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Posts Tagged ‘Universal House of Justice’

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

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

One Family

Humanity is one family. We are interconnected at both the material and the spiritual levels.

Interconnections at the material level are obvious and sometimes overwhelming. From the internet through the dynamics of our economic system to our impact upon the environment we cannot escape the fact of our global interdependence.

In terms of spiritual interconnectedness the evidence is anything but evident to most of us!

David Fontana’s book Is There an Afterlife? marshalls a wealth of data collected under carefully controlled conditions, all pointing to something impossible to explain in purely material terms. He is aware, as is John Hick, that even this amount of evidence for the transcendent is not compelling.

In his book The Fifth Dimension Hick explains why, in his view, it never will be. He contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):

In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

As an additional complication, he talks also (page 114) of the materialism of our current ‘consensus reality.’ Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything else through it.

The near death experience of the initially skeptical Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, as recounted in his book Proof of Heaven, is strong anecdotal evidence of mind-brain independence at the very least. In terms of interconnectedness at a spiritual level Thomas Mellen‘s account, in his story of his near death experience, of when he encountered the being of Light, (Ken Ring – Lessons from the Light – page  287) is as cogent as you could get:

And at that time, the Light revealed itself to me on a level that I had never been to before. I can’t say it’s words; it was a telepathic understanding more than anything else, very vivid. I could feel it, I could feel this light. And the Light just reacted and revealed itself on another level, and the message was “Yes, [for] most people, depending on where you are coming from, it could be Jesus, it could be Buddha, it could be Krishna, whatever.”

But I said, “But what it is really?” And the Light then changed into – the only thing I can tell you [is that] it turned into a matrix, a mandala of human souls, and what I saw was that what we call our higher self in each of us is a matrix. It’s also a conduit to the source; each one of us comes directly, as a direct experience [from] the source. And it became very clear to me that all the higher selves are connected as one being, all humans are connected as one being, we are actually the same being, different aspects of the same being. And I saw this mandala of human souls. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, just [voice trembles], I just went into it and [voice falters], it was just overwhelming [he chokes], it was like all the love you’ve ever wanted, and it was the kind of love that cures, heals, regenerates.

None the less these intensely felt personal experiences cannot compel, in those who do not wish to believe it, an acceptance of the spiritual dimension, with our consequent interconnectedness at that level.

Even at the material level there is a strong case that all prejudice and gross inequality must be abolished: the spiritual case, which is unfortunately more elusive, is potentially an even more powerful a motivator. And this sense of connectedness, of essential unity, needs to extend beyond our species to the planet as a whole. The earth, our homeland must be nurtured not exploited.

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

Bahá’u’lláh could even be said to have anticipated the way our planet is kicking back against our mindless greed and ruthless exploitation. He wrote: ‘My earth is weary of you, and everything within it shunneth you.’ (Hidden Words Bahá’u’lláh)

So, exactly what does our unity mean in practice?

The Welfare of the Entire Human Family

There is a challenging aspect to this as we discovered as we explored it together in a workshop at a Bahá’í Summer School.

There is no get-out clause in the wording that this message uses: ‘Each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ So that means everyone must take responsibility for the welfare of everyone. I can’t wriggle out of it. This means me: I have to take responsibility for the welfare of everyone – no exceptions allowed.

Some aspects of this are not too challenging. I live near a college for the visually handicapped. Quite often as I walk to town I spot a blind person with a white cane at a difficult crossing, where traffic is hard to judge if you can’t see, struggling to decide whether or not it is safe to cross. It’s easy for me to offer help and let them take my arm as I choose the right moment to cross. It costs me no more than a minute or two and I know exactly what needs doing.

It gets harder with large groups that are equally in need of my help, if not more so, because effective help would require more effort and more knowhow. I might baulk at the idea of helping thousands of refugees even though I wanted to.

That was not the biggest problem though. What about those who undoubtedly are playing a part in creating the refugee problem, Isis for example? I have no problem helping the physically blind. What should be my attitude to the morally blind, those who might harm me if I try to help them and who are impossible for me to like let alone love? Isn’t moral blindness deserving of compassion and effective help?

In the workshop we got as far as realising that society has a responsibility to understand their deficiencies and seek to remedy them compassionately, while keeping those individuals who are doing this work safe from harm at the hands of psychopaths or fanatical ideologues.

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

Next time I’ll be looking at two important ways of increasing our capacity to work more effectively together to change this complex and divided world.

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The peaceful and uplifting simplicity of the interior of the Methodist Church in Ludlow

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

The Oneness of God

For present purposes I am of course assuming we can all accept that a power we label God in English actually exists. It would take too long to deal with that issue fully right now. What we can deal with briefly is to confirm the essential unknowable nature of God: in the end it is the words we use to describe this Great Being, the Ground of Being, that divide is.

‘McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary explains (page 193): ‘Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally; our feelings, aesthetic experiences, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.’ Similarly with painting: Each painting says what words can never capture. Munch wrote (Prideaux’s biography – page 201): ‘Explaining a picture is impossible. The very reason it has been painted is because it cannot be explained in any other way . . .’

When we try and capture such an immense ineffability as God, we are in the country of the blind where the one-eyed man is king, as they used to say. Imagine two adjacent countries, the one a culture of cooks, the other of gardeners. For the land of cooks, the colour red has been explained to them by the one-eyed king as chilli: in the land of gardeners, their one-eyed king has said that red is like the perfume of a rose . When people from these two different countries meet they quarrel bitterly, sometimes killing each other for not believing in the rose or in chilli, when in fact they are talking about the exact same thing but do not know it. So . . . .

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

The Oneness of Religion

This is not a new idea, though. John Donne, an Elizabethan poet-priest in Tudor England, wrote:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

He wrote those words, part of the third of his five satires, during what must have been an agonising period of his life, when he was deciding to abandon the Roman Catholic faith, for which members of his family had died, and become an apostate. By taking this step, he avoided torture and execution and gained a career at the possible cost, in his mind, of eternal damnation.

While the Western world feels it has moved on from such ferocious divisions, the same does not seem to be true everywhere. Also, we should not perhaps feel we are completely free from milder variations of religious intolerance here.

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular is crucial to the work of the Interfaith and makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within the interfaith, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. Only when someone’s idea of God takes them downhill, perhaps killing others in His name, or at least hating them as misguided deviants, should we realize their God is not ‘worthy of worship,’ to use Eric Reitan’s phrase, and is not God at all. Theirs is not a true religion. All the great world religions are in essence one. It is only when we mistake the cultural trappings and rituals for the core that we think this is not true.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion.’

A material symbol of this essential unity is the Bahá’í Temple.

Bahá’í Temples, as the world community of Bahá’ís grow larger, will be surrounded by ‘a complex which, as it unfolds in the future, will comprise in addition to the House of Worship a number of dependencies dedicated to social, humanitarian, educational, and scientific pursuits.’ These will be open to all.

I will explore the oneness of humanity next time.

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Four years ago, after a summer school workshop exploring the Universal House of Justice’s text Century of Light, I described some of the fruits of that exploration. For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, I have recently discovered another powerful aspect of this to which I had not given proper attention.

Prior to explaining exactly what this insight was and what triggered it, I need to briefly revisit my earlier sense of the matter,

Social Reality

We had looked at some of the obstacles that stand in the way of our full appreciation of reality, 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 pulled 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 permanentrather 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.’

Metaphor:

I have long been aware of the link between dreams, poetry and other forms of creativity, a link that many writers acknowledge and which has a function in reshaping consciousness.

The link with poetry is not straightforward, as Charles Rycroft points out in a passage quoted by Krippner et al in the book, Extraordinary Dreams and How to Work with Them (page15): ‘if dreams are poetry, they are incomplete poems.’

Montague Ulmman, in Working with Dreams,the book he co-authored with Nan Zimmerman, expands on this (page 73) when he speaks of ‘those qualities a dream has in common with art, especially with the art form which relies heavily on metaphor: poetry.’ He spells out where the incompleteness of dreams as poetry exactly resides (page 80):

. . .whereas the poet is addressing himself to an audience outside himself, the dream is a private communication intended to be personally, not universally, meaningful.’

It is still of value, of course, for the dreamer to treat his dreams like poetry, and Ullman clearly sees the metaphorical value as worthy of exploration before plunging into the associations, which he feels (page 97) rather serve to integrate ‘metaphors into the waking context.’

Ole Vedfelt’s book A Guide to the World of Dreams resonates with me when he writes (page 54-55): in dreams, metaphors ‘may appear much more literally and visibly to the dreamer, consciousness is so totally immersed in the metaphors. . . . It may be illuminating to view symbols and metaphors as poetry… They interact with the receiver’s intuition…’

That may not be as simple as it sounds. He digs somewhat deeper. He goes on to say ‘when I use the term symbol in connection with dreams, I am also referring to a more complex and inscrutable meaning, such as when Jung (Man and his Symbols 1964, p. 20) writes that symbols have “an unconscious aspect, which is never precisely defined nor fully explained.”’

The opening sentence to this chapter was particularly resonant for me, given the spiritual emphasis I tend to give to dreams (page 53): ‘A prerequisite for all dream interpretation is an understanding that dreams live in a world of symbols where wind and weather, plants, animals and objects can all be expressions of qualities of the soul.’

Approaches such as these have influenced my approach to dreams almost since my dreamwork began.

However, for someone who claims to be so keen on poetry and who has used metaphors to help raise his consciousness, I realise now that for most of my life I have discounted the importance of metaphor in society as a whole. It is only since resuming a close examination of my dreams and the idea of dreamwork in general, including the reading of related texts, have I woken up more fully to the pervasive power of metaphor, a power that may be either constructive or destructive.

A key book on the power of metaphor has been Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I only discovered it this year and it has widened the scope of my understanding about the role of metaphor in culture.

Their basic tenet may sound improbably radical on first hearing (page 3):

If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

They amplify further (page 6) by saying ‘we shall argue that… human thought processes are largely metaphorical.’

They give persuasive basic examples to illustrate our pervasive and unquestioning use of metaphor such as equating time with money, argument with war and the mind with a machine or brittle object. A moment’s reflection should be enough to confirm to us from our own experience the truth of that.

More on that in the next post on Thursday.

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Had the life and growth of the child in the womb been confined to that condition, then the existence of the child in the womb would have proved utterly abortive and unintelligible; as would the life of this world, were its deeds, actions and their results not to appear in the world to come.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Bahá’í World Faith: page 393)

This is the last of three posts originally published in 2012, then again in 2014, 2015 and 2016. It seems appropriate to publish them yet again, because I have been pondering on the issue of theodicy in preparation from my talk in May at a humanist group. They will be interwoven another sequence over a three week period. 

In the previous two posts, I have been looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD) most particularly for what it has to say about suffering.

Both TPD and a rich and interesting approach to psychotherapy – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) – owe much to existentialism. Mendaglio acknowledges his debt in the last chapter of the book he edited on this subject (page 251):

However, there is a great deal of similarity between existential psychology and the theory of positive disintegration. Both emphasise similar key concepts such as values, autonomy, authenticity, and existential emotions such as anxiety and depression. A more fundamental similarity is seen in the philosophical underpinnings of TPD, which is in large measure existentialism.

In spite of my own immense debt to existentialist thinking, only rivalled by my debts to Buddhism and to the Bahá’í Faith, I have certain reservations about Dabrowski’s take on the degree of choice we are able to exercise.

Crucial Caveats

His take on suffering is truly inspiring. Care needs to be taken though that we do not adopt this view in a way that assumes that those who are crushed by their sufferings are somehow to blame.

It is true that his model presupposes that each of us will probably meet a challenging choice point sometime in our lives, where we can either cling to the familiar comfortable half-truths that have failed us or strive to rise about them to higher levels of understanding. It is also true that he feels that many of us are capable of choosing the second option, if we only would.

However, not everyone is so lucky. I include here a brief summary of the life history of Ian – the man whose interview I have quoted extensively in the first three posts on An Approach to Psychosis.

His history shows very clearly that he could only make the second choice at times and then meet the pain and work through it to alleviate his tormenting voices. At other times the voices were preferable to experiencing the guilt and he chose what we might call madness rather than lucidity. Given the horrors he had faced it was clear that he should not be thought a failure. I would probably have done the same had I gone through what he had experienced in his life, from his earliest days.

Dabrowski seems to feel that our capacity to choose is genetically determined. Mendaglio explains (page 250):

Dabrowski . . . . postulated the existence of a third factor of development, representing a powerful autonomous inner force which is rooted in the biological endowment of individuals.

It seems to me that it would have taken a truly exceptional individual to make the choice to experience Ian’s level of pain in order to progress. If that does not seem quite convincing, there is another case history I would like to share very briefly.

Among the sequence of posts related to mental health there is a poem called ‘Voices.’ The woman upon whose experiences that poem is based, was brutally abused by her father, sexually, and by her mother, physically, from her earliest years through her mid-teens.

She came to us to work on her father’s abuse. We developed a safe way of working which involved starting with 15 minutes exploring how things had been since we last met. Then we moved on to 15-20 minutes of carefully calibrated work on the abuse. Then the last half hour of the session was spent helping her regain her ordinary state after mind after the work on her early experiences had intensified her hallucinations.

After almost a year of this work things seemed to be going well. Then came the unexpected. She found herself in a building that closely resembled the building strongly connected with the worst episode of abuse she had experienced at the hands of her father. Just being there was more than she could cope with. She became retraumatised in a way we none of us could have anticipated or prevented. The next time we met she could not stop sobbing.

We discussed what she might do. There were two main options.

She could, if she wished, continue on her current low levels of medication and move into a social services hostel where she would be well supported while we continued our work together, or she could be admitted onto the ward and given higher levels of medication in order to tranquillise her out of all awareness of her pain.

She chose the second option and I could not blame her in any way for doing so. It would be a betrayal of the word’s meaning to suppose she had any real choice at that point but to remain psychotic while the medication kicked in rather than deal with the toxic emotions in which she felt herself to be drowning.

It is when I consider these kinds of situation at my current level of understanding of his theory, that I feel it could leave the door open to destructive attitudes.

He believes, if I have understood him correctly, that some people’s genetic endowment is so robust they will ultimately choose the harder option regardless of the environment in which they grew up. Most of us are in the middle and with an environment that is not too extreme we will do quite well. The endowment of some is so poor, he seems to be saying, that it requires an optimal environment if they are to choose to grow even in a modest way.

This approach, if I have got it right, has two problems. The first, which is less central to the theme of this post, is that it is perhaps unduly deterministic because of the power that is given to inherited ‘endowment’ to determine the life course of any individual. The second problem is more relevant to current considerations in this post, though related to the first point. By placing such a determining role upon heredity, the force of the environment may be unduly discounted.

I am not claiming that he attaches no importance to environment. In fact, education for example is much emphasised in his work and he is clearly aware that limited societies will be limiting most people’s development – and he would include the greedy materialism of Western cultures in that equation. I’m not sure where he would place the impact of natural disasters in his scheme of things.

He may though be minimising the crushing impact of such experiences as the two people I worked with had undergone, in the second case throughout almost all her formative years. Could a strong genetic endowment have endured such hardship and come through significantly less damaged? If you feel so, you may end up not so much thinking ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I!’ but more ‘They broke because they were weak.’ Empathy, which Dobrawski values so much, would be impaired because we can start to define people as essentially different from us, not quite part of the same superior species.

More Complexities

This is a truly complex area to consider though, and I will have to restrict myself at this point to a very brief examination of one approach to it which does justice to that complexity.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in his description of the various components of our character, suggests that what we inherit is a source of either strength or weakness (Some Answered Questions: page 213):

The variety of inherited qualities comes from strength and weakness of constitution—that is to say, when the two parents are weak, the children will be weak; if they are strong, the children will be robust. . . . . . For example, you see that children born from a weak and feeble father and mother will naturally have a feeble constitution and weak nerves; they will be afflicted and will have neither patience, nor endurance, nor resolution, nor perseverance, and will be hasty; for the children inherit the weakness and debility of their parents.

However, this is not quite the end of the matter. He does not conclude from this that moral qualities, good or bad, stem directly from the inherited temperament of an individual (pages 214-215):

But this is not so, for capacity is of two kinds: natural capacity and acquired capacity. The first, which is the creation of God, is purely good—in the creation of God there is no evil; but the acquired capacity has become the cause of the appearance of evil. For example, God has created all men in such a manner and has given them such a constitution and such capacities that they are benefited by sugar and honey and harmed and destroyed by poison. This nature and constitution is innate, and God has given it equally to all mankind. But man begins little by little to accustom himself to poison by taking a small quantity each day, and gradually increasing it, until he reaches such a point that he cannot live without a gram of opium every day. The natural capacities are thus completely perverted. Observe how much the natural capacity and constitution can be changed, until by different habits and training they become entirely perverted. One does not criticize vicious people because of their innate capacities and nature, but rather for their acquired capacities and nature.

Our habits and choices have a crucial part to play. Due weight though has also to be given to the power of upbringing and the environment (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Sec. 95, pp. 124–25):

It is not, however, permissible to strike a child, or vilify him, for the child’s character will be totally perverted if he be subjected to blows or verbal abuse.

This theme is taken up most powerfully by the central body of the Bahá’í Faith ((Universal House of Justice: April 2000):

In the current state of society, children face a cruel fate. Millions and millions in country after country are dislocated socially. Children find themselves alienated by parents and other adults whether they live in conditions of wealth or poverty. This alienation has its roots in a selfishness that is born of materialism that is at the core of the godlessness seizing the hearts of people everywhere. The social dislocation of children in our time is a sure mark of a society in decline; this condition is not, however, confined to any race, class, nation or economic condition–it cuts across them all. It grieves our hearts to realise that in so many parts of the world children are employed as soldiers, exploited as labourers, sold into virtual slavery, forced into prostitution, made the objects of pornography, abandoned by parents centred on their own desires, and subjected to other forms of victimisation too numerous to mention. Many such horrors are inflicted by the parents themselves upon their own children. The spiritual and psychological damage defies estimation.

This position allows for the fact that we need to take responsibility for our own development while at the same time acknowledging that we may be too damaged by the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous’ upbringing to do so to any great extent without a huge amount of help from other people. And most of us are the other people who need to exert ourselves to protect all children and nurture every damaged adult who crosses our path to the very best of our ability. Maybe Dabrowski is also saying this, but I haven’t read it yet. Even so his thought-provoking message is well worth studying.

In the end though, as the quote at the beginning of this post suggests, any consideration of suffering that fails to include a reality beyond the material leaves us appalled at what would seem the pointless horror of the pain humanity endures not only from nature but also from its own hands. I may have to come back to this topic yet again. (I did in fact return to a deeper consideration of Dabrowski’s model in a sequence of posts focused on Jenny Wade’s theory of human consciousness: see embedded links.)

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Altruism Black Earth

In the light of recent events concerning the best way to deal with those who had been drawn into working with Daesh in Syria, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The three posts, of which this is the second, appear on consecutive Thursdays.

The previous post, triggered by two contrasting books – Altruism and Black Earth – raised the possibility that we might repeat the horrors of the Holocaust. We may not have travelled as far down the road of moral enlightenment as we would like to think. We are prone to rationalising our self-centredness and have not freed ourselves from the virus of racism.

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand

That a popular strain of American thought idolises the guru of egotism, Ayn Rand, should give us pause for thought. While proponents might contend that Rand and her acolytes place sufficient emphasis upon preserving the powers of the state to protect individual freedom in a way that will prevent any repetition of Hitler’s state destroying excesses, it is worth examining for a moment some of her ideas and the results that they are having to this day.

Ricard (page 302) recalls a televised interview in which Rand stated: ‘I consider altruism as evil . . . Altruism is immoral . . because . . . you are asked to love everybody indiscriminately . . . you only love those who deserve it.’ Her ‘sacred word’ is ‘EGO,’ but it did not bring her any happiness (page 305).

If she were not so influential in the States her bizarre position would not matter. Many Americans, in a 1993 survey, ‘cited Atlas Shrugged, her main work, as the book that influenced them most, after the Bible!’ Furthermore, as Ricard points out, she has powerful advocates (page 301):

Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, which controls the American economy, declared she had profoundly shaped his thinking, and that “our values are congruent.” Ayn Rand was at Greenspan’s side when he took the oath before President Ford. . . . .

She has shaped libertarian economic thinking (page 303) which regards the poor as ‘killers of growth, beings who harm entrepreneurs.’ Moreover, ‘Only the individual creates growth; society is predatory, and the welfare state, a concept that prevails in Europe, constitutes “the most evil national psychology ever described,” and those who benefit from it are nothing but a gang of looters’ [The quote is from Ayn Rand 1976 in The Economist, 20 October, 2012, page 54].

I understand that it is important not to be simplistic about this and dismiss all libertarians as narrow-mindedly self-seeking. Jonathan Haidt analyses some of the complexities in his excellent The Righteous Mind. He clarifies that on the American political scene the word ‘libertarian’ denotes someone of a conservative mind set.  He teases out some important aspects of this world view in order to get out from under his preconceptions about it (pages 305-306):

[Libertarians] do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family).

He unpacks this in the context of his understanding of the value of moral capital (page 292):

. . . we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community . . . . . .  and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

He writes (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

So, after this analysis of the way that liberals, with whom he identifies, fail to understand some of the crucial insights of their political opponents (and of course vice versa), he reflects upon a disturbing trend (page 309):

America’s political class has become far more Manichaean since the early 1990s, first in Washington and then in many state capitals. The result is an increase in acrimony and gridlock, a decrease in the ability to find bipartisan solutions. . . . .

So even from within his own balanced critique which accepts the value of moral capital, he is clearly aware of the dangers of group identity and especially of any group identity with a black-and-white view of the world and/or with an egotistical creed.

Narrow ideologies of this type are many and varied.

Collaboration

During the Second World War, for example, those who believed in some form of nationalism, originally well-short of Nazism’s totally racist ideology, when battered by the depredations of the Soviet Union during the period of its cynical pact with Hitler, were more likely to collude with pogroms (Snyder: page 130-31):

Insofar as the Soviets removed states that people wanted, and insofar as the Germans could pose as the ally of those who wished to restore them, the Germans could manipulate a powerful desire. The nature of this opportunity depended, of course, upon what leaders of national groups believed they could gain or lose from occupiers.

He explains exactly what this specifically meant in practice (page 142):

By destroying the Lithuanian and Latvian states, the Soviets gave the Germans the ability to promise a war of liberation.

What the Germans learnt (page 143) ‘was to exploit the experience of the Soviet occupation to further the most radical goals of their own, and what they invented was a politics of the greater evil.’

That pogroms were in fact somehow related to the sense that the Nazis were liberators is made clear (page 150):

. . . pogroms were most numerous where Germans drove out Soviet power, . . . Pogroms and other forms of local collaboration in killing were less likely in Poland, where anti-Semitism had been more prevalent before the war, than they were in Lithuania and Latvia, where anti-Semitism was less prevalent.

That pogroms tended not to escalate where that hopeful belief in liberation was absent is confirmed by their rarity in Poland where (page 161) ‘Germany could not even pretend to offer Poland to the Poles. Germany had already invaded Poland once.’ It seems as though people are not inclined to go the whole hog with wholesale systematic slaughter on the basis of psychological or material gain alone: you need an ideological component as well.

Narrow ideologies, possibly always in combination with greedy and/or self-serving tendencies, make us more vulnerable to perpetrating systematic atrocities against those who are seen as beyond the Pale[1] we have ourselves arbitrarily created. Self-interest and dissonance reduction seem to have played a strong part in the Holocaust as well: for example, blaming the Jews for all the ills perpetrated under Soviet occupation exonerated everyone else in those territories from the shame of their own collusion as well as ensuring the property they had gained would not be restored to their original owners (Snyder page 152-54). Killings do, of course, occur without an ideology to back them, and can involve large numbers of victims, but never on the same massive and sustained scale.

Raising a more general and bleakly pessimistic point, Snyder earlier quoted Herling, a victim of the Gulags (page 122): ‘. . . There is nothing, in fact, which a man cannot be forced to do by hunger and pain.’ Herling became convinced that ‘a man can only be human under human conditions.’

While the examples of heroic self-sacrifice in Nazi and Japanese concentration camps, in the cases of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, as well as in the current example of Bahá’í prisoners in Iran, suggest most strongly this is not true for everyone, Herling’s point is probably true for most of us under such extreme conditions. In our relatively benign social climate, the rarity of whistleblowing in the face of toxic reactions within an organisation suggests that most of us are too craven to stand up against abuses.

Expanding our Circle of Compassion

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

This sad probability is what drove Zimbardo, after his many experiences of humanity’s inability to resist evil, to formulate his ‘ten-step programme for resisting the impact of undesirable social influences and at the same time promoting personal resilience and civic virtue’ (The Lucifer Effect – pages 452-456). He ends his explanation of the steps by saying (page 456):

Before moving to the final stop in our journey, celebrating heroes and heroisms, I would like to add two final general recommendations. First, be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures. Second, moderate you’re in-group biases. That means accepting that your group is special but at the same time respecting the diversity that other groups offer. Fully appreciate the wonder of human variety and its variability. Assuming such a perspective will help you to reduce group biases that lead to derogating others, to prejudice and stereotyping, and to the evils of dehumanisation.

All this has confirmed my conviction that there is an imperative need for our society to actively believe in two fundamental truths: first, that altruism is as natural as egotism and can therefore be nurtured in our children, and second, that in this age it is not enough for us to extend our compassion only as far as our family or immediate neighbourhood – we can and should learn to embrace the whole earth and its inhabitants, living and non-living as our concern.

A core aspect of this is articulated in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. 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 a challenging aspect to this as we discovered as we explored this together in a recent workshop at the Bahá’í Summer School in Keele.

There is no get-out clause in the wording that this message uses: ‘Each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ So that means everyone must take responsibility for the welfare of everyone. I can’t wriggle out of it. This means me: I have to take responsibility for the welfare of everyone – no exceptions allowed.

Some aspects of this are not too challenging. I live near a college for the visually handicapped. Quite often as I walk to town I spot a blind person with a white cane at a difficult crossing, where traffic is hard to judge if you can’t see, struggling to decide whether or not it is safe to cross. It’s easy for me to offer help and let them take my arm as I choose the right moment to cross. It costs me no more than a minute or two and I know exactly what needs doing.

It gets harder with large groups that are equally in need of my help, if not more so, because effective help would require more effort and more knowhow. I might baulk at the idea of helping thousands of refugees even though I wanted to.

That was not the biggest problem though. What about those who undoubtedly are playing a part in creating the refugee problem, Isis for example? I have no problem helping the physically blind. What should be my attitude to the morally blind, those who might harm me if I try to help them and who are impossible for me to like let alone love? Isn’t moral blindness deserving of compassion and effective help?

In the workshop we got as far as realising that society has a responsibility to understand their deficiencies and seek to remedy them compassionately, while keeping those individuals who are doing this work safe from harm at the hands of psychopaths or fanatical ideologues.

It was heartening to find that Ricard’s book addresses exactly the same issue more effectively (page 28):

Like the sun that shines equally over both the “good” and the “bad,” over a magnificent landscape as well as over a pile of trash, impartiality extends to all beings without distinction. When compassion thus conceived is directed at a person who is causing great harm to others, it does not consist of tolerating, or encouraging by inaction, his hatred and his harmful actions, but in regarding that person as gravely ill or stricken with madness, and wishing that he be freed from the ignorance and hostility that are in him. This doesn’t mean that one will consider anyone who does not share one’s moral principles or deeply disagrees with them, as being ill. It refers to people whose views lead them to seriously harm others. In other words, it is not a matter of contemplating harmful actions with a equanimity, even indifference, but of understanding that it is possible to eradicate their causes the way that one can eliminate the causes of an illness.

In explaining a related meditative exercise he recommends (page 263):

Go further; include in this loving kindness, those who have harmed you, even those who are harming humanity in general. That does not mean that you want them to succeed in their malevolent undertakings; you simply form the wish that they give up their hatred, greed, cruelty or indifference, and that they become kind and concerned for the well-being of others. Look at them the way a doctor looks at his most seriously ill patients. Finally, embrace all sentient beings in a feeling of limitless and love.

fallon2-b0ee8cb596cc89ff6f00864002eb74ed8351d68e

James Fallon (far right) with his wife, daughters, and son.

What becomes even clearer both in terms of Ricard’s argument in his book as a whole, but also in terms of the Bahá’í model of civilisation building, is that prevention is infinitely better then cure. We need to address the problem of how to enable our society as a whole to widen its compass of compassion so that everyone who grows up within its sphere of influence embraces the whole of humanity in its circle of concern. There is some evidence (see link for Fallon’s view) to suggest that certain kinds of positive experience can temper the destructive aspects of even a genetic predisposition to psychopathy.

And once we have convinced ourselves of this, and we must do it soon, we need to ensure that we educate our children to become citizens who will feel inwardly compelled to take responsibility for the care of everyone and everything that lies directly or indirectly within their power. We must ensure that this sense of responsibility is not just a feeling. We must ensure that it is active.

More of this next time.

Footnote:

[1] The term ‘pale’ came to mean the area enclosed by a paling fence and later just figuratively ‘the area that is enclosed and safe’. So to be ‘beyond the pale’ was to be outside the area accepted as ‘home’. Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1791. This was the name given to the western border region of the country, in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, ‘beyond the pale’. (See link for source of reference.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The consultative meditations were run by Brian and me.

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

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

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

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

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

These are the handouts used in my group

Interconnectedness

First Pair

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

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

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

(Barack Obama NY Times article 24 December 2006)

Second Pair

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

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

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

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

Third Pair

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

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

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

(Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers KaramazovChapter 3)

Fourth Pair

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

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

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

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

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

A Meditative Practice to Cultivate a Sense of Connectedness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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COL SED 1

© Bahá’í World Centre

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

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks, page 99)

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

What do we do?

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

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

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

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

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

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

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

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

(Universal House of Justice: April 2008)

JY KIR_0863

How should we treat them?

We must appreciate fully and whole-heartedly

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

(Universal House of Justice: 20 October 2008

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

But how do we do it?

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

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

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

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

The Needs of Young People

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

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

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

Paul Lample explains that this has led to

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

(Paul Lample: Revelation & Social Reality page 135)

JY BRA_4762Parents

The role of parents is clearly critical:

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

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

(Universal House of Justice: April 2000)

In the end where does all this leave us?

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

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

The words immediately above that are:

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

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

The whole of humanity is indeed our business.

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