20 December 2010

Taking Ownership: Questions for Reflection

What does it mean to take ownership of one's own spiritual education and community?

We bandy the phrase about a lot, but does taking ownership just mean participating in consultation, feeling a part of community, and being involved in the practices?

If I feel that a community or a process is my own, and if I truly value it, how do I show this?

Or another question, not unrelated:

What would it look like if every study circle participant, every devotional gathering participant, every animator, teacher, junior youth, and child involved in any of the core activities in a cluster, whether Baha'i or not, participated in intensive campaigns to extend these activities to others?

Why does our outward-looking orientation stop at the cluster reflection door?

Let's think about what kind of community we're raising up.  One that can catch the people who fall into it?  Or one that has learned to grow all on its own?

13 December 2010

The Search for a Modern Theology

A while back I wrote "A Baha'i's Interpretation of Original Sin", which sought to challenge the dominant Christian understanding of "original sin" using passages from the bible paired with illumination from the Baha'i writings. Andrew Sprung also challenges "original sin", not by trying to reinterpret biblical scripture, but philosophically, based on modern knowledge of the human condition. He regards it "as a really pernicious myth that fundamentally miscasts the human condition". He starts by describing an internal dialogue he has with C.S. Lewis:

12 December 2010

Blogging, Discourse, and Ruhi Book 2

I love blogs.  I love the democratic explosion of writing on the internet. It has introduced me to so many great thinkers and writers and ideas that have enriched my life.  Clearly, I've got a penchant for Baha'i blogs as well.  There are a few I follow religiously (ha!), several more that I drop in on occasionally, and others that I only know from links to specific articles that have been passed on to me by friends. I enjoy contributing to Baha'i Coherence, and feel comfortable here despite the fact that my background is considerably less academic than those of many of my co-creators. I feel like this blog is a wonderful forum for sharing our early experiments in contributing to the discourses of society.

07 December 2010

the Site of Thinking

This short opinion piece in the New York Times outlines a compelling approach for practicing philosophy in our time. In it, the author describes what he refers to as field philosophy;

“Getting out into the field” means leaving the book-lined study to work with scientists, engineers and decision makers on specific social challenges. Rather than going into the public square in order to collect data for understanding traditional philosophic problems like the old chestnut of “free will,” as experimental philosophers do, field philosophers start out in the world. Rather than seeking to identify general philosophic principles, they begin with the problems of non-philosophers, drawing out specific, underappreciated, philosophic dimensions of societal problems...Field philosophy, then, moves in a different direction than either traditional applied philosophy or the new experimental philosophy. Whereas these approaches are top-down in orientation, beginning in theory and hoping to apply a theoretical construct to a problem, field philosophy is bottom-up, beginning with the needs of stakeholders and drawing out philosophical insights after the work is completed.

I think this helps highlight where the Bahá’í world has been moving in recent years. Gone are the days when Bahá’í "scholars" could content themselves with having an encyclopedic knowledge of Bahá’í teachings and history without extensive engagement with the wider society. And those serving actively in the field are discouraged from limiting themselves to simplistic activities, such as handing out pamphlets or walking in a parade. Service now requires a great deal more thought and effort. And intellectual pursuits inspired by the Baha'i faith are becoming more and more mobile and “embedded” in patterns of community action.

The junior youth spiritual empowerment program is perhaps the best example of this. A successful junior youth group is one that stimulates on-going dialogue among early adolescents around topics such as justice, beauty, love, education, prosperity, and others— and then engages them in service and artistic projects aimed at transforming society. Between the junior youth program and field philosophy we see two complementary movements. One is of philosophy extending its efforts to embrace the community. The other is of service extending its efforts to embrace philosophy.

Taken together, and each acting from its own pole, we see an enactment in practice of what philosophers have been talking about since at least Nietzsche—the systematic de-emphasis of a whole series of false dichotomies: mind/body, thinking/acting, theoretical/practical and others.

04 December 2010

Statistics and Spirit

Earlier in the Five Year Plan, I was obsessed with statistics.  Cluster Growth Reports?  I devoured them like candy.  They fed my desire to know exactly what was happening so that I could determine next steps.

Then something shifted.  My teaching team's efforts started to bear fruit.  We grew in numbers, but more than that, we grew in spirit.  And ironically enough, now that our statistics show the beginnings of real growth in this neighborhood, I find I need them less.  I'm happier to know how one junior youth is feeling safe enough to express interest in new subjects, or that a parent attended children's classes for the first time.  I'm focused on the confidence our new teachers have begun to show, and the spiritually-based friendships now developing between former strangers.

We're expanding the number of our classes, home visits, and study circles, but what we're witnessing is a steady process of transformation.  I'm still recording the numbers, but it's the stories that have captured my heart.

03 December 2010

How Many Does It Take?

How many people does it take to raise up a junior youth group?

One who is good at recruiting young people.
One who is good at explaining the program to adults.
One who is good at coming up with creative activities.
One who is good at facilitating discussion.
One who is good at playing sports.
One who is good at engaging the majority of the group.
One who is good at engaging the one who doesn't want to participate.
One who builds strong friendships with the youth.
One who builds strong friendships with parents and guardians.
One who lives in the neighborhood.
One who knows community resources well.
One who can offer rides.
One who can offer materials.
One who can offer prayers.
One who can document the learning and growth that takes place.
One who regularly visits the homes of the participants.
One who reaches out to visit the homes of the participants' neighbors.
One who teaches a class for the littler brothers and sisters.
One who facilitates a study circle for older family members.
One who can fill in during illness or travel.
One who can train more animators to take over one day.

These might be embodied in one or two individuals, or an entire cluster newly on the rise. But before all these, you need one who has the vision of something transformative and beautiful. At the very least, let that one be you.

01 December 2010

Civil Society, Technology, and Development

Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank chief economist for Africa, has written a short summary on the post-WW2 history of development thinking/activity. He goes through the first attempt to correct market failures through government services and intervention ("the big push"), and then the second attempt to correct for government failures, which include rent seeking, lack of accountability, and the accumulation of massive debt, resulting in the much derided "structural adjustments" imposed by the IMF and others ("The Washington Consensus"). He advocates a progression to "Development 3.0", which emphasizes the role that civil society* and information technologies can play in empowering people to hold their government accountable. Accountable how? He outlines two areas where the government has been deficient:

26 November 2010

"Jeune Street" reviews "Revelation and Social Reality"

"Jeune Street", a blog I have long enjoyed for its reflections on global governance and development, has posted a nicely brief yet comprehensive review of Paul Lample's "Revelation and Social Reality". Do check it out, and more importantly, if you are interested in the philosophical underpinnings of the Baha'i institute process, read the book.

The Virtue of Moral Anxiety

David Brooks has an interesting take on the U.S. debt crises and our political inability to deal with it. He cites this gridlock as a relatively new phenomenon, relating to a depleted level of moral anxiety in our politics.
For centuries, American politicians did not run up huge peacetime debts. It wasn’t because they were unpartisan or smarter or more virtuous. It was because they were constrained by a mentality inherited from the founders. According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can’t quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don’t think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character).
This ethos has dissolved, on left and right. The new mentality sees the country not as an equilibrium, but as a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people’s happiness. 
The ideal leader in this mental system is free from moral anxiety but full of passionate intensity. This leader pushes his troops in lock step before the voracious foe. Each party has its own version of whom the evil elites are, but both feel they’ve more to fear from their enemies than from their own sinfulness.
And the American constitution divides power so completely that big important action requires some humility on all sides, or else collaboration is impossible. All legislation becomes emergency legislation, too little, too late.

20 November 2010

Compilation on Marriage and Sexuality

Several years ago I put together this compilation for a class I facilitated at a summer school. Since the subjects of marriage, chastity, and homosexuality have proven to be a popular source of discussion, I've been able to use it many times since the class, and I'm sharing it here for general interest. 


               …He established the law of marriage, made it as a fortress for well-being and salvation, and enjoined it upon us in that which was sent down out of the heaven of sanctity in His Most Holy Book. He saith, great is His glory: "Marry, O people, that from you may appear he who will remember Me amongst My servants; this is one of My commandments unto you; obey it as an assistance to yourselves."
Bahá'u'lláh, Bahá’í Prayers, p. 103

17 October 2010

The Roots of Human Morality

This is a nicely nuanced article in the New York Times, written by Frans de Waal, a primatologist, exploring the roots of human morality in our evolutionary heritage. His view of empathy and altruism is a nice alternative to what he coins as "Veneer Theory", which tends to see all human behavior as fundamentally selfish. He concludes somewhat ambiguously by minimizing the necessity of a God in the evolution of morality while also recognizing the integral part that religion has had on our lives.

Other primates have of course none of these problems, but even they strive for a certain kind of society. For example, female chimpanzees have been seen to drag reluctant males towards each other to make up after a fight, removing weapons from their hands, and high-ranking males regularly act as impartial arbiters to settle disputes in the community. I take these hints of community concernas yet another sign that the building blocks of morality are older than humanity, and that we do not need God to explain how we got where we are today. On the other hand, what would happen if we were able to excise religion from society? I doubt that science and the naturalistic worldview could fill the void and become an inspiration for the good. Any framework we develop to advocate a certain moral outlook is bound to produce its own list of principles, its own prophets, and attract its own devoted followers, so that it will soon look like any old religion. 

15 October 2010

13 October 2010

The End of War

During a college World History course I remember a professor mentioning that deaths from war declined decade by decade over the entire 20th century. I referenced this many times to allay the fears of people complaining about how war is becoming more prevalent and deadly. One of those times I mentioned the trend, a coworker said, "That's not true." To which I responded, "Yes it is." "No it's not." "Yes it is." And so on until I decided to go and look up the reference for myself. This led me to the Human Security Report, and I read the entire 2005 report.

What I found was far beyond a simple graph showing a decline in battle deaths (I was correct, by the way). The report was the first of its kind to document a dramatic global decline in political violence since the end of the Cold War, and the rise of effective peacekeeping missions of the UN. Its conclusions challenge conventional wisdom. Since global media gives coverage to new wars, but pays no attention to conflicts that are ending, nobody was paying attention to the greatest peace the world has ever seen.

11 October 2010

Cooperation for Survival

If asked whether nature is fundamentally competitive or cooperative, I think most people would say competitive. The "struggle for survival" or "survival of the fittest" are often used as one-line phrases to sum up a view that fierce competition is the best way to advance in evolution, and that every organism's highest goal is to reproduce as much as possible. A classic example of this might be a male lion battling a rival for domination of a pride, another might be the finches on the Galapagos islands that Darwin studied.

This idea of struggle and rightful domination is an ideology that carries over into economics and politics. The view of modern capitalism can be summed in one of two ways, the first says that the individual pursuit of self-interest is good for the whole, and the other invokes the struggle for existence seen in nature and shows no sympathy for those unable to support themselves. Both approaches were like intellectual candy for the rich and wealthy of the 20th century and proved irresistible. They justify selfishness by attributing some kind of overall good to it. The struggle for survival made its way into social policies that tried to model the natural forces of animal and plant communities in a kind of social evolution in which weaker peoples would be eliminated by stronger ones.

There is a problem with all that: nature is fundamentally cooperative. The original competitive ideology was formed from a very narrow view of nature that ignores much more important concepts. While watching two lions fight to dominate a pride, one can also see that they take great steps to avoid fighting in the first place, that the internal organs of each animal are working in perfect cooperation, bacteria in the lion's stomach is used for digestion, female lions hunt for the group, prey animals have a birth rate that balanced out against predation, plants are pollinated by bees, plants provide sweet fruits in exchange for moving seed around, fungus live in a mycorrhizal association with tree roots, rhizobia fix nitrogen for legumes, algae and fungus have an association in lichen, and on a microscopic level the composition and evolution of all eukaryotes are a result of a symbiosis between cells, causing all of the above to exist in the first place. Even the relationship between prey and predators is cooperative in a sense, if the lions killed the prey too efficiently they would be without food and would perish.

Darwin relied on analysis of individual parts and saw that everything was trying to reproduce itself as much as possible and consume resources. With this analysis of a part, he concluded that nature is ruled by conflict. Now a new kind of biology is being studied, biology of whole living systems. This blog post documents some of the findings, among them that "nature uses extraordinarily ingenious techniques to avoid conflict and competition, and that cooperation is extraordinarily widespread throughout all of nature." Another author spent seven years reviewing more than 400 research studies dealing with competition and cooperation in human relationships, and wrote, "The ideal amount of competition . . . in any environment, the classroom, the workplace, the family, the playing field, is none . . . . [Competition] is always destructive."

The Art of Buying Stuff

How can we become conscientious consumers? Melinda, over at the super-cool blog "Time Capsule on an Urban Homestead" has drawn up a list of things she thinks about when making a purchase. I find it helpful...

08 October 2010

In peril? There's a Help for that.

Why study a prayer with another Baha'i, rather than just simply praying?

Because we forget the obvious.  We forget that foolish questions have mighty answers.

"My turn to ask a question?  Okay, um ... God is the Help in what?"

Recently, amid the stressors of full-time work, part-time schooling, full-time advancingtheprocessofentrybytroops, and more than a little bit of sleep deprivation, I sat down, fully miserable, and realized,

"Crap.  I'm in peril.  Help!"

It made me laugh.  The stupid snot-still-running-down-the-face-from-crying laugh that you never let anyone but your houseplants see.  How could it not?  It was the most ridiculous realization that could come to me.

But it did come.  And what is sobering is that it might not have.  I could have continued saying the words over and over again, no longer giving them any thought after 12 years of daily repetition.  Because the answer is so obvious.  Because the question is so stupid.

It is a worthy endeavor to visit another believer and study a prayer together.  It is worthy!  It doesn't make you a fool to study the beauty of a single, simple shell by the edge of the sea.  

May we never consider ourselves too grand for the answers enshrined in the Holy Writings of Baha'u'llah.
May we never feel so superior that we no longer feel comfortable asking our fellow believers and our souls, "What does this mean?"
May we learn to speak a single language, a language of shared understanding that is rooted in the knowledge of the Words of God.
May we always find a way to remember that there is Help for our peril.

And through all of this, may we all find our path to the Self-Subsisting.

04 October 2010

29 Nations of the Earth

I recently came across a summary of Nine Nations of North America, written by Joel Garreau in 1981. In it, he argues that national and state borders are largely arbitrary, and he redrew the borders of North America according to what he thought were following cultural and economic lines. Thus, my home in Portland, Oregon was part of the nation of "Ecotopia".

As an admirer of maps and geography, I was immediately drawn into the theme and thought the premise was brilliant. I live in a state and nation that have arbitrary borders that don't follow any particular logic. Big, square states dominate the western USA, cutting across rivers, mountains, and lakes like their borders were drawn by a child who never set foot on their ground. Why not take another look at better ways to administer land?

It took me just a few seconds reviewing his map to decide that I disagreed with his rationale for borders. For starters, he left huge swaths of land empty of authority and completely left out what should be the main concern of administrative boundaries: water. Then it took me just a few more seconds to decide that I should perform the same exercise and draw my own nations of North America. Then it took me just one more second to decide that I should perform the exercise on the entire earth. Then it took me about 20 hours of work spread out over several weeks to finish the maps using Google Earth, and thus my thought experiment Twenty Nine Nations of the Earth was born.

29 September 2010

Systematic Accompaniment: Ruhi Book 1 in Action

Sometimes, it feels like pulling teeth just to convince a community that home visits are a viable method of community building. Sure, it might work in those* communities. [*anywhere but here] Or for somebody else. But not here, not now, and above all, not us.

Changing the minds of these individuals is an extremely daunting task. But running under the assumption that it's a much simpler matter to give birth than to raise the dead, let's take a look at our new friends Ruhi Book 1. How can a tutor provide the best quality study circle possible in order to ensure that our participants feel empowered to carry out regular home visits?

27 September 2010

Creating an Eternal Universe.

As you may or may not already know, famed physicist Stephen Hawking has recently weighed in with some thoughts on God's role in the origin of the universe. I think these statements provide a fruitful opportunity to explore statements of Baha'u'llah regarding the unknowability of God and the eternal nature of the universe.

In his latest book, The Grand Design, an extract of which is published in Eureka magazine in The Times, Hawking said: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist.”

He added: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.”

It seems to me Dr. Hawking’s statements tend to confirm Bahá’í teachings and can help purify a Bahá’í understanding of physics from some unwarranted assumptions introduced from the heritage of Christian theology.

21 September 2010

Catholic Imagery in Baha'u'llah's Writings

This comes from Baha'u'llah's address to Pope Pius IX.
Arise in the name of thy Lord, the God of Mercy, amidst the peoples of the earth, and seize thou the Cup of Life with the hands of confidence. First drink thou therefrom, and proffer it then to such as turn towards it amongst the peoples of all faiths.
Baha'u'llah, Summons of the Lord of Hosts, 105, p. 56
This quotation is similar to a well known passage from Baha'u'llah's writings about teaching: "Whoso ariseth among you to teach the Cause of his Lord, let him, before all else, teach his own self, that his speech may attract the hearts of them that hear him." Sharing Baha'u'llah's message with others is certainly a major aspect of this passage. But in addition, the imagery resembles the way the Sacrament of the Eucharist is conducted.

As someone who has grown up familiar with the Roman Catholic Mass, it seems to me that Baha'u'llah is using the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the sharing of the Body and Blood of Jesus, as a metaphor for service to His Cause. To speak of the "the Cup of Life" in a Christian context inevitably leads the reader back to Jesus' Last Supper with the Apostles: Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins. (Mt 26.27-8)

16 September 2010

Rays of Light

Check out the website for the Rays of Light Foundation, a Baha'i inspired NGO in Papua New Guinea working in the field of education.

Here's a quotation from their website. It describes Preparation for Social Action (PSA), a Baha'i-inspired high school curriculum developed in Colombia.
What distinguishes PSA from most other educational programmes is the emphasis on both intellectual and moral empowerment. With a particular focus on the rural education setting, the course materials have special relevance to those involved in typical village and rural community life. Participants in the programme develop capacities through the study of the material and through service projects. The aim is for the students to become “Promoters of Community Well-Being”, a designation given to those working towards developing their local geographical region (or microregion).

Through a research-action-learning approach the participants apply their newly founded knowledge in the fields of service relevant to their community’s needs and are actively involved in individual and collective transformation, working for the material and spiritual improvement of the community and becoming true protagonists of their own development. Service to the community is the core aspect of the structure of the PSA curriculum.
Exciting things are happening !

10 September 2010

Collaborative Writing: The Work without an Author

Recently, I had a great study circle experience that I'd like to share with you, the readers. As a way of reviewing the concepts from Ruhi Book 1, some friends and I did a collaborative poetry project.

The way this worked was that everybody chose one quotation from the book that they liked best. Then individually, we wrote four lines of poetry for each quotation selected. When we were done we handed the lines we had written to the person who selected that quotation so that he or she could edit it. So, for example, I chose the quotation that contains the line, "Man must live in a state of prayer." When we finished writing our lines,  everyone gave me the four lines they wrote inspired by that quotation, and I distributed my lines to the appropriate people. Each of us, then, edited the lines we were handed as we saw fit and pieced them together into a single, generally-coherent poem.

One of the interesting implications of this is that no poem can be attributed to any one person. Each writing is without an author, a proper origin. Thus, they're a little bit disjointed. But at the end of the process we were all very pleased with the results.

I appreciated the way the involvement of others changed our postures toward our own writing. Each of us had to make poems out of other people's lines. And our own lines were getting scratched out and reworked by other people. Consequently, detachment from one's own contributions and sympathy towards the work of others were both essential to producing good work. I was impressed that this activity raised individuals' power of expression, but did so in such a way that prevented it from fanning the flames of arrogance about one's own creativity; something I always get anxious about whenever I'm called on in a group to "express myself."

Below the fold is the quotation I chose and the poem I edited.

06 September 2010

Broken into my Waking

A loom to climb upon between layers of lint and dust atmosphere, a toy to fight for-cry over. Big energetic snow dog, tail wagging against the flattened tire, is only a symbol of much needed warmth. "Your teeth are strung with tendons, does this mean you have to leave? No, please, don't 'leave', run away, into..."

The sky dominates the vast, empty, long transformed, shrubby excuse for land. Broken and vulnerable. Streaks of light discover themselves illumined orange on the abrupt white peaks, reflecting and being absorbed into the supple and defiant storm clouds. Abyss. Isolated rain bursts alternate preseance of the horizon. The dream landscape has escaped its prison, has broken into my waking. Turned inside beyond.

"Is the spiritual world this beautiful?"

"Can it really be this lonely?"

Keeping up Appearances

Recently, I was reading the message, “The Golden Age of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh” contained in Shoghi Effendi’s The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. At one point he describes the need to avoid activities that could arouse the antagonism of foreign governments against Bahá’í communities in those countries. As I was reading, all the ideas felt very familiar. But this time, there was one part that stood out for me.

Such an attitude, however, is not dictated by considerations of selfish expediency, but is actuated, first and foremost, by the broad principle that the followers of Bahá’u’lláh will, under no circumstances, suffer themselves to be involved, whether as individuals or in their collective capacities, in matters that would entail the slightest departure from the fundamental verities and ideals of their Faith. Neither the charges which the uninformed and the malicious may be led to bring against them, nor the allurements of honors and rewards, will ever induce them to surrender their trust or to deviate from their path. Let their words proclaim, and their conduct testify, that they who follow Bahá’u’lláh, in whatever land they reside, are actuated by no selfish ambition, that they neither thirst for power, nor mind any wave of unpopularity, of distrust or criticism, which a strict adherence to their standards might provoke.
Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 66-7
It seems to me that, there’s a tendency for Bahá’ís to be very conscious about how others perceive the Bahá’í Faith. Generally, that’s a good thing. They understand the need to be open and welcoming, and to address the particular needs of each person. But, taken in the wrong direction, it can create problems. In an effort to satisfy the wishes of others and to maintain a certain reputation in the community, it’s easy compromise Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings and see that as a service to the cause. Worth remembering is that Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings are the healing medicine for the ailments of our age. The surrounding world is confused and bewildered. Bahá’ís are a little bit less confused and bewildered. The main advantage Bahá’ís have over the wider society is the knowledge that Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings can guide us toward a divine world civilization. We still have a lot to learn about how to walk that path. So sacrificing the vehicle that will get us there, in exchange for a momentary boost to the faith’s reputation, is counterproductive. It’s something to think about.

04 September 2010

What does Baha'u'llah say of his future followers?

More so than perhaps any other work of Bahá’u’lláh available in English, the Suratu’l-Haykal repeatedly emphasizes the strength and glory of his future followers. Written during the dark days of the early imprisonment in the prison-city of ‘Akká, it calls to mind the supreme efforts that would be made to vindicate the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh. The Suratu’l-Haykal is an exceedingly rich text. Passages bearing on this theme are too numerous to quote, or even to summarize. Two are presented here so as to give a general glimpse. In each of these Bahá’u’lláh is addressed in the second person.
O Pen of Eternity! Grieve not at the things that have befallen Thee, for erelong shall God raise up a people who will see with their own eyes and will recall Thy tribulations.

Erelong, shall We bring into being through thee men with sanctified and illumined breasts, who will testify to naught save My beauty and show forth naught but the resplendent light of My countenance. These shall in truth be the mirrors of My Names amidst all created things.

02 September 2010

Being Human

Great is the station of man.
Great must also be his endeavours
for the rehabilitation of the world and the well-being of nations.

"Being human" has in many quarters become shorthand for feebleness, inconsistency, and vulnerability to errors both practical and ethical. Should a person fall short someone might console her: “We’re all human,” “That’s just human nature,” etc. If someone were to utter these words as praise for an accomplishment, other might perceive it as an underhanded insult. Humanity has become an excuse; and I find this completely unacceptable. That such grave incompetence could be conveyed with this single expression betrays a profound despondency in our individual and collective capacities. The Bahá’í Faith, however, is structured around a mode of human life that is entirely reversed. Here, the human form takes on a noble and exalted position. The expression, "mere humanity" comes across as an oxymoron.

So as to muster up the strength for great endeavors, a vision of human life is needed that joyfully and unreservedly celebrates the nobility and capacity of the human form. I think this is what we see in the plans given to the Baha'i world by the Universal House of Justice.

31 August 2010

Beautiful Prayers

Strive that your actions day by day
may be beautiful prayers.
Turn towards God, and seek always to do that
which is right and noble.

Enrich the poor, raise the fallen,
comfort the sorrowful, reassure the fearful,
rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute!

'Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p.81

28 August 2010

In Praise of Islam

It’s been a hard month for Muslims in the United States; and I’m tired of seeing Islam presented as the Other; whether that’s as the Other to be feared and condemned or the Other to be merely tolerated and respected. I’d like to see some full-throated admiration of the Faith. And at this point, I know that’s not going to come from the US media. So here are two things, among many, that I love about Islam. I invite readers to share in the comments section aspects of Islam that they admire.

26 August 2010

An Integrated Approach to Agriculture

This is a very interesting article in "The Economist" on Brazil's agricultural miracle. Can their "systems approach" be replicated? It seems to me that there is no single answer to making agriculture sustainable AND plentiful enough to feed a growing population. It must be an integrated effort. There is value to local and organic food, but we can't go back to some over-romanticized past. Science, technology and the economies of scale also have their place. What's clear is that we need more research to be done that is not influenced by corporations such as Monsanto, but instead inspired by the desire for human betterment. The Embrapa research institution in Brazil seems to provide a nice model for the rest of the world, not only as an example for better agriculture, but also as an example of how science can be used for the betterment of humanity.  Here is an excerpt. 

Becoming a Vegetarian

I recently posted a blog post titled “The God of Evolution” which explored the nature of evolution, and as a thought experiment, the God that we would induce from it. The reason I wrote the post is because I have been thinking a lot about the cruelty, often needless cruelty, and indifference of the natural ecosystem, and what it means. Looking at it from the gene level, each living organism is simply a platform for genes to get themselves carried over to the next generation. The better adapted the genes are for that particular environment, the higher chance they have to propagate themselves. This is the driver of biological evolution via natural selection. So where do the organisms themselves fit into this picture? From the point of view of the gene, they are merely a means to an end, once the organism reproduces, they can be disposed of.

While the natural ecosystem is largely indifferent, many animals have evolved the capability of expressing communal and empathetic behavior, even beyond their species. For example, elephants will morn their dead, and their are numerous accounts of dolphins coming to the rescue of humans. Humans have this capacity to an extraordinary level (and an equal and opposite capacity for destruction and malevolence).

24 August 2010

The True and Outworking Spirit of Modernism

In its Ridván message of 2010 the Universal House of Justice made a powerful statement about the nature of Bahá’í endeavors: “That the world civilization now on humanity’s horizon must achieve a dynamic coherence between the material and spiritual requirements of life is central to the Bahá’í teachings.” A great deal of meaning is contained in this statement. It’s worth taking some time to illustrate how it is grounded in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

In one passage Bahá’u’lláh writes,
A new life is, in this age, stirring within all the peoples of the earth; and yet none hath discovered its cause or perceived its motive. Consider the peoples of the West. Witness how, in their pursuit of that which is vain and trivial, they have sacrificed, and are still sacrificing, countless lives for the sake of its establishment and promotion. The peoples of Persia, on the other hand, though the repository of a perspicuous and luminous Revelation, the glory of whose loftiness and renown hath encompassed the whole earth, are dispirited and sunk in deep lethargy.
Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XCVI p. 196

22 August 2010

Window in Time

The old windows drip. Surrounding me on three sides, I lay still in the moonlight a reflection of my waking self. 

The bedroom was slapped onto the side of the house to raise it's market value. There is not much privacy, for them either. 

The rain is relentless tonight. Once barking proud dogs, they now lay cowed in the street-lit shed. I wake many times in and out of various lives of questionable form and meaning.

For a moment I am the same as I was staring through that window. In what could be a memory, or could have been a dream, shadows of women are storing herbs and grains in large jars which slowly dissolve into the cupboard. They only emerge during sunset when the dusk intrudes on both sources of light. 

I am the same as I was basking in the ray of light coming through the large sliding glass door. I am sharing the warm spot with Sambi, our black Labrador Retriever. Her name had been Sambo until my mom was told that it had a negative racial connotation. I was once envious of her four-legged life. I needed to understand her secret, take in the subtle exhilarants waiting beyond the backyard fence near the abandoned buildings and warehouse alleyways. Maybe dig a hole in the backyard and relish the cool earth on a hot day. 

Vines hang down from the ceiling. Little plants are being raised in tofu containers and the water is draining through the punched holes. The electric light is a surrogate father until they peek through the window and delve into the universal soil of their kin.

The Insecurity of Taking Action

Action is risky, insecure. The fruit of building a vibrant community life is priceless. But in the process of getting there, it can be tempting to turn back. Laziness and complacency are boring and can be very lonely. But they offer security. And in moments of weakness people treasure security more than anything else.

Action requires that we dare for greatness; not for our own glorification, but for God. Action requires becoming visible to others and trying new things. Action carries the risk that we could fail and that others will see it. A study circle could disintegrate. Neighborhood parents would notice if a children’s class is failing. Any number of things could happen. Learning to do new things is hard. But it must be done. This is why our motivation must be to glorify God rather than our own selves. The Apostle Paul was right to describe himself and the other Apostles as “fools for Christ.” They endured hardship and became fools in the eyes of the world so that they might spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to new cities. But, in the face of their troubles, they succeeded at establishing the Church throughout the region, thereby winning a victory for the Lord.

19 August 2010

Sacrificial Service and the Power to Sustain it

These are some ideas I posted to this site over a year ago. In the course of editing the old text, I ended up re-writing the whole thing. I think the ideas are well worth a second posting.

One long-standing problem within any social movement is that, though a spirit of sacrificial service is indispensable to gathering momentum, it more-often-than-not leads to burnout among core human resources. The movement can then grind to a halt as key people no longer have the time, energy, or physical and mental health to carry on; This often leads to an impression among many that in order for an effort to be sustainable they should just relax and take it easy; that they shouldn't push themselves too hard. Understandably, this approach to sustainability leads to a situation in which there is little action to sustain in the first place. The problem then is that sacrificial service and sustainability, though both are vital, end up pulling each other apart.

It seems to me that within the model of taking action exemplified by the Ruhi Institute, sacrifice and sustainability are not only harmonious, but that they actually reinforce each other.The reason for this is that raising the capacity of an ever broader number of participants is at the heart of the institute's vision of moral and spiritual empowerment.

17 August 2010

More Clergyblogging

The following link is a response to the article I linked to recently on the declining health of clergy. In this case, the writer, himself a minister in the United Church of Christ, sees the declining moral authority of clergy and the desire of congregants to be entertained as a driving force behind clerical health problems. I don't have any commentary of my own. Perhaps, readers will contribute their insights in the comments section.

14 August 2010

Developing the Developed World

It seems to me that one of the greatest impediments to the social and economic development of the United States is that we have convinced ourselves that we are a "developed" nation alongside nations that conversely are "undeveloped" or "developing." Besides taking a narrow ethnocentric view of what prosperity looks like, to regard the United States as developed is to situate the entire process in the past tense. And that it seems to me is a problem. We are, so people say, no longer developing. We are already developed. To describe American society in this way, I believe, stunts our collective capacity to recognize shortcomings and search for improvements in the way we live. This is important because clearly the United States is in need of a lot of improvement.

12 August 2010

The Advantages of not having Clergy

The New York Times has a recent article on the growing health problems of clergy. I think it really highlights the wisdom behind Baha'i efforts to raise up human resources for spiritual leadership at the grassroots.

Often when Baha'is speak of the Baha'i Faith's practice of not having clergy, they describe it as the liberation of ordinary believers from the corrupt and over-domineering influence of priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, etc. But there's way more to it than that, to the extent that that's even a problem. Spiritual leadership is far too important to be placed on the shoulders of just a handful of individuals. When a community of many hundreds of people get the idea into their heads that one or two of them should be in charge of guiding the flock, then individuals do not develop the ability to take charge of their own spiritual growth or to help friends and family walk their own path of faith. Thus, the whole weight of the community falls onto the clergy. And as the New York Times article helps illustrate, clergy just can't keep up.

On another note, as I was searching online for a picture to use in this post, I came across this blog entry about the Roman collar. Before I joined the Baha'i Faith I was on the path towards the Catholic Priesthood. And as I read the post, and the quote from Pope Benedict XVI on the side, I realized the extent to which I still feel a personal connection to these issues. I'm a Baha'i to the core, but reading these sorts of things brings back a lot of fond memories.

08 August 2010

The God of Evolution

Eliezer Yudkowsky has written an interesting post about how we  humans tend to incorrectly (in his view) attribute coherent purpose to the process of biological evolution, which leads to an incorrect assumption about the type of god that would design such a system. While I suggest you read the whole thing, here are some excerpts. 

Why is so much of nature at war with other parts of Nature?  Because there isn't one Evolution directing the whole process.  There's as many different "evolutions" as reproducing populations.  Rabbit genes are becoming more or less frequent in rabbit populations.  Fox genes are becoming more or less frequent in fox populations.  Fox genes which construct foxes that catch rabbits, insert more copies of themselves in the next generation.  Rabbit genes which construct rabbits that evade foxes are naturally more common in the next generation of rabbits.  Hence the phrase "natural selection". 

Why is Nature cruel? 

06 August 2010

All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Recently, I've been involved with an initiative to build capacity for integrating the arts into Baha'i study circles. The vision we have been developing of the role of beauty in our lives and the process of community building unfolding at the grassroots has filled me with a fresh boost of joy and optimism about the direction of the Baha'i world. After doing some creative writing inspired by the House of Justice's recent Ridvan message, we briefly explored some concepts from the Baha'i Writings. I'd like to share some of the thoughts we have shared in our group. To a great extent, they crystalized and have entered into our shared vision through the study of the first two sections in Unit 3 of the seventh book in the Ruhi sequence of courses, the unit entitled "Promoting the Arts at the Grassroots."

In a passage translated for the compilation The Importance of the Arts in Promoting the Faith, 'Abdu'l-Baha writes,
All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvelous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose when showing forth the praise of God.

02 August 2010

Perfect Partnership

By DreamCatcher
Cross-Posted from Refugee Dance Hall

My life is perfect.
The only things that I can improve on require some paperwork and some time.
Frankly, if the fixes are that simple, really, what do I have to complain about?

I read an article, which I cannot, for the life of me, find about a straight couple who chose to refer to one another not as the common boyfriend-girlfriend jargon, but as partner. The explanation of this left me saying 'EXACTLY! Why didn't I think of that?!' The author explained that, once out of high school, referring to someone as a boy or girl seems a tad undermining. It also, and I can't recall if this was part of the article or my own misgivings about the popular terminology, seems to undercut expectations of an adult relationship.

01 August 2010

Discovering Collaboration

Imagine millions of drops of water trying individually  to reach the ocean, seeping inch by inch through the soil. It would take ages for them to get there. However, when drops join with other drops they gather momentum and carve paths through the soil. First, they come together as trickles. Then those trickles form a stream. Before long, they become a river surging towards the sea. Those drops of water reach their goal by joining together and aligning their momentum with that of others.

Recently, I’ve been learning that this is what it means to be an effective tutor for a Ruhi study circle or animator for a junior youth group. The generality of people want to contribute to positive change in their own lives and in the life of their community. But sadly, very few of them know any means by which they can raise their capacity to do so. What thousands upon thousands of us are discovering through use of the Ruhi Institute is that we gather momentum, not by ignoring such people or by making them the passive recipients of our services, but rather by joining with them in devising paths of service in which our impulses toward action catalyze each other. We need others and others need us. We must render mutual assistance, if together we are to realize our potential.

As we align our efforts with the framework outlined by the Universal House of Justice we soon find ourselves, without excessive strain or exhaustion, rushing towards the goals we collectively cherish. For me, this is the meaning of collaboration.

29 July 2010

The Power of Our Souls

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

27 July 2010

Taking Charge of Our Own Spiritual Progress

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

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

25 July 2010

The Universal House of Justice's Vision for Global Action

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

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

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

24 July 2010

Cyberspace and the Possibility for Action

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

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

23 July 2010

Baha'i Thought

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

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


20 July 2010

Is Usury Good?

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

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

19 July 2010

Bahá'u'lláh and the Bahá'ís

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

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

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

17 July 2010

The Fruit of Recognizing Baha'u'llah

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

15 July 2010

Systematic neglect of art requires its systematic celebration.

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

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

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