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


  1. thank u for the insight. here in SEAsia we are are having a great challenge in motivation and sustainability. If u dont mind, we would like to use your report for our reflexion meetings and our newsletter. Hopefully it will stimulate our community. Thanks a million.

  2. Melmel,

    By all means, please use this report in whatever way you find useful. I wish you the best in your service, and in the progress of your region of SEAsia. We all face challenges, but we must persevere and be creative in our approach. I think that overcoming these tests are just as important as the final outcomes, both individually and collectively.


  3. Two years ago I posted an article at several sites on the internet. The article has been revised and is now 70,000 words and 150pages. It can be found at Baha'i Library Online(BLO). the article's title is: The Baha'i Culture of Learning and Growth: A Paradigm Change. Go to: BLO>By author>type Price in the little box, click on the word "Go." Then scroll down to document #46.-Ron price, Tasmania

  4. This book is now 400 pages and 175 thousand words with its reflections and understandings regarding the new culture, what amounts to a paradigmatic shift, in the Baha’i community which it has been going through from 1996 to 2011.

  5. LSAs also have the advantage of knowing the Baha'is in their own communities better than those constituting the ATCs and so can often perceive how to best assist and accompany a person who is on the threshold of service in one or more of the skills (we Baha'is are working on developing), so that service/skill-development can be quickly jump-started. I think LSAs, ATCs, and Institute coordinators - rather than paralysis from questions about jurisdictions - are slowly learning how to fluid partners and close collaborators in the same overall work and goals.