30 August 2009

The Transformative Power of Jr. Youth Programs

Jr Youth programs began as an effort in social and economic development. Due to their great success in empowering youth ages 11-14 all over the world, the Universal House of Justice decided to promote them as a fourth core activity in the institute process. Oftentimes we forget about this age group, or marginalize them as troublemakers that have to be dealt with. This is a shame because they really can become leaders of their community. This is a video about successful Jr. youth programs in North Carolina. This can be replicated everywhere.

29 August 2009

Why should we REALLY care about poverty?

Cross posting from www.omnesunum.blogspot.com

Why should we REALLY care about poverty?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I read Yunis’ Banker to the Poor, and Sachs’ End of Poverty. I’m not trying to argue that we shouldn’t care about poverty; there are many legitimate and compelling reasons why we should care. Rather, I’ve been trying to get at the very core of the issue.

The first level of caring about poverty is somewhat self-serving: we all bear the social and economic costs of poverty to some extent. It could be considered an economic efficiency argument. It’s not efficient that I pay for welfare checks, subsidized housing, and food stamps with my taxes. It would be better, from a market perspective, if everyone could pay for their own food and shelter without externalizing those costs to the tax-paying public. Crime, drug abuse, and illiteracy, which are all associated with poverty, also generate social and economic costs that are externalized to the non-poor public. It is also not possible to conduct trade with the poor. If you are selling widgets and 25% of the population is too poor to afford your widgets, but would really like to have them, then you’re missing out on a large piece of the market.

This first level is a legitimate reason to be concerned about poverty, but what if the poor were all rounded up and put on an island so that their welfare did not impact that of the non-poor public? Should we still care? Suppose that poverty were completely eradicated in your country. Should you still care about the poor in other nations? You are probably thinking “Yes we should still care,” but the reasons are clearly not socio-economic.

The next level of poverty is also somewhat self-serving: poverty damages the environment. The relationship between poverty and the environment has been well studied. Put simply, the wealthy can afford to preserve the environment, whereas the poor cannot. The poor, particularly in developing nations, are primarily concerned with subsistence, so cutting down rainforest for firewood or killing endangered species for food are viewed as necessities of life, not environmental exploitation. Soil loss, species loss, deforestation, and air and water pollution are all more severe in poor countries than in industrialized countries. In poor nations, these problems harm the poor and non-poor alike. Environmental problems in poor countries also affect quality of life in wealthy countries, particularly when the problems are global in nature (such as climate change and ozone depletion).

This is also a legitimate reason to care about poverty, but what if the rich became wealthy enough to effectively isolate themselves in healthy environmental “bubbles?” Should we still care about poverty then? Yes, but not for environmental reasons.

The next level of caring about poverty is more altruistic: it’s not fair. There is clearly a justice aspect to caring about poverty and humans, I believe, are fundamentally compassionate beings. It’s simply not fair that our fellow men, women and children suffer while we do not. Witnessing poverty makes any thinking person sad and angry. Yes, some people ‘tune out’ the poverty they see around them or on television, distancing themselves from any relation to it. If it were a brother or sister in that situation, would they be able to live in comfort while their family suffered? Could they remain satiated while their family was hungry? This gets very close to what I believe is the core or true reason we should care about poverty. Fundamental human dignity requires a certain level of material comfort and that level should be available to everyone.

What I believe to be true reason we should care about poverty integrates all of the above. I believe the purpose of life is to continually advance human material and spiritual civilization. Individuals must develop skills, abilities and capacities within themselves in order to do this. An ever-advancing civilization requires the effort of all everyone. In a society where a significant number of its members are poor, this is not possible. The very poor are not able to develop these skills, abilities and capacities because they are preoccupied with subsistence. They do not have access to education. Their health is too poor to contribute to the advancement of society. If you think of the whole of human civilization as a body, it will not be possible for that whole body to advance materially and spiritually when one part is underdeveloped, feeble or ill.

This reason integrates all of the above. It is unjust to have poor among us and from a moral perspective it is impossible for human society as a whole to advance spiritually while one part suffers. Materially speaking, a healthy and sustainable environment is essential to a continually advancing civilization. Damaging the environment necessarily limits the long-run capacity for human advancement since it serves as a source of our materials and a sink for our wastes. Finally, economically it is detrimental to the advancement of human civilization to have a dependent portion of society. Continual advancement requires that everyone maintains a level of economic well-being such that no portion of society required transfers. Continual advancement also would require a large healthy economy. Having all members of society participating in that economy (buying and selling widgets) provides the necessary strength and stability to perpetuate development.

So why should we really care about poverty? Because we can’t fulfill the purpose of life while it exists.

Comments welcome here or visit www.omnesunum.blogspot.com.

28 August 2009

The 'Ethics of Leadership' - through serving Universal Participation on Baha'i Institutions

I have updated something I wrote some years ago in the belief that it might be useful to some people;

Serving each other's success in team-work
Serving each other's success in team-work

The 'Ethics of Leadership' - through serving Universal Participation

a ‘1-page’ Development Programme for LSAs & other Baha'i Institutions - to release the power for success

There are two sources for guiding principles in this programme:-

i) The principles of Universal Participation, transformation & effective planning - called for by The Universal House of Justice

ii) The principle enshrined in this statement by the Guardian on leadership;

The first quality of leadership both among individuals & assemblies is the capacity to use the energy & competence that exists in the rank and file of its followers. Otherwise the more competent members of the group will go at a tangent & try to find elsewhere a field of work & where they could use their energy.”

Groups and individuals help each other in striving toward maturity. We might therefore also add this interesting statement by Carl Rogers in his book On Becoming a Person:

The degree to which I can create relationships which facilitate the growth of others is a measure of the growth I have achieved myself.” (RP- surely this = THE central ethic for relationships between individuals & within groups. 'Do everything possible to create an environment in which those with whom you have relationship - from friends to humanity as a whole - have the best possible environment in which to become their best and fullest selves'. 'Conversely do as little as possible that impedes the progress of others.

Leadership here then, for Baha'is and their institutions, is seen as gathering & directing (gently) everyone’s energy and competence, via creating & authorizing ways to participate. This starts with listening, then asking, then encouraging then enabling. This is closer to the loving parent image than the thou shalt/shall not’ aspect of a court of law. The elements of this programme are, it is suggested, some of the characteristics of successful LSAs.

The programme in outline contains 9 elements - each leads to the next & connects with others.

1 Be happy, confident & relaxed in working the divine system – and its Administration.

2 Lovingly consult with every woman, man, Youth & child in the community to see how s/he would like to serve. Most have dreams of ways to serve - help the dreams to become realities.

3 Realize the benefit of uniting around simple, broad policies early in each year’s work.

4 Use the broad policies to provide everyone with a simple job description – let them write first draft.

5 Trust & nurture the delegation of work, & diversity in ways of working. Avoid unnecessary interference in detail.

6 Maintain in consultation the distinction between policy matters and execution of policy. Consciously avoid having ‘an eye for the inessential’. Identify, empower & encourage ‘critical success factors’. (Keep your own ‘stuff’ off the table!)

7 See the work of the LSA as everyone’s successful action between meetings. Celebrate & further encourage small successes. Carry the news of successes to the Feast & the wider community. En-courage, en-courage, en-courage.

8 Use meetings to serve each soul so as to enable her/him to further achieve her/his goals of service.

9 Having used the first one or two meetings to create (or review) broad polices, terms of reference &/or job descriptions spend time on a) hearing & celebrating accounts of progress, b) giving encouragement & constructive evaluation & c) negotiating further support and empowerment for/with individuals.

Why 'broad policies? Because individual initiative and creativity are vital to the achievement of tasks. Top down prescription kills the energy of individual initiative and creativity. Serving the growth of others in friendships, in families, in businesses, organizations and institutions = I suggest, the central ethic to achieve the success of desirable growth and development.

Roger Prentice Burnlaw Version 29 as at 29.08.09


What are the messages between the lines?

All communications from institutions should explicitly and implicitly carry messages such as these;

1 We are working together because of the mystical bond that unites us, and because of the gloriously high status Baha'u'llah gives to His believers - as in “Ye are the stars of the heaven of understanding, the breeze that stirreth at the break of day, the soft-flowing waters upon which must depend the very life of all men, the letters inscribed upon His sacred scroll. ” (Bahá'u'lláh: Gleanings Pages 196-197)

2 “We love you, we are encouraging you – we stand ready to serve your needs.”

3 “We have taken the trouble to understand how you are already serving Bahá'u'lláh and how you further want to serve Him - and dedicate ourselves to supporting you.”

4 “I am not able to participate in much teaching work but I dedicate myself to not undermining, negating and rubbishing the work of those who are able to teach.”

5 “Even though the ways you have chosen to serve Bahá'u'lláh may not be the ways that members of the LSA choose, or are able, to serve we value equally the work you are doing and will do all in our power to support it.”

6 “We who are not able to do very much will strive to eliminate negativity and get behind those who are able to be active.”

7 “We care about you as a person and as a servant of Bahá'u'lláh.”


Below is a typical diagram of a model showing styles of leadership. Given our committment to Science and Religion, as discovered truth and revealed truth respectively, the question arises, 'Should the Baha'i model of leadership be the best that is in the wider community + the 'X' factor that is brought by Baha'u'llah's Revelation (whatever that is determined to be)?' 'If this is not the case then what is?'

Management_GridPhoto & Diagram sources WikiPedia on 'Climbing & on 'Leadership'

Photo & Diagram sources WikiPedia on 'Climbing & on 'Leadership'

The Fine Line Between Unity and Co-Dependence

Over the last few years I have reached out to a few different people interested in joining the Baha'i Community. While I do what I can to support them emotionally and spiritually, oftentimes they come to expect too much and become hurt when I can't be there for them. I try and encourage them to pray and establish a spiritual connection with God. I also do what I can to get them involved in community life. But sometimes that isn't enough, their religious connection is dependent on their connection to me, and there is only so much I can do. I cannot take that pressure, and I shouldn't have to.

So my questions are, where is the line between promoting unity through developing friendships, and becoming co-dependent upon each other for spiritual sustenance? Does unity mean that everybody will be best friends with everybody else? If not, then how do we avoid forming cliques and fragmenting according into our most comfortable groups? Is there a way to have a strong group of close friends, but still interact and be unified with everybody in a challenging and meaningful way, in a way that is conducive to personal growth?

I am eager to hear your thoughts and experiences

22 August 2009

"A Grand Bargain Over Evolution"

Following on his book "The Evolution of God", which I have reviewed here, Robert Wright tries to reconcile science and religion. Wright's reconciliation seems to be approaching the Baha'i belief in their essential harmony; he is just coming from the other direction. That is, from the vantage of a devoted materialist.

There were two passages that I found especially interesting. In the first one he suggests that evolution, given long enough, was destined to produce some kind of species with roughly our level of intelligence and moral capacity.

"For starters, there are plenty of evolutionary biologists who believe that evolution, given long enough, was likely to create a smart, articulate species — not our species, complete with five fingers, armpits and all the rest — but some social species with roughly our level of intelligence and linguistic complexity. And what about the chances of a species with a moral sense? Well, a moral sense seems to emerge when you take a smart, articulate species and throw in reciprocal altruism. And evolution has proved creative enough to harness the logic of reciprocal altruism again and again..."

Moreover, if moral capacity inevitably evolves in tandem with intelligence, then it must be treated as a universal truth, not unlike mathematical truths, which exist independent of the species becoming aware of them.

"Mr. Pinker has noted how the interplay of evolved intuition and the dynamics of discourse tends to forge agreement on something like the golden rule — that you should treat people as you expect to be treated. He compares this natural apprehension of a moral principle to the depth perception humans have thanks to the evolution of stereo vision. Not all species (not even all two-eyed species) have stereo vision, Mr. Pinker says, but any species that has it is picking up on 'real facts about the universe' that were true even before that species evolved — namely, the three-dimensional nature of reality and laws of optics.

Similarly, certain intuitions about reciprocal moral obligation are picking up on real facts about the logic of discourse and about generic social dynamics — on principles that were true even before humans came along and illustrated them. Including, in particular, the non-zero-sum dynamics that are part of our universe.
As Mr. Pinker once put it in conversation with me: 'There may be a sense in which some moral statements aren’t just ... artifacts of a particular brain wiring but are part of the reality of the universe, even if you can’t touch them and weigh them.' Comparing these moral truths to mathematical truths, he said that perhaps 'they’re really true independent of our existence. I mean, they’re out there and in some sense — it’s very difficult to grasp — but we discover them, we don’t hallucinate them.'"

The second passage that I found interesting concerns the question of higher purpose. Even if moral capacity is a universal truth that will manifest through evolution given enough time and opportunity, does this imply higher purpose? Is the human process of uncovering universal truths meaningful in the grand scheme of things? To this question, Wright uses a popular analogy used in Baha'i thought. While individual organs have limited functionality, they do serve the higher purpose of the organism to which they belong. Likewise, as humans evolve culturally, socially, and morally, is it a stretch to imagine that they too are evolving to better serve a higher order creative process? Call it a "meta-natural selection" on a universal scale.

"As Mr. Dawkins pointed out, we can now explain the origin of organisms without positing a god. Yet Mr. Dawkins also conceded something to Paley that gets too little attention: The complex functionality of an organism does demand a special kind of explanation.

The reason is that, unlike a rock, an organism has things that look as if they were designed to do something. Digestive tracts seem to exist in order to digest food. The heart seems to exist in order to pump blood.

And, actually, even once you accept that natural selection, not God, is the 'designer' — the blind watchmaker, as Mr. Dawkins put it — there is a sense in which these organs do have purposes, purposes that serve the organism’s larger purpose of surviving and spreading its genes. As Daniel Dennett, the Darwinian (and atheist) philosopher, has put it, an organism’s evolutionarily infused purpose is 'as real as purpose could ever be.'
SO in a sense Paley was right not just in saying that organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks but also in saying that this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms.

There are two morals to the story. One is that it is indeed legitimate, and not at all unscientific, to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was given some purpose by some higher-order creative process. If scientifically minded theologians want to apply that inspection to the entire system of evolution, they’re free to do so."

Wright is careful to acknowledge that this wouldn't be proof of an existence of a god, but it does definitely open up the possibility of higher spiritual truth.

"The second moral of the story is that, even if evolution does have a 'purpose,' imparted by some higher-order creative process, that doesn’t mean there’s anything mystical or immaterial going on. And it doesn’t mean there’s a god. For all we know, there’s some 'meta-natural-selection' process — playing out over eons and perhaps over multiple universes — that spawned the algorithm of natural selection, somewhat as natural selection spawned the algorithm contained in genomes.

At the same time, theologians can be excused for positing design of a more intentional sort. After all, they can define their physical system — the system they’re inspecting for evidence of purpose — as broadly as they like. They can include not just the biological evolution that gave us an intelligent species but also the subsequent 'cultural evolution' — the evolution of ideas — that this species launched (and that, probably, any comparably intelligent species would launch).

When you define the system this broadly, it takes on a more spiritually suggestive cast. The technological part of cultural evolution has relentlessly expanded social organization, leading us from isolated hunter-gatherer villages all the way to the brink of a truly global society. And the continuing cohesion of this social system (also known as world peace) may depend on people everywhere using their moral equipment with growing wisdom — critically reflecting on their moral intuitions, and on the way they’re naturally deployed, and refining that deployment."

This last paragraph is cool; he suggests that there is room at this stage for some advanced, universalistic theology, one that promotes unity on a global scale. A theology not unlike the one contained within the Baha'i Faith.

"Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history. Such a theology could actually abet the good, increase the chances of a happy ending. A more evolved religion could do what religion has often done in the past: use an awe-inspiring story to foster social cohesion — except this time on a global scale."

Baha'i Activities and the Use of the Internet

Since the mid-1990’s, the development of the internet has opened onto the world a series of innovations that have radically altered many aspects of its ordered life. Search engines like Google or Yahoo have ushered in a new era in the way information is gathered and disseminated. Napster turned the music industry up-side down. Blogging now presents an unprecedented challenge to the hegemony of the mainstream media. Twitter has been cited as a key tool for Iranians protesting the recent election. Online fundraising allows political candidates to rely on a broad base of small donors rather than a small set of wealthy special interests. And this is to say nothing of such contemporary giants as Facebook or YouTube. The established order of things existing at the end of the twentieth century has been shaken up and, a decade into the twenty-first, is increasingly being restructured using web-based tools.

Simultaneously, the Baha’i world has undergone dramatic changes in the way it organizes itself and inter-relates the three participants of its plans: the individual, the institutions, and the community. Though the spirit and mission of the Cause remains the same, the outward forms by which it surges forward are unlike those that have been seen in the past. Baha’i activities are increasingly open to the public. And more often than not, only a portion of their participants are enrolled members of the community. Whereas the Faith was once dominated by and directed towards adults, now young people are playing a more central role in the conduct of its affairs. A culture of learning, experimentation, and ceaseless endeavor has imbued the Baha’i world with a dynamism that rivals or surpasses even the proudest moments of Baha’i history. However, there is one easily overlooked aspect of this framework of action: its stalwart indifference to the internet. Sure, participants can consult more frequently over email. Nowadays, individuals are more likely to read the guidance of Baha’i Institutions on websites than through paper copies mailed to their homes. Certainly, Facebook has opened up new ways of connecting people and organizing activities. But for the most part, the current framework of action operates the same way if one has an internet connection or not.

So why is this?

At this moment, I see three main reasons. The second and third suggest, against the prevailing mood in the world today, that use of web-based tools is not necessarily a mark of social progress. Perhaps, the reader will approach this issue from other directions.

Firstly, the backbone of the current framework, the sequence of courses developed by the Ruhi Institute, was developed before the advent of personal computing. And its entire purpose was for reaching out to the isolated rural communities where large numbers were entering the Baha’i Faith. If this is the Baha’i world’s primary model, then clearly the internet would not become a conspicuous instrument within its activities.

Secondly, and this is related to the first point, a high degree of replicability from community to community is essential to the mode of systematic learning at the heart of the current framework. Participants in different parts of the world can learn from each other very easily because everybody is laboring to achieve the same goals, through the same sorts of activities, with more or less the same set of materials. Junior Youth animators use "Breezes of Confirmation" in all corners of the world. And the basic aims of these groups, regardless of location, are all spelled out in "Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth," the fifth book in the Ruhi sequence. What is learned in one community can be transmitted through Baha’i Institutions (and certainly directly over the internet as well) to Baha’is across oceans and continents laboring along similar lines. At this juncture, there is still an enormous gap in technology between the global north and the global south, and within the global south between urban and rural communities. If Baha’i activities for this age group were conducted primarily over the internet in one part of the world and face-to-face in other parts of the world then it would be difficult for either set to learn from the other. They would be doing entirely different activities, and most likely, towards very different ends. Not only would communities be limited to their own process of trial-and-error, this could endanger the unity and cohesion of the global Baha’i community.

Thirdly, the reality Baha’is seek to transform is still best dealt with through face-to-face interactions. This isn’t a question of authenticity, as if face-to-face interactions are more real than those over the internet. Both just as easily concern an engagement with the real conditions of our collective existence. But rather, a great many of the issues facing the world today are best dealt with, not by connecting people across nations and hemispheres, but rather down hallways and across streets. Individuals might spend less time seeking social or spiritual change over the internet if their immediate surroundings were not so barren in that regard. A like-minded friend in Denmark may be a good person to chat with online. It’s easier at first to strike up a conversation with him than with the cranky neighbors next door. But he can’t look after your kids in an emergency. He can’t drive you to the airport, or help you round up kids for a neighborhood children’s class. But the cranky neighbors next door can do these things; perhaps they won’t at first. But with perseverance, the current framework of action facilitates activities that can rapidly transform neighborhoods from places of isolation and mutual indifference to vibrant sites of personal devotion and collaborative action. These activities have ripple effects that can transform the life of a given locality beyond the immediate confines of its core activities. This is because, first and foremost, this framework advances by people developing interpersonal relationships. But this is done by focusing on people who are already close-by, rather than searching the corners of the earth for new contacts. For that reason, web-based tools are likely to play little more than a marginal role in the development of such activities.

These are some of my thoughts on the question. I’d like to hear those of other people. In closing, I’ll offer a second question: What future role might the internet play in the current framework of action, or those that may come after?

10 August 2009

Addressing Criticism of the Baha'i Faith

I have a twitter account which I regularly check for mentions of "Bahai". Most of the mentions are from Baha'i's posting inspiration quotes and links to blog posts, or updates regarding the situation in Iran. Some however are from skeptical onlookers who take a negative view of the Faith. One tweeter in particular seemed to have special vitriol for the Baha'i Faith, which he mentioned as being hypocritical, especially regarding gender equality and homosexuality. I went to his blog and read through his posts, one of which can be found here. While reading through them, I thought of two things. 1) much of his argument against the Baha'i Faith is based on an incomplete understanding of the teachings and history of both the Baha'i Faith and other faiths. 2) however, based on the intellectual standards of post-modern liberal democracies, some of his arguments are rational and fair. And, I suspect, they will become more and more common as the Baha'i Faith makes its way into the public consciousness. As Baha'is we will have to be especially careful not to think about and argue the merits of our faith based upon a dichotomous worldview. Paul Lample, a member of the Universal House of Justice, describes it this way in his excellent new book "Revelation and Social Reality".

"Observers may seek to impose a liberal-fundamentalist dichotomy (or relativist-foundationalist) when assessing the development of the Baha'i Faith. So too, without caution, the tension between liberal and fundamentalist influences can enter the Baha'i community, shaping attitudes and understanding, and ensnaring Baha'i's in competing claims made about the nature of Revelation, of knowledge, and of truth. Legitimate questions, posed out of context, create the illusion of irreconcilable differences

What will be required, it seems to me, is an exerted effort on our part to not get sucked into a defensive mode of apologetics. Instead we should change the nature of the conversation that accounts for their particular concern but places it in the context of truth discovery through consultation. Paul Lample continues...

Rejecting the false dichotomy of liberalism and fundamentalism, therefore, does not impose uniformity or diminish the diversity of views within the Baha'i community; rather, it preserves the entire spectrum of individual interpretation as an asset in the search for truth. All views are welcome save those that persist in extremes of orthodoxy or irresponsible freedom, since these extremes are in themselves threats to the process of free investigation...In consultation, there is the freedom to say what one thinks and the freedom to give up one's opinion after hearing the ideas of others. In this way, diverse views are harmonized to achieve unity of thought and action"

Ultimately, the process of free investigation must be channeled through consultation to achieve unity, which in turn is ultimately grounded in divine revelation.


Update: Per responses on the last sentence, let me restate what I meant.
Ultimately, the result of an individuals free investigation must be channeled through consultation to achieve unity....

09 August 2009

A Sense of Direction: paths of service

The core activities are paths of service generating movement in two directions. They are paths taken into the world from the heart of the community, and they are paths taken into the community from the world.

06 August 2009

Is spirituality an intrinsic part of being human?


Is spirituality an intrinsic part of being human?

Two recent authors have challenged the fundamentalist-materialist position of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens that is so entirely unsympathetic to the religious, or more accurately the non-rationalist. They are Reason, Faith and Revolution, by Terry Eagleton and The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong. (They are reviewed HERE by Paul Vallely in the Independent.)

Here I want to appreciatively critique a passage from Chapter 2 of Eagleton's book (p 83). The passage says;

Transcendence, however, did not simply go away. In one sense, this is precisely what Ditchkins (Dawkins + Hitchens) is complaining about; but the matter is more complex than that. The less plausibly religion seemed to answer to the human desire for a realm beyond science, material welfare, democratic politics and economic utility, the more robustly literature, the arts, culture, the humanities, psychoanalysis, and (the most recent candidate) ecology have sought to install themselves in that vacant spot. If the arts have accrued an extraordinary significance in a modern era for which they are, practically speaking, just another kind of commodity, it is because they provide an ersatz sort of transcendence in a world from which spiritual values have been largely banished.

The issues I have are;

1 Transcendence is a, more or less, normal part of being human like the mystical, of which transcendence is an essential part, like philosophizing, like sexuality, like breathing. It couldn't go away unless every new human was subjected to a radical lobotomy. The 'more or less' depends on how crass or sensitive the individual's education has been.

2 Instead of 'desire for a realm' I would prefer something like 'intrinsic state of being'. That which Dawkins and Hitchens would expunge is not a faulty behaviour but an essential part of being human - possible hard-wired, associated with the structure and functioning of the right hemisphere of the brain.

3 Eagleton, like Armstrong is a successful critic of those he calls Ditchkins and a successful champion of this other 'thing' that isn't the rational mind. But the 'thing' is not an aberration, a sop, a weakness, a behavioural defect, a culturally-induced pattern - it is a universal part of being human. Eagleton needs a better term for this 'thing', this part of being human that provides certain states being and engaging and knowing. He might do well to study Armstrong's use of, and explanations of, 'mythos'. However with her use I would plead that it start intra-personally otherwise it gets easily pushed out to being a thing in the social and cultural inter-personal world.

4 Failing to place mythos as art of being human leads Eagleton a set of judgments that are Ditchkins-esque in their severity. His list of literature, the arts, culture, the humanities, psychoanalysis, and (the most recent candidate) ecology are not vehicles for ersatz transcendence but vehicles for the real thing - because the transcendent or mystical experience is part of being human - from nature mysticism to sexuality.

5 To bring in, in this context, the horror of arts commodity-fication clouds the most important argument.

At the community level 60-80% of our friends are artists. They aren't all crippled by commodity-fication. One or two perhaps but the possession of spiritual values is not synonymous with being religious, nor is the absence of conventional religiosity any bar to possessing spiritual values - as the Marxist Eagleton fully demonstrates.

Even at the Tate level of the arts commodity-fication is not primarily the issue. 'Art now doing the job that philosophy used to do' is as much the case as 'art is now doing the job that religion used to do'. Then there is the issue of what gets in and what doesn't get in. This is the prerogative of individual gate-keepers called curators, who along with particular critics, determine the particular kinds of discourse that will be presented. They only indirectly serve 'the market'.

Transcendence, mystical experience and the possession or non-possession of spiritual values exist because we are human, and in the world with others. Good religion feeds these aspects of being human - and rationality for that matter. Bad religion blocks or distorts them.

Eagleton fails to establish that -''beyond-the-reasoning-mind part of being human which I feel is essential for the full success of his arguments. This is for want of a term such as mythos and secondly because he doesn't start with the psycho-spiritual reality of what it is to be human.

Armstrong does so much better in this via her 'we-need-a-balance-of-mythos-and-logos' arguments in her 'Case for God', something I will celebrate in future posts.

I deal further with these and allied issues in my Spiritualizing Pedagogy: education as the art of working with the human spirit

As to the question, 'Is spirituality an intrinsic part of being human?' my answer is yes - good religion feeds these deeper aspects of being human - including rationality. Bad religion blocks or distorts them. As to the differences between the two that also is the subject for further pieces.

04 August 2009

A Manual for Pioneers

a découpage from Rúhíyyih Khánum's book of the same name

First, there is no time.
Having arrived somewhere as a pioneer
by one of two doors, the head or the heart,
there is a deep hunger:
who are you, why are you here,
where are you going?
It is the immemorial human story.
The next step is the spiritual spark.
We are not the judges
of other people's hearts!
All of us suddenly find that we
are cleaving to our own kind
with a sense of relief, self-righteousness;
one must always be on one's guard.
Patiently, gently, politely, lovingly,
we are fundamentally united—
this is the essence of deepening.
From now on it has to be “we.”
This is a very profound difference,
the path of wisdom,
the real oneness.
We see how inextricably interwoven
are the prayers, the motive,
and the mysterious inner process
of acceptance
of the Manifestation of God.

01 August 2009

Ruminations on Robert Wright's "Evolution of God"

I just finished reading "The Evolution of God" by Robert Wright, an intriguing and exhaustively well researched book. Wright is a devout materialist who, to the dismay of many of his atheistic friends, sees a directionality in religion and human history towards something which can meaningfully and objectively be ascribed as moral truth and divinity. In introducing his book and worldview he states:

"In this book I talk about the history of religion, and its future, from a materialist standpoint. I think the origin and development of religion can be explained by reference to concrete, observable things-human nature, political and economic factors, technological change, and so on...On the one hand, I think gods arose as illusions, and that the subsequent history of the idea of god is, in some sense, the evolution of an illusion. On the other hand: (1) the story of this evolution itself points to the existence of something you can meaningfully call divinity; and (2) the "illusion," in the course of evolving, has gotten streamlined in a way that moved it closer to plausibility. In both of these senses, the illusion has gotten less and less illusory."

He uses this explanatory framework to explain the evolution of religion from early pantheism and polytheism, to more recent monolatrism (belief in many gods, but worship of only one) and monotheism. By doing this he recognizes a clear trend in history, one that is leading to a universalistic theology. To do this however, he deconstructs many of the religious texts using recent religious and archaeological scholarship. For example, he suggests that contrary to popular belief, Judaism has highly polytheistic origins. It was only due to geopolitical circumstance that brought it first into monolatry and finally monotheism.

He suggests that many of the attributed sayings of Jesus, especially those concerning universal love (ie. "love your enemies"), were added after the fact by Paul and others as a expansion strategy in the highly cosmopolitan Roman empire. He points to the fact that the earliest gospel of Mark, written approximately four decades after the Crucifixion, has many fewer miracles, universalistic sayings, and theological underpinnings than the later gospels, written five to seven decades after. The introduction of the "Logos" in John might have been influenced by Philo's attempts to reconcile Jewish and Greek traditions.

He suggests that the timeline of the Quran matches almost perfectly with the plight of Muhammad. For example, the earlier attributed writings include a greater moral consideration for even polytheists, possibly because his group was small and he needed to reach out to others. His later writings are much more militaristic and intolerant, possibly because he commanded great military power and he no longer needed to compromise his theology.

The bottom line in his whole book is that religion is an expression of facts on the ground. To say that one religion causes people to be tolerant or intolerant is not correct. There is room in all scriptures for tolerance when the believers see themselves in non-zero sum situations with their neighbors. There is also room for intolerance when believers see others as a threat to their livelihoods and beliefs. He gives the example of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In his mind, the "New Atheists", who point to this as an example of why religion is bad, are mistaken. Instead the root causes are highly non-religious, having much more to do with zero sum claims to land and historical grievances.

He ends the book on an optimistic note, asserting that the direction in history clearly points to the development of a peaceful global civilization, and concurrently, a more universalistic theology. In fact, he states that given the pace of technological advancement, this is the only choice if we are to avoid catastrophe.

In the conclusion he writes,

"At the core of each faith is the conviction that there is a moral order, and for the Abrahamic conception of God to grow in this fashion (universalism) would be yet more evidence that such an order exists. For Jews, Christians, or Muslims to cling to claims of special validity could make their faiths seem, and perhaps be, less valid...

Is it crazy to imagine a day when the Abrahamic faiths renounce not only their specific claims to specialness, but even the claim to specialness of the whole Abrahamic enterprise? Are such radical changes in God's character imaginable? Changes this radical have already happened, again and again. Another transformation would be nothing new

Surprisingly, he also affirms the validity of personal conceptions of God as proxies for an abstract conception of higher purpose. In the afterword he goes into the implications of his narrative for belief in God. Instead of trying to summarize it, I will quote it at length.

"Given the constraints of human nature, believers in God are interacting with the moral order as productively as possible by conceiving its source in a particular way, however imperfect that way is. Isn't that kind of like physicists who interact with the physical order as productively as possible by conceiving of its subatomic sources in a particular way, however imperfect that way is...

Maybe the most defensible view-of electrons and of God-is to place them somewhere between illusion and imperfect conception. Yes, there is a source of the patterns we attribute to the electron, and the electron as conceived is a useful enough proxy for that source that we shouldn't denigrate it by calling it an "illusion; still, our image of an electron is very, very different from what this source would look like were the human cognitive apparatus capable of apprehending it adroitly. So too with God; yes, there is a source of the moral order, and many people have a conception of God that is a useful proxy for that source; still that conception is very, very different from what the source of the moral order would look like were human cognition able to grasp it...

So you might say that the evolution of the human moral equipment by natural selection was the Logos at work during a particular phase of organic aggregation; it was what allowed our distant ancestors to work together in small groups, and it set the stage for them to work together in much larger groups, including, eventually, transcontinental ones.

If you accept this argument-if you buy into this particular theology of the Logos-then feeling the presence of a personal god has a kind of ironic validity. On the one hand, you're imagining things; the divine being you sense "out there" is actually something inside you. On the other hand, this something inside you is an expression of forces "out there"; it's an incarnation of a non-zero-sum logic that predates and transcends individual people, a kind of logic that-in this theology of the Logos, at least-can be called divine. The feeling of contact with a transcendent divinity is in that sense solid."

As a Baha'i, this book is especially interesting for two reasons. First, Wright's understanding of the progressive evolution of God is very similar to a Baha'i understanding of "progressive revelation". Both would agree that religion changes based on the cultural and scientific capacity of people, and that the destiny of religion today is to be universalistic in nature. A difference would appear to be the emphasis on "revelation" that Baha'is place on religious evolution. For Baha'is, we live in a cycle of "revelation", in which God reveals new teachings through a "manifestation" of God. When this happens a new energy is manifest in the universe, and new capacity for spiritual and scientific development is made possible. While this would seem to contradict Wright's materialistic explanations of religious evolution, a more subtle understanding of "revelation" might seem to bridge the gap. Wright dedicates a whole section of his book to the thinking of Philo of Alexandria. Philo was a Jewish philosopher in the time of Christ who, according to Erwin Goodenough, "read Plato in terms of Moses, and Moses in terms of Plato, to the point that he was convinced that each had essentially the same things."Philo endeavored to bridge the gap between Judaism and Greek philosophy by developing the concept of the Logos. Wright uses Philo's approach to bridge the gap between "revelation" and a scientific account of human evolution in his own mind.

"The Logos...had in Philo's view given history a direction-in fact, a moral direction: a history moved toward the good. a Logos-driven history would eventually unify humankind in political freedom; the Logos would work 'to end that the whole of our world should be as a single state, enjoying the best of constitutions, a democracy.' At the same time, Philo believed the Logos had existed before humans or the earth or, for that matter, matter. Prior to creating the universe, God formulated the Logos the way and architect might conceive of a blueprint....First God conceived the Logos in his mind. Then, upon creating the world, he, in a sense, uttered the Logos, infusing matter with it. He spoke to the universe at its beginning, and, via the ongoing guidance of Logos, he speaks to us now...The Logos is humankind's point of contact with the divine. This is how the Logos reconciles the transcendence of God with a divine presence in the world. God himself is beyond the material universe...Yet...the algorithm...is an extension of a designer, a reflection of the designers mind...The job of human beings, you might say, is to in turn cooperate with the divinity. The Logos, he said, was reflected in the Torah, the Jewish law...it didn't just tell you how to behave in order to harmonize yourself with the principle that governs the universe...the rules of living laid out in the Torah were part of the Logos.

So if "revelation" is seen as a manifestation of a Logos, a design manifesting itself in the world through the process of biological and cultural evolution, then Wrights concept of progressive evolution is compatible with the Baha'i view of "progressive revelation".

The second reason this is so interesting to me is that it comes from the point of view of a skeptical materialist. Wright became known for writing about evolutionary psychology, yet comes to almost the same theology as the Baha'i Faith. Baha'is believe in the harmony of science and religion, and often it is easy for us to claim this without fully accounting for the scientific interpretations of spiritual experience, and spiritual evolution. If, like Philo, we can continue to develop a language that fully accounts for the knowledge inherent in both the scientific process and revealed scripture, then we can collectively manifest this principle.

Pre-Baha'i Scripture in the Baha'i Faith

Recently, I’ve found myself spending more time in the Bible. This usually happens every year or so. For a while I will immerse myself in the Good Book and then once I’m satisfied I’ll go back to focusing on the Baha’i Writings. Typically, I end up ruminating for a while on the status of pre-Baha’i scripture within the Baha’i Faith. The question always centers around two seemingly competing dynamics implicit to the idea of progressive Revelation. Baha’u’llah conceives of the previous dispensation as different stages in the development of one common faith. So, on the one hand, this means that they are all united. Just as Christians regard the Book of Exodus and the Gospel of Matthew as two repositories of the Word of God, so too do Baha’is regard the Book of Isaiah, the Qur’an, the Baghavad Gita, and the Hidden Words as separate parts of one enormous body of revealed writings. But on the other hand, each Dispensation is revealed for that specific period of history. It is binding upon all to turn their eyes to the most recent instances of Divine Revelation. In Catholicism, there is a tradition of prioritizing different books of the Bible. Whenever contradictions arise the New Testament always trumps the Old Testament. And when there are contradictions within the New Testament, the four Gospels trump the other books. Baha’is are encouraged to learn the Qur’an. But they’re encouraged to do so on the assumption that they already have a firm knowledge of the Baha’i Writings. The multidudinous instances of the Word of God are all united. But they do not sit on an equal basis.

Undoubtedly, in the future, there will be Baha’i scholars who will devote the bulk of their attention to these earlier Dispensations. Even though, they may be pursuing it as a project within the Baha’i Faith, they may focus their energies on learning Sanskrit or Hebrew, write dissertations on the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism to China, or explore the confluence of ideas between two indigenous traditions. This may seem like a qualitative break with the contemporary approach of encouraging Baha’is to focus first and foremost on the Baha’i Writings. But in fact, it has more to with the quantitative dimensions of the faith.

Let’s suppose that 0.01 percent of a Baha’i community’s energy should go to exploring the tensions and overlap between the Gospel of John with the other three Gospels. (I personally think it should be closer to 0.03- 0.04 percent. But that’s just me) ;) If there is a community of forty people, devoting equal amounts of energy to the faith and there is one person who devotes a fifth of her energy to that question then that means the community overshoots that proportion by a scale of five. Perhaps, it would be better if that person focused on the more vital issues confronting that community. But let’s say in a few generations time, that community swells to 40,000 and there are twenty people devoting half their time to that question. If that’s the case, then the community needs to quadruple the energy it devotes to the issue if they are to meet that proportion. They may even need to have some people focus on it exclusively in order to keep things balanced.

In other words, the small size of the Baha’i community right now means that we must be very vigilant about how we prioritize our efforts. But as we grow, endeavors undertaken by Baha’i communities will blossom and become more and more diverse. For now, what matters most is that Baha’is focus on the vital functions of the faith, so that as we grow we can advance the process of more fully setting in motion the noble and ambitious vision Baha’u’llah sets out in His Writings.

More on this later…