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Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

I was asked to give a talk at a South Shropshire Interfaith meeting in the Methodist Church in Ludlow. This sequence is based on the slides I showed and the explanations I gave. It does not attempt to give an account of the experience of the evening: it would be impossible to do justice to that. Suffice it to say, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore these issues with such a welcoming group of seekers after truth.

Transcending the divisions within and between us

I closed the previous post with a question.

If we are going to be able to hold firm to a compass of compassion and steer a consistent course between the many temptations and deterrents that will lie in our way, what do we have to do? For most religious people prayer and meditation are obvious prerequisites, as well as obedience to the laws and observance of the rituals of their Faith.

In this divided world we need to do even more than that if we are to transcend the prejudices that prevent us from co-operating with our fellow human beings and rise above the quarrelling voices inside our heads.

Bahá’u’lláh has made it abundantly clear how high a level of unity we must achieve and how much this depends upon the degree of detachment we have developed. I am now going to spell out a key set of processes that, within the Bahá’í community and beyond, are critical to this.

Bahá’ís place great weight upon a group and community process called consultation. This goes far beyond the lip service paid to it all too often in the modern world where canvasing opinions that are then ignored is described as consultation. The success of this process depends to a great extent upon how far the participants have travelled along the road to detachment, and detachment meant in a very specific sense in this context. The link is in fact so strong that Paul Lample, in his book Revelation & Social Reality, expresses it as follows (page 212): ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

My experience as a Bahá’í strongly suggests that the detachment necessary for effective consultation between people cannot be achieved easily or possibly at all without a complementary process within each of us. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá uses the terms reflection and contemplation to describe this state of mind. This process is so powerful that a tradition of Islam, quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states, ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ [Kitáb-i-Íqán]

The simplest way of explaining my understanding of what this involves is to use the image of consciousness, or in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms ‘the meditative faculty,’ as a mirror. At one level the mind simply captures as best it can what it experiences as a mirror captures what’s in front of it. A deeper implication is that, just as the mirror is not what it reflects but the capacity to reflect, consciousness is not the same as its contents. To recognize this and develop the capacity to withdraw our identification with the contents of our consciousness, whether these be thoughts, feelings, sensations, or plans, enables us to consult with others effectively and reflect upon, as in ‘think about,’ our experiences, ideas and self-concepts. Once we can do this it becomes easier to change them if they are damaging us or other people. I owe a debt to an existentialist thinker, Peter Koestenbaum in his New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy for this way of describing reflection and consciousness.

He states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? True reflection at the very deepest level, it seems to me, has to ultimately depend therefore upon the degree of our reliance upon God, but can also be achieved to some degree by disciplined practice alone.

Koestenbaum is optimistic about our ability to acquire this skill (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection what he means is definitely something closely related to meditation as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes it. Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

By disciplined practice of this skill we can begin to move beyond our divisive identifications, and become more able to work in unity with others. This is a skill and spiritual discipline that appears in various forms and with various labels in other religions as well as the Bahá’í Faith. Consultation, on the other hand, is not so central, as far as I know, in any other Faith.

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

The Power of Consultation

Shoghi Effendi, quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explaining that ‘the purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’ [`Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, published in “Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932”, pages 21-22.]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out the qualities required of us if we are to consult effectively. These include ‘purity of motive,’ ‘detachment from all else save God,’ ‘humility,’ and ‘patience.’ Unity, justice [‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá –number 43]

This makes for a powerful positive feedback loop which will immeasurably enhance our decision-making processes. Detachment is of course the core prerequisite of the three, and can be developed in us by various other ways as well. However, it is also the axle around which the wheel of consultation and reflection revolves, as well as being strengthened by them in its turn.

Michael Karlberg, in his book Beyond a Culture of Contest, makes the compelling point that for the most part our culture’s processes are adversarial: our economic system is based on competition, our political system is split by contesting parties and our court rooms decide who has won in the battle between defence and prosecution, rather than on the basis of an careful and dispassionate exploration of the truth. The French courtroom is, apparently, one of the few exceptions.

The Bahá’í International Community explain how we need to transcend our ‘respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals.’ They speak of ‘an atmosphere, characterized by both candour and courtesy’ where ‘ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued.’

Karlberg describes this alternative model in far more detail in his book than is possible to include here. His approach is based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is that (page 131: my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

It isn’t too difficult to see how all this might be applied to our interfaith work.

If we are going to be able to join together to determine what course of action to take in the increasingly complex situations that confront us, from a Bahá’í point of view which I think is well worth careful consideration, we need to develop these two core skills to the highest possible level. If we do not I fail to see, for example, how we can ever effectively tackle problems such as the climate crisis or the gross inequalities endemic in our global society.

Copyright of the image belongs to the Bahá’í World Centre

So, in all that I have said in this sequence of posts, I hope it is clear that I am not seeking to persuade anyone that the explanations of spiritual reality have to be adopted, but I am urging everyone who shares our goals of unity and connectedness to enhance their effectiveness by testing in practice the powerful consciousness-raising processes I have described here.

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Rather late in the day I stumbled across a thoughtful response to the climate crisis by Daniel Perell posted in September on the Bahá’í International Community website.  Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

As thousands gather for the Climate Summit at the United Nations, we are confronted with the basic question of what is needed to make lasting progress on climate change. Views on this may vary, but one thing seems clear: coherence between principles and action is necessary to advance climate justice and environmental protection. Rhetoric articulating appreciation for the environment, concern for future generations, and well-being for all, rings hollow when unmatched by ethical behavior and policy. Achieving such coherence requires more than science and logic—it requires courage and sacrifice.

If steps in this directions are not taken, it is too easy to fall back into the well trodden paths that have brought us to this point. Compromises allow an unjust and unsustainable system to endure, expediency becomes valued over the needs of the most vulnerable, and the inertia of the status quo drives humanity to the limits of the earth’s resources. Given the degree of transformation required, we must not wait for more tragedy before taking the courageous steps necessary.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that setting humanity on a sustainable path would require “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” This includes transformations to technological, industrial, agricultural, and scientific systems, which in turn require unprecedented change in values, assumptions, standards, and patterns of thought and behavior.

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Redwood trees in Guerneville, California. Photograph: Gabrielle Lurie/The Guardian

Yesterday’s Guardian published an intriguing article by that raised a glimmer of hope about our resolution of the climate crisis. There would still be much to do in the short time we’ve got, and it may not constitute some kind of miracle solution. However, it looks as though it could avert some of the worst effects, if we had the resolution to devote resources to its implementation. Below are some short extracts: for the full article, see link.

Research shows a trillion trees could be planted to capture huge amount of carbon dioxide

Planting billions of trees across the world is by far the biggest and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis, according to scientists, who have made the first calculation of how many more trees could be planted without encroaching on crop land or urban areas.

As trees grow, they absorb and store the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving global heating. New research estimates that a worldwide planting programme could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities, a figure the scientists describe as “mind-blowing”.

The analysis found there are 1.7bn hectares of treeless land on which 1.2tn native tree saplings would naturally grow. That area is about 11% of all land and equivalent to the size of the US and China combined. Tropical areas could have 100% tree cover, while others would be more sparsely covered, meaning that on average about half the area would be under tree canopy.

. . .

Crowther emphasised that it remains vital to reverse the current trends of rising greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and forest destruction, and bring them down to zero. He said this is needed to stop the climate crisis becoming even worse and because the forest restoration envisaged would take 50-100 years to have its full effect of removing 200bn tonnes of carbon.

. . . 

The study, published in the journal Science, determines the potential for tree planting but does not address how a global tree planting programme would be paid for and delivered.

. . . 

“Without freeing up the billions of hectares we use to produce meat and milk, this ambition is not realisable,” he said. Crowther said his work predicted just two to three trees per field for most pasture: “Restoring trees at [low] density is not mutually exclusive with grazing. In fact many studies suggest sheep and cattle do better if there are a few trees in the field.”

. . . 

However, some scientists said the estimated amount of carbon that mass tree planting could suck from the air was too high. Prof Simon Lewis, at University College London, said the carbon already in the land before tree planting was not accounted for and that it takes hundreds of years to achieve maximum storage. He pointed to a scenario from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 1.5C report of 57bn tonnes of carbon sequestered by new forests this century.

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The renovated market in Preston, Lancashire, 2018. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Earlier this week there was a thought-provoking article by Andy Beckett on the Guardian website. Below are some short extracts: for the full article see link.

There is a dawning recognition that a new kind of economy is needed: fairer, more inclusive, less exploitative, less destructive of society and the planet. “We’re in a time when people are much more open to radical economic ideas,” says Michael Jacobs, a former prime ministerial adviser to Gordon Brown. “The voters have revolted against neoliberalism. The international economic institutions – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund – are recognising its downsides.” Meanwhile, the 2008 financial crisis and the previously unthinkable government interventions that halted it have discredited two central neoliberal orthodoxies: that capitalism cannot fail, and that governments cannot step in to change how the economy works.

. . .

[The idea of a] “democratic economy” is not some idealistic fantasy: bits of it are already being constructed in Britain and the US. And without this transformation, the new economists argue, the increasing inequality of economic power will soon make democracy itself unworkable. “If we want to live in democratic societies, then we need to … allow communities to shape their local economies,” write Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill, both prolific advocates of the new economics, in a recent article for the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) – a thinktank previously associated with New Labour. “It is no longer good enough to see the economy as some kind of separate technocratic domain in which the central values of a democratic society somehow do not apply.” Moreover, Guinan and O’Neill argue, making the economy more democratic will actually help to revitalise democracy: voters are less likely to feel angry, or apathetic, if they are included in economic decisions that fundamentally affect their lives.

The new economists’ enormously ambitious project means transforming the relationship between capitalism and the state; between workers and employers; between the local and global economy; and between those with economic assets and those without. “Economic power and control must rest more equally,” declared a report last year by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a radical London thinktank that has acted as an incubator for many of the new movement’s members and ideas.

. . .

Preston’s hilltop city centre, which had been fading for decades, now has a refurbished and busy covered market, new artists’ studios in former council offices, and coffee and craft beer being sold from converted shipping containers right behind the town hall. All these enterprises have been facilitated by the council. Less visibly, but probably more importantly, the city’s large concentration of other public sector bodies – a hospital, a university, a police headquarters – have been persuaded by the council to procure goods and services locally whenever possible, becoming what the Democracy Collaborative calls “anchor institutions”. They now spend almost four times as much of their budgets in Preston as they did in 2013.

The council leader is Matthew Brown, an intense, angular 46-year-old who was partly inspired to enter politics by seeing Benn on television as a teenager. “What we’re doing in Preston is common sense, but it’s also ideological,” Brown told me, when we met in his sparse office. “We’re living through a systemic crisis of capitalism, and we’ve got to create alternatives.” By doing so – especially at a time when local councils are supposed to have been hugely weakened by government cuts – Preston is in small but visible ways undermining the authority of neoliberalism, dependent as it is on the insistence that no other economic options are possible.

The council, Brown continued proudly, was “supporting local small businesses rather than big capitalists”. It was using its “leverage” as a procurer to make businesses behave more ethically: pay the living wage, recruit more diverse staff. And it was aiming to make the city a place where cooperatives were mainstream rather than niche: “My intention is to get them to 30%, 40% of our economy.”

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I thought it would be useful to republish this after Monday’s poem.

An exhumed mass grave outside of Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2007.

Photo adapted from: Adam Jones. For connected article see link.

 

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Almeley Quaker Meeting House (For source of picture see link)

Last Saturday, thanks to the warm hospitality of the Quaker community of Almeley Wooton, the Herefordshire Interfaith Group were able to hold their fourth Spirituality Day at their meeting house, founded in 1672 after it was donated by Roger Pritchard. This is the second time the meeting house has been used for this purpose. Twenty-five people turned up to share in the experience.

The day started at 9.30 in the morning and finished shortly after 4 in the afternoon. It was a mix of spiritual chants, circle dance and meditative consultation. The theme this time was our interconnectedness with all things.

A particularly beautiful chant was shared by Mike and Susanne, the leaders of those sessions. ‘There is a secret one inside of us: all the stars and all the galaxies run through her hands like beads.’ This resonated strongly for me with the words of Alí that Bahá’u’lláh quotes in the Seven Valleys:

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

Another timely reminder, given the challenges of climate change, came in another chant, which says ‘The earth is our mother: we must take care of her. Her sacred ground we walk upon with every step we take’ (an American Hopi Indian Tribal chant). Again this resonates with another quote from Bahá’u’lláh: ‘Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men’ (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 44).

The consultative meditations were run by Brian and me.

Brian’s session focused on the concept of interspirituality, a concept formulated by Wayne Robert Teasdale), a Catholic monk, author and teacher from Connecticut, who died in 2004. He predicted that interspirituality would become the global spiritual view of our era. Mystical spirituality is the origin of all the world religions, from this perspective. If this is so, interspirituality—the sharing of ultimate experiences across traditions—is the religion of the third millennium, and the foundation that can prepare the way for a planet-wide enlightened culture, and a continuing community among the religions that is substantial, vital, and creative. As I was running sessions in parallel, I can only share these quotes from Brian’s hand out to give a flavour of the experience.

My sessions were focused around a group of quotations from Bahá’í and other sources. The ones that attracted the most attention were one from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (from a previously untranslated tablet) which reads, ‘(C)o-operation and reciprocity are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the world of existence, and without which the entire creation would be reduced to nothingness’, and one from Albert Einstein, which came from a letter of consolation to a grieving father, that reads, ‘A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.’

This quote from Einstein is yet another that resonates strongly with a similar Bahá’í sentiment in a message from the Universal House of Justice in May 2001: ‘Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’

The emphasis in my sessions was upon the need to reflect not just on what these passages mean but also on how we can apply what we have understood in our own lives, and we spent some time reflecting upon how we could do more for the homeless, for refugees and for the planet.

In a reflection session at the end of the day all the 17 remaining participants shared their thoughts about the day and without exception indicated that they had found the mix of dance, chant, meditation and discussion a perfect balance.

These are the handouts used in my group

Interconnectedness

First Pair

For every part of the universe is connected with every other part by ties that are very powerful and admit of no imbalance, nor any slackening whatever…

(`Abdu’l-Bahá,Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, section 137, page 157
)

We have a stake in one another … what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and … if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done for the people with whom we share this Earth.

(Barack Obama NY Times article 24 December 2006)

Second Pair

(C)o-operation and reciprocity are essential properties which are inherent in the unified system of the world of existence, and without which the entire creation would be reduced to nothingness.

(`Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet)

A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe’; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.

(Albert Einstein in a letter of consolation written in February 1950to a grieving father, Robert S. Marcus)

Third Pair

Were one to observe with an eye that discovereth the realities of all things, it would become clear that the greatest relationship that bindeth the world of being together lieth in the range of created things themselves, and that cooperation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.

(`Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet)

My brother asked the birds to forgive him: that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth.

(Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers KaramazovChapter 3)

Fourth Pair

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(Shoghi Effendi’s Secretary, in a letter dated 17 February 1933 to an individual believer)

All things are connected like the blood that unites us. We did not weave the web of life. We are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.

(Chief Seathl, a Susquamish chief,from aspeech believed to have been delivered in December, 1854)

Depending on how many of us there are, the plan is to split into several groups of four or five, each group taking a different pair of quotations to consult about, for a period of 20 minutes or so. After ensuring that everyone in the group has a grasp of the basic meaning of the quotes, it will be useful then to focus discussion mainly on what the implications are for society as a whole and in what ways we can apply the insights we find in our own lives. After that, we will come back together to share what we have thought.

A Meditative Practice to Cultivate a Sense of Connectedness

When we have finished sharing our thoughts about the quotes, we will try a meditation of about 15 minutes, before again briefly sharing our experiences.

Settle as comfortably as you can in your chair, with your back straight but not tense. Settle both feet on the floor and tune in to your breathing for a few moments, noticing how your solar plexus or your chest expands and contracts, and how the air feels as passes through your nose or mouth.

When you feel relaxed and comfortable, bring to mind a person, a place or a living being of any kind to whom you feel you owe a precious gift. Remember as fully as you can the nature of this gift, whether it be a moment of happiness, an easing of your distress, or the ability to take a vital step forwards in life, and send back, if you are able, to that person, place or being, a feeling of heartfelt gratitude for the gift they gave.

Holding that gratitude in mind and heart as much as you can, choose some aspect of nature or the human world, perhaps the sun that warms us, the trees that give us shade, the fruit from our orchards, the bees that pollinate our plants, the rain that falls and enables every living being to survive and thrive, those without a home to live in or fleeing from their native land, and pass that feeling of gratitude on. Feel that gratitude flow from you towards your chosen part of nature or humanity, and keep it flowing for as long as you can, as though it were your sunlight or your rain, nurturing whatever it falls upon and enabling it to thrive.

Then, when you are ready, see if you can find some kind of action you can take to honour that feeling of gratitude, something you can pledge to do, not once but from now on. Maybe all you feel you can do in that way is repeat this meditation everyday, or something like it, or perhaps there is something you can do to help foster some part of nature, whether that is by funding the planting of trees or growing in your garden the kinds of flowers bees and butterflies love to visit. Whatever you decide is fine as long as you find some way of maintaining a sense of connection with the web of life.

Then, when you are ready, bring your mind gently back to an awareness of the body and the chair you are sitting on, before slowly opening your eyes and connecting with the world immediately around you.

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COL SED 1

© Bahá’í World Centre

THE BAHÁ’ÍS MUST WORK WITH HEART AND SOUL TO BRING ABOUT A BETTER CONDITION IN THE WORLD

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks, page 99)

From time to time it comes to seem appropriate to republish a much earlier sequence from 2009 on the Bahá’í approach to healing our wounded world. My recent republishing of the sequence on Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilisation seemed an appropriate trigger. The posts have been interwoven with the Rifkin sequence.

What do we do?

We have looked at the plight of children. We must face the truth. We are all responsible and we all need to respond to the challenge: we must all do everything in our power to change this situation for the better. The same message already quoted from our world centre states:

Our worldwide community cannot escape the consequences of these conditions. This realisation should spur us all to urgent and sustained action in the interests of children and the future.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Obviously the whole problem cannot be fixed overnight but we have to start somewhere. This need to do what we can sustain over a long period, however small a step that may seem, has led to a concerted attempt to provide classes for children in as many localities as we can using all the resources currently at our disposal, though these are as yet inadequate to the task that faces us:

Aware of the aspirations of the children of the world and their need for spiritual education, they extend their efforts widely to involve ever-growing contingents of participants in classes that become centres of attraction for the young and strengthen the roots of the Faith in society.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

Young people, on the threshold of independence, have comparable needs which we are seeking to learn how to meet:

[We] assist junior youth to navigate through a crucial stage of their lives and to become empowered to direct their energies toward the advancement of civilization.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

JY KIR_0863

How should we treat them?

We must appreciate fully and whole-heartedly

. . . the imperative to tend to the needs of the children of the world and offer them lessons that develop their spiritual faculties and lay the foundations of a noble and upright character. . . [and] the full significance of [our] efforts to help young people form a strong moral identity in their early adolescent years and empower them to contribute to the well-being of their communities.

(Universal House of Justice: 20 October 2008

Character building and society building are inextricably linked. The positive results of doing it properly are beyond dispute.

But how do we do it?

The House of Justice seek to define the qualities a community should possess:

An all-embracing love of children, the manner of treating them, the quality of the attention shown them, the spirit of adult behaviour toward them – these are all among the vital aspects of the requisite attitude. Love demands discipline,  the courage to accustom children to hardship, not to indulge their whims or leave them entirely to their own devices.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

It is perhaps worth dwelling a little on what they might mean by discipline and hardship, not positive ideas in many people’s thinking today.

Layard and Dunn, in an article in the  Sunday Times on 1st February describe four styles of parenting and point out what they feel is the optimal. These are: disciplined, authoritative, neglectful and permissive.

Researchers have studied the effects of each upon the way in which children develop. They agree that the style that is loving and yet firm – now known in the jargon as authoritative – is the most effective. In this approach boundaries are explained, in the context of a warm, loving relationship. Without boundaries and the management of frustration that these require children to learn, it is hard for them to develop the kind of impulse control that the work on emotional intelligence suggests underpins a successful life in society. All too often childhoods are  seriously warped by indulgent neglect, though it is the cruelty of an abusive background that more often hits the headlines.

More recent work highlights the way our schools are increasingly focused on preparing our children for the competitive employment market place, and neglecting other important elements of character-building. Speaking of the American system, John Fitzgerald Medina, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology writes (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

He is not the only one to have concerns about the direction the American education system has been heading. An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system, under the influence of Michael Gove and his successors, has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians. Indeed the last Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, deliberately reduced towards zero the importance which Ofsted should give to the emotional wellbeing of students.

A recent article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

Researchers also refer to other things such as mutual respect, commitment and education in parenting. The Bahá’í view goes further even than this:

An atmosphere needs to be maintained in which children feel they belong to the community and share in its purpose. They must lovingly but insistently be guided to live up to Bahá’í standards, to study and teach the Cause in ways that are suited to their circumstances.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

The current state of play within our schools suggests that Bahá’ís and others have a crucial role to play in supplementing the deficiencies that are crippling our educational system.

The Needs of Young People

They describe the special needs of a sub-group of young people:

[Those between the ages of, say, 12 to 15] represent a special group with special needs as they are somewhat in between childhood and youth when many changes are occurring within them. Creative attention must be devoted to involving them in programmes of activity that will engage their interests, mould their capacities for teaching and service, and involve them in social interaction with older youth.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Paul Lample explains that this has led to

[a]n effort to endow youth with the capacity to conquer the word and unravel its meaning both for their own spiritual upliftment, and as a basis for social action. The work with Junior Youth broadened beyond efforts for SED to become a fourth core activity.

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality page 135)

JY BRA_4762Parents

The role of parents is clearly critical:

. . . parents . . . bear the prime responsibility for the upbringing of their children. We appeal to them to give constant attention to the spiritual education of their children. Some parents appear to think that this is the exclusive responsibility of the community; others believe that in order to preserve the independence of children to investigate truth, the Faith should not be taught to them. Still others feel inadequate to take on such a task. None of this is correct . . . . ..

Independent of the level of their education, parents are in a critical position to shape the spiritual development of their children. They should not ever underestimate their capacity to mould their children’s moral character. Of course, in addition to the efforts made at home, the parents should support children’s classes provided by the community.

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

In the end where does all this leave us?

For Bahá’ís the message is clear. In capital letters on page 99 of Paris Talks we find the quotation at the head of this post:

THE BAHÁ’ÍS MUST WORK WITH HEART AND SOUL TO BRING ABOUT A BETTER CONDITION IN THE WORLD

The words immediately above that are:

Let your ambition be the achievement on earth of a Heavenly civilization! I ask for you the supreme blessing, that you may be so filled with the vitality of the Heavenly Spirit that you may be the cause of life to the world.

There’s really nothing else that anyone can add after that and it seems to me that it applies to everyone, Baha’i and non-Baha’i alike, each in his or her own way inspired by the purpose of God in this age which is to make us all act upon the realisation that we are one family — the human family.

The whole of humanity is indeed our business.

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