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Posts Tagged ‘Philip Zimbardo’

Empowerment

To mistakenly identify Bahá’í community life with the mode of religious activity that characterises the general society — in which the believer is a member of a congregation, leadership comes from an individual or individuals presumed to be qualified for the purpose, and personal participation is fitted into a schedule dominated by concerns of a very different nature — can only have the effect of marginalising the Faith and robbing the community of the spiritual vitality available to it.

(Universal House of Justice, 22 August 2002)

Training is helping move us from a passive congregational culture to an actively empowered one.

Referred to as the “chief propellant” of the change in culture, the training institutes, with their ability to produce an expanding number of human resources, have fundamentally altered the approach of the Bahá’í community to the tasks at hand. More than ever the rank and file of the believers are involved in meaningful and vital service to the Cause. Whether by holding devotional meetings, facilitating study circles, or teaching children’s classes, a greater number of friends have found paths of service that do not depend on public-speaking prowess.

(Building Momentum: pages 18-19)

The three activities referred to in that last quotation have often been described as ‘core activities.’  Core does not, however, mean only. The analogy of the spear has also been used, with these activities, or some aspect of them, referred to as the spearhead. This metaphor points up (terrible unintended pun – sorry!) the  issue here. A spearhead without a  shaft is not much use. So, there are many other things that we need to do as well as those three important components of our plan if they are to have the impact we would like.

The House of Justice has remarked on this increase in empowered participation:

It is especially gratifying to note the high degree of participation of believers in the various aspects of the growth process.

(Building Momentum: pages 18-19)

People offer refer to how, in most organisations, 20% of the people do 80% of the work. Bahá’ís are learning how to buck this trend.

A Sequence of Courses

A critical tool in this process is a sequence of courses devised by the Ruhi Institute in Colombia, tested in the field there and gradually improved in the light of experience. Certain principles underpin the components of this set of materials:

From among the various possibilities, the Ruhi institute has chosen ‘service to the Cause’ as the organising principle of its educational activities.

(Learning about Growth: page 50)

They describe this further in one of the modules of the course:

The purpose of our courses is to empower the friends spiritually and morally to serve the Faith . . .

(Book Seven: page 102)

Learning to implement these courses here and in other countries has not been without its problems of course:

Out of a desire to apply the guidance ‘correctly,’ there was a tendency in isolated cases to go to extremes: either everyone was to be a tutor or restrictions were imposed; people who had taught children for years were told they couldn’t continue unless they did Book Three; firesides [informal introductory meetings usually with an invited speaker] were abandoned in place of study circles; people were rushed through the courses without doing the practice.

(Paul Lample: Revelation and Social Reality, pages 64 and 92)

This pain and discomfort of learning by these mistakes is perhaps the inevitable accompaniment of creativity and enacting higher values. There is no doubt though that the basic methodology is sound and has proved itself in many places, in spite of these teething problems, to be a powerful means of giving people the confidence to act. People are also learning how to dovetail the activities connected with the sequence of training courses with previously existing patterns of action such as the fireside and courses designed to further deepen our understanding of the Writings of the Faith.

Refining What We Do

We are also learning not only to be more active in service of the community as a whole, but also to think about what we are doing in order to do it better. The methodology for this was part of the Colombian experience and draws on models of action research (see Peter Reason for example) undertaken in the wider community.

The most [the teachers and administrators] could expect from themselves was to engage wholeheartedly in an intensive plan of action and an accompanying process of reflection and consultation. This reflection and consultation had to be carried out in unshakeable unity and with a spirit of utmost humility. The main thrust of the consultation had to be the objective analysis of possible courses of action and the evaluation of methods and results, all carried out in the light of the Writings of the Faith.

(Learning About Growth: page 10)

Other posts on this blog examine in considerable detail what Bahá’ís mean by consultation and reflection. The key components of the process described here are study, consultation, action and reflection.

Relating to Scripture

In using scripture as part of this process of empowerment certain aspects are emphasised:

. . . to reach true understanding . . . one must think deeply about the meaning of each statement and its applications in one’s own life and in the life of society. Three levels of comprehension are: basic understanding of the meaning of words and sentences, applying some of the concepts to one’s daily life, and thinking about the implications of a quotation for situations having no apparent or immediate connection with its theme.

(Learning about Growth: pages 30-31)

A good mnemonic for this is AIMs. The ‘A’ stands for applications, the ‘I’ for implications and the ‘M’ for meanings. The bedrock of the process of empowerment here is to enable us all to relate to the Word of God in a way that inspires us to put what we have understood into action for the betterment of the world.

The Links to Civilisation-Building

It is important to have a brief look now at how the work of each book including its ‘service’ component links to the aim of building a better world for everyone.

This is made quite explicit at the beginning of the first book in the sequence (page 9):

The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct.

(The Advent of Divine Justice: pages 24-25)

The theme is continued in the other books, for example:

Book Two (page 46):

The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh encompasses all units of human society; integrates the spiritual, administrative and social processes of life; and canalises human expression in its various forms towards the construction of a new civilisation.

(Universal House of Justice: 1989)

Book Three (page 9):

Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education, alone, can cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.

(Gleanings: CXXIII)

Book Four (page 8):

It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness.

(Gleanings: IV)

It is perhaps worth stressing here that specific patterns of action are linked to the work of each book and are central to the purposes of that book. Book Three is designed for example to empower people to run children’s classes. Book Four encourages us to speak to people about the lives of the central figures of the faith as a way to inspire them to a new way of living. The lives of the Báb and His disciples, for example, unfold before our eyes a quality of moral heroism that  many profound thinkers lament is missing from modern life.  Zimbardo devotes the closing chapter of his book  The Lucifer Effect to describing ways of cultivating exactly that quality in the ordinary challenges of life. Susan Neiman describes examples of such heroism in her book Moral Clarity.

Civilisation-building is the underpinning purpose of the courses and it is seen to begin with small changes in our patterns of daily action. Again in a later book:

Book Six (page 11):

The world is in great turmoil, and its problems seem to become daily more acute. We should, therefore, not sit idle . . . Bahá’u’lláh has not given us His Teachings to treasure them and hide them for our personal delight and pleasure. He gave them to us that we may pass them from mouth to mouth, until all the world . . . . enjoys their blessings and uplifting influence.

(Shoghi Effendi, The Guardian: 27 March 1933)

Book Seven (page 67):

Children are the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future. They bear the seeds of the character of future society which is largely shaped by what the adults constituting the community do or fail to do with respect to children.

(Universal House of Justice: Ridván  2000)

The Purpose of the Core Activities

Many people has felt confused at times about the exact purpose of the ‘core activities.’ A member of the Universal House of Justice has reportedly offered the following clarification.

He gave the example of a glass. He said that while it is not inaccurate to say that the glass is transparent, it is evident that transparency is not the purpose of the glass. Transparency is one of the attributes of the glass, but its purpose is to hold liquid. Similarly, one of the attributes of our core activities is that they become instruments for teaching – but that is not their purpose. He stressed that the purpose of our core activities is to enable us to serve society and help “translate that which hath been written into reality and action”.

The primary purpose of our core activities is to raise our capacity to serve society, such that these activities become instruments for developing communities, and not merely instruments for teaching the Faith.

He encouraged the participants present at the seminar to re-look at the Ruhi Institute books from 1 – 7 with the eye of society and to reflect on how the concepts embedded in them could be used for social action and not just for the sake of bringing more people into the Faith.

He developed this further. It is clear that we need to imbue participants engaged in our core activities with a vision of social transformation as well as personal transformation. Now if someone were to ask us whether the purpose of our inviting them to join study circles is to make them Bahá’ís, we can confidently say ‘no’ and tell them that the purpose of our core activities is to assist in the transformation and betterment of society.

The next posts will look more closely at the nature and value of devotional meetings and the compelling need for the spiritual education and proper nurturing  of children.

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The best lack all conviction, while the worstSand Sculpture
Are full of passionate intensity.

(W. B. Yeats: ‘The Second Coming‘)

Ruling passion

We obviously need to take care what we believe in. It tends to determine the person we will become. Sadly, most of us devote more conscious effort to choosing a car than creating a character. We simply accept what we have been given, rarely assessing its value, rarely considering whether or not it could be changed for the better, and if we do feel dissatisfaction with what we have become we tend to test it against inappropriate measures such as the wealth it has brought us, the worldly success we have achieved, the number rather than the quality of our friendships, the power we derive from it and so on. We seldom carefully reflect upon our beliefs and how they have shaped and are still shaping who we are.

Culture has struggled to get a handle on this problem for generations. In the 18th Century they talked of people having a ‘ruling passion.’ This was the organising principle around which all activities and aspirations were supposed to revolve. Alexander Pope wrote:

The ruling passion, be it what it will,

The ruling passion conquers reason still.

(Moral Essay iii: lines 153-154)

(Samuel Johnson, though, questioned the usefulness and validity of this concept in his usual robust fashion.) That

Samual Johnson

Samuel Johnson

they called it a ‘passion’ gives us a clue about what is going on here.

Erich Fromm’s book, ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us.

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Is conviction, like atomic power, a double-edged sword? Can we truly say that no great enterprise was ever accomplished and no huge and large scale evil ever completed without it? If this is so, and I think it is because both great good and massive evil require great energy and great persistence, what determines whether it will be destructive or constructive?

Idealising something (or someone) seriously flawed corrupts us: I  think the opposite is also true and that worshiping something both better and greater than ourselves improves us. I would like to entertain the possibility that it is the object of our devotion as we understand it rather than simply the intensity of the conviction that makes the greatest difference, though if the object of devotion is less than good then the intensity of our devotion will strongly influence how destructive espousing that belief will make us.

Is there any object of devotion that does not induce in its followers intolerance and hatred towards others especially those who have a different god?

Tolerant Devotion

The issue of what determines the strength and nature of our convictions is not a straightforward one. When I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now. It illustrates nicely the exact nature of the difficulty.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner  in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

The implications are fascinating.

First, as Richard Holloway stresses, most of us are ‘infirm of purpose’ and lack the courage of our convictions or even any convictions at all. We follow the herd, a potentially dangerous tendency.

Secondly, the proneness to develop strong convictions does not lead us to develop only the best ones. In the example of the mining communities, segregation and desegegration are antitheses and cannot both be right and desirable, but clearly both attract approximately equal numbers of adherents with equivalent degrees of courage in their convictions, in stark contrast to the moral cowardice or lack of conviction of the rest of us. It is questionable whether it is the ‘best’ that  ‘lack all conviction.’

Thirdly, while most of us are drifting with the tide rather than choosing a firm rock to cling to, the strong-minded do choose but on grounds that have little if anything reliably to do with their strong-mindedness. Authoritarianism  has been wheeled out as a favourite explanation for why people end up fascist or fanatical. It would though be hard to make it work as an explanation of the moral courage and firm conviction of a Martin Luther King or a Ghandi. The vision of these two men was not one of replacing their oppressors in power and becoming oppressors in their turn but of transcending oppression altogether.

So where on earth or in heaven does that leave us? Are these two men so exceptional that their example does not count? Or is a humane and constructive kind of strong conviction possible for most if not all of us?

A Possible Way Forward

When it comes to determining what might provide a positive vision of sufficient power to heal the divisions of the world of humanity, a consideration of religion is inevitable. Although I was brought up a Christian, became an atheist for nearly two decades and was strongly attracted to Buddhism for a period of years, the religion I know best is the Bahá’í Faith.

Much of what I will be describing in the next post about the vision I have derived from its teachings, is also to be found in other faiths. For instance, anyone who wants to know about the healing heart of the Christian message and the positively empowering concept of God it enshrines, there is no better place to go than Eric Reitan’s book, and I would also see God in much the same way as he does. His view also opens the way towards discerning the same spirit in other faiths.

One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry.

I will though confine my discussion now to what the faith I know best, with its inclusive vision of the divine, has taught me about a way out of this divided and intolerant state by which we are bedevilled. Even those who do not believe in the divine can relate to much of what I will be saying by reframing the ‘divine’ as their highest most inclusive sense of the ultimate good around which to organise our lives.

I am not claiming that others have not grappled with these issues: nor am I saying that what they have discovered as possible antidotes to fanatical intolerance is to be ignored or discounted. Zimbardo and McCullough, for example, have much of great value to say from which we can all learn a great deal.

I do believe though that religion and spirituality have recently been so demonised in certain quarters that we are in danger of neglecting the powerful antidotes to evil that they also can provide. It is to these that I wish to draw our attention in the next post.

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Cruelty has a Human Heart,

And Jealousy a Human Face;

Terror the Human Form Divine,

And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William Blake: Songs of Experience Additional Poem

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling.(See ‘Breaking News/Impending Trial’ on this blog.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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