Friday, April 5, 2013

Selfless Service

“We live in an age when an aggressive materialistic culture is invading every segment of society. The exaggerated occupation with self that is woven into the fabric of this pervasive culture presents us with numerous challenges as we try to assist youth in developing their capacities. Even efforts that sincerely seek to release the potential of the youth can suffer from the negative influence of a worldview that is individualistic at its core. The problem is complex.” Thus begins a paragraph at the end of section 5 of unit two of Book 5 “Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth”, in the main sequence of courses offered by the Ruhi institute. This curriculum is now adopted as the main offering of some 250 regional or national training institutes throughout the Bahá’í world. While this educational process thinly covers the whole planet, like the Bahá’í Faith itself, it has not yet penetrated the consciousness of most young people. Therein lies the opportunity for selfless service.

Just last night we were studying this passage in a study circle in our home. What does it mean to say that efforts that sincerely seek to release the potential of youth suffer from negative influences of a materialistic culture  that is individualistic at its core? We know that human nature has two sides: a dark materialistic selfish side, and a bright spiritual selfless side. Materialistic cultures are blind to our spiritual side and assume that all people are essentially self-interested, and they compete to acquire greater and greater material goods and benefits for themselves. The social order that emerges from this is an educational system that itself is competitive, to equip people to compete for the best jobs in ever growing corporations that produce material goods and services for insatiable consumption in ever more attractive shopping malls, online or offline, supported by a commercially driven advertizing media that entertains as it corrupts every human concept of modesty, contentment or decency. This system produces a few examples of spectacular “success” and millions of dissatisfied failures, in the form of those who did not get better grades, did not get better jobs, could not buy better goods, did not achieve fame or fortune in competitive sports or arts, and finally lost their self confidence. 

So the lesson goes on to say that “The present world system does rob vast numbers of human beings of the ability to deal with life; therefore self-confidence is an issue to be addressed.” How does the materialistic culture address self-confidence? It only knows one side of human nature, so it begins to encourage and bolster the ego. For example, a television show produced within the context of a materialistic culture may try to boost the self-confidence of young people by dramatizing an episode where the main actress declares that she, tired of always trying to please others, will now focus on pleasing herself. Such a focus on our lower nature “crushes people’s sense of true identity”. Self-realization then becomes synonymous with self-centeredness. Likewise self-discovery is seen in terms of discovering what talents we have so that we can better succeed and have a competitive advantage over others. And all this because the fundamental ontological assumption of materialistic cultures is the sovereignty of the individual, as distinct from, and as categorically opposed to, institutions and communities.

We need self-confidence, self-discovery and self-realization. But the solution cannot be found in materialistic cultures by romanticizing the individual and bolstering the ego. Doing so will only further rob vast numbers of human beings of the ability to deal with life. It crushes people’s sense of true identity and makes multitudes oblivious of the life of the Soul. Genuine individual development involves the abandonment of self. And this can only be achieved if we recognize human nature as essentially noble, innately inclined to selfless service to others. We need to turn our face towards our higher nature and to foster in the young true spiritual susceptibilities, so that their tender hearts are stirred by attraction to knowledge and beauty. Service as an animator for a group of junior youth will not only help the participants, but even more, it helps the animators fulfill their inner desire for self-confidence, self-discovery and self-realization through selfless service.

The point of this blog is not simply the vague and pious hope that we should be selfless, but that the society should be redesigned in such a way as to avoid those programs and constructs that promote ego and replace them with such other programs that promote selfless service.

Baha’u’llah wrote: “O Son of Spirit! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.”

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Beyond dichotomy

In a recent letter of the Universal House of Justice, dated August 9th 2012, addressed to the US National Spiritual Assembly on the occasion of the gathering of the ten newly constituted Regional Bahá’í Councils near Chicago at the Mother Temple of the West several subjects related to development of communities is discussed. One of these topics is the emerging and the more mature understanding of the US Bahá’í community in connection with the education of the children.

It might be worthwhile to review this subject briefly. During the years 1968 to 1973 the Bahá’í community of US increased in size over five fold. Many of the new members of the community were young people at or near their college age. Over the next decade many of these folks formed their young families. At that time however a program for the systematic education of children was not yet developed. Certain ideas and misunderstandings related to freedom of choice that may have come from a background of liberal democratic tradition may have also influenced their thinking and posture to this subject. During this time the Baha’is of Iran had developed and were using a program for the education of their children year after year. This program however was focused primarily on delivery of information about the history and teachings of the Faith to the children from Bahá’í families. Inspired by this model many larger cities in US adopted a model of Bahá’í Schools that involved transportation of children from around a larger metropolitan area to a central location, often in a large Bahá’í Center.

The Five Year Plan of 2006-2011 put much emphasis on the education of all children in a neighborhood including many children from families who may not necessarily be Baha’is. This imperative then gave rise to a dichotomous discourse in US about central schools versus neighborhood classes. This is of course a false dichotomy. Now in August of 2012 the House of Justice wrote that “[i]n each of your regions, encouraging signs appear. A perceived dichotomy that had arisen between classes offered for children living close to one another and centralized schools covering a broader area is yielding to a more mature understanding.”

What are the characteristics of this “more mature understanding”? What lies beyond this dichotomy?

Some communities may understand that if there is no dichotomy, then it means that they can do either, and both are equally acceptable. Further reflection makes it clear that this is not the case.

At first sight it might appear that if there is no dichotomy, then it means that both options are equally acceptable and each community can choose which model to follow. This, I submit, is an inadequate response to the above question. Indeed, there exists a clue for the resolution of this question in the text of the letter of the House of Justice, which goes on to refer to the imperative of multiplying the number of classes.

The answer to the problem of dichotomy posed in the form of an “either/or” is neither both, nor an arbitrary selection. In fact a community that implements both a central school and a number of neighborhood classes is further contributing to fragmentation of thought and practice. What needs to change is the conceptual framework within which the question arises in the first place.

The letter further elaborates that “[t]hrough participation in the courses of the training institute, an ever-greater number of friends are enhancing their capacity to offer spiritual education to those they encounter in the wider society.” It is in this increase in capacity, in the increase in the number of teachers, and in this multiplication of resources and classes that we will find the ultimate answer.

Let us start with what was the common conception of a central school. We can examine some of its features and transform each of these characteristics in light of our new learning.

In such a conception, let us say, the friends from a wider area come together each Sunday and hold 12 concurrent classes for 12 years of study. Every one from the ages of 5-6 to 17-18 is participating. The curriculum is based on some set of textbooks that cover the history and teachings of the Faith. Twelve teachers teach these classes from September of each year to May of the next year, and the school closes from June to August for the 3 months of the summer. Some 100 to 200 children from Bahá’í families may participate in such schools. There may be a board, assisted with a principal, that oversees the operation of the school. The school is funded by voluntary contributions from some dozen or more Bahá’í communities. This was the dominant model of central Bahá’í schools.

Now let us examine each of the above features, and see what we may have learned during the past 15 years from the operation of the training institutes throughout the Bahá’í world.

On the question of the age of the students: we note that Baha’u’llah in the Kitab-i-Aqdas regards 15 as the age of maturity. How can we then regard our 15 to 18 year olds as children in need of instruction in a classroom? Should they not be expected to arise to serve the Cause and humanity? Are they not ready to engage in study circles to raise their capacity for service? And what about those from 12 to 14 years old? Do we not regard them as junior youth, in a transitional phase, who should form groups, assisted by an animator, to explore the many questions of excellence in all things? Such a realization will then help the communities who are still holding central schools to release everyone above the age of 11 and set them on a path of learning and exploration for excellence and service in both theory and practice.

On the question of curriculum, for the remaining children from 5 to 11: we note that we need appropriate material for 6 years of study. We also note that under the guidance of the International Teaching Center already extensive material has been produced for grades 1 to 3, consisting of 24 lessons for each grade. Each lesson consists of prayers, quotes to learn and memorize, songs with the same theme as the lessons, cooperative games, and artistic activities such as coloring that further reinforce the lesson. The subject matter is designed to start simple and generic and build on from year to year with added depth and breadth, as capacity is slowly built. Teachers of classes can then supplement this with any other material that they can find in the interim months or years until the material for the final 3 years also become available. The teachers have complete choice in this regard and neither the training institutes, the Local or National Assemblies, nor the Councils will mandate what supplemental material are to be used. In time and with experience a rich set of material benefitting from experience of people of diverse cultures will become available.

On the question of the timing of the classes: we note that summer time many children are free from school and have the greatest availability for engaging with activities and studies of Bahá’í classes. Therefore many communities are providing these lessons year round. Indeed many children from the wider community yearn for organized activities during these months of the year.

So what has happened to our conception of a central school? It is still being held in a central location with families from a wider area driving long distances to it. But it is no longer a 12-year program, as only 6 years of study is needed for those between 5 and 11 years old. Its curriculum has changed to the courses recommended by the training institute, and it no longer uses other recommended textbooks. It no longer closes for the summer and offers its lessons year round.

We might want to ask ourselves when does a central school stop being a central school? When the age of its students have changed? When the number of classes has been reduced from 12 to 6? When its curriculum has been renewed? When it offers summer sessions? When its doors have been opened to the wider community? Is such a transformed entity still a “central school”?

Now we can see the many benefits of this form of transformed school. We wish we could have many more such schools. We notice that all of our 15 to 18 year olds who were previously regarded as children, are now free and available. Our resources have multiplied. Having been trained in Ruhi Books 1 to 3, this newly released army of co-workers is able, ready and willing to translate that which is written into reality.

Perhaps someone suggests that these new forms of schools are so good and useful that every town, and every section of a city can have its own Bahá’í school. Every one of those dozen or more communities who previously used to send their families to the central school, can now have its own “central (?)” school. And since such schools are at a closer distance to our children and their friends there are many willing participants for such classes, drawn from the wider society.

Is there still a need for a school board with a principal? Is there a need to raise funds? Will each community that now has its own school still need to contribute to others? The answer to some of these questions may still be considered on a case by case basis.

In this hypothetical scenario we started by loving our central schools. Many more children wanted to participate. By increasing their numbers we can now have dozens and eventually hundreds of such “schools” in every corner of our towns and cities. Do we dare call these entities “neighborhood” children classes?

And if we had started our exploration by consideration of neighborhood classes, and added one class after another until we have a “unit” of six classes held regularly so that the children are able to participate consistently year after year progressing through a well designed system of education with some degree of formality, maybe we can then refer to these units as schools.

You can now see that the dichotomous framework within which there existed an essential duality and tension in connection with these children classes has evaporated. Could this be that “more mature understanding” referred to by the Universal House of Justice?

Abdu'l-Baha wrote: "Among the greatest of all services that can possibly be rendered by man to Almighty God is the education and training of children, young plants of the Abhá Paradise, so that these children, fostered by grace in the way of salvation, growing like pearls of divine bounty in the shell of education, will one day bejewel the crown of abiding glory. It is, however, very difficult to undertake this service, even harder to succeed in it. I hope that thou wilt acquit thyself well in this most important of tasks, and successfully carry the day, and become an ensign of God’s abounding grace; that these children, reared one and all in the holy Teachings, will develop natures like unto the sweet airs that blow across the gardens of the All-Glorious, and will waft their fragrance around the world."

Monday, July 30, 2012

Spiritual Empowerment

One of the most beautiful aspects of the Baha'i faith is that it provides us, both those who are members of the Faith and those who are not, with many avenues of service. We have a twofold moral purpose in our lives. The first is to improve our own character. Without such a transformation, and that on a continual basis, none of our other activities will bear much fruit. The best way to improve our own character is to spend our time in service to others. The second moral imperative is to contribute to the transformation of the society. By such a transformation we do not mean some minor adjustment to the current structures of the society. What we mean is a thorough and fundamental re-making of social structures and relationships. We also mean complete and wholesale change in the structures that generate, disseminate, and apply knowledge. Additionally we would want to redefine conceptions of power. Now the best way to do all of this is also to personally spend our time in service to others.

Now by service I do not only mean to help others as needed in terms of material or social needs of individuals. The reality of man is not limited to his material condition. Abdu'l-Baha has said that the reality of man is his thoughts. Therefore the greatest service to others can be in the form of helping them think at a higher level. To free our thoughts from oppression is the greatest freedom. To free our thoughts from unwanted influences of the popular media is the greatest freedom. In this category there are the mass media, its pervasive influence on social media, and to a some extent the artistic expressions of ideas in various media.

Today like most Saturdays I spent a few hours in a neighborhood where we meet with a group of junior youth, ages 12 to 14. We first went around to visit several homes in this complex of houses to make sure that we are all present and together. Then we sat outside on a bench attached to a table under a tree in front of one of the homes. The weather was warm, but a comfortable breeze kept us cool. We studied the last lesson of the second book, Walking the Straight Path. The story is about  a teacher in whose class the students argue and bicker with each other, and then instead of forgiving and forgetting they complain of their wrongs and carry grudges for days or weeks. The teacher gives each student an empty sack, and asks them to put a potato in it every time they are hurt, and carry their sack with them for a month. At the end of the month they were going to compare their sacks to see who is most hurt. They were also told that if they forgave anyone they could discard the associated potato. By the end of the first week, the sacks were heavy and rotting giving off an awful smell, but no one was willing to give up their grudges. The story goes on to show that forgiving is not only helpful to others and to the society, but it also lightens the burden of our soul.

We read the story, filled in the blanks, answered questions, and learned several new difficult words, such as rancor, undeterred, and admiration. But above all we had a discussion about hatred, grudges and forgiveness, not at the level of abstract ideas, but at the applied level within the school system. After about an hour of this it was so clear to me that minds had been elevated and consciousness expanded. The sweetest moment was when the junior youth themselves suggested to create a skit based on this story and teach it to their siblings on Wednesday at the children's class. This Program for the Spiritual Empowerment of the Junior Youth is inspired by Baha'i Writings, but it is not in the language of religious instruction. It is hoped to so impact the thoughts of young people that they themselves move away from religious fanaticism and superstition, and embrace unity of thought and vision, which is hidden in the core of all religions.

Baha'u'llah wrote "He whom the grace of Thy mercy aideth, though he be but a drop, shall become the boundless ocean, and the merest atom which the outpouring of Thy loving-kindness assisteth, shall shine even as the radiant star." Some of these junior youth will surely become a boundless ocean, and shine even as a radiant star.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On Regional Councils

The week of June 11th 2012 is a historic week in the USA. The Bahá’í community has grown in many aspects. Up until now the continental US was divided into six regions. But each region is now so large in the number of members and activities, in the number of active agents of change, and in scope and diversity of activities and circumstances that new arrangements are called for.

Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, had indicated that in future, as the Faith expands in scope and diversity, the Universal House of Justice will bring about new institutions in response to the demands of growth itself. So some 15 years ago, in 1997 the head of the Faith created Regional Bahá’í Councils. These Councils are executive arms of the National Assembly and are normally elected by members of Local Spiritual Assemblies. The main functions of these institutions is related to growth and the process of community building. Now the US National Spiritual Assembly, in consultation with the Continental Board of Counsellors, and with warm encouragement of the Universal House of Justice, has called for the formation of 10 Regional Bahá’í Councils. Members of some 1200 Assemblies, from as many cities, towns or counties across this country will cast their votes this week, in quiet reverence, and in a rarified atmosphere of detachment and service. There will then be some 174 such administrative bodies in the Bahá’í world.

In a sense this represents a new beginning. It is a milestone marking along the path of progress. No one is concerned about who might get elected. No one is anxious about what might happen. There are no winners or losers, because there is no contest. No one is running for anything. And those who will receive a call to inform them of their election, and to ask them if they are able to give the time for such service, will often wonder if they are truly qualified for such a task. This is a new model of governance for human society.

In the Old World Order the person who is elected leaves his mark on the institution. In the New World Order we can say that it is mostly the opposite, it is the institution that leaves its mark on the individuals who are elected. First the person is humbled, then he or she feels overwhelmed. The task is large and complex, and the path for learning is wide. And you have to rise up to this level while carrying on with your normal profession.

Each new member now has to engage more intensely in his or her own neighborhood to accelerate his learning about the dynamics of community building. If previously he has completed his study of a sequence of courses offered by the training institute, and only occasionally he had tutored a course, now he has to engage more and deeper. He will have to personally be involved in a number of core activities at the level of the neighborhood, and in visiting homes of others, and in learning to carry on meaningful and distinctive conversations, and establishing friendships based on shared understanding. He or she will have to definitely animate a group of junior youth, to teach a class for children, and be engaged both in an educational process and in cycles of activity, which are after all two perspectives of the same reality. 

It is such personal experience that sharpens the ability to read reality, to analyze conditions of a larger number of clusters and to serve the needs of the community on a larger scale.

All this will work out well since those who are elected will have to have the humility to recognize that they are not the central ornaments of the Cause, that they did not seek to serve in such a capacity, but that their orientation is one of a posture of learning, and of a temporary assignment and call to service.

With such an orientation towards service the fundamental relationship between individuals and institutions will begin to experience the transformation that is the prerequisite for a divine civilization.

Can you identify and list all those qualities, attitudes, habits and postures that characterize a decaying world order? Can you now identify and list all those qualities, attitudes, habits and postures that characterize a developing new world order? Are you able to find appropriate passages to illuminate your list, from within the Writings, and guidance of the House of Justice? Would such a list, with your appropriate commentary, be useful to those who serve on various institutions serving a community? 

Baha'u'llah wrote: "That seeker must, at all times, put his trust in God, must renounce the peoples of the earth, must detach himself from the world of dust, and cleave unto Him Who is the Lord of Lords. He must never seek to exalt himself above any one, must wash away from the tablet of his heart every trace of pride and vain-glory, must cling unto patience and resignation, observe silence and refrain from idle talk. For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Softening a hardened clay

Recently I participated as a visitor in the annual National Convention in USA, held at the Mother Temple of the West. As it is customary the convention began by reading of, and then reflection upon, the Ridvan message from the Universal House of Justice. But this year there was a particular sense that we were on sacred grounds at a sacred time. The very spot on which we had gathered has been mentioned in this Ridvan message "that the proclamation of the oneness of mankind shall go forth from its open courts of holiness.”

Baha’u’llah in His Tablet of the World wrote a passage, and I think that it links directly with this image that the Universal House of Justice has provided for us in this Ridvan’s message, namely the image of the world as hardened clay, and the Bahá’í message as an instrument to soften the hearts.

These are the words of the Blessed Beauty: “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. Wherefore fear ye, O My well-beloved ones? Who is it that can dismay you? A touch of moisture sufficeth to dissolve the hardened clay out of which this perverse generation is moulded.”

As I understand it, in the imagery used in the Writings, fire stands for love, and water stands for knowledge. So when He says that a touch of moisture sufficeth to dissolve the hardened clay, I understand from this that knowledge will play a central role in capturing the human heart, and in transforming the society. The knowledge that we gain in a practical way from implementing the institute process and the provisions of the Five Year Plan in our neighborhoods and clusters will be the instrument to break the ground. And in the Ridvan message the Universal House of Justice uses the same imagery, opening the message with this same concept: “Abdu'l-Baha, standing before an audience several hundred strong, lifted a workman's axe and pierced the turf covering the Temple site at Grosse Pointe, north of Chicago.”

And again in later paragraphs of this same message we see the same imagery: “Akin to the hard earth struck by the Master a century ago, the prevailing theories of the age may, at first, seem impervious to alteration, but they will undoubtedly fade away, and through the "vernal showers of the bounty of God", the "flowers of true understanding" will spring up fresh and fair.”

And as each cluster moves to the tip of the arrow of learning, as gaining of knowledge accelerates, as we learn how to multiply the core activities in sustainable ways, at the root of which lies an educational process of limitless potentialities, each such cluster will earn the spiritual reward of building a House of Worship. Today five such clusters have reached this level, and two national ones. 

As the head of the Faith has written in the closing sentence:"The ground broken by the hand of 'Abdu'1-Baha a hundred years ago is to be broken again in seven more countries, this being but the prelude to the day when within every city and village, in obedience to the bidding of Baha'u'llah, a building is upraised for the worship of the Lord. From these Dawning-Points of the Remembrance of God will shine the rays of His light and peal out the anthems of His praise."

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A framework for understanding

One way to understand the world around us is to think in terms of processes. First there are the twin processes of integration and disintegration. The world at large is undergoing the processes of disintegration of the Old World Order, while at the same time the Bahá’í community, along with a group of like-minded peoples and organizations, are experiencing the process of integration towards the ultimate goal of a New World Order.

And then within each one of these two processes there are other processes. These are complex, and interrelated to each other. We need to better understand them if we want to have any hope of effectively contributing to them. For example the process of integration itself is made up of “interacting processes that, in their totality, engender the expansion and consolidation of the Faith”. If we fail to properly appreciate these processes we cannot be as successful in the execution of the Divine Plan.

To help us better understand the nature and workings of these interacting processes the Universal House of Justice has provided us with a concept as part of a framework for analysis and understanding. This concept is that we recognize the existence of three participants in a global enterprise, which are the three protagonists of change, namely the individual, the institutions, and the community. At first this will sound like a simple concept, involving what appears to be obviously true. But after some reflection we realize that in fact there is a profound truth that appears to be hidden here and it is deceptively simple. 

Humanity’s past, in our collective stage of infancy, and the current disintegrating Old World Order, is characterized by conflict among these three, “with the individual clamouring for freedom, the institution demanding submission, and the community claiming precedence.”

In theory and in practice, in politics and in economics, there is great confusion about the relationships among these three. A famous British prime minister even went so far as to deny the existence of society, reducing it merely to a the existence of a collection of individuals.

Attempts at social and economic development of peoples have given rise to various ideas in political economics that are then variously labeled as conservative or liberal, republican or democratic, capitalist or socialist, business friendly or labor backed. Over a number of decades these thoughts and ideologies have crystallized and polarized leading to an antagonistic stand off that today use every means from propaganda to manipulation of the mass media to achieve partisan ends. Such activities often take the shape of short sound bites and slogans. The struggle for power between individuals, communities and institutions seems to be without end, consuming the vast majority of the resources of the planet. The fog of confusion is so thick that even many of our seemingly sharp minds are trapped in it.

Yet the Universal House of Justice, in its letter of 28 December 2010, the final paragraphs of 40-44, from which all quotes in this post are taken, gives us a tool for analysis in terms of the relationships among these three participants. If we better develop our skills in analyzing the human condition using this tool, we will readily see that what the Bahá’í community is doing in practice is to create a model community within which these three exist in harmony and mutual support.

“The worldwide crisis of authority provides proof enough.  So grievous have been its abuses, and so deep the suspicion and resentment it now arouses, that the world is becoming increasingly ungovernable – a situation made all the more perilous by the weakening of community ties.”

By contrast we are learning about developing new relationships that bind people together. “At a fundamental level these relationships are characterized by cooperation and reciprocity, manifestations of the interconnectedness that governs the universe.” While the legitimate rights of the individuals are inviolable, each individual sees himself or herself as a servant of God, and recognizes that his twin moral purposes can only be fulfilled through service to humanity. And ""wealth of sentiment, abundance of good-will and effort are of little avail when their flow is not directed along proper channels,” so that "the unfettered freedom of the individual should be tempered with mutual consultation and sacrifice," and that "the spirit of initiative and enterprise should be reinforced by a deeper realization of the supreme necessity for concerted action and a fuller devotion to the common weal."" 

Such a realization leads to mutual support of the legitimate institutions of society by and for individuals. “Composed of such individuals and such institutions, the community of the Greatest Name becomes that spiritually charged arena in which powers are multiplied in unified action.”

“It is of this community that 'Abdu'l-Baha writes:  "When any souls grow to be true believers, they will attain a spiritual relationship with one another, and show forth a tenderness which is not of this world.  They will, all of them, become elated from a draught of divine love, and that union of theirs, that connection, will also abide forever.  Souls, that is, who will consign their own selves to oblivion, strip from themselves the defects of humankind, and unchain themselves from human bondage, will beyond any doubt be illumined with the heavenly splendours of oneness, and will all attain unto real union in the world that dieth not."”

Monday, March 26, 2012

Within and Yet Apart

One of the goals of the Baha'i community is to help transform the society around us. This goal applies equally to all societies the world over. Such a goal is rooted in the belief that we humans are capable of creating societies that are significantly better than what we see today. Therefore there are positive and hopeful sentiments that drive this goal.

When we analyze the condition of our societies we may see numerous signs of injustice, of greed, of inhumanity, of heedlessness, and so on. It is easy for us to be driven to a stage of hopelessness and give up. But the power of faith and assurances given in the Baha'i Writings encourage us to keep on going.

Some puritan groups may suggest that to create a just society we must separate ourselves from the current societies, and create a smaller group of people, who live in isolation. We can then implement stricter codes of conduct, and engineer the conditions to bring about greater justice, or greater equality, or greater love and fellowship. We do not subscribe to this view.

We believe that we should "become increasingly involved in the life of society". And it is for this reason that we try to reduce any barriers that may exist between the Baha'i community and the wider society. It is also for this same reason that the core activities of the Baha'i community are designed to be open to all. In our engagement with the society at large, we should benefit "from its educational programmes, excelling in its trades and professions, learning to employ well its tools, and applying themselves to the advancement of its arts and sciences." And indeed where I live, in the US, the Baha'i community is among the most educated, and most accomplished communities. 

At the same time that we are within the society, and operating within its tools, we have to be careful not to be contaminated by its vagaries. If we want to be able to effectively transform the society then we cannot become victims of its forces. We have to be within it and yet apart from it. This represents an interesting challenge. "The magnitude of the challenge facing the friends in this respect is not lost on us", wrote the Universal House of Justice. We "are never to lose sight of the aim of the Faith to effect a transformation of society, remoulding its institutions and processes, on a scale never before witnessed."  We "must remain acutely aware of the inadequacies of current modes of thinking and doing -- this, without feeling the least degree of superiority, without assuming an air of secrecy or aloofness, and without adopting an unnecessarily critical stance towards society."   

This challenge is presented to us in paragraph 36 of the letter of 28 December 2010 from the Universal House of Justice. Within a cluster, a group of friends who are engaged in building communities in neighborhoods can ask ourselves to what extent we are able to overcome this challenge. It is easy to remain dry if you always stay out of the water. But as we need to dive in to help rescue others from the onrushing floods of materialism, it is normal to get wet, and that is understandable, so long as we ourselves are not swept away.

As we think about these principles, does the quote below begin to take on new and added meanings for you?

Baha'u'llah wrote: "O Son of Being! Make mention of Me on My earth, that in My heaven I may remember thee..."