20 December 2009

The Spectrum of Religious Skepticism

While there is really nothing here about religion and belief that I haven't heard either of these two say, the fact that they are discussing it together is kind of exciting to me. I have discussed both of their thinking previously on this blog. They pretty much represent both sides of the skeptical post-religious worldview. Hitchen's, along with Dawkins, is probably the most outspoken and well spoken, if also condescending, public atheist. Wright threads the needle between materialism and teleology, while arguing that religious behavior is mainly a proxy for economic and political motivations. He is also a practicing Buddhist.

13 December 2009

Teaching the Baha’i Faith on College Campuses: Part One

Before, launching into this essay, I’d just like to express how happy I am to be writing again. For the better part of two years I was writing on a nearly regular basis. But this ceased when three months ago, I threw myself wholeheartedly back into studying Arabic. I’ve now progressed to the point where I’ve received an offer to assist in translating the vast body of untranslated Baha’i Writings during my free time. Granted, there are amazing resources that make this relatively simple, and the fine-tuning of these translations would be done by experts. There’s more people doing this sort of work than you might first think. So, it’s not like I have to be extremely proficient in the language to pull this off. Nonetheless, it’s another sign that God confirms us when we show forth effort and hope for his assistance. Then, just recently, I began to return to philosophy, which is another great passion of mine, and my on-going theological project: grounding a vision of the broad mission of the Baha’i Faith in rigorous inquests into the historical development of its lines of action. What follows is the product of some personal reflections. Undoubtedly they have been influenced by that broader project.

Tonight, I’ve had some thoughts running through my head about teaching the Baha’i Faith among college students. This is in large part sparked by a brief stopover at the Earlham College website. Photographs, course listings, and a student blog reminded me of the school we Earlhamites love to hate, hate to love, but to which we feel indissolubly linked because we are, in fact, it. I know many people who read this blog are Baha’is who either are or were recently attending college. So teaching the Baha’i Faith in such a setting is something to which many readers here have given thought. Furthermore, in a previous generation college campuses were the most fertile field for teaching that Western Baha’i communities had encountered on their own soil. Reviving that luster is certainly a worthy project. I think I’ve hit upon a reasonably systematic approach. At the very least, I think it’s a good start. I’d like to hear everyone else’s thoughts on this, especially if you’ve had recent experience in this area of teaching.

Firstly, such efforts should be as fully informed as possible by systematic teaching efforts happening in other parts of the world. The framework for action developed and set in motion since 1996 maximizes the capacity to learn from other individuals, communities, and institutions. There’s no need for Baha’i students to re-invent the wheel. For many of us, this may seem like common-sense. But at least for me personally, it took years for to come around to this view. Even after graduation I still clung to the idea that college campuses were so different from other settings that it was best for college clubs to start nearly from scratch.

Secondly, plans of action should be devised with respect to the natural rhythm of college life. One consequence of this is that dividing the year into four three month cycles, as in most other settings, could be counter-productive. The school year is already divided into its own periods, and the natural transitions between those should be taken into account. Every year begins with Fall semester (about 4 months). Then after a short break (3-4 weeks). Following that there is Spring semester (another 4 months). And then there is a relatively long summer break in which a significant number of the student body is absent (about 3 months). If student life is well-integrated into the broader community and there is already a vibrant teaching process among this latter population, then a standard plan of four three-months cycles may be quite sufficient. However, if student life is heavily organized around the academic calendar, then the best method is likely to be approaching each semester as one cycle in an Intensive Program of Growth (IPG). The semester would begin with an expansion phase. Most of the semester would consist of consolidation. And finally towards the end, participants would engage in a period of reflection and planning.

Such an approach would take advantage of the wide fluctuation in receptivity clearly linked to the cycle of the academic year. The beginning of a semester is a time for starting anew. This is especially the case with incoming freshman. It’s a time when student’s schedules are the most free. Homework, extracurriculars, and bad habits haven’t begun piling up. There’s still time in the week to join a study circle or get involved with a new service activity, conducted in the broader community, such as a children’s class or a Junior Youth group. It’s also a time, and this is especially the case with incoming freshman, for exploring a new spiritual path, and perhaps committing oneself to a new religious community. Intensive efforts to expand the scale of Baha’i community life can then naturally transition into a steady consolidation process as daily routines settle over the campus. In my experience, receptivity to core activities and to the fundamental verities of the Baha’i Faith tends to crash within just a few weeks of the start of the semester. New activities can be consolidated and new believers can be confirmed over the course of an entire semester. But that requires getting off on the right foot early on.

I’m covering a lot of ground with this essay. So I’ve decided to break it into two parts. This doesn’t actually make it easier to read. But it sure feels like it when the webpage loads. It continues with a post entitled, Teaching the Baha’i Faith on College Campuses: Part Two. It should be pretty easy to find.

Teaching the Baha’i Faith on College Campuses: Part Two

The third point I’d like to emphasize is that living the Baha’i life and taking action accordingly is most vibrant when it is thoroughly integrated into other aspects of one’s college life. It’s not just that Baha’is should balance Baha’i aspects of life with supposedly non-Baha’i aspects of life. This would be to wrongly assume that there is an aspect of one’s life that isn’t, or perhaps shouldn’t be, called to account by the Baha’i Revelation. Just as Jesus is Messiah seven days a week and not just on Sunday, so too, the transforming potency of Baha’u’llah’s Word is to be brought to bear in some way on every facet of human life. This, of course, has to do with one’s approach to studying. The central activity of college life is obtaining an education and is highly praised in the Baha’i Faith. And, of course, the pursuit of a degree does not override everything else in life. But beyond one’s studies, this insight greatly affects the way a student builds and develops relationships with others during that time. If it is at cross-purposes with one’s spiritual commitments then efforts to engage with others on a spiritual level will feel all the more contrived and unnatural. Sometimes I think about what it would be like to go back and visit Earlham now that I’ve graduated and been away for so long. Sadly, I wouldn’t know anyone besides the faculty. But it also occurred to me that if I did get into conversations with students I would probably be relatively confident conversing with them about spiritual matters. In fact, I suspect I would be far more confident than I was when I was a student. And the crucial difference is that the way I would relate with those students would be entirely different than the way I related with friends and acquaintances when I was myself a student.

Looking back, I think one of the biggest obstacles to being a more effective teacher was a fear of social stigmatization. I was afraid people might look at me in a less positive light if I were to present the Baha’i Faith with more courage. This is in large part because most of the relationships I developed in college were generally unrelated to my commitments and passions as a Baha’i. This is obviously related to the fact that I was nearly half way through my second year by the time I became a Baha’i. But even if I had, I think the outcome would have been quite similar. The Baha’i Faith had little to do with the way I made and developed friendships, even after I became confirmed in the faith. And once that lifestyle was established I feared that people might feel betrayed if I started broaching spiritual matters more directly. As an aside, it never occurred to me and others that our friends and acquaintances might feel pleasantly surprised rather than betrayed in such a scenario. But however torn I and others felt by this inner conflict, there is another way. And this is to establish relationships upon a spiritual basis. By this is not meant a doctrinal or sectarian basis. Rather it means, perhaps, that interactions are based around activities and topics that uplift the human soul, spread joy, and advance the cause of justice in the world. This is further strengthened, if these relationships are built around studying the Word of God for this age and striving to put it into practice.

As I mentioned earlier, the beginning of a semester is a great time to start anew. Just as this is the case for individuals contacted during an expansion phase, it is all the truer for those confirmed collaborators stepping out to begin those relationships in the first place. This presents an exciting opportunity for incoming Baha’i students. As you probably know, Baha’i youth are increasingly at the forefront of teaching efforts before they reach an age for beginning higher education. And increased focus on the education of children and the spiritual empowerment of early adolescents will only reinforce this trend in the years to come. With growing frequency, Baha’i youth will begin their college career with the will and capacity to engage in intensive teaching efforts. Effective planning and coordination between Baha’i upperclassmen and these incoming students can help draw them to the forefront of teaching as soon as they step on campus. Not only can this greatly augment the capacity and enthusiasm of the broader effort, but it can also be a profound blessing for the incoming student. There are many ways to make new friends and get established when entering college. Some are better than others. But looking back, I can’t think of any better way of beginning college than to seek and find new souls with whom to walk on a spiritual path of service.