “that made her . . . think deeply about reading the Bahá’í writings” is this one: “Number me not with them who read Thy words and fail to find Thy hidden gift . . . which quickeneth the souls of Thy creatures and the hearts of Thy servants” (Prayers and Meditations 83).
Dr. Hutchison then took time to explain the difference between exegesis (literally, reading a text to “draw out the meaning”) and eisegegis (reading one’s own meaning into the text). Only Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi can make authoritative interpretations of the Bahá’í texts. But individual Bahá’ís can use a variety of tools to draw their own meanings out of the texts. Indeed, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in a talk to a study class, gave instructions that provide His definition of exegesis: “investigate and study the Holy Scripture word by word so that you may attain knowledge of the mysteries hidden therein” (The Promulgation of Universal Peace 459).
“Reading,” Dr. Hutchison, observed, “is a life-long process. It is not something you learn in grade school, and that’s it.” In terms of reading the Bahá’í writings, there are at least two types of readers—the engaged reader and the enlightened reader. The engaged reader tackles the Bahá’í texts with eagerness, love, joy, radiance, a clean heart, and a pure mind, among other qualities mentioned by Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Dr. Hutchison said she wanted to make it clear that “with prayerful meditation, a sincere love of God, and a yearning to understand the texts, the engaged reader can accomplish a great deal. We can’t underestimate the power of the spiritual apprehension of the deep truths contained in the writings.”
But there is a further step we can take, Dr. Hutchison explained. To become an enlightened reader “we are talking about further enhancing” the engaged reader’s approach “with a different process—a process of systematically studying the Word of God” as the potentially enlightened reader tries to make sense of a whole, large corpus of works” including three different authors, Bahá’ulláh, the Báb, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The enlightened reader aspires to a metaphorical mindset, uses literary and exegetical tools, makes a lifelong commitment to mastering the art of reading, seeks to read and understand, and fashions a long-term plan for studying the Bahá’í texts systematically. The latter point—a systematic plan of study—is a theme appearing frequently in the talk.
Before explaining the nine steps (or nine windows) to becoming an enlightened reader, Dr. Hutchison turned to Bahá’í texts to emphasize a new way of reading. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, again while talking to a study class, says “Be not satisfied with words, but seek to understand the spiritual meanings hidden in the heart of the words” (Promulgation 435). To emphasize the importance of rejecting literal mindedness and adopting a metaphorical mindset, He advises rejecting the “literal interpretation” and looking for the “symbolic” (for example, He says, the trees of the field do not literally clap their hands) (Promulgation 246). In yet another passage He talks about the “hidden and inner significance,” not the “outer sense” (Promulgation 459).
Dr. Hutchison then drew attention to the similarities of the translations of Bahá’í texts to Early Modern English (the language of the King James Bible and Shakespeare) with its archaic verbs and inverted syntax, which “is not the way we speak today.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá comments that, if one is “pleased and rejoiced” with the verses of Shakespeare, “How much greater his joy and pleasure when he perceives the reality of Holy Scriptures and becomes informed of the mysteries of the Kingdom!” (Promulgation 460).
Windows on Divine Wisdom, Nos. 1–4
Dr. Hutchison cautioned the aspiring enlightened reader to “acquire the discipline and high literacy” of reading the texts by him/herself, reading carefully, reading slowly, reading with attention, and studying, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá advises, “word by word.” As she began discussing the first four of the nine Windows on Divine Wisdom, she noted that they help one to take a microscopic view of an individual passage.
The first four Windows on Divine Wisdom, according to Dr. Hutchison’s method of accessing the Bahá’í writings, are: (1) Diction; (2) Figurative Language; (3) Theme; and (4) Structure. Before discussing the four windows, she called the learner’s attention to Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Word, Arabic No. 2, where He admonishes the reader to “see with your own eyes, not with the eyes of others.” As an example of “facing the text” with our own eyes, Dr. Hutchison chose Bahá’u’lláh’s Persian Hidden Words, No. 1:
O YE PEOPLE THAT HAVE MINDS TO KNOW AND EARS TO HEAR! The first call of the beloved is this: O mystic nightingale! Abide not but in the rose garden of the spirit. O messenger of the Solomon of love! See thou no shelter except in the Sheba of the well-beloved, and O immortal phoenix! Dwell not save on the mount of faithfulness. Therein is thy habitation, if on the wings of thy soul thou soarest to the realm of the infinite and sleekest to attain thy goal.
For Diction, the first Window on Divine Wisdom, Dr. Hutchison asked the enlightened reader to consider the differences between “dwell” and “habitation,” and why “abide” is used instead of “dwell” or “nest.” For the Figurative Language in the second window, Dr. Hutchison provided web links to dictionaries of figurative language and literary devices. Then she asked questions about symbols such as “mystic nightingale” and “immortal phoenix” and metaphors such as “rose garden of the spirit” and “mount of faithfulness.”
The third window to accessing the Bahá’í writings and finding the “hidden gift” is Theme. Here Dr. Hutchison challenged the reader to condense the theme of the Hidden Word into one sentence. The fourth Window on Divine Wisdom is Structure. “At the simplest level,” she said, is Bahá’u’lláh’s use four times of the exclamatory vocative “O,” which conveys a “sense of urgency and escalating emotional intensity.”
Windows on Divine Wisdom, Nos. 5–9
In windows No. 1 through 4, Dr. Hutchinson observed, “we have been reading ourselves.” In windows No. 5 through 9, “we may have to do research,” for we are now taking a telescopic view of the texts and placing them in a larger context. The remaining five Windows on Divine Wisdom are (5) The Work; (6) Genre; (7) Oeuvre; (8) Biographical and Historical Context; and (9) Literary and Scriptural Traditions. To help the reader Dr. Hutchison provided the names of a number of historical accounts by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi; several reference books; links to a number of websites (and how to navigate one of them); and the name of Shoghi Effendi’s favorite dictionary.
For the fifth window—The Work—Dr. Hutchison explained where to find ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s commentary on works by Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb and also Shoghi Effendi’s on the works of the Central Figures, starting always with God Passes By and then Shoghi Effendi’s other works. By way of example, she quoted what Dr. Amin Banani wrote about The Secret of Divine Civilization’s “‘pre-eminent position among the literature of modernization in Persia.’” Genre, the sixth window, helps in understanding the work’s “purpose and intention.” The Secret of Divine Civilization, for example, is a treatise, a long, serious work on a single topic, and one that a reader can fruitfully compare to other treatises written in the nineteenth century on similar topics.
The seventh Window on Divine Wisdom is Oeuvre, or the totality of the works of particular author. For example, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote three treatises: The Secret of Divine Civilization in 1875, A Traveller’s Narrative in 1886, and A Treatise on Politics in 1893 (a sequel to Secret but not yet translated into English). For the eighth window—Biography and History—one has to look for information on the condition of the Bahá’í community at the time the work was written, what has going on in the lives of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and in the region and the world. For The Secret of Divine Civilization the answers to these questions are illuminating.
The ninth and final window in Dr. Hutchison’s technique for accessing the meaning of the Bahá’í Revelation is Literary and Scriptural Traditions. For example, in The Secret of Divine Civilization, one can explore references to Rumi, a Persian mystical poet (literary tradition), political treatises (also literary tradition), and allusions to the Qur’an (scriptural tradition).
As Dr. Hutchinson drew to an end in her talk, she suggested resolutions for an aspiring enlightened reader:
- “While participating in Ruhi Study Circles and enjoying the close reading and fellowship that takes place in that context, I will develop a plan for the systematic study of the Bahá’í writings so that I read beyond the excerpts contained in the Ruhi books, which constitute only a fraction of the revealed Word of God.
- “I will familiarize myself with and learn to use various literary and exegetical tools, such as those introduced in Windows on Divine Wisdom.
- “I will maintain a metaphorical mindset and make a commitment to read the entire body of Bahá’í scripture, perusing each text “word by word”—that is, slowly, carefully, and with attention—and investigating each text with the goal of understanding its inner meaning.”
Finally, Dr. Hutchison concluded her talk by saying that the “reader who engages with the texts and keeps these resolutions is an enlightened reader who has found the “hidden gift,” about which Bahá’u’lláh writes. Following the talk, Dr. Hutchison engaged in a lively question-and-answer session, listeners submitting written questions. In response to some of the questions, she revised her PowerPoint to include the links to websites to which she had referred in her talk.
Dr. Hutchison will offer her course Finding the Hidden Gift: An Approach to Studying the Bahá’í Writings again on January 7, 2016.
Dr. Hutchison is the author of two books: a book of poetry, The Art of Nesting (George Ronald Books, 2008) and a memoir about her time living in China, Chinese Brushstrokes (Turnstone Press, 1996). She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto and recently undertook an MFA in poetry at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, USA. She has lectured at universities around the world and has also worked as a journalist, most recently as a columnist for In Culture Parent. Her interest in Bahá’í scholarship dates from her time serving in the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice in the 1990s. She has taught various courses through the Wilmette Institute since its inception and currently offers two courses: Finding the Hidden Gift: An Approach to Studying the Bahá’í Writings and The Practice of the Arts, a workshop course. Sandra has published scholarly work on the writings of ‘Abdul-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, and Amatúl-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum. She has also worked as a literary editor, serving for almost a decade as the poetry editor for the long-established Maine journal, Puckerbrush Review. She is now preparing to launch Elixir, an online Bahá’í journal of the arts and letters to be published under the auspices of the Wilmette Institute.
After a two-and-a-half month break, the next Wilmette Institute twentieth-anniversary Web Talk (No. 7) is scheduled for Sunday, August 30, at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The speaker will be, Susanne M. Alexander, who will discuss “Healthy, Unified Marriages as Service to Humanity.” For information on the remaining five talks, visit the “Web Talk” tab on the Wilmette Institute’s website, http://wilmetteinstitute.org, or click on the links for Web Talks listed in “Save These Dates!” in this issue of the Wilmette Institute eNewsletter.