Archive for March, 2012


The individual in society – Bahai perspectives

March 31, 2012

I’ve just read the article, “Human Nature and Human Society: A Baha’i Viewpoint” by William S. Hatcher (available here) where he sets out the Bahai teaching that human nature consists of both spiritual and material capacities. He stresses that in contrast to other religious traditions, Bahais do not believe in “original sin” (the Christian concept that we are born with bad parts that need to be overcome). He wrote: “Bahá’ís view all human capacities, whether physical or spiritual, as potentially helpful to the process of full, adequate, and proper development.” (page 29).

And there is solid support for this view in the Bahai Writings:

O SON OF BEING! Thou art My lamp and My light is in thee. Get thou from it thy radiance and seek none other than Me. For I have created thee rich and have bountifully shed My favor upon thee.” (Baha’u’llah, Hidden Words, Persian #11)
… With the hands of power I made thee and with the fingers of strength I created thee; and within thee have I placed the essence of My light. … (Baha’u’llah, Hidden Words, Persian #12)

In short: “Man is the supreme Talisman” (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, CXXII, pp. 259-260) born “in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26, English Standard Version (ESV)) with lots of potential and no bad bits. However, not all Bahais interpret the Bahai teachings in this manner, see this 1996 selection of quotations: “The Struggle Between the Material and Spiritual Natures of Man where the stress is the opposite. And the way the quotations in this selection are chosen and arranged strikes me as being influenced by conservative Christian perspectives. Just to give one example:
Then we must labor to destroy the animal condition, till the meaning of humanity shall come to light. (Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 34)

Selected in this manner is the impression that Baha’u’llah is stating that the animal (material) needs to be suppressed. Let’s look at the context for this quotation:
…At every moment he beholdeth a wondrous world, a new creation, and goeth from astonishment to astonishment, and is lost in awe at the works of the Lord of Oneness.

All these states are to be witnessed in the Valley of Wonderment, and the traveler at every moment seeketh for more, and is not wearied. Thus the Lord of the First and the Last in setting forth the grades of contemplation, and expressing wonderment hath said: “O Lord, increase my astonishment at Thee!”
Likewise, reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

Then we must labor to destroy the animal condition, till the meaning of humanity shall come to light.
Thus, too, Luqmán, who had drunk from…”
(Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 33-34) The text goes on to emphasise the importance of dreams.

It is difficult to work out what is specifically intended by the above text, but it certainly is not a Manichaean (material vs spiritual) perspective, given that it comes directly after a phrase in praise of human creation in holistic terms. It could mean that we must strive (use our intellect) not to act like animals or that we have to work hard to discover what being human is. To me Baha’u’llah here is most certainly presenting human creation as a good thing, not as a struggle between good and evil.

Another essay “Morality and Spiritual Growth” on refers to a transformation which is affected, in my view, by a holistic view of human nature: “Moral maturity thus comes from spiritual awareness. As stressed throughout the Bahá’í writings, the primary purpose of God in revealing His will through His Messengers is to effect a transformation in the moral and material conditions of human existence.”

I view “Spiritual awareness” as a holistic perspective (how one would define this is another matter, but there is no indication in the Bahai writings that ‘spiritual’ capacity competes or struggles with the material) because arguing from a differing perspective requires not only changing the context of the quotation but also going against other Bahai Teachings. Baha’u’llah wrote: “Out of the wastes of nothingness, with the clay of My command I made thee to appear, and have ordained for thy training every atom of existence and the essence of all created things.” so not only have we been created, without if and but clauses, but there are no taboes. Everything in the world is an aid for greater understanding.

Hatcher’s article then moves onto how “(t)he Bahá’í concept of morality–of behavioural norms and value choices– is closely linked to the Bahá’í concept of human nature and human purpose”. And summarizes this to mean: “That which tends to favour the development of human spiritual capacity is good, and that which tends to hinder it is bad”. (page 29)

On the face of it this summary might seem to be vague and tenuous, but personally I can’t think of a better way to express this because at the end of the day each of us must be responsible for our own actions and our own conscience, however when we are discussing social actions or society, or a particular Bahai community we need something more solid.
A stating point for a Bahai would be the Bahai teachings and that any Bahai Teaching should match or make sense with other Bahai Teachings. I don’t know if this is expressed as directly as this anywhere in Bahai Scripture but the following Bahai Teachings make a collective sense to me:

Science and Religion agree “And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is, that religion must be in conformity with science and reason, so that it may influence the hearts of men.” (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 299)

Independent investigation (reading and thinking for oneself and the freedom (and importance) of self expression “The members [of a Spiritual Assembly] thereof must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should anyone oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.”(Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 87)

Progressive revelation (that religious teachings as much as society are in a continual process of development – the general attitude that things change for the better);

Equality (of all peoples, “Justice and equity are twin Guardians that watch over men. From them are revealed such blessed and perspicuous words as are the cause of the well-being of the world and the protection of the nations.” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 13);

Unity in Diversity (to work together but not necessarily think nor act in the same ways and in fact many Bahais interpret this to mean to value diversity as a sign of a healthy society);
For another listing of Bahai Teachings see: “Eleven essentials: the Bahai principles as taught by Abdu’l-Baha in London” or scroll down for a list of Bahai Teachings written by Shoghi Effendi.

While the degree of in-born empathy can be disputed in the scientific world, there is no doubt that it is a trait humans are born with (for an example see the article: Tracing the Origins of Human Empathy).

Looking in history, when there have been examples of a lack of empathy, an ideology has had to be created in support of this. If empathy, an awareness of the other as equal or with equal rights was not something in-born, there would be no need to develop an ideology where some group is to be excluded: ideologies such as Nazism or in today’s world, the anti-gay (you will be respected only if you are celibate for your whole life, don’t tell anyone you are gay, or if you don’t identify yourself as gay) stance taken by some societies.

Baha’ullah’s entreaty (below) for justice and equality support the notion that empathy is so much a given human trait that you cannot have peaceful world without it. “We entreat God to deliver the light of equity and the sun of justice from the thick clouds of waywardness, and cause them to shine forth upon men. No light can compare with the light of justice. The establishment of order in the world and the tranquillity of the nations depend upon it.” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 28-29)
So Baha’u’llah argues for a society based on justice and equality. What else has Baha’u’llah written about the functioning of society? He wrote: “Our hope is that the world’s religious leaders and the rulers thereof will unitedly arise for the reformation of this age and the rehabilitation of its fortunes. …. It is incumbent upon them who are in authority to exercise moderation in all things.” (Gleanings, p. 216)

Moderation, as it is addressed to leaders here, could mean aim for a middle way or to be tolerant so that, I assume, there’s room for more diversity, but I’ve come across Bahais using this passage as an argument that individuals must conform to a majority view or middle of the road perspective. As you can read for yourselves that is clearly not the intent. After all society or any particular Bahai community could never progress, adapt or develop if new ideas from individuals were to be suppressed. “Thoughts are a boundless sea, and the effects and varying conditions of existence are as the separate forms and individual limits of the waves; not until the sea boils up will the waves rise and scatter their pearls of knowledge on the shore of life. … ” Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 109-110

Baha’u’llah’s text continues: “How long will humanity persist in its waywardness? How long will injustice continue? … (R)esolve to root out whatever is the source of contention amongst you. Then will the effulgence of the world’s great Luminary envelop the whole earth, and its inhabitants become the citizens of one city, and the occupants of one and the same throne. … There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed.”(page 216)

To summarize Baha’u’llah’s text: we come from the same source and when there is something that is unjust or that doesn’t make sense, we should resolve to get to the bottom of this and when we do, wonderful things will happen. Here is Abdul-Baha “[To ensure] freedom of conscience and tranquility of heart and soul is one of the duties and functions of government, and is in all ages the cause of progress in development and ascendency over other lands. Other civilized countries acquired not this preeminence, nor attained unto these high degrees of influence and power, till such time as they put away the strife of sects out of their midst, and dealt with all classes according to one standard. All are one people, one nation, one species, one kind. The common interest is complete equality; …” (Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 87)

Humans need society and society needs the input of all voices if it is to be a society that reflects diversity. Again Hatcher expresses this very well: “We hold that it is impossible for an individual to develop his or her spiritual capacities in abstraction from the process by which others are developing their spiritual capacities. In other words, it is through the creation of a just, unified, and progressive social order that spiritual capacities can best be developed.”
The very argument, I’d say, for doing our very best to include our gay brothers and sisters in Bahai community life. In fact, I am convinced that one reason why Bahais write awful things such as “being gay is a spiritual disease” is due to an imbalance of their own ideas about what is a healthy society (“And among the teachings of His Holiness Bahá’u’lláh is justice and right. Until these are realized on the plane of existence, all things shall be in disorder and remain imperfect” (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to the Hague, p. 8-9)). They have put gays into an ‘another category’ of humanity and called this diseased. Other Bahai’s tell me that they are being neutral by saying “it’s a complex issue” when in fact it is very simple. A community or society acts according to the principles of justice and equality or it doesn’t. And a community, in particular any Bahai community, should in my view, encourage and stimulate “the realm of conscience [where] naught but the ray of God’s light can command,” (Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 39) so that each individual acts as “an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 93). In a nutshell it is up to each individual – our conscience doesn’t work in any other way.


Bahai Teachings
“The independent search after truth, unfettered by superstition or tradition; the oneness of the entire human race, the pivotal principle and fundamental doctrine of the Faith; the basic unity of all religions; the condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class or national; the harmony which must exist between religion and science; the equality of men and women, the two wings on which the bird of human kind is able to soar; the introduction of compulsory education; the adoption of a universal auxiliary language; the abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty; the institution of a world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations; the exaltation of work, performed in the spirit of service, to the rank of worship; the glorification of justice as the ruling principle in human society, and of religion as a bulwark for the protection of all peoples and nations; and the establishment of a permanent and universal peace as the supreme goal of all mankind — these stand out as the essential elements of that Divine polity which He proclaimed to leaders of public thought as well as to the masses at large in the course of these missionary journeys.”
(Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 281-2)”