29 July 2010

The Power of Our Souls

This year, 2010, will perhaps be remembered by Baha'is as a year of transition. In it's annual Ridvan message the Universal House of Justice educated the Baha'i world about a fuller context for the endeavors in which it is currently engaged. They outlined three broad areas of action in which the Cause of Baha'u'llah operates: expansion and consolidation, social action, and contributing to the prevalent discourses of society. The first area, expansion and consolidation, consists in connecting souls to Baha'u'llah and walking with them on a path of spiritual service. The second, social action is a natural outgrowth of the first. All humans are endowed with both a body and a soul. It is not enough to just promote the prosperity of the soul. Society must also be transformed so as to better care for our material needs as well. Spiritual and material civilization must go hand-in-hand. Finally, as social action becomes more and more effective, participants will naturally be drawn into ongoing conversations within society regarding issues such as climate change, education, or medicine.

27 July 2010

Taking Charge of Our Own Spiritual Progress

In order for education to be successful, effective means of assessing student learning must be devised. Otherwise, it will be very diffficult to see what areas need improvement. In schools this typically means holding written examinations in which students work individually to answer multiple-choice questions, fill in blanks, and write short paragraphs in response to very direct instructions. Assessment requires that learning be made visible, that outcomes conform to agreed-upon social conventions. Assessing spiritual education, however, is a completely different matter, especially inasmuch as it is pursued with the aim of empowerment.

In large part, this is because true spirituality eludes social conformity.

25 July 2010

The Universal House of Justice's Vision for Global Action

I'd like to share some thoughts on the classical philosophical tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community; the local and the global. I think the Universal House of Justice has given the world a creative way of negotiating this dynamic. Often times, we hear people use the expression "Think Globally. Act Locally." It's an intriguing expression. But for me, it raises the question: why isn't it "Think Globally. Act Globally?" After all, wouldn't a global vision of social change require a global program of action? How can a global thought give rise to a local action?

Obviously there's a lot of problems with top-down remedies, especially when we're thinking about the need to forge a world order adequate to our global interdependence. Top down remedies generally involve outsiders coming into a community and dictating what changes should be made. Not only is it rude, arrogant, and disempowering. Top-down remedies can be really ineffective if they don't take into account the unique needs of a community. Forms of economic development in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia as they have been pursued by multinational corporations, governments, and international agencies since the colonial era provide a number of examples; mining projects that send all their profits either to outside investors or a local warlord; or transitioning agriculture from food production to inedible cash crops whose market-value can easily collapse, leaving farmers with neither money nor food.

Individuals, communities, and institutions need to be involved at the local level generating knowledge and putting into practice projects that fit their needs. But it’s important not to throw out the baby of global coordination with the bathwater of top-down remedies.

24 July 2010

Cyberspace and the Possibility for Action

One of the most peculiar features of the internet is the way it reconfigures conceptions of social space. People move about and interact with each other in cyberspace but the powers and limitations thereof are very different than in geographic space. On the one hand, its possible to converse with people on the other side of the planet and share knowledge in ways that weren't possible in the days of mere paper letters or the telephone. On the other hand, there are some things that can only be done in person. For example, a class for the spiritual education of children cannot be held over the internet.

I give that example, because it highlights what I think is a major challenge for communities as more and more of its individuals, especially young people, spend large amounts of time online. It seems to me the internet has created seemingly infinite possibilities for the proliferation of words and high-minded conversation, but only allows for a marginal increase in the capacity to perform deeds. Many will argue that social networking sites are making it easier to plan and mobilize supporter to take action. But I can't help but wonder if those new powers are being offset by the social atomization inherent to using a computer; especially since the vast majority of time on social networking sites is not used for promoting social causes but for wasting time in obviously frivolous activities.

23 July 2010

Baha'i Thought

This is a great post from a while back on Baha'i Thought. It addresses the dehumanizing impact pornography has on men and women, but especially women. I found the quotations from the Universal House of Justice, 'Abdu'l-Baha, and Baha'u'llah, particularly moving in this context.

I recommend this blog to anyone who isn't already aware of it. The main blogger and his assistant have their fingers on the pulse of humanity and excel at correlating the needs of our age with insights from Baha'u'llah's Revelation.


20 July 2010

Is Usury Good?

My wife and I are currently studying the informal credit market in Morocco as part of a worldwide study aimed at improving the provision of microfinance. It has gotten me thinking about usury, a term which by the original Latin definition simply means the charging interest on loans, although more recently it has referred to the charging of unreasonable or deceptive amounts. So is usury good (going by the original definition)?

It has a mixed and controversial history. Since Wikipedia has an excellent recap of it, and since I just lost 2 hours worth of work writing about it, I will just give a brief outline. Some of the ancient civilizations, including Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia saw it as legitimate and natural, within certain limits. More recently, philosophers, prophets, clergy, and others have considered it wicked and exploitative. The Torah allowed Jews to charge interest only to foreigners, which led to them being the primary financiers (and scapegoats) during much of the European middle ages when they were denied entry into most other occupations. Jesus never explicitly forbid it, although he did make numerous references to charity. The Quran on the other hand explicitly prohibited usury.
"Those who charge usury are in the same position as those controlled by the devil's influence. This is because they claim that usury is the same as commerce. However, God permits commerce, and prohibits usury. Thus, whoever heeds this commandment from his Lord, and refrains from usury, he may keep his past earnings, and his judgment rests with God. As for those who persist in usury, they incur Hell, wherein they abide forever 
God condemns usury, and blesses charities.God dislikes every disbeliever, guilty. Lo! those who believe and do good works and establish worship and pay the poor-due, their reward is with their Lord and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. O you who believe, you shall observe God and refrain from all kinds of usury, if you are believers. If you do not, then expect a war from God and His messenger. But if you repent, you may keep your capitals, without inflicting injustice, or incurring injustice. If the debtor is unable to pay, wait for a better time. If you give up the loan as a charity, it would be better for you, if you only knew."
-Al-Baqarah 2:275-280

19 July 2010

Bahá'u'lláh and the Bahá'ís

It seems to me that members of the Bahá’í Faith may find it useful to find other ways of describing themselves than just as “Bahá’ís.”

After all, we could just say we’re human beings dedicated to following the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. Or if somebody asks us our religion, we could say something like “I strive with others to put into practice teachings I believe God has revealed for us through Baha’u’llah.” The word Bahá’í is, of course, much shorter and easier to say. But in a great number of situations, I think it’s too short.

I think speaking in a more descriptive manner would express more of what the word Bahá’í is supposed to mean.

17 July 2010

The Fruit of Recognizing Baha'u'llah

There a number of passages from the Universal House of Justice's 2010 Ridvan message that I have found very thought provoking. One of them regards the relationship between those who are and aren't members of the Baha'i community in building a future world civilization. In one section, the House of Justice writes,
Yet every human being and every group of individuals, irrespective of whether they are counted among His followers, can take inspiration from His teachings, benefitting from whatever gems of wisdom and knowledge will aid them in addressing the challenges they face. Indeed the civilization that beckons humanity will not be attained through the efforts of the Baha'i community alone. Numerous groups and organizations, animated by the spirit of world solidarity that is an indirect manifestation of Baha'u'llah's conception of the principle of the oneness of humankind, will contribute to the civilization destined to emerge out of the welter and chaos of present-day society.

15 July 2010

Systematic neglect of art requires its systematic celebration.

Open your mind’s eye, see your great and present need. Rise up and struggle, seek education, seek enlightenment.
-'Abdu'l-Baha The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 91

For a long time now I've been a big believer that the very fact of living demands a sense of urgency. I can never be alive yesterday or tomorrow. So long as I am alive, I am alive today. And whatever I do, I do it today. Living by this axiom involves taking a sceptical eye towards delaying anything for a later time. Many things of course do require waiting if they are to be done right. But living in this way requires unmasking unconscious attempts to hide lethargy behind supposedly high-minded concerns about logistics and "wisdom." In this vein Langston Hughes wrote, "A dream deferred is a dream denied." And similarly, Simone de Beauvoir had no kind words for those who, immediately after the liberation of France from Nazi Germany, felt it was inappropriate to celebrate while the country still faced so many challenges. One song that I've always felt has expressed this urgency for living is "Today" by the Smashing Pumpkins; especially its chorus "Today is the greatest day in the world. Can't live for tomorrow. Tomorrow's much too long." I'd embed the video. But instead, the best I can offer is the above link. I just recently saw the video for the first time. And while watching it I noticed how much my thinking on the song's theme now diverges from the band's.

In the video, its clear that their idea of sponateneity is joyful chaos and disruption, the breaking of social structure by the insatiable will to live. That's fine. I guess. But once the destruction of property is over, the alienating system against which they so cavalierly rebelled is intact. The boredom remains. No alternative is created, just a bit of temporary release. We can do better than this. I think a more compelling vision of social change (if the video could  even be claimed to spring from such a desire) is to channel the youthful desire for spontaneity into patterns of action that create and reinforce an alternative social system.

14 July 2010

What is Justice?

Any pursuit of justice, if it is to be sustainable, needs for its participants to have a clear vision of the endeavor they are undertaking and the concepts they employ. With that in mind it's certainly worth asking; What is justice? and conversely; What is oppression? These are questions that must always be addressed and always submitted to thought for new exploration. I'd like to put some ideas out there on these questions. I hope they're helpful for you in your own explorations.

It seems to me that justice, as it is commonly understood, is that people get what they deserve. Justice is that people have enough food to eat, clean water to drink, adequate shelter, quality health care. Justice is that they are free to choose their religion or to choose none at all. It is to be able to associate with whom one wants. It is having a say in the decisions that most impact one's life. Oppression, on the other hand, is to be deprived of these things.

I think there's a lot of overlap between this conception of justice, and the way these issues are discussed in the Baha'i writings. But there are some key differences. They relate to a human's relationship with God. One of the most intriguing passages on this topic comes from Baha'u'llah's Kitab-i-Iqan. At one point Baha'u'llah outlines his idea of the most-grievous oppression. It pertains to a soul's access to divine guidance.
What “oppression” is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it? For opinions have sorely differed, and the ways unto the attainment of God have multiplied.
Kitab-i-Iqan, 21 p. 31

12 July 2010

the Family: Site of Social Change

In order to sustain the pattern of life in any civilization, capacity must be built for emerging generations to participate in its upkeep. So at the core of every society is the system it has in place for the education of its young. To a great extent they are trained to conserve what already exists. But in addition, each generation also gains the capacity to create new patterns of life and set that society on a new course. The most visible aspect of this process is formal education in schools. However, because the greatest share of education happens early in life and continues after a student goes home for the day, the primary place of education is the home. Patterns of family life have a dramatic impact on the direction of social change. For this reason, I think any attempt at community building should place a keen focus on the quality of family life among participants.

Often there is a tendency to erect artificial barriers between service to one's community and service to one's family. But if approached in the right way, the success of one reinforces the success of the other. A vibrant healthy community is one that supports its families. And a strong family is one in which the children grow in their capacity to contribute to the well-being of the community. Just as any endeavor serving a community requires participants to occasionally reflect on past action, discard disfunctional practices, and make improvements on successful ones, so too the family should be treated as a space of conscious social transformation. Positive changes in family life now contain within them the seeds of social progress for the future.

10 July 2010

Understanding the Addict as a Bahai

I have been a Bahai since 1962. Before I became a Bahai and in 1980 I was a full blown sick, dying, insane alcoholic/addict. I put a gun to my head and pulled the trigger. That is desperate I was. The gun did not go off due to the fact I was too drunk/stoned to load the gun correctly. At that bottoming out point I was able to find AA and it found me. I was in AA for two years when Bahai was presented to me. On June the 4th 2010 I took a coin (an AA ritual) for 30 years of continuous sobriety. My friends threw a birthday party for me. So appropriate since I would not be around today without the tools AA gave me to live a full, rich, happy and sane life that now also for many years includes being a Bahai. I am writing this blog on July 10th and this is my belly button birthday. I am so fortunate to be alive and of service both in AA and with Bahai activity.
As Bahai's know we are discouraged (highly recommended) to drink alcohol and take illicit drugs. All we have to do is look around and see why. Today I work with alcoholics/addicts and give workshops on the subject. I gave a workshop for Bahai's in Portland on how to deal with an alcoholic friend, family member, etc. I would like to continue that if needed. Let me know.
To me drinking/drugging was a way to find a 'zone of comfort' a place I felt like I fitted in, a place I felt a part of, a place I felt good---in other words spiritual. When I got sober I found that AA offered a spiritual zone too and so does Bahai. I have all this opportunity to be in the zone and feel spiritual. Again, lucky. Alcoholics drink to feel that spirit. Bahai scholars refer to AA too. We need to be there to help them find that zone. But most alkies have a hard time with the God thing. Either feel guilty or angry or just don't believe. So there is much need to gain knowledge as to how to present the spiritual aspect to this population. Thats where the workshop come in.
I am going to post more later but wanted to start here. So good to be on a Bahai blog and thanks for reading and considering this.

A Baha'i Blog about Economics

I want to point people to a wonderful new blog called "Advancing the Spirit of Economics" which is about something that is close to my heart: The rethinking of the field of economics using a Baha'i conceptual framework. Here is a snippet from their introduction
The motivation behind this blog finds its basis in its attempt to investigate the implications of emerging understandings of a need to redefine human nature/relationships/decisions in the context of economic exchange. It is increasingly obvious that current economic models have not been able to address the inordinate disparity between rich and poor, let alone the frustration of many who are forced into work that does not correspond to the higher calling of human beings. In an attempt to redefine common assumptions of economic agents, this blog will draw from assumptions inspired by the Bahá’í writings

So far the blog has included such topics as redefining women's economic empowerment, The role of community in economic life, and rethinking the traditional notions of "development", among others.

08 July 2010

Astonishment at God's Blessings

I'd like to say a few words in celebration of spontaneous gratitude for all the ways God provides for us.

A few days ago, I realized my tendency when praying is to ask God for things I feel are lacking in myself, others, or the world around me. It keeps striking me how more broad-minded I could be. After all, God has created us. Everywhere we turn there are things essential to our well-being: food, oxygen, shelter, guidance from God, and the breathings of the Holy Spirit. It's all there for the taking. We use it. But in that use, we forget about it. Then, when it comes time to pray the thought arises: "O God, if only there was this one thing more." This attitude is feeling stranger to me with every passing day. I like what Baha'u'llah writes in the Seven Valleys: "O Lord, increase my astonishment at Thee!"
Similarly 'Abdu'l-Baha once addressed a gathering with these words;
Do you realize how much you should thank God for His blessings? If you should thank Him a thousand times with each breath, it would not be sufficient because God has created and trained you. He has protected you from every affliction and prepared every gift and bestowal. Consider what a kind Father He is. He bestows His gift before you ask. We were not in the world of existence, but as soon as we were born, we found everything prepared for our needs and comfort without question on our part.
'Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 187-8
So, let's begin with gratitude and go from there.

07 July 2010

Theology or Consciousness

Philip Goldberg makes the case that Eastern religions are more amenable to science. Western religion, he implies, relies more on unprovable theological constructs to bolster its claims. 

"Religion comes into conflict with science when it is defined by unprovable claims that can be dismissed as superstitions, and when it treats as historical facts stories that read like legends and myths to non-believers...
He goes on to outline a brief 20th century history of eastern sages collaborating with western scientists to forge a science of consciousness.  
Most of the Hindu gurus, Yoga masters, Buddhist monks and other Asian teachers who came to the West framed their traditions in a science-friendly way. Emphasizing the experiential dimension of spirituality, with its demonstrable influence on individual lives, they presented their teachings as a science of consciousness with a theoretical component and a set of practical applications for applying and testing those theories. Most of the teachers were educated in both their own traditions and the Western canon; they respected science, had actively studied it, and dialogued with Western scientists, many of whom were inspired to study Eastern concepts for both personal and professional reasons.

06 July 2010

we wait.

in idleness we sit, waiting for the excitement of tomorrow, 
the tomorrow that will bring change, adventure and ultimate happiness...
 in the meantime, we sit. bored. tired. sad. wishing. waiting.

we forget that the steps are right in front of us, steps that will never end,
 each step with the promise of a better tomorrow.

Nationalism at the Service of Global Prosperity: 'Abdu'l-Baha's Case for Persian Nationalism

To the surprise of many initial readers, 'Abdu'l-Baha's 1875 treatise The Secret of Divine Civilization boldly affirms a form of Persian nationalism. Many come in to the book expecting him to unambiguously de-emphasize national pride in favor of global citizenship. But it is abundantly clear by the fourth page that he is addressing his homeland in particular and calling for its specific rejuvenation. In light of the following century's two world wars and the violent nationalism that spawned them, one might wonder why 'Abdu'l-Baha is so keen to appeal to national sentiment. However, the reason for this becomes clear as he elaborates his ideas. A close reading of the text reveals a vision of national destiny far afield from the xenophobic, racist ideologies prevalent in Europe at that time and imported around the world in coming generations. Rather, for him, the nation is a testing ground within which to construct the components for a global civilization. He writes,

04 July 2010

Participation and Democracy

Suppose, I knew nothing about any systems of government developed in the past 250 years. And somebody describes "democracy" to me as a system of government in which the generality of the people participate in shaping the direction of public affairs. This person then goes on to explain the mechanism for participation is that adult citizens have the right every two years to select who will govern the country from an extremely short list of individuals. I think my reaction might be that, at most, this meets the bare minimum for the word "participation." But since, in reality, I've grown up with this system I instead find it entirely normal.

Strange isn't it?

I think public affairs would be a lot more productive and enjoyable if we saw more forums along the lines of what we see in the Baha'i community. Compare contemporary examples of representative democracy with, for example, a Baha'i reflection meeting. Read how the Universal House of Justice describes these gatherings.

03 July 2010


Sometimes it is hard to express a belief or thought because it has not been fully developed within yourself... The problem is that sometimes you don't even care about developing it for your own sake... you are comfortable to have half thoughts, half feelings and half beliefs.

02 July 2010

Accompaniment and Changing Conceptions of Friendship

Whereever increasing number of people are joining the Baha'i Faith and/or becoming involved in Baha'i activities, vibrant informal communities have grown up around those involved. One of the most exciting aspects of this process of community building has been the way it changes people's conceptions of friendship.  So often, friendship revolves around frivolous and often self-destructive behavior. But friendship is most beautiful and enduring when it is based on pursuits appealing to our higher nature. And it's the spread of this second form of friendship that makes these informal communities a refuge from the superficiality and alienation that often surrounds them.

01 July 2010

A Little Raisin

"I am not quite sure what you mean by 'being on the brink of form."
"It doesn't exist, it is a mirage." -
Jason Snyder

The proud and the naive pop reasons like raisins.
Raising the call of inspiration, a reaching treble
Which uses clauses from the book that nods and claws and routes
The crowd of loud patrons distilling verbs like "cousin"
And adjectives like "me" into a spoiled whine
"See a brother or mother who might have sprung from a
fictive and sequential fount", they will say.
"Hear a dip and dial, a trial by which we are saved", they will say.

Say, say, say it! Say that mirrors listen and microphones feel.