I know Not How to Sing Thy Praise:
Reflections on a Prayer of Bahá'u'lláh

By Wolfgang Klebel

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #102
Bosch Baha'i School: Santa Cruz, California, USA
May 18–22, 2011
(see list of papers from #102)

published in Lights of Irfan, volume 13, pages 23-68
© 2012, ‘Irfán Colloquia

    This prayer of Bahá'u'lláh (PM 122) gives access to the basic question of theology about "God" for this day and age, where practical and theoretical atheism and irreligion has captured at least halve of mankind, not only in the East but also in the West. It presents an answer to the question how to believe in God today and how to understand words like the following from another prayer of Bahá'u'lláh: "O Thou Who art the most manifest of the manifest and the most hidden of the hidden!" (PM 248)

    In this commentary the four modes of Revelation described by the Báb are used to understand the theological locus of the many prayers of the Bahá'í Manifestations, who are used by the faithful as private prayers. It appears to be the first time in the history of Religion, that the prayers of the Manifestation are used by the faithful in this personal way. According to the Báb, prayer is the second mode of Revelation after the Verses of God. Here the language of revelation is uttered in the voice of the Prophet, but now speaking in the station of the creation, addressing the Creator with an attitude of servitude and effacement (an affirmation of `Thou art God') See Nader Saiedi, Logos and Civilization, page 295.

    The other two modes are commentaries and scientific educational discourse. Theological inquiry can benefit from this distinction and the prayers of Bahá'u'lláh are a valid source of theological information, giving the Bahá'í theology a special advantage in the sense of Hans Urs von Balthazar's distinction between "kneeling" and "sitting" theology. To distinguish between a theology, which is connected to contemplative prayer, on the one hand and theology as scientific and educational understanding of the Revelation, on the other, can benefit the student of theology and clarify issues that were confusing in the past.

    The commentary on this prayer of Bahá'u'lláh brings a number of important question to light. What is the difference between not knowing how to praise and describe God in the Bahá'í Faith, and the denial of the existence of God in atheism? What is the relation of the Manifestation with God? Consequently, how does that affect the religion in today's world? What is the meaning of modern atheism, agnosticism and in what way has the understanding of God changed during the last centuries? Does theology today have to be a "post-atheistic" theology and has any previous theology become inadequate? What is the theological position of the praying person and what is prayer and what is it not? What should we pray for and what is the effect of prayer?

    Every revelation responds to the needs of the time; every revelation abolishes, conserves, and expands the previous revelations. Trying to find new theological insights from Bahá'í prayers is a legitimate scholarly task and this paper attempts to serve as an example of this process. Bahá'í theology, therefore, can legitimately be called progressive theology as it documents the progress of understanding the Bahá'í Revelation throughout the time given to this Revelation.

    This commentary has a personal aspect, it is helping the writer and hopefully the reader to improve their devotional life and to understand what is expressed when reciting or chanting the Bahá'í prayers. Any theological inquiry needs to be applicable in the life of the faithful; otherwise, "such academic pursuits as begin and end in words alone have never been and will never be of any worth." (TB 169)

    In the following paper, the prayer is first printed in its entirety, after that the individual sentences are repeated and commented upon. The prayer is divided into four paragraphs.

    The first describes the Not-knowing of how to sing God's praise, how to describe God's glory and how to call God's name. In this paragraph, it is emphasized that no creature of God can do this. This impotence is extended to the issue of praising God's essential oneness, which is included in this declaration of impotence, of Not-Knowing; in fact this attempt is described as vain imagination.

    In second paragraph the impossibility of knowing God is again pointed out, but then the mercy of God is depicted, which allows the servant to praise God and a colorful picture of this praise is painted. Further, it is noted that this praise will result in the believer attaining what God has destined for them through God's will and purpose.

    In the third paragraph, the total impotence of the creature to praise God is again declared. Following this, it is explained that it is God, Who draws the believer towards Him; God being the all Powerful and Supreme Ruler .

    In the last paragraph this relationship between God and the human person is again the topic and it is emphasized what the characteristics of the person have to be to appeal to God's mercy and grace. Moreover, it is again pointed out that God is the cause of the prayer, which allows the servant to reach the heights to which he aspires. The Closure of the prayer again lauds God's forgiving mercy and bountiful gift

    It needs to be noted here that this paper was written originally for a class in the Wilmette Institute, five years after this writer had become a Bahá'í. It has been edited and expanded to include new thoughts and a better understanding over time, but the original message did not have to be changed.

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