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Archive for the ‘Civilisation Building’ Category

Coronavirus Structure (for source of image, see link)

Although, as mentioned in the previous post, the desirability of us all accepting responsibility for the welfare of every human being, as the Universal House of Justice urges on us, seems obvious enough in theory, unfortunately it proves to be easier said than done. Blind spots, as Ziya Tong explains, are one problem:[1]

To see the world clearly, we must first become aware of the veil; we must recognize our blind spots. The way we’ve come to perceive reality is so deeply ingrained, so socially and inter-generationally rooted, that we’ve lost sight of the manner in which we think. This is important, because what we think creates reality.

Our biases are one such impediment. Jennifer Eberhardt in her book Biased quotes Lippman’s interesting definition of stereotypes as ‘impressions that reflect subjective perceptions but stand in for objective reality.’[2] To create a stereotype, the important link here is between harbouring an impression and mistaking it for truth. Not surprisingly stereotypes can blind us ‘to information that [doesn’t] conform to what [we] already believe.’[3] This ‘confirmation bias is a mechanism that allows inaccurate beliefs to spread and persist.’ It is also not surprising to know[4] that ‘studies confirm that biased parents tend to produce children who are biased as well.’

This problem is so intractable partly because, as Tom Oliver explains in The Self Delusion[5], ‘the moral compass of humans hasn’t evolved to intuitively respond to harmful impacts on such global and long timescales. While in the last few hundred years our transport and trade networks have expanded to encompass the entire earth, our sense of moral responsibility hasn’t kept pace.’

Our primate brains have not evolved to cope with long time scales, vast distances and complex situations, an obstacle to our achieving collectively the necessary level of understanding to motivate us to effective action. Ken Whitehead expresses it better than I can:

This pattern reveals a fundamental characteristic of how our brains work; we tend to focus on the short term, and have little thought of the long-term consequences of our actions. The early hunters devised ever more efficient ways of killing the existing inhabitants of the new lands they occupied. There was no thought of long-term consequences. Why should there be? The supply of prey animals was believed to be inexhaustible. Yet one day they were all gone!

The problems we face in today’s world suggest that little has changed in the last fifty thousand years. In his 2004 book “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright describes human beings in today’s world as running 21st century software on fifty thousand-year old hardware. Our brains have evolved to react to short-term crises, such as an attack by a hungry lion. The more subtle cognitive abilities which would allow us to assess and respond appropriately to longer term threats are much less developed within the human brain. As a result we are very good at responding quickly to an emergency, but we are hopelessly inept, both as individuals and as a society, when it comes to taking effective action to head off threats which are perceived as being distant.

The compass of our compassion therefore tends to be similarly constricted.

It takes great effort to transcend these limitations as Kahneman has explained in detail in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. His contention, on the basis of hard evidence and a lifetime’s exploration of the issue, is that we have two ways of thinking. The first, System One, is our default mode. It operates too glibly and too fast, as against more effortfully and more slowly, which makes the understanding of complex situations almost impossible. He writes:[6] ‘associative memory, the core of System 1, continually constructs a coherent interpretation of what is going on in our world at any instant.’ It[7] ‘operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.’ System 1 is no good for long term problems or situations that are unfamiliar and inconsistent. It can lead to impulses and impressions that may be compelling but are also dangerously misleading. His conclusion about its limitations is:[8] ‘System 1 has biases, however, systematic errors that it is prone to make in specified circumstances. . . . . it sometimes answers easier questions than the one it was asked, and it has little understanding of logic and statistics. One further limitation of System 1 is that it cannot be turned off.’

That doesn’t bode well, but there is an alternative.

He describes System 2 as one that[9] ‘allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.’ He adds[10] ‘The highly diverse operations of System 2 have one feature in common: they require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away.’

As if that was not enough to confuse us there is also the invisibility factor, as Ziya Tong explains:[11]

Our food comes to us from places we do not see; our energy is produced in ways we don’t understand; and our waste disappears without us having to give it a thought. … humans are no longer in touch with the basics of their own system survival.

We cannot, though, use this as an excuse for carrying on as we are. The system we have created is seriously at fault:[12]

The system . . . is our life support system. . . . The irony is that our survival is merely incidental to the goal of the system: ownership.

We cannot see the system because it exists in our blind spots. . . Today, if we fail to see our connection to the natural world, it’s because most of our products look nothing like it . . . Nature has been transformed into a product. . . . As a consequence, the economy grows, but nature dies.… None of us could have guessed that in the end we will need to pull the plug on our own life-support system, and if we don’t, it will destroy us.

It is clear now beyond all argument that our close connections are with nature, not just with our fellow human beings, and nature can bite back lethally in many ways.

Not just Tom Oliver, but many other writers also, see a deeper identification with our planet as a powerful source of the necessary insight and motivation. Jeremy Rifkin is one such, whose seminal book The Empathic Civilisation I have blogged about at length some years ago. He wrote along these lines:[13]

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

This perspective is the least we should aspire to acquire and internalize as the basis for concerted action. Failure to do so will have drastic and destructive consequences within decades if not sooner. Because I am also writing from a religious and spiritual perspective as well, I question whether even that motivation will be sufficient to persuade enough of us to make the massive and necessary sacrifices and invest the huge and imperative effort to bring about a reversal of our self-destructive patterns in time.Humanity Is Our Business (1/7)Humanity Is Our Business (1/7)Humanity Is Our Business (1/7)Humanity Is Our Business (1/7)2

I suspect we will need the kind of faith in a supreme power that will convince us that, even if cannot do as much by ourselves, we can with the help of the invisible and powerful Great Being, who watches as we struggle to survive, but who, because of the nature of the worlds he has created, can only help us when we begin to help ourselves. The Bahá’í Faith offers a model, not just in terms of the underlying principles such as the oneness of humanity, but also in terms of the organisational patterns that are required. Below are a few links to previous posts that deal with this aspect of the matter.

The Bahá’í Model: 

1. Humanity Is Our Business (1/7): The Overall Vision

2. Humanity Is Our Business (2/7): The vision of Civilisation-Building

3. Humanity Is Our Business (3/7): Capacity Building (a)

4. Humanity Is Our Business (4/7): Capacity Building (b)

5. Humanity Is Our Business (5/7): Devotional Meetings 

6. Humanity Is Our Business (6/7): The Plight of Children

7. Humanity Is Our Business (7/7): What can we do for our children?

References 

[1]. Ziya Tong The Reality Bubble  – page 339
[2]. Biased – page 32.
[3]. Biased – page 33.
[4]. Biased – page 39.
[5]. The Self Delusion – page 210.
[6] Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 282.
[7] Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 340.
[8]. Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow  – Kindle Reference 433.
[9]. Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 340.
[10]. Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 375.
[11]. The Reality Bubble – page 192.
[12]. The Reality Bubble – page 341-32.
[13]. The Empathic Civilisation – page 154.

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Thanks to a recent heads up, I came across this video. Its simple but powerful message is about how we need to connect with others and how we can learn to do so.

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Coronavirus Structure (for source of image, see link)

At the risk of repeating what I said in an earlier post but spurred on by the strength of my reaction to this testing pandemic, I feel I need to expand on what I said then.

I’ll pick up from where I left off.

I wrote then that the very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat of climate change and the totality of its potentially destructive power may just be the trigger to our recognising our essential unity and mobilising a more effective and unified response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning, The Uninhabitable Earth :[1]

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.

However, in the light of more recent experience, Covid-19 may be a better candidate for this awakening than climate change, because its impact is more immediate.

More than ever we have to transcend our divisive differences and collaborate more creatively together if we are to rise to these challenges and survive, and we must do this without causing further damage to the earth which is our home.

Ideology

An important factor which can either enhance our ability to do this or thwart all our efforts, is the ideology or belief system with which we passionately identify. As readers of this blog will already know, I am writing from the perspective of a particular religion, but much of what I say can be fruitfully applied to any belief system, even to a nihilism which believes in nothing.

Religion is often vilified as divisive as well as deluded. If you want to hear what I think about the validity of spiritual beliefs you’ll need to explore the links at the bottom of this post. There isn’t time for all that now.

It is not just religion that is divisive when it loses the plot: any ideology can become as dangerously divisive. Terrorism is not unique to distortions of Islam, as recent history illustrates with the painful consequences of bombings and assassinations at the hands of the new IRA or of right-wing extremists.

Once we have taken the fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book The Happiness Hypothesis indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing:[2]

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Eric Fromm provides a plausible explanation for why we are drawn to seek such destructive certainty. In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, he writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves our attention here:[3]

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

His idea in this respect is also to be found at various key points in the Bahá’í Writings. For example, in this quotation from Bahá’u’lláh:[4]

Arise, O people, and, by the power of God’s might, resolve to gain the victory over your own selves, that haply the whole earth may be freed and sanctified from its servitude to the gods of its idle fancies—gods that have inflicted such loss upon, and are responsible for the misery of their wretched worshippers. These idols form the obstacle that impedeth man in his efforts to advance in the path of perfection.’

I will be focusing mainly on how to reduce the hold of this poisonous temptation in the realm of religion, but I hope I’ve said enough to clarify that this extends beyond that to all forms of belief in one way or another.

Oneness and Interconnectedness

One of the traps that religion can fall into is explained by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in a useful analogy:[5]

The Sun of Reality is one Sun but it has different dawning-places, just as the phenomenal sun is one although it appears at various points of the horizon. . . . Souls who focus their vision upon the Sun of Reality will be the recipients of light no matter from what point it rises, but those who are fettered by adoration of the dawning-point are deprived when it appears in a different station upon the spiritual horizon.

At any point in history, revelations can appear expressed in terms that the people of that place and time can understand, with practical remedies suited to their circumstances. For example, dietary laws can vary between faiths, but the spiritual core of their message, such as in the Golden Rule ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself,’ is almost identical, differing only in the terminology, not the essential meaning. To divisively reduce the religion to its local variations and to the literal interpretation of the metaphors it uses to convey the inexpressible, as fundamentalists of all faiths tend to do, is an error with huge destructive potential. It’s important to emphasise here that fundamentalists and zealots are not unique to religion, as the world I was born into in 1943 proves beyond any shadow of doubt. The atrocities committed by states in thrall to Stalin, Mao and Hitler were made possible largely by our tendency to espouse ‘insane thought systems.’ I accept that other factors such as craven conformity were also at work, but I don’t think they were the main driver.

From the Bahá’í point of view on religion, it is imperative that we recognise that all religions are in essence one:[6]

. . the time has come when religious leadership must face honestly and without further evasion the implications of the truth that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one. It was intimations of this truth that originally inspired the interfaith movement and that have sustained it through the vicissitudes of the past one hundred years. Far from challenging the validity of any of the great revealed faiths, the principle has the capacity to ensure their continuing relevance. In order to exert its influence, however, recognition of this reality must operate at the heart of religious discourse . . .

If we do not, then we will fail to operate effectively at this time of crisis, and in consequence our divided world will career towards its eventual destruction.

Beyond that we have to recognise that humanity is in essence one. As Bahá’u’lláh writes:

It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.[7]

It is important to emphasise here that a recognition of the unity of humankind is not restricted to those who follow a religious path. We all need to accept our inescapable interconnectedness. Tom Oliver is not a believer in God. His evidence base lies in science. But he is unequivocal in his book The Self Delusion that we share the dangerous delusion that we are independent selves:[8]

. . . We have one . . . big myth dispel: that we exist as independent selves at the centre of a subjective universe.

He explains:[9]

We are seamlessly connected to one another and the world around us. Independence is simply an illusion that was once adaptive but now threatens our success as species.

If we can bring ourselves to accept that consciousness-raising truth, something which the impact of Covid-19 should help us do, then certain potentially life-changing implications follow.

The Universal House of Justice addressed the following words to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001 (my emphasis):

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. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

There is no get out clause here. We cannot draw arbitrary convenient distinctions between people of the kind that help us ignore their obvious needs. It doesn’t matter if they are of a different colour, nation, faith or gender: they are human beings like us and deserve the same compassion and support as we would wish for ourselves. The Universal House of Justice made this explicitly clear in an earlier message:[10]

The primary question to be resolved is how the present world, with its entrenched pattern of conflict, can change to a world in which harmony and co-operation will prevail.

World order can be founded only on an unshakeable consciousness of the oneness of mankind, a spiritual truth which all the human sciences confirm. Anthropology, physiology, psychology, recognize only one human species, albeit infinitely varied in the secondary aspects of life. Recognition of this truth requires abandonment of prejudice—prejudice of every kind—race, class, colour, creed, nation, sex, degree of material civilization, everything which enables people to consider themselves superior to others.

So what’s the problem then? If it’s so obvious, why don’t we do it? That will have to wait till next time.

Some posts that suggest matter is not all there is

Psychology and Spirit

  1. Irreducible Mind – a review (1/3): how psychology lost the plot
  2. Irreducible Mind – a review (2/3): Myers & the mind-body problem
  3. Irreducible Mind – a review (3/3): the self & the Self

Self and Soul

  1. The Self and the Soul – The Ghost in the Machine (1/5)
  2. The Self and the Soul: Approaching the Heart of the Matter (2/5)
  3. The Self and the Soul: Mirrorwork Practice (3/5)
  4. The Self and the Soul: Implications of Mirrorwork (4/5)
  5. The Self and the Soul: the Promise of a Rose Garden? (5/5)

Concerning Religion and Science

  1. Where the Conflict Really Lies (1/4): preparing the ground
  2. Where the Conflict Really Lies (2/4): a superficial conflict
  3. Where the Conflict Really Lies (3/4): a deep compatibility
  4. Where the Conflict Really Lies (4/4): the deep conflict

References

[1]. The Uninhabitable Earth – page 25.
[2]. The Happiness Hypothesis – page 75.
[3] The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – pages 260-61.
[4]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 87.
[5] Selected Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Section Only) – page 255 – The Sun of Reality.
[6]. From the introduction by the Universal House of Justice to One Common Faith 21 March 2005.
[7]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, from Lawh-i-Maqsúd.
[8]. The Self Delusion – page 3.
[9]. The Self Delusion – page 4.
[10]. Universal House of Justice The Promise of World Peace Section III – 1985)

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In March, before lockdown, I was invited to give a talk at St Mary’s church, Tyberton, a village in the Golden Valley near to Hereford. This is the text of the talk more or less as delivered. I ad libbed a few extra bits of explanation on the day but have not included them here. I also cut the talk short just before the final two paragraphs quoted here. I’d gone past my allocated ten minutes so I thought it better to quit while I was ahead! Those paragraphs didn’t add much anyway. I had no idea, when I gave this talk, how important the connection between interconnectedness and resilience would become in such a very short period of time.

As you probably already know, the Bahá’í Faith is being persecuted in Iran, its birthplace. Our world governing body, the Universal House of Justice, has exhorted the Bahá’í community in Iran to response with “constructive resilience”[1].

Where might the roots of this resilience be found?

Bahá’u’lláh wrote that ‘No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united,’ and saw this as the source of the ‘discord and malice . . . apparent everywhere.’ He reminded us that instead we should not regard ‘one another as strangers.’ We ‘are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.’ [2] We are all, Bahá’u’lláh says, ‘created . . . from the same dust’ and must learn ‘to be even as one soul,’ so that from our ‘inmost being, by [our] deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’[3]

This is why I, as a Bahá’í, feel that the roots of resilience are to be found in a recognition of our interconnectedness. To quote the Universal House of Justice again, this time from a message addressed in 2001 to those gathered for the official opening of the Terraces on Mount Carmel, ‘Humanity’s crying need . . . calls  . . . 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.’

No get out clause there!

Unfortunately all too often the divisions within us and between us, which the Universal House of Justice describes in the same message as the ‘struggle among competing ambitions,’ blinds us to this truth. we are prisoners of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes as ‘the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire.’[4]

How are we to remedy this?

This is a problem that all the great world religions have grappled with, and the Bahá’í Faith recognizes that, which is what unites us across all faiths when they are properly understood. I am though going to focus here only on what the Bahá’í Faith can contribute to this desperately needed healing process, if our divisions are not going to bring about our complete destruction.

First of all Bahá’ís believe that we need to cultivate reflection in order to achieve a degree of detachment from not just the material side of existence, but also from the distorted perspectives within our own minds. If we cannot do that at least to some degree, we cannot then use the process of consultation, where we sit down with people of different views to compare notes and enhance our understanding of reality. Only in this way can we find better solutions to the problems that bedevil us.

A saying of Islam quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states that ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.[5]‘Reflection’ is also variously translated as meditation, remembrance or contemplation.

What does it mean exactly in practice?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá helps us here, when he states, ‘‘This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God. . . . Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . . The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror.’[6]

What exactly are the implications of this? What are the possible similarities between our mind and a mirror?

The most important similarity is that a mirror is NOT what is reflected in it. Our mind, our consciousness, is not its contents. We are not what we think, feel, sense, plan, intend, remember, or imagine. We are the capacity to do all of these things. However, none of these products of our mind is necessarily real or true. They are mostly transient products of our brains.

We need to learn to step back from them all and look at them from the position of consciousness in all its purity, the closest we can get to God, to the Ground of Being, if you prefer that expression. At the very least we can connect more closely with what Bahá’u’lláh refers to many times in His Writings as our ‘understanding heart,’ a phrase that captures the critical need for us to balance our verbal analytical left-brain thinking, which has spawned our technical advances which are both a blessing and a curse, with our holistic and intuitive right-brain processes, which cannot be easily captured in words and are therefore often lying half-hidden on the edge of consciousness.

In that state of stepping back, we still know what we think and feel, and who we think we are, but we are no longer so identified with those ideas that we cannot listen open-mindedly to what other people have to say that might enrich our understanding. Only when we do this, and it takes constant practice, can we truly consult with others about the nature of reality, the truth about our problems, and develop better ways of dealing with them.

We can consult at last.

Paul Lample explained it like this: ‘[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.’[7]

Then, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, this will show us ‘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.’[8] He also emphasises that detachment, of the kind I have attempted to describe, is one of the essential prerequisites to the effective use of consultation. Which is why, as Lample explains, ‘‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’[9]

Reflection helps us become more inwardly united and more closely connected with the divine or spiritual realms, and so we can become more united with others in our efforts to deal with problems within our family, our community, our nation and even our world as whole.

As a clinical psychologist, working in the local NHS, I found these insights of great value.

How so?

Well, I was working with a group of patients who are still regarded by many people as ‘not like us.’ They were people who carried the label schizophrenic or psychotic. They’re not like the rest of us, right? Wrong. Oh so wrong.

The basic principle of the Faith that we are all in essence one helped me see their common humanity. But more than that even. It helped me learn how their strange beliefs and hallucinations were rooted in their life experiences, how they made sense in that context once I had had the patience and humility to explore that with them and with their loved ones.

And even more than that through the disciplines of reflection and consultation, a kind of Bahá’í interpersonal yoga, I could earn their trust because I did not mock their beliefs or belittle their experiences of voices and visions, which allowed them to share their inmost thoughts, from which I learned to make sense of what they were experiencing. From there we could compare notes as equals and they could begin to find other explanations for what was happening to them.

For example, to stop thinking you are being tormented by powerful demons, who have the power to hurt you, helps you get back control of your own mind and life. I didn’t have to challenge the experience in itself, only the destructive explanations they had understandably developed for it, such as the power of the voices to harm them. Then they could move on.

After all, we all go psychotic at night in our dreams. We could many of us have ended up psychotic if life had treated us badly enough early on. The brain is good at creating illusions and delusions. In fact, a book I read recently by Tom Oliver, an agnostic scientist, explains, on the basis of strong evidence, that the prevalent idea in the West that we are a separate disconnected and individual self is a delusion, so we’re all a bit psychotic already really.

All we have is simulation of reality, a kind of trance induced in us by our culture – a materialistic, competitive and divided one in our case. And the only way we can ever correct our false perceptions and mistaken beliefs is to work together with others who do not think the same to transcend them. (And I would now add that if ever there was a time to internalise that lesson for the rest of our days on this earth, this is it.]

The mnemonic I use to remind me of all this is to say to myself ‘I must take CARE:’ the ‘C’ stands for consultation, and the ‘R’ for reflection, but embedded in a context of action and experience. It doesn’t work just at the level of theory.

As I final joke against myself I must admit that the ‘R’ also represents what are for me the three ‘Rs’ of reading, writing and reflection. Without books to breath in with and pens to breath out with my mind would suffocate, and I would never be able to consolidate my reflections into memorable and useful form. So I must thank you all for providing me with an excuse to read, reflect and write even more. Thank you for your patience in listening.

Footnotes

[1]. This phrase was first used in September 2007 in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’í students deprived of access to higher education in Iran.
[2]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 163.
[3]. The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 68.
[4]. Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76.
[5]. Hadith quoted by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Íqán (page 152 UK Edition and page 237 US edition).
[6]. Paris Talks – pages 174-176.
[7]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 215.
[8]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá cited in a letter written by Shoghi Effendi, to the National Spiritual Assembly of Persia, 15 February 1922).
[9]. Revelation and Social Reality – page 212.

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Coronavirus Structure (for source of image, see link)

Perhaps it is not surprising that, during lockdown, I should be revisiting books that I have already read as well as reading new ones.

What I didn’t expect was to find that a book by John Hatcher, published in 1994, would contain passages that resonate so strongly with me 26 years later.

I’m going to focus primarily on a handful of quotations from the last third of his book. I am not going to insult any reader’s intelligence by labouring the point and attempting to spell out in detail why I find these ideas so powerfully relevant right now.

In Chapter 7 of The Arc of Ascent, after exploring in depth how the concept of unity in the Bahá’í Revelation, combined with an understanding of the need for a sense of connection with God to be translated into personal action ideally in the context of an effective organisational structure within the religion, he begins to spell out some of the obstacles in the way if humanity as a whole is to benefit from comparable insights.

Near the start of the chapter he explains:[1]

. . . while the generality of humankind may readily acknowledge their desire to abolish warfare, to protect the environment and create a sane and just administration of human affairs, the power to bring about a reformation in human governance resides largely in the hands of a small cadre of thoroughly entrenched political leaders, most of whom seem perfectly willing to sacrifice the public good to secure their own self-interest. And while some of these leaders may die off or be replaced, the ones who take their place seem little different.

Self-interest, as he acknowledges, can extend beyond the merely personal to, for example, an economic niche, a racial identity or a nation state. Even when extended in this way it is divisive and will not help heal our world of its problems.

As he spells out:[2]

. . . we can conclude that the first requisite for the initiation of a world system of social management is the increasing awareness on the part of constituent governments that when the world is contracted into one integral organism, it is impossible to pursue the narrow interests or well-being of member states apart from the health and well-being of the global community as a whole.

The prescience of the comments Hatcher quotes from Shoghi Effendi’s Citadel of Faith, written between 1947 and 1957, is spine-tingling:[3]

The woes and tribulations which threaten… are partly avoidable but mostly inevitable and God-sent, for by reason of them a government and people clinging tenaciously to the obsolescent doctrine of absolute sovereignty and upholding a political system, manifestly at variance with the needs of the world already contracted into a neighbourhood and crying out for unity, will find itself purged of its anachronistic conceptions . . .

In 1941 Shoghi Effendi was writing an equally important statement – The Promised Day Is Come. There he spelt out clearly the reasons for concluding that the world is now essentially one country while also clarifying that he is not denigrating ‘a sane and intelligent patriotism.’ In his view, this ‘declaration’ proclaims ‘the insufficiency of patriotism, in view of the fundamental changes effected in the economic life of society and the interdependence of the nations, and as a consequence of the contraction of the world . . .’,[4]

Hatcher shares the Guardian’s view that ‘fiery tribulations,’[5] such as the Second World War, need to occur to motivate humanity and raise our consciousness to the necessary higher level. War is only one example of many possible tribulations. Hatcher, perhaps hinting at an awareness of a threat that Shoghi Effendi probably could not have specifically anticipated so early in the century, states:[6]

. . .some event or series of events must suddenly make all self-interest synonymous with planetary survival.

However, Shoghi Effendi’s criteria from Citadel of Faith could embrace that possibility as they include ‘[a]dversity, prolonged, worldwide, afflictive, allied to universal destruction’ whose impact will ‘stir the conscience of the world . . .’ and ‘precipitate a radical change in the concept of society.’  In summary, in the words of a letter the Guardian wrote:[7]

[Calamities] are to teach the nations, that they have to view things internationally, they are to make the individual attribute more importance to his moral, than his material welfare.

Hatcher quotes a letter from Shoghi Effendi[8] stating that ‘it seems only intense suffering is capable of rousing men to the spiritual efforts required’ to achieve political unity.

The very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat of climate change and the totality of its potentially destructive power may just be the trigger to our mobilising a more effective response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning, The Uninhabitable Earth :[9]

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.

However, in the light of more recent experience, Covid-19 may be a better candidate for this awakening than climate change, because its impact is more immediate.

Despite its tragic consequences and the immense suffering it has caused, if this is the wake-up call enough of us will pay attention to, it could mark a significant turning point, enabling us to reconfigure our priorities and avoid even more horrendous calamities further down the road. If we are to give some positive meaning to all the pain this pandemic is causing, surely we must from now on exert ourselves and make sure society does not slump back into its previous comfortably destructive trance. We owe that at least to those whose lives have been cut short in this pandemic.

I will be developing some of these ideas next month at greater length.

Footnotes:

[1]. The Arc of Ascent page 236. Unless otherwise stated all references are to Hatcher’s book.
[2]. Page 237.
[3]. Page 238: Citadel of Faith is a collection of messages from Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, to the Bahá’ís of the United States.
[4]. Page 238.
[5]. Page 244.
[6]. Page 246.
[7]. Page 247.
[8]. Page 251.
[9]. The Uninhabitable Earth – page 25.

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