Sunday, 29 November 2009

Where do we go when we die? Yes, but where is that?

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!

Friday, 27 November 2009

Nightingales: A Musical Offering

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

Read more!

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.

Let us begin with unity. It is seldom defined with the label “unity” in the social science literature. Other labels are used, which amount to cognates of the same unity concept. Among these are the concepts of social solidarity, group cohesion or cohesiveness, social integration, social capital, cultural consensus, social network closure and structural cohesiveness, etc.

These various perspectives seem to focus on defining or measuring unity in two primary ways, one being unity as an ideational concept, that is, how people think or feel, how united or attracted individuals feel to one another, or how united they feel their group is. And the second approach to measuring and exploring unity is a structural approach, how robust are the ties of the group above and beyond the perceptions of its members. For example, a group could feel very united, very cohesive. The individuals could feel that they belong, that they participate, that they like being part of the group, and that the group is very cohesive, and everyone could in fact agree about this, meaning there is a high degree of perceived or ideational unity in a group. However, if those bonds are dependent on the presence of one or two key members who are the key tie for everyone else, then the unity, however intense and profound, is quite fragile, because if one or both of those individuals leave the group, fall ill, or fall out with the rest, then the entire group could fracture. This is what frequently happens, for example in religious movements that are built around a charismatic figure, where everyone feels deeply united as long as that charismatic figure is alive and present as a nexus and cement between them, and the group of his followers love one another, are willing to die for one another, but the moment that leader dies and in the absence of a successful succession or routinisation of the leader’s charisma, then that group can split into sects and schism, and we discover that that group’s unity, however intense and authentic, was not very robust.

By contrast, you may have groups where the degree of mutual identification is quite weak, people feel they are mostly acquaintances, it is weak ties that bind them to one another, and yet, nonetheless, their connectedness is such that it does not depend upon one or another individual, i which case that unity is likely to be more robust because even if 2 or 5 or 10 of those members disappear, the group remains cohesive. This illustrates those two dimensions of unity, the ideational and the structural, which of course may also coincide: you may have a group which is simultaneously structurally very united and robust, and affectively and ideationally very united.

Spheres of Unity

In addition to these two types of unity, structural or ideational, the literature also introduces the notion of differing levels or spheres of unity. At first sight, unity may be thought of as uniformly good, but the literature suggests that unity in one sphere may be in conflict with unity in a different sphere, and may therefore not necessarily work well for the aggregate. For example, a neighbourhood that is very cohesive and united will reap the benefits of that, nevertheless, that very strong identity, that very unity that binds them could be a factor dividing them from other neighbourhoods, or the city wide or nation wide identity. Likewise, an ethnic group or community might be very cohesive within itself, yet that very cohesiveness lead to very little contact, interaction or embrace with other ethnic groups. We thus find that there are various places in the world where communities naturally cohere around their own religious or ethnic identity, yet they are quite divided from other identity communities. This is one example where unity at one level could be a source of disunity at another level. Certain gangs, criminal organizations, hate-groups, and, arguably, certain commercial enterprises, moreover, may be very united around values and activities that are designed to fracture the very bonds and values that hold society together. Thus, it is important to identify how unity at a given sphere impacts on unity at a different sphere.

Strong ties, Group Norms and Group Effects.

In addition to the distinction between ideational unity and structural unity, the literature distinguishes between strong ties, strong relationships of closely knit people, and weak ties, arms’length relationships with what can best be described as acquaintances. Each of these is associated with specific types of group effects.

One of the areas of unity which is affected by the relative strength of the ties binding a given group, is the evolution of norms of interaction guiding and harmonising its members. The the stronger the ties that bind group members to one another, the more united a group is, and the smoother the process of evolving and enforcing group norms. If you have a group where the boundaries are very lax, very thin, the networks are very loose, then chances are that the process of achieving common norms around cooperation or interaction will be more elusive. An example of this would be, when you have a youth group that you are running or participating in, if all the members know each other very well, they go to school together, they are already lifelong friends, then the chances are that the process of developing common values, common norms of behaviour is going to be quite smooth, so that effective communication and group dynamics, and the degree of group commitment is likely to be high, with everyone united. On the other hand, when you just start a youth group through what is sometimes described as detached work, and you go perhaps to the street to recruit lost of youth from different backgrounds who don’t know each other at all, and put them together in one room, the group behaviour is likely to be to quite variable. Some might be quite shy, others quite raucous and rowdy, and it will take some time, and getting to know each other and bond together, in fact cohering the group, for there to emerge some accepted and shared norms of behaviour.

The impact of group cohesion on the evolution of group norms is such, that one of the observable group effects of closely knit groups, is that the group values impact on and can even override the values of individual members. Thus if you have a very united group around a certain core of values, then those values are more likely to be present in the group, and practiced by its members, even when not all individuals fully share them. A group that for example places a great emphasis on formality, for instance certain types of work environment, where everyone wears a suit, everybody relates to one another in a formal way, hierarchies are significant. If this is consistent and the organization is tightly knit, chances are that even if you are an informal kind of guy, when you enter that group or organization you will tend to behave more formally than comes naturally to you.

Another aspect of unity affected by the strength of group ties, is the level of group commitment. So for example if you go to a gym regularly, you belong to that gym, you are a paid up member, you associate regularly with some of your fellow members, and it can be said that it is “your” gym. However, should you come across a gym that was nearer to your place, was cheaper and better equipped, then unless you have built quite a strong bond with people in that gym you are quite likely to desert the previous gym immediately for the new, better and more convenient gym. This might happen likewise in work settings, and various other environments.

The Strength of Weak Ties

On the other hand, one of the disadvantages of having a closely knit group is that such levels of closeness around a very specific group of people can make the structure less flexible, in times of change or adaptation where you might need new talents, new perspectives or new relationships, when instead of tapping into the capacities of new people, you might feel a sense of loyalty to the people around you, or a sense of safety in sticking to your group, that may hamper your capacity to adapt.

“Thus, the more a manager was strongly tied to a cohesive group of peers, the less able he or she was to adapt his or her communication network to the changes brought about by the global organizational change... viewed over time, a cohesive network may eventually hurt a manager's ability to enter and to promote new cooperative relationships involving people outside that network” (Gargioulo, M., and Benassi, M., 2000)

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.

White and Houseman (2002) explain:

“Granovetter showed that if a person’s strong ties are those in which there is strong investment of time and affect (e.g., close friends and kin), then it is paradoxically the weaker ties that connect a person to others and to resources that are located or available through other clusters in the network. In his Boston study of male professional, technical, or managerial workers who made job changes, he found that most workers found their jobs through personal contacts, but ones that were surprisingly weak: not close friends or relatives but often work-related persons and generally those with more impersonal ties with low contact frequency. Reflecting on Rapoport’s information diffusion model, and Travers and Milgram’s Small Worlds studies, he formulated his strength of weak tie hypothesis: strong ties tend to be clustered and more transitive, as are ties among those within the same clique, who are likely to have the same information about jobs and less likely to have new information passed along from distant parts of the network. Conversely, bridges between clusters in the network tend to be weak ties, and weak ties tend to have less transitivity. Hence acquaintances are more likely to pass job information than close friends, and the acquaintances of strategic importance are those whose ties serve as bridges in the network. “

They also mention, as a nuance, the Dodds, Muhammad and Watts experiment on 67,000 users. People avoided asking help from others with whom they had weak ties, such as casual acquaintanceships. They mostly used ties of intermediate strength, such as friendships formed through work or schooling affiliations.

Curvilinear relationships? Arriving at “unity in diversity”

So, different levels of intensity in relationships, each appear to have certain advantages, and also disadvantages. A mix of strong and weak ties seems to be the ideal, and of course each conditions and limits to some extent the other. Too many weak ties, and it will be hard to find the time to invest in a few relationships necessary to achieve truly close ties. Too much concentration on a few strong ties could impair the ability to interact with a wide enough array of people to build many weak ties.

A further concept that emerges from the empirical findings on group cohesiveness, then, is that there may be a curvilinear relationship to the benefits of unity, that is, an optimum level of unity above and below which the positive effects of group cohesion begin to diminish. Implicit in this notion, is that achieving this optimum point of unity depends on the presence of a degree of diversity, inasmuch as where cohesion is very homogenous, the adaptability and wider integration of a group may sometimes suffer, and viceversa.

This brings us to the issue of diversity. All would be easier, if much more boring, and perhaps not even easier either with regard to adaptability, and resourcefulness and variety of resources, as was mentioned earlier, but at least interaction might potentially be easier if in general we all were very homogenous in our values, ideas, backgrounds, thoughts, etc., and in fact we have a tendency to look for the similar and gravitate towards it. The Baha’i Writings state that “like seeketh like and deliughteth in the company of its kind”. This notion forms the underpinning of social categorization theory and social identity theory in psychology, that is, we seek similarity and flow toward it, instinctively avoiding what we perceive as different and other, potentially making diversity cognitively and socially difficult to assimilate. On the other hand, diversity also potentially enriches our resources, our creativity, our thought process, and this has given rise to two perspectives on the influence of diversity.

On the one hand is the idea that diversity can be very helpful to groups and collectivities because it will help in their creativity, it may avoid cliques, it will stimulate collaboration, maximise adaptability, etc. On the other hand, there is a current that suggests that diversity is in fact something quite negative for groups, something that hampers their activity, their interactions, precisely because we do tend toward that which is similar, and struggle with what is new or alien to us. There is abundant empirical evidence for both effects of diversity. It seems that where diversity is coupled with group cohesiveness, that is, when a group is at once diverse and united, then all kinds of advantages accrue to it compared to a group that is also united, but not diverse. Group cohesion is a key mediating factor in the impact of diversity on group performance and effectiveness, for instance. On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that the more diverse a group is, the more challenging it is to arrive at unity, so that the potential benefits of diversity can be offset by the potential hard work of making that group gel, and a homogenous group can consequently perform better than a diverse one.

One of the factors that has been demonstrated to facilitate, although not by itself determine, the process of liberating the positive effects of diversity, is having a positive outlook on diversity, an attitude that embraces diversity. Likewise, actual positive experiences of diversity in the individuals within a group can also help liberate the potential benefits of diversity in the functioning of the group as a whole.

As with unity, thus, so with diversity there seems to be a curvilinear relationship, that is, an optimum level of diversity. Too much diversity and cohesion becomes unwieldy, whilst too little diversity, and homogeneity impoverishes the group. So achieving that balance is important.
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.

Preliminary Baha’i correlations

This is a necessarily superficial and general view in what remains a preliminary conceptual paper seeking to identify the potential of this whole area of research to Baha’i studies, and viceversa perhaps. How does this link up with Baha’i ideas?

Unity in Diversity

On the one hand clearly there are many resonances, first of all the concept of unity is the single most important teaching of Baha’u’llah, the teaching, Shoghi Effendi tells us, which is “the pivot” around which all other teachings revolve, the principle of the oneness of humanity. This is of course of relevance to us also because it is our key task and methodology, it is the way that Baha’is approach social change. ‘Abdu’l-Baha says that Baha’is first unite one another, and then seek to unity everyone else. So learning how to become cohesive, how to unite, has been the key labour, the key learning process that the Baha’i community has been advancing since the mid 19th century, and is the message that was sounded from the very inception of the Baha’i Faith and of the Baha’i community.

The Baha’i writings also speak of diversity as a key value. They say that unity without diversity would be very simplistic, and impoverishing, like a garden where all the flowers are the same – maasai anecdote. The concept of unity in diversity is described as the Baha’i Faith’s “watchword”, an interesting term to use, which would seem to imply that unity is, as the literature validates, not an unambiguously good benefit, unless it be sought and explored in the context of an embrace of diversity. Likewise diversity is not in itself a good unless it be subordinates, regulated or inspired and synergised by a greater unity. This seems to echo the empirical findings from social scientists that both of these need to balance one another to achieve their optimal benefits in human collectivities.

Two dimensions of unity: ideational, and structural.

Another key resonance is the significance of both ideational unity, interpersonal feelings and intimacy, and also structural unity.

“Let there be no mistake. The principle of the Oneness of Mankind -- the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh revolve -- is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. Its appeal is not to be merely identified with a reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men, nor does it aim solely at the fostering of harmonious cooperation among individual peoples and nations. Its implications are deeper, its claims greater than any which the Prophets of old were allowed to advance. Its message is applicable not only to the individual, but concerns itself primarily with the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family. It does not constitute merely the enunciation of an ideal, but stands inseparably associated with an institution adequate to embody its truth, demonstrate its validity, and perpetuate its influence. It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced.”
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 42)

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.

Curvilinear relationships? Arriving at “unity in diversity”

“In the human kingdom itself there are points of contact, properties 68 common to all mankind; likewise, there are points of distinction which separate race from race, individual from individual. If the points of contact, which are the common properties of humanity, overcome the peculiar points of distinction, unity is assured. On the other hand, if the points of differentiation overcome the points of agreement, disunion and weakness result.” (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 67)

"they strictly avoid uniformity and rigidity in all such practices. No rule whatsoever that would tend to be rigid and uniform should be allowed in such secondary matters"
(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."
(Shoghi Effendi, Dawn of a New Day, p. 47)

Another principle, the Baha’i principle of the protection and indeed promotion of minorities, has interesting linkages to the findings of social network theory, for instance.

Spheres of Unity

There are here also a number of themes that are validated by the Baha’i writings. We have already mentioned the scriptural support for the basic assumption of self-categorization theory, that we tend to identify with those who we perceive as similar, and gravitate toward them. The Baha’i writings likewise recognise that this very tendency can be a source of disunity, so that ‘Abdu’l-Baha states that “souls are inclined to estrangement”, and that means should first be adopted to remove the estrangement. We seem to gravitate toward those who are similar to us, but likewise we seem to have a tendency to avoid those who we perceive as different from us. To bypass this, both the literature and the Baha’i writings suggest, requires a degree of training, the cultivation of certain values, attitudes and behaviours that mediate our encounter with the different. Thus ‘Abdu’l-Baha speaks about those levels of unity, and how one level of unity is imperfect without the rest, so that one can be very attached to one’s family, but it requires a greater degree of moral development to extend that sense of attachment to larger and larger aggregates, eventually arriving at universal love for all humanity. The hallmark of this age, we are told, is the awareness of world citizenship, the sense of belonging first and foremost to the human race.

“Yea, in the first centuries, selfish souls, for the promotion of their own interests, have assigned boundaries and outlets and have, day by day, attached more importance to these, until this led to intense enmity, bloodshed and rapacity in subsequent centuries. In the same way this will continue indefinitely, and if this conception of patriotism remains limited within a certain circle, it will be the primary cause of the world's destruction. No wise and just person will acknowledge these imaginary distinctions. Every limited area which we call our native country we regard as our motherland, whereas the terrestrial globe is the motherland of all, and not any restricted area."

(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 300)

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.

“In the vegetable kingdom also we observe distinction between the various sorts and species of organisms. Each has its own form, color and fragrance. In the animal kingdom the same law rules as many distinctions in form, color and function are noticeable. It is the same in the human kingdom. From the standpoint of color there are white, black, yellow and red people. From the standpoint of physiognomy there is a wide difference and distinction among races. The Asian, African and American have different physiognomies; the men of the North and men of the South are very different in type and features. From an economic standpoint in the law of living there is a great deal of difference. Some are poor, others wealthy; some are wise, others ignorant; some are patient and serene, some impatient and excitable; some are prone to justice, others practice injustice and oppression; some are meek, others arrogant. In brief, there are many points of distinction among humankind.”
(Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 189)

The Baha’i writings speak that only through justice can unity be established, and they seek to eliminate the extremes of poverty and wealth.

Strong ties, Group Norms and Group Effects.

At the moment most Baha’i activity revolves around group work. Group work seems to be the spirit of our time. Practically the totality of Baha’i activity seems to revolve around small groups. Groups of believers and their friends in study circles and devotional gatherings, groups of young people in junior youth groups, groups of children in children’s classes, groups of believers in teaching teams in intensive growth programmes, groups of believers in Baha’i institutions and committees. Clearly, some of the findings on the nature of groups are quite relevant. Since the focus of this paper is on unity in diversity I will not expand here on the relevance of the vast scientific literature on small group dynamics (those interested might wish to browse through the academic journal “Small group research”, for a flavour of what’s out there). Correlations of this literature with the Baha’i experience could benefit both the Baha’i community in refining its understanding and effectiveness, and the academic community, in bringing to light a distinctive and fascinating pool of collective experience in group functioning.

Here, I would like to explore some of the key aspects around cohesion and diversity that emerge from the literature. One of this themes is what are designated “group effects”, the power of small groups to impact on the behaviour and values of its individual members. Thus an individual may have a given set of values and ideas, but as they participate on a cohesive group, the group takes on a life of its own, and the values of the group become pervasive and permeate its members, even those whose point of departure is different. This puts into perspective the extraordinary service that the Baha’i community is rendering worldwide, in tens, hundreds of thousands of groups around the world, all based around the Baha’is values of unity, and embrace of diversity, etc. We are preparing a entire generation to meet the challenges of diversity. And what are the challenges of diversity? We have seen that diversity without cohesion can be a source of disruption, and that two of the key aspects or moderating influences that facilitate the emergence of cohesion are 1) a welcoming attitude/embrace of diversity, and 2) contact with diversity, experience of positive contact with diversity. These are great enablers of future adaptation.

Why is this relevant? Clearly, our societies have become more diverse, however perhaps not many of us have taken on board the degree to which this is likely to accelerate in the impending future. It is not merely that diverse communities within many, perhaps most, countries, are naturally growing in proportion to the majority population. In addition to this, we have very strong migratory pressures that are accelerating all the time, and one feels that in spite of various governments to restrict or control the flow of immigration into their countries (or emigration out of their countries), this is but a symptom of systemic inequalities that are only set to increase, and which no amount of punitive or draconian immigration policies can hope to master. As if this was not enough, climate change is adding a new, and dramatically accelerating migratory pressure, so that The UN University's Institute for Environment and Human Security predicts that by 2010, there will be 50 million 'environmentally displaced people', most of whom will be women and children. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has suggested 150 million environmental refugees would exist by 2050. So apart from the current drivers of migration, quality of life, economic opportunity/poverty, persecution/discrimination, we are seeing an exponential migratory force in the impacts of environmental degradation worldwide. We are confronted with several island countries, for instance the Maldives looking to purchase a new territory from another country, to translocate their entire nation before it is submerged by rising waters (The Guardian newspaper, 10 November 2008), so that there will still be a country named Maldives on the map, only it might suddenly be, not in the South Pacific, but in Latin America, or Europe. This is without touching on the impacts of soil exhaustion in agricultural countries, or peak energy resources.

All this amounts to an ongoing and impending exponential and dramatic demographic transformation of all countries, with an increase in diversity such as has never in history been seen. Unfortunately, it would appear that the rise in cohesiveness is not yet keeping pace with this development, and more often than not, far from seeing a systematic and harmonious harnessing of diversity, we are seeing the rise of “identity politics” and conflicts, which present us with some worrying prospects, locally, nationally and internationally. Against this backdrop, the significance, and urgency, of the Baha’i enterprise, cannot possibly be exaggerated.
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.

Against this backdrop, the vision of hundreds of thousnands of small groups being generated and nurtured by the Baha’is, not only within their own community boundaries, but primarily in collaboration with others who do not fully embrace their own identity, but sympathise with some of their principles, we are seeing perhaps millions of peole engaged in an educational process that exposes them to diversity and that exposes them to values that help release the positive impacts of diversity, given what we now know about “group effects”, the way in which groups impact on the values of individuals, this is truly an extraordinary achievement, and one that could usefully be empirically documented and explored.

Weak Ties, and group effects.

Another aspect of the research is the power of weak ties, people who we see regularly, every so often, but with whom we don’t not share much closeness. Research shows that these ties can be instrumental to all kinds of positive variables, including a community’s sense of security, peace and collaboration. From this perspective, the Baha’i notion of a community of interest, the efforts to meet our neighbours and our co-workers, to create weak ties on a vast scale, and likewise the weak ties that our small networks impinge on, so that as we create a children’s class we develop weak ties with the parents of those kids, you can project certain kinds of insights. These impacts, when you aggregate the, are really quite staggering.

“200,000 worldwide have completed Book 1 of the Ruhi Institute, and many thousands have reached the level where they can effectively act as tutors of the study circles that, with increasing frequency, are held in every part of the globe, over 10,000 at the last count. The number of seekers engaged in the core activities has continued to climb, crossing the 100,000”
(The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 162, 2005)

By 2009, there were 1500 intensive programmes, 1000 programmes.

If weak ties are indispensable to afunctioning community. And Baha’is are systematically multiplying the weak ties in their neighbourhoods, often becoming hubs in an otherwise fragmented and fissiparous community, above and beyond the contribution this may make to Baha’i community building, it is reasonably to conclude that Baha’is are contributing large scale effects in community after community across over 2100 ethnic groups and populations, all with the aim to facilitate the assimilation of diversity, promote values indispensable to sustainable societies, and revitalise the social fabric of reciprocity and collaboration.

A Research Agenda

All these are interesting interfaces and overlaps between the Baha’i teachings and the discoveries of scientist today in relation to unity. Let us go further and ask what is the contribution that these empirical approaches can make to the Baha’i community?

One of the first contributions that comes to mind is that this literature helps us understand a lot of the Baha’i principles in terms of their effectiveness and day to day dynamics, but also other elements. These insights from the literature on unity in diversity can help us gain a sense of the significance of the efforts we are engaged in. We might think this is simply helping our own group, maybe even our neighbourhood, or that we are simply having a good and meaningful time with a group of friends, but really, we are in fact playing a leading role in engendering a collective capacity for leveraging the power of diversity on a global scale.

Clealrly the idea of aggregating the impacts, of measuring the social impacts which the Baha’i community’s activities may be contributing to the unity of the world, the cohesion of society is an area which begs for research and which could have all kinds of impacts on the ways we understand ourselves.

By conceptually, and empirically connecting our core activities to the social challenges of humanity, we might achieve a greater coherence in our discourse, in our attitude, and language. Such a perspective might also make it easier to engender commitment and participation in many Baha’is, as it becomes clear that our activities do not belong in a congregational culture, but that our efforts are really quite distinct, and distinctive within traditional religious community building.

Conclusion

The overall perspective that this literature brings out is that the Baha’i community is engaged in a labour if immense significance to the world, that its social activism, let us say, is dramatic, really. And even though its method is not one of pressure politics, intrigues and plotting, of power games, it is nevertheless of extraordinary range and impact. This brings us to the last element of this, which might be an interesting research agenda that this suggests.

Our aim is not to create another religious community that is bigger and better. Our aim is to reconcile the contending peoples and kindreds of the earth, and the Baha’i community is our instrument and our tool. If we want to grow, it is not so that we can have a bigger club, but so that we might have a more powerful instrument for the unification of society If we look at the history of Baha’i community building, we can see that it began in connecting and linking individuals. It then shifted to building up institutions which would become the instruments of our outreach to the world. In that phase our outlook was almost completely inward-looking. We only looked outward in terms of teaching the Faith in order to bring people “inward”, to activities that were for Baha’is only, which were the core of our activities until the advent of the 5th epoch, largely based around the Local Spiritual Assembly and the 19 Day Feast and giving ti to the Funds, which were all for baha’is only, and recruiting more people to support the existence and functioning of those essential instruments. The reason being that until we had that basic infrastructure, that cohesive structure, as opposed to purely cohesive individuals, not just the ideational, but also the structurally robust unity of our community, we couldn’t attain the task of uniting the whole world. It seems to methat this is a taks we are now beginning to explore, in accord with the Guardian’s quote regarding 2nd century. It seems to me we are now expanding our vision to the outside world. We have now built that instrument on a solid foundation. We can afford to los an Assembly, local or National, and the whole system will not suddenly collapse. We are now a unit that is self-sustaining. Accordingly, we are now focusing our core activities on outreach of a very specific nature, an outreach that involves an intersection of unity and diversity around certain key values, and as I was suggesting, one of the further research agendas that could be useful to explore here is the degree to which our purely Baha’i labours are fo much wider significance and contribution, in addition to our activities more directly associated with influencing social policy or effecting social and economic development. Far from being parallel activities, they are integral facets of one coherent effort to achieve unity in diversity in pursuit of the world civilization that is potentially within our reach.

This means that our activities redound not only to the strengthening of the Baha’i community, but to the strengthening of the whole of humankind.

The role that spirituality plays in this process, is one I have not had the chance to explore here, but would nevertheless like to plant, as a seed, by way of conclusion, by referring to ‘Abdu’l-
Baha’s Some Answered Questions:

“It is clear 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 species arises from essential necessity; for the differences in the degrees of existence of creatures is one of the necessities of existence, which unfolds itself in infinite forms. Therefore, we have need of a general power which may dominate the sentiments, the opinions and the thoughts of all, thanks to which these divisions may no longer have effect, and all individuals may be brought under the influence of the unity of the world of humanity. It is clear and evident that this greatest power in the human world is the love of God. It brings the different peoples under the shadow of the tent of affection; it gives to the antagonistic and hostile nations and families the greatest love and union.”
(Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 300)

Read more!