Monday, November 19, 2012

"We have to..."

I was studying Ruhi Book 8 the other day with some friends and a very interesting conversation arose. It seems that at a recent Baha'i gathering, someone was ranting against the institute process and the Ruhi Books. Now that may not be a huge problem in and of itself, although it's not all that cool, but it does raise some very interesting questions.

Before I continue, let me just clarify one point. As you well know by now, these are just my own thoughts on the matter, and nothing official. You can take them or leave them as you will.

To start, this sort of rant is not cool because of the negative critical attitude. As Shoghi Effendi once wrote, "The good that you think can be done by such criticism is far out-weighed by the harm it does." He also encourages us to remember the Master and "His contempt for and impatience of criticism, tempered by His tact and wisdom."

But let's also be clear: I don't think this violating the Covenant, for they are not speaking against the authority of the Universal House of Justice, but as I said, it's just not cool. You see, it's one thing to say "This just doesn't work for me", and it's another thing entirely to say "I don't think anyone else should do it". The first is fine, acceptable, and perhaps even an admirable admission of one's own preferences, while still maintaining a humble attitude in support of the work of the Faith. The other is presumptuous and borders on egotistical, as the presumption is that what works for oneself, or not as the case may be, should work, or not, for everyone else. (This is getting to be fun to write.)

But regardless of how cool, or not, something may be to say, what is it the Universal House of Justice is actually asking us to do? Are they, in fact, asking all of us to take the Ruhi Books? Is this, somehow, a mandatory part of our spiritual growth? And why does there seem to be such a visceral reaction against the Ruhi Institute by a very few people?

Quite simply, I think the answers to those questions are "look in the guidance", no, no, and "I'll explain in a moment my own thoughts on that"

I would like to look at these questions one at a time, ignoring, for now, the various side issues that arise.

Is the Universal House of Justice asking us all to take the Ruhi books? (Yes, I know. This actually covers the first two questions, but really, I think they are the same.) I don't think so. To really find the answer to that question, we need to look at the 28 December 2005 message to all National Spiritual Assemblies. This is where they explained the purpose of the training institute (again), and their rationale for asking us to focus on the Ruhi books. They explain that back in 1995 when they clarified the importance of the training institute, and the need for something more systematic than we had been seeing within the general Baha'i community, there was not enough evidence to justify their "recommending a specific set of materials to be used by training institutes throughout the world". With a few more years experience, as well as a number of communities choosing to use them, it became evident that those who had adopted the use of those materials were well ahead in community growth when compared to those who tried to create their own materials. It seems that it was for this reason that in 2005 they "reached the conclusion that the books of the Ruhi Institute should constitute the main sequence of courses for institutes everywhere, at least through the final years of the first century of the Formative Age".

To be clear, this does not mean that any other studies are now being discouraged. Not at all. Deepening programs are still a major activity within the Baha'i community. But they are not a core activity. In terms of the purpose of the core activities, and the training institute in particular, they have decided that the global curriculum is to be the Ruhi books. Why? Because they have proven themselves to be the most effective, and we don't have the time right now to develop anything better. This will come, of course, but in time.

And in regards to the idea of core activities, they are just that: core. They are not the only activities Baha'is participate in, but they are central to the health and vitality of the community. Imagine an apple, and look at the purpose of the core. It is not the entire apple, but it does bear the seeds for the next generation of trees. And if the core is not good, the rest of the apple will rot in short order. Here, in the Ruhi Institute materials, they have found a good core.

But it is not mandatory for every individual. In a letter to an individual, written on 31 May 2001, the Universal House of Justice wrote that "it is entirely acceptable for you not to participate in the institute process, following your own way of studying the Writings as you have done in the past." They go on, in that same letter, to remind the individual "that occasional courses of instruction and the informal activities of community life, though important, had not proven sufficient as a means of human resource development." In the end of that letter, they point out "clearly such participation is not a requirement for every Bahá'í, who, in the final analysis, can choose the manner in which he or she will serve the Faith. What is essential is that the institute process be supported even by those who do not wish to take part in it."

This, to me, is the essence of how this beautiful faith of ours seems to work. Nobody coerces anyone in anything. When we look at the guidance from the World Centre, it is just that: guidance.

So again, I haven't seen anywhere in the guidance where it says that we have to take the Ruhi courses. We are encouraged to study, and this is from Baha'u'llah Himself, and the Universal House of Justice has noticed that the Ruhi courses seem to be the most effective in getting us off our butts and into the field of actual service to humanity. Oh, that's my paraphrase, and not from the Writings.

So, what about that second (third) question? Are these courses mandatory for our spiritual growth? Of course not. There are many ways that we can grow spiritually, but these courses sure appear to be the most effective tool we have at this time.

The Universal House of Justice seems to be asking us to see how effective our studies of the Writings have been in moving the friends, and ourselves, into the arena of service. Most often our studies tend to be more theoretical without much actual application. And what good is that? I mean, yes it introduced most of us to the Faith, and that is wonderful, but we have not really experience any degree of sustainable large scale growth before the adoption of the Ruhi Institute materials on a global scale. 'Abdu'l-Baha said, in Paris Talks, "What profit is there in agreeing that universal friendship is good, and talking of the solidarity of the human race as a grand ideal? Unless these thoughts are translated into the world of action, they are useless." These seemingly simple workbooks have been very effective in helping us translate these thoughts into the world of action.

As a Counsellor once said, "If someone is already teaching the Faith, and helping confirm people in their beliefs, and those friends are going out and teaching others, then why should they take Book 1? They are already doing what the courses are trying to help us learn to do. But if they aren't, then perhaps they can learn something by going through the institute courses."

Finally, why does there seem to be such a visceral reaction against the Ruhi Institute materials by a very few people?

Let me answer with an example. I was just at a conference in which we broke into small groups to discuss some issues. In my group someone said that we were "supposed to work in neighbourhoods". It was inadvertently phrased in such a way as to say that if we weren't working in some sort of a neighbourhood context, we were somehow doing something wrong. (I say it was inadvertent because I actually asked her about this later.)

This was not the first time I had heard such a strong statement, and is, to me, the root of the issue. We tend to, out of our enthusiasm for what we perceive to be obedience, phrase things in a sort of imperative way. "We have to do this..." "We should be doing that..." "We must do this other thing..."

I believe it is our enthusiastic manner of suggesting that something is required, and anything else is wrong, has put off a number of the friends. We need to guard against that. We should try and remember how guidance is phrased in the Writings and strive to emulate that. We should encourage and guide, but not insist.

The Ruhi materials are sort of like the neighbourhood thing. We are most effective when we teach within our own neighbourhood. But, if you are like me, you may not have the opportunity to tutor a study circle in your own neighbourhood. I do, however, have the opportunity to go through Book 1 with some friends in a nearby city. If I had so many opportunities that I had to prioritize my time and choose between tutoring in my own area or another, I would choose my home area. But, unfortunately, I don't get to choose at this time. The only opportunity is in that nearby city.

So to sum up, there is no "have to" in this beautiful and open Faith of ours. There is a lot guidance, and tons of encouragement to be as effective as possible in our work, but the final choice of what we do sure seems to be up to us. (Well, except for following the laws. That we really should do.)


  1. "We need to guard against that."

    or, putting it less emphatically:

    "It might be important to guard against that."

  2. I've studied and tutored all of the books and I can get really excited when I think about Baha'is all over the world systematically studying the same body of material, and advancing together through the courses, Mead!

    I'm also one of those who has a visceral reaction against being told what to memorize and quote after quote, which, for me, becomes a giant "to do" list as I see how high the standards are, and how far I fall short. I can easily collapse under the weight of all those "shoulds" if I'm not careful!

  3. Hi Mead! For me at least, the Ruhi Books are tiresome, even offensive, because of their simplistic, 'fill-in-the-blanks' format. Some people may like this, a few of them, such as yourself, are even highly educated. But I don't think that I'm one who recoils from exercises that recall an old-school Catholic catechism. You hit the nail on the head when you pointed out that part of the problem is that people -- whether critics or supporters -- tend to present Ruhi as if it was for everyone. I think that both sides reinforce each other in this, since some admirers of Ruhi try to force it on everyone, which makes those who dislike it react by insisting that no one should do it.

    On the other hand, the question of whether Ruhi is helping to grow the ranks of the Baha'i Faith can be empirically verified. It might still be too soon to say, but before long we should have sufficient statistical evidence of whether Ruhi is doing what it's supposed to do after over a decade of implementation. Hopefully this can be examined fairly and impartially, as I think it deserves.

  4. Hey Brendan! Great to hear from you.

    Yes, they do start off "simplistic", but I have to admit, they are deceptively simple in their format. And when I am tutoring those whose literacy level is already fairly high, I sort of move quickly past those exercises and ask more challenging questions about the quotes.

    The other thing that really impresses me is the outline of the books themselves. many people seem to miss that, or just gloss over it, but I think it is an important aspect of them. But all that said, they are not for everyone. And I wish more people would look at those letters from the House of Justice regarding that aspect. Just because they are the standard curriculum for all training institutes does not mean that we can't use anything else. It just means that the training institutes should keep their focus on the Ruhi books for now.

    As for the empirical testing, that is so crucial. It is one of the many aspects of the harmony of science and religion in the realm of teaching effectively and efficiently. While we may not be seeing he full benefits of this curriculum as of yet in the West, I think the World Centre has enough data at their fingertips to see the global effect, and that is why they have selected these materials. As I trust their interpretation of the data, I am working with their conclusions and seeing what happens.

    It's a fairly exciting time we live in. So much is happening. And one of those things is the moving away from random attempts at sharing the Faith to a more coherent method of sharing that makes it easier for the seeker to find what the answers they are searching for.

  5. Replies
    1. I'm not sure I understand this comment. Are you asking what we eleven people are? Or are you asking about my age? If the latter, in respect to what?

      (I would have just deleted this, presuming it to be spam, but I thought I'd give you the benefit of the doubt.)

  6. I just love reading your blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!