27 September 2009

Socrates and the Baha'i Faith: Parallel Thinking on the Nature of Leadership

Approximately 2500 years ago, Socrates, according to Plato in "The Republic", broke into a conversation with a fellow named Thrasymachus over the qualities of a ruler and the nature of justice. Thrasymachus's basic argument was that justice was a relative concept, defined by the interest of the stronger party. Power and happiness could best be obtained by the unjust, who could then define justice according to their choosing:

"Therefore, my good sir, my meaning is, that in all cities the same thing, namely, the interest of the established regime, is just. And superior strength, I presume is to be found on the side of regime. So that the conclusion of right reasoning is that the same thing, namely, the interest of the stronger, is everywhere just..."

"...But when a man not only seizes the property of his fellow-citizens but captures and enslaves their persons also, instead of those dishonorable titles he is called happy and highly favored, not only by the men of his own city, but also by all others who hear of the comprehensive injustice which he has wrought. For when people abuse injustice, they do so because they are afraid, not of committing it but of suffering it. Thus it is , Socrates, that injustice, realized on an adequate scale, is a stronger, a freer, and a more lorldy thing than justice; and as I said in the beginning, justice is the interest of the stronger; injustice, a thing profitable and advantageous to oneself"

Through the characteristic Socratic method that we know and love, Socrates went on to systematically dismantle the argument through a barrage of relentless questioning. In the process he defined justice as a requisite quality of leadership, and a just leader as one who does not crave leadership, but who accepts it reluctantly out of necessity. In other words a just leader accepts some responsibility for the affairs of others in the capacity of servitude:

"Now the heaviest of all penalties is to be ruled by a worse man, in case of one's own refusal to rule; and it is the fear of this, I believe, which induces virtuous men to take the posts of regime and when they do so, they enter upon their rulership, not with any idea of coming into a good thing, but as an unavoidable necessity, not expecting to enjoy themselves in it, but because they cannot find any person better or no worse than themselves, to whom they can commit. For the probability is, that if there were a city composed of none but good men, it would be an object of competition to avoid the possession of power, just as now it is to obtain it; and then it would become clearly evident that it is not the nature of the genuine ruler to look to his own interest, but to that of the subject- so that every judicious man would choose to be the recipient of benefits, rather than to have the trouble of conferring them upon others."

Clearly, his account of leadership is visionary, even by today's standards. The electoral process in the United States is set up as a campaign style election, which favors those with the most money and well crafted, poll-tested message. Leadership is a thing to aspire for, requiring careful planning and relentless self-promotion.

The definition and process of electing a leader in the Baha'i community is completely different; it actualizes much of Socrates's vision of leadership. This is not surprising, he was the favorite philosopher of Baha'u'llah. In the "Tablet of Wisdom" he writes:

"After him came Socrates who was indeed, wise, accomplished and righteous. He practised self-denial, repressed his appetites for selfish desires and turned away from material pleasures. He withdrew to the mountains where he dwelt in a cave. He dissuaded men from worshipping idols and taught them the way of God, the Lord of Mercy, until the ignorant rose up against him. They arrested him and put him to death in prison. Thus relateth to thee this swift-moving Pen. What a penetrating vision into philosophy this eminent man had! He is the most distinguished of all philosophers and was highly versed in wisdom. We testify that he is one of the heroes in this field and an outstanding champion dedicated unto it. He had a profound knowledge of such sciences as were current amongst men as well as of those which were veiled from their minds. Methinks he drank one draught when the Most Great Ocean overflowed with gleaming and life-giving waters. He it is who perceived a unique, a tempered, and a pervasive nature in things, bearing the closest likeness to the human spirit, and he discovered this nature to be distinct from the substance of things in their refined form. He hath a special pronouncement on this weighty theme. Wert thou to ask from the worldly wise of this generation about this exposition, thou wouldst witness their incapacity to grasp it. Verily, thy Lord speaketh the truth but most people comprehend not."

Abdu'l Baha, the center of the "Covenant" and the preeminent figure in Baha'i history who isn't considered a "manifestation" of God, thought of himself primarily as a servant of God and humanity. In a letter to Baha’is in the United States, he wrote,

"My name is `Abdu'l-Bahá [literally, Servant of Baha]. My qualification is `Abdu'l-Bahá. My reality is `Abdu'l-Bahá. My praise is `Abdu'l-Bahá. Thraldom to the Blessed Perfection [Bahá'u'lláh] is my glorious and refulgent diadem, and servitude to all the human race my perpetual religion... No name, no title, no mention, no commendation have I, nor will ever have, except `Abdu'l-Bahá. This is my longing. This is my greatest yearning. This is my eternal life. This is my everlasting glory."

Following on his grandfathers example, Shoghi Effendi, the "Guardian" of the Baha'i Faith, outlined the system of Baha'i elections that explicitly elect individuals who have the greatest capacity to serve. The transparency of an individual’s desire for power often precludes them from consideration. In a letter to a local spiritual assembly, he wrote

"I feel that reference to personalities before the election would give rise to misunderstanding and differences. What the friends should do is to get thoroughly acquainted with one another, to exchange views, to mix freely and discuss among themselves the requirements and qualifications for such a membership without reference or application, however indirect, to particular individuals. We should refrain from influencing the opinion of others, of canvassing for any particular individual."

Arash Abizadeh has written a useful summary of how Baha'i's should vote

Assembly members, when elected, hold no individual power and receive no individual glory. Through the rules of consultation, nicely outlined here by Farzin Aghdasy, assemblies guide community life. The attitude is one of servitude and responsibility, which are not usually associated with positions of power.

24 September 2009

Cycles of Growth

"As ye have faith so shall your powers and blessings be. This is the balance -- this is the balance -- this is the balance."


23 September 2009

everyday Issa: lingering daylight

everyday Issa: lingering daylight

I was deeply moved by this Japanese gentleman's daily activity. Each day he gets an English translation of one of the haiku by the master Issa.

19 September 2009

Social Action and Baha’u’llah’s Addresses to the Kings: Part I

Let us take as our starting point that one task for the Baha’i world in the coming years is the systematic study of social action that resembles, to a great extent, the systematic study of expansion and consolidation that has at this point come to dominate Baha’i life. With the global establishment of the Ruhi Institute, Baha’is around the world consult upon the requirements of teaching using passages from the Baha’i Writings on topics such as the nature of living a Baha’i life, the power of Divine assistance, making new contacts, confirming new believers, educating children, etc. Similarly, new forays into social action will require intensive re-visitation of Baha’i teachings on such topics as education, the environment, health care, agriculture, power relations across racial, gender, and religious lines, and a number of other pressing matters. For so long, the vast sea of statements from the Writings on these topics has been glossed over with single expressions, buzzwords, and clichés. A deeper understanding is needed. And a conscious basis for action, let alone which passages to focus on, is not a matter of flipping a light switch.

Fortunately, there are many books and tablets that are clearly relevant to such an endeavour. Undoubtedly, Shoghi Effendi’s letters on World Order will be essential for consulting on the global and historical context of Baha’i social action. And certainly, Abdu’l-Baha’s “Secret of Divine Civilization” and his recorded utterances while travelling the West will be indispensable. But what of Baha’u’llah Himself? Certainly, His later works, those written in Adrianople and Akka, will be the most important. Focus will of course be given to the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Tablet of the World, Tablet of Maqsud, and other tablets included in the compilation “Tablets of Baha’u’llah.” And then there’s Baha’u’llah’s addresses to the kings and rulers of the world, largely contained in the compilation “Summons of the Lord of Hosts.” This is where, philosophically we run into a problem. And that’s what I want to look at here. These tablets are specifically addressed to generally autocratic rulers like Nasiri’d-Din Shah, Sultan Abdu’l-Aziz, Napoleon III, and others. His commands to them are written with the assumption that the reader is a Head of State: A Just king is the shadow of God on earth. All should seek shelter under the shadow of his justice, and rest in the shade of his favor.[1] Should thou cause rivers of justice to spread their waters among thy subjects, God will surely aid thee with the hosts of the unseen and of the seen and would strengthen thee in thine affairs.[2] The poor… verily. Are thy treasures on earth. It behoveth thee, therefore, to safeguard thy treasures from the assaults of them who wish to rob thee.[3]At the moment there are no Baha’i Heads of State. And even if there were any then that wouldn’t detract from the fact that Baha’i social action is conducted by the generality of believers taken from all walks of life. The gems of wisdom Baha’u’llah encloses in these addresses must be disclosed in such a way as to guide broad-based collaborative action they undertake. I don’t think it’s enough to say that Baha’u’llah enjoins justice, and that this can be abstracted from the recipients’ legal and social status. The relation of sovereign/subject is essential to a great many of these passages. The final passage I quote above is a good example of this: The position of sovereign entails a responsibility for the affairs of the poor and downtrodden. I think what’s needed is a conceptual framework by which to translate these tablets from an autocratic context to a collaborative context. We need a way to learn how to apply what Baha’u’llah teaches them specifically to a social situation very different than that of Napoleon III or Czar Alexander II.

[1] SH 217 pp. 112
[2] SM 64 pp. 211
[3] SM 68 pp. 213

Social Action and Baha’u’llah’s Addresses to the Kings: Part II

There are two concepts that I think are vital for this enquiry. The first is power. The second is decision, choice, free-will, or however else one might call it. I think, what matters most about these figures is the combination of power and decision. The way these two combine in the figure of “the kings and rulers of the world” is very rare. Baha’u’llah addresses these tablets to the most concentrated and intense instances. But the combination of power and decision is something that characterizes the lives of all people, high and low alike.

First, we must recognize the distinction between social power and the power exercised through large institutions. For example, it doesn’t make sense to say that one is “powerless.” Certainly, a person can be excluded from the decision-making processes of certain institutions. But, though that may be the case, the mere utterance of the words “I am powerless” is itself an exercise of power, however small. And in most cases, a person is capable of quite a few other things besides that. One theorist writes: “Power is everywhere, not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.” The condition we casually refer to as powerlessness is not so much the absence of power, but rather the lack of will or organizational capacity to make use of what power is at hand.

Secondly, the same can be said for decision-making. Very few of us are CEOs or politicians. Some of us may supervise other workers on the job, but even then, that responsibility probably has more to do with enforcement than substantial choices. Nonetheless, each of us are endowed with choice, far more than is comfortable to think about. I don’t have to eat today. I could choose not to. I could grab a blunt object from the trash and smash someone’s head in. I could refuse the laws of the State. I could refuse the Manifestation of God. All of this is within my choice. What’s key is recognizing that the iron law of necessity, especially with regard to society, often has more to do with an unwillingness to recognize the reality that one does have choice in the matter, and that a person could do otherwise. I could dedicate my life to the spiritual and material upliftment of my community. Or I could just watch TV. Both are viable choices.

I think what defines the figure of the sovereign is the combination of power and decision. Anyone can decree that the US government will dedicate 50 billion dollars to renewable energy research, but if that is not in one’s power then it won’t happen. And someone or some group can hold the power to do exactly the same. But that money will never be allocated if no decision is ever made, if that power is left to sit idle, or is directed towards other ends. Power and decision are only combined in the sense of “kings and rulers of the world” very rarely. Baha’u’llah could list them off by name. But power and decision are combined in innumerable ways through society. The two come together to some extent with all people. Each of us is a Napoleon in our own little way; some more so than others. But the coordination of a great multiplicity of these small instances of power and decision can create enormous forces for social change. The great triumph of the Ruhi Institute is the finesse with which it does this.

I think, what is required of us when reading writings of Baha’u’llah addressed to the kings and rulers of the world is that each of us is responsible in some way for carrying out the social transformation mandated therein. Very few of us could rightly be called kings or rulers. But each of us can make a substantial difference if only we arise individually, coordinate and consult with others, develop each other’s capacity, channel our energy into sustainable endeavors, learn along they way, build momentum, and keep looking to the horizon for what possibilities we might choose to seize upon next. This is a major way in which the Baha’i Faith is democratic. The demos arises to rule, not at the expense of the State or God’s appointed authority, but rather inasmuch as the people are the animating force that decides on the structure of future society.

16 September 2009

Does Religion Contribute to Material Well Being?

Bryan posted a great piece analyzing conservatism in America. I can't link to it because it is on facebook. Anyway, an interesting discussion evolved in the comments section between Bryan and myself, who are Baha'i's, and Mavaddat Javid, who is an ex-Baha'i. It is generally about the problems in the world and the role religion (specifically the Baha'i Faith) will or will not play in solving them. I have decided to bring the conversation over here to get more people involved and to get more room for commenting. The comments so far are reposted below.

Please feel free to contribute to the discussion in the comments section.

Mavaddat Javid
Bryan, your description of "conservative" American mania is precisely accurate. But with all due respect, I find the etiology and solution you suggest incredible.

Institutionalized partisanship as a cause for the problem, sure. But you also blame "the excesses of liberty and civilization" as somehow responsible. What could this possibly mean? The source of political mania in the United States is too much of liberty? Surely I have not understood you properly.

Your advocacy for "drastic reforms" and world governance is also historically naive. Drastic reforms in social engineering do not work. At least, not in leaps. What is needed is a series of very acute changes of cumulative reform. What are these small changes? is the real question.

Effective world governance is also historically untenable. It would be nice, but there's no practical or theoretical way to keep the most powerful country from manipulating that institution to their interests.
September 12 at 8:10pm

Bryan Donaldson
Adam, yeah I think you're right about oscillations getting more intense.

Mav, I mean liberty in the sense of individualism and a level of selfishness. A typical cry I hear from conservatives is that they want to be left alone, which means they really don't understand the value of public schools, roads, etc. That's what I would call an extreme of liberty. Drastic reforms typically only follow some kind of catastrophe or hardship (e.g. the League of Nations following WWI, UN following WWII, the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 following bank runs of 1907, the New Deal following the Great Depression).

The US created a federal system where each state was autonomous and afraid of central authority, much like countries today. Similar principles could be applied to ensure that powerful countries don't manipulate others for national gain. Currently the world is manipulated to the interest of the US, and it's the lack of world authority, divest of nationalism, that allows it to happen.
Sun at 11:38am

Jason Snyder
A lot of the commotion seems to be the result of certain people who are on the losing end globalization, directing their anger in the wrong place. Most of the people who are protesting are older, white, and poorly educated folks who see their share of the pie dwindling in the face of global competition. Instead of realizing that globalization is inevitable, and that the best thing is to focus on education and embrace diversity, they see it as a threat that must be a conspiracy on the part of everybody not like them. As this population gets smaller and smaller, unfortunately they will probably also get louder and more irrational

Mavaddat Javid
Bryan, thank you for clarifying.However, the ideology you're criticizing is not liberty (excessive or otherwise), but libertarianism. The idea is not selfishness, but self interest. Easily confused, but different. Libertarianism is the philosophy that says the greatest number are benefited when behaviour emerges from individual choices. I tend to believe individuals are usually better off in government coordinated action rather than coordination emerging from individuals' choices. Government, whether socialist and libertarian, is in the business of promoting individuals' interests; the question is merely one of efficacy. So let's not pretend this has anything to do with "excesses of liberty" (a very Bahá'í way of framing the problem).

The United States were able to coalesce precisely because of common geography, language, religion, etc. These are the very factors that make a world government untenable. Working for this goal is distracting us from real solutions.
Sun at 6:23pm

Jason Snyder
Following on Bryan and Mavaddat's thread, In the short term (at least 100 years) I am more in favor of the idea of world governance than world government. World governance implies collective action on a whole range of global issues that cannot be addressed only by nation states. It does not imply that a single governmental body decides upon policy for the whole world. In Baha'i lingo this is the difference between the lesser peace and the greater peace. Clearly we can pragmatically pursue the lesser peace through greater global cooperation and representation. We have to or else we will face distinction as a species. Simultaneously we can pursue spiritual transformation, which will eventually allow for the level of cultural and ideological unity-in-diversity required before world government can even be considered.
Sun at 8:42pm

Mavaddat Javid
Jason, it sounds like world governance has been happening since the beginning of civilization. Nations have been taking collective action on "global" issues since Mesopotamia. Have I misunderstood you? If the Lesser Peace implies any kind of progress since the days of Bah... Read Moreá'u'lláh, this cannot be what Bahá'u'lláh intended. Am I wrong?

Honestly guys, is working to establish spiritual transformation a practical way to solve the world's problems? The plenitude of causes to our woes have nothing to do with how righteous humans have been. For example, lack of knowledge is in the largest part a technological, administrative, and economic problem. No amount of piety has solved human ignorance.

In my opinion, religion is not the answer. It's nice to think one has the answers without intense study of history, group psychology, game theory, etc. But it's not helping. Confidence from faith breeds fighting about what authority to follow instead of what lessons to draw from our actual experience.
Mon at 4:49am

Bryan Donaldson
Mav, each decade of the 20th century saw a declining number of deaths from war. It also saw the first attempt, and later establishment of a weak international structure to establish and maintain peace. While humanity's ability for destruction has increased, its actual use of those powers has declined. So yes, since the days of Baha'u'llah there has been progress towards the lesser peace.

Per the Baha'i writings, the greater peace cannot be established on spirituality alone, but must be in conjunction with institutions. The financial meltdown was a result of a lack of spirituality and an excess of self. The buyers, realtors, brokers, even some investors knew that the housing market was in a bubble and loans being made were bad, but each party was profiting so the game continued. Religion teaches to control and suppress the self. Nothing else is effective at accomplishing that goal, so the economic problems actually are spiritual problems.
Mon at 9:03am

Jason Snyder
Mav, world governance has happened since the beginning of civilization, but it occurs along a continuum. Clearly the world can cooperate on international issues much more effectively than it is doing today, no? Compared to what was happening in the days of Baha'u'llah, clear progress has been made, as Bryan has described

Jason Snyder
Regarding knowledge and virtue, I think they often go hand in hand. As people become more knowledgeable, they also develop the ability to expand their moral imagination on a global scale. There is a high correlation between ignorance and bigotry in my opinion. But on the other hand, there are very intelligent people who have no moral bearing, and cause great harm. One could argue that the correct institutions will harness selfish behavior for the public good, that is the core assumption of classical macro-economics, but their is a high bureaucratic cost to enforcing virtue. I argue that the more inherent virtue individuals have on a global scale, the more affective world governance will be. That is not to say that spiritual transformation is our only plan. The Baha'i community is very involved in social/economic development, conflict resolution, women's and minority rights, and many other very practical endeavors grounded upon spiritual virtues.
Mon at 10:21am

Mavaddat Javid
I agree with you both that *effective* cooperation between nations is good, but the question is how to accomplish it. What I wonder is if there's any reason to believe that spiritual transformation is the way.

Bryan, you suggest that if investors had controlled themselves, the stock crash wouldn't have happened. This is seriously flawed. The problem was in faulty SEC regulations that allowed circular investments. But you want investors to know when they've made "too much money." How, exactly? Investors are paid to turn profit. We like to think they are "greedy," but they were just playing by the rules. It's the rules that need changing, not the people.

Rules must account for human nature. Any ideology that depends for its success on society being more altruistic, less greedy, more kind -- in short, any ideology that depends on humans being superhuman -- is committing itself to failure. All forms of utopianism, including the Bahá'í Faith, fall into this category.
Mon at 9:51pm

Jason Snyder
Mav, you make a good point that better policy can go along way to making improvements. But what guides policy? The problem I have with a lot of economists is that they claim to be value neutral under the guise of utility theory and preference satisfaction. But things are very messy when you try to balance definitions of welfare with ideals of liberty, justice, equity, etc. All theory is built upon certain moral assumptions which come from some conceptual framework of the world. Surely some conceptual frameworks are more advanced than others. I would argue (not here) that principles such as the unity of the human race, equality of men and women, harmony of science and religion, independent investigation of truth, and equality of opportunity are very advanced ideals that can and should be striven for. While in the past these ideals didn't conform to many peoples perceived self interest, today they do in theory. In application it is often hard and requires spiritual work.
Yesterday at 12:38am

Jason Snyder
Mav, you write "All forms of utopianism, including the Bahá'í Faith, fall into this category"

Actually, the Baha'i community is working in the cutting edge of social/economic development around the world. FUNDAEC is a great example of Baha'i inspired development. The focus on building up human and institutional capacity through a feedback loop of theory and experiential learning is a very practical approach to achieving the ideals. The "institute process" which is being implemented in almost every single community throughout the world, is a case study in experiential learning on how to deepen upon, apply Baha'i principles in concrete acts of service, and then reflect upon the learning for the next cycle of activity.

Global ideals are impossible unless they take root on a community level, where the rubber hits the road. In the Baha'i community the rubber IS hitting the road, it is hard but the path forward is clear. There is nothing utopian about it.
Yesterday at 1:14am

Mavaddat Javid
Jason, we've mentioned the Bahá'í vision of a "Most Great Peace." Such a goal is the defining mark of Utopianism. If this organization also engages in practical development (as you point out), that does necessarily not make it less Utopian. The Bahá'í plan (according to Bahá'u'lláh and Shoghi Effendi) is that the world embrace the infallible authority of Bahá'u'lláh so that glorious unity and progress between the nations will herald an age of bliss on Earth. I can mention specific scriptures here, if you like.

The goal is not only Utopian, but the means as well: According to the Universal House of Justice, the development activity of the Bahá'í world is meant to win people over to Bahá'u'lláh. There are no mechanisms for checking if these activities are making a practical difference. The Bahá'í goal is decidedly not "material betterment," but spiritual transformation (as I said). This is why Bahá'ís are discouraged from contributing to secular organizations like Amnesty Int'l.
Yesterday at 5:01pm

Jason Snyder
Mav, I think we will have to agree to disagree here. Just because the vision is spiritual in nature doesn't mean it is utopian. The word "utopian", popularized by the book "Brave New World" is decidedly unrealistic, and overly sanitary. If we look at the direction of history and cultural integration, I think that it is hard to argue that world integration is not inevitable. Baha'is acknowledge this historical inevitability as being part of a larger purpose, but it is not simplistic. It is messy, but progress is being made, and the material metrics you mention are being developed according to the aformentioned process. The idea that we believe in spiritual transformation but not material betterment doesn't make any sense. The two concepts our inextricably tied together. Baha'is avoid certain organizations due to their highly partisan nature. We clearly do believe in and work for many of the same goals as amnesty international, but our approach, which I described previously, is different
Yesterday at 5:29pm

Mavaddat Javid
Jason, the term "Utopia" was popularized by Sir Thomas More's eponymous book "Utopia," not Huxley's "Brave New World."

I was once a Bahá'í myself, though I continue to love my Bahá'í friends. So I understand your faith in the Bahá'í narrative of inevitable world unity. But I believe a sophisticated review of history would prove precisely the opposite conclusion. Beyond unquestioning faith, there is no reason to believe that international unity is a plausible or even desirable goal (let alone inevitable). "Agree to disagree" is usually a terminus reached by subjective differences of opinion. But we're talking about the facts of history, economics, and game theory; surely here is not the place for subjectivity.

The point is that spiritual transformation has nothing to do with material betterment. This is evidenced by the fact that the Bahá'í World Centre measures the number of new enrollees from development projects, not whether anyone is actually materially helped.
Yesterday at 7:15pm

Jason Snyder
"Beyond unquestioning faith, there is no reason to believe that international unity is a plausible or even desirable goal (let alone inevitable). 'Agree to disagree' is usually a terminus reached by subjective differences of opinion. But we're talking about the facts of history, economics, and game theory; surely here is not the place for subjectivity."

If only I could be more objective, I could see history clearly without any human bias. If only I were a computer..:)

I think we are both drawing from the same facts of history, economics, etc to develop our conceptual framework of the world. You are making a clear statement of your beliefs, are you saying that they are the objective truth? Aren't words such as "desirable" subjective claims? How is world unity not plausible but by unquestioning faith? There are many secular/materialist thinkers who see world unity as the next step in the direction of history. Robert Wright's "Non-Zero" is a good example. Buckminster Fuller was another
Yesterday at 11:37pm

Mavaddat Javid
Jason, it's important we be clear in the concepts we employ. By "unity" here I mean the unification of all nations in one common ideology, in agreement about the locus of good, cooperating to achieve mutually agreed upon goals. This is not what Wright or Fuller had in mind.

I think we've run the conversation dry, but to reiterate the points I consider important: The real issue in this note is with laissez-faire governance. The happiness of people depends on material and institutional improvements. Ideologies that, instead, aim to reshape human nature itself have always failed with terrifying consequences. The Bahá'í Faith, like all religions, flatters us by declaring that we know the answers to the world's problems (from authority) and then work out the reasons after. It's like having a computer tell you the answers to a math exam, and then try to force them to work. The only problem is when we don't know the math or how the program works, we don't know if the answers are right!
15 hours ago

Jason Snyder
I'm not sure about Fuller, but Wright definetely advocates a single universal theology... I think the goals of Baha'i unity are sufficiently vague that they are not restrictive. For example, the unity of the human race, universal education, bridging the extremes of wealth and poverty, these are hardly controversial, and yet the means to achieving these have not been prescribed. But if we can't have a vision that we can believe in and work for, others will do the shaping for us. All Baha'is are doing is sharing the vision. We are required to be non-violent, we expect independent investigation of truth, it really bears no resemblence to the terrifying ideologies of the past. And, in the end, material improvements only take us so far.. Happiness for me and many others, beyond the basic physical needs of existence, is a spiritual condition.
7 hours ago

Mavaddat Javid
Jason, I recently watched Wright declare that God is a human invention in an interview with Bill Moyers. He's agnostic. So I'd be interested to know how you conclude that he advocates a single universal theology. Why think so?

I want to be clear that I passionately agree with the secular principles that the Bahá'í Faith reiterates. These are maxims enunciated by Plato, Rousseau, Locke, and enlightenment philosophers. Although they are an integral part of the Bahá'í Faith, there's nothing especially Bahá'í about them. So I have no quarrel with you about racism, education, poverty, etc. It's the uniquely Bahá'í aspects of the Bahá'í Faith that I find disturbing.

Specifically, I fear the demand that everyone unconditionally submit to the authority of Bahá'í leaders, that "Covenant breakers" are spiritually diseased and to be shunned, and that becoming a Bahá'í is more important than knowing where your next meal is coming from.
about an hour ago

09 September 2009

Theory and Development

The topic of my master’s thesis was on the spatial accessibility of healthy and affordable food in Bernalillo County. I collected a broad range of data to perform three types of analysis: physical proximity; personal mobility; and human perception. The first type of analysis required using a network analysis to find the median nearest network distance by census block group to three types of geo-coded food retail locations. The second type of analysis required the creation of a personal mobility index by census block group using five census indicators. The final type of analysis required the identification of block group clusters with different combinations of the prior two accessibility metrics, and then sending out surveys to these areas to see how perceptions of food accessibility matched up with the quantitative indicators. What I found was that there are clearly some areas which would fit the description of a “food desert”, or areas where poor accessibility adversely affects diet above and beyond cultural norms and income.

It was quite an effort and I am proud of it, but I wonder what the next step would be. My research will likely sit in the UNM library and provide nothing towards the advancement of humanity. Thinking about the following Baha'i quote, it makes me wonder how this, and other academic knowledge can be made useful.

Verily I say unto thee: Of all men the most negligent is he that disputeth idly and seeketh to advance himself over his brother. Say, O brethren! Let deeds, not words, be your adorning."

According to the predominant models of development, the next logical step would be a discussion of what, if any, actions should be taken by the government or outside observers to FIX the problem. Clearly businesses could use this information to better locate areas lacking a sufficient variety of healthy and affordable food. Often the market fails in this regard, especially in urban areas with poor minority populations. This is where non-profits could jump in and use this information to promote affordable subsidized produce or promote urban gardens.

Another model of development, espoused by educators such as the late Paulo Freire, planners such as Bent Flyberg, development organizations such as FUNDAEC, and the Baha'i Faith, focuses on developing human capacity through consultation, action, and reflection within a community. In my example, this process would probably start with directed consultations on the perceptions of food and nutrition in general. My study area has had a long tradition of local agriculture which has since faded out as a source of livelihood. Many of the people I surveyed expressed a desire to consume more fresh produce, but face serious time constraints to merely purchase the food, let alone grow it. The most accessible food is often found at gas stations or mini-marts which contain mainly packaged food. Assuming that people decide that they want to eat healthier and promote local agriculture, the next step would be for community members consult, possibly in collaboration with scientists and planners, about the human and natural resources in the community, and how these resources could be mobilized to promote food awareness, start their own business and cooperatives, attract outside business into their area, etc. Finally, every few months or so, community members would reflect on what has been learned and develop a more coherent plan of action.

It is my view that social and economic development on a large scale is not possible without a parallel process of spiritual development. The Baha'i framework for action enshrined in the institute process provides an early template on how spirituality can inform this new mode of learning.

The Rambling Brink Mirage

Slog along towards the brink; "just over the hill now". Through the footsteps in the wilderness. Towards "I am what I am to be". Formation of energy- solid grip of sand.

"That is safe, there must be a meticulous foundation, so much wasted time, how depressing, what a scandalous thought."

"What is scandalous is your envy of freedom and reliance."

"oh is that so? You mean reliance on God? You have no idea my tests!"

"Sorry, I didn't mean..."

"No, I can be a little dramatic, and...I'm sorry too. It's just that..."


"Well, I hope this doesn't sound pretentious, but they are a very peculiar"

"Your talking about tests?"

"Yea, I have never known anybody else who has had them. I suffered almost as much from, you know, the lack of understanding, um...the misguided diagnoses, the cross-eyed looks, as I did from, from the test itself."

"I take it by your use of the past tense that these tests are past?"

"Well, sort of, ok. My original plan was, and I know this sounds cliche, but it was transcendence, or synergy. There were no details, but I knew that the world would bend to the spirit that I was tapped into. That's it. Now when the tests came, and the particular circumstance of these were not important, though I did think so at the time, it was more like what I can describe as a conceptual catch 22 way of addressing the moment. I couldn't live through my own eyes, I always felt compelled to approach a situation how I would think of somebody else thinking it. Anyway, it's hard to describe, but I prayed and prayed, screamed, and when others were around, inside. It was really the only hopeless time I have felt in my life."

"Was anybody aware of what, or, how you were doing?"

"Well again, either I couldn't verbalise, or it just wasn't like other...um...I have never really heard of being stuck in competing conceptual, um, mindsets when being just in a regular circumstance, does that make any sense?"

"Sort of. Your descriptions are kind of vague, I wish it made more. "

"So do I. Thank you for listening to me, I wanted to answer your original question about still being tested, um we were talking about reliance on God and tests in relation to freedom. I got over this test by accepting that I couldn't apply my enlightenment to the world how I had thought. I think it was a prayer by the Ba'b that did it. I forgot which one, or what exactly it was about, but I got from it that I needed to let go of my need for synergy and freedom."

"That seems kind of counter-intuitive. It seems like those are things you would want"

"Well, I know. It was more like, I needed to accept my limitations, build within them, and somehow leverage them for my long term growth. I felt that maybe I could, well, I realized that I couldn't act with the freedom and spirit, even charisma, that I might have wanted, but I could do the things that don't require that so much. More things to do with patience and diligence. Such as reading, studying, planning, and these naturally applied to what I pursue now, from going through school, to being available, maybe not effective, but available and present, for faith activities, to carry out the plan. I think getting married is a part of that. It allows me to be more comfortable, and time, to be myself, to share with someone, and to love someone beyond the remote ideal of love for mankind."

"And to be loved."

"yes. Absolutely...I want to say that how you approach life is very inspiring to me."


"I am sorry for my condescending tone earlier. Part of it I think is jealousy. I seem to have developed a lack of patience for those attitudes that I have resigned to be, well what I think is not possible for myself. I think that this mode I have been in, now I am near the brink. Soon I can be the final definition of what I have settled for desperately. But now I think, why settle. It has almost become too easy to fall back on the crutch of what God has ordained, in my view, that I cannot do, and that I can. I don't feel that I am ready to form."

"Hmm, I am glad you are realizing this, though I am not totally clear on what you are talking about exactly, a lot of your descriptions are kind of vague."

"I know, they were more for me to better understand this brink that I am supposedly standing on. Thank you for listening, for drawing me out and asking questions. It is not always easy...Some people can easily express themselves. I need people to ask questions, to dig deeper."

"I didn't do very much."

"But you did. You listened, and I don't know where this torrent came from."

"I am not quite sure what you mean by 'being on the brink of form."

"It doesn't exist, it is a mirage."

Recognition of the Manifestation of God: Event or Process?

Some are inclined to think of recognizing the Manifestation of God (aka becoming a Baha’i) as an event. One might hear people talking about, “the day I became a Baha’i,” “the moment she caught the spark of faith,” “the point at which I realized Baha’u’llah was from God,” etc. Others are inclined to think of it as a process, that it is the journey of a soul over a span of time. For example, one might hear that when we first commit ourselves to Baha’u’llah we can rarely have much more than a dim vision of what that might mean, inasmuch as in the course of life in this world we can only catch a glimmer of the import of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation.

I’d like to see what are some of y’all’s thoughts on this topic.

I, for one, tend to think of recognition as a momentary act that happens whenever a soul is touched by the Manifestation of God. The Writings use a number of images to describe this: gazing on the Beloved, catching the fragrance of His garment, hearing the call of God, etc. It can happen when praying, when reading the Writings, when receiving Anna’s Presentation, and in many other ways. We might say that there is a first time that this happens. But qualitatively there isn’t a great deal of difference between that and the fruits of routine practices like obligatory prayer. Every time we recognize the Manifestation of God we are influenced to some degree. The process of one’s spiritual development is the aggregate effect of a multiplicity of such moments. In order to sustain one’s spiritual progress, a person must constantly renew her recognition of the Manifestation of God.

04 September 2009

The House Can Play (can you?)

The popular party game Taboo is a fantastic lesson in communication with those around us. In it, you are given a word that your teammates, with your assistance, need to guess. You cannot use that word, or a short list of related words. It requires quick and creative speech. Think you can play Five Year Plan Taboo? Let's find out! Try to describe the following as directly and descriptively as possible, without using any of the forbidden words, which can easily be misunderstood by Baha'is and the wider community alike:

Children's Classes

(Sunday School,
Book 3)

Devotional Gatherings


Junior Youth Groups
(middle schoolers,

Study Circles


Home Visits

I'm sure you did a great job ... but let's take a look at how the professionals play:

Children's Classes

lessons that develop their spiritual faculties and lay the foundations of a noble and upright character”
-20 October, 2008

Devotional Gatherings

acts of collective worship in diverse settings, uniting with others in prayer, awakening spiritual susceptibilities, and shaping a pattern of life distinguished for its devotional character”
-Ridvan, 2008

Junior Youth Groups

assist junior youth to navigate through a crucial stage of their lives and to become empowered to direct their energies toward the advancement of civilization”
-Ridvan, 2008

Study Circles

enable people of varied backgrounds to advance together and explore the application of the Baha'i teachings to their individual and collective lives”
-26 April, 2009

Home Visits

they call on one another in their homes and pay visits to families, friends and acquaintances, they enter into purposeful discussion on themes of spiritual import, deepen their knowledge of the Faith, share Baha'u'llah's message, and welcome increasing numbers to join them in a mighty spiritual enterprise”
-Ridvan, 2008

How grand, how intriguing are these essential activities, described in this way! Why not take advantage of our wealth of letters from the Universal House of Justice, allowing this infallible Institution to guide our words as well as our deeds? Is it not possible that, as our language shifts in ways that begin to accommodate the true breadth of the vision of the Plan, we might find that raising this vital subject of religion in our everyday interactions is suddenly no longer so ... taboo?

03 September 2009

Remembering the Promise. Living the Fulfillment

Below this entry are three posts related to the relation between Christianity and the Baha’i Faith. They are experimental in nature. My feelings would in no way be hurt if you felt they were dogmatic, extreme, or poorly articulated. They are an attempt to remain faithful to the two month period immediately following my recognition of Baha’u’llah as the Return of Christ over the course of one morning in March 2005. Dogmatic, extreme, and inarticulate are fairly accurate descriptions of me at that time. In that sense, I’m picking up where I left off. So you may have to bear with me.

In one sense, this period was a transition from Christianity to the Baha’i Faith. It was a way station in which I felt I belonged to both, but was not quite at home in either. But in another sense it was a fully fledged spirituality that was not just an amalgamation of two religions but rather a radicalized version of both. I was a Christian following Jesus in his returned form. And I was a Baha’i who believed that because Christ was the only way to salvation, the teachings of Baha’u’llah were the only refuge of a travailing age. Those were bizarre days. Often it is difficult to rekindle the exhilaration and ecstasy I felt at the time. This is largely because I often forget my fidelity to Jesus. I forget that I haven’t always been a Baha’i. For that reason, I am now making a concerted effort to remember; not just to dig through the attic of my long-term memory, but to know spontaneously that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. This remembrance is what reminds me of the greatness of this Day. I have taken it upon myself to explore those zones of indistinction between Christianity and the Baha’i Faith, between Jesus and Baha’u’llah upon which I thrived during that brief period. My purpose is in no way academic. I am looking to provide the conceptual tools for facilitating a spirituality that strengthens Baha’i efforts to build a new civilization.

My main interest in going down this route is to explore the possibilities of a spirituality that dwells within these zones of indistinction, that loves the light from whichever lamp it might shine. One aspect of this is to appreciate every soul God has sent to redeem humanity. But beyond that, the unity of God’s revelations allows us to look at the fulfillment of his promises from the perspective of those saints, apostles, and common believers who earnestly waited centuries for their fulfillment. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus tells his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see, for I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see and never saw it; to hear what you hear and never heard it.”[1] To look at religion in its continuity, not as something beginning in 1844, can give a perspective that highlights the urgency, majesty, and untold opportunity brought on by the Bab and Baha’u’llah’s coming. It can remind us that the dreams of the Baha’i Faith are not just the dreams of Baha’is, but rather they belong to all who have come before.

Personal experience moving from one religion to the other is helpful but it is not necessary for developing this sort of spirituality. Most of the Christian Bible predates the arrival of the Messiah. Most Christians may most identify with the New Testament. But knowledge of the cycles of restoration and exile, prophecy and heedlessness in the history of ancient Israel provides a powerful backdrop to the Messianic drama of the New Testament. One need not be a Jew to sympathize with the hope of ancient Israel. The Biblical text speaks across lines of ethnicity and dispensation. The accounts of Jesus’ ministry and the letters to the early churches would not have the same power if the reader was unacquainted with the constant hope for redemption voiced throughout the Hebrew Bible, especially in the books of prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or Daniel wherein the coming of the Messiah was prophesied. By incorporating the history of previous Dispensations, the Christian Bible presents that of its most recent Dispensation all the more powerfully. (With that said, Christian readings of Jewish scripture are tied up in an ancient legacy of Christian violence against Jews. Appropriating the scriptures of other communities is a task fraught with many ethical difficulties. Nonetheless, I have no intention of surrendering this terrain to anti-semites. Theologically, I never like to cut and run.)

There is nothing stopping Baha’is from gaining inspiration from the scriptures of previous dispensations. The development of this sort of spirituality, of course, doesn’t happen overnight. An awareness of the power of Christian consciousness can guide the way Baha’is accompany Christians into the Baha’i Faith. They may learn all sorts of new things upon entry into the Baha’i world. But, God willing, they will at the same time look back and remember.

As a final thought, Nabil’s Narrative, Fire on the Mountaintop, and Howard Colby’s Ives’ Portals to Freedom are excellent resources for this sort of spirituality.

[1] Lk 10.23-24

Religion(s) and Religion

There is a great difference between religion(s) and religion. One is the multiplicity of outward shapes, communities, and institutions. The other is the spirit that gives rise to them. From time to time the world must be shaken from the slumber of these established forms by the power that constituted them in the first place. Baha’is call this progressive revelation.

Religion, we might say, is the act of inquiring into the fundamental verities of the world and of our existence within it. Religion(s), on the other hand, function similarly to tribes or nations. A religion, we might say, is the population of its believers and the doctrines they espouse, the practices they observe, the culture they share. The first gives rise to a multiplicity of outward forms without sacrificing the singularity of its act. The latter is a great multiplicity whose diversified elements tend to be sacrificed if there is any attempt at unification. Each element is static and cannot pass over into something else without itself passing away.

Baha’u’llah teaches the unity of religion. All the world’s religions come from God. And they find their culmination in the Baha’i Revelation. This presents a difficult situation for Baha’is trying to explain this principle to others. For example, Christians eat pork. Muslims do not. But they do eat cows, which are revered by Hindus. Uniting these diversified elements into one religion would be absurd. One could say that it doesn’t matter what we eat, that such laws are bad for unity. But that would be to have the Christian view prevail to the detriment of all others. At the same time, people might suggest that Baha’i appreciation for other religions is just a ploy to get others to like the Baha’i Faith and eventually join it, to the detriment of their previous religion. In which case, Baha’is doesn’t seem to much appreciate other religions. After all, Baha’is would be trying to drain them of their adherents, which isn’t very nice. Unity of religion, then, would just be a bait and switch with little substantial meaning.

The reality is that Baha’u’llah did not accept the state of the world’s religions as it was, and does not want us to accept it as it is now. The outward forms enshrined by religions are inadequate and must be exposed to the power from which they are derived. He writes,

Verily, this is the Day in which mankind can behold the Face, and hear the Voice, of the Promised One. The Call of God hath been raised, and the light of His countenance hath been lifted upon men. It behoveth every man to blot out the trace of every idle word from the tablet of his heart, and to gaze, with an open and unbiased mind, on the signs of His Revelation, the proofs of His Mission, and the tokens of His glory.[1]

The unity of the world’s religions is that they have been brought into the world by one spirit of divine revelation. It has from time to time been revealed to humanity giving laws and teachings for that day. And it has in this Day reappeared, first with the Bab, and then with Baha’u’llah. This is what unifies them. It challenges the adherents of all religions to turn to the animating impulse of their own faith and to examine whether or not, outside of their religion (one among others), Baha’u’llah is the return of the spirit that animates it in the first place.

[1] GWB VII pp. 10-11

The Church and her Return

I’d like to advance two theses. First, there is a great theological difference between churches and the Church. Secondly, the Baha’i Faith is the Church; or framed differently: The Baha’i Faith is the Return of the Church.

So what’s the difference between churches and the Church?

The Bible speaks of many churches. There is the church at Jerusalem, the church at Antioch, Rome, etc. These are the different communities, the diverse sites that believers can be found. But beyond that there is a greater sense in which the word church is used. This sense employs a relationship not only between human beings and their physical locations, but also, with Jesus, the one who calls the Church together. The unity of Christ is the unity of the Church. “Church” refers to a spiritual, not a social bond. It concerns the relations between other people only through the mediation of their relation to the Messiah. I address this in greater depth in the entry, “The Church and her Truth,” posted below. That entry examines Paul’s critique of sectarianism among the Corinthian faithful. Though the believers may divide themselves this way and that they are still participants in only one Church. Related to this is the way Paul conceives of the Church as a body. In the same epistle, he discusses the unity of the community in the diversity of its members. In these statements what unites the diverse aspects is always their connection with God, rather than the human bonds between its individual members.

"There are many different gifts, but it is always the same Spirit; there are many different ways of serving, but it is always the same Lord. There are many different forms of activity, but in everybody it is the same God who is at work in them all..."[1]

"For as with the human body which is a unity although it has many parts- all the parts of the body, though many, still making up one single body- so it is with Christ. We were baptized into one body in a single Spirit, Jews as well as Greeks, slaves as well as free men, and we were all given the same Spirit to drink."[2]

The Church may have many social and doctrinal cleavages within it. But still there is only one Church by way of its members’ other-worldly connection with the Messiah. Paul writes in his letter to the Collosians,

He exists before all things and in him all things hold together, and he is the Head of the Body, that is, the Church.[3]

The Church is a Communion extending between heaven and earth, and on earth between souls joined in the Spirit with the Messiah. This means that no earthly power can dissolve the Church. Its fundamental unity is in Christ. The social breakup of communities and institutions is only an outward scar on its Body. The Messiah is the beginning of the Church and he is its end. Only through him, can its fundamental reality be altered. With that in mind it is possible to see how the Baha’i Faith is the Return of the Church. In the act of returning, Baha’u’llah restores his relationship to the faithful. Those who are united with him are the continuation of this sacred body. Communities of Christians may reject or remain unaware of Baha’u’llah, (for now, it’s usually the latter) but inasmuch as they are in the Church, they participate in the sanctity of its life by way of Baha’u’llah. And just as the one Church may have many social divisions without dissolving itself as Church, so too the Church can extend across the dividing lines of religions and still be Church.

[1] 1 Cor 12.4-6
[2] 1 Cor 12.12-14
[3] Col 1.17-18

The Church and her Truth

The Apostle Paul begins the body of his first letter to the Corinthians by addressing the factionalism creeping through the Church. In so doing, he develops a vision of Christian identity based on religious truth rather than social association.

Brothers, I urge you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, not to have factions among yourselves but all to be in agreement in what you profess so that you are perfectly united in your beliefs and judgments. From what Chloe’s people have been telling me about you, brothers, it is clear that there are serious differences among you. What I mean is this: every one of you is declaring, “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas [Peter]” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been split up? Was it Paul that was crucified for you, or was it in Paul’s name that you were baptized?[1]

The Corinthians had fallen into a pattern of identifying themselves with different teachers. Losing sight of the divine spirit that animates their faith, individuals were attaching themselves to its human vehicles. Paul highlights the absurdity of this arrangement with his rhetorical question whether it was he that was crucified for them or in his name that they were baptized. For Roman Catholicism, the problem of the Corinthians is at once the problem of the Protestant “churches.” By attaching themselves to different leaders, often switching from one to another quite casually, the universal element of messianic truth is reduced to community ideology. This critique has great force, nearly five hundred years since it was first advanced. But it turns against its wielders inasmuch as they might remain oblivious to the extent that this attitude predates the dissolution of the Roman Communion. After all, the schism with the Eastern churches was no less problematic, as was the vigorous suppression of the multitude of doctrines that had developed in the early church. Within Paul’s critique, individuals are not only declaring “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas.” They are also declaring “I belong to Christ.” The Church is especially vulnerable to outward disintegration once Christ has been made into a faction, once “Christ” is the name attached to one human path among others.
Next, Paul goes into an extended discussion of the irreconcilable difference between the Gospel and the wisdom of the world. “The message of the cross is folly for those who are on the way to ruin, but for those of us who are on the road to salvation it is the power of God.” The depth and implications of Paul’s powerful critique of the Greek Logos are far beyond this discussion. What matters here is that God’s standards are not human standards; that the truth of the Cross cannot be subsumed by inquiry reduced to its human dimension. This is why the Church cannot be a human institution, centered on the social association of particular human figures. Certainly, the Church involves social association. But this is not the entirety of its life. It must retain its connection with the truth of the Cross, the power of the Holy Spirit that is irreducible to any social or ideological construction.

As long as there are jealousy and rivalry among you, that surely means that you are still living by your natural inclinations and by merely human principles. While there is one that says “I belong to Paul” and another that says “I belong to Apollos” are you not being only too human? For what is Apollos and what is Paul? The servants through whom you came believe and each has only what the Lord has given him. I did the planting, Apollos did the watering, but God gave growth. In this, neither the planter nor the waterer counts for anything; only God, who gives growth.[2]

Paul, Apollos, and Cephas have of course made substantial contributions to the spiritual life of the Corinthian community. Had they not arisen to announce the Gospel, these people could never have been endowed with knowledge of Jesus the Messiah. Nonetheless, the vibrance of the community cannot be attributed solely to the labor of these steadfast teachers. It is God who gives growth. Only the hand of divine assistance can complete the process. And it is only in such completion that the service of the Apostles takes on significance. Otherwise, all they can boast of is wet seeds. Paul then goes on to elaborate a radical formula of spiritual life. In it, the reader can see a connection with the verse of Baha’u’llah: O Son of Spirit! My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting.[3]

There is to be no room for self-delusion. Any one of you who thinks he is wise by worldly standards must learn to be a fool in order to be really wise. For the wisdom of the world is folly to God… So there is to be no boasting about human beings: everything belongs to you, whether it is Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, the world, life or death, the present or the future- all belong to you; but you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.[4]

Through Christ, one comes in possession of all things, not in terms of this world and its standards, but in the sight of God which stands above the sight of Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, and with them the world, life or death, the present or the future. While retaining their finite human existence, the faithful participate in God’s universal sovereignty.

[1] 1Cor 1.10-16
[2] 1Cor 3.3-7
[3] HWA 1
[4] 1 Cor 3.18-22