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.)

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Point of View

For years I have been looking for a copy of Mahmud's Diary, the diary of Mahmud-i-Zarqani as he journeyed with 'Abdu'l-Baha across North America. Finally, this past weekend, I got a copy.

Wow. What a read.

His evident love of the Master, and his ability to capture the essence of what he saw around him, is quite astonishing, especially given the many other demands upon his time.

Through it all (and I'm only on page 54), though, one thing has really caught my attention, and that is the difference in perception between what he saw, and what the Western believers saw. Neither view is better than the other, but they are so different, and they seem to reflect something about how people of differing backgrounds can see the same thing with such different eyes.

While I could go into all sorts of detail about that, one singular passage caught my attention.

The date was Sunday 21 April, and the Master was giving a talk in Washington DC. Mahmud decided, for some reason, to reproduce the entirety of that talk, as he heard from the Master's own lips in Persian. At the same time, Joseph Hannen took notes and recorded what he heard from the translator in English.

This is what Mr Hannen faithfully recorded, and which Howard MacNutt included in The Promulgation of Universal Peace:

The Prophets come into the world to guide and educate humanity so that the animal nature of man may disappear and the divinity of his powers become awakened. The divine aspect or spiritual nature consists of the breaths of the Holy Spirit. The second birth of which Jesus has spoken refers to the appearance of this heavenly nature in man. It is expressed in the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and he who is baptized by the Holy Spirit is a veritable manifestation of divine mercy to mankind. Then he becomes just and kind to all humanity; he entertains prejudice and ill will toward none; he shuns no nation or people.
The foundations of the divine religions are one. If we investigate these foundations, we discover much ground for agreement, but if we consider the imitations of forms and ancestral beliefs, we find points of disagreement and division; for these imitations differ, while the sources and foundations are one and the same. That is to say, the fundamentals are conducive to unity, but imitations are the cause of disunion and dismemberment. Whosoever is lacking in love for humanity or manifests hatred and bigotry toward any part of it violates the foundation and source of his own belief and is holding to forms and imitations. Jesus Christ declares that the sun rises upon the evil and the good, and the rain descends upon the just and the unjust -- upon all humanity alike. Christ was a divine mercy which shone upon all mankind, the medium for the descent of the bounty of God, and the bounty of God is transcendent, unrestricted, universal.
This is what Mahmud recorded, from the original Persian:

The teachings of the Prophets were solely directed to educate humanity in order to subdue the animal side so that persons under the yoke of nature may find salvation and the heavenly aspect may rule victorious. This divine aspect is the bounty of the Holy Spirit, it is the second birth. He who possesses the divine aspect is a well-wisher of mankind and is most kind to all. He will entertain no enmity toward any Faith and will not belittle any religion, for the foundations of the religions of God are one. If we refer back to these foundations, we shall become united. But if we turn toward imitations, we shall be at variance, for imitations differ but the foundations of the divine religions are one and the same. Imitation leads to differences and trouble but the foundations of the divine religions cause love and union.

While I truly love the first, there is a power within the second that touches my heart even more.

What had caught my attention, and why I searched out the other version, was, quite simply, the idea that "He who possesses the divine aspect... will entertain no enmity toward any Faith and will not belittle any religion..." While the concept is prevalent throughout the Writings, I was fairly certain that I had never seen that clear a phrasing of it before.

Now I know why I had been searching so long for this wonderful book.

Thank you, Mahmud, for taking the time, and exerting the effort, to write this book.