Saturday, April 3, 2010


When writing about the Baha'i Faith, there are many subjects that are bound to come up: prayer, the soul, God, to name just a few. One that is unavoidable is consultation.

It is difficult to describe the importance of this principal within the Faith, and nearly as difficult to begin to figure out what to say about it.  Why? Well, to start with, Baha'u'llah says that it is one of the two luminaries with which "the heaven of divine wisdom is illumined" and we "should hold fast to the cord of consultation". He goes on to say, "consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding."

'Abdu'l-Baha says, "In this Cause consultation is of vital importance..."

Vital? "Necessary to the existence, continuance, or well-being of something; indispensable; essential"? (Don't you just love the dictionary?) Well, ok, if He says so. Doesn't that just put a bit of pressure on us to figure out what it is?

When looking through the Writings, I was a bit surprised to see how much information there was, and also how little there seemed to be, in another respect.

The first question I had to ask myself, though, was, "What is consultation?" While it would be fairly easy to say that it is a form of group decision making, this is not quite enough of an answer. To start, it might help to state what it is not.

It is not trouble shooting, for then you would only consult when there are problems. It is not a mere conversation, for it has focus and direction. It isn't even brainstorming, for you are not just tossing out as many ideas in as short a time as possible, although that can help in the process if you get stuck. No. Consultation is more than any of those. There are rules, guidelines and prinicpals involved.

'Abdu'l-Baha, in one place, says, "Knowledge is the first step; resolve, the second step; action, its fulfillment, is the third step." Although He doesn't specifically say that this is about consultation, it sure seems to apply well with consulting.

To further clarify this, though, we can look at the well-known quote in Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha. I've added the bolding just to make a few points stand out.

The first condition is absolute love and harmony amongst the members of the assembly. They must be wholly free from estrangement and must manifest in themselves the Unity of God, for they are the waves of one sea, the drops of one river, the stars of one heaven, the rays of one sun, the trees of one orchard, the flowers of one garden. Should harmony of thought and absolute unity be nonexistent, that gathering shall be dispersed and that assembly be brought to naught. The second condition is that the members of the assembly should unitedly elect a chairman and lay down guide-lines and by-laws for their meetings and discussions. The chairman should have charge of such rules and regulations and protect and enforce them; the other members should be submissive, and refrain from conversing on superfluous and extraneous matters. They must, when coming together, turn their faces to the Kingdom on high and ask aid from the Realm of Glory. They must then proceed with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care and moderation to express their views. They must in every matter search out the truth and not insist upon their own opinion, for stubbornness and persistence in one's views will lead ultimately to discord and wrangling and the truth will remain hidden. The honoured members must with all freedom express their own thoughts, and it is in no wise permissible for one to belittle the thought of another, nay, he must with moderation set forth the truth, and should differences of opinion arise a majority of voices must prevail, and all must obey and submit to the majority. It is again not permitted that any one of the honoured members object to or censure, whether in or out of the meeting, any decision arrived at previously, though that decision be not right, for such criticism would prevent any decision from being enforced. In short, whatsoever thing is arranged in harmony and with love and purity of motive, its result is light, and should the least trace of estrangement prevail the result shall be darkness upon darkness.... If this be so regarded, that assembly shall be of God, but otherwise it shall lead to coolness and alienation that proceed from the Evil One.... Should they endeavour to fulfil these conditions the Grace of the Holy Spirit shall be vouchsafed unto them, and that assembly shall become the centre of the Divine blessings, the hosts of Divine confirmation shall come to their aid, and they shall day by day receive a new effusion of Spirit.
As you can see, it all begins with harmony and love. Without these essential qualities, you won't work together, and your endeavour will "be brought to naught". Pretty harsh stuff, that. I guess we better learn to really like one another.

After we get together, then we have to decide on the rules, so to speak. And we need to have someone there to enforce them. That's the Chairperson. If we are ever in an Assembly, or a committee, and we think that the job of the Chaitperson is only a minor thing, then we better think again. It is the fulfillment of the second condition here.

Once we agree on the rules, then we get to consultation itself. This is where things get a bit murky for me, as I am only guessing what the practical steps are. But to be fair, most of the guesswork is fairly educated, based on a bit of personal experience, and a lot of experience of friends.

First, we turn to God in prayer, and pray for "aid from the Realm of Glory". If you're anything like me, then prayer is of the "Oh God, HELP!" variety.

Now that we have been made "susceptible (to) the higher intelligence", we can begin to talk about the issue. But not just any sort of talk, no. We have to speak "with the utmost devotion, courtesy, dignity, care and moderation". Tough, if you're as outspoken as I am, but hey, this Faith is all about change for the better, so there is hope for me yet.

The next question is "What do we talk about?" Well, the issue, obviously. A good starting point would be to seek out the facts of the matter, and this requires learning to seperate the actual facts from the opinions of those involved. You can ask any police officer if this is easy, as I'm sure they'd enjoy a good laugh. I've been told that it becomes easier with practice. We'll see.

After getting the relevant background, a next good step is to identify a few spiritual principals involved. This will help focus your consultation, and allow you an easier time to find the pertinent guidance in the Writings.

This last step is indispensible. Too often have I heard about consultations that went nowhere only because people were skirting around the issue, and never sought guidance in the Writings. As soon as the right quote was brought to their attention, voila. The solution was found and agreed upon almost immediately.

Also, by looking to the Writings, I find it easier to detach from my own opinions. Too often I have found myself caught in the quagmire of self during a consultation, which could have been easily avoided if only we had looked to the Writings first. Ah well, live and learn.

Finally, once a decision is discovered, it needs to be implemented.

Hmm. This reminds me of the five steps of prayer as suggested by the Guardian.
  1. Pray and meditate
  2. Arrive at a decision
  3. Have the determination to carry the decision through
  4. Have faith and confidence
  5. Act
Now obviously Shoghi Effendi said it far better than I did, but that is the essence of it.

These steps for prayer seem just as relevant to consultation as they do for prayer. But this really shouldn't surprise me, for the Guardian placed so much emphasis on the steps of prayer. He often said that prayer must be combined with meditation on the Writings, for how else are we to learn? And this meditation must result in action, for if not, what good is it?

Similarly, in consultation, we must pray. Once we have prayed, then we need to look to the guidance and see the implications of it, for this is where the rubber hits the road. We will get nowhere if we skip this step. Recognizing the implcations of the Writings is like the meditation of the individual, where they take the Writings and bring them into their own heart. Once there, a decision must be arrived at, trusted and acted upon. If we do not do this, no benefit will come.

But really, all I have done is just touch upon the surface of this law, for don't forget that the Guardian called consultation "one of the basic laws of the Administration".

And if you ask me, it's more than just good for us Baha'is. It is necessary for the survival of humaity. Baha'u'llah said, "No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation" and that "it is and will always be a cause of awareness and of awakening and a source of good and well-being."

How can you argue with that?

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