Participation in the prevalent discourses of society is one of the three areas of activity that the worldwide Baha’i community is trying to learn about (the other two being expansion and consolidation and social action). Broadly understood as a contribution to the evolution of thought, there are several principles and ideas that can help us understand how to contribute most effectively to the discourses around us. These are a few of my reflections on this weighty subject.
So let’s start with “what is a discourse?” To put it simply we can think of a discourse as all the aggregate articles, publications, conferences, talks and conversations about a given topic, such as governance, sustainability, human rights, and the role of religion in society, that unfold in any given space like a neighbourhood, university, workplace, or a parliament, to mention but a few. It is a fluid conversation with evolving ways of thinking and talking about a given subject in a given social space. The Universal House of Justice writes:
There are ‘a great many Baha’is who are engaged as individuals in social action and public discourse through their occupations.’ Every believer has the opportunity to examine the forces operating in society and introduce relevant aspects of the teachings within the discourse prevalent in whatever social space he or she is present.1
And we can glean insights from a talk by Bani Dugal (who is the primary representative of the Baha’i International Community at the United Nations) given at the 2016 ABS conference (which you can listen to here):
Participating in the discourses of society is something we are already doing whether formally or informally, whether consciously or unconsciously in the many spaces we are present at whether as students at universities, professionals in our fields, family members in our homes, children class teachers in neighbourhoods, animators in JY groups or simply as individuals in the world at large … whatever the space we have the opportunity to elevate the conversation, uplift minds and, potentially, the opportunity to change the nature of discourse.
Such “participation can occur at all levels of society, from the local to the international” and one could broadly categorise this work in terms of four different levels: the level of the individual (who offers an understanding of the Faith to their communities or professions); the level of Baha’i-inspired NGOs (that share learning from particular experiences); the level of national offices of public affairs (that contribute to policy formulation on a variety of relevant social issues); and finally the level of the Baha’i International Community (that participates in the discourses of society at the international arena). The first two are generally not under the guidance of institutions and do not speak on behalf of the community while the latter two are more directly under the guidance of the institutions.
“What is important is for Baha’is to be present in the many social spaces in which thinking and policies evolve” the Universal House of Justice writes, and that when the occasion permits we should feel encouraged to “offer generously, unconditionally and with the utmost humility the teachings of the Faith and [our] experience in applying them as a contribution to the betterment of society.”2 It is important to collaborate in such spaces with other individuals and groups as Ms. Dugal noted that “the impact we can have when we collaborate with other like-minded organisations is much greater and the learning more pronounced than working alone.”
This contribution must be sincere, not directed at imposing a Baha’i view, but with the aim of learning to engage in genuine conversations. Ms. Dugal in her talk quoted the external affairs strategy document from The Universal House of Justice:
The purpose of such efforts is not to press others to accept a specific Baha’i proposal or to engage in direct teaching. Nor should activities be conceived as part of public relations or academic exercise, rather those involved are to adopt a posture of learning seeking to stimulate a consultative process by engaging in genuine conversations in a range of social spaces, standing shoulder to shoulder with others and offering insights drawn from the Baha’i Writings and the community’s growing experience in applying them.
At all levels of participation in the discourses of society, one of the best strategies for learning in action is for small teams to collaborate and generate insights over a period of time through the steps of action, consultation, reflection, and study. And one important implication of this mode of learning is to remain conscious that we have as much to learn as we do to offer and that our thoughts and insights should be continually informed by both science and religion.
As we nurture the capacity to learn systematically, we also develop our capacity to read our reality. In the case of discourses in society this means identifying spaces for discourse, and analyzing them and the discourses evolving within them. Ms. Dugal in this respect shared the experience of the BIC (Baha’i International Community) office:
Central to identification of space is reading those elements that influence and shape how discussions proceed within it. How does this look like? Key elements the office tries to be familiar with before committing significant resources to a space might include language and vocabulary used within it, assumptions and mental models that seem central to the discussions, issues of particular interest to focus within the discourse, areas of controversy that tend to spark contention, areas that seem particularly vibrant or fruitful and areas that seem particularly amenable, or averse, to principles of the Baha’i writings or experiences of the Baha’i World Community in putting them into practice.
Through participation in the sequence of courses of the Ruhi Institute we also learn about consultation, be it, for example, in the first course, Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, in examining the role of a “kindly tongue”, or in the second course, Arising to Serve, where we learn about the ways to build unity in the community – or through the dynamics of a study circle! And then armed with these capacities, we can increase our awareness that “content, volume, style, tact wisdom, timeliness are among the critical factors in determining the effects of speech for good or evil.”3 Ms. Dugal shared that the BIC was coming to a “deeper and deeper appreciation of the fact that the tone and approach used while participating in a discourse is every bit as important as the content conveyed.”
I don’t think that this tone should be confused as being apologetic: it is my understanding that we should hold an unshakeable inner belief in the power of the Revelation as a never ending source of guidance and an ocean for us to be continually immersed in and exploring; but we should equally acknowledge our very finite understanding of the Writings and our extremely limited experience in applying them.
- From the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada, 24 July 2013 [↩]
- From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Australia, January 4, 2009 [↩]
- The Universal House of Justice, 1988 October 29, to the Followers of Baha’u’llah in the United States of America, p7, 10 [↩]