Bahá'í Epistolary

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.


Alex B said...

I especially enjoyed reading these passages you incorporate into your well-reasoned and documented argument, dear Ismael:

"See ye no strangers; rather see all men as friends, for love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness.”

“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;"

"...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."

The last line is indeed potent--I feel we need especially to deepen our understanding of its implications on a community level!

I was myself awakened by this passage from Paul Lample's book "Creating a New Mind" (available online in full), particularly the lines following '12':

"Bahá’u’lláh calls upon the believers to be “united in counsel” and “one in thought.”7 At the beginning of their meetings, the members of a Local Assembly pray: “We have gathered in this spiritual assembly, united in our views and thoughts, with our purposes harmonized to exalt Thy word amidst mankind.”8 “Should harmony of thought and absolute unity be nonexistent” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains, “that gathering shall be dispersed and that assembly be brought to naught.”9 “What the Cause greatly needs,” states the Guardian, “is unity, both of thought and action.”10 Unity of thought and action represents a proper balance between oneness and diversity in matters related to the collective concerns of the Bahá’í community. “It is clear,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states, acknowledging the differences in human minds, “that the reality of mankind is diverse, that opinions are various and sentiments different; and this difference of opinions, of thoughts, of intelligence, of sentiments among the human spe- cies arises from essential necessity.”11 Yet, He further explains, “the diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord.”12 Building unity of thought and endeavor is a process of constantly refining collective understanding and behavior to move them progressively closer to truth and effective action. Clearly, if the Bahá’í world is to advance toward achieving Bahá’u’lláh’s purpose, the views of a few cannot be imposed on the whole, nor is every idea equal and every individual free to pursue a separate agenda. Without unity of thought and action, no forward progress is possible."


Thank you so much for taking the time to read and especially to comment, it gives me strength to carry on! Thank you for the citation from that mind-expanding book by Mr. Lample. That is what was most moving and exciting to me about the Regional Conference in London, and I hear in the others equally so, the extraordinary unity of vision, which allowed us to plan collectively immediate, far-ranging, coordinated, cluster-based action, in almost no time. There were so many premises and approaches taken for granted, particularly the mode of learning and the coherence of all elements of growth, that we could focus not so much on the what and wherefores, as the hows and whens. Unity is truly a powerful force. Thank you for linking my scattered thoughts back to unity, the acme of our Faith.

Anonymous said...

I must tell you how exuberantly I celebrated in my heart at your long awaited return!
I have been an avid reader for some time and I must tell you that I have found in you something of an exemplar. Please do not feel overburdened by such phrasing - my meaning is simply that I find my penchant to be toward this very line of service; to find a one like you already engaged in this all important task of synthesizing concepts, purveying a cohesive vision, and perhaps most importantly addressing directly and with eloquence and persuasiveness the underlying resolutions to those intellectual road-blocks which invariably arise among us. This of course due to our lingering, and regrettable dependence on the ill-begotten standards and insidious doubts of that faltering civilization which we inhabit and at whose poisoned breast many were weaned.
I am most eager to feed on the momentum of the "more profound understanding of the dynamics of the plan" born at the Toronto Conference, and encourage it to "permeate the entire community" here in London. To that end I would ask your permission to share with the friends the fruit of your reflections, and engage them along the very lines on which you so skillfully expounded. I would of course encourage everyone to visit you and peruse your other works, and to share their impressions with you; indeed, I am so impelled by their substance alone.
Keep up the good work my dear brother; and thank you.

Evan Horrell, 22
London, On Canada

Jim Habegger said...

I like this very much. I also very much like your responses to scholarship issues. Just the example I've been looking for. I'll be following this blog.

Anonymous said...

Another great post... On the subject of the boundary of the Baha'i community becoming less rigid I found this passage from the House of Justice's foreword to One Common Faith to be very perinent: "...Baha'is will come increasingly to appreciate that the Cause they serve represents the arrowhead of an awakening taking place everywhere, regardless of religious background and indeed among many with no religious leaning."

I've also left a comment/question on your religous historiography post (I don't know if you get notified automatically or if comments on years old posts can become lost...)If you had time to take a look I'd be very grateful - if not don't worry and I look forward to the next post : )

Anonymous said...

Dear Ismael,

As an ex-bahai, I greatly appreciate your work to try to make something meaningful, spiritual and beautiful out of this latest reinvention of bahai bureacracy.

It does seem somewhat dreary that so many cold/dehumanizing words about "Its" (systems) are dedicated to something that is really about "I" (inner transformation) and "We", communal relationships, and healing of psyches and communities in a fragmented and damaging world.

Intentional "Community building" has been demonstrated to be relatively simple (but not "easy") by non-bahais such as M. Scott Peck.

Peck's work has been recently revived by the Foundation for Community Encouragement (FCE).

You might find the material on the FCE web site of relevance and interest:

I'll take the liberty of quoting some basic material from the above web site:

FCE encourages people, in a fragmented world, to discover new and better ways of being together. Living, learning, and teaching the principles of community, FCE serves as a catalyst for individuals, groups, and organizations to:

* Communicate with authenticity
* Relate with love and respect
* Deal with difficult issues
* Seek, honor and affirm diversity
* Bridge differences with integrity
* Practice forgiveness for ourselves and others

FCE's approach encourages tolerance of ambiguity, the experience of discovery, and the tension between holding on and letting go. We acknowledge our human frailties, take responsibiliy for our actions and make amends where possible. In our work to empower others, we remember our reliance upon a Spirit within and beyond ourselves.


And, of particular pertinence to those that wish to struggle with the issue of "authenticity" and the meaning of bahai identity:

"Community is and must be inclusive. The great enemy of community is exclusivity. Groups that exclude others because they are poor or doubters or divorced or sinners or of some different
race or nationality are not communities; they are cliques - actually defensive bastions against