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Faith and the World: the Baha’i Vision

A new revelation announced

Two hundred years ago, in 1817, Baha’u’llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i world religion was born in Iran. His new revelation was preceded by the announcement of the “Promised One” by the Bab (the gate), who was born in 1819. Millions of Baha’is world-wide are celebrating the births of the “Twin Manifestations” who gave humanity Teachings for the realization of equality, peace and unity. What is the Baha’I world vision? Why has it captured the imagination of many in our war-torn and materialistic civilization?

Eminent Baha’I scholar Michael Karlberg (Beyond the culture of protest [2004]) states that Baha’is are a “microcosm of the planet’s diverse human population” (p. 124). In one sense, it is a revolutionary world religion without a professional clergy. The community is organized through a system of locally elected governing assemblies in more than 11,700 localities world-wide, nationally elected governing assemblies in 182 independent nations and territories and a single internationally elected governing body that coordinates its activities on a global scale. “By all these measures,” Karlberg informs us, “it is likely the most diverse, widely distributed, democratically organized community of people on the planet today” (ibid.). These statements are audacious and bold.

The Baha’i world-faith community is not easily categorized. It is a universally inclusive faith community with a spiritual world view; it is a worldwide social movement with a clearly articulated agenda for social change; it is an integrated system of global democratic governance; it is a grassroots network of social and economic development projects; it is a decentralized system for the education of children and the training of human resources; and it is a prominent NGO within the UN system. But Karlberg urges us to view the Baha’i community as a discourse community: a “community of people who share a common way of thinking and talking about social reality, from which they derive unique social structures and practices” (ibid.).

Since 1844, the date of the announcement of the Bab (the “gate” opening to the declaration of Baha’u’llah in 1863), this community has been committed to fundamental equality and interdependence of all people, regardless of gender, ethnicity, nationality or religious background. They have laboured to build a system of unified, just and sustainable social practice. The Baha’i spiritual vision, which has millenarian roots, sweeps us into the future. One day, Baha’is imagine, their system will demonstrate its efficacy to the rest of the world as a model of social organization for the age of global interdependence that we are entering.

Karlberg thinks that the Baha’i community is only now beginning to emerge from relative obscurity on the world scene. Increasingly, the Baha’i international community is well known for its work in such areas as human rights, the advancement of women, education and literacy, environmental preservation and sustainable development as well as peace organizations. From the UN’s founding in 1945, the Baha’i International community (BIC) has been extremely involved with the UN system.

It has been accorded consultative status to the UN Economic and Social Council as well as the UN Children’s Fund and many other organizations. Karlberg presents us with a remarkable list of organizations Baha’is are involved with and underscores the active role as planner and participant in major international events such as the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on women in Beijing.

This breathtaking emergence from obscurity has propelled the Baha’i Faith Community into the scholarly limelight. In 1975 an international Association of Baha’i Studies was created to study the theory and practice of the Baha’i community. Since then, a wide variety of interest groups (such as the arts or conflict resolution) and a network of 18 national and regional affiliates have been created. Baha’I scholarship is vast and often remains unread by secular scholars.

But in the early days of the growth of the Baha’i Faith one senses a kind of wild joyfulness and exultation, manifest in the writings of Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921) and seemingly endless attestations to the magnetic power of the Cause. In 1992 the University of Maryland established the Baha’i Peace Chair to bring a Baha’i perspective to the formal study of peace and world order issues. And the Hebrew University of Jerusalem founded a Baha’i Studies Chair in 1999 for the formal study of the Baha’i Faith itself.

An organic world-view

The Baha’i community share a common world view that could be designated as “organic.” Karlberg declares: “Baha’is speak of the organic interdependence of the human species, the organic nature of the relationship between human beings and their environment, and the organic processes of growth and adaptation that characterize humanity’s collective evolution” (p. 129).

In a sense, the Baha’i affirmation of the developmental unfolding of human civilization runs against the grain of much contemporary thought that rejects the idea of progress and any sense that history has purpose and meaning. For Baha’is, within their organic world view, power is not conceived of in terms of conflict and the struggle for domination. Rather, Baha’is think of power in terms of unity, integration and coordination. But Karlberg reminds his readers that the Baha’i conception of organic society is different from others.

Organic metaphors have been used by the privileged to specify that the elites have been called to ensure the smooth functioning of the whole. They have also been used to stifle diversity, suppressing human rights and forcing a consensus on the masses. “In contrast to this largely hollow and imposed organicism, Baha’is invoke organic metaphors as a means of promoting diversity, preserving human rights and pursuing social change” (p. 130).

This affirmation is significant because if the organic interdependence of society is unrecognized, Karlberg states that “oppressive and exploitative social relations are perceived as normal, natural and inevitable because conflict, rather than cooperation, is assumed to be the defining characteristic of human existence” (p. 130). Now we cut to the chase: affirming the organic unity and interdependence of humanity challenges head-on some of the 20th century’s most deeply entrenched assumptions.

The oneness of humanity

One of the foundational ontological axioms of the Baha’i Faith is the unity, or oneness, of all of humanity. The collective recognition of the oneness of humanity (the “earth is but one country”) lies at the heart of the Baha’i world view and vision of world peace. The Baha’i International Community document—Who is Writing the Future?—states: “The primary disease that afflicts society and generates the ills that cripple it…is the disunity of a human race that is distinguished by its capacity for collaboration and whose progress to date has depended on the extent to which unified action has at various times and in various societies, been achieved” (ibid.).  Baha’is try hard to resist caving into meddlesome cynicism and acedia of the spirit. They believe that fundamental changes in the manner of human beings relating to each other are “necessary and inevitable” (ibid.).

Particularly, Baha’is insist that the old ways of exercising power and authority, rooted in entrenched assumptions about human nature, must leap beyond acts of domination. Indeed, Baha’is claim that ever increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies presents us with a fundamental learning challenge as a human species. Can we learn to exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action—which are born out of recognition of our organic unity as a species?

Our contemporary situation, Baha’is assert, propelled by reproductive and technological success as a species, has led to increasing levels of social interdependence. This means that the increasingly complex and interrelated social and environmental problems have placed “mounting evolutionary pressures that are compelling us towards ‘an organic change in the structure of present-day society’” (p. 131). Thus, we have inherited maladaptive social structures and practices. Our old maps and scripts are no longer adequate in new conditions. We stumble around, looking at our maps, but nothing is identifiable. We are bewildered and confused.

The Baha’i presence in the world poses this formidable question to humanity. Will humanity “adapt new social structures and practices out of a forward-looking response to these evolutionary pressures or whether humanity will adapt only in response to ever more catastrophic events ‘precipitated by humanity’s stubborn clinging to old patterns of behaviour?’”(ibid.).

Humankind appears paralyzed before the monstrous catastrophes facing us—if we do not turn from war and the horrific politics of empire. This disordered empire, distraught and in disarray on its home soil, projects this disarray and anxiety on to other nations. Accordingly, Baha’is suggest that the ‘bedrock of a strategy that can engage the world’s population in assuming responsibility for its collective destiny must be conscious of the oneness of humankind’” (p. 132).

Indeed, Baha’is claim that the competitive spirit infusing so much of modern life is simply accepted as the mainspring of human interaction. Once the world—from our schoolyards to geo-politics—is divided into friends and enemies we are prevented from seeing the oneness of all with newly alert and wondrous eyes. We carve up the human species into races, nations and religions, and superior West against the Inferior Rest. The jigsaw pieces of the wholeness of humanity are scattered everywhere across the landscape.

But humankind is becoming more inter-dependent in so many criss-crossing ways. If sanctions are imposed by one powerful country on another, and the weaker countries pressed to withhold products, farmers in Germany are hurt and ordinary Russians may go hungry. Why can we not see ourselves as a “single people”? Baha’is wonder if “the inhabitants of the planet” will be “enabled to turn away from the patterns of conflict that have dominated social organization in the past and begin to learn the ways of collaboration and conciliation” (p. 132). If not, the degradation of the natural foundation of human existence will continue to threaten the lives of all of us, rich and poor. And the geo-political world will descend further into a Hobbesian hell of war of all against all.

Unity in diversity

It is easy to misunderstand what Baha’is mean by unity. Some might think that “unity” will smother diversity and promote uniformity of thought and practice. However, Karlberg argues that, “In advocating recognition of the organic unity and interdependence of the human species, Baha’is emphatically caution against any notion of unity that results in a stifling of diversity” (p. 133). Baha’is, in fact, “view diversity not simply as something to be tolerated but as an essential collective resource to be cultivated and valued” (ibid.).

Baha’is are also opposed to the idea that any notion of organicism will suppress  human rights. Indeed, Karlberg observes that the Baha’i concept of unity implies that society must become the collective trustee of basic human rights. Individuals have the right to be secure, respected and safe. No missiles whistling into suburban areas in the darkness of night. No more knocks on the door at midnight. No more illegal invasions and destruction of lifeworld foundations of the good life.

This resilient concept of “trusteeship” establishes the moral foundation of the human rights that an increasingly interdependent humanity has struggled to articulate in recent generations. Baha’is envision a reciprocal relationship between the individual and human societies. “Within this relationship,” Karlberg points out, “individuals have a duty to sustain and enrich society with diverse and creative contributions, while society has a responsibility to preserve and promote those conditions within which individuals can do this” (p. 134). Thus, both diversity and individuality contain creative spiritual resources needed for the flourishing of all humanity and its shared world of creatures.

But these affirmations—perhaps shared by many humane citizens—can only be established by recognizing the unity and interdependence of all people. Herein lies Baha’i distinctiveness: a spiritually grounded “organic conception of society is a prerequisite for transcending the traditional, competitive expressions of power that have characterized many social relations throughout history and which underlie many human rights abuses” (p. 135).

Karlberg observes that violence against women is the yardstick to measure the violation of all human rights. Violence against women rests on explicit notions of the inferiority of women. They are not persons with equal rights and the full possibility of developing their capacities, with their knowledge, skills, sensibility and attitudes flowing into all rivers of the life of the world. A great shame shrouds the human species and many forms of civilization. Veils, bound feet, forbidden to enter the public domain, gagged and enchained; genitals mutilated to serve male interests: all attest to the degradation of the human spirit.

A faith born out of dark dungeons and brutal persecution

Baha’is reject complacent contemporary secular attitudes of cynicism and dreary pessimism. The Faith itself was born out of dark dungeons and brutal persecution. Through bitter suffering, many Baha’is (particularly in Iran and other countries in the Middle East, but not there alone) have not been robbed of their faith. But they know that the transformation of consciousness they advocate will “inevitably require cultivating new attitudes and values across successive generations” (ibid.). The Baha’i Faith contains immense spiritual power.

One can understand why, then, that Baha’is concentrate on reaching children and youth “who are still in the process of forming the values that will shape their lives. Instilling in our children respect for themselves and others, recognition of the oneness of humanity, appreciation of unity in diversity, and a sense of citizenship in a world community will be the best guarantee of improved protection of human rights in the years to come…” (Cited, fn. 35, p. 136). Baha’is consider that “human rights education could be considered basic education for life in the modern world” (ibid.).

We are in a dark and dangerous moment in the history of civilization. Kant’s cosmopolitan world-order of perpetual peace seems far from even an intimation of fulfilment. It is as if a great catastrophic earthquake has erupted beneath the earth’s surface, setting free mighty, dark and malevolent forces that challenge any deep-seated commitment to developing a spiritual civilization and deliberative democracy in our disputed multicultural and angry religiously pluralistic world. The malevolent forces breaking out from the depths refuse openness to the other. Rather, the other is demonized and the mass media bludgeons us to submit to the prevalent narrative of fear and the necessity of US hegemony.

Baha’is, however, work within an evolutionary model which posits that humanity is moving through natural stages of development as it grows towards maturity. Humanity is now in its adolescent stage: thus, turmoil, discontinuity and agitation characterize this stage. But if humanity is to “come of age,” it must move as a species into a new age “preparing for bigger tasks, assuming wider loyalties, adopting a more universal purpose and direction, cultivating collaboration and cooperation” (p. 137). This historical vision expresses a core dimension of Baha’i  utopianism. Both disintegrative and integrative forces are at work in our world.

If the world is a “single people”, and if justice is to be the ruling principle of social organization—then existing conceptions that were born out of ignorance of these emerging realities have to be recast” (ibid.). Foremost among these, Baha’is suggest, are the “competitive and aggressive models of power and authority” (ibid.). The human is being urged by the requirements of its own maturation to free itself from its inherited understanding and use of power.

In The Promise of World Peace (1985)—a remarkable open statement addressed to the peoples of the world in the dispirited and confused 1980s—Baha’is suggest that: “A candid acknowledgement that prejudice, war and exploitation have been the expression of immature stages in a vast historical process and that the human race is today experiencing the unavoidable tumult which marks its collective coming of age is not a reason for despair but a  prerequisite  to undertaking the stupendous enterprise of a building a peaceful world. That such an enterprise is possible, that the necessary constructive forces do exist, that unifying social structures can be erected, is the theme we urge you to examine” (Cited, p. 138).

 

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Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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