Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Guardian was not a prophet

Several of the American pilgrims during the 1950s reported conversations with Shoghi Effendi in which he predicted the vaporization of certain major cities in the USA. Have Baha'is considered that perhaps the Guardian believed that this was a distinct possibility, and wanted to warn the believers ahead of time to leave these big cities and pioneer? During this same time, wasn't he urging for the decentralization of the community? If he believed that this was a real possibility, then he was in good company. Alot of people, including top advisers to several US Presidents believed that nuclear war was very likely to occur. Long after the Guardian had passed on, US Presidents brought into existence the ICBMs and President Reagan tried to get his Star Wars program enacted and funded and built to protect US cities from the very kind of disaster that the Guardian predicted. Well, if that was their expectation, then they were all wrong. Why would this cause a crisis of faith for a Baha'i? Shoghi Effendi was not a prophet of God, was not endowed with the prophetic powers of the Manifestation of God. If he warned us about something that failed to happen we should be happy rather than sad! Imagine if his prediction had come true, and millions of people had been vaporized...I thank God the predictions did not come true! I am not disappointed, I am heartened that the worse case scenario did not come to pass.

Monday, September 3, 2007

A Culture of Change

I've just read Dr. Moojan Momen's paper, "A Change of Culture" ( Since what he has alleged is that a major shift is happening before our eyes in the Baha'i community, it seems to me to be pertinent to discuss its implications. I have identified five topics that particularly interested me.

These unwanted traits include the passivity implied by the words "member of a congregation." Members of a congregation play a receptive role - receiving sermons, sacraments and advice from the priest. They are told what their scriptures mean and how to apply that to their lives. In some congregations, it is even considered to be within the priest's powers to hear confessions and pardon sins. Bahá'ís can no longer, in the new culture, play such a passive role. They must actively participate in their communities, study and interpret their scriptures for themselves, and work out their own salvation. Each Bahá'í must be his or her own priest.

While that was a figure of speech, I think it was an unfortunate choice of words. Baha'u'llah has abolished priesthood and priestcraft, the entire ecclesiastical order, including the monastic vocation for men and women alike. What He encourages His followers to do is to consult with one another and not just go off on their own. We are enjoined to consult with those of other religions, to consult with those of other nationalities, to consult with each other, and when we are selected to administer the affairs of the community we are required to consult with one another and arrive at concensus whenever possible in all of our institutional decisions. It is consultation and not individualism that are stressed throughout Baha'i literature. Perhaps this is what you meant to convey?

The second phrase in the above statement points to the fact that leadership and decision-making in the new culture should no longer be the prerogative of ambitious or learned individuals. We live in societies that are patriarchal -- where leadership is by a small number of individuals, mainly men. Such societies are hierarchical and, because men are inherently more aggressive and competitive, they tend to end up at the top of these hierarchies. And Bahá'ís have unconsciously imported these tendencies into their Bahá'í communities in many areas, resulting in a situation where a small number of individuals, usually men, run the community in those localities. It is clear, however, that the Bahá'í community should be one in which there are no hierarchies of power -- only a hierarchy of opportunities for service. Any situations of power or hierarchy that exist in the community, structures that inherently favour men who are more competitive and aggressive, must come to an end. Decision-making must be through consultative processes and collective leadership - a community structure that is more conducive to women and minorities playing an active part in the community.

In practice what seems to be coming into existence is a dictatorship of the bottom line and a careful avoidance of any appearance of conflict. I have personally been in communities which were as thoroughly dominated by women as others have been by men. What characterized all of these dominations was a community-wide perception that nothing should be said or done that might possibly offend anyone, and that conflict of any kind should be assiduously avoided, including disagreement. No clash of differing opinions from which the spark of truth will out. In practice I have found this kind of decision-making to disempower virtually everyone. Everyone tries so hard to be "nice" that in fact nobody is being honest, except of course for those who are dominating...even they may be disempowered because they may feel that they must continue to do what they have launched. So often a kind of emotional paralysis and governance by guilt replace the spiritual dynamics of Baha'i consultation.

The third element in the statement of the Universal House of Justice signals that it is no longer sufficient, in the new culture, for Bahá'ís to fit in their Bahá'í activities into odd nooks and crannies of their lives. Their participation in the community must become a central feature of their personal and family lives. This may be the most difficult of the three elements for Bahá'ís in the West to implement, with the enormous and never-ending materialistic demands that modern life places on the individual.

The Central Figures of our Faith, the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice have been counseling Baha'is from the outset to consecrate their entire lives to the Faith. The Universal House of Justice rallies us with virtually every letter to rededicate ourselves to service to the Faith. What may be distinctive about the new culture is that the Universal House of Justice has identified activities which can indeed occupy the believers in a level of effective service to the Faith that may transcend what they experienced earlier. Whereas before they may have served on committees, given firesides, taken part in deepenings, travel taught, pioneered, taught children's classes, in practice few Baha'is had time to do all of the above. Those few experienced what? Burn-out. In fact, most believers did the very minimum. Now with the establishment of the core activities, it is likely that most believers will become actively engaged in at least one of these paths of service, and since all are integral to the development of a healthy and sustainable community, they will be making an integral contribution by doing so. It is no longer all or nothing. This is a healthy change of culture. Together we can create an integrated community, instead of having a few individuals do all the community stuff and the rest of us looking on with amasement or horror. Those who agitated for years about the need to establish the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar can devote themselves to devotional gatherings. Those who agitated for years about the need to raise our children as Baha'is can teach children and pre-youth and youth classes. Those who agitated for years about the need for Baha'is to read the Baha'i writings and internalize the Baha'i teachings can serve as facilitators and tutors. There are many avenues of service, and each community is in need of all of them. There is no hierarchy, because all are integral to the health and wholeness of the community.

The new culture of the Bahá'í community is one in which the individual and the family take a much more central role.

The old culture of the Baha'i community with which most of us are familiar was one in which the individual had a great deal of liberty...perhaps too much liberty. We made alot of mistakes because we tried to do alone what is meant to be done by a community. The family was central to virtually every Baha'i endeavor. Firesides and deepenings and in most communities feasts and holy days were commemorated in family homes. Now there are Baha'i centers popping up all over, and the family has been replaced as the center of Baha'i community. This is very difficult for many Baha'is to adjust to. It doesn't feel comfortable and natural and normal for alot of us. While this new culture may not be intended to be congregational, the existence of Baha'i centers and their replacement of various important social functions furnished in earlier generations by families has given many Baha'i communities more rather than less of a congregational identity than in the past. Perhaps the guidance of the Universal House of Justice, calling for the Baha'is to forsake congregational culture for a new kind of culture is in response to the proliferation of these Baha'i centers? Without such advice, Baha'i communities were indeed becoming increasingly like churches, synagogues and mosques--we had our community centers, our feasts and holy days chaired by the chairman of the Spiritual Assembly (whether male or female, assuming a kind of clerical role), our administrative and devotional procedures (like the liturgies and rituals of other communities of faith). It all seemed so familiar--so comfortable for some of us, and so uncomfortable for others. But apparently this is not the culture that the Universal House of Justice wants, this is not the culture Baha'u'llah envisioned and which it is their responsibility to bring into existence and protect.

"Fear of failure finds no place. Mutual support, commitment to learning, and appreciation of diversity of action are the prevailing norms." In other words that the support coming from these transformed communities mitigates any fears that the individual may have and the "culture of learning" that has been instituted means that every teaching effort that is made becomes an opportunity for learning and so, even if it fails, it is not a wasted effort.

If the community can and will treat all of its members this way then this will be a great transformation. But what I keep hearing from other Baha'is, and what I keep feeling myself is that since the establishment of this new culture, a new stratification of the community has resulted. There are insiders, those who are actively engaged in one or more of the core activities, and there are outsiders, who are not engaged in any of them. The insiders may give one another "mutual support", might show a "commitment to learning" and "appreciation of diversity of action"...but do they show the same to outsiders? I have my doubts, and so do others.

These may be purely subjective reflections, and in the light of objective study, it may be that all of your depictions of the new culture are accurate and that my reservations are unwarranted.