Saturday, January 29, 2011

A movement towards the goal of a new World Order

Good planets are hard to find. Therefore we would want to keep well the one that we live on. And to strive continuously to to improve it. It is for this purpose that Baha'u'llah wrote: "All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization."

We can try to understand the concept of  "an ever-advancing civilization" by thinking of two movements. The first movement is the movement of each individual through a sequence of steps that steadily increases our knowledge, our spiritual insights and our skills to serve others. This first movement is also the struggle that each one of us has to improve our own character, to fight our inner spiritual battles and to overcome the "insistent self". Within the Baha'i community the instrument that is used to assist with this first movement is known as the training institute.

The Universal House of Justice in its letter of 28 December 2010 - third paragraph, which is the subject of this blog - makes reference to the training institute and states that this is a "system" and an "instrument of limitless potentialities". While it is natural that Baha'is and their friends and coworkers will go through these sequence of courses systematically, there are also many aspects of this same system that are of benefit to any person or any organization concerned with the betterment of their communities. Many non-profit organizations, government agencies or non-governmental organizations, and civil society organizations can benefit by reflecting on principles in this series. And indeed there are today hundreds or thousands of young people who use the fifth Book in this series on spiritual empowerment of junior youth to animate such groups, a program and an activity which is not directly concerned with religious instruction.

The second movement is the advancement of the society from one stage of development to the next. The whole human society is moving in an organic way towards its ultimate destiny. But it is hard to think of the whole human race in an analytic sense, and it is easier to divide the world into smaller units for the purpose of analysis and possible action. For its own purpose the Baha'i community has divided the world into some 17000 clusters of communities. Each cluster represents a geographical construct of manageable size, and maybe anywhere along "a rich and dynamic continuum" of progress.

Initially the community defined what came to be known as "four broad stages" along the path of its development. A cluster was designated as D if there were no Baha'is living within it. Where one person moved in, or some lived there but there was no consciousness yet of a movement, it was designated as C. As the training institute took hold and became vigorous it was designated as B. And finally where all the elements were in place for launching an intensive program of growth it was designated as A. But the important thing to realize is that these designations refer to the conditions and potentials of a cluster, and they should not be seen as a grade, or a judgment about the people of that cluster. The next thing to realize is that comparison between the clusters is not helpful since each cluster has to travel along its own path of development. Yet another principle is that these are not static designations, but dynamic in time, and like all living organic systems there are periods of up and down, of wakefulness and sleepiness, of crisis and victory.

Now consider the case of a group of people in a village, or even an urban neighborhood. Assume that non of them are Baha'is or indeed that they have all different religious beliefs. It is natural that in addition to their individual progress, that they would be interested in the progress of the community as a whole. Would it be helpful to them to come together periodically and first define their goal, express their vision of what their ideal community will look like, and find a way to assess and analyze where they are and how they should move towards their goal? Would an analysis somewhat similar to the "four broad stages" of development be useful to them?

The following questions are suggested by the study of this paragraph:

1.     The “system thus created” is a reference to the presence of the training institute in a cluster. Enumerate some of the “limitless potentialities” of this system. 

2.     Give one definition of a cluster. 
3.     What are the “four broad stages along the path” of a cluster’s development?
4.     What propels the “second movement” which is “the movement of a population”?  

5.     The “ongoing process” of the development of a cluster is seen “in terms of a rich and dynamic continuum”. What are the characteristics of a developing cluster after it has become an A cluster, and after it has “launched” it Intensive Program of Growth? 

In this and previous blogs I have posed a few questions to help in the study of this material. Therefore you should feel quiet comfortable to post comments on this page, either in response to the above questions or on the general topics covered in each paragraph of the Plan.

The Writings of Baha'u'llah impart such an immense sense of hopefulness. He wrote: "A new life is, in this age, stirring within all the peoples of the earth; and yet none hath discovered its cause or perceived its motive"[Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, page 196]

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A strong pyramid of human resources worldwide

One of the characteristics of the letters from the Universal House of Justice is that they often contain a review of the recent accomplishments of the community. For example the letters that were written during the 80s included a list of advancements, such as new lands where the Faith spread, or those that formed new communities, or new Spiritual Assemblies at the local or national levels. Also included were new temples that were built, new honors accorded the Faith, or where the mass media mentioned some aspect of the Baha'i community.

Now compare these with the second paragraph of the letter of 28 December 2010. We notice that the list of accomplishments of the Faith are now too many to enumerate. Therefore instead of listing the achievements, there is an assessment in terms of raised capacity. The entire paragraph provides an assessment of the growth and advancement of the Faith, not so much in terms of a religious language, but in the language of community building. There is talk of the raised capacity "to engage in grassroots action". And from this perspective it indicates that "The vista from this vantage point is stupendous indeed."

The following 4 questions are suggested by the study of this paragraph:
1.     The “dynamics of the process of learning” speaks about the training institute, which “has steadily gathered momentum” “through four successive global Plans”. What capacity does the institute enhance?
2.     The first institute course gives rise to the capacity to shape a pattern of life distinguished for its devotional character. What should we pray for? The efficacy of our efforts depends on what?

3.     Describe the strength of the pyramid of human resources in the world.

4.     The act of teaching, studied in Books 2, 4, and 6 is described as “exploration of reality that gives rise to a shared understanding of the exigencies of this period in human history and the means for addressing them.” What does this refer to? 

Transformation of the society is ultimately a question of education. That the Baha'i community has focused on providing a systematic education, in the form of a network of training institutes, to its members is a great lesson for all those who work in the field of development. In the words of Baha'u'llah:

"Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess. Through a word proceeding out of the mouth of God he was called into being; by one word more he was guided to recognize the Source of his education; by yet another word his station and destiny were safeguarded. The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom." [Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, page 260]

If this is true for the Baha'i community, why would it not also be the key to all efforts for development of any city, any village or neighborhood?

And what education does is raise the capacity of a population to improve its own lot. With a raised capacity the people of a neighborhood can gradually and steadily acquire the knowledge, the spiritual insights, and the skills to engage in ever more complex activities for the betterment of their own community.

Baha'u'llah Himself specifies that His goal is not just to obtain a few (or many) converts. He writes that "The allegiance of mankind profiteth Him not, neither doth its perversity harm Him." Here is the full quote in its context:

"If any man were to meditate on that which the Scriptures, sent down from the heaven of God’s holy Will, have revealed, he would readily recognize that their purpose is that all men shall be regarded as one soul, so that the seal bearing the words “The Kingdom shall be God’s” may be stamped on every heart, and the light of Divine bounty, of grace, and mercy may envelop all mankind. The one true God, exalted be His glory, hath wished nothing for Himself. The allegiance of mankind profiteth Him not, neither doth its perversity harm Him. The Bird of the Realm of Utterance voiceth continually this call: “All things have I willed for thee, and thee, too, for thine own sake.” If the learned and worldly-wise men of this age were to allow mankind to inhale the fragrance of fellowship and love, every understanding heart would apprehend the meaning of true liberty, and discover the secret of undisturbed peace and absolute composure." [Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, page 260]

This lack of self-interest is an important ingredient in the efforts of all those who want to empower a population to take ownership of their own development.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A new chapter in the Plan for building a new civilization

The new Plan given by the Universal House of Justice is described in its letter of 28 December 2010 addressed to the conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors. We are called upon to give it "thoughtful study." [Universal House of Justice, latter dated 1 January 2011, addressed to the Baha'is of the world]

Beyond the Baha'i community the content of this document is of great value for every practitioner of community development. I hope to write something about each paragraph in this magnificent document.

There are 44 paragraphs arranged in 3 sections: The first section describes the plan itself in 30 paragraphs. Section 2 talks about the 3 spiritual prerequisites of rectitude of conduct, a chaste and holy life, and freedom from prejudice. Section 3 calls for new habits of thought, new modes of thinking and doing.

The first paragraph of this document contains this sentence: "Over the coming days you are asked to formulate a clear conception of how the Counsellors and their auxiliaries will assist the community in building on its extraordinary achievements -- extending to other spheres of operation the mode of learning which has so undeniably come to characterize its teaching endeavours, gaining the capacity needed to employ with a high degree of coherence the instruments and methods which it has so painstakingly developed, and increasing well beyond all previous numbers the ranks of those who, alive to the vision of the Faith, are labouring so assiduously in pursuit of its God-given mission.”

Consider these 3 questions which are suggested by the above paragraph:
1.     What are the characteristics of  “the mode of learning which has so undeniably come to characterize [our] endeavours?”

2.     What are “the instruments and methods which [we have] so painstakingly developed?”

3.     What may be some of the “other spheres of operation” which require the same “instruments and methods?”

A mode of learning is when we acknowledge that we do not have a blue print for building spiritual communities. What we have are a few principles and a conceptual framework. As we act we try to apply these principles. We work in our neighborhoods. And we observe, then analyze the results.  We develop perception and spiritual insight. Then collectively we improve on our lines of action, until  every day we can make our neighborhoods a little more united, a little more peaceful, a little more spiritual. 

Acknowledging that community building is an organic process the instruments and methods will have to be appropriate to the task at hand. One "method" for example, is study that is wedded to action. So we do not study and wait many years until we are somehow "certified" for some function. But rather as we study, we also concurrently act. Since the subject matter of our study is community building, knowledge about it is best acquired by a combination of doing and thinking.

Another example of an "instrument" is the function of a "coordinator." Once in a neighborhood the number of those serving the community increases, it is helpful for one of them to act as a coordinator. This will only work if the coordinator does not think of himself or herself as some sort of an expert. If the coordinator thinks of herself as a manager, or above others in heirarchy, or consider others as somehow inferior to herself she will be unable to fulfill her duties and the process will suffer a setback. So we have the concept of accompaniment as a principle, and the actions of those who humbly and truly accompany others as an instrument.

Finally these methods and principles that we have learned so far can be applied not only to bring to the attention of the people of the world the teachings, the message, and the writings of Baha'u'llah, but also these same principles - that of humility, of working on equal footing, of believing in the high potential of others, of walking with others in a path of service, of being joyous at the accomplishment of others instead of our own - these same principles apply to social action, to defense of human rights of others, to confronting discrimination, and a whole host of other aspects of social development. Baha'u'llah wrote:

"Thou must show forth that which will ensure the peace and the well-being of the miserable and the downtrodden. Gird up the loins of thine endeavour, that perchance thou mayest release the captive from his chains, and enable him to attain unto true liberty. Justice is, in this day, bewailing its plight, and Equity groaneth beneath the yoke of oppression. The thick clouds of tyranny have darkened the face of the earth, and enveloped its peoples. Through the movement of Our Pen of glory We have, at the bidding of the omnipotent Ordainer, breathed a new life into every human frame, and instilled into every word a fresh potency. All created things proclaim the evidences of this world-wide regeneration. This is the most great, the most joyful tidings imparted by the Pen of this Wronged One to mankind."

Monday, January 3, 2011

An instrument tempered in the crucible of experience

One of the instruments of effective and long lasting transformation is the existence of a model. So long as discussions are in the abstract, they are less clear and more difficult to understand, to appreciate or to communicate. This is true in science, as it is in community building.

Let us take the example of fire. Before a person can see, or feel, what fire is, and what you can do if you have access to fire, it is very hard to try to explain it. Even if you can explain it, it is likely that the listener will argue that such a thing can not exist. But when lightening strikes, and a fire is ignited, if you are close to it, you will quickly understand what it is. Now you want one. You would like to be able to start a fire, to keep warm, to cook your food, and so on. You know it exists because you have seen one. So you keep trying to find a way to start a fire. The conviction that it is possible will drive you to try many different ways to start one. Even though you may keep failing to start, or after you start you fail to keep it going, still you do not doubt that it is possible, and it is desirable. So you keep going.

The Baha'i community itself, is an existence proof. It shows that it is possible to create harmonious and spiritual communities that also make advancement on both fronts of material and spiritual development.

Take the example of the letter that came from the Universal House of Justice addressed to all the Baha'is of the world dated 1 January, 2011 on the occasion of the final day of the conference of the Continental Counsellors which was held in Haifa over a five day period. It encourages the Baha'is and their friends to "become as occupied with the well-being of the human family as you are with that of your dearest kin."

The letter was sent, translated into dozens of languages, distributed by almost 200 National Communities, and read by tens of thousands immediately, and possibly by millions of people within a short time. Of course hundreds of millions remain unaware of it, but the fact that this fire exists is proof that it can be done.

The period of the conference itself was an occasion to reflect on the accomplishments of the last few years. It was here when each Counsellor spoke of the efforts and sacrifices of the friends. It was a "vivid retelling of your numerous exploits, deeds which secured the astonishing attainment of the goal of the Five Year Plan one year early." While much of this was the work of Baha'is, we must keep in mind that there were a large participation by friends, family, coworkers and neighbors. It is this larger community of interest who is also the object of love and admiration of the Counsellors and for whom it is said: "It is hard to express in words how much love for you has been shown in these few, fleeting days.  We praise God that He has raised up a community so accomplished and render thanks to Him for releasing your marvellous potentialities." [All quotes in this post are from Universal House of Justice, letter to the Baha'is of the world, 1 January, 2011] 

These series of Five Year Plans are part of the Divine Plan. And all of these Plans are about service to humanity. About promoting peace and oneness. About a deeper understanding of the nobility of human nature. And about the enormous potential and value of each member of human race. It is about "forging ties of spiritual kinship that foster a sense of community."

It is this absolute faith in human potential, irrespective of race or social status, that drives the work.  The essential attribute of the training institute is the belief that all people are capable to "take charge of their own destiny" and should take ownership of their own material and spiritual development. This belief is embedded in the way the tutors of training institute conduct their study circles. This training institute then is that "instrument tempered in the crucible of experience." "For you possess a potent instrument for spiritually empowering the masses of humanity to take charge of their own destiny, an instrument tempered in the crucible of experience."

Finally we should keep in mind that it is not only the Baha'is who are implementing the instruments for buidling spiritual communities, one neighborhood at a time, but also an increasing number of enlightened individuals. "It brings us great joy that so many souls throughout the Baha'i community are ready to thus distinguish themselves.  But what gratifies us beyond this is the certain knowledge that victories will be won in the next five years by youth and adults, men and women, who may at present be wholly unaware of Baha'u'llah's coming, much less acquainted with the "society-building power" of His Faith."

And this idea of empowerment is in fact not a new idea in our community. It is in fact the essence of the Revelation. Now that we know a little more about the training institute, and about empowerment, and about trusting that everyone who comes across the teachings of the Faith and who is "conscious of the spiritual forces that support" them can and will arise to make a difference in their society, now we can see this statement by Baha'u'llah with new eyes. For He wrote:

"I am the Sun of Wisdom and the Ocean of Knowledge.  I cheer the faint and revive the dead.  I am the guiding Light that illumineth the way.  I am the royal Falcon on the arm of the Almighty.  I unfold the drooping wings of every broken bird and start it on its flight."

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A milestone

This was an exceptionally significant week for many of us. Typical messages on social networks read things like "It has been released!", "We are reading it now," and "Never felt so much joy!" And a few others asked "What?" "What has been released?" So it was a great deal of fun to watch this unfold. Now  what is exactly in this letter of 28 December, 2010, that creates such feelings of expectation and elation?

I was recently visiting southern Africa, and had the opportunity to once again see many of our  friends living in this gorgeous part of the world. It is so uplifting to renew old friendships, particularly those formed based on shared understanding. I was reminded of a feature along the roads. Sometimes you are completely in what looks like the middle of nowhere, a complete wilderness. The only sign that exists of where you are and where you are heading are those white stones along the road, with a number on each. If you know absolutely nothing about where you are going, or if you do not care if you are going anywhere at all, then these stones do not mean very much. But if you have a sense of purpose, and you consider yourself as being on a journey, then these stones give you assurance and comfort that you are making progress. On one particular road traveling north towards Harare these stones are placed about every half a kilometer, but they are still called milestones. Occasionally one is missing, and in the growing disarray of the affairs some are hid behind the tall weeds, lost in the confusion that reigns in the world. All of this has an analogy in the world of thought.

Along the path of transformation, and in the deliberate and conscious act of building a new civilization there are also these milestones. The new chapter of the Divine Plan, as explained in this extensive document is one such milestone.  Increasingly, people of good will everywhere recognize that the Universal House of Justice is not only the formal Head of the Baha'i World Faith, but also a guide for all people who want to transform a broken world. From the concepts elaborated in this document you can derive a set of guidelines for action that apply to most organizations in civil society.

Yes, to be sure, there is much here that applies specifically to the inner workings of a community that stands identified with the revelation of Baha'u'llah. But the principles that it elaborates are of universal value. Any sociologist, any social worker, any community organizer, any teacher, any advocate of human rights, and hundreds of other Non-Governmental Organizations can benefit from studying it, engaging with the Baha'i community, and the way it goes about building spiritual neighborhoods. This is not a conversation about personal salvation - even if some people may find solace in that - but in reality it is a most significant contribution to the conversation about development. In so far as it provides an analysis of the recent experience of the Baha'i community worldwide, and then turns this analysis around to synthesize principles and direction for further action, it is about wholesome development of people.

Many of the readers of this blog have access, either directly or through their friends, to the full text of the message of the House of Justice. In it you will find reference to milestones. Milestones that are along the path of the progress for a cluster of communities to realize their own high destiny. To find these references, to arrange them in some sort of order, and then to be able to recognize, even measure, the progress that each of our clusters make along the road is enough food for thought, enough joy for the spirit, and enough guidance for action.

Here is a prayer. Is it about religion and salvation, or about worldly subjects of prosperity, and what goes on in the city? The answer to both may be yes. So are these two that different?

In the words of Baha'u'llah: "O my God! I ask Thee, by Thy most glorious Name, to aid me in that which will cause the affairs of Thy servants to prosper, and Thy cities to flourish. Thou, indeed, hast power over all things!"