Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Intentions of Teaching

As you know, dear Reader, and as I continually remind you (and me), what I write here is only my own opinion. It is nothing official. In fact, there is no person alive today that can speak with an authoritative voice on the Writings. While the guidance from the Universal House of Justice is authoritative, there is still no individual alive who has that same distinction.

Despite this, I have to point out that when I quote scripture, it is still through the lens of my own understanding. The selections I choose, as well as how I embed them in what I write, are all based on the way that I understand them. But it is, in the end, only my personal opinion, and you are free to take it or leave it.

And this is important, my friend. It is, to my understanding, a cornerstone of the Baha'i Faith, as well as the Baha'i community.

We often talk about the importance of freedom of speech, but the Universal House of Justice has put this phrase into a context for us. They have said, "the exercise of freedom of speech must necessarily be disciplined by a profound appreciation of both the positive and negative dimensions of freedom, on the one hand, and of speech, on the other." As for personal interpretation, they also write about "the interpretation which every believer is fully entitled to voice. Believers are free, indeed are encouraged, to study the Writings for themselves and to express their understanding of them. Such personal interpretations can be most illuminating, but all Bahá'ís, including the one expressing the view, however learned he may be, should realize that it is only a personal view and can never be upheld as a standard for others to accept, nor should disputes ever be permitted to arise over differences in such opinions."

Well, all that is quite the introduction, but I really wanted to ensure that this point was made.

Why? Because just the other day someone made some comments in which that was not clear. They, in my own opinion, tried to impose their understanding of an issue on some others, and that's just not cool.

What did they say? I'm glad you asked. I can always count on you to get right to the point, dear Reader.

They said something that may seem fairly innocuous to many of us, but raised a few eyebrows in the group. They claimed that when we do a home visit for the purpose of having a spiritual conversation, our primary intention should be for the person visited to become a Baha'i.

Naturally, I questioned this assertion, saying that it might be, for me, a secondary intention, but was certainly not my primary one.

It was their response that has prompted this article.

They said that my primary purpose should, indeed, be conversion, reaffirming this even after I questioned it.

This is where a few different points have come up, in my own mind: First, the importance of not imposing our own personal views upon others; second, the subtle distinction between a primary purpose and a secondary purpose; and third, my understanding of the role of a teacher of the Faith, especially in interfaith matters.

I've already outlined my feelings and beliefs on the first point, so I don't need to go on here about it any more.

On the second point, it tends to be confused with the reflex that some people have against it. To start, please be keenly aware that I am not against people becoming Baha'i. I'm not. I think it is wonderful when people recognize Baha'u'llah and embrace the Faith. I also believe it is imperative that the Faith grow in numbers. The work of the Faith cannot be done with the current numbers that are enrolled under the banner of Baha'u'llah. The needs of humanity, indeed of the world, cannot be met with where we are in the growth and development of the Faith. It is in acknowledgement of this reality that I believe the Universal House of Justice wrote, on 1 January 2011, "victories will be won in the next five years by youth and adults, men and women, who may at present be wholly unaware of Baha'u'llah coming". Growth is vital. "...(A) relatively small band of active supporters of the Cause, no matter how resourceful, no matter how consecrated, cannot attend to the needs of communities comprising hundreds, much less thousands..."

Now you know my personal stance on the importance of teaching.

It is vital. (That means we cannot survive without it.)

That being said, when I am visiting a friend for the purpose of a spiritual conversation, it is just that. I am visiting them for the purpose of a spiritual conversation. My primary purpose, my main intention, is to share with them a pearl out of the ocean of Baha'u'llah's Revelation. It is to share those teachings to the best of my ability. Whether or not they become Baha'i is not an overwhelming concern. "Bahá’ís", as was stated by the Universal House of Justice, "have the obligation to teach the Faith with the aim of assisting receptive souls to embrace the Cause, but the nature of the response is ultimately between the hearer and the Almighty."

And so I have no ulterior motive. This does not mean, however, that I am heedless of the opportunities that may arise.

You see, dear Reader, by telling people that it "must be" our primary duty to seek converts, this is forcing us into yet another false dichotomy. It puts people into the position of of either accepting this belief or not. It can actually paralyze the teaching effort as those who do not accept it are now at odds with those who do. In the group in which I was, there was an immediate polarization.

It is similar to when people begin saying that we have to engage in direct teaching at this time.

While this is true, it has never been otherwise. But it is not an exclusive thing. Some people seem to understand that the recent guidance from the World Centre about direct, collective teaching means that we should only engage in direct teaching. I do not believe this is the case. We must engage in teaching. And while we are teaching, we should follow the directive of Shoghi Effendi, who said that we "must be either wary or bold... must use the direct or indirect method... in strict accordance with the spiritual receptivity of the soul with whom they come in contact". In other words, we need to use both,e ach when appropriate.

There is, however, a caveat there. We have not, in general, been using the direct method often enough. This is evidenced by our numbers. In many communities we have seen a large number of people engaged in core activities with very few enrolments. This means that the interest is there, or else our community of interest would not be so great. Many of these people now, most likely, need a simple and loving invitation to join the community of the Most Great Name.

But, in the end, I may be wrong. It is possible that our primary intention does need to be conversion. I don't think so, but I'm open to suggestions.

One last tool I'd like to mention is that of looking at the effect of our actions, or intentions. When I go to a friend's home with the sole purpose of engaging in a spiritual conversation, there is a great response and openness to that. We usually end up having a marvelous conversation, both learning from the other, and they often express interest in engaging in further study.

When I have gone with others whose primary intention is conversion, that has not been the case. Those whom we have visited have reacted as if they were being attacked. And that is not good.

Finally, I have been told by some well-intentioned Baha'is that I should not engage in the interfaith work to the degree that I do. I have been told by some that I should concentrate all my efforts on the Baha'i community, despite the fact that we are to have an "outward-looking orientation". To those concerns, I merely thank these people for their advice, and remember what the Supreme Institution said in response to a letter I wrote them a few years ago: "Unhesitatingly recognizing the divine Source of all the great religions, Bahá’ís are happy to engage in dialogue or common endeavour with other religious communities to contribute to the betterment of the world."

And so I continue to do what I do. I set my priorities based on circumstances and strive to help spread these Teachings to the best of my meager ability, with my intentions as pure as I can make them.

I can only pray that this is acceptable before my Creator.


  1. Here is a comment from my friend, Brad, who posted this on another site:

    Mead good article and even better attituide as an atheist if you appraoched me with "hey lets have a conversation" it would be very interesting and id be pretty open..when appraoched by those seeking to "spread the word"*pick a flavour of "word"* I imediatly adopt a less open attituide.. as the "goal" on the speakers part .. is more agressive..and less open to actual flow of conversation having a fixed Aim.. so while it is your personal belief and interpretation.. as a complete outsider it does have validity ..IMHO ...*g* of course:)

  2. "The teacher should not consider himself as learned and others ignorant. Such a thought breedeth pride, and pride is not conducive to influence."
    (Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

  3. This was another outstanding article! Many thanks for sharing. Would it be possible to share more from the letter of the Universal House of Justice to you that you cite here? If you would not mind posting the complete letter so we can see this quote in context, that would be light upon light but I can appreciate if you would prefer to keep the complete letter confidential.