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How I’m Rethinking Understanding

May 26, 2023, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by

Have you ever come across an idea so simple as to seem obvious, but so profound it seemed to bend your brain in new directions? I had that experience in 2016 at a seminar with the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity (ISGP). On the very first day, we discussed a foundational principle of our study: the importance of holding a concept in our brain with the intention to understand it, without accepting or rejecting it.

It seems like a no-brainer, but as I tried to practice this skill over the course of the seminar, I realized it’s way harder than it sounds. Our brains like simplicity: yes/no, black/white, either/or. But information doesn’t work like that. We can’t automatically accept or reject what we read without first seeking to understand it. Our brains look for shortcuts, like trigger words that help us decide whether or not to accept or reject an argument. We unconsciously want to either accept an entire argument wholecloth, or reject it all, because it’s easier than picking out the parts that are helpful while putting aside the rest. We aren’t born with the ability to embrace complexity and nuance–we have to learn and practice.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized ISGP was not the first time I had come across this concept of seeking to understand before seeking to form opinions.

An understanding of the Writings must begin by focusing the mind on what is being read before allowing one’s imagination to roam and personal opinions to flow freely. 1

I remember reading that several times over the years when I was 15 and studying Reflections on the Life of the Spirit from the Ruhi Institute for the first time. Of course, that quote is from the older version. The newest published version of the book says something I find to be even more illuminating.

What should be realized from the start is that this challenge is seldom met by asking questions such as, “What does this mean to you?” Questions of this kind tend to reduce knowledge and truth to the level of opinion. And it then proves difficult to create an atmosphere in which consultation among the members of the group actually gives rise to increased understanding. 2

It wasn’t until more than a decade later at that seminar that I really understood what those quotes meant–and now, six years later, I’m finally understanding the implications.

If I always remind myself to read to understand before forming an opinion, I can resist falling victim to the shortcuts my brain wants to make–and to be honest, that society wants me to make. Western media capitalizes on these habits of the brain to get clicks and ad revenue; they use inflammatory titles and trigger words to signal affinity with one school of thought or another, and selectively include certain bits of information so that people in one group or another will automatically accept their entire platforms as true and consume them more readily.

When I read a quote from the Baha’i Writings and seek to understand it, I have to override any gut reaction my brain wants to go along with. I have to dive deep into the context, the nuance, and the carefully chosen words. Baha’u’llah called us to do this when He talked about independent investigation of the truth:

One should not ignore the truth of any matter, rather should one give expression to that which is right and true. 3

The Ruhi Institute helps us learn to apply this skill to the Sacred Writings from the very first book, but it shouldn’t be limited to only the Writings.

In the experience offered by the institute, participants are not merely presented with information, but through study of the courses and involvement in the community-building activities in which their lessons find practical expression, they acquire knowledge, skills, and spiritual insights that enable them to effectively foster personal and social change.

The Universal House of Justice 4

This is a skill that can help us investigate truth in every aspect of our information consumption, whether it’s the news, a philosophical treatise, a societal trend, or anything else in the vast world of information available to us today. This skill is often called “information literacy,” and it’s near and dear to my heart as a librarian. As Baha’is, I feel we are blessed to already have this great resource for building information literacy in not only the Ruhi Institute courses, but all four of the core activities Baha’i communities engage in all over the world.

From the very beginning, children’s classes help us develop virtues such as truthfulness and cooperation that lay the foundation for consultation and an attitude of learning.

In the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program, we practice reading reality to discern the societal and cultural forces operating in our communities and the influences they have on our individual thoughts and understandings.

The Ruhi Institute builds further on these skills. In fact, in the 14th book of the sequence, titled Participating in Public Discourse, we very explicitly practice analyzing popular notions in social discourse in light of the Revelation. My study circle found this book particularly challenging and rewarding in this respect.

Even in devotional gatherings, we practice information literacy skills. As friends arrive, or after we pray and are lingering over tea and desserts, our conversations inevitably turn to societal ills, either because they personally impact our families, or because of the weight they place on our hearts. Our skills from the educational programs of the community help us engage in meaningful and uplifting conversations, bring spiritual principles into the conversation, analyze the societal forces at play, and engage in effective consultation. These conversations can bring solace, build stronger relationships, and sometimes even lead to social action. Knowing that our global Baha’i community has such a powerful set of tools at our disposal to learn and practice information literacy skills, I wonder how we can lean into the existing framework of activities to enhance these skills even more. I don’t pretend to know the best way to do this, nor do I want to bog down any activity with tangential supplements. Naturally, every community would find different methods effective anyway based on unique culture and circumstances. No one suggestion I could make would serve all. But perhaps even knowing that this is one of the skills we are building, and reflecting purposely on how we as participants, facilitators, teachers, and animators are building information literacy skills, will help us do so more effectively.

Footnotes & Citations

  1. Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, old version, p. 1[]
  2. Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, 2020, p. vii[]
  3. Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Tarazat[]
  4. The Universal House of Justice, Letter dated 24 July 2013 to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada[]
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Maia James

Maia is a new mom, graduate student, and public librarian in the United States with a passion for community building. You’ll often find her writing in coffee shops, reading with her lap cat, and exploring backroads with her husband.
Maia James

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