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Archive for February 13th, 2015

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.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality – page 48)

I am embarking on a sequence of new posts which examines a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas related to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This sequence of three posts was first published in 2010.

As we saw in the previous post, Ray and Anderson’s book, The Cultural Creatives, tracks the way that the drops of personal aspiration from millions of separate individuals first combine into several different streams before beginning to converge into a massive river of increasing power.

They quote from many peoples’ diverse stories, illuminating what they have in common. This example is typical of many in its feeling of not belonging (page 101):

‘My family was so happy on the golf course, and gossiping round the pool, but I felt like I was in some plastic prison. I finally took my dad’s rental car and spent all of Sunday at the ocean. Sitting on the cliffs watching the white pelicans soar over the Pacific, I felt like I was finally crawling back inside my own skin, breathing the fresh air, at home.’

When this feeling of isolation eventually gives way to a sense of common purpose with millions of others, an awsome power will be released. The authors retell a version of the myth of Amaterasu Omikami, the Great Mother Sun, who, because of a great hurt, hid herself in a cave and plunged the whole world into darkness until the spirits of all living things each brought a tiny fragment of a mirror with them as they danced and sang outside the cave. When she peeped out to see what was going on, they wanted to be able to lift up all their tiny mirrors at once to reflect back to her in all its glory the brilliance of her light to break her gloomy mood and return her to the heavens. The plan worked (pages 345-346):

The power that can be focused by a compound mirror is vast, while that reflected by uncoordinated individual actions has little effect. . . . [I]solated actions can’t make the kinds of changes that are needed now. . . . Our new story is one that requires ten thousand tellers and ten times more to be inspired by it. Our new face needs ten thousand mirrors, each with a unique angle of vision to catch the creative energy available now.

To achieve this kind of concerted action will not be easy even if we manage to achieve a strong clear sense of our need for it. It has always required great courage and huge sacrifices in the past, for groups of people to combine together to right even a single wrong or lift society to a higher level of understanding about one issue only. People have to do what they are afraid to do. The freedom movement in the States is not alone in providing innumerable examples of this heroism and the power of example is of central importance here (page 124):

You do not ask someone else to do what you aren’t willing to do yourself. But they did the things they feared most – they went to gaol, faced fire hoses and men with clubs, took responsibility for their friends and fellow protesters. It swept them into the deepest fear they  had ever known – but then it lifted them  beyond that fear into a strength and steadfastness they never expected.

The rewards of such courage are beyond price and its long term effects incalculable. Paul Begala testifies to that when he speaks of John Lewis (page 125):

‘I live and work in a place and a time when courage is defined as enduring a subpoena with dignity. So it is humbling to be in the presence of a man who aced down Bull Connor and his attack dogs, armed with nothing more than his courage, his conscience, and his convictions. If that ain’t a hero, I don’t know what is.

A key aspect of this kind of courage is practising what you preach (ibid):

‘Walking your talk.’ In the all-night meetings and councils of the freedom and peace movements, and the consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement, this specific insight about social action evolved into an even more basic conviction about living authentically. What you believe in your heart has to match what you do in your life . . . .

There remain other significant problems which, the authors make clear, have dissipated the painstakingly accumulated rivulets of activity in many isolated places before they ever joined all the other brooks to make a stream. These problems pose key questions.

First of all, how do you build on the experience of others who are engaged in basically the same enterprise but in widely separated places. Networks, whose ability to operate is increasingly facilitated by the internet, are part of the answer (page 128):

Most social movements have two arms: the political and the cultural. . . . . . Contrary to the convictions of the political arm, the cultural arm is at least as important, and sometimes far more so, in its effects on the culture. . . . . But the spell-breaking power of the cultural arms takes place in submerged networks.

Secondly, how do you pass down what you have learned to those who come after you? Part of the answer to this second question lies in the power of persistency (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. Those who need fast results and instant gratification had better go into some other line of work. As a number of Cultural Creatives told us, you have to enjoy the people and the process, and you need the maturity to work in a longer time frame.

Anyone involved in working to change the culture in which they live will have to face the intense discouragement that all too frequently comes when results fail to match up to expectations. A choice point torments us: ‘Do I keep faith with my vision or do I break faith with it?’ Keeping faith beyond what feels like its breaking point is often what brings about a break through, healing the testing breach between vision and reality, at least until the next time.

Much of the power of these processes is invisible, which is partly what makes the work so testing, but it can be calculated to some degree once you understand the typical dynamics (page 109):

To understand the true size of a social movement, think of a target with three concentric circles. The centre is the hundreds of visible leaders, demonstrators, and little organisations. Around the centre is a circle of many thousands of active supporters. and around those two active circles is the circle of the sympathetic millions who are touched by the events, and may simply read the arguments, and as a result make different choices in some part of their lives.

Powerful as these processes are, even when political alliances reinforce them, they are almost certainly not enough (page 154):

To change the culture, you cannot depend on the terms and solutions the old culture provides. . . . Leaving the heavy lifting to the political side of the movements, the cultural side started drying up, and the submerged networks began to lose touch with one another.

They pinpoint the missing link (page 187):

No one knew, or even thought about, how to create cultural institutions to support the work that was so important to them. The first generation practitioners  . . . . . could [hardly] manage their way out of a paper bag. . . . There really was a hole in the culture – the old ways didn’t work, and the new ones hadn’t yet been invented.

And why exactly, in their view, wouldn’t the institutions the United States already had do the trick (page 227)?

The three Bigs – big government, big business, and big media – have difficulty dealing with issues that cannot be isolated from other issues and solved with tools at hand.

Even progressive movements themselves could be rendered ineffective by the same tendency to atomise everything (page 229): ‘Activists, too, are Modernism’s children, believing that they must become specialists.’

Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded (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.

Rainbow Bodhisattva by Vijali Hamilton

They strongly suggest that this might well involve something much more than a merely materialistic approach. They quote Joseph Campbell (page 299):

“You do not have a myth unless you have an opening into transcendence.” . . . If we cannot recognise the universe and the nations and ourselves as manifestations of “the grounding mystery of all being,” he said, we have nothing we can really trust.

And this quote is not in isolation. They also refer to Vijali Hamilton (page 311):

The true story is that there is a luminous, spacious energy that flows through everything all the time. It’s within matter, within things as well as within space, and you can tune in to it at any time . . . . . It is not otherworldly. It is right here, closer than our own flesh.”

This is so close to the idea that the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith describes:

“O My servants!” Bahá’u’lláh Himself testifies, “The one true God is My witness! This most great, this fathomless and surging ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.”

(Shoghi Effendi: The Promised Day is Come – page 16)

So it’s not surprising that leaps of faith are required of us if we are to undertake these kinds of transformative processes effectively. To use Will Keepin‘s words (page 279):

“The work I’m doing now,” he told us, “is all based on faith.” . . . The crises he went through “led to a whole new gift that I never would have guessed. It developed a quality of trusting in the unknown.”

From a Bahá’í point of view this all makes complete sense. Bahá’ís believe that we are living on the cusp of massive changes in society and civilisation. We believe that, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘the world’s equilibrium’ has ‘been upset.’ We can sign up to the vision expressed in this book (page 230): ‘When a force for change moves into an inherently unstable time, the potential leverage is very great indeed.’ We believe that science and religion are not at odds. We can see how they could work together for the betterment of all humanity as these authors can (page 318): ‘New technologies may give us solutions to many global problems, if they are brought to life in settings with cooperative, constructive values.’ Our vision is often summarised in the words ‘The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.’ Ray and Anderson appear to resonate to that as well (page 302): ‘The sense of “one planet, our home” is inescapable.’ Their conclusion is (page 314): ‘It’s a matter of moral imagination, a wisdom of the heart.’ (For more on ‘moral imagination’ see an earlier post.)

And the core of that vision, that wisdom, is captured towards the end of their book (ibid):

[Cultural Creatives] say that each of us is a living system within a greater living system, connected to each other in more ways than we can fathom. If we focus on that wholeness, we can begin to imagine a culture that can heal the fragmentation and destructiveness of our time.

I feel that there is the possibility of huge reciprocal benefits here.

In our Writings Bahá’ís are described as ‘catalysts.’

What is called for is a spiritual revival, as a prerequisite to the  successful application of political, economic and technological  instruments. But there is a need for a catalyst. Be assured that,  in  spite  of  your  small  numbers,  you  are  the  channels  through which such a catalyst can be provided.

(Universal House of JusticeTurning Point – page 124)

(For more on what being a catalyst means for us see both links.) I think we could learn much from the Cultural Creatives about how to play that part more effectively. Bahá’ís on the other hand have a model of how a world wide network, possessing a clear vision of the oneness of humanity, can strengthen its influence and consolidate its learning with the help of an appropriate organisational structure. There is therefore something significant that Cultural Creatives can learn from us.

An urge towards unity, like a spiritual springtime, struggles to express itself through countless international congresses that bring together people from a vast array of disciplines. It motivates appeals for international projects involving children and youth. Indeed, it is the real source of the remarkable movement towards ecumenism by which members of historically antagonistic religions and sects seem irresistibly drawn towards one another. Together with the opposing tendency to warfare and self-aggrandize-ment against which it ceaselessly struggles, the drive towards world unity is one of the dominant, pervasive features of life on the planet during the closing years of the twentieth century.

The experience of the Bahá’í community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity. It is a community . . . drawn from many nations, cultures, classes and creeds, engaged in a wide range of activities serving the spiritual, social and economic needs of the peoples of many lands. It is a single social organism, representative of the diversity of the human family, conducting its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles, and cherishing equally all the great outpourings of divine guidance in human history. Its existence is yet another convincing proof of the practicality of its Founder’s vision of a united world, another evidence that humanity can live as one global society, equal to whatever challenges its coming of age may entail. If the Bahá’í experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study.

(Universal House of Justice: The Promise of World Peace – 1985)

Just as I have drawn immense encouragement and inspiration from reading this account of the Cultural Creatives, which I wholeheartedly recommend, hopefully increasing numbers of people will draw similar inspiration from the Bahá’í community to which I belong. We have a model which contains a crucial missing dimension in the work of many Cultural Creatives – and I don’t mean a belief in God. Many Cultural Creatives share that perspective in their diverse ways. I mean an institutional framework, centred around a vision of unity in diversity, through which to disseminate and consolidate the gains that have been achieved through effortful experience in different places and at different times.

So, definitely read the book but don’t just stop at that. Come and have a look at what we are doing too. There are, almost certainly, Bahá’ís near where you live. We’ll all be immensely more effective working in synchrony.

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