30 June 2009

Montessori, Evolution, and Spirituality

I have always been interested in education, and for many years I dedicated my time to working with children through facilitating virtues classes. But it wasn’t until my daughter, Sasha, was born that I began to take interest in educational philosophies. I wanted to know what I could do to encourage her, challenge her, but not overwhelm her. I wanted to know how children learned. Throughout Sasha’s three years I have found three perspectives on education that have defined my own approach: Montessori, Evolution, and Spirituality.

The three above perspectives have given me a new lens through which to view child development and have helped me create an environment for my daughter that encourages learning. I am not an expert in the field of child development and have only had a glimpse of what all three perspectives offer, on so many levels and in so many ways, to this field. With regard to this paper, however, I will only be addressing the topics that pertain to the experiences I’ve had with my daughter. I will be referring to what I’ve learned about my role as a guide and about providing an environment that encourages self-directed learning, includes a range of activities, and is filled with beauty, natural elements, and purpose. Finally, I will be discussing what I’ve learned about how to prepare my daughter for the world.

As a new mother I had no idea whether I was providing my daughter with an encouraging and stimulating learning environment or not. Sasha had tireless energy and an insatiable curiosity. She was constantly on the move. Nothing held her attention. I felt overwhelmed and drained by the end of the morning when she went down for her nap. I spent hours looking for activities and toys that would stimulate and challenge her and increase her attention span and concentration. When I finally found something and introduced the new toy or activity to her, she would fiddle with it, figure it out, and be done with it in about two minutes. This was to be the case for about one year, until I found Montessori.

The Montessori Method

Maria Montessori, a physician, anthropologist and educator, developed a child-centered approach to education. The Montessori method fulfills the developing needs of children by exposing children to a broad range of experiences, honoring their learning preferences and choice of activities, respecting the pace at which each child learns, encouraging active, self-correcting learning, and providing multi-age classrooms. The teacher has the role of a guide, who is trained to “follow the child” by observing the activities the child is naturally drawn to, and patiently encourages and directs his or her development. Montessori addresses the entire child and his or her physical, intellectual, creative, and spiritual development.
The first thing I learned was that children purposefully choose the activities they want to engage in, rather than randomly select them. I introduced a few Montessori activities and put them next to the toys Sasha already had. From that point on Sasha stopped playing with her plastic toys and only engaged in the Montessori activities. The reason, I learned, is that children will choose those activities that meet specific developmental needs. If children are given the freedom to do so, they will choose purposeful activities over trivial ones. I realized that I had been choosing all of Sasha’s activities when I should have been letting her choose.

The next step, then, was providing her with a variety of activities to choose from. Dr. Montessori explains that children learn through all five senses, so I found activities that stimulated her senses. One activity I had was a basket full of interesting objects to explore. Every week or so I would change the objects. At the age of one, Sasha loved her “nature basket.” There were beautiful, smooth polished stones that she could feel; there were acorns, feathers, and other interesting things to touch, feel and smell. Another activity stimulated her hearing and consisted of shaking little bottles filled with rice, beans, or sand and matching the two bottles that made the same sound. I filled the room with these and many other sensory-rich experiences.

I made the necessary adjustments and set up our home so that it was child-centered. I tried to see the world through my daughter’s eyes. Everything in our house was out of reach, which made Sasha completely dependent on the adults. I set up our home so that she could move about independently of me. She had small chairs and a table, low shelves with a range of activities and toys that I made and bought, low shelves with snacks and water that she could reach when she desired. I put a few stools around the house so that she could easily have access to things that were out of reach. With a room full of varied and accessible activities Sasha now had the possibility of exploring these areas according to her natural inclinations. She had control over her own learning, and I was now able to begin my observations.

I learned a great deal about detachment from the principle of “following the child.” I say “detachment” because sometimes I tend to interfere with my daughter’s activities, imposing my will rather than trusting her natural choices. There is a balance between guiding her and giving her the freedom to choose, but for now I’m focusing on trying to understand the underlying lessons in all the activities she engages in. For example, when I sit down to play with Sasha I notice that all she wants to do is have a picnic (her latest fascination). She loves to lay down a blanket, bring her basket full of fruits and vegetables, and sit down with me and her teddy bear for a picnic. I’ve come to understand that there are great lessons for her in this activity. For example, during our picnic Sasha handed out slices of apple to me and her bear; She was practicing being considerate and learning to share. She was practicing Math when she counted how many “people” were having a picnic and then counted how many slices of apples she had. She learned that she needed one more slice so that everyone could have a piece; She was learning generosity, detachment, and kindness when she gave the only two pieces of apple to me and her bear and left none for herself.

The first time I introduced a Montessori activity to Sasha she was one year and five months old. It was really the first time I had seen her focus and be completely immersed in what she was doing. The activity consisted of scooping uncooked beans from one bowl and putting them in another with a spoon. In this simple activity she was developing her fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, and was accustoming her eyes to movement from left to right (the order of her scooping) which would later prepare her for reading and writing. I learned that the most important part of engaging in an activity was the process of doing it–not the end result–because it was this process that would help her acquire skills.

My daughter suddenly was engaged in working on an activity for more than two minutes. The issue wasn’t that she couldn’t concentrate on anything, as I had once thought, it was that she was concentrating on everything! The challenge was providing her with enough varied activities to choose from. And I had found them. Sasha was increasing her concentration, developing important skills, and having fun at the same time. And I was learning about the powerful tool and art of observation. I was loving Montessori. But there was something missing: I didn’t know why this method worked, and I was longing to get to the root of the issue of how children learn.

An Evolutionary Perspective

Some time later I was introduced to education from an evolutionary perspective by my Professor, Gary Bernhard. While reading his book, Primates in the Classroom (1988), I found the answer. What I came to understand is that over hundreds of thousands of years, through evolution, human beings have developed specific ways of learning which have influenced how children learn today. Children have been learning through observation, imitation, play and exploration. What children saw and experienced throughout the day was what they became as adults.

Toys versus Tools

Children need to understand how the things they do in life relate to the adult world. The children of our ancestors built their own “toys” which were actually replicas of adult tools. Their form of play consisted of creating their own miniature version of the adult world, experimenting with the various tools, observing and playing, and imitating the adults. As a result, by a very early age (around six years old) children were already very useful and helpful members of their society. I couldn’t help but contrast that scenario with what happens today where children are generally not exposed to the working adults and are not taught to be part of daily activities and chores until they are around six years old when they begin school.

I realized through Sasha’s eagerness to do things by herself and to help out with household activities that the desire to be useful continues to be a strong need in human beings today. I took a look at some of my daughters toys (the non-Montessori ones) and realized they had no connection to the real world. Her toys had no resemblance to real-life tools. The plastic, push-the-button toys were designed mostly for entertainment, and only a few minutes of entertainment. I realized that if I was to continue to raise my daughter using the conventional methods and toys, she would have no connection with the adult world. For what was I preparing her then? I wanted to help her have a glimpse of how society functioned and how she could fit into it and be useful even at her age.

Dr. Montessori explains that children need this sense of purpose and that when given the option between toys or tools, children choose tools (Montessori, 1967). That is not to say that children shouldn’t have toys, but that we need to look at the quality and purpose of the toys.

The Montessori method encourages toys made of natural elements, such as wood. When I compared natural toys with plastic ones, I found a world of difference. Even adults are attracted to these natural objects. There is something comforting in the feel of the wood; there is weight, texture and smell. A child who has plastic toys has no way to assess the material they are made of, which makes for a learning experience that isn’t as rich. I noticed that Sasha was more careful with her beautiful, heavy toys. She didn’t just drop them on the floor when she was done. She learned the gentleness that comes with taking care of something beautiful.

In order to help my daughter prepare for and have a sense of purpose in an adult world, something which children naturally desire, I decided to include her, as much as I could, in the workings of life. Any process I, or other adults, were involved with, I did my best to explain to her and to let her participate in. For example, when we go to the grocery store she takes her own little shopping cart and loads it up with some of the things on our list. We talk about the food we see and where it all comes from. We talk about the farmers who help us by growing the food, and, depending on the season, we plant things together. We talk about the people who pick the fruits and vegetables and those who transport the produce to the stores. When we have the chance, we go apple or blueberry picking. Finally, we talk about the people that unload all the produce at the grocery store and how they put all the food out for the customers to see and buy. And when we pass by the grocers who are putting produce in the displays, I point the grocers out and tell her we must thank them for all the work they do. She begins to understand, not only to be appreciative of people and their work, but also that what she used to think magically appeared somewhere was actually the result of many people, doing many different jobs.


Movement is an essential requirement in the learning process. Our nomadic foraging ancestors were constantly on the move because it was required for survival. Dr. Montessori also discusses the importance of movement and explains that it is essential for learning because a child is made up of both mind and body, and to think of one without the other is to “break the continuity that should reign between them” (Montessori, 1995, p.141). Formal schooling was introduced only about two hundred years ago, when children who once roamed freely were required to stop the movement so necessary for exploration and learning, and stillness and quietness were suddenly the new standards of children’s behavior. If children learn by actively participating in acquiring their knowledge, and if they do so through imitation, exploration, play and observation, then the assumption that learning is best done in a quiet, still environment is an incorrect one. “There is no necessary gap between the processes of social development that satisfy biologically based needs and the processes of intellectual development that prepare children for life in the modern world” (Bernhard, 1988, p.138).

I took a look around my house and realized there were many barriers that restricted my daughter’s movement. The things that apparently were created for our children’s protection, (cribs, playpens, strollers, security gates, etc.) were restricting her ability to move and explore. How could I be protecting my daughter when I was depriving her of these experiences? I decided to get rid of the restrictive objects. Not surprisingly, I soon found my life to be chaotic. I was constantly after my daughter getting her out of trouble. But many lessons came from this disruption in my life.

House-Proof the Child

I removed all dangerous objects, such as poisons and household cleaning supplies, and then stepped out of Sasha’s way to let her explore. This action required a lot of my attention, energy, and time, but Sasha was in heaven. She was able to go to all the once-inaccessible places, open the once-locked, forbidden cupboards, explore to her heart’s content. The security gates and playpens, I realized, were for my own comfort. They made it possible for me to contain and deprive her of valuable lessons in the name of “safety.”

When it came to other dangers that I couldn’t remove, such as the stove, I decided to teach Sasha about them, rather then keep her away from them. I talked to her about fire and things that are hot, and how fire burns and hurts. I realize now that not only was she learning that fire was dangerous, she was also learning that not everything in a house is safe. She was learning to recognize dangers and learning how to avoid and handle them. I was giving her discernment so that if she was ever alone, she had the tools to know how to act.

I decided that if I was going to remove the gates and teach Sasha “freedom with responsibility” (an important Montessori principle), I would also return the beautiful, delicate objects that I had once removed so she wouldn’t break them. By removing these objects I had been depriving my daughter of beauty and art, and of learning self-control. Instead, I showed her how to look at and care for these beautiful things. On one occasion I let her hold a delicate, ceramic frog made in Costa Rica. She knew she had to sit down and handle it with care. Her eyes were filled with awe as she took in the smoothness and the beautiful, bright colors. When she was finished she carefully handed it back to me. I could tell that she was proud that she had taken such good care of it. I sensed then that by giving her responsibilities, Sasha felt important and trusted.

A Spiritual Education

As a member of the Baha’i Faith I believe peace is not only possible, but inevitable. Humanity will come to recognize the principle of the oneness of mankind, “a spiritual truth which all the human sciences confirm” (UHJ, 1985). If I am to prepare my daughter to be an adult in this day and to contribute to the process of unification, it is through a spiritual education.

I am teaching my daughter to become aware that she is a spiritual being and that she must act on this awareness. In other words, it is not sufficient to know we are spiritual beings, we must act as spiritual beings by using the tools of the virtues. I’m teaching Sasha awareness of the virtues, of their power and beauty. I’m teaching her how to express the virtues in various situations and which virtue is applicable to which situation. I hope that the virtues are built into a strong foundation in her life, rather than simply embellishing her character.

Some ways to help my daughter put the virtues into action are to teach her
to be friendly when she sees people who dress or look differently; when she sees someone who is sad, to comfort that person; when she sees someone who is lonely, to befriend him or her; to teach her about all religions and that they all come from the same God, with the hope that she will consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of love and fellowship; to teach her about the cultures of the world so they won’t seem foreign to her, and so on. In this way I’m teaching my daughter to have a vision that is world-embracing rather than confined to herself, to love the world, not just her country. I am teaching her that her worth lies in service and virtue, and that through pure and goodly deeds she can contribute to building a new civilization that will bring about peace. I’m teaching her to think “at all times of rendering some service to every member of the human race” (Abdu’l-Baha, 1982, p. 3).

Raising my daughter has been an inner spiritual journey for me as well. Because children learn through observation, I’ve learned that teaching through example is more effective than teaching through words. I have to model the virtues I’m teaching her.

World-Proof the Child

In writing this paper I’ve come to another realization about equipping our children for the real world. In the same way I prepared my daughter to explore the house safely, so must I prepare her to explore the world. Even if I wanted to, there is no way for me to put up a “security gate” and child-proof the world to protect her. There are innumerable things that I don’t want her exposed to, but my job is to give her the tools to recognize dangers and the spiritual foundation and discernment to recognize right from wrong.

Because of my daughter’s ceaseless energy and curiosity, I became just as energetic and curious about a “solution.” When I found the solution I realized it was I who needed fixing. Our children are wired to survive, and while they don’t have much knowledge of the world, they know exactly how to get it, if we only give them the opportunity. Children can’t learn about the world if we create an artificial, restraining environment around them.

I recently read a comment by a developmental molecular biologist, Dr. John Medina, who said that the brain is not interested in learning; it is interested in surviving. So what does it take to survive in this new global community? If I believe, as I do, that mankind is moving forward toward a unified society, then I know that educating children to be tolerant, to find the commonality in the human family, and to become champions of Justice is a means for survival in this new world.

I’ve learned that in a child-centered environment, where children participate in daily chores and general workings of life, adults are sending the message that children are useful and trusted. There is great responsibility and self-esteem that comes when one is trusted. A child who has not been given this opportunity is having nothing asked of him. What must a child think of a world that requires little of him?

In implementing an evolutionary perspective to my daughter’s education I have learned that I must expose her to the workings of the world, to give her a larger context in which to view her learning, to give her an opportunity to be actively involved in the adult world, and I have come to understand that she learns best through play, exploration, observation and imitation. In implementing the Montessori method I have learned about the art of observing and becoming detached enough to allow my daughter to choose the activities she is naturally drawn to, to trust that children choose the activities they need for further development, and of the importance of providing an environment filled with beauty and art. In implementing a Spiritual approach to education I have been able to distinguish between the less desirable goal of raising children for the purpose of fighting their way to the top of a competitive society, and the more desirable goal of raising children to know that they are noble human beings who can contribute to and bring forth an ever-advancing civilization.


Abdu’l-Baha (1982). Selection From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha. Wilmette, IL: Baha’i Publishing Trust.

Bernhard, J. Gary (1988). Primates in the Classroom. Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press

Medina, John (2008). Brain Rules. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Montessori, Maria (1995). The Absorbent Mind. New York, NY: Henry Holt.

The Universal House of Justice (1985). The Promise of World Peace. Retrieved on 3/10/09 from:

28 June 2009

Justice and the Independent Investigation of Reality

Of the many ideas propounded by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, among the most appealing and distinctive is the independent investigation of reality. With this principle, He called His listeners to think for themselves, explore new ideas, and break free from the out-moded standards prevailing around them. He presents it as essential to the realization of the hopes expressed in His writings and talks: the ennobling of humanity, the harmony of science and religion, universal peace, the unity of the world’s religions, the recognition of Baha’u’llah as the Manifestation of God for today. Evident throughout His Father’s writings, this principle is linked to the idea of justice. From the Hidden Words the reader finds: The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice... By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor;[1] and in “the Words of Wisdom” The essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye.[2] This connection with justice illustrates the role independent investigation must play in the establishment of God’s justice.

Independent investigation finds its opposite in imitation, the basic problem of which is its overly social nature. Imitation is to look to the deeds and sayings of one’s peers, past and present, rather than to the insight one could have into the real conditions under consideration. With imitation, people are content to do what everyone else is doing. This can come through the reproduction of patterns inherited from past generations or, in another sense, through their very dissolution. The unending parade of trends and fashions, new technologies and consumer good is just as indictable, inasmuch as it can be characterized by the unthinking imitation of one’s peers. In this way, social bonds and antagonisms take great precedence. In turn, they are increasingly received as natural, inevitable, perhaps even sacred. ‘Abdu’l-Baha warns of the danger this poses in one of His many statements on World War I.

And the breeding-ground of all these tragedies is prejudice: prejudice of race and nation, of religion, of political opinion; and the root cause of prejudice is blind imitation of the past—imitation in religion, in racial attitudes, in national bias, in politics. So long as this aping of the past persisteth, just so long will the foundations of the social order be blown to the four winds, just so long will humanity be continually exposed to direst peril.[3]

‘Abdu’l-Baha’s teachings on this principle are founded on the notion that humans can have knowledge of a unique reality. Imitation holds people from this firm cord, allowing them to drift in the proliferation of differences. But for ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and indeed the entire Baha’i faith, humanity is not doomed to clashes of opinion, religion, ideology, or culture. Shared knowledge of a common reality can serve as a basis for the unity of the human race.

Among these teachings was the independent investigation of reality so that the world of humanity may be saved from the darkness of imitation and attain to the truth; may tear off and cast away this ragged and outgrown garment of a thousand years ago and may put on the robe woven in the utmost purity and holiness in the loom of reality. As reality is one and cannot admit of multiplicity, therefore different opinions must ultimately become fused into one.[4]

It is easy to mistake the expression “independent investigation of reality” as tolerance, even encouragement, of the proliferation of different perspectives. Certainly, it implies that one must not force one’s views on another. But it also requires that people strive for agreement on the basis that there is one reality that all are to investigate using their own intelligence. This is not to dismiss differences, as if they are entirely superficial or insubstantial, that with a bit of reflection they can easily be surmounted; or to confuse difference with conflict or violence. ‘Abdu’l-Baha is famous for celebrating the frank and loving exchange of views. And whether it be in His promotion of modernization in Iran (notably in The Secret of Divine Civilization) or the manner in which He introduced Western believers into the predominantly Middle Eastern Baha’i community, ‘Abdu’l-Baha never settled for cultural imperialism. The independent investigation of reality proceeds as a de-socialization of thought rather than the imposition of one social position over others. The idea is that earnest and thoughtful investigation can expose errors and misunderstandings left to fester when imitation holds sway. When a great number of people live and act by this principle, their views will become increasingly harmonious. Similarly, the “independent” nature of this investigation does not mean it is performed alone or without the assistance of others. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s frequent promotion of consultation demonstrates this beyond a doubt. In passage after passage, independent investigation is opposed to imitation, not cooperation. Any collaborative inquiry by which participants actively engage their own intelligence is clearly acceptable within this framework. Indeed, taken with ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s statements on consultation, it would be preferable.

People must show an effort so as to become more knowledgeable about what’s happening around them. They must develop those capacities, latent within the human form, that allow them to discover and meditate upon their situation. This is another way in which the establishment of God’s justice requires the deployment of specifically human powers. In one piece of correspondence ‘Abdu’l-Baha praises two of His followers for displaying the independent investigation of reality. For the imitator saith that such a man hath seen, such a man hath heard, and such a conscience hath discovered; in other words he dependeth upon the sight, the hearing and the conscience of others and hath no will of his own. Now, praise be to God, ye have shown will-power and have turned to the Sun of Truth.[5] Worth noting is that people do not imitate others at random. It is often tied into structures of power, within which certain individuals are deemed more worthy of imitation than others. It is assumed that these individuals are more qualified to take the lead. Therefore, for the sake of unity, the great majority should hold back their own insight in deferment to the views of these elite few; which is not to say that even this small group are necessarily united amongst themselves. This, of course, is referring to clericalism; and more specifically, to the history of Shia Islam and the direct endorsement of imitation encountered therein. With this as His context, ‘Abdu’l-Baha is discussing universal participation in a way that includes not only the labor of the masses, but their insight and discernment as well. The independent investigation of reality is a principle by means of which human thought can become a rallying point for the realization of God’s justice.
[1] HWA 2
[2] TB p.156
[3] SWAB 202.3-4
[4] Ibid 227.7
[5] Ibid 14.1-2

The Divine Plan and the Independent Investigation of Reality

There are a great many examples from the life of ‘Abdu’l-Baha in which He demonstrates independent investigation of reality. Of these, one will be examined, inasmuch as it illustrates the powerful role that action must play in this process. It comes from Tablets of the Divine Plan, where in His tablet of 21 February 1917 addressed to the Baha’is of Canada and Greenland He discusses His 1912 visit to Montreal. He recounts that before he departed for Canada many advised him not to travel to that city. He summarizes their objections, writing that “the majority of the inhabitants are Catholics, and are in the utmost fanaticism, that they are submerged in the sea of imitations, that they have not the capability to hearken to the call of the Kingdom of God, that the veil of bigotry has so covered the eyes that they have deprived themselves from beholding the signs of the Most Great Guidance, and that the dogmas have taken possession of the hearts entirely, leaving no trace of reality.[1] In short, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s acquaintances did not believe the people of Montreal were capable of observing the cherished principle under consideration. They believed He should not bother with this city and should focus on other populations. He, no doubt, listened intently to these concerns. But, He writes, these stories did not have any effect on the resolution of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. He, trusting in God, turned his face toward Montreal. When he entered that city he observed all the doors open, he found the hearts in the utmost receptivity and the ideal power of the Kingdom of God removing every obstacle and obstruction. It was possible that the concerns of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s acquaintances were well founded. In which case, the visit could have been a grinding disappointment. The unreceptivity of that population could be established based on an engagement with real conditions. But that does not seem to be how His acquaintances came to their conclusions. What is more likely, is that their concerns were animated largely by prejudice; a prejudice about the prejudice of others. The best way to investigate the reality of this situation is to put forth the effort and actually teach amongst the people of Montreal. It is then possible to test whether they are in the utmost fanaticism, lack the capability to hearken to the call of the Kingdom of God or if dogmas have taken possession of the hearts entirely. As it happened, they were not. ‘Abdu’l-Baha was greatly impressed with the receptivity of those He encountered. He writes that he found no antagonist and no adversary and that [t]he believers he met in that city were in the utmost spirituality, and attracted with the fragrances of God. Had he taken His acquaintances at their word, merely imitating the received views of His hosts, the reality of the situation could not have been disclosed. Prejudice would have, once more, been reinforced. By showing forth an effort to test these expectations, He made it an occasion for his followers to learn not just about unfamiliar peoples but also about the attitudes they held about them.

Abdu’l Baha mentions that, though His visit was very short, the seeds He scattered would produce great harvests. He concludes this section with His wish for this community. Therefore I hope that in the future Montreal may become so stirred, that the melody of the Kingdom may travel to all parts of the world from that Dominion and the breaths of the Holy Spirit may spread from that center to the East and the West of America. Among the members of this community was Mary Maxwell, daughter of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s hosts May and Sutherland Maxwell, more widely known as Ruhiyyih Khanum Rabbani, Hand of the Cause of God and wife of Shoghi Effendi. Later in her life she traveled the world, promoting the Baha’i Faith and assisting local communities, no matter how isolated, in their own efforts to bring the faith to the masses of humanity. Gauging the profound and reverberating effect of these visits is a task far beyond the confines of this discussion. What can be said is that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit was no doubt worthwhile.
[1] TDP 13.3 p. 93-4

27 June 2009

Inchoate Reflections on the Baha'i Institute Process

I was engaged in the discussion forum "Planet Baha'i" and we were talking about the institute process. There seems to be strong feelings on both sides as to its value. Here were some of my thoughts mostly in response to others...in no particular order.

When I learned about the institute process, it was like a breath of fresh air to me. When me and others (mostly in my age group) started promoting this in our community, we found stiff resistance with the LSA and most elders of the community. I couldn't understand, this was direct guidance from the UHJ, and it made so much sense to me. Now the LSA is fully on board and are magnificent. Still though many in our community feel alienated by the process. We need to do a better job helping people find their unique path of service.

I had always thought of future Baha'i expansion and influence as something magical, nothing that I could relate to my own observations of the Baha'i community. But then there was this process which seemed to (and still does) provide the links between now and world transformation. Even now, I see the steps that will get us there, and they require a lot of work and focus, but they aren't supernatural, they are very practical. Moreover, they draw upon some of the most innovative approaches to education and experiential, phronetic, and context dependent community development, learning, and capacity building.

I too found Ruhi 1 to be rudimentary the first time I did it. But with a mix of people, especially those hearing the teachings for the first time, it is often very profound and excessively challenging. Even for deepened Baha’is, it is easy to have read that "Truthfulness the foundation of all human virtues", but to actually discuss the real life implications is useful for everybody, especially when there is the clash of opinion and conceptual framework. Then there are the service components, which also seems easy. But if we do them completely, fully accounting for the injunctions like the one I mentioned, or "Let your heart burn with loving kindness for all who may cross your path", it gets to be a lot more challenging.

It is also important to remember that Ruhi came from cycles and cycles of systematic learning, action, and reflection. This is the same thing we are doing now in our cycles of growth. And who knows, the materials of the future might come from the very experiences we are having now. We just needed to get the process jump-started, which required a pre-designed institute process. The US has had a lot of catching up to do, but we will get there, and when we do we will lead the world spiritually. All it takes is some faith and determination.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that we are in a learning process and need to be patient with each other. The institute was created for a good reason, there needed to be some cohesion in our efforts that seemed lost in the 80's and 90's. On the other hand some people might be overzealous in their interpretation of the guidance, and demand that everybody fall into narrow categories of service.

I heard a great talk on my Pilgrimage by a House member. He was saying that the core activities right now will not be the core activities in the future. The point is to make them so much a part of our identity that they become second nature, kind of like Feast and the Holy Days. When they do become part of the fabric, then we will be ready to engage in more creative and complex acts of service in the community. But, we need to crawl and walk before we can run. Sometimes obedience is the best medicine, even if it doesn't make sense.

Just a personal reflection from somebody in their mid 20's. The effects of the institute process for me have been amazing. So many people have joined the faith in our community through both direct teaching and the Ruhi process. The people who are coming in are not just those who are extremely interested to begin with, but those who feel their life changing through a process of true investigation and relationship building. I think we have a lot of baggage as a community and a lot of cultural norms that will be upended as new people with different backgrounds and baggage come in.

It is the job of the Area Teaching Committee, Auxiliary Board Member, LSA, etc to worry about the large scale trend in the community. For the rest of us, we can carve out a niche that is meaningful to us. With a little creativity, we can also align it with the goals of the 5 year plan. In my community (Albuquerque, NM) there is also an ongoing dialogue as to the nature of the five year plan, some people look to apply it with 20 degree clarity and others are looking backwards, hearkening to the old days. I have found the most success cultivating small scale friendships and discussion groups.

For example, we have a study circle that started with 3 long time Baha’is, two brand new Baha’i’s, and 3 seekers. At the beginning the facilitator made it clear that the first and foremost intention was to create (many didn't know each other) and strengthen relationships. Everybody has a strikingly different temperament and conceptual vantage point. Sure we followed Ruhi protocol for the most part, but that was really just one of the means by which we explored spiritual AND profane subjects that were interesting to us, which was itself just a means by which we became very good friends and generated small scale cultural space

Ideally, the Institute process is supposed to be a process of reflection/action/reflection where cultural and practical knowledge is generated in a systematic manner. This did occur in Columbia, and Ruhi was the result, but I see where you are coming from, that was their process, not ours, we are being told to use it as a tool to jump start coherent development.

Just my opinion, but Ruhi, with all its strengths and flaws, is more important for the process than the content. Once the process becomes second nature to us, then we can better insert our own cultural dynamism and produce our own content must stronger than before.

I think you are saying that content is important too. No? Well okay, but it is the process of content (knowledge) generation that is the most exciting. It requires all the fruits of previous knowledge, and gets blended up into experiential learning, which is very bottom up (Ruhi, a bottom up fruit resulting in top down application is meant as a jump start of our own engine of phronesis).

Of course Ruhi is also valuable as a tool by which we systematically deepen large numbers of folks in the writings, and in each other. So yes content is important too.

I hear a lot from baby-boomers that things were so much more vibrant in the 70's and 80's. That is my parent’s generation, and growing up with two artists has given me a great appreciation for that time in American history. On the other hand, I and a lot of others in my age group also see a lot of missed opportunities. It seems to be that vibrancy overpowered practicality and sustainability. A lot of people entered the faith because it was cool, but not many stayed because there was no support infrastructure, there was no systematic way to deepen the new believers in a context of service. That is why young people my age (in their 20's) are kind of frustrated with our parent’s generation more generally. It feels as if they are always reminding us how much cooler things were, yet we can't see much to show for it now.
We want something that is dynamic, but also something that is coherent and sustainable, something that lasts.

Yeah, I think the LSA’s role is changing quickly. Right now it might seem as if it is sitting in the background, but soon I believe a more exalted form will emerge out of the fog. One thing they have that the appointed cluster bodies don't have nearly as much is authority, experience, and the trust of the community. This is extremely important, especially as vast numbers of people enter the faith with vast quantities of baggage. The institute is the engine of growth, but the LSA are the bolts that hold the car together

23 June 2009

The Frustration Materialist Have With Imprecise Spiritual Language

It is refreshing to hear a discussion of sincere agnostics discuss the prospects of spirituality and God in light of a scientific orientation. If you have the time definitely watch it:


I think for Baha'i's who start with a spiritual orientation, it is easy to accept science as a welcome complement. We have certain assumptions that make them easily compatible.

I am one of those people. I have always had an intuitive feeling about spirituality; it has always seemed second nature. So then, the language I used is couched in the assumption of spiritual reality, even in a scientific discussion.

I realize more now that many people do not contain any such intuition naturally. Nothing is assumed, and for them discussing spirituality with a believer of any religion can be very frustrating, because the language is different. The word "spirituality" is frustrating because it contains a metaphysical assumption, even before the discussion starts. To them "spirituality" is just a fancy word for moral inspiration predicated upon a belief in eternal purpose and accountability, the predisposition of which can be explained by biological and cultural evolution. How much more frustrating for somebody like a Baha'i to claim harmony of science and religion so easily, while using sloppy and imprecise language to justify it.

Part of the Baha'i belief in "progressive revelation" is that we must always reinterpret and refine our beliefs based upon evolving evolutionary capacity and scientific development. It is a pursuit that I hope to keep exploring and writing about in more detail. That is, wiping away the baggage of popular interpretation of the Baha'i writings, and understanding them again in a more detached and analytical manner. Of course this aproach has its limits; subjectivity and experience is indespensible to making any logical value judgement. And really in the end it is a matter of faith either for or against belief. In any case, I believe that faith in its true form, is the opposite of delusion.

07 June 2009

St. Paul the CEO of Brand Jesus and Other Adventures in Accidental Morality

Wright, an agnostic evolutionary biologist argues that the brotherly love of the Bible was a social revolution arising from utilitarian impulses.

This is a common argument among evolutionary biologists, but Wright puts an interesting spin on it while trying to sell his theory to the religiously inclined.

"And if history naturally produces moral insight—however mundane the machinery that mediates its articulation—then maybe some overarching purpose is built into the human endeavor after all."

It goes on to view St. Paul's preaching in this light.

"Why all the kin talk? Because Paul wasn’t satisfied to just have a congregation in Corinth; he wanted to set up franchises—congregations of Jesus followers—in cities across the Roman Empire. These imperial aspirations, it turns out, infused Paul’s preaching with an emphasis on brotherly love that it might never have acquired had Paul been content to run a single mom-and-pop store"

I think he overreaches in his argument that it wasn't so much Jesus that preached brotherly love, but Paul and other followers who taught it in order to be more successful with the Jesus franchise. It also belittles Paul's profound religious inspiration that the Jewish identity of distinctiveness was not as important as the new Christ spirit which made everbody equal and the community better because of their diversity. The essay eventually leads to his final argument that in today's world, pragmatism should convince people of all faiths to embrace a sense of universal brotherhood.

"For all three Abrahamic faiths, then, tolerance and even amity across ethnic and national bounds have a way of emerging as a product of utility; when you can do well by doing good, doing good can acquire a scriptural foundation. This flexibility is heartening for those who believe that, in a highly globalized and interdependent world, the vast majority of people in all three Abrahamic faiths have more to gain through peaceful coexistence and cooperation than through intolerance and violence. If ancient Abrahamics could pen laudable scriptures that were in their enlightened self-interest, then maybe modern Abrahamics can choose to emphasize those same scriptures when it’s in their interest. And if some people find it dispiriting that moral good should emerge from self-interest, maybe they should think again. At least, the Abrahamics among them should think again. The Hebrew Bible, considered a holy text by all three Abrahamic faiths, sees the pragmatic value of virtue as itself part of divine design."

While I agree with the ends, again, I think it is shallow to present this case as an appeal to more narrow self interests. Humans have the capacity to not just tolerate, but actively embrace those of a different background. I am not here to argue whether these religions were divinely inspired, a result of psychological and social need, or both. But it does seem to me, based upon his argument, that if the current great religions cannot get out of their shell and embrace universal unity in diversity, then either a new pragmatic moral ethos, or a new more progresssive revelation is needed. I believe that they both already exist in a highly coherant framework within the Baha'i Faith.