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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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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-Íqánpage 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 Thursday, at the Hereford Pavilion Centre, I gave a brief talk to the Herefordshire Interfaith about the Bahá’í Revelation.

Beforehand I was told that I would have 15 minutes and was given a list of questions to address.

On the day the committee part of the meeting spilled over into the Faith-to-Faith’s time slot. The quart into a pint pot problem of describing my beliefs in quarter of an hour became a quart into a test tube experience. I had five minutes!

Even so the Faith-to-Faith moments were valuable if tantalising.

First one member briefly explained the basics of Universal Sufism, a movement connected to the mystical teachings of Inayat Khan which regards itself as expressing the compassionate spiritual core of all religion and therefore does not see self-definition as Muslim a necessary criterion of membership. He closed with a short prayer.

There was time for only one question before it was my turn.

Bicentenary Leaflet

Fortunately I had copies with me of the Bicentenary leaflet that had been mailed out to us earlier from the National Office. That saved me explaining at any length the core beliefs. I handed it round at the start of my talk to all the seven people who were there.

I had time then to briefly outline the basic details of Bahá’u’lláh’s life and the essence of the Bahá’í teachings.

There was one question, before everyone shared the same feeling that next time we really needed to allow much more time to explore what was being explained.

Given that I had spent a fair amount of time preparing what I was going to say, I think it would be a shame to waste the notes I made, though not all of them were going to be shared even in a 15 minute time slot.

So, here goes.

What was unusual this time was that I was given a set of questions in advance, most of them predictable.

Question One: What is the historical and geographical story of you faith? What are your main tenets/beliefs?

Much of what I planned to say in response to that first question focused upon the life of Bahá’u’lláh, given this year celebrates the 200th Anniversary of His Birth.

The Life of Bahá’u’lláh.

Bahá’u’lláh’s life after the execution of the Báb, the Prophet Herald of the Bahá’í Faith, in 1850, was one of constant imprisonment and exile.

On 15 August 1852 there was an ill-considered and unsuccessful attempt on life of Shah by three followers of the Báb who were reacting against the persecutions taking place at the time. Bahá’u’lláh was denounced as a Bábí by the Shah’s mother amongst others.

The Chain that weighed on Bahá’u’lláh in the Siyah-Chal

He was taken to the so-called Black Pit – an underground disused water cistern used as a prison. Two chains were used on His shoulders, the heavier weighed more than 50 kgs. They left lifelong scars. The thumbs of both His hands were bound behind his back at times.

His first reported mystical experiences of the Divine occurred in this foul prison (See Moojan Momen, Bahá’u’lláh: a short biography  – page 32 – for both instances):

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden—the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord—suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer being tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God’s honoured servants.

Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His Treasure, the Cause of God and His glory unto all who are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive. This is He Whose Presence is the ardent desire of the denizens of the Realm of eternity, and of them that dwell within the Tabernacle of glory, and yet from His Beauty do ye turn aside.

The authorities failed to implicate Bahá’u’lláh in the plot so He was released after four months.

There followed His exile to Baghdad on 12 January 1853.

He spent 10 years there apart from a retreat to Sulaymaniyyih in Kurdistan 300 km north of Baghdad. This He did to avoid making worse the conflict his half brother was causing within the Bábí community. During those two years He wrote two mystical works, The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys, for two prominent Sufis. He returned to Baghdad on 19 March 1856.

Somewhere between 1857 and 1858 the Hidden Words were written, a condensed summary of the spiritual teachings of earlier revelations.

In January 1861 the Kitáb-i-Íqán was written for the uncle of the Báb and explains the nature of progressive revelation and the meaning of prophetic symbols of the second coming of former messengers of God.

It wasn’t until 22 April 1863 on the brink of His exile to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and then Adrianople (now Edirne) that He openly declared He was the one foretold by the Báb.

It was in Adrianople that His half-brother tried to poison Him, leaving Him with a tremor for the rest of His life.

Bahá’u’lláh’s reputation was by now spreading in spite of His exile. The Bahá’í community can be said to have really begun to take shape at this point.

In 1868 He was banished again via Gallipoli and Haifa to ‘Akka, a walled and disease-ridden city, where He arrived on 31 August 1868. The authorities hoped and expected He would die there. Most people did.

It was in that prison His younger son, Mirza Mihdi, died, after falling though a sky light while pacing in prayer on the prison roof.

The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

Bahá’u’lláh was moved under house arrest in September 1871 to the house of ‘Udi Khammar. This was where the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was completed. In this book He explains in full the laws applying to and the obligations of Bahá’ís. He also speaks of the successorship – without naming ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at this point He explains the successor will be the authoritative interpreter of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings. He also lays the foundations of the Universal House of Justice.

A compassionate governor took office in 1876 and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was able to make plans for his father to move to a house at Mazra’ih near a beautiful garden in June 1877. He moved again to the mansion at Bahji in September 1879, close to where He was eventually buried in 1892.

His wife Asiyih Khanum had died in 1886 followed by His brother in 1887.

In 1882, at the suggestion of His father, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s The Secret of Divine Civilisation had been published in India.Political and social reform would not succeed without an underlying spiritual and moral reform’ was its theme. (Momen: page 138). Current thinking about the unwise divorce in free market thinking between J S Mill’s economics and his insistence on moral checks and balances reinforces the wisdom of this.

During the whole period from arriving in Baghdad to His time in ‘Akka a stream of books and letters flowed from His lips through the pens of His secretaries (his tremor did not allow him to write clearly and the speed of revelatory inspiration would have made it almost impossible for one hand to keep pace) – more than 7000 in all have been authenticated. In these texts he explained the details of his revelation.

In conditions less conducive than the British Museum reading room used by Karl Marx, he was able to produce what seem to me and many others across the world a better blueprint for a true civilisation. More of that next time along with an explanation of why I headed this sequence up with quotations concerning reflection and consultation.

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To download the complete materials click this link Upholders of His Oneness v2.

As the workshop entered its last day our attempts to close in on the exact power of consultation were reaching a kind of climax.

Beyond a Culture of Contest

We examined more of the explanation started the day before from by the Bahá’í International Community’s document Prosperity of Human Kind (Section III this time – page 7-8). That described consultation as central to ‘the task of reconceptualising the system of human relationships.’ They argue that consultation demands far more of us than ‘the patterns of negotiation and compromise that tend to characterize the present-day discussion of human affairs.’

In much the same way as Michael Karlberg discusses in his book Beyond the Culture of Contest, the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) confront us with the reality that:

Debate, propaganda, the adversarial method, the entire apparatus of partisanship that have long been such familiar features of collective action are all fundamentally harmful to its purpose: that is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.

They cover much the same ground as we had already explored but in possibly simpler terms, for example the 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 ‘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.’

This is so different from the way that the word consultation is used all too often in our society where a ‘consultation’ document is issued, opinions are canvassed, responses remain unpublished and an opaque decision is arrived at that satisfies no one.

Any link with justice is conspicuous by its absence. Not so in Bahá’í terms according to the BIC.

. . . consultation is the operating expression of justice in human affairs. . . . Indeed, the participation of the people on whose commitment and efforts the success of such a strategy depends becomes effective only as consultation is made the organizing principle of every project.

Lample sings from essentially the same hymn sheet as the BIC, emphasising the way consultation rises above petty self-interest (Revelation and Social Reality – Page 199):

Consultation is the method of Baha’i discourse that allows decisions to be made from the bottom up and enacted, to the extent possible, through rational, dispassionate, and just means, while minimising personal machinations, argumentation, or self-interested manipulation.

Unsurprisingly justice comes into the mix again (page 215):

[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.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context. Consultation is therefore, the practical, dialogical means of continually adjusting relationships that govern power, and, thus, to strive for justice and unity.

I end up, after reading such passages as these, feeling that consultation is the Bahá’í yoga. It is equally central to Bahá’í spiritual development as yoga is to its tradition; it is equally effortful and demanding as well as leading to an at least equivalent level of skill.

I think it is fair to say that the workshop group ended up of basically the same mind.

Hopefully the development of this central skill will make the Bahá’í community capable of following the advice of its central body, the Universal House of Justice, when it reminds us (Ridván Message 2008) of the words of Shoghi Effendi that we neither “overstress” nor “whittle down” the truth which [we] champion’ neither must we be “fanatical” nor “excessively liberal”.

More examples perhaps of the ‘moderation’ we have already explored as a necessary quality of our speech. Lample expresses a similar idea when he writes (page 45) ‘[C]aution must be exercised to avoid the extremes of absolute certainty or relativism.’

The Universal House of Justice also emphasise (ibid) that ‘Only if you perceive honour and nobility in every human being – this independent of wealth or poverty – will you be able to champion the cause of justice. And to the extent that administrative processes of your institutions are governed by the principles of Bahá’í consultation will the great masses of humanity be able to take refuge in the Bahá’í community.’

The Importance and Nature of Action

This whole process depends not just on studying our Scripture. Lample explains (page 23):

Study of the Word of God must be complemented by the effort to put the teachings into effect through a simultaneous process of action and reflection.

He quotes Shoghi Effendi’s analogy (From a letter of 2 November 1933 to an individual believer) of the Bahá’í community as a laboratory.

The Bahá’í community life provides you with an indispensable laboratory, where you can translate into living and constructive action the principles which you imbibe from the Teachings. . . . . To study the principles, and to try to live according to them, are, therefore, the two essential mediums through which you can ensure the development and progress of your inner spiritual life and of your outer existence as well.

Lample makes it clear that belief without action upon that belief is not enough (page 47):

The purpose of religion, however, is not simply to describe reality but to change human conduct and create a new social reality. Interpretation does not stand on its own. To test the soundness of our understanding we have to strive to apply it in action.

This will not be a quick fix nor will it depend only upon the Bahá’ís. The Universal House of Justice describes it as the work of centuries. Lample writes (page 48):

Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality… It is not a project in which Baha’is engage apart from the rest of humanity.

He amplifies the second point later (page 109):

. . . emphasis on the contributions Bahá’ís are to make to the civilisation-building process is not intended to diminish the significance of efforts being exerted by others.

In fact (page 210) ‘Spiritual progress and moral behaviour are won by degrees, in incrementally better actions day by day, in an incrementally better world generation after generation.’

Nor will it be achieved by merely materialistic motivation nor by self-interest no matter how enlightened (pages 147-48):

The profound and far-reaching changes, the unity and unprecedented cooperation required to reorient the world towards an environmentally sustainable and just future, will only be possible by touching the human spirit, by appealing to those universal values which alone can empower individuals and people to act in accordance with the long-term interests of the planet and humanity as a whole.

Progress in turn results from the mutually reinforcing interaction of individual and society (page 58): ‘Living a Bahá’í life involves the twofold purpose of individual and social transformation.’ He quotes the Guardian’s insight (Shoghi Effendi, from a letter to an individual Baha’i, 17 February 1933) that ‘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 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.’

On sobering thoughts of that kind we closed the workshop with a sense of all the challenges that lay ahead, the anxiety tempered by an equally strong sense that not one of was alone in that endeavour: we have each other and we can draw upon the Power of Bahá’u’lláh.

The Journey Home

When we boarded the train in Dundee to return home, it was virtually empty. Great! I could start my sequence of blog posts about the summer school. My wife and I had the table to ourselves. With my laptop in front of me I started pulling the first post together. I’d probably done over 700 words by the time we pulled into Kirkaldy.

Then everything changed.

The carriage flooded with people. The table opposite filled with a party of ladies pouring champagne. A man almost as grey as me quietly asked if he could take the window seat beside me. Fortunately I’d anticipated the influx and put most of my stuff on the luggage rack and was just finding a place for my laptop cover as I stood up to let him in. My wife on the opposite side of the table moved over to the window to make space for a mother with two young daughters.

At the far end of the now crowded carriage, where our luggage was stashed, a party of six was settling in with their beer and wine, one of them perched on the top ledge of the rack.

‘It’s always like this on a Saturday,’ the man in the window seat confided. ‘Especially now with the Edinburgh Festival and a football match.’

I couldn’t catch the name of the team.

‘Which are you going to?’

‘The football of course. I’ve been supporting them for years and never miss a match. Where are you heading?’

‘Hereford.’ As I said that I remembered the sticker on the inside of a toilet door: ‘Horrorford: the graveyard of all ambition.’ I decided not to share the joke.

As I looked out of the window at the green fields speeding by, I added, ‘It’s a bit like this. Lots of farms and lovely countryside. You sound as if you come from somewhere else as well.’

‘You’re right. Bournemouth. But I’ve lived here for over twenty years.’

I could see very clearly I was not going to do any more blogging. I closed the lid of my laptop. At each of the succeeding stations the carriage became even fuller.

Somehow the conversation moved onto the state of the world. I’m not sure which of us started it. We covered all the usual complaints – politics, housing, the NHS, terrorism, Brexit, Grenfell Tower etc.

Finally I turned to him and said, ‘So, what’s the solution?’

‘I haven’t a clue. What do you think?’

‘Well, my first thought is education. That’s a good focus of attention to start creating a better future – encourage our children to become more caring of other people, of animals, and of the planet as well.’

‘I agree, but that’ll never happen. Those in charge will be too threatened.’

‘But we’ve got to start somewhere. I know it’ll take generations, centuries even. But we have to learn that we can’t solve any of our problems by competing and arguing all the time. We have to learn to work together, to stop magnifying our differences, to start recognising we’re all human beings and need to care about each other. We’ve got to get beyond this culture of contest and create a culture of cooperation.’

I hadn’t consciously been thinking of the mother and her children across the table. So, I was surprised when she spoke up.

‘I couldn’t help hearing what you were saying. I completely agree. And I think there should be no more political parties. Everyone should be working together in parliament to create solutions to all the problems that we have.’

Maybe I had picked up subliminally that a mother would respond to the idea of education.

The man in the window nodded vigorously in agreement with what she said.

‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘There must be so many people, far more than I ever thought, beginning to think in the same way in the face of these challenges.’

I edged towards the spiritual dimensions of the remedy and said a little about the Bahá’í Faith. The conversation faded at that point and returned to the safe ground of small talk. Even so it was encouraging.

As we left Edinburgh Gateway it seemed a good idea to retrieve our luggage from the racks at the end of the carriage. There was no exit there. We’d have to get off the train at the door just behind us. I was a bit apprehensive about negotiating two heavy bags down the crowded carriage. As it worked out I threaded my way easily to the partying group at the baggage rack.

They saw me coming. I explained that I was there for my bags and immediately the two men nearest the rack began getting them out for me.

A woman next to me lent over and confided, ‘We’ve sold them on Ebay.’

‘That was a quick sale,’ I quipped.

She grinned.

I rolled the bags back to our table, people taking pains to clear the way for me.

I put the smaller case on our seat and apologised to the father of the two daughters for getting in his way.

‘No problem,’ he smiled.

I got our other stuff down from the rack, packed my laptop into my backpack, put my jacket on and handed my wife her cardigan.

‘Can you manage the bag on the seat?’ I asked her.

‘Don’t worry about that,’ the father said. ‘I’ll get it onto the platform for you. We’re getting off here anyway.’

I was touched by how warmly everyone I had approached in the carriage had helped me solve my luggage problem. In a small way it showed how most people are really only too happy to help others. All the doom and gloom in the media is only part of the picture and sadly helps hide from us our full potential. To be fair, though, the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower inferno demonstrated this kindness on an even larger scale. Hundreds, if not thousands of people showered with help those suffering from the trauma of it all.

As we waited for our train at Haymarket there was a warm feeling in my heart. Maybe a sense of oneness was not all that far away. The ache of the wrench of leaving the summer school and its uplifting atmosphere was easing.

I spent the rest of the journey without a table, noting in my small brown notebook the pages of Lample’s book which contained key quotes to pull into the blog posts on the summer school.

When I was too tired to do any more, I pulled out my copy of The Munich Girl and began to read: ‘Panic ignited a fuse in Anna when the 747’s hatch door sealed shut.’

The last hour of the journey sped by.

Home at last after ten hours on speeding trains and sitting on stations!

‘What was going to happen next?’ I wondered.

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To download the complete materials click this link Upholders of His Oneness v2.

At Strathallan, when we were moving between the main hall and the workshop room there was a downpour. This caused us to notice something unusual about the guttering. It was not clear to us at all what purpose was served by the piping that ended up in the trumpet shape pointing towards the sky. The amount of rain such a device captured would make next to no difference to the quantity that cascaded down the sloping roofs into the normal guttering. Nor did it produce any audible melodic sounds. Another of those mysteries!

So, we flourished our umbrellas against the deluge and headed for the workshop where we were due to pick up the trail at the point where it led from the spiritualisation of the individual to the development of the group or community. A useful bridge to help us across the border here is Paul Lample’s observation in Revelation and Social Reality (page 212) that ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

How might this be so?

The Power of Speech

First we need to look at speech in itself and what might give it power.

One important consideration is clearly that we have to practice what we preach (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh – CXXVIII)

. . . Unless he teacheth his own self, the words of his mouth will not influence the heart of the seeker. Take heed, O people, lest ye be of them that give good counsel to others but forget to follow it themselves.

In the Tablets revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas Bahá’u’lláh unpacks other crucial factors (page 172-73).

Perhaps most importantly we need to realise that words are a double edged sword, ‘. . . One word is like unto springtime causing the tender saplings of the rose-garden of knowledge to become verdant and flourishing, while another word is even as a deadly poison.’

How do we avoid the poison and maximise the positive effect?

Bahá’u’lláh explains that ‘words and utterances should be both impressive and penetrating’ and adds that they won’t be so unless they are ‘uttered wholly for the sake of God and with due regard unto the exigencies of the occasion and the people.’ We have to combine an absence of ulterior motive with a sensitivity both to the needs of the moment and the needs of the people to whom we are speaking.

In the workshop we discussed the way ideas borrowed from Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) might help us grasp the importance of tuning into what the person we are talking to most needs to hear as against what we would very much like to tell them. NLP talks about the need to match what we say to someone’s understanding and pace our expectations as to what they can take on board next. Lisa Wake describes this as ‘Pacing means to match where someone is currently and work alongside them to develop a process of responsiveness that is based on trust.’

Leather work (for source of image see link)

A participant in the workshop, someone with a beard longer than mine and equally silver, wondered whether the two words impressive and penetrating were chosen by Bahá’u’lláh from leatherwork as an image of how this process works. He explained.

‘I once saw someone tooling and staining leather. First, the leather had to be softened before the carver could begin to work it. Once it is soft he could use a special knife more easily to cut patterns in the leather. After that it could be stained. Spraying water on the leather first helps the dye soak in more deeply. It’s as though impressive describes the work of words uttered in the right spirit on the prepared mind, and penetrating relates to how words of the right kind can sink deep into the heart and become indelible, as dye will do in prepared leather.’

We were all taken with the beauty of that metaphor and his explanation of it.

Moderation
We also need to remember that ‘Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. . . . [M]oderation . . . hath to be combined with tact and wisdom . . .’

What might such moderation look like?

In the Gleanings we find this from Bahá’u’lláh (CXXXIX): ‘Say: Let truthfulness and courtesy be your adorning,’ and twice in His Tablets we find (page 36 and page 170) ‘This Wronged One exhorteth the peoples of the world to observe tolerance and righteousness, which are two lights amidst the darkness of the world and two educators for the edification of mankind,’ and ‘The heaven of true understanding shineth resplendent with the light of two luminaries: tolerance and righteousness.’

Bearing in mind that the former is linked with a familiar exhortation to ‘Beware, O people of Bahá, lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds,’ we need also to pay attention to what He links these qualities with next:

Suffer not yourselves to be deprived of the robe of forbearance and justice, that the sweet savours of holiness may be wafted from your hearts upon all created things.

Lamples observes (page 65):

Applying the knowledge for constructive change in the Baha’i community does not involve self-certainty or self-interest, but self-sacrifice. It involves doing what is right, not becoming self-righteous.

We pondered on how we might be truthful while remaining courteous. One member of the group made a penetrating observation. Truthfulness is not always, if ever, the same as honesty. Honesty is saying what we believe to be true, or venting whatever feeling has taken possession of our minds at the time. In either case this may be anything but true.

This sparked someone else to ask, ‘Isn’t it hypocritical to behave sweetly when you’re feeling furious?’

This triggered some soul-searching. We came to the tentative conclusion that reflection resolved this quandary, at least to some extent. If we step back from the brain-noise of the moment, we can hold it in mind, contain it and reflect upon it, rather than pretend to ourselves we aren’t feeling it, which would probably be hypocrisy, or act it out, which might be destructive rather than helpful. It would enable us to continue to hear and understand what others were saying as well as giving us time to think whether the heated reaction of the moment needed to be expressed in a more constructive way or parked for further reflection.

In would also enable us to follow what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) advises and enact our values rather than act out our possibly destructive feelings.

Paving the Way to Consultation

So, 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.

The criteria ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sets as the necessary prerequisites for consultation are extremely high (Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – p. 87, #43): ‘purity of motive, radiance of spirit, detachment from all else save God, attraction to His Divine Fragrances, humility and lowliness amongst His loved ones, patience and long-suffering in difficulties and servitude to His exalted Threshold.’

We dwelt on those at some length in the workshop. The one I wish to emphasise here, in this context, is 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.

The unity necessary to discover truth and act effectively depends upon detachment. Bahá’u’lláh writes in the Hidden Words, ‘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.’

Once we are striving in this way to exemplify in our actions the values we espouse, to reflect and consult with detachment and in unity, something potentially world-changing can happen. These are Bahá’u’lláh’s words from a Tablet translated from the Persian quoted in The Heaven of Divine Wisdom:

Consultation bestoweth greater awareness and transmuteth conjecture into certitude. It is a shining light which, in a dark world, leadeth the way and guideth. For everything there is and will continue to be a station of perfection and maturity. The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.

For a clear explanation of what this all means in practice, one of the best places to turn is a document published by the Bahá’í International Community entitled Prosperity of Human Kind:. The quote I’m drawing on comes in Section 2.

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. It calls for fair-mindedness in one’s judgments, for equity in one’s treatment of others, and is thus a constant if demanding companion in the daily occasions of life.

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 . . . . .

Bahá’u’lláh Himself links justice, unity and consultation as keys to civilisation-building (Bahá’u’lláh, cited in Consultation: A Compilation to be found also in Compilation of Compilations, Vol I, p. 93):

Say: no man can attain his true station except through his justice. No power can exist except through unity. No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.

There we will have to leave it till next time.

When we returned home that evening the cruiser and its lights had disappeared.

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Abdulbaha Using the familiar metaphor of “candles”, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to Mrs. Whyte:

“O honoured lady!… Behold how its [unity’s] light is now dawning upon the world’s darkened horizon. The first candle is unity in the political realm, the early glimmerings of which can now be discerned. The second candle is unity of thought in world undertakings, the consummation of which will erelong be witnessed. The third candle is unity in freedom which will surely come to pass. The fourth candle is unity in religion which is the corner- stone of the foundation itself, and which, by the power of God, will be revealed in all its splendour. The fifth candle is the unity of nations – a unity which in this century will be securely established, causing all the peoples of the world to regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland. The sixth candle is unity of races, making of all that dwell on earth peoples and kindreds of one race. The seventh candle is unity of language, i.e., the choice of a universal tongue in which all peoples will be instructed and converse. Each and every one of these will inevitably come to pass, inasmuch as the power of the Kingdom of God will aid and assist in their realisation.”

While it will be decades – or perhaps a great deal longer – before the vision contained in this remarkable document is fully realised, the essential features of what it promised are now established facts throughout the world.

(Century of Light – pages 127-28)

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 fourth post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. Century of Light is this 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 (4 Impact of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Unity the Core). 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. 

 

The Impact & Legacy of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Creative Pause

As we have agreed that memorising is a valuable way to internalise important quotations and can help us in moments of quiet reflection, can we take a few moments now to begin to memorise either this quotation or another from the first session.

Whole Group Session (Slide Presentation)

Basic Background

In addition to Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, there are two other key individuals and one key institution whose roles are of central importance to the unfolding story we are following right now.

The first is the son of Bahá’u’lláh, Whom His father designated as the Centre of His Covenant, the Mystery of God and the Perfect Exemplar. Some of the meaning of these terms will become clearer to those not familiar with them as the remainder of this sequence of workshops progresses. For now I will simply say that Bahá’ís believe God has made a Covenant with both His Followers and with humanity as a whole. The former is known as the Lesser Covenant, the latter as the Greater Covenant[1]. We will be coming back to an examination what those terms mean in more depth, but basically the role of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as Centre of the Covenant refers to how all Bahá’ís in His lifetime and beyond should see Him as the One to Whom His Father entrusted the protection of the unity of the Faith. We will be looking closely at ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s role and its impact in the next two workshops.

Shoghi EffendiLater we will focus on Shoghi Effendi, the grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá who was designated the Guardian of the Cause of God on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing. He was also authorised to be the translator and interpreter of the Writings.

Finally we will come to the Universal House of Justice. Elected in 1963 the House is the elected international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith. More on that later.

There are other writers who can shed some further light on this before we plunge into the details.

We are clearly living through a critical period. Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson write in Cultural Creatives (page 236): ‘[We are also facing] a breathtakingly dangerous tipping point for our civilisation and our planet. Our need to discover a way through is the most urgent, most central question of our time.’ They add (page 203) ‘In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture – because that is the true time horizon of effective action.’ The Universal House of Justice feels this will be the work of centuries (from a letter to Bahá’ís of Iran – 2 March 2013):

The rejection of deeply ingrained prejudices and a growing sense of world citizenship are among the signs of this heightened awareness. Yet, however promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades—nay, centuries—to unfold. For the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations. It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.

As Paul Lample explains in Revelation & Social Reality (page 109), Bahá’ís share this perspective and recognise that Bahá’ís alone can never bring about such changes. To say that the process of building a new civilisation is a conscious one does not imply that the outcome depends exclusively on the believers’ initiatives. . . . emphasis on the contributions Bahá’ís are to make to the civilisation-building process is not intended to diminish the significance of efforts being exerted by others. He also states (page 6): ‘Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us. In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.’

And the time scale, as well as the engagement of all humanity, is very clear (page 48): ‘Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality. . . . . . . . [I]t is not a project in which Bahá’ís engage apart from the rest of humanity.’

Ray and Anderson make a key point (page 246): ‘Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.’

(End of Presentation: any questions?)

For now we return to the role of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and begin with the core concept of unity or oneness.

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.

The group also needs to agree who will keep a record of the main points for reporting back to everyone at the end of the group consultation. The aim should be to make the report back no longer than five minutes.

Unity

Group One Task

Unity

Page 7: [‘Abdu’l-Bahá] came to [this moment in history] resolved to proclaim to responsive and heedless alike the establishment on earth of that promised reign of universal peace and justice that had sustained human hope throughout the centuries. Its foundation, He declared, would be the unification, in this “century of light”, of the world’s people:

. . . . . Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age, this glorious century.

Page 9: My meaning is that the beloved of the Lord must regard every ill-wisher as a well-wisher.… That is, they must associate with a foe as befitteth a friend, and deal with an oppressor as beseemeth a kind companion. They should not gaze upon the faults and transgressions of their foes, nor pay heed to their enmity, inequity or oppression.

. . . . . He hath brought the whole creation under the purview of His gracious utterance, and hath enjoined upon us to show forth love and affection, wisdom and compassion, faithfulness and unity towards all, without any discrimination.

Page 18: [Of those who responded to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s call] Their response arose from a level of consciousness that recognized, even if sometimes only dimly, the desperate need of the human race for spiritual enlightenment. To remain steadfast in their commitment to this insight required of these early believers on whose sacrifice of self much of the foundation of the present-day Bahá’í communities both in the West and many other lands were laid – that they resist not only family and social pressures, but also the easy rationalisations of the world-view in which they had been raised and to which everything around them insistently exposed them.

  1. Bahá’ís have been dismissed as hopelessly Utopian. Part of the reason for this lies in the perception that the ideals of, on the one hand, learning to evince the degree of love ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes, and, on the other, of establishing universal peace and justice, are permanently beyond humanity’s reach. What do we feel about that?
  2. What can we learn from the experiences of the early believers that might give us some hope, especially as the Universal House of Justice describes this as the work of centuries?

Page 20: The gift of God to this enlightened age is the knowledge of the oneness of mankind and of the fundamental oneness of religion. War shall cease between nations, and by the will of God the Most Great Peace shall come; the world will be seen as a new world, and all men will live as brothers.

To fully understand the relationship between man’s progress towards peace and the role of the Bahá’ís compared to the role of all humanity, it will help to provide some background. In the compilation on Peace (pages 38-39) we read in the words of the Universal House of Justice:

As to the Lesser Peace, Shoghi Effendi has explained that this will initially be a political unity arrived at by decision of the governments of various nations; it will not be established by direct action of the Bahá’í community. This does not mean, however, that the Bahá’ís are standing aside and waiting for the Lesser Peace to come before they do something about the peace of mankind. Indeed, by promoting the principles of the Faith, which are indispensable to the maintenance of peace, and by fashioning the instruments of the Bahá’í Administrative Order, which we are told by the beloved Guardian is the pattern for future society, the Bahá’ís are constantly engaged in laying the groundwork for a permanent peace, the Most Great Peace being their ultimate goal.

  1. How would a wider acceptance of the concept of the oneness of humanity be conducive to peace?
  2. In the light of this, what are Bahá’ís meant to be doing and why?
  3. What might people in the wider world be working at and why?

 

Group Two Task

The Full Implications of Unity

Page 21: {Shoghi Effendi unpacks these as follows – my bullet points:]

  • The independent search after truth, unfettered by superstition or tradition;
  • the oneness of the entire human race, the pivotal principle and fundamental doctrine of the Faith;
  • the basic unity of all religions;
  • the condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class or national;
  • the harmony which must exist between religion and science;
  • the equality of men and women, the two wings on which the bird of human kind is able to soar;
  • the introduction of compulsory education;
  • the adoption of a universal auxiliary language;
  • the abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty;
  • the institution of a world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations;
  • the exaltation of work, performed in the spirit of service, to the rank of worship;
  • the glorification of justice as the ruling principle in human society, and of religion as a bulwark for the protection of all peoples and nations; and
  • the establishment of a permanent and universal peace as the supreme goal of all mankind

these stand out as the essential elements of that Divine polity which He proclaimed to leaders of public thought as well as to the masses at large in the course of these missionary journeys.

The Guardian (page 50), addressing the friends in the West in 1931, ‘opened for them a brilliant vista’:

The principle of the Oneness of Mankind – the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve – is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. Its appeal is not to be merely identified with a reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men, nor does it aim solely at the fostering of harmonious cooperation among individual peoples and nations. Its implications are deeper, its claims greater than any which the Prophets of old were allowed to advance. Its message is applicable not only to the individual, but concerns itself primarily with the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family…. It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not experienced…. It calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarisation of the whole civilised world – a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units.

. . . . using as illustration the same ‘organic metaphor in which Bahá’u’lláh, and subsequently ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, had captured the millennia-long process’ that has brought us to this point (ibid):

The long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race had to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood.

  1. There is a huge amount of detail here. Basically though, in what ways do the above passages help us understand what the Bahá’í Faith means when it uses the word ‘unity’ or speaks of ‘oneness.’
  2. How would the ‘political machinery’ and ‘trade and finance’ be changed do we think?
  3. What might it feel like to live in a world reconstituted in this way?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

Footnote:

[1] This terminology dates from the time of the Báb as Shoghi Effendi makes clear in God Passes By (page 27): ‘The Greater Covenant into which, as affirmed in His writings, God had, from time immemorial, entered, through the Prophets of all ages, with the whole of mankind, regarding the newborn Revelation, had already been fulfilled. It had now to be supplemented by a Lesser Covenant which He [ie the Báb] felt bound to make with the entire body of His followers concerning the One [ie Bahá’u’lláh] Whose advent He characterized as the fruit and ultimate purpose of His Dispensation. Such a Covenant had invariably been the feature of every previous religion.’

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To download the complete materials click this link Upholders of His Oneness v2.

We had travelled by train to Dundee a few days before the start of the summer school and stayed with family. This gave me a chance to rest before things started to heat up. Summer Schools are intense but heart-warming experiences, and it’s best not to be tired before you get there!

During our time in Dundee there was a curious encounter with a piece of graffiti. We were walking to the centre of Dundee when I saw something oddly familiar but intensely strange on a pebbledash wall.

What on earth did those initials mean in this context? I know that in the States they relate to their National Security Agency, but this was the UK. For me that acronym stands for a national Bahá’í institution called the National Spiritual Assembly. Certainly these letters were not standing for that. It might be the National Sheep Agency but that didn’t seem likely. In the end, I was happy to let it remain one of those amusing mysteries life throws across our paths from time to time.

Anyway, less of that distraction.

Strathallan School, where the Scotland Bahá’í Summer School was held this year, is an ample, even opulent environment about four miles from Perth. There is lots of open space, pockets of woodland and spacious lawns – no sounds of traffic but no escape, of course, from periodic downpours of rain. No surprise there then. As we drove to the venue from Dundee the sky alternately shone and showered upon us.

The theme of the workshop I was in was oneness. We found our way across the vast campus with the compass of optimism and the map of trust eventually finding the room at the end of a corridor branching off from the bookshop (a fatal coincidence of temptations for me).

On the first day, a Sunday, there were 17 of us. The total dropped to 12 after the weekend, but the energy level stayed high and, for me at least, inspiring. The way we worked was to look at passages from the Bahá’í Writings, along with some helpful ideas from various other authors. The process we followed was one of consultation. This means that none of us believed we were the ones who really understood the passages: instead we firmly held onto the idea that by working together, sharing our thoughts and listening intently to the thoughts of others, we would lift our understanding to a far higher level.

It worked. If you don’t believe me you should really try it sometime.

Two faces are blurred because I don’t have permission from the people concerned to publish their picture. I have been assured that I was not asleep.

It would be impossible to cover, in a few short posts, all the interwoven themes that formed the tapestry of our consultation over the three days I was there. We started from where I have described in a previous post which I ended by saying that the role the Bahá’í community should play in creating a more unified world is perhaps best captured by an image that has been used in another context: it is as a catalyst, something that can speed up a process taking place outside itself. This capacity has two aspects (Century of Light – my emphases):

The power that the Cause possesses to influence the course of history thus lies not only in the spiritual potency of its message but in the example it provides. “So powerful is the light of unity,” Bahá’u’lláh asserts, “that it can illuminate the whole earth.” . . . . . The organic unity of the body of believers – and the Administrative Order that makes it possible – are evidences of what Shoghi Effendi termed “the society-building power which their Faith possesses.”

What followed was a circular path leading from the individual through the group and the community to justice and the creation of a better world, which was more or less where we started.

Social Reality:

After our encounter with the challenge laid down by the Universal House of Justice, we continued by looking at some of the obstacles that stand in the way of our full appreciation of unity and how to achieve it, first as individuals and then as groups. Bahá’u’lláh writes (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Haifa 1978: page 58):

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs.

Given the hidden nature of spiritual reality and our freedom to choose what we believe or seek to teach others to believe, there is also therefore the immense power of social influence at work on what we experience and how we experience it.

Given that I couldn’t possibly reproduce here the complex flow of our consultation as we grappled with this issue, I’ve decided to pull in quotations that cover much the same ground.

There are two thinkers who have shaped my perspective about this, which of course is an example of how culture works: these are Paul Lample and Charles Tart. A Bahá’í writer, Paul Lample, has written illuminatingly on this theme. I will move between the two of them as I explore their thinking. Tart’s views I have already explored at some length on this blog so I will spend more time on Lample’s as explained in Revelation and Social Reality.

Before I plunge into the depths, it is perhaps important to share the distinction Lample explores early on between two types of reality, a distinction that is of central importance to our understanding of human nature (page 7):

We can understand this special role of humanity by noting that most of what we perceive to be reality – the world with which we interact every day – is not physical reality at all. It is social reality. . . . Social reality mediates our engagement with the world, physical and spiritual, and it is this reality that we have the capacity to create anew.

He quotes from John Searle’s The Construction of Social Reality to unpack the distinction he wishes to make (ibid):

In a sense, there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking of things like money, property, governments, and marriages. Yet many facts regarding these things are “objective” facts in the sense that they are not a matter of your or my preferences, evaluations, or moral attitudes. I am thinking of such facts as that I am a citizen of the United States, that the piece of paper in my pocket is a five dollar bill, etc. . . . These contrast with such facts as that Mount Everest has snow and ice near the summit… which are facts totally independent of any human opinions.

Of course, Searle continues (page 8), ‘in order to state a brute fact we require the institution of language, but the fact stated needs to be distinguished from the statement of it.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá eloquently explains exactly what this means in a spiritual terms (Promulgation of Universal Peace (PUP) Wilmette 1982 pages 421-422):

When we consider the world of existence, we find that the essential reality underlying any given phenomenon is unknown. Phenomenal, or created, things are known to us only by their attributes. Man discerns only manifestations, or attributes, of objects, while the identity, or reality, of them remains hidden. For example, we call this object a flower. What do we understand by this name and title? We understand that the qualities appertaining to this organism are perceptible to us, but the intrinsic elemental reality, or identity, of it remains unknown. Its external appearance and manifest attributes are knowable; but the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers. Inasmuch as the realities of material phenomena are impenetrable and unknowable and are only apprehended through their properties or qualities, how much more this is true concerning the reality of Divinity, that holy essential reality which transcends the plane and grasp of mind and man?

Even before we consider the role of names in clouding reality, we have to accept that our senses are quite limited in the way they represent the world to our consciousness, even at a material level. We see wavelengths of potentially particulate light as colours, and combinations of atoms composed mostly of empty space as densely solid objects. In a sense not only is our social reality a simulation: our perception of the physical world is also. It has evolved simply to maximise our chances of survival, not to penetrate the surface to reach the inner reality.

Lample continues (ibid:)

Searle notes that the structure of social reality has a tremendous complexity. A simple visit to a restaurant as a reality that include immediately visible aspects, including the social meaning of ‘money,’ ‘waiter,’ ‘restaurant,’ ‘chair,’ and invisible, underlying aspects such as the concept of employment, an economic system, an agricultural system, and government regulations. There is also a normative dimension of social reality, in that the waiter can be rude or polite, the food unsatisfying or delicious.

There is an important corollary here (ibid:)

Searle observed that the entire structure of social reality is taken for granted by individuals, who are brought up in a culture that conveys social facts in the same way it presents rocks or trees.

Charles Tart

In his book Waking Up, Tart seems to be dealing with this same aspect (page 85): ‘normal consciousness will be referred to as consensus trance; the hypnotist will be personified as the culture. The “subject,” the person subjected to this process, is you.’

In a way that parallels Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘veils’ of delusion and superstition, Tart sees consensus consciousness as on a disturbing continuum (page 102): ‘We can view illusions and hallucinations as extreme points on the continuum of simulation of the world.’

He doesn’t give us much room to wriggle off the hook here. The state of mind he goes onto to describe is not an enviable one (page 95):

. . . . consensus trance is expected to be permanent rather than merely an interesting experience that is strictly time-limited. The mental, emotional, and physical habits of a lifetime are laid down while we are especially vulnerable and suggestible as children. Many of these habits are not just learned but conditioned; that is, they have that compulsive quality that conditioning has.

Even so, Lample sees us very much as agents in the creation of our world view (Revelation & Social Reality – page 6): ‘Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us.’

Lample none the less plausibly contends that (ibid) ‘In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.’

He illustrates the kind of factor that can trigger such transformations (page 8):

When the fundamental agreements which frame belief and behaviour change, social reality will change, as in the case of the dramatic collapse of communism in countries across Europe and Asia in a matter of months around 1990, after being a commanding presence that dominated the lives of hundreds of millions for over a half century.

He concludes, in terms which acknowledge Tart’s sense that we are shaped by as well as being shapers of social reality, that (page 10) ‘. . . Social reality is not static; it is mutable. It forms us, but because it owes its existence to common human understanding, we have the power to contribute to reshaping it.’

I think this is a good place to pause. Next time we will consider ways of transcending some of our limitations.

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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. Recent events across many countries again makes it seem timely to revisit this sequence. This is the last post.

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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