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I have found that the joy of being a Baha’i is that, irrespective of your age or depth of understanding in the Baha’i Writings, you are constantly challenged with new ideas. The concept of “moral beauty” threw itself at me when attending a devotional meeting centred around the theme of our attraction to beauty. 1
It was a beautiful presentation, reminding us of the beauty of the Beloved, the beauty of diversity, the beauty of harmony, and a dozen of us sat around casually congratulating ourselves on our depth of understanding. As the host called us for coffee, a bespectacled gentleman at the back asked, “What did Diessner mean by ‘moral beauty’?”
Moral beauty? Eleven of us retreated to the pages we had just read and searched for Diessner. There it was:
There are many kinds of beauty: the beauty of the natural world, including of the human body; the beauty of arts and crafts and all things made and designed by humans; the beauty of ideas; as well as moral beauty and spiritual beauty…The concept of moral beauty assumes moral goodness, but goes beyond it to indicate a subjective state of moral motivation and emotional response. 2
“Who’s Rhett Diessner?” The question came from a cheerful teenager at the back – his stylish attire accentuated by sassy sunglasses worn despite the time being well into the evening. “What’s his authority?”
Smart phones and iPads appeared from shirt pockets and handbags; fingers flashed across the keys as search engines were searched. The lass with the quickest fingers let out a gentle “Ah, yes. Here it is.”
We quickly discovered that Dr. Diessner is a Baha’i professor at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho, USA. His articles interpret the field of western psychological science through the spiritual principles of the Baha’i Faith. The phrase “moral beauty” now demanded our attention.
“OK. He sounds pretty cool but is he the only one who talks about moral beauty?” Our friend with sunglasses was challenging us once again.
Fingers again flew over keyboard keys and the answer came quickly. Aristotle spoke of moral beauty being the ability of a person to elicit, in another person, the moral emotion of elevation and to engage in prosocial behaviour. In fact, he said that it was the goal for all the other virtues
“And what do the Baha’i Writings say about moral beauty?” This question demanded a search of “moral beauty” on the Baha’i Reference Library. Nothing listed in the Writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha while, of course, there were hundreds of hits for “moral” and “beauty” as separate entries.
“Has anyone read the Ridvan message of 2011, where the Universal House of Justice spoke about Abdu’l-Baha?” The bespectacled gentleman at the back asked gently. We all nodded while surreptitiously searching for the message on our smart phones. Coffee had long been forgotten. Recognizing our eagerness the gentleman suggested we look at the 5th paragraph. The message reads, in part,
He imparted love, wisdom, comfort, whatever the particular need. While elevating their souls, He challenged their assumptions, reoriented their perspectives, expanded their consciousness, and focused their energies. He demonstrated by word and deed such compassion and generosity that hearts were utterly transformed. 3
“Wow, did you get that?” The cheerful teenager leapt to his feet. “Is this what the House means by ‘elevated conversation’? That when we are engaged in a conversation, especially with someone whose views run counter to what we believe, that we should not walk away but: challenge their assumptions, reorientate their perspectives, expand their consciousness, and focus their energies? Isn’t that moral beauty? But that was Abdu’l-Baha. How can we do that in our daily lives?” He sat down, apparently exhausted.
A visitor to the devotion started to speak, an excited tone in his voice.
“As I listened to the readings and the discussion tonight I realized, you could almost call it an epiphany, that moral beauty is what my wife brings to her work.” He paused to check the emotion in his voice.
“Each week she teaches Adult Migrant English classes. These classes are diverse in culture and nationality and the students are often in their middle ages, or older. Consequently many arrive with set ideas and inbuilt prejudices and my wife uses her English classes to challenge their assumptions, expand their consciousness – and improve their English at the same time. Isn’t this moral beauty?”
An elderly lady stood and said, in a simple way,
“And I want to tell you my story.
Many years ago, I moved from the Gold Coast to Sydney and met a lady who asked if I believed in God. She was Jewish and was fortunate, as a child, to escape from Germany before the Second World War. Her family had not survived and she now doubted God could allow such suffering for her people.
We began what we would now call a veritable friendship discussing God and love, humanity and forgiveness. Many years later I was with her when she was dying of cancer and she left me a beautiful letter, written some years before and thanking me for changing her life, for changing her views on humanity and thus allowing her to enjoy a spiritual life.”
When the lady finished, she was not the only one with tears in her eyes. When we left to go home that evening, most people drove their car but a few of us simply floated home.
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