Sunday, September 13, 2009

Is 'Godliness' Contagious Too?

The New York Times Magazine has a great piece about research on "social contagion". Here is a brief selection:

"...Christakis and Fowler say, they have for the first time found some solid basis for a potentially powerful theory in epidemiology: that good behaviors — like quitting smoking or staying slender or being happy — pass from friend to friend almost as if they were contagious viruses. The Framingham participants, the data suggested, influenced one another’s health just by socializing. And the same was true of bad behaviors — clusters of friends appeared to “infect” each other with obesity, unhappiness and smoking. Staying healthy isn’t just a matter of your genes and your diet, it seems. Good health is also a product, in part, of your sheer proximity to other healthy people". (Read the whole thing here)

If physical or mental health can be spread from person to person through association, how about spiritual health? I'm reminded of Baha'u'llah's emphasis on keeping company with 'godly' folks:

O MY SON! The company of the ungodly increaseth sorrow, whilst fellowship with the righteous cleanseth the rust from off the heart. He that seeketh to commune with God, let him betake himself to the companionship of His loved ones; and he that desireth to hearken unto the word of God, let him give ear to the words of His chosen ones. (Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words)

Beware! Walk not with the ungodly and seek not fellowship with him, for such companionship turneth the radiance of the heart into infernal fire. (Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words)

A simplistic reading of these passages could lead a person to believe that Baha'u'llah is encouraging us to avoid those who don't share our beliefs. However, godliness is not simply a matter of having a certain set of beliefs or membership in a particular faith community. Godliness is about reflecting God's image and likeness as 'Abdu'l-Baha has explained:

"According to the words of the Old Testament God has said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." This indicates that man is of the image and likeness of God -- that is to say, the perfections of God, the divine virtues, are reflected or revealed in the human reality. Just as the light and effulgence of the sun when cast upon a polished mirror are reflected fully, gloriously, so, likewise, the qualities and attributes of Divinity are radiated from the depths of a pure human heart...Let us now discover more specifically how he is the image and likeness of God and what is the standard or criterion by which he can be measured and estimated. This standard can be no other than the divine virtues which are revealed in him. Therefore, every man imbued with divine qualities, who reflects heavenly moralities and perfections, who is the expression of ideal and praiseworthy attributes, is, verily, in the image and likeness of God" (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 69).

In light of Christakis and Fowler's research, it could be that the wisdom of seeking fellowship with godly people is that it affects our souls in a positive way, that we become spiritually healthier through such associations. Not only that, but other people in our lives may become spiritually healthier as well.

This has implications for the intentional building of spiritual communities, a central part of the Baha'i approach to social change. Community building based on Baha'i teaching could be seen as the weaving of social networks that spread spiritual health from person to person. This has the potential to contribute to an epidemic of godliness.

"If a small number of people gather lovingly together, with absolute purity and sanctity, with their hearts free of the world, experiencing the emotions of the Kingdom and the powerful magnetic forces of the Divine, and being at one in their happy fellowship, that gathering will exert its influence over all the earth" (Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 80).