Another podcast. This is a recent lecture I gave in Cambridge University, on the matter of life after death. While reviewing the well-known fundamentals of the Baha'i perspective on the after-life, it goes further, to approach matters that I have seldom if ever seen addressed in the literature, namely, once we grant that the Baha'i teachings posit the survival of the soul after death, how do we answer the question of where exactly is the after-life? And what connection, if any, does it have to this life, beyond bringing it to fruition. Can we reach that world, or those worlds, in this life? Are we already there? And what does all this have to do with traditional notions of union with God, of nirvanna, of enlightenment? And can we take our dog?Read more!
Sunday, 29 November 2009
Friday, 27 November 2009
This is a different kind of podcast, a song called Nightingales. It represents a preliminary version of a choral piece I composed many years ago around a beautiful, proclamatory poem of Baha'u'llah, which tells the nightingales that the season of roses, the blooming time is here, the seekers that what lay beyond their vision is now revealed to their sight, and the lovers that the adored one's face is in full view. The motifs, from Persian mysticism, are universal in their capacity to evoke. Like all else on this blog, this is not a finished thought, but a tentative beginning in a conversation, this time in musical form. Joining me in singing it are the extremely talented Smith family (Geoff, Michaela, Bonnie, and her cousin), and a friend called Paul. The provisional translation is by J. Cole. As soon as I get full names of everyone, I will give proper acknowledgement! It was a wonderful experience to record it at the Smith studio in beautiful Cornwall, after 12 years of holding it in my head, and I will always be grateful for the inspiration they imparted as an extraordinary, united, gifted family!
I share this song, not because it is finished, but because it is a beginning, in case anyone out there would like to collaborate in taking it to the next stage. I think it can do with cello, for instance, and twice as many voices, and removing some background sound, but it is enough to convey a sense of the musical vision that animates it, and I hope someone out there may like it. If you do, let me know, please.
You can find it in zipped format here
Thursday, 12 November 2009
If religion divides - why join one? If truth is universal, why "label" oneself? Why call oneself "Baha'i", and not just believe, and remain open?
Following good feedback, this is a podcast (my second!)of another talk I gave at Cambridge University, addressing the perennial question that Baha'is encounter: "I like the Baha'i teachings very much, I even love Baha'u'llah, but I don't want to label myself, I want to be free to be myself, and not divide myself from others by joining anything." I think people who state this view, have a point. You can find it in zipped format here.Read more!
Is unity always good? Really? Is diversity always positive? Really? Is there a measurable social impact to Baha'i community life?
Is unity always a good thing? Is diversity always an enrichment? Do Baha'i claims and approaches to unity in diversity stand in light of scientific research on group functioning? Is there a science to being united? Baha’is speak a lot about the value of unity in diversity. Since this ideal was formulated by Baha’u’llah in the unlikely setting of 19th century, QajarPersia, an entire literature has emerged putting to the test, empirically, many of the assumptions and ideas contained in the Baha’i writings. What are the tensions, nuances, and insights, that the encounter between scientific and religious perspectives on unity in diversity may bring? I’d like to stimulate interest in the further exploration of this question, the nature of unity and diversity, beginning by recalling en passant what the current sociological, psychological, anthropological and related literature has to say about the subject. This will soon crystallise in paper form, so any references, corrections or additions you may have to share, would be most gratefully received.
Two dimensions of unity: ideational, and structural.
An example of this is when someone moves to a new neighbourhood, and develops very close friendships with two or three people that take up all her social time, which can be wonderful, and may mean she doesn’t have to spend much time with other people, that she may not have very wide networks, but she can really count on those three friends come hell or high water. If suddenly there is a power cut, however, and those three friends aren’t around, or are ill equipped, then the very strength of those ties, leading to the narrowness of her network, could influence the access that she has to other people who might be able to help. While if on the contrary she happened to have more acquaintances, more arms’ length relationships with people, more weak ties, she might not be able to unburden her heart to them, or leave them caring for her house, but she might have many people to ask for a candle in the supposed power cut.
As with unity, there are of course different types of diversity. There is of course demographic diversity, but there is also cognitive diversity, differences in views, thoughts, learning styles, values, attitudes. There can be levels of consensus around values that create a coherent perspective, where everybody roughly shares a perspective of what are the values to pursue, and what is the organization, community or group. And there is weak consensus, where people are in broad agreement, and then there is difference, where you may have different subcultures with different cultural visions, and there may be stronger disagreements, where there is actual conflict. Other types of diversity like disparity, where someone has access to all the resources, others have very few, which is not necessarily conducive to group cohesion.
Which is to say that this spirit of brotherhood, this feeling of belonging and kinship, is not enough, rather, “it is associated with an order” with a structure, a system, to incarnate that spirit of unity and ensure its cohesiveness. Without such a structure, Shoghi Effendi says, this sopirit would become dissipated and be lost. And this structure is provided by the Covenant, which is what ensures the maintenance of unity after the passing of that pivot of unity that was Baha’u’llah, and subsequently ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi, culminating in the establishment of the Universal House of Justice. In each of these transitioins unity was maintained through the provisions of the Covenant, through a certain structure, and of course through Administrative Order associated with that same Covenant, the structure of a Baha’i community that appears to privilege bottom-up structures that allow the entire system to be very robust, so that were you to take away an individual, no matter how prominent and significant her or his responsibilities, or even an entire institution, the overall unity of the Baha’i community would remain intact, as was indeed put to the test and discovered when Shoghi Effendi died intestate. The central node of unity of the Baha’i community disappeared, and yet so solid was the structure of the Baha’i community, so robust its network, that the system survived the shock of those stressors and maintained its unity unimpaired. This is a remarkable achievement, and is an evidence of the formidable level of both types of unit of course, not only the structural, but also the ideational or subjective unity, which was exemplified in the loyalty that kept the Baha’i community together and the extraordinary servant-leadership of the Hands of the Cause of God as Chief Stewards during the period of the Custodianship, steering the ship of the Cause to the safe port of the election of the Universal House of Justice.
(Shoghi Effendi, Arohanui - Letters to New Zealand, p. 47)
"It is not uniformity which we should seek in the formation of any national or local assembly. For the bedrock of the Bahá'í administrative order is the principle of unity in diversity, which has been so strongly and so repeatedly emphasized in the writings of the Cause. Differences which are not fundamental and contrary to the basic teachings of the Cause should be maintained, while the underlying unity of the administrative order should be at any cost preserved and insured."
Another aspect of this research validates by the Baha’i Writings is the notion that not all types of diversity are positive, such as excessive disparity, where you have a situation of inequality and injustice.
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 189)
For of course, the increase of diversity is not inherently and inevitably a negative thing, but, the empirical literature suggests, is invested with unique and massive potentialities. Each culture, each person brings an extraordinary range of experiences, resources, networks, skills, attitudes and values that can potentially dynamise and enrich the various social settings. And indeed, as we have seen, it is precisely in times of significant change or crisis that diversity can be most useful, in opening possibilities for innovations and creative solutions that homogeneity would be hard put to match. But this depends on collectivities developing the attitudes, values and skills that will release the constructive potential of diversity and obviate its negative stresses. This is not a matter of choice, but of necessity, and in the not too distant future, perhaps even of survival.
(The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 162, 2005)
(Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 300)
Saturday, 26 September 2009
Who could possibly believe in God? How? How could we possibly know whether an unknowable God exists or not?
Saturday, 28 February 2009
What have seven Baha'i prisoners, and the oppressed community they serve, achieved for the nation of Iran?
As seven heroic souls in Iran await an impending trial on absurd and dangerous charges, which place their very lives at risk, while excluded from their lawyer, the brave Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, the question recurs: why?
The nature of the activities of this extraordinary group of people, is explained by the editors of Iran Press Watch as follows:
"After the abduction and disappearance of the nine members of the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Iran after the revolution in 1980 and the summary execution of most members of the second such Assembly of Baha’is in 1983, the governing body of the Baha’i community in Iran voluntarily suspended its administrative activities in 1983, and the affairs of the Baha’i community were managed by small groups of three individuals in each locality.
"After a few years, this group of three individuals on the national level became more organized and was named the institution of “The Friends of Iran.” The main responsibility of this institution was managing the affairs of this large religious minority, such as recording marriages, handling divorces, assisting with burials, sending letters of introduction for traveling Baha’is, arranging for worship services, and similar activities. “The Friends of Iran” guided the Baha’i community through many tumultuous years, and provided hope and reassurance through critical times with a unified vision and exemplary resolve.
"The activities of the “Friends” were completely transparent and were devoid of any hidden agenda. Incidentally, during this period, a particular office was designated in the Ministry of Intelligence to follow the activities of the Baha’is. This office would contact the “Friends” directly with any questions about a specific activity. Even Ayatollah Dorri Najafabadi, Iran’s chief prosecutor, has referred to this close monitoring. At the time of the suspension of Baha’i administrative activities in 1983, a letter was sent by the National Assembly of the time to Mousavi Ardabili indicating that in exchange for this suspension, the Baha’i community requested that the government allow its high school Baha’i graduates to enter universities, that the dismissed Baha’i university professors be reinstated, and that the Baha’is fired from the public sector be given permission for employment. The government did not heed or honor any of these requests for minimal civil rights for the Baha’is of Iran."
Many have been the responses to such dismal and absurd charges. The most memorable for me are perhaps those of Mr. Hamid Hamidi and Moojan Momen. The former, non-Baha'i Iranian intellectual, in a truly remarkable, even historic talk, chronicles impartially with remarkable accuracy and passion the history and context of assaults against the human rights of the Baha'i community as fellow citizens in Iran from the days of Reza Shah to the present day. Moojan Momen's own statement specifically exposes the absurdity of each of the charges leveled specifically against those seven precious souls who gambled with their lives in service to their community, and to humankind. The context of egregious human rights violations in Iran, not only against the Baha'is, but against many sectors of the population, is eloquently and movingly expounded by a Baha'i uniquely qualified to do so, former UN War Crimes Prosecutor, Payyam Akhavan, reminding us that the world Baha'i community's struggle for the rights of its cherished brothers and sisters in Iran is part of a wider struggle for justice for all, of whatever faith or none.
Against this backdrop, I was encouraged by a friend whom I deeply respect, to share some excerpts from a paper I wrote in 2001, for an academic journal by the name of the Middle Eastern Studies Association Bulletin, exploring the reasons for the comparative silence of scholars of the Middle East, and of Iran in particular, in relation to all things Baha'i.
As I pondered the suggestion, I reflected that perhaps the discussion that he felt was relevant to what is happening today, was the general exploration of the continuities and discontinuities which the Baha'i Faith represented upon its emergence in the 19th century, and which led to its becoming an "Other" to the people of Iran, to the extent of disappearing from sight, and, if successive governments had had their way, as chronicled by Mr. Hamidi in the link above, dissappearing from existence altogether. In fact, revisiting that paper in the context of today's fearful persecutions, one finds, not gloom, but extraordinary hope.
For if Baha'is were non-existent then relatively speaking, if one were to judge by their utter absence (outside frequent polemics that form part of their oppression)from the written discourse of their fellow countrymen, intellectuals, activists, artists, journalists, inside Iran and abroad, Iranian Baha'is certainly "exist" now in the voices and the minds of their compatriots, as never in this Faith's 165 year history.
It is almost a truism for Baha'is, borne out not only scripturally, but by long experience of repression, yet one that cannot ever lose its pathos, that each wave of persecution, each effort to erase this Faith's existence, is unfailingly accompanied by an unprecedented victory, that only digs its roots the deeper, and establishes its claims before the sight of men. The preceding chapter of extreme and nation-wide oppression, in the 1980's, achieved in fact, globally speaking, the Baha'i Faith's emergence from obscurity, and endowed the Baha'is with an extraordinary capacity for global concerted action, that countless activist organizations admire and respect, as Baha'is across the world for the first time arose as one voice in creative and united ways to seek reddress and protection for their fellow believers, mobilising public opinion from city councils and local press to the European Parliament and the United Nations, and averted genocide.
The most immediate victory that the present episode of persecution has already achieved in a manner that has astounded observers, foremost among them the Baha'is themselves, is the final integration of the Iranian Baha'is into the broader identity of their nation. For the first time in their history, the Baha'is are not the Other which I observed in my paper, they are, for a rising, mighty wave of non-Baha'i Iranians, the prominent and the obscure alike, elite and ordinary people, from all walks of life, "one of us", fellow citizens, and the silence of the past is not only finally and irretrievably broken, but explicitly repudiated, and for all time.
Why did so many millions shiver, irrespective of their politics, when President Obama gave his inaugural speech? Because the United States, as a nation, had achieved a thing of wonder, it had placed an "Other" that arrived in bondage and slavery, in the highest place of honour it was in its gift to choose. And in so choosing, beyond honouring President Obama, beyond honouring a given minority or minorities, as a nation, it honoured itself, to such an extent, that many souls beyond its borders felt honoured too, at their own humanity's potential to transcend the universal legacies of hate.
This turning tide began most noticeably, as may be followed in the remarkable website, Iran Press Watch, with Iran's foremost and most prominent human rights advocate, Shirin Ebadi, agreeing to represent the Bahas'is as defense lawyer. More recently, history was made when 267 personalities, not Baha'is, from famous academics to Iran's most well known pop star, from the most famous student dissident, to the former Miss Iran and second runner up to Miss World,in other words thinkers, journalists, cultural and popular icons, who for decades held their peace, now spoke and said: "we are ashamed", of the silence that for so long signalled to their Baha'i compatriots, "you are not Us", while oppression weighed on them. The Iranian Writers' Association has likewise made its own voice heard, as have writers and journalists of Kurdistan. Even the first President of the Islamic Republic of Iran (1980-1981) has spoken in support of Baha'i rights, and, more astonishing still, one of Iran's most caustic attackers in print of the Baha'i Faith, has compellingly been moved to write in defense of a community he spent three decades attacking. Similarly Ayatollah Montazeri, once one of the very highest ranking clerics in Iran, and who in his memoirs recorded proudly his youthful persecution of Baha'is in the 1950's, broke new ground by proclaiming them legal citizens. The record of new voices continues, as political prisoners in a prison in Karaj raised, amidst their own captivity, a “proclamation in support of our Baha’i countrymen”, while 26 Muslim students in a university of Mazindaran protested the expulsion of Baha'i fellow students. The non-Baha'i Iranian journalist Ali Keshtgar captured the spirit of this mighty victory of non-violent example and resilience over the fear and exclusion of centennial prejudice in the title of his piece: "We are all Iranian Baha'is".
To grasp the extent of this trajectory, and its cultural significance for Iran, I return, as requested, to that paper from 2001, with the following excerpts which might be germane to this discussion:
Monday, 9 February 2009
Uber-"teaching" in the congregation, or changing the world? My community is bigger than yours, or birthing the new community?
In the wake of 41 Baha'i Regional Conferences, gathering tens of thousands of Baha'is from every corner of the world to reflect on the present moment and stimulate the multiplication of "intensive growth programmes", the wider question, (whatever for?), rings on my mind. Are we yet another congregation, buzzing ourselves up to proselytise more keenly, or is there something distinctive about the enterprise of growing the Baha'i community? Is this an inward-looking, bums on seats (we have no pews), my congregation is bigger than yours mindset we are cultivating? Or has this vision of growth anything deeper to offer to a world fast slipping from our fingers? We want, like most religious groups, to grow our community. Does our concept of community change the nature of the enterprise?
The New Paradigm for Bahá'í Community Building
In sociological terms, the Bahá'í community falls into what Scherer described as a synthetic community: “an attempt to build and develop a community consciously and deliberately.” Unlike communities into which we are born, or communities with an established history into which we merely enter, synthetic communities involve a conscious effort at community building. The Baha’is are engaged in just such a venture, on an epic scale, for the very raison d’etre of the Bahá'í community is precisely to engender, in Jaqueline Scherer’s definition, "a ‘core of commonness’ or commonality that includes a collective perspective, agreed upon definitions, and some agreement about values... [A] context for personal integration” of truly global scope.
We are, however, yet to identify what Baha’is specifically mean by community, what it is that should be the end product of the sacrifices of 160 years of community building effort. First, what it is not.
"To mistakenly identify Baha'i community life with the mode of religious activity that characterizes the general society--in which the believer is a member of a congregation, leadership comes from an individual or individuals presumed to be qualified for the purpose, and personal participation is fitted into a schedule dominated by concerns of a very different nature--can only have the effect of marginalizing the Faith and robbing the community of the spiritual vitality available to it." Universal House of Justice, 22 August 2002.
What, then, in light of the Baha’i experience so far, and under the impact of a Revelation that aims to altogether transform the current conceptions of humanity, is the Bahá'í meaning of community?
The answer is perhaps most clearly and most directly articulated by the Universal House of Justice in their message to the Bahá'í world for the festival of Ridvan, April 21, 1996:
“A community is …a comprehensive unit of civilization composed of individuals, families and institutions that are originators and encouragers of systems, agencies and organizations working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its own borders; it is a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.”
This definition is both descriptive, and prescriptive. It describes a “comprehensive unit of civilisation”, emerging from the interaction of three key constituents (individuals, families and institutions) originating and encouraging “systems, agencies and organisations”. The majority of local Bahá'í communities, and many national Bahá'í communities are really, from this description, at most embryonic entities, with very crude systems, agencies and organisations in place, a limited number of individuals and families, and few institutions to speak of beyond a Local Spiritual Assembly and the Nineteen Day Feast.
Nevertheless, the fourth and particularly the fifth epochs of the Cause (1986-present) are witnessing a sea-change in this area, as local communities generate a broad infrastructure of “systems, agencies and organisations” arising singly and collaboratively from the individuals, families and institutions in the area. I refer of course to the development of study-circles, mostly focused around individuals; children and junior youth classes, mostly revolving around families (Bahá'í and others); devotional meetings which, with socio-economic development activities, are the seeds of future local Mashriq’u’l-Adhkars; the ever evolving training institute in each country; and where these elements are in place, socio-economic development projects (increasingly a spontaneous, organic feature of Baha'i community clusters in process of intensive growth), as outlined in the letter written by the Universal House of Justice to the Counsellors of January 9, 2001.
If the second and third epochs of the Cause were about building institutions, then the fourth and fifth epochs have been and are about building communities.
But in saying that the call of the day requires building a global network of local “Bahá'í” communities, the word Bahá'í makes the usage of community distinctive. For the definition gifted to us by the Universal House of Justice is not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive. It consists, yes, of a unit made up of individuals, families and institutions originating and encouraging systems, agencies and organisations (nothing uniquely Bahá'í about that). But for this community to be worthy of the Most Great Name, it must, further, be “working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its own borders”.
So the communities Baha’is are now building are not simply communities, but altruistic communities.
Moreover, they are not inward looking, concentrating on the welfare of people within their borders, but also "beyond" their borders. This illuminates the focus of the current Plans on home-front pioneering, area clusters, and intensive growth programmes. Clearly, again, the aim is not merely to generate an increased flow of individual enrolments or fill-up vacant LSA spaces, but also and above all, to instil into the emerging communities of the fifth epoch a sense of interdependence, whereby a given community will work organically and inherently for the welfare its own locality, and of localities “beyond its own borders”. To the well known Bahá'í notion of the “locality” we now therefore add the compass of a “cluster” of localities to which one also belongs and with whom one systematically interacts and builds community.
The borders the new Bahá'í communities are expected to cross are, furthermore, not merely geographical, but also, and most challengingly, of identity. It is crucial, again, to notice this outward-looking emphasis in the systems, agencies, and organisations Baha’is are called to build in this new Epoch.
“It is evident, then, that a systematic approach to training has created a way for Bahá'ís to reach out to the surrounding society, share Bahá'u'lláh's message with friends, family, neighbours and co-workers, and expose them to the richness of His teachings. This outward-looking orientation is one of the finest fruits of the grassroots learning taking place." (The Universal House of Justice, January 17, 2003, Progress of Five Year Plan -- Learning in Action, p. 1)
"The culture now emerging is one in which groups of Baha'u'llah's followers explore together the truths in His Teachings, freely open their study circles, devotional gatherings and children's classes to their friends and neighbours, and invest their efforts confidently in plans of action designed at the level of the cluster, that makes growth a manageable goal. " The Universal House of Justice, August 22, 2002
The key building labour of the Baha’i community in the 20th century (perhaps counter-intuitively known to Baha'is as the Century of Light), the 19 Day Feasts, Local Spiritual Assemblies, and Bahá'í funds through which the Ark of God has been erected on Mount Carmel, were designed exclusively for Baha’is. The new key agencies, institutions and organisations Baha’is are building are, explicitly, not for Baha’is only.
Thus we are told that the purpose of Baha’i children’s classes is not the education of Bahá'í children, but the Bahá'í education of children. Animators of Junior Youth groups are even warned explicitly not to view their youth groups, or the outreach carried out to establish them, as direct instruments of expansion, but as a Baha'i oriented service to the community, whose primary intention, providing guidance and friendship to young people in a given neighbourhood, at the critical age where they establish their moral framework, should never be lost sight of in the desire for numerical growth. Study circles are meant to include both Baha’is and their friends in their number. Devotional meetings are not to be designed for or focused exclusively on Baha’is, anymore than the services at the great Bahá'í Houses of Worship are. Like them, they are meant to be gifts of the Baha’is to the world at large, and an integral part of a vision of community that inherently incorporates the Other:
“O ye lovers of this wronged one!” exclaims ‘Abdu’l-Baha, “Cleanse ye your eyes, so that ye behold no man as different from yourselves. See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.”
“In every dispensation," he writes elsewhere, "there hath been the commandment of fellowship and love, but it was a commandment limited to the community of those in mutual agreement, not to the dissident foe. In this wondrous age, however, praised be God, the commandments of God are not delimited, not restricted to any one group of people, rather have all the friends been commanded to show forth fellowship and love, consideration and generosity and loving-kindness to every community on earth.”
As a personal orientation, this is an outlook that Baha’is have been cultivating since Bahá'u'lláh first attracted a company of god-intoxicated lovers (ashiqan) to the Abode of Peace, near the banks of the Tigris. We find this perspective in a letter written in 1867 by the Bahá'í community of Baghdad to the United States Congress petitioning support against the oppression of the Persian and Ottoman empires, at a time when religious segregation remained a fact upheld, institutionalised and sustained by religious belief. The letter was delivered to the Secretary of State William H Seward, immersed in dreams of grandeur that drove him to finally purchase Alaska in the course of that same year, even as the Union struggled to rebuild the country after the carnage of the Secession. It is not known whether that former cabinet colleague of Lincoln and master of political intrigue read the exotic letter, telling of
“…a perfect, wise and virtuous Man” Who “appeared in Persia, he had knowledge of all religions, laws and knew the history of wise men, kings and the rules of nations; he saw that the people oppose, hate and kill, abstain and [are] afraid to mix with each other. Nay, they consider each other unclean, though they are all human beings, having different and numerous religions, and that the people are like unto sheep without a shepherd - That learned and wise man wrote many works containing the rules of union, harmony and love between human beings, and the way of abandoning the differences, untruthfulness, and vexations between them, that people may unite and agree on one way and to walk straightforwardly in the straight and expedient way, and that no one should avert or religiously abstain from intercourse with another, of Jews, Christians, Mohammadans and others. That wise man revealed himself till he appeared like the high sun in midday”
The embrace of the other is thus a long-standing Baha’í virtue in a general sense. The systematic and deep engagement of local Bahá'í communities with the world outside their borders of place and of identity, is, however, relatively new to a Bahá'í world that has spent the greater part of the last century concentrating on the accumulation of “individuals, families and institutions” within the banner of the Cause, andºerecting and maintaining at great personal cost a basic infrastructure of thinly resourced administrative bodies: not having the luxury of looking very much outside.
This sacrificial labour, however, was the essential prerequisite for building the “systems, agencies and organisations” which will enable what we have always called “local Bahá'í communities” to truly become, and for the first time, “comprehensive units of civilization”. This profound shift, described by the Universal House of Justice as “a new paradigm of opportunity” has required from us, and continues to call for, what the Universal House of Justice” has referred to as “a new mindset” and “a change of culture.”
As this outward looking, inclusive focus deepens, the boundaries of Baha'i identity soften, and what Baha'is call the "community of interest", become allies in this building of a new civilization amidst the current, evidently tottering one (see Chris Martenson's prescient analysis for a good sense of things to come. I hope to blog on this later!). It is thus not only Baha'is who are empowered by the new culture of Baha'i community life to fashion the "systems, agencies and organizations" of a new civilization:
"The nature of the core activities of the current Plan—children’s classes, devotional meetings and study circles—permits growing numbers of persons who do not yet regard themselves as Bahá’ís to feel free to participate in the process. The result has been to bring into existence what has been aptly termed a “community of interest”. As others benefit from participation and come to identify with the goals the Cause is pursuing, experience shows that they, too, are inclined to commit themselves fully to Bahá’u’lláh as active agents of His purpose. Apart from its associated objectives, therefore, wholehearted prosecution of the Plan has the potentiality of amplifying enormously the Bahá’í community’s contribution to public discourse on what has become the most demanding issue facing humankind.
"If Bahá’ís are to fulfil Bahá’u’lláh’s mandate, however, it is obviously vital that they come to appreciate that the parallel efforts of promoting the betterment of society and of teaching the Bahá’í Faith are not activities competing for attention. Rather, are they reciprocal features of one coherent global programme. Differences of approach are determined chiefly by the differing needs and differing stages of inquiry that the friends encounter. Because free will is an inherent endowment of the soul, each person who is drawn to explore Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings will need to find his own place in the never-ending continuum of spiritual search. He will need to determine, in the privacy of his own conscience and without pressure, the spiritual responsibility this discovery entails. In order to exercise this autonomy intelligently, however, he must gain both a perspective on the processes of change in which he, like the rest of the earth’s population, is caught up and a clear understanding of the implications for his own life. The obligation of the Bahá’í community is to do everything in its power to assist all stages of humanity’s universal movement towards reunion with God."
This, it seems to me, is the key context in which to view the spirit behind the goal of growth of the Baha'i community, and the overarching logic in the evolution of each Baha'i "cluster" toward the capacity to launch and sustain "intensive programmes of growth": "to assist all stages of humanity’s universal movement towards reunion with God", not in sole collaboration with fellow believers who accept without reservation every claim of Baha'u'llah, but also in full interelationship with those not prepared to take that leap, who yet grasp the power of the global vision animating our efforts, the authenticity of its spirit, and the beneficence of our intentions.
Nor is enrolment the goal, but rather a stage that may coincide with enrolment in the Baha'i community, but is more likely to take the rest of our lives and possibly our existence: "reunion with God". Between interest, attraction, commitment, servitude, consecration, sanctification, and complete evanescence before the Will of God, dying to ourselves and living in Him, is a journey that cannot be reckoned in words, or group identities. We are not a community of the elect, but of the determined improvers, so to speak, where, wherever we were yesterday, we seek again each day to "find" our "own place" in the "never-ending continuum of spiritual search". Together.
And as we come to this spiritual core of our visionary, divinely aided, if broken winged efforts, we recall that this is not some recent fad, or corporate rebranding, but of the essence of our genesis, a genesis to which we must return to grasp the heights that yet await us, in the claim which the example of those gone before us insistently makes upon us, legatees of a heroic history.
Indeed, in remarking on the distinctive aspects of this stage in the evolution of the Baha'i community, it is also important to recognise that, as a fundamental process, the labour of community building is not a new endeavour for us. On the contrary, it is a quintessential part of being a Bahá'í since the earliest origins of the Bahá'í community in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Dawnbreakers, first believers and heroes of the Baha’i Revelation, after all, embodied the spiritual process indicated by the Universal House of Justice in their above-cited description of Bahá'í community as “a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.”
“"Most of those who surrounded Baha'u'llah," wrote Nabil "…exercised such care in sanctifying and purifying their souls, that they would suffer no word to cross their lips that might not conform to the will of God, nor would they take a single step that might be contrary to His good-pleasure." "
…The joyous feasts", comments Shoghi Effendi", "which these companions, despite their extremely modest earnings, continually offered in honor of their Beloved; the gatherings, lasting far into the night, in which they loudly celebrated, with prayers, poetry and song, the praises of the Bab, of Quddus and of Baha'u'llah; the fasts they observed; the vigils they kept; the dreams and visions which fired their souls, and which they recounted to each other with feelings of unbounded enthusiasm; the eagerness with which those who served Baha'u'llah performed His errands, waited upon His needs, and carried heavy skins of water for His ablutions and other domestic purposes …these, and many others, will forever remain associated with the history of that immortal period”
Such stories are not merely inspiring, they are crucial to what it means to build a Bahá'í community today, and provide an indispensable lens through which to understand the efforts of the last century. For Shoghi Effendi linked the “efficacy” of the “instruments” Baha’is fashion, the institutions, systems, agencies and organisations of the Baha’i community, to the spirit of those breakers of the dawn, writing:
“For upon our present-day efforts, and above all upon the extent to which we strive to remodel our lives after the pattern of sublime heroism associated with those gone before us, must depend the efficacy of the instruments we now fashion -- instruments that must erect the structure of that blissful Commonwealth which must signalize the Golden Age of our Faith.” (Shoghi Effendi, Dispensation of Baha'u'llah)
The Bahá'í vision of community thus harmoniously integrates the structural approach of sociologists of community; the personal and interpersonal approach of psychiatrists; and the visionary approach of artists, idealists and revolutionaries, embedding all three perspectives on community in the transformative context of the Day of God and the oneness of humanity.
The potential significance of the labours of the present-day Baha’i community is therefore breathtaking. Baha’is are not merely building local Bahá'í communities in clusters and localities, but they are building the basic units of a civilisation which Shoghi Effendi declares will constitute the “fairest fruit” of the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, and signalise the advent of the promised “golden age”.
One’s degree of awareness about the nature and significance of such task, allows one to work towards this vision not merely consciously but, crucially, in a systematic manner. The pattern of such evolution is not dictated by accidents of geography or language, but by an understanding of organic growth, a focus on process, and vast stores of inspiration and guidance.
The achievement of a world-wide Bahá'í community made up of diverse individuals and families and a global infrastructure of local administrative institutions, has enabled the Baha’i community, in this second half of the second Bahá'í century, to turn its attention at long last from the building up the Administrative Order, to the birthing Bahá'u'lláh’s New World Order. Of this opportunity previous generations have been deprived, as Shoghi Effendi himself testifies:
“The second century is destined to witness a tremendous deployment and a notable consolidation of the forces working towards the world-wide development of that Order, as well as the first stirrings of that World Order, of which the present Administrative System is at once the precursor, the nucleus and pattern---an Order which, as it slowly crystallizes and radiates its benign influence over the entire planet, will proclaim at once the coming of age of the whole human race, as well as the maturity of the Faith itself, the progenitor of that Order.” (Shoghi Effendi, Messages to America 1932-46, pp. 96-7; letter 15-JUN-46, "God Given mandate")
It is now, in this second half of the second Bahá'í century, that the work of the Baha’is entails, as unveiled by Shoghi Effendi, the ushering in, on a global scale, of the first stirrings of Bahá'u'lláh’s new World Order. The last one hundred years saw the raising up of a wide-ranging network of basic administrative and spiritual instruments of community building. The task that faces Baha’is today is the building a wide-ranging network of comprehensive units of civilisation that, patterned on sublime heroism and working to a common purpose, promote the welfare of those within and outside their borders, achieving unity in a collective pursuit of spiritualisation and social progress. This, it seems to my obfuscated eyes, is the essence of growth, and the distinctive nature of our task.