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Pollution in Shanghai

I meant to share this Guardian July article by David Runciman some time ago but it somehow slipped through the net. However, I think it makes so many important points, I still need to post a link no matter how late in the day. It resonates for me not just because the issue itself is so critical, and not just because discussion of it has become ensnared in the fake-news zeitgeist, but also because it highlights the importance of asserting uncertainty, one of my hobby horses:

We live in an age when mistrust of politics has spilled over into mistrust of expertise, and vice versa. To respond with ever-greater certainty in the name of science is a big mistake. Expertise doesn’t just need humility. It also needs to reclaim the idea of scepticism from the people who have abused it. Experts need to find a way of expressing uncertainty without feeling it undermines their expertise. Voicing doubt has been allowed to become a synonym for admitting you were wrong. The way out is to stop insisting that you were right in the first place.

Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Doubts about the science are being replaced by doubts about the motives of scientists and their political supporters. Once this kind of cynicism takes hold, is there any hope for the truth?

Last month Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. For his supporters, it provided evidence, at last, that the president is a man of his word. He may not have kept many campaign promises, but he kept this one. For his numerous critics it is just another sign of how little Trump cares about evidence of any kind. His decision to junk the Paris accord confirms Trump as the poster politician for the “post-truth” age.

But this is not just about Trump. The motley array of candidates who ran for the Republican presidential nomination was divided on many things, but not on climate change. None of them was willing to take the issue seriously. In a bitterly contentious election, it was a rare instance of unanimity. The consensus that climate is a non-subject was shared by all the candidates who appeared in the first major Republican debate in August 2015 – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee and Trump. Republican voters were offered 10 shades of denialism.

As Huckabee quipped in January 2015, any talk of global warming was a distraction from the real dangers the country faced: “A beheading is a far greater threat to an American than a sunburn.” Trump’s remarks on climate may have more been erratic (“I want to use hairspray!” he said at one point, confusing global warming with the hole in the ozone layer) but their consistent theme was that manmade climate change is a “hoax”, perpetrated by the enemies of the US, who may or may not include China.

Climate science has become a red rag to the political right. The scientific consensus is clear: more than 95% of climate researchers agree that human activity is causing global warming, and that without action to combat it we are on a path to dangerous temperature rises from pre-industrial levels. But the mere existence of this consensus gets taken by its political opponents as a priorievidence of a stitch-up. Why else would scientists and left-leaning politicians be agreeing with each other all the time if they weren’t scratching each others’ backs? Knowledge is easily turned into “elite” knowledge, which is tantamount to privileged snobs telling ordinary people what to think. Trump’s stance reflects the mutual intolerance that now exists between those promoting the scientific consensus and those for whom the consensus is just another political racket. Trump didn’t create this division. He is simply exploiting it.

It is tempting for anyone on the scientific side of the divide to want to apportion all the blame to the “alt-facts” crowd, who see elite conspiracies everywhere. But there is more going on here than dumb politics versus smart science. The facts are not just the innocent victims of politics. The facts have long been put in the service of politics, which is what fuels the suspicions of those who wish to deny them. The politicisation can cut both ways.

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View of the River from the entrance of the Pavilion Centre

One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.

Bahá’u’lláh quoting a hadith in Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 238).

Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Tablets – page 168)

Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212).

Last time I looked in some detail at the life of Bahá’u’lláh, as derived from the notes I made to prepare for a longer talk at the Pavilion Centre in Hereford that never happened! This is where I move to a brief consideration of the core teachings.

The Core Beliefs

The main tenets of Bahá’í belief can be summarised briefly here as follows:

The absolute core is a belief in the essential unity of God, Religion and Humanity:

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. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

(“The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh”, Arabic no. 68, rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985), p. 20)

The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.

(Gleanings – CXVII)

We are living in a single interconnected world. The challenges of globalism in its current form and the inequalities it fosters are causing many to regress to a harder line nationalism as the solution. This will definitely not work in the long term and probably won’t in the short term either.

Other important principles that stem from the concept of unity are:

The idea of a World Government; (this would not be an authoritarian bureaucracy – the local, national and international will each have their appropriate jurisdiction); the independent investigation of truth; the essential harmony of Religion and Science; the equality of men and women; the elimination of all prejudice; universal compulsory education; a spiritual solution to economic problems; and the need for a universal auxiliary language.

Questions Two, Three & Four

Two of the next three questions put to me before the talk were slightly more unusual:

How has your faith changed since travelling to the UK and do you practice in the same ways as originally defined? How can your belief be used to help us all create more understanding and a better world for us all – locally /nationally and beyond? What is your personal story for following your faith?

The answer to the first question is not a lot in terms of its fundamentals, and I’ve dealt with the second and third question on this blog many times.

The question that proved most intriguing, because the answer that popped into my head was not the one that I expected, was:

What is the most important aspect of your faith to you and why?

There is so much that I could’ve said including these: the Bahá’í Faith combines spirituality and activism in what seems to me to be a unique way; we have a global democratic administrative system that allows what we learn in one place to be applied in another and involves no priestly authority; its core concept of unity and interconnectedness is the key to our material survival as well as to our spiritual thriving; the idea of progressive revelation reduces the tensions and conflicts between people of different faiths; and service and community building are at the heart of the Faith’s approach to the social world. All of these matter to me a great deal and influenced my decision to attempt to tread the Bahá’í path. All of these depend for their effectiveness both upon nurturing the family and developing the educational system: even so I didn’t choose those either.

It may come as no surprise to readers of my blog that what I decided to say in the end, but never got the chance, focused upon the link between reflection and consultation, not just in the context of the administrative system, but as a consistent pattern of experiencing our inner and outer worlds and communicating with others, as skills that we need to use everywhere and all the time. It is part of the mystical core of the Bahá’í Faith, depending as both skills do on the development of the highest possible levels of detachment.

In a recent post I summarised the core of this insight briefly by saying:

. . . truthfulness requires the ability to reflect as an individual, which means stepping back, as we have described, from the immediate contents of our consciousness, so that we can gain a more objective and dispassionate perspective, and as a group it means consulting together as dispassionately as possible in order to lift our understanding to a higher level.

In fact, it is as though truth were, as John Donne wrote, ‘on a huge hill, cragged and steep.’ We are all approaching it from different sides. Just because your path looks nothing like mine it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, it is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. I might honestly feel you are completely mistaken and say so in the strongest possible terms. But I would be wrong to do so, even if I’m right. We would both move faster upwards if we compared notes more humbly and carefully. Reflection helps create the necessary humility: consultation makes the comparison of paths possible.

Of the key criteria that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sets for the achievement of true consultation, I chose to emphasise, in this context, the capacity for detachment. This is simply because it underpins the process of reflection for us as individuals as well as the process of consultation for us as groups and communities. If I cannot step back from my passing thoughts and feelings, detach myself from them, I won’t be able to consult, and similarly if I am with people who cannot do that also, consultation will be impossible.

It is intriguingly difficult to convey these points briefly to those who have not had cause to think about them before. In the world as it stands it is increasingly important that more of us learn these skills than ever before. A constant focus of my current reflections is on how I can best work towards both honing my own reflection and consultation skills, and, just as importantly, how can I motivate others to do the same.

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A friend of mine posted some thoughtful reflections on recent events in Las Vegas. He draws our attention to the care we should take when we choose an object of devotion, whether it be our own ego, with its proneness to acting out its reptilian reactions, or some temptingly charismatic charlatan, with his (it’s usually a man) basketful of empty promises in return for mindless obedience.  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

On October 1st, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a concert 32 floors below his Las Vegas hotel window. He had with him a large number of weapons, and he had rigged up cameras in the corridor so that he could see when any police officers were approaching him. He killed 58 people, and injured 520 more. He had no known political affiliation, was not known to have any mental problems, and unlike so many killers, he was not known to the police. It is, however, interesting to note that the police once regarded his father as being psychopathic.

So what were his motives? Was it sheer jealousy, that other people seemed to gain happiness from life, while he could not? Was it resentment of others, or desire for revenge for some real or imagined slight or injustice? Was it some kind of desire for recognition, as a skilled man who thought he had accomplished much, but to society was a complete unknown? As a hardened gambler, he would have belief either in luck, getting him something for nothing, or in his unrecognised skills in playing with the odds. As this man did with his final act, a gambler risks a lot, but with no guarantee of success. Was it pure nihilism: his life was going nowhere, so why should other people’s lives go anywhere?

What is missing in the lives of mass killers and serial killers? Whether they act alone, or under some spurious banner, surely they must have deficiencies in their lives or in their make-up. Perhaps what is missing is compassion, or empathy, or love for their fellow human beings. Perhaps they are lacking in self-control, or in a sense of proportion. Most people accept that at one level they are just one person among millions, and many realise that our planet is itself just one among billions. Most people, therefore, do not exalt their own importance. Perhaps the mass killer has an exaggerated sense of his/her importance.

Perhaps what is missing is a personal link to God.

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Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Photograph: Alamy

There’s an intriguing article on the Guardian website by Franklin Foer. Facebook is used as simply an example of the reductionist and self-serving biases of our most powerful institutions and how they describe what they are doing, with smug self-satisfaction, as progress. It explores our blindness or uncritical response to ‘algorithms.’ Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

How technology is making our minds redundant.

All the values that Silicon Valley professes are the values of the 60s. The big tech companies present themselves as platforms for personal liberation. Everyone has the right to speak their mind on social media, to fulfil their intellectual and democratic potential, to express their individuality. Where television had been a passive medium that rendered citizens inert, Facebook is participatory and empowering. It allows users to read widely, think for themselves and form their own opinions.

We can’t entirely dismiss this rhetoric. There are parts of the world, even in the US, where Facebook emboldens citizens and enables them to organise themselves in opposition to power. But we shouldn’t accept Facebook’s self-conception as sincere, either. Facebook is a carefully managed top-down system, not a robust public square. It mimics some of the patterns of conversation, but that’s a surface trait.

In reality, Facebook is a tangle of rules and procedures for sorting information, rules devised by the corporation for the ultimate benefit of the corporation. Facebook is always surveilling users, always auditing them, using them as lab rats in its behavioural experiments. While it creates the impression that it offers choice, in truth Facebook paternalistically nudges users in the direction it deems best for them, which also happens to be the direction that gets them thoroughly addicted. . . . . .


The precise source of Facebook’s power is algorithms. That’s a concept repeated dutifully in nearly every story about the tech giants, yet it remains fuzzy at best to users of those sites. From the moment of the algorithm’s invention, it was possible to see its power, its revolutionary potential. The algorithm was developed in order to automate thinking, to remove difficult decisions from the hands of humans, to settle contentious debates.

The essence of the algorithm is entirely uncomplicated. The textbooks compare them to recipes – a series of precise steps that can be followed mindlessly. This is different from equations, which have one correct result. Algorithms merely capture the process for solving a problem and say nothing about where those steps ultimately lead.

These recipes are the crucial building blocks of software. Programmers can’t simply order a computer to, say, search the internet. They must give the computer a set of specific instructions for accomplishing that task. These instructions must take the messy human activity of looking for information and transpose that into an orderly process that can be expressed in code. First do this … then do that. The process of translation, from concept to procedure to code, is inherently reductive. Complex processes must be subdivided into a series of binary choices. There’s no equation to suggest a dress to wear, but an algorithm could easily be written for that – it will work its way through a series of either/or questions (morning or night, winter or summer, sun or rain), with each choice pushing to the next.

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‘Is it reasonable to hope for a better world?’ Illustration: Michael Kirkham

There was an excellent piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian last Saturday. I meant to share it sooner but got side-tracked by events. What he offers is a secular solution to our dangerous predicament but even so it’s very much along the lines of the Bahá’í spiritual one. Well worth a read. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Donald Trump. North Korea. Hurricanes. Neoliberalism. Is there any hope of a better world? Yes, but we have to come together to tell a new, kinder story explaining who we are, and how we should live.

Is it reasonable to hope for a better world? Study the cruelty and indifference of governments, the disarray of opposition parties, the apparently inexorable slide towards climate breakdown, the renewed threat of nuclear war, and the answer appears to be no. Our problems look intractable, our leaders dangerous, while voters are cowed and baffled. Despair looks like the only rational response. But over the past two years, I have been struck by four observations. What they reveal is that political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination. They suggest to me that it is despair, not hope, that is irrational. I believe they light a path towards a better world.

The first observation is the least original. It is the realisation that it is not strong leaders or parties that dominate politics as much as powerful political narratives. The political history of the second half of the 20th century could be summarised as the conflict between its two great narratives: the stories told by Keynesian social democracy and by neoliberalism. First one and then the other captured the minds of people across the political spectrum. When the social democracy story dominated, even the Conservatives and Republicans adopted key elements of the programme. When neoliberalism took its place, political parties everywhere, regardless of their colour, fell under its spell. These stories overrode everything: personality, identity and party history.

This should not surprise us. Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand.

When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something “makes sense”, the “sense” we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as stories should progress?

A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative “truth” established in their minds. The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Those who tell the stories run the world.

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I know I’m taking a break from blogging but I read a powerful article yesterday that has triggered me to break my cyber-silence. It’s a challenging piece in yesterday’s Guardian on the subject of racism by . Having grown up in the shadow of a war not just against aggression but against the genocidal ideology that lay behind it, and now following a spiritual path, the Bahá’í Faith, that has as a central tenet the abolition of all prejudice, I am all too aware of how deeply the seeds of racism are buried in our Western psyche. Cleansing ourselves of its toxin is far harder work than many of us think. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link

Munroe Bergdorf’s assertion that all white people are racist has upset many, but society is skewed in our favour and it is right to acknowledge that.

Last week, model Munroe Bergdorf hit headlines when a statement she’d posted on social media following the protests in Charlottesville allegedly calling all white people racist was leaked to the Daily Mail. Since then, Bergdorf has received rape threats and death threats, been accused of “playing the victim”, and been sacked from a L’Oréal campaign that, ironically, celebrates diversity.

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766px-Members_of_the_first_Universal_House_of_Justice,_elected_in_1963

Members of the first Universal House of Justice, elected in 1963 (For source of image see link)

The recent sequence of workshops on unity that I am blogging about at the moment also has roots in the insights expressed in a book I delved into about two years ago. Here is the second post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. 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 (8 The Universal House of Justice). I learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the 2015 workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days. 

Whole Group Session (Slide Presentation)

Essential Background

After the passing of the Guardian in 1957, nine Hands of the Cause selflessly steered the Faith towards the next key development in its unfolding destiny. They organised the process by which the Universal House of Justice would be elected, and then stepped back to allow that institution to lead the Bahá’í community exactly as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had envisaged in His Will & Testament, though sadly, given that Shoghi Effendi had appointed no successor, with no possibility of the continuance of the Guardianship.

Century of Light describes the moment when the Universal House of Justice came into being (page 81):

On 21 April 1963, the ballots of delegates from fifty-six National Spiritual Assemblies . . . . brought into existence the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the Cause conceived by Bahá’u’lláh and assured by Him unequivocally of Divine guidance in the exercise of its functions . . .

They point towards the difficult decision Shoghi Effendi had had to make (pages 82-83):

. . . . it is clear that Shoghi Effendi early accepted the implications of the fact that the Universal House of Justice could not come into existence until a lengthy process of administrative development had created the supporting structure of National and Local Spiritual Assemblies it required.

It is important we begin to understand the full significance of this election and what it presaged (page 92):

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 . . . . . that in any way resembles this achievement.

The House then had some significant decisions to make given that it did not have the authority to appoint new Hands of the Cause but their function needed to continue (pages 97-98):

. . . the House of Justice created, in June 1968, the Continental Boards of Counsellors. Empowered to extend into the future the functions of the Hands of the Cause for the protection and propagation of the Faith, the new institution assumed responsibility for guiding the work of the already existing Auxiliary Boards and joined National Assemblies in shouldering responsibilities for the advancement of the Faith. [In 1973 there was] another major development of the Administrative Order, the creation of the International Teaching Centre, the Body that would carry into the future certain of the responsibilities performed by the group of “Hands of the Cause Residing in the Holy Land”, and from this point on coordinate the work of the Boards of Counsellors around the world.

The Period Since Then

There has been a twin impact in terms of the Faith (page 97):

During these crucial thirty- seven years the work proceeded rapidly forward along two parallel tracks: the expansion and consolidation of the Bahá’í community itself and, along with it, a dramatic rise in the influence the Faith came to exercise in the life of society. While the range of Bahá’í activities greatly diversified, most such efforts tended to contribute directly to one or other of the two main developments.

A sequence of seven plans of various durations followed (page 98-99) until ‘Twelve Month Plan that ended the century.’ The strands of activity in each plan built upon those of Shoghi Effendi and the Founders of the Faith: ‘the training of Spiritual Assemblies; the translation, production and distribution of literature; the encouragement of universal participation by the friends; attention to the spiritual enrichment of Bahá’í life; efforts toward the involvement of the Bahá’í community in the life of society; the strengthening of Bahá’í family life; and the education of children and youth.’

The opportunities created were beyond the capacity of any individual to manage (page 100):

. . . it became necessary to ‘launch Bahá’í communities on a wide range of collective teaching and proclamation projects recalling the heroic days of the dawn-breakers.’ Teams of teachers were created and the Faith reached ‘entire groups and even whole communities. The tens of thousands became hundreds of thousands.’

As a result ‘members of Spiritual Assemblies . . . . had to adjust to expressions of belief on the part of whole groups of people to whom religious awareness and response were normal features of daily life.’

The role of the youth was central – not for the first time in the history of the Faith (ibid):

. . . one is reminded again and again that the great majority of the band of heroes who launched the Cause on its course in the middle years of the nineteenth century were all of them young people. The Bab Himself declared His mission when He was twenty-five years old, and Anis, who attained the imperishable glory of dying with his Lord, was only a youth. Quddus responded to the Revelation at the age of twenty-two. . . . . Tahirih was in her twenties when she embraced the Bab’s Cause.’

More challenges followed. Mass enrolments exceeded the community’s capacity to nurture those who had declared their faith in Bahá’u’lláh. Also (page 101)

. . . Theological and administrative principles that might be of consuming interest to pioneers and teachers were seldom those that were central to the concern of new declarants from very different social and cultural backgrounds. Often, differences of view about even such elementary matters as the use of time or simple social conventions created gaps of understanding that made communication extremely difficult.

Though the Bahá’í World Centre emphasised that expansion, the bringing in of newly declared Bahá’ís, and consolidation, their deepening in the Faith, were ‘twin processes that must go hand in hand,’ the ‘hoped for results did not readily materialise’ and ‘a measure of discouragement frequently set in.’ Enrolment slowed ‘tempting some Bahá’í institutions and communities to turn back to more familiar activities and more accessible publics.’

The main impact of the setbacks was to clarify that (page 102) ‘the high expectations of the early years were in some respects quite unrealistic.’ It became obvious that ‘the easy successes of the initial teaching activities . . . did not, by themselves, build a Bahá’í community life that could meet the needs of its new members and be self-generating.’

(End of Presentation: any questions? The video immediately below gives a sense of how the Bahá’í Faith has responded to these challenges: the original can be downloaded at this link.)

Key Questions

Pioneers and new believers faced questions previous experience offered few answers (ibid: my bullet points).

  • How were Local Spiritual Assemblies to be established – and once established, how were they to function – in areas where large numbers of new believers had joined the Cause overnight, simply on the strength of their spiritual apprehension of its truth?
  • How, in societies dominated by men since the dawn of time, were women to be accorded an equal voice?
  • How was the education of large numbers of children to be systematically addressed in cultural situations where poverty and illiteracy prevailed?
  • What priorities should guide Bahá’í moral teaching, and how could these objectives best be related to prevailing indigenous conventions?
  • How could a vibrant community life be cultivated that would stimulate the spiritual growth of its members?
  • What priorities, too, should be set with respect to the production of Bahá’í literature, particularly given the sudden explosion that had taken place in the number of languages represented in the community?
  • How could the integrity of the Bahá’í institution of the Nineteen Day Feast be maintained, while opening this vital activity to the enriching influence of diverse cultures?
  • And, in all areas of concern, how were the necessary resources to be recruited, funded, and coordinated?
  1. How many of these questions do we feel relate to our own situation?
  2. Do we have answers? If so, what are they? If not, what might those answers be?

Page 102: The pressure of these urgent and interlocking challenges launched the Bahá’í world on a learning process that has proved to be as important as the expansion itself. It is safe to say that during these years there was virtually no type of teaching activity, no combination of expansion, consolidation and proclamation, no administrative option, no effort at cultural adaptation that was not being energetically tried in some part of the Bahá’í world.

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.

All group members needs 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.

The Bahá'í House of Worship in Delhi, India

The Bahá’í House of Worship in Delhi, India (for source of image see link)

The Integration of Social Action

Page 103: The fact that the Bahá’í message was now penetrating the lives not merely of small groups of individuals but of whole communities also had the effect of reviving a vital feature of an earlier stage in the advancement of the Cause. For the first time in decades, the Faith found itself once more in a situation where teaching and consolidation were inseparably bound up with social and economic development.

An Office of Social and Economic Development was created at the World Centre in October 1983, and ‘Bahá’í communities throughout the world were called on to begin incorporating such efforts into their regular programmes of work.’

Page 104: The temptation was great, given the magnitude of the resources being invested by governments and foundations, and the confidence with which this effort was pursued, merely to borrow methods current at the moment or to adapt Bahá’í efforts to prevailing theories. As the work evolved, however, Bahá’í institutions began turning their attention to the goal of devising development paradigms that could assimilate what they were observing in the larger society to the Faith’s unique conception of human potentialities.

The successive Plans yielded the greatest harvest in India. By 1985 the growth of the Faith there had reached a level a more sharply focused attention was needed ‘than the National Spiritual Assembly alone could provide. Thus was born the new institution of the Regional Bahá’í Council, setting in motion the process of administrative decentralisation that has since proven so effective in many other lands.’

In addition (page 105) ‘India’s House of Worship has become the foremost visitors’ attraction on the subcontinent, welcoming an average of over ten thousand visitors every day, . . . [which] has given new meaning to the description by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá of Bahá’í Temples as “silent teachers” of the Faith.’

Its reputation was now such that the National Spiritual Assembly of India was able to host, ‘in collaboration with the Bahá’í International Community’s newly created Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, a symposium on the subject of “Religion, Science and Development“. More than one hundred of the most influential development organisations in the country participated.

Malaysia began to follow suit. Then Bahá’í communities in Africa (page 106) achieved remarkable spiritual victories, havingsurvived war, terror, political oppression and extreme privations.’

In 1992 (page 107) ‘the Bahá’í world celebrated its second Holy Year, this one marking the centenary of the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh and the promulgation of His Covenant. Truly remarkable was ‘the ethnic, cultural and national diversity of the 27,000 believers who gathered at the Javits Convention Centre in New York City’ together with together with the thousands present at nine auxiliary conferences acorss the world.’

At Ridván 2010, the Universal House of Justice’s message explained that ‘all social action seeks to apply the teachings and principles of the Faith to improve some aspect of the social or economic life of a population, however modestly.’ The Office of Social and Economic Statement (OSED – page 2) amplifies on this:

Most central to this vision was the question of capacity building. That activities should start on a modest scale and only grow in complexity in keeping with available human resources was a concept that gradually came to influence development thought and practice.

They continue (page 4):

Bahá’í activity in the field of social and economic development seeks to promote the well-being of people of all walks of life, whatever their beliefs or background. . . . Its purpose is neither to proclaim the Cause nor to serve as a vehicle for conversion.

Page 5: To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialised. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.

Page 6: Every member of the human family has not only the right to benefit from a materially and spiritually prosperous civilization but also an obligation to contribute towards its construction. Social action should operate, then, on the principle of universal participation.

The ‘scope and complexity’ (page 9) of such activity must be ‘commensurate with the human resources available in a community to carry it forward.’

Page 13: when an effort is participatory, in the sense that it seeks to involve the people themselves in the generation and application of knowledge, as all forge together a path of progress, dualities such as “outsider-insider” and “knowledgeable-ignorant” quickly disappear.

Capacity Building

Pages 108-09: 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.

As a result, ‘the lessons that had been learned during earlier Plans now placed the emphasis on developing the capacities of believers – wherever they might be – so that all could arise as confident protagonists of the Faith’s mission.’ The means to achieve this had been developed from the 1970s in Colombia, ‘against a background of violence and lawlessness that was deranging the life of the surrounding society.’ A ‘systematic and sustained programme of education in the Writings’ had been devised and was ‘soon adopted in neighbouring countries.’

By the time the Four Year Plan ended (pages 109-110) ‘over one hundred thousand believers were involved world-wide in the programmes of the more than three hundred permanent training institutes.’ The process was moved on a stage further ‘by creating networks of “study circles” which utilise the talents of believers to replicate the work of the institute at a local level.’

  1. The word ‘modest’ effectively occurs twice in the quoted passages about social action. Why do we think that is?
  2. How does the idea of ‘capacity building’ translate into this context?
  3. How easy is it for us to step outside the assumptions we have acquired in our ‘industrialised’ (note OSED does not say ‘developed’) society? Why is it so necessary that we do so?
  4. Much of the work within the Bahá’í community has been aimed at breaking the prevalent pattern of passivity and involving an ever-greater proportion of people in its activities. Why do we think this can be so difficult to achieve? What are the influences that militate against this attempt? What are the benefits of breaking this pattern in however small a way?

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. This should involve those, if any, whom time did not permit to do this earlier. The exact method for this will be determined on the day when we know the exact group sizes.

Kofi Annan

Kofi Annan

Not Just the Bahá’ís

Page 110: The prosecution of the Divine Plan entails no less than the involvement of the entire body of humankind in the work of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development.

Various threads intertwine here.

  1. Involvement in the UN

Pages 115-16: The birth of the United Nations opened to the Faith a far broader and more effective forum for its efforts toward exerting a spiritual influence on the life of society. [In1948] the eight National Spiritual Assemblies then in existence secured from the responsible United Nations body accreditation for “The Bahá’í International Community” as an international non-governmental organisation.

In 1980 (page 117), ‘the attempt by the Shi’ih clergy of Iran to exterminate the Cause in the land of its birth’ catapulted the Bahá’í relationship with the wider world to a new level.’

The Bahá’í response was unusual (page 119):

The persecuted community neither attacked its oppressors, nor sought political advantage from the crisis. Nor did its Bahá’í defenders in other lands call for the dismantling of the Iranian constitution, much less for revenge. All demanded only justice – the recognition of the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed by the community of nations, ratified by the Iranian government, and many of them embodied even in clauses of the Islamic constitution.

  1. Justice.

The word ‘justice’ occurs a number of times in Century of Light. It is ‘the best beloved of all things’ in the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh writes. It entails seeing with our own eyes and not relying on the eyes of others. To get a clearer sense of how the Bahá’í community sees this principle operating at the highest level of the wider society it is perhaps worth pausing to look at a statement that has been twice presented to the UN before we continue with the issue of the human rights of the Bahá’ís in Iran.

In terms of both the individual and the legal system the Bahá’í position is as follows (from Turning Point – pages 10-11 – and from Prosperity of Humankind – pages 6-8):

In any system of governance, a strong judicial function is necessary to moderate the powers of the other branches and to enunciate, promulgate, protect and deliver justice. The drive to create just societies has been among the fundamental forces in history and without doubt no lasting world civilization can be founded unless it is firmly grounded in the principle of justice.

Justice is the one power that can translate the dawning consciousness of humanity’s oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected. An age that sees the people of the world increasingly gaining access to information of every kind and to a diversity of ideas will find justice asserting itself as the ruling principle of successful social organization.

At the individual level, justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, justice is “the best beloved of all things” since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or his group.

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision-making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

Such a conception of justice will be gradually reinforced by the realization that in an interdependent world, the interests of the individual and society are inextricably intertwined. In this context, justice is a thread that must be woven into the consideration of every interaction, whether in the family, the neighbourhood, or at the global level.

  1. Persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran

While progress was slow and complete reversal of the persecution was not achieved (page 121), ‘In time, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, however slow and relatively cumbersome its operations may appear to some outside observers, succeeded in compelling the Iranian regime to bring the worst of the persecution to a halt. . .’

As a result of the persecution the Bahá’í community (ibid) has learnt ‘how to use the United Nations’ human rights system in the manner intended by that system’s creators, without having recourse to involvement in political partisanship of any kind, much less violence.’

  1. Promoting Peace

In 1985 (page 122), as the Iranian crisis was unfolding, the Universal House of Justice issued through National Spiritual Assemblies the statement The Promise of World Peace, addressed to the generality of humankind. In ‘unprovocative but uncompromising terms’ the document expressed ‘Bahá’í confidence in the advent of international peace as the next stage in the evolution of society.’

  1. The Bahá’í International Community

The Bahá’í International Community (pages 122-23) ‘became, in only a few short years, one of the most influential of the non-governmental organisations . . . Because it is, and is seen to be, entirely non-partisan, it has increasingly been trusted as a mediating voice in complex, and often stressful, discussions in international circles on major issues of social progress. This reputation has been strengthened by appreciation of the fact that the Community refrains, on principle, from taking advantage of such trust to press partisan agendas of its own.’

  1. Publications

Page 140: This process [of spiritual empowerment] was immeasurably strengthened in 1992 through the long-awaited publication of a fully-annotated translation into English of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, a repository of Divine guidance for the age of humanity’s collective maturity.

  1. The Unity of the Bahá’í Spiritual and Administrative Centres

Page 142: In contrast to the circumstances of other world religions, the spiritual and administrative centres of the Cause are inseparably bound together in this same spot on earth, its guiding institutions centred on the Shrine of its martyred Prophet. For many visitors, even the harmony that has been achieved in the variegated flowers, trees and shrubs of the surrounding gardens seems to proclaim the ideal of unity in diversity that they find attractive in the Faith’s teachings.

Final Questions (hopefully 30 minutes!)

It is clear that on the world’s stage the Bahá’í community has achieved increasing prominence over the years, first through the travels of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, then through the campaigns launched by Shoghi Effendi, later by our involvement at the UN and finally by increasingly effective programmes of expansion, consolidation and social action.

  1. Where does that leave us now – whether as members of the Bahá’í community or of the wider society?
  2. What are our respective roles?

3. How do we play our different parts in the context of what we have learnt about the world right now?

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