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Kofi+Annan+UN

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 163)

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

(From Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76)

The reason I gave recently for my being triggered to step back somewhat from blogging was the increased demand on my time. This was mostly from a particular project – the preparation of a series of eight workshops for a Bahá’í summer school. I thought it might be worth posting the material on this blog to see if it proves useful to others. Here is the fifth post of eight. I will be posting them on Mondays and Thursdays over four weeks. Century of Light is a key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (5 Unity the implications). I find I have learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days.

Whole Group Session (Slide Presentation)

Unity: Methods of Implementation

Given that (page 22) ‘the development of the whole range of human potentialities will be the fruit of the interaction between universal spiritual values, on the one hand, and, on the other, material advances that were even then still undreamed of,’ what should we be doing? This will hopefully become clearer after reading the following.

Page 24: [‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s] hearers were summoned to become the loving and confident agents of a great civilising process, whose pivot is recognition of the oneness of the human race.

. . . . It is equally clear, however, that the wide range of expression and understanding among them did not prevent them or their fellow believers from contributing to building a collective unity that was the chief attraction of the Cause.

Page 41: For unity to exist among human beings – at even the simplest level – two fundamental conditions must pertain. Those involved must first of all be in some agreement about the nature of reality as it affects their relationships with one another and with the phenomenal world. They must, secondly, give assent to some recognized and authoritative means by which decisions will be taken that affect their association with one another and that determine their collective goals.

. . . . . Unity is a phenomenon of creative power, whose existence becomes apparent through the effects that collective action produces and whose absence is betrayed by the impotence of such efforts.

Page 51: Deliberation on this vast conception was to lead Shoghi Effendi to provide the Bahá’í world with a coherent description of the future that has since permitted three generations of believers to articulate for governments, media and the general public in every part of the world the perspective in which the Bahá’í Faith pursues its work: [my bullet points]

The unity of the human race, as envisaged by Bahá’u’lláh, implies the establishment of a world commonwealth:

  • in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and
  • in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded.

This commonwealth must, as far as we can visualize it,

  • consist of a world legislature, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind,
    • ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations, and
    • will enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs and adjust the relationships of all races and peoples.
  • A world executive, backed by an international Force, will
    • carry out the decisions arrived at, and
    • apply the laws enacted by, this world legislature, and
    • will safeguard the organic unity of the whole commonwealth.
  • A world tribunal will adjudicate and deliver its compulsory and final verdict in all and any disputes that may arise between the various elements constituting this universal system….
  • The economic resources of the world will be organised,
    • its sources of raw materials will be tapped and fully utilised,
    • its markets will be coordinated and developed, and
    • the distribution of its products will be equitably regulated.

Page 55: Unlike the Dispensations of the past, the Revelation of God to this age has given birth, Shoghi Effendi said, to “a living organism”, whose laws and institutions constitute “the essentials of a Divine Economy“, “a pattern for future society“, and “the one agency for the unification of the world, and the proclamation of the reign of righteousness and justice upon the earth”.

. . . . [Spiritual Assemblies are forerunners of local and national ‘Houses of Justice,’ the Guardian explained.] As such, they were integral parts of an Administrative Order that will, in time, “assert its claim and demonstrate its capacity to be regarded not only as the nucleus but the very pattern of the New World Order destined to embrace in the fullness of time the whole of mankind”.

. . . . For the vast majority of believers . . . great messages from the Guardian’s pen, such as “The Goal of a New World Order” and “The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh”, threw brilliant light on precisely the issue that most concerned them, the relationship between spiritual truth and social development, inspiring in them a determination to play their part in laying the foundations of humanity’s future.

Page 129: “Unity in freedom” has today, of course, become a universal aspiration of the Earth’s inhabitants. Among the chief developments giving substance to it, the Master may well have had in mind the dramatic extinction of colonialism and the consequent rise of self- determination as a dominant feature of national identity at century’s end.

Whatever threats still hang over humanity’s future, the world has been transformed by the events of the twentieth century.

. . . . . On 22-26 May 2000, representatives of over one thousand non-governmental organisations assembled in New York at the invitation of Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General. In the statement that emerged from this meeting, spokespersons of civil society committed their organisations to the ideal that: “…we are one human family, in all our diversity, living on one common homeland and sharing a just, sustainable and peaceful world, guided by universal principles of democracy….”

Page 130: [Re: Millenium Summit] Nothing so dramatically illustrates the difference between the world of 1900 and that of 2000 than the text of the Summit Resolution, signed by all the participants, and referred by them to the United Nations General Assembly:

“We solemnly reaffirm, on this historic occasion, that the United Nations is the indispensable common house of the entire human family, through which we will seek to realise our universal aspirations for peace, cooperation and development. We therefore pledge our unstinting support for these common objectives, and our determination to achieve them.”

(End of Presentation: any questions?)

 Creative Pause

As we have agreed that memorising is a valuable way to internalise important quotations and can help us in moments of quiet reflection, can we take a few moments now to begin to reflect upon a quotation we have memorised.

Groupwork

Change of Method: For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

All group members need to keep their own record of the main points for using in the role play at the end of the group consultation. The notes should be easy to use in a conversation. Both groups will use the same material.

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

Unity: Implications & Immediate Impact

Page 7: He came to it resolved to proclaim to responsive and heedless alike the establishment on earth of that promised reign of universal peace and justice that had sustained human hope throughout the centuries. Its foundation, He declared, would be the unification, in this “century of light”, of the world’s people:

. . . . . Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age, this glorious century.

Page 9: ‘My meaning is that the beloved of the Lord must regard every ill-wisher as a well-wisher…. That is, they must associate with a foe as befitteth a friend, and deal with an oppressor as beseemeth a kind companion. They should not gaze upon the faults and transgressions of their foes, nor pay heed to their enmity, inequity or oppression.

‘. . . . . He hath brought the whole creation under the purview of His gracious utterance, and hath enjoined upon us to show forth love and affection, wisdom and compassion, faithfulness and unity towards all, without any discrimination.’

Page 24: . . . . . Unity is a phenomenon of creative power, whose existence becomes apparent through the effects that collective action produces and whose absence is betrayed by the impotence of such efforts.

Page 131: Despite the historic importance of the meetings and the fact that the greater portion of humanity’s political, civil and religious leadership took part, the Millennium Summit made little impression on the public mind in most countries. . . . This sharp disjunction between an event that could legitimately claim to mark a major turning-point in human history, on the one hand, and the lack of enthusiasm or even interest it aroused among populations who were its supposed beneficiaries, on the other, was perhaps the most striking feature of the millennium observations. . . . .

Those who long to believe the visionary statements of world leaders struggle at the same time in the grip of two phenomena that undermine such confidence. The first has already been considered at some length in these pages. The collapse of society’s moral foundations has left the greater part of humankind floundering without reference points in a world that grows daily more threatening and unpredictable. To suggest that the process has nearly reached its end would be merely to raise false hopes.

Page 132: The second of the two developments undermining faith in the future was the focus of some of the Millennium Summit’s most anguished debates. The information revolution set off in the closing decade of the century by the invention of the World Wide Web transformed irreversibly much of human activity. The process of “globalisation” that had been following a long rising curve over a period of several centuries was galvanised by new powers beyond the imaginations of most people.

Pages 133-34: The benefits to many millions of persons are obvious and impressive.

  • Cost effectiveness resulting from the coordination of formerly competing operations tends to bring goods and services within the reach of populations who could not previously have hoped to enjoy them.
  • Enormous increases in the funds available for research and development expand the variety and quality of such benefits.
  • Something of a levelling effect in the distribution of employment opportunities can be seen in the ease with which business operations can shift their base from one part of the world to another.

The abandonment of barriers to transnational trade reduces still further the cost of goods to consumers. It is not difficult to appreciate, from a Bahá’í perspective, the potentiality of such transformations for laying the foundations of the global society envisioned in Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings.

Far from inspiring optimism about the future, however, globalisation is seen by large and growing numbers of people around the world as the principal threat to that future.

  • The violence of the riots set off by the meetings of the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund during the last two years testifies to the depth of the fear and resentment that the rise of globalisation has provoked.
  • Media coverage of these unexpected outbursts focused public attention on protests
    • against gross disparities in the distribution of benefits and opportunities, which globalisation is seen as only increasing, and
    • on warnings that, if effective controls are not speedily imposed, the consequences will be catastrophic in social and political, as well as in economic and environmental, terms.

Such concerns appear well-founded. Economic statistics alone reveal a picture of current global conditions that is profoundly disturbing. The ever-widening gulf between the one fifth of the world’s population living in the highest income countries and the one fifth living in the lowest income countries tells a grim story. According to the 1999 Human Development Report published by the United Nations Development Programme, this gap represented, in 1990, a ratio of sixty to one. That is to say, one segment of humankind was enjoying access to sixty percent of the world’s wealth, while another, equally large, population struggled merely to survive on barely one percent of that wealth. By 1997, in the wake of globalisation’s rapid advance, the gulf had widened in only seven years to a ratio of seventy-four to one. Even this appalling fact does not take into account the steady impoverishment of the majority of the remaining billions of human beings trapped in the relentlessly narrowing isthmus between these two extremes. Far from being brought under control, the crisis is clearly accelerating. The implications for humanity’s future, in terms of privation and despair engulfing more than two thirds of the Earth’s population, helped to account for the apathy that met the Millennium Summit’s celebration of achievements that were, by every reasonable criteria, truly historic.

From Universal House of Justice letter to Bahá’ís of Iran (2 March 2013):

The rejection of deeply ingrained prejudices and a growing sense of world citizenship are among the signs of this heightened awareness. Yet, however promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades—nay, centuries—to unfold. For the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations. It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.

  1. The idea of unity should be powerfully appealing. What obstacles are there, do we think to its acceptance and implementation?
  2. In what ways is globalisation a mixed blessing and how does this affect the work of those seeking to convey the value and reality of humanity’s essential oneness?

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way. The exact method for this will be determined on the day when we know the exact group sizes.

Abdulbaha Using the familiar metaphor of “candles”, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to Mrs. Whyte:

“O honoured lady!… Behold how its [unity’s] light is now dawning upon the world’s darkened horizon. The first candle is unity in the political realm, the early glimmerings of which can now be discerned. The second candle is unity of thought in world undertakings, the consummation of which will erelong be witnessed. The third candle is unity in freedom which will surely come to pass. The fourth candle is unity in religion which is the corner- stone of the foundation itself, and which, by the power of God, will be revealed in all its splendour. The fifth candle is the unity of nations – a unity which in this century will be securely established, causing all the peoples of the world to regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland. The sixth candle is unity of races, making of all that dwell on earth peoples and kindreds of one race. The seventh candle is unity of language, i.e., the choice of a universal tongue in which all peoples will be instructed and converse. Each and every one of these will inevitably come to pass, inasmuch as the power of the Kingdom of God will aid and assist in their realisation.”

While it will be decades – or perhaps a great deal longer – before the vision contained in this remarkable document is fully realised, the essential features of what it promised are now established facts throughout the world.

(Century of Light – pages 127-28)

The reason I gave recently for my being triggered to step back somewhat from blogging was the increased demand on my time. This was mostly from a particular project – the preparation of a series of eight workshops for a Bahá’í summer school. I thought it might be worth posting the material on this blog to see if it proves useful to others. Here is the fourth post of eight. I will be posting them on Mondays and Thursdays over four weeks. Century of Light is a key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (4 Impact of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Unity the Core). I find I have learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days.

The Impact & Legacy of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Creative Pause

As we have agreed that memorising is a valuable way to internalise important quotations and can help us in moments of quiet reflection, can we take a few moments now to begin to memorise either this quotation or another from the first session.

Whole Group Session (Slide Presentation)

Basic Background

In addition to Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, there are two other key individuals and one key institution whose roles are of central importance to the unfolding story we are following right now.

The first is the son of Bahá’u’lláh, Whom His father designated as the Centre of His Covenant, the Mystery of God and the Perfect Exemplar. Some of the meaning of these terms will become clearer to those not familiar with them as the remainder of this sequence of workshops progresses. For now I will simply say that Bahá’ís believe God has made a Covenant with both His Followers and with humanity as a whole. The former is known as the Lesser Covenant, the latter as the Greater Covenant[1]. We will be coming back to an examination what those terms mean in more depth, but basically the role of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as Centre of the Covenant refers to how all Bahá’ís in His lifetime and beyond should see Him as the One to Whom His Father entrusted the protection of the unity of the Faith. We will be looking closely at ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s role and its impact in the next two workshops.

Shoghi EffendiLater we will focus on Shoghi Effendi, the grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá who was designated the Guardian of the Cause of God on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing. He was also authorised to be the translator and interpreter of the Writings.

Finally we will come to the Universal House of Justice. Elected in 1963 the House is the elected international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith. More on that later.

There are other writers who can shed some further light on this before we plunge into the details.

We are clearly living through a critical period. Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson write in Cultural Creatives (page 236): ‘[We are also facing] a breathtakingly dangerous tipping point for our civilisation and our planet. Our need to discover a way through is the most urgent, most central question of our time.’ They add (page 203) ‘In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture – because that is the true time horizon of effective action.’ The Universal House of Justice feels this will be the work of centuries (from a letter to Bahá’ís of Iran – 2 March 2013):

The rejection of deeply ingrained prejudices and a growing sense of world citizenship are among the signs of this heightened awareness. Yet, however promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades—nay, centuries—to unfold. For the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations. It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.

As Paul Lample explains in Revelation & Social Reality (page 109), Bahá’ís share this perspective and recognise that Bahá’ís alone can never bring about such changes. To say that the process of building a new civilisation is a conscious one does not imply that the outcome depends exclusively on the believers’ initiatives. . . . emphasis on the contributions Bahá’ís are to make to the civilisation-building process is not intended to diminish the significance of efforts being exerted by others. He also states (page 6): ‘Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us. In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.’

And the time scale, as well as the engagement of all humanity, is very clear (page 48): ‘Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality. . . . . . . . [I]t is not a project in which Bahá’ís engage apart from the rest of humanity.’

Ray and Anderson make a key point (page 246): ‘Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.’

(End of Presentation: any questions?)

For now we return to the role of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and begin with the core concept of unity or oneness.

Group Work

For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

The group also needs to agree who will keep a record of the main points for reporting back to everyone at the end of the group consultation. The aim should be to make the report back no longer than five minutes.

Unity

Group One Task

Unity

Page 7: [‘Abdu’l-Bahá] came to [this moment in history] resolved to proclaim to responsive and heedless alike the establishment on earth of that promised reign of universal peace and justice that had sustained human hope throughout the centuries. Its foundation, He declared, would be the unification, in this “century of light”, of the world’s people:

. . . . . Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age, this glorious century.

Page 9: My meaning is that the beloved of the Lord must regard every ill-wisher as a well-wisher.… That is, they must associate with a foe as befitteth a friend, and deal with an oppressor as beseemeth a kind companion. They should not gaze upon the faults and transgressions of their foes, nor pay heed to their enmity, inequity or oppression.

. . . . . He hath brought the whole creation under the purview of His gracious utterance, and hath enjoined upon us to show forth love and affection, wisdom and compassion, faithfulness and unity towards all, without any discrimination.

Page 18: [Of those who responded to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s call] Their response arose from a level of consciousness that recognized, even if sometimes only dimly, the desperate need of the human race for spiritual enlightenment. To remain steadfast in their commitment to this insight required of these early believers on whose sacrifice of self much of the foundation of the present-day Bahá’í communities both in the West and many other lands were laid – that they resist not only family and social pressures, but also the easy rationalisations of the world-view in which they had been raised and to which everything around them insistently exposed them.

  1. Bahá’ís have been dismissed as hopelessly Utopian. Part of the reason for this lies in the perception that the ideals of, on the one hand, learning to evince the degree of love ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes, and, on the other, of establishing universal peace and justice, are permanently beyond humanity’s reach. What do we feel about that?
  2. What can we learn from the experiences of the early believers that might give us some hope, especially as the Universal House of Justice describes this as the work of centuries?

Page 20: The gift of God to this enlightened age is the knowledge of the oneness of mankind and of the fundamental oneness of religion. War shall cease between nations, and by the will of God the Most Great Peace shall come; the world will be seen as a new world, and all men will live as brothers.

To fully understand the relationship between man’s progress towards peace and the role of the Bahá’ís compared to the role of all humanity, it will help to provide some background. In the compilation on Peace (pages 38-39) we read in the words of the Universal House of Justice:

As to the Lesser Peace, Shoghi Effendi has explained that this will initially be a political unity arrived at by decision of the governments of various nations; it will not be established by direct action of the Bahá’í community. This does not mean, however, that the Bahá’ís are standing aside and waiting for the Lesser Peace to come before they do something about the peace of mankind. Indeed, by promoting the principles of the Faith, which are indispensable to the maintenance of peace, and by fashioning the instruments of the Bahá’í Administrative Order, which we are told by the beloved Guardian is the pattern for future society, the Bahá’ís are constantly engaged in laying the groundwork for a permanent peace, the Most Great Peace being their ultimate goal.

  1. How would a wider acceptance of the concept of the oneness of humanity be conducive to peace?
  2. In the light of this, what are Bahá’ís meant to be doing and why?
  3. What might people in the wider world be working at and why?

 

Group Two Task

The Full Implications of Unity

Page 21: {Shoghi Effendi unpacks these as follows – my bullet points:]

  • The independent search after truth, unfettered by superstition or tradition;
  • the oneness of the entire human race, the pivotal principle and fundamental doctrine of the Faith;
  • the basic unity of all religions;
  • the condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class or national;
  • the harmony which must exist between religion and science;
  • the equality of men and women, the two wings on which the bird of human kind is able to soar;
  • the introduction of compulsory education;
  • the adoption of a universal auxiliary language;
  • the abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty;
  • the institution of a world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations;
  • the exaltation of work, performed in the spirit of service, to the rank of worship;
  • the glorification of justice as the ruling principle in human society, and of religion as a bulwark for the protection of all peoples and nations; and
  • the establishment of a permanent and universal peace as the supreme goal of all mankind

these stand out as the essential elements of that Divine polity which He proclaimed to leaders of public thought as well as to the masses at large in the course of these missionary journeys.

The Guardian (page 50), addressing the friends in the West in 1931, ‘opened for them a brilliant vista’:

The principle of the Oneness of Mankind – the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve – is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. Its appeal is not to be merely identified with a reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men, nor does it aim solely at the fostering of harmonious cooperation among individual peoples and nations. Its implications are deeper, its claims greater than any which the Prophets of old were allowed to advance. Its message is applicable not only to the individual, but concerns itself primarily with the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family…. It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not experienced…. It calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarisation of the whole civilised world – a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units.

. . . . using as illustration the same ‘organic metaphor in which Bahá’u’lláh, and subsequently ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, had captured the millennia-long process’ that has brought us to this point (ibid):

The long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race had to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood.

  1. There is a huge amount of detail here. Basically though, in what ways do the above passages help us understand what the Bahá’í Faith means when it uses the word ‘unity’ or speaks of ‘oneness.’
  2. How would the ‘political machinery’ and ‘trade and finance’ be changed do we think?
  3. What might it feel like to live in a world reconstituted in this way?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

Footnote:

[1] This terminology dates from the time of the Báb as Shoghi Effendi makes clear in God Passes By (page 27): ‘The Greater Covenant into which, as affirmed in His writings, God had, from time immemorial, entered, through the Prophets of all ages, with the whole of mankind, regarding the newborn Revelation, had already been fulfilled. It had now to be supplemented by a Lesser Covenant which He [ie the Báb] felt bound to make with the entire body of His followers concerning the One [ie Bahá’u’lláh] Whose advent He characterized as the fruit and ultimate purpose of His Dispensation. Such a Covenant had invariably been the feature of every previous religion.’

 Liberian children with Chinese flags welcome a visit to Monrovia by China’s president, Hu Jintao. Photograph: Christopher Herwig/Reuters/Corbis

Liberian children with Chinese flags welcome a visit to Monrovia by China’s president, Hu Jintao. Photograph: Christopher Herwig/Reuters/Corbis

There is evidence all around us of the fragility of our situation globally. It seems appropriate, at this point in the sequence of posts on Century of Light, to share this link to last Saturday’s Guardian article by  and .  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Emerging markets, once the world’s great economic hope, could see the good times end as Beijing falters. We look at which countries are most vulnerable to the 21st century’s next financial crisis.

Tumbling share prices. A sell-off in commodity markets. Capital flight from some of the world’s riskier countries. Hints of a looming currency war. Financial markets ended last week in panic mode as fears emerged that the world was about to enter the next phase of the crisis that began eight years ago in August 2007.

Back then, the problems began in the developed world – in American and European banks – and spread to the rest of the world. The bigger emerging markets – China and India most notably – recovered quickly and acted as the locomotive for global growth while the west was struggling.

There was talk of how the future would be dominated by the five Brics countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and by 11 more emerging market economies, including Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria.

That has happened. Emerging market countries are dominating the news – but for all the wrong reasons. And because, after years of rapid growth, they now account for a bigger slice of the global economy, a crisis would have more serious ramifications than in the past.

Emerging markets have a habit of causing trouble. For a quarter of a century after the Latin American debt crisis erupted in Mexico in 1982, the story was of a storm moving from the periphery of the global economy towards its core, the advanced nations that make up the G7. Mexico ran into fresh problems in 1994, there was an Asian debt crisis in 1997, and a Russian default in 1998 before the dotcom bubble burst in 2001. That proved to be a dress rehearsal for the near meltdown of the global financial system in 2007-08.

Now the focus is back squarely on emerging markets. The problem is a relatively simple one. In the post-Great Recession world, the tendency has been for all countries to try to export their way out of trouble. But this model works only if the exports can find a home, as they did when China was growing at double-digit rates.

But in the past 18 months, the Chinese economy has slowed, causing problems for two distinct groups of emerging-market economies – the east Asian countries that sell components and finished goods to their big neighbour, and countries that supply China with the fuel and raw materials to keep its industrial machine going.

China’s slowdown has led to a slump in the price of oil and industrial metals. In theory, this should have no net effect on the global economy because lower incomes for commodity-producing countries should be offset by the boost to countries that import commodities.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Consumers in Europe, Japan and North America have not used the windfall from cheaper energy to go on a spending spree. Meanwhile, emerging market economies are hurting badly. With the western economies one new recession away from deflation, China is making its exports cheaper by devaluing its currency just as oil producers are flooding the world with crude in a bid to balance their budgets.

In the past three decades, there has been a crisis every seven years on average. Financial markets are well aware that recovery from the last downturn remains unfinished. The nervousness is easy to understand.

 Migrants and refugees are hemmed in by riot police at a stadium on Kos on 12 August. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Migrants and refugees are hemmed in by riot police at a stadium on Kos on 12 August. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

In the light of the posts unfolding right now on this blog to outline the dark side of our civilisation’s development, this recent Guardian article by  seemed very relevant. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Never let it be said that Britain’s leaders miss an opportunity to inflame fear and loathing towards migrants and refugees. First David Cameron warned of the threat posed by “a swarm of people” who were “coming across the Mediterranean … wanting to come to Britain”. Then his foreign secretary Philip Hammond upped the ante.

The chaos at the Channel tunnel in Calais, he declared, was caused by “marauding” migrants who posed an existential threat. Cheer-led by the conservative press, he warned that Europe would not be able to “protect itself and preserve its standard of living” if it had to “absorb millions of migrants from Africa”.

With nightly television coverage of refugees from the world’s worst conflicts risking their lives to break into lorries and trains heading for Britain, this was rhetoric designed to stoke visceral fears of the wretched of the Earth emerging from its depths.

Barely a hint of humanity towards those who have died in Calais this summer has escaped ministers’ lips. But in reality the French port is a sideshow, home to a few thousand migrants unable to pay traffickers for more promising routes around Britain’s border controls. . . . .

The chaos at Calais and the far larger-scale upheaval and suffering across Europe could be brought under control by the kind of managed processing that northern European governments, such as Britain’s, are so keen to avoid.

But that would only be a temporary fix for a refugee crisis driven by war and state disintegration – and Britain, France and their allies have played a central role in most of the wars that are fuelling it. The refugees arriving in Europe come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Sudan, Pakistan, Somalia and Eritrea.

With the recent exception of the dictatorial Eritrean regime, those are a roll-call of more than a decade of disastrous western-led wars and interventions. In the case of Libya, the British and French-led bombing campaign in 2011 led directly to the civil war and social breakdown that has made the country the main conduit for refugee trafficking from Africa. And in Syria, the western funding, arming and training of opposition groups – while fuelling the rise of Isis – has played a crucial role in the country’s destruction.

If the current American and British-backed Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen continues, expect Yemeni refugees to join the region’s exodus in the months to come. So the first longer term contribution Britain and its allies could make to staunching the flow of refugees would be to stop waging open and covert wars in the Middle East and north Africa. That is actual marauding.

The second would be a major shift in policy towards African development. Africa may not be leading the current refugee crisis, and African migrants certainly don’t threaten European living standards. But as a group of global poverty NGOs argued this week, Africa is being drained of resources through western corporate profit extraction, extortionate debt repayments and one-sided trade “partnership” deals. If that plunder continues and absolute numbers in poverty go on rising as climate change bites deeper, migration pressures to the wealthy north can only grow.

 

child-soldier-empty-roadOnly as humanity comes to understand the implications of what occurred during this period of history will it be able to meet the challenges that lie ahead. The value of the contribution we as Bahá’ís can make to the process demands that we ourselves grasp the significance of the historic transformation wrought by the twentieth century.

(Century of Light – page 0)

The reason I gave recently for my being triggered to step back somewhat from blogging was the increased demand on my time. This was mostly from a particular project – the preparation of a series of eight workshops for a Bahá’í summer school. I thought it might be worth posting the material on this blog to see if it proves useful to others. Here is the third post of eight. I will be posting them on Mondays and Thursdays over four weeks. Century of Light is a key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (3 Components of Our Wreck). I find I have learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days.

Reflecting on Quotations

We agreed in the first workshop that we would start the day today by trying out one way of building reflection on a quotation into our moments of quiet contemplation.

We need to sit comfortably in our chairs, our backs reasonably erect, both feet in contact with the floor and hands lying loosely in our lap. We need to spend a few moments withdrawing our attention from the outside world and instead focusing it on our breathing. This is probably most easily done by resting our full attention on the movement of our diaphragm. At the start, if it helps, we can use our rate of breathing to slow down our inward recitation of the passage we have memorised. When we are alone we can of course recite the passage out loud. If anyone has not yet memorised a passage it is fine to begin this process by reading it slowly and mindfully after settling quietly into a reflective state of mind.

Keeping our breathing steady and even, we should focus our entire attention upon each phrase as we read or recite it. As Easwaran points out (page 32) in his excellent book, in the end we have to find the pace that suits us best: ‘the space between words is a matter for each person to work out individually.… If the words come too close together, you will not be slowing down the mind… If the words stand too far apart, they will not be working together…’

If we find our mind has wandered, we should, without getting irritated with ourselves, begin the passage again at the beginning. This teaches the mind that it cannot getaway with wandering: there is a price to pay.

In these early stages we should consider ourselves very successful if we can meditate in this way upon a text for five minutes without losing our concentration. Our aim over a period of months could be to increase their concentration span to something like 20 minutes. Clearly this would enable us, if we wished, to memorise longer passages for reciting, rather than repeating the same short text. It is advisable to change the text we use each week to fend off the indifference which can come from overfamiliarity.

  1. Why would regularly experiencing the wisdom captured in words in this way be helpful to us?
  2. What was our experience like this time?

Group Work

Reminder: For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

The group also needs to agree who will keep a record of the main points for when there is a report back to everyone at the end of the group consultation. The aim should be to make the report back no longer than five minutes.

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Group One Task

The Evidence of a Corrosive Cultural Climate

Pages 1: The loss of life alone has been beyond counting. The disintegration of basic institutions of social order, the violation – indeed, the abandonment – of standards of decency, the betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty, the invention and deployment of monstrous weapons of mass annihilation, the bankrupting of entire nations and the reduction of masses of human beings to hopeless poverty, the reckless destruction of the environment of the planet – such are the more obvious in a catalogue of horrors unknown to even the darkest of ages past.

This is a powerful indictment of our culture. We need to unpack some of the implications before we can move on to more positive perspectives.

  1. Where do see evidence of ‘the disintegration of basic institutions of social order’ and ‘the abandonment . . . of standards of decency’? Is there an antidote to this process?
  2. What do we think is meant by ‘betrayal of the life of the mind through surrender to ideologies as squalid as they have been empty’? How might that best be remedied?
  3. Are any of the other points unclear in their implications?

Pages 3-4: The vast majority of the human family, living in lands outside the Western world, shared in few of the blessings and little of the optimism of their European and American brethren. [Refers to China, India, Latin America, & Africa.] . . . Most tragic of all was the plight of the inhabitants of the African continent, divided against one another by artificial boundaries created through cynical bargains among European powers. It has been estimated that during the first decade of the twentieth century over a million people in the Congo perished – starved, beaten, worked literally to death for the profit of their distant masters, a preview of the fate that was to engulf well over one hundred million of their fellow human beings across Europe and Asia before the century reached its end.

These masses of humankind, despoiled and scorned – but representing most of the earth’s inhabitants – were seen not as protagonists but essentially as objects of the new century’s much vaunted civilising process. Despite benefits conferred on a minority among them, the colonial peoples existed chiefly to be acted upon – to be used, trained, exploited, Christianised, civilised, mobilised . . . . To a large extent, religious and political pieties of various kinds masked both ends and means from the publics in Western lands, who were thus able to derive moral satisfaction from the blessings their nations were assumed to be conferring on less worthy peoples, while themselves enjoying the material fruits of this benevolence.

Additional Information:

In his book The Bottom Billion (2007) Paul Collier explains there are at least 58 countries worldwide trapped in poverty, as a result of factors such as incessant conflict or bad governance. The total population of these countries at that time was 980 million people, seventy per cent of whom live in Africa.

In addition we can factor in the abuse of children in various ways (Universal House of Justice: Ridván 2000):

Our children . . . . should not be left to drift in a world so laden with moral dangers. In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate.

  • Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially.
  • Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty.
  • This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere.
  • The social dislocation of children is in our time a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition – it cuts across them all.

It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are

  • employed as soldiers,
  • exploited as labourers,
  • sold into virtual slavery,
  • forced into prostitution,
  • made objects of pornography,
  • abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and
  • subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention.

Many such horrors are inflicted by parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

Additional Information from ten years ago:

26,575 children die every single day. Of the 62 countries making no progress or insufficient progress towards the Millennium Development Goal on child survival, nearly 75 per cent are in Africa. In some countries in southern Africa, the prevalence of HIV and AIDS has reversed previously recorded declines in child mortality. Achieving the goal in these countries will require a concerted effort. Reaching the target means reducing the number of child deaths from 9.7 million in 2006 to around 4 million by 2015. Accomplishing this will require accelerated action on multiple fronts: reducing poverty and hunger (MDG 1), improving maternal health (MDG 5), combating HIV and AIDS, malaria and other major diseases (MDG 6), increasing the usage of improved water and sanitation (MDG 7) and providing affordable essential drugs on a sustainable basis (MDG 8). It will also require a re-examination of strategies to reach the poorest, most marginalized communities.

Trafficking in children is a global problem affecting large numbers of children. Some estimates have as many as 1.2 million children being trafficked every year. There is a demand for trafficked children as cheap labour or for sexual exploitation. Children and their families are often unaware of the dangers of trafficking, believing that better employment and lives lie in other countries. Most child casualties are civilians. But one of the most deplorable developments in recent years has been the increasing use of young children as soldiers. In one sense, this is not really new. For centuries children have been involved in military campaigns—as child ratings on warships, or as drummer boys on the battlefields of Europe. Indeed the word ‘infantry’, for foot-soldiers, can also mean a group of young people. What is frightening nowadays is the escalation in the use of children as fighters. Recently, in 25 countries, thousands of children under the age of 16 have fought in wars. In 1988 alone, they numbered as many as 200,000. And while children might be thought to be the people deserving greatest protection, as soldiers they are often considered the most expendable. During the Iran-Iraq war, child soldiers, for example, were sent out ahead in waves over minefields.

  1. How do you think that we managed to disguise from ourselves the iniquity of what we were doing in all these areas for so long and why has Africa come out of it all so badly?
  2. Have we now moved past that period of exploitation, neglect and abuse, or is it still happening? If it is, why does it persist?
  3. If we have moved on to some degree, how did we do it?
  4. Why is the harm we have been doing to our children a crucially important issue for us to address urgently, probably as urgently as climate change if not more so?
  5. What does all this tell us about the size of the task still ahead, if we are to turn things round completely?

Group Two Task

Materialism

Page 6: Where winds of change did dispel the mists, among the educated classes in Western lands, inherited orthodoxies were all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that called into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularisation of society’s upper levels seemed to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

Page 89: Fathered by nineteenth century European thought, acquiring enormous influence through the achievements of American capitalist culture, and endowed by Marxism with the counterfeit credibility peculiar to that system, materialism emerged full-blown in the second half of the twentieth century as a kind of universal religion claiming absolute authority in both the personal and social life of humankind. Its creed was simplicity itself. Reality – including human reality and the process by which it evolves – is essentially material in nature. The goal of human life is, or ought to be, the satisfaction of material needs and wants. Society exists to facilitate this quest, and the collective concern of humankind should be an ongoing refinement of the system, aimed at rendering it ever more efficient in carrying out its assigned task.

Page 135: There has not been a society in the history of the world, no matter how pragmatic, experimentalist and multiform it may have been, that did not derive its thrust from some foundational interpretation of reality. Such a system of thought reigns today virtually unchallenged across the planet, under the nominal designation “Western civilisation”. Philosophically and politically, it presents itself as a kind of liberal relativism; economically and socially, as capitalism – two value systems that have now so adjusted to each other and become so mutually reinforcing as to constitute virtually a single, comprehensive world-view.

Appreciation of the benefits – in terms of the personal freedom, social prosperity and scientific progress enjoyed by a significant minority of the Earth’s people – cannot withhold a thinking person from recognizing that the system is morally and intellectually bankrupt. It has contributed its best to the advancement of civilisation, as did all its predecessors, and, like them, is impotent to deal with the needs of a world never imagined by the eighteenth century prophets who conceived most of its component elements. Shoghi Effendi did not limit his attention to divine right monarchies, established churches or totalitarian ideologies when he posed the searching question: “Why should these, in a world subject to the immutable law of change and decay, be exempt from the deterioration that must needs overtake every human institution?”

Page 136: Tragically, what Bahá’ís see in present-day society is unbridled exploitation of the masses of humanity by greed that excuses itself as the operation of “impersonal market forces“. What meets their eyes everywhere is the destruction of moral foundations vital to humanity’s future, through gross self-indulgence masquerading as “freedom of speech”. What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science“, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

These are key paragraphs for us to understand thoroughly if we are to grasp the importance and true nature of a more spiritual path forward.

Blake Newton

Additional Information:

From A Compilation on Scholarship: Baha’i Reference Library):

Just as there is a fundamental difference between divine Revelation itself and the understanding that believers have of it, so also there is a basic distinction between scientific fact and reasoning on the one hand and the conclusions or theories of scientists on the other. There is, and can be, no conflict between true religion and true science: true religion is revealed by God, while it is through true science that the mind of man “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings” and “comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete”. However, whenever a statement is made through the lens of human understanding it is thereby limited, for human understanding is limited; and where there is limitation there is the possibility of error; and where there is error, conflicts can arise.

Medina, in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, explains that he sees the current worldview as destructively rooted in the thinking of Descartes and Newton. He refers to it throughout as the ‘Cartesian-Newtonian worldview.’ Descartes split mind from body, which he considered to be a machine. He considered that all true understanding derived from analysis (splitting into components) and logic. Add to this Newton’s determinism (we can predict anything from our knowledge both of its starting state and the operation of immutable universal laws) and, in Medina’s view, we have the current, in his view pernicious, Cartesian-Newtonian worldview (page 14):

. . . . this classical science worldview is based on a mechanistic view of human beings and the universe that alienates human beings from their spiritual, moral, and emotional faculties. It has divided the world into mutually exclusive opposing forces: the dichotomies of science versus religion, reason versus faith, logic versus intuition, natural versus supernatural, material versus spiritual, and secular versus sacred. The result is a materialistic worldview that emphasises the truth of science, reason, logic, the natural, the material, and the secular while ignoring or even denigrating the truth of religion, faith, intuition, the supernatural, the spiritual, and the sacred.

Medina goes on to unpack what for him at least are the limitations of ‘secular spirituality’ which (page 94) ‘do not necessarily promote an altruistic social ethic or a desire on the part of individuals to improve society for the benefit of all.’ He includes ‘religious fundamentalism’ (page 95-96) under this umbrella ‘because it represents an attempt to use religion as a vehicle to fulfil worldly desires for leadership or power or as a justification for ungodly acts such as forced conversion of pagans or warfare against infidels.’

He goes on to state that our version of Christianity has contributed to the problems the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview creates (page 129) as a result of its concept of ‘an all-transcendent God Who is essentially divorced from the cursed natural world.’ He concludes (pages 129-30):

It is my belief that an extremist form of Christian theism actually worked hand-in-hand with the Cartesian-Newtonian worldview to promulgate a false sense of separation between the spiritual and the material and between the sacred and the secular.

It is important to stress that he is not criticising the true essence of Christianity here, simply some of its more extreme distortions with their destructive consequences.

For those interested in a more mainstream Christian take on the matter see God, Humanity & the Cosmos (Southgate et al: pages 95-98): they too conclude that a mechanical view of the world prevailed as a result of the success of this Descartes/Newton fusion, and this then negatively affected economics and political theory as well as religion and our view of ourselves. 

  1. Why do we think secularism and religious obscurantism might go hand in hand in the way described here?
  2. What are the achievements of American capitalism and what makes them so persuasive given the damage the system seems to be causing?
  3. How can materialism, dogmatic or otherwise, be effectively a religion? What are the parallels?
  4. What is ‘liberal relativism’ and how has it been fostered by a materialist world view? How does this philosophical and moral approach make such a perfect marriage with capitalism? Do we agree that this arrangement is bankrupt?
  5. Are market forces not really impersonal?
  6. Are science and materialism not really in tune?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

Compensating Accomplishments

Pages 4-5: To point out the failings of a great civilisation is not to deny its accomplishments. As the twentieth century opened, the peoples of the West could take justifiable pride in the technological, scientific and philosophical developments for which their societies had been responsible. . . . . A continuous process of discovery, design and improvement was making accessible power of unimaginable magnitude – with, alas, ecological consequences equally unimagined at the time – especially through the use of cheap fuel and electricity.

Page 5: Changes taking place at the deeper level of scientific thought were even more far-reaching in their implications. The nineteenth century had still been held in the grip of the Newtonian view of the world as a vast clockwork system, but by the end of the century the intellectual strides necessary to challenge that view had already been taken. New ideas were emerging that would lead to the formulation of quantum mechanics; and before long the revolutionising effect of the theory of relativity would call into question beliefs about the phenomenal world that had been accepted as common sense for centuries.

  1. How do we feel about the advantages they quote? Why aren’t they enough to turn our society round and avert the crisis towards which we seem to be hurtling?
  2. In what ways do we think new scientific paradigms may have changed our perspective on reality?

Where now?

. . . . . As the twentieth century opened, Western civilisation was reaping the fruits of a philosophical culture that was rapidly liberating the energies of its populations, and whose influence would soon produce a revolutionary impact throughout the entire world.

More on all this next time.

Graham Sutherland – sketch for the Crucifixion

The steed of this valley [of love] is pain; and if there be no pain this journey will never end. In this station the lover hath no thought save the Beloved, and seeketh no refuge save the Friend.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Seven Valleys+ page 8)

This sequence of posts appeared in September 2012. It seemed a good idea to republish them now. They contain a number of references to Century of Light, the focus of the workshop materials I am currently posting, and placing them between two workshops dealing with the dark side of our materialistic culture seems especially appropriate. I am posting all three in the sequence on consecutive days. It’s perhaps also necessary to share the nub of a comment left on part one of the original  by a good friend. He felt that “the relationship of secularisation and the ‘secularisation thesis’ (so beloved of 1960s sociology) to the present state of religion and religiosity is much more complex and multi-dimensional than this post seems to suggest.” This is a valid point and is not explored in this sequence, though it triggered some changes in Parts 2 & 3 as I explain. 

Towards the end of his chapter on the subject, Hamilton, in his book The Sociology of Religion, quotes Fenn (page 180) as wondering whether secularisation “does not so much drive religion from modern society [as foster] a type of religion which has no major functions for the entire society.” Spirituality becomes purely magical, even occult. The conclusion voiced in Century of Light captures this (page 6):

inherited orthodoxies [are] all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that [calls] into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularization of society’s upper levels [seems] to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

The evidence currently available suggests, for example, that the secularisation of society’s upper levels does indeed coincide with “religious obscurantism.” Hamilton (page 180) quotes a study by Luhrmann (1989) as showing how followers of witchcraft and magic in London and surrounding areas of South Eastern England are for the most part well educated, well-qualified professionals many of whom are scientifically trained and employed in such industries as computers and as research chemists!

A Road to Ruin?

David Gascoyne

Not from a monstrance silver-wrought
But from the tree of human pain
Redeem our sterile misery,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
That man’s long journey through the night
May not be in vain.

(David Gascoyne: Poems 1937-1942)

On the one hand the picture within the Writings, with Bahá’u’lláh setting the tone by using words like “godlessness” and “heedlessness”, highlights how, as the light of religion fades, we find it decaying into a fanaticism, terrorism, fundamentalism, superstition or a mere market choice, surrounded by a darkening atmosphere of materialism, greed and scientism which culminates in the decadence the Guardian so forcefully depicts and condemns (World Order of Bahá’u’lláhpage 188) and concludes that at this stage we have become  ‘. . . .  a society that must either be reborn or perish.” The evasion of the challenge that true religion presents us with comes, when looked at from a spiritual perspective, with a high price in the form of pain.

On the other hand many scholars draw no such drastic conclusions, content to detect a not too unpleasant state of intellectual freedom which might lack meaning and clear moral direction but with none of the major consequences referred to. Admittedly, while other thinkers, such as McGrath (2004) in The Twilight of Atheism, present a far less rosy picture, this is generally from a position heavily influenced by a religious perspective.

The Academic View

None the less, I feel it can be argued that thinkers, researchers and scholars outside the Bahá’í Faith and within the main tradition of the social sciences have been grappling vigorously with the phenomenon of secularisation from their own perspective, and the fruits of their work do enrich our understanding even when some of them clearly do not share a sense that it is a destructive process. Their emphasis on data as a corrective to unbridled intuition is a healthy one, though this must not be allowed to lead to the all too frequent conclusion that what cannot be empirically proven is by the absence of that type of evidence proved wrong.

Even the agnostic and atheist majority amongst them recognise that there has been a price paid for the decline of religion, though they disagree amongst themselves greatly as to the value of what has been lost. There is also an increasingly detectable trend for academic writers to explore the values of religion to both the individual and to society. Some of these writers I have discussed in previous posts.

Measuring the Mind?

Rupert Sheldrake is one such writer. He is a scientist who has risked his credibiliity and his career arguing publicly for science to accept its limitations and allow for the existence of baffling mysteries it cannot (yet?) explain.

In his excellent book The Science Delusionhe lists ten unhelpful dogmas that the church of science teaches (pages 7-8). These include: everything is essentially mechanical, all matter is unconscious, nature is purposeless and evolution has no goal or direction, minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains, and mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Jonathan Haidt is another who writes in the same vein. He finds, for example, that religions are better than other ideologies at binding communities together long-term. He quotes evidence of where communes were compared (The Righteous Mind: page 256) and the findings indicated that just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes. He looks at the analysis of the key ingredient of this superiority (ibid.): ‘the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted.’ This did not work for secular communes even though such sacrifices are necessary for longevity (ibid.): for them, ‘demands for sacrifice did not help.’ The inescapable conclusion seems to be, as Sosis argues, that (ibid.): ‘. . .  rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized.’

For now perhaps it’s sufficient to close this list with a brief mention of Roy Baumeister and Ron Tierney who have trawled the scientific literature and found numerous examples of how religion benefits society and the individual. (I am not blind to the dark side of faith and have discussed it at some length – see my posts on Conviction for example.)

‘Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity’

I don’t think I can end this post without making some further reference to the work of Charles Taylor, whom I mentioned in the previous post. I cannot claim to have read him thoroughly or carefully as yet but dipping in and out of his book A Secular Age has convinced me I must make the monumental effort of reading through all 776 pages at some point.  To give a sense of why I feel he is saying things worthy of careful note, I’ll quote briefly from a short section (Number 16 of his 19th Chapter ‘Unquiet Frontiers of Modernity’: pages 726-727).

He feels that there are a number of dilemmas which both faith and exclusive humanism have to deal with:

These demands include: finding the moral sources which can enable us to live up to our very strong universal commitments to human rights and well-being; and finding how to avoid the turn to violence which returns uncannily and often unnoticed in the “higher” forms of life which have supposedly set it aside definitively.

Both positions are shakily maintained:

The more one reflects, the more the easy certainties of either “spin”, transcendental or immanentist, are undermined.

There are strong pressures towards the latter: ‘the present fractured expressionist culture . . . seems very inhospitable to belief.’ However, he feels the pressure to believe has not completely vanished.

. . . . the sense that there is something more presses in. Great numbers of people feel it: in moments of reflection about their life; in moments of relaxation in nature; in moments of bereavement and loss; and quite wildly and unpredictably. Our age is very far from settling into a comfortable unbelief.

He describes the secular age as ‘deeply cross-pressured.’

Coda

So, where do I stand? Secularisation, however positively you see it, comes at a price. So, of course, does religion. Defining what that price is, exactly, is the tricky part. That’s the task that we all must perform if we are to act responsibly. It’s also possibly not a once and for all decision, involving as it does the question whether or not  to believe in a God of some kind. And if we don’t believe in a God, what do we read into this reality? If we do believe in God, what kind of god do we believe in? For my part, I find it harder to imagine that we can solve the problems that confront us without a belief in a higher being: such a belief will, I admit, only work if our sense of this higher being widens the compass of our compassion to include all life without exception and raises our sense of justice to its loftiest possible level.

The choices we make in this respect are likely to be constantly tested. The only things we cannot afford to do are pretend it does not matter or that we are not choosing. Ignoring the problem is a choice. These choices will shape the world our children thrive or die in.

‘Saturn Devouring His Son’ by Goya

Arise, O people, and, by the power of God’s might, resolve to gain the victory over your own selves, that haply the whole earth may be freed and sanctified from its servitude to the gods of its idle fancies – gods that have inflicted such loss upon, and are responsible for the misery of their wretched worshippers. These idols form the obstacle that impedeth man in his efforts to advance in the path of perfection.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Tablets page 86)

This sequence of posts appeared in September 2012. It seemed a good idea to republish them now. They contain a number of references to Century of Light, the focus of the workshop materials I am currently posting, and placing them between two workshops dealing with the dark side of our materialistic culture seems especially appropriate. I am posting all three in the sequence on consecutive days. It’s perhaps also necessary to share the nub of a comment left on part one of the original  by a good friend. He felt that “the relationship of secularisation and the ‘secularisation thesis’ (so beloved of 1960s sociology) to the present state of religion and religiosity is much more complex and multi-dimensional than this post seems to suggest.” This is a valid point and is not explored in this sequence, though it triggered some changes in Parts 2 & 3 as I explain. 

Why is secularisation happening?

In quoting Matthew Arnold in the last post, we mentioned that Tennyson also was affected by the decline in religion which was so dramatically felt at that time. Behind Tennyson’s anguish of doubt you sense throughout whole sections of the poem In Memoriam the presence of Darwinian ideas of evolution:

Tennyson

Be near me, when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And life a fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Be near me when I fade away,
To point the term of human strife,
And on the low dark verge of life
The twilight of eternal day.

(Tennyson: In Memoriam: No. 50)

Hamilton, in The Sociology of Religion, feels that the decline is linked to industrialisation (and urbanisation), but not in a straightforward way. For instance, the United States is highly industrialised but is not comparably secularised.

The Role of Reason

The growth of a culture’s emphasis on reason, Weber’s rationalisation, is also an important, maybe central factor. Also factors internal to Protestantism may have contributed. One view holds that the Reformation instigated these. Berger (quoted on page 171 of Hamilton) states:

Protestantism may be described in terms of an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality, as compared with its Catholic adversary.

He feels it divested itself of mystery, miracle and magic. Christianity’s increasing pluralism also aided the spread of the rationalising tendency: the pluralistic situation (page 172) “where one can choose one’s religion is also a situation where one can choose no religion at all.” This is perhaps the process that produces one of the modern religious styles described in Century of Light (page 46):

Religion, where not simply driven back into fanaticism and unthinking rejection of progress, became progressively reduced to a kind of personal preference, a predilection, a pursuit designed to satisfy spiritual and emotional needs of the individual.

Charles Darwin

Hamilton then looks at the factors external to Christianity. The growth of rationality is taken to be central. He quotes Wilson (page 173) as arguing that:

It is not inherent tendencies in Christianity that are central but the autonomous growth of scientific knowledge and method. The argument is that this has undermined the credibility of religious interpretations of the world.

Century of Light describes this in forceful terms (page 69), not as the voice of true science but something masquerading as that:

What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of “science”, that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.

Also people came to look to political institutions and processes for justice and for better conditions, not to the Church. The decline of community has played its part.

Materialism

It is however possible to argue, as Hamilton goes on to do, that both the decline of religion and the rise of materialistic science have common underlying causes. Religion and science, he feels, are not necessarily at odds. Religion has not helped itself in the West by pronouncing on empirical matters using scriptural evidence. Beneath that the decline of Feudalism may have contributed to the decline of Christianity, the rise of science as well as ultimately and very indirectly the temporary credibility of Marxism.

Shoghi Effendi quotes reports of Christian missionaries (World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, page 181) describing communism as the “religious irreligion” and expands on its role in the next page:

The excessive growth of industrialism and its attendant evils . . . . the aggressive policies initiated and the persistent efforts exerted by the inspirers and organizers of the Communist movement . . . have no doubt contributed to the de-Christianization of the masses, and been responsible for a notable decline in the authority, the prestige and power of the Church.

Similarly, on the subject of materialism and looking most particularly at the Twentieth Century, Century of Light (page 46) asserts:

Karl Marx

Fathered by nineteenth century European thought, acquiring enormous influence through the achievements of American capitalist culture, and endowed by Marxism with the counterfeit credibility peculiar to that system, materialism emerged full-blown in the second half of the twentieth century as a kind of universal religion claiming absolute authority in both the personal and social life of humankind. Its creed was simplicity itself. Reality – including human reality and the process by which it evolves – is essentially material in nature. The goal of human life is, or ought to be, the satisfaction of material needs and wants. Society exists to facilitate this quest, and the collective concern of humankind should be an ongoing refinement of the system, aimed at rendering it ever more efficient in carrying out its assigned task.

The Inevitable Part of a Cycle?

Interestingly, Stark and Bainbridge (Hamilton: pages 176-178) regard secularisation as nothing new but rather a part of the normal cycle of religious development, and, in describing their model, create fascinating resonances with the Bahá’í perspective.

Ultimately, Churches decline as a result of their tendency to develop ever more extreme worldliness, engendering the emergence of revived religious groups . . . or new innovative developments. . . . While acknowledging that the rise of science stimulated an unprecedented, rapid and extreme degree of secularisation in contemporary society Stark and Bainbridge argue that science cannot fulfil many central needs and human desires. It cannot remove all suffering and injustice in this life, it cannot offer an escape from individual extinction, it cannot make human existence meaningful. Only God can do these things in people’s eyes. Religion, then, will not only survive and rise to prominence again, it will be transcendental or supernaturalist in form. It is more likely to be, further, the innovative . . . .  movements rather than the sectarian revivals of established traditions that will flourish since the latter can only come up against, in their turn, the same forces which have brought about a degree of secularisation in the first place.

Towards the end of his chapter on this subject Hamilton quotes Fenn (page 180) as wondering whether secularisation “does not so much drive religion from modern society [as foster] a type of religion which has no major functions for the entire society.” Spirituality becomes purely magical, even occult. The conclusion voiced in Century of Light (page 6) captures this:

inherited orthodoxies [are] all too often replaced by the blight of an aggressive secularism that [calls] into doubt both the spiritual nature of humankind and the authority of moral values themselves. Everywhere, the secularization of society’s upper levels [seems] to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

Exclusive Humanism

Prompted by Barney’s comment on the earlier post in this sequence, I revisited a book that I failed to finish in 2008. Charles Taylor, in that book – A Secular Age – dismissed what he refers to (page 22) as ‘subtraction stories’ and argued that ‘new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices’ were the truly effective factors. He argues (page 20) for what he labels ‘secularity 3’ stating that this:

. . . . is my interest here, as against 1 (secularised public spaces), and 2 (the decline of belief and practice) . . . [It] consists of new conditions of belief; it consists in a new shape to the experience which prompts to and is defined by belief; in a new context in which all search and questioning about the moral and spiritual must proceed.

He feels that (page 21):

The main feature of this new context is that it puts an end to the naive acknowledgement of the transcendent, or of goals or claims which go beyond human flourishing. But this is quite unlike religious turnovers in the past, . . . The crucial change which brought us into this new condition was the coming of exclusive humanism as a widely available option.

He defines ‘exclusive humanism’ as (page 18):

. . . the coming of modern secularity in my sense has been co-terminous with the rise of a society in which the first time in history a purely self-sufficient humanism came to be a widely available option. I mean by this a humanism accepting no final goals beyond human flourishing, or any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing. Of no previous society was this true.

The next post will consider where things might be moving from here. I feel there is more to say about this than I will be able to articulate at this point.

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