Archive for February 20th, 2015

Pan of Arc

I am embarking on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate 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 post was first published in 2009.

Yes, I can spell better than that. I know the title is a silly joke but it captures my mood of the moment very well.

Currently circumstances are pushing me to think hard about what I would describe myself as doing as a Bahá’í, about what I think is the core purpose of the Bahá’í community, and most of all about what I think the work of all human beings is most concerned with. In the end, I have concluded,  all those three descriptions come down to the same thing.

And what is that exactly?

Responsibility for the Welfare of the Entire Human Family

I can’t do better than use the words of the central governing body of the Bahá’í community:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

 For ‘individuals’ I think it’s fair to read ‘everyone’ whether Bahá’í or not

 This passage was written when a major building project  at the Bahá’í World Centre had been completed. The project was of great spiritual significance to the Bahá’í community world-wide. The buildings form an arc around Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, a place already of symbolic importance within Judaism, Christianity and Islam:

In mainstream Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought, it is Elijah that is indelibly associated with the mountain, and he is regarded as having sometimes resided in a grotto on the mountain. In the Books of Kings, Elijah is described as challenging 450 prophets of a particular Baal to a contest at the altar on Mount Carmel to determine whose deity was genuinely in control of the Kingdom of Israel; since the narrative is set during the rule of Ahab and his association with the Phoenicians, biblical scholars suspect that the Baal in question was probably Melqart.

(See Wikipedia entry for a full background)

The word ‘arc’ becomes a pun when this semi-circle of buildings is seen as a symbol of our strivings as Bahá’ís to work alongside others to build a social system that will become a point of refuge for a beleaguered humanity in crisis rather in the same way as the Ark Noah built did physically in the Biblical story of a flooded world.  Bahá’u’lláh Himself points this out:

Call out to Zion, O Carmel, and announce the joyful tidings: He that was hidden from mortal eyes is come! . . . . . Oh, how I long to announce unto every spot on the surface of the earth, and to carry to each one of its cities, the glad-tidings of this Revelation—a Revelation to which the heart of Sinai hath been attracted, and in whose name the Burning Bush is calling: “Unto God, the Lord of Lords, belong the kingdoms of earth and heaven.” Verily this is the Day in which both land and sea rejoice at this announcement, the Day for which have been laid up those things which God, through a bounty beyond the ken of mortal mind or heart, hath destined for revelation. Ere long will God sail His Ark upon thee, and will manifest the people of Bahá who have been mentioned in the Book of Names.

(Tablet of Carmel)

There are two points perhaps worth making here.

Are We Utopians?

The first relates to what what some may feel is the utopianism of these ideas. The very word utopia, which means ‘nowhere’, contains the seeds of some of this contempt. John Gray in his anti-utopian book Black Mass is keen to remind us of this as is Chris Hedges in his intriguing book I don’t believe in atheists. They are also both deeply suspicious of the tendency towards self-righteous violence that seems inseparable from the behaviour of all those who feel they know what’s best for us in the long run, no matter what the cost.

[After the Enlightenment] [t]error in the name of utopian ideals would rise again and again in the coming centuries.

(Hedges: page 19)

And Hedges, who is attacking a secular utopianism that does not accept humanity’s proness to sin, goes on to say (pages 57-58):

Those who believe human beings can be morally reformed are . . . . suicidal. . . . [The delusions of a utopian vision] seem to elevate the deluded, especially those who are deemed to be favoured by race or nature, above other forms of life. This lack of reverence, this refusal to see that we exist as an integrated whole, blinds humankind to its vulnerability, the fragility of life and human weakness. These delusions are part of a worldview that places itself and its selfish desires and dreams before the protection of life itself.

A main charge is also that, for all utopians, the ends will come to justify all means no matter how horrific.

It is important to emphasise here that, while Bahá’ís yearn to help create a more just society, we also recognise that this is an evolutionary process that will take many generations and requires love and patience as well as the passage of a vast amount of time. We also recognise that we, as imperfect human beings, contain the seeds of the very problems  in society we are hoping to help solve with this empowering vision of humanity’s potential and that it would be very easy for us to betray the blueprint of the Divine Arkitect by, for example, the same kind of self-righteous impatience as has bedevilled such utopian projects as the English, French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions (not all them religious, it is worth noting).


The second relates to the difference between patronising or exploitative rescue and empathic empowerment. We are not saying we already know exactly how to fix a broken world at the level of practical action. Nor are we saying that there are not multitudes of other compassionate and self-sacrificing people with decades of experience in tackling aspects of the challenges that face us all. That would be arrogant and self-deluded.Building Project

There are two things though that mean we can  contribute something special, we would say unique. We have a concept of unity expressed in a body of spiritual, organisational and practical teachings and we are learning to apply this systematically and world-wide in our daily lives (for a fuller explanation of this see Baha’i Epistolary). However, what makes up this special contribution is not just the concepts, though they evince a high level of originality and coherence,  nor simply the experience of applying them, though to some degree this makes up in rich diversity for what it  lacks in duration and size given the newness of the Faith on the world scene.

There is a third key ingredient, not unique to us but rare in the world,  which hopefully will militate against utopian self-righteousness and the destructive arrogance that goes with it. We are striving, with a keen sense of our own frailty, to empower ourselves to respond more effectively to the needs of all humanity to be empowered. We are striving to become capable of enabling others to respond to their particular challenges in their own way.  We feel we can  bring extremely useful tools to that process while having a huge amount to learn from others at the same time.

There are service projects in many places in the world that dwarf what we are currently doing as Baha’is. I’ve just been reading about the Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. They provide child care for thousands of children every Sunday. Their vast array of buildings is open seven days a week for dawn till dusk. They have banks, pharmacies and schools as well as counselling and guidance groups. They help people prepare for tests, fill out tax forms and buy houses, as well as offering classes in martial arts. Their marketing of what they offer is second to none. In fact, they base their operation on the ‘same principle as all successful businesses: putting the customer first.’ (For a fuller description see  God Is Back by Micklethwait and Wooldridge pages 183-187).

That last sentence is the give away. Too many projects are driven by the desire to provide what they see people as needing and will eagerly consume, but in a predefined and often formulaic way. There is an emphasis on the passive consumption of what is on offer.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge go on to describe (page 187) how ‘many megapreachers have begun to worry that they are producing a tribe of spectators who regards religion as nothing more than spectacle.’ Some are attempting to address this problem. They have not escaped being labelled the ‘Disneyfication of religion’ and ‘Christianity Lite’ (page 189), charges which the authors feel are a touch too dismissive. However, their measured summary of what is happening highlights a major problem:

. . . . the target audience for the megachurches consists of baby boomers who left the church in adolescence, who don’t feel comfortable with overt displays of religiosity, who dread turning into their parents, and who apply the same consumerist mentality to spiritual life as they do to every other aspect of experience.

The Bahá’í model in contrast emphasises, from a non-negotiable set of spiritual principles that are seen as absolutes, that it is imperative to enable people to become active participants in change, in the process of deciding what to do and doing it. In the old adage, it is teaching people to fish rather than giving them fish — an ideal that, sadly, all too few social development projects exemplify. It is not providing something that, if you were no longer there, could not be sustainably provided by those whom you are seeking to help.

Arc building siteI visited Mount Carmel as the buildings referred to earlier were nearing completion. On my return to the UK I wrote the poem that I will be republishing soon – Carpenters of Minds.

It describes the beauty of the whole environment, where there were, though, still many traces of a work in progress such as you can see on any building site — sacks of concrete, exposed foundations, ladders, cranes, piles of stone, heaps of rubble. You could see plain evidence of the hard work and planning that had gone into the process. At the end of the poem, realising how similar in some ways was the work of building a new kind of society, I wrote:

But who are the masons, the carpenters of minds, who will raise
up the New Jerusalem from this dust?           “Why you, of course!” He says.Wordsworth was clear: getting and spending we lay waste our powers.

. . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  In this brief pause
I half-sense some hope of beauty in this building site of ours.
But who are the masons, the carpenters of minds, who will raise
up the New Jerusalem from this dust?  “Why you, of course!” He says.

So, anyone want a job working for the Divine Arkitect? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Don’t miss out! And the job spec says that, while being a Bahá’í may be desirable, it’s not essential. We want to work with anyone who wants to create a better world with love, patience and empowerment.

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