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Archive for September, 2009

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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Revelation and Society

The last post ended with a look at the election of the Universal House of Justice. A recent book describes their role:

[The House of Justice] guides a community engaged in a dialogical process of learning to translate the teachings into action over time to create a new social order manifested in the lives of individual believers, the creation of a distinctive Bahá’í community, and the advancement of civilisation.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality page 57)

At the time of the Anniversary of the passing of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith in 1992 a

Bahá’í World Congress 1992

Bahá’í World Congress 1992

statement about Bahá’u’lláh was issued:

Divine Revelation is, He says, the motive power of civilisation. When it occurs, its transforming effect on the minds and souls of those who respond to it is replicated in the new society that slowly takes shape around their experience. A new centre of loyalty emerges that can win the commitment of peoples from the widest range of cultures; music and the arts seize on symbols that mediate far richer and more mature inspirations; a radical redefinition of concepts of right and wrong makes possible the formulation of new codes of civil law and conduct; new institutions are conceived in order to give expression to impulses of moral responsibility previously ignored or unknown . . . . As the new culture evolves into a civilisation, it assimilates achievements and insights of past eras in a multitude of fresh permutations. Features of past cultures that cannot be incorporated atrophy or are taken up by marginal elements among the population. The Word of God creates new possibilities within both the individual consciousness and human relationships.

(Statement on Bahá’u’lláh)

One of the key institutions of the Faith repeats this theme at about the same time:

The greatest gift to a people is to assist them in developing the capacity to apply Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation, chart a proper path for their own progress and contribute to the progress of humanity.

(International Teaching Centre 22nd November 1992: para. 45)

It is important to emphasise that the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh is not just for Bahá’ís. Teaching the Faith is not just to persuade people to become Bahá’ís and swell our numbers. People can take the ideas away and use them in their own way.

And again four years later the Universal House of Justice returned to the same idea:

A community is . . . . a comprehensive unit of civilisation composed of individuals, families and institutions that are originators and encouragers of systems, agencies and organisations working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its own borders; it is a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.

(Universal House of Justice: Ridván 1996)

This possibility of influencing large numbers of people in various ways has implications. The challenges of growth will test and develop the capacities of our institutions at all levels, but ‘ultimately these bodies were designed to serve large numbers of people.’ Indeed, ‘so much of the ability of the Faith to develop capacity for community building depends upon the size of our membership.’ (Building Momentum: page 17)

It’s time to look more closely at this concept of ‘capacity building’ in the sense in which  we are using it here and ‘civilisation building,’ our other theme, and the way both of them link to growth. We will be seeing how these two things also link to character-building, consciousness raising and empowerment

Growth

Growth is not just about numbers but also about maturation, consciousness and empowerment. But numbers are important. Without ‘mass,’ not in the Roman Catholic sense, our impact will be small.

Shoghi Effendi has assured Bahá’ís that growth is the answer to fulfilling the potentialities of our Administrative Order:

The problems which confront the believers at the present time, whether social, spiritual, economic or administrative, will be gradually solved as the number and the resources of the friends multiply and their capacity for service … develops.

(Quoted in Building Momentum: page 16)

The Universal House of Justice has stated:

A massive expansion of the Bahá’í community must be achieved far beyond all past records . . . . . The need for this is critical, for without it the laboriously erected agencies of the Administrative Order will not be provided the scope to be able to develop and adequately demonstrate their inherent capacity to minister to the crying needs of humanity in its hour of deepening despair.

(Building Momentum: page 17)

The purpose of growth is to meet the crying needs of humanity. It is not for its own sake. And it doesn’t just mean more Bahá’ís. It does not mean serving people in order to induce them to become Bahá’ís. It means seeking to empower them to take control of their own destiny in the most creative way possible.

Training

To have any hope of empowering others has meant that first we have had to find a way of empowering ourselves.

It is evident, then, that a systematic approach to training has created a way for Bahá’ís to reach out to the surrounding society, share Bahá’u’lláh’s message with friends, family, neighbours and co-workers, and expose them to the richness of His teachings. This outward-looking orientation is one of the finest fruits of the grassroots learning taking place.

(Building Momentum: page 9)

To be more outward-looking has meant that increasingly Bahá’í communities have been removing barriers: we are becoming a borderless community.

Having an ‘outward-looking orientation’ also suggests that it is important for Bahá’ís to understand more deeply the forces operating on the world stage and the solutions offered by the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh: training has played a part in this kind of consciousness-raising as well.

Our task is to convey to seekers that we are all living in the same world, facing common trials, and striving to fulfil similar, long-held aspirations for the human race. Our expressions of solidarity with our fellow human beings must be sincerely voiced and genuinely felt.

(Building Momentum: page 19)

We have had to achieve a better understanding of what’s happening in the world to our fellow human beings. There must though be no trace of an ulterior motive in our service to humanity. Bahá’u’lláh’s powerful reminder of our common humanity is ringing in our ears:

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

(Hidden Words from the Arabic: No. 69)

We will look more closely at empowerment, capacity building and the training process in the next post.

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If One Common Faith helps the Bahá’í community understand the current context of the vision we are seeking to implement (see previous post), Century of Light helps us see how our understanding of this vision developed by slow degrees.

Obstacles to Understanding

Secularisation partly explains the difficulty humanity as a whole has in grasping a transcendent vision of global transformation: the failure of religion makes a contribution too.

. . . the secularization of society’s upper levels seemed to go hand in hand with a pervasive religious obscurantism among the general population.

(Century of Light: Sec I, page 6)

We also all lack precedents to aid our understanding:

Our century, with all its upheavals and its grandiloquent claims to create a new order, has no comparable example of the systematic application of the powers of a single Mind to the building of a distinctive and successful community that saw its ultimate sphere of work as the globe itself.

(Century of Light: page 10)

People might, for example, claim that Marx had developed what seemed to be a global vision but it is not in

British Museum: London

British Museum: London

fact comparable. It was a muddled reductionist vision. It was reductionist in the way that it relegated ideas to the back seat and promoted material conditions to the driving seat of history. It was muddled because, at the same time, it used exhortation to enlist the persuadable to throw their weight behind the idea of a supposedly impersonal dialectic of change. Also all the attempts to implement the vision have so far been catastrophically destructive, involving Chekhov‘s pet hates of ‘violence and lies‘ in abundance. Not only that but Marx had the benefit of one of the best libraries in the world – the British Museum’s reading room – and still failed to achieve the breadth, depth, complexity, compassion and ultimate practical efficacy of  the vision expounded by Bahá’u’lláh in prison and from exile.

An Unfolding Understanding

Guardians Resting Place: London

Guardian's Resting Place: London

Even within the Bahá’í community understanding of the vision evolved over a period of  time. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his role as expounder of the words of Bahá’u’lláh, emphasised the role of the recognition of the oneness of the human race (Century of Light: page 23). Later, Shoghi Effendi, who was appointed in his turn as interpreter of the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and died in London in 1957, drew out the implications:

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. . . . . . 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 demilitarization of the whole civilized 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.

(World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: pages 42-43. Quoted in Century of Light: page 50)

 

To one degree or another, most Bahá’ís no doubt appreciated that the Assemblies they were being called on to form had a significance far beyond the mere management of practical affairs with which they were charged (op. cit: Page 54). Century of Light again quoted Shoghi Effendi:

. . . . 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”.

(Century of Light: Page 55)

A word of explanation is perhaps needed here. The Bahá’í Faith has an administrative system that involves electing local and national assemblies on an annual basis. This is done without electioneering: the Bahá’í voter in a secret ballot votes for anyone within the community, local or national as appropriate, who seems to him or her to have the necessary qualities of character and experience to execute the role of Assembly member conscientiously and well. Processes such as consultation (see the earlier post on this subject) are vital decision making tools of these institutions. The pattern can be studied and borrowed from by all, whether Bahá’í or not, and in this way the future shape of the world can be influenced by this pattern.

‘The Bahá’í community,’ it goes on to explain, ‘now embarked [on a stage of development] in which the Administrative Order would be erected throughout the planet, its institutions established and the “society building” powers inherent in it fully revealed’ (Century of Light: Pages 55-56).

 

It continues with the words of the Guardian  (Page 68):

Theirs is the duty to hold, aloft and undimmed, the torch of Divine guidance, as the shades of night descend upon, and ultimately envelop the entire human race. Theirs is the function, amidst its tumults, perils and agonies, to witness to the vision, and proclaim the approach, of that re-created society, that Christ-promised Kingdom, that World Order whose generative impulse is the spirit of none other than Bahá’u’lláh Himself, whose dominion is the entire planet, whose watchword is unity, whose animating power is the force of Justice, whose directive purpose is the reign of righteousness and truth, and whose supreme glory is the complete, the undisturbed and everlasting felicity of the whole of human kind.

Moving Towards Empowerment

Century of Light speaks of the role of planning not as though ‘the Bahá’í community has assumed the responsibility of “designing” a future for itself’, but as striving ‘to align the work of the Cause with the Divinely impelled process they see steadily unfolding in the world.’ This is a purpose, of course, which can influence all peoples of good will, whether Bahá’í or not. Their duty is to align their efforts with the spirit of the age in their way just as Bahá’ís do in this particular fashion. By these combined efforts the world will change. However:

The challenge to the Administrative Order is to ensure that, as Providence allows, Bahá’í efforts are in harmony with this Greater Plan of God, because it is in doing so that the potentialities implanted in the Cause by Bahá’u’lláh bear their fruit.

(Century of Light: Page 69)

The Greater Plan of God, the spirit of the age seen as the organising principle of unity in diversity, requires the efforts of the whole of humanity. As a Bahá’í community we have to make sure that we provide a kind of catalyst by means of what we do within our administrative system and in collaboration with all people’s good will, the Lesser Plan of God.

Century of Light continues:

. . . . . The organic unity of the body of believers – and the Administrative Order that makes it possible – are evidences of what Shoghi Effendi termed “the society-building power which their Faith possesses.”

(Century of Light: Page 97)

 

By 1996, it had become possible, as the Faith grew, to see all of the distinct strands of this complex enterprise as integral parts of one coherent whole (Century of Light: page 108). There were still challenges though.

For the most part, however, these [new Bahá'í] friends were essentially recipients of teaching programmes conducted by teachers and pioneers from outside. One of the great strengths of the masses of humankind from among whom the newly enrolled believers came lies in an openness of heart that has the potentiality to generate lasting social transformation. The greatest handicap of these same populations has so far been a passivity learned through generations of exposure to outside influences which, no matter how great their material advantages, have pursued agendas that were often related only tangentially – if at all – to the realities of the needs and daily lives of indigenous peoples.

(Century of Light: pages108-109)

This highlighted a need, the meeting of which led to the creation of the Training Institute process (page 109) that empowered people to take initiatives and persist in action even under difficult circumstances:

. . . beginning in the 1970s in Colombia, where a systematic and sustained programme of education in the Writings was devised and soon adopted in neighbouring countries. Influenced by the Colombian community’s parallel efforts in the field of social and economic development, the breakthrough was all the more impressive in the fact that it was achieved against a background of violence and lawlessness that was deranging the life of the surrounding society.

The Colombian achievement has proved a source of great inspiration and example to Bahá’í communities elsewhere in the world.

The process of transformation the Cause has set in motion advances by inducing a fundamental change of consciousness, and the challenge it poses for all those of us who would serve it is to free ourselves from attachment to inherited assumptions and preferences that are irreconcilable with the Will of God for humanity’s coming of age (page 136).

Century of Light towards the end (pages 139-140) concludes:

. . . . With the successful establishment in 1963 of the Universal House of Justice, the Bahá’ís

Seat of the Universal House of Justice: Haifa

Seat of the Universal House of Justice: Haifa

of the world set out on the first stage of a mission of long duration: the spiritual empowerment of the whole body of humankind as the protagonists of their own advancement.

We must not underestimate the significance of this achievement:

The process leading to the election of the Universal House of Justice . . . .  very likely constituted history’s first global democratic election. Each of the successive elections since then has been carried out by an ever broader and more diverse body of the community’s chosen delegates, a development that has now reached the point that it incontestably represents the will of a cross-section of the entire human race. There is nothing in existence – nothing indeed envisioned by any group of people – that in any way resembles this achievement.

(Century of Light: page 92)

In the three next posts we will examine in more detail some of the specific components of this process of empowerment.

 

 

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The individual must be educated to such a high degree that he would rather have his throat cut than tell a lie, and would think it easier to be slashed with a sword or pierced with a spear than to utter calumny or be carried away by wrath.

(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 136)

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality from under one’s feet.

(Twilight of the Gods: Friedrich Nietzsche)

There are two kinds of book that normally cause me problems: books about physics and books about philosophy. My shelves are populated with many such volumes whose bookmarks stall about halfway through, just about where good intentions foundered on the rocks of complete incomprehension.

At last, though, I’ve found a philosophy book that I could finish and not only that: I could follow its main lines of argument relatively easily and immediately see their relevance to our problems today. This is the book.

Neiman’s starting point is to renege on the ‘non-interference pact’ in which philosophers agree not to meddle with the details of history as it unfolds and historians sign up not to interfere with morality. She sees it as critical that philosophical acumen is brought to bear on political realities. Once she has asserted her right to participate in the debate, she proceeds to argue that the typical understanding of the relationship between religion and morality is flawed. In her view, though deeply intertwined, they are essentially independent. Her position, though, is not simplistic (page 112):

To be human is to have needs for transcendence over the brute and shiny objects of experience, needs that both religion and morality at their best fulfil.

While I still think it is possible and rational to argue the case for a different relationship between religion and morality, one which places our idea of God not just our idea of good at centre stage, her position leads to some interesting possibilities not least a revision of the current distortion of the enlightenment viewpoint. This is typically seen to be atheist with a potentially lethal utopian view of the power of reason (see John Gray’s Black Mass for an eloquent example of this view). By contrast she contends (page 126):

The Enlightment took aim not at reverence, but at idolatry and superstition; it never believed progress is necessary, only that it is possible.

She goes on to add that the Enlightenment also confronted torture and inherited privilege. She sees it as referring back to Plato’s belief that truth, beauty and goodness are connected. She goes onto examine in detail its commitment to ‘happiness, reason, reverence, and hope.’

She focuses on the thinking of Kant, for example the way he treats the discrepancies between is and ought. She summarises this by saying (page 153):

Ideals are not measured by whether they conform to reality: reality is judged by whether it lives up to ideals.

She argues that (page 158-159):

The gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be is too great to be bridged by good intentions. . . . . Ideas are like horizons – goals towards which you can move but never actually attain.

She is wonderfully clear about the relationship between happiness, virtue and social progress (page 177):

Devote yourself to my happiness and your own perfection, and I’ll do the same in return. In a world where everyone did that, both happiness and virtue would double.

She sees this as an essential corrective to self-righteous abuses of power, especially if we focus on the other person’s concept of happiness not our own. This is very close to the Bahá’í view where we are urged to focus on ploughing our own furrow straight rather than causing ourselves to stray off line by picking holes in our neighbour’s ploughing.

She seeks to correct what she regards as a fundamental misconception of the Enlightenment view of reason (page 190):

One nearly constant theme [of the Enlightenment] was the idea that reason is not omnipotent.

Nor, she feels (page 194), was reason set up as opposed to feeling but rather to its bête noire: ‘authority based on revelation, superstition, and fanaticism.’ Reason, she argues, is what enables us not to be restricted by our biology: we have become able to create our own ends, and should not simply become means to other people’s ends (pages 202-203).

She follows this analysis with detailed examinations of examples through which she seeks to rehabilitate the tarnished concepts of heroism and evil. Her treatment of these nicely complements Zimbardo’s psychological approach, which he explores in depth in The Lucifer Effect.

At the end of the 450 pages of this excellent and supremely accessible book, where does she leave us?

Other posts on this blog, for example on the nature of reflection and the limits of reason, explain in depth why I can’t accept as a complete and adequate explanation her view that reason alone is the means for our transcendence. However, much else that she derives from this argument is compelling.

For example, a key point she makes is that moral conviction and a sense of evil have been highjacked by powerful interests and thereby devalued in the public eye. They need to be reclaimed and put to proper use if we are to understand the nature of the realities that confront us and which demand appropriate and proportional responses.

We have lost a sense of moral clarity that would give rise to fear that certain actions – whether we privately feel guilty about them or not – could lead to disgrace. For they don’t. If enough, and enough well-placed people do them, the only disgrace you need fear is the failure to get away with it.

She concludes her analysis, before moving on to considering particular examples, by stating in ringing terms (page 380):

Evil presents an unacceptable gap between ideals and reality; judging something to be evil is a way of setting limits on what we are willing to endure. The language of good and evil is vulnerable to exploitation because it’s the most powerful language we have. . . . . To abandon talk of evil is to leave that weapon in the hands of those who are least equipped to use it.

This book raises serious and important issues and reflects deeply upon them. While I do not agree with everything she says, I respect the way she says it and have to acknowledge that she has significantly deepened my understanding of these themes.

This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the direction our civilisation is taking. And it’s readable enough for me to have finished it – no mean achievement for any author writing from a philosophical perspective.

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Round in wall

Yangzhou Garden

I realise that it has been some time since I posted anything on this blog. I have been away in China, a fascinating, enriching but exhausting experience it will take me some time to digest. I hope to post a blog about it at some point: for now I include some photographs to convey something of the atmosphere.

While I was in China I managed to finish a number of books two of which I hope to do reviews about soon. I will also be continuing with the sequence of posts on civilisation building. For now I am slowly catching up on all the things I didn’t do while we were away.

Shanghai at Night

Shanghai at Night

One of the downsides of China is, of course, the pollution, but when we arrived in Shanghai it did provide some atmospheric night shots. I don’t want to leave the impression that our stay in Shanghai was a gloomy one though. It’s a vibrant and cosmopolitan city and the Chinese there, as everywhere we went, were warm and welcoming.

From there we went to Yangzhou where our son has been teaching English for the past year. By Chinese standards its a small city of something like four million. It takes pride in the way its new building work strives as often as possible to continue the long tradition of beautiful architecture stretching back hundreds of years. It boasts many gardens with intricate stonework and complex pathways.

Most of our time in China was spent in Yangzhou, though we visited Beijing as well as Shanghai. The high spot of the Beijing experience was climbing a section of the Great Wall of China (see final photograph).

GWC

Great Wall: Mutianyu

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