A talk by Dr. Peter Khan on 3 July 2009
The Ridvan Message
I’m very very pleased to have the opportunity to speak about a document as significant and of such far reaching importance as the Riḍván 2009 Message.
As you know it was and is unique, as far as I can tell, among the various messages of the Universal House of Justice in its brevity and in its tone. It comes hard on the heels of a remarkable event, unprecedented in the history of the Cause, or indeed in the history of the religion throughout the world; and that was the convening, at the instruction of the Universal House of Justice, and with the invaluable assistance of the Members of the International Teaching Centre, of a series of 41 Conferences held throughout the length and breadth of the planet, attended by some eighty thousand people.
As you are, I am sure, aware, that series of conferences had a galvanizing effect on the Bahá’í Community throughout the world and ultimately on the larger society. It was a tangible demonstration of the global spread of the Faith and it created a most welcome surge toward the goal of 1500 Intensive Programs of Growth by the end of the present plan.
This Riḍván Message can be regarded as celebratory in term: celebrating the fact that we have achieved an important milestone in reaching some 1000 Intensive Programs of Growth by Riḍván 2009, and expressing the confidence of the Universal House of Justice that the goal of the Five Year Plan would be accomplished.
My purpose tonight is not to dwell specifically on those details, but rather to share with you my thoughts about what I see to be two underlying issues, the exploration of which I believe to be crucial to a deeper understanding of this Riḍván Message and indeed of the direction in which the faith is now going.
These two issues which I will address in turn have firstly to dwell upon the significance of Bahá’í activity at the present time in the history of the world, and secondly to examine the question of change in religion.
Significance of Baha'i Community
The Declining Process
It is, I think, generally accepted by the mass of the people of the world that there are, to a certain extent, two processes at work in the world today, a process of decline in the quality of life, and a growth in positive elements including the emancipation of deprived minorities, a global perspective through internationalism, and the use of technology for beneficial ends. This recognition of the existence of two processes is not something which has been characteristic of the mass of humanity over many years. If we survey the history of the 20th century there have been periods of great euphoria, associated generally with either the election of a charismatic political leader or with an event which seemed to hold unlimited promise such as the demolition of the Berlin wall, in 1989. But over the last 20 years it appears to me that the mass of humanity have come generally to recognize that things are not going extremely well, with the emergence of some very pressing and portentous problems.
And I think if you talk to the casual observer of the world scene he or she will say “there are two things happening at the same time, decline and growth.”
Obviously we have our Bahá’í teachings on this subject but that’s not the point at the moment. The conventional reaction to this process of decline becoming increasingly apparent in the world today takes a number of forms. Most people anticipate and hope that it will only be temporary: “Things are not so good at the moment, financially with the crisis, political volatility, in Africa or Asia, or Central or South America, or in other countries, but with a bit of luck it’ll get better and we’ll go back to the way it was before, with a calm settled society.”
So there is a general anticipation of the temporary nature of that decline. Almost universally its extent is underestimated and its ultimate severity is not accepted. There is a universal ignorance about its fundamental cause; rather people are inclined to ascribe its cause to what we would describe as symptoms: political changes, the rise of education, the intemperance of certain minorities, the emancipation of women and so on. And most people expect, and indeed hope, that some panacea will arise which will solve it, which will remove all the clouds, and humanity will proceed in a peaceful and harmonious manner toward its future.
It is necessary for us to look at these perceptions in the light of the authoritative statements in the Bahá’í Writings. I do this because I think the challenge we face as Bahá’ís is a challenge to avoid unconsciously absorbing the attitudes of the larger society, but rather to form our attitudes from the authoritative texts of the Faith. These authoritative writings are in many ways dramatically different from the prevailing view in our society. I share with you a few of the statements of the Guardian on this subject. In one place where he refers to the magnitude of the Revelation of Baha’u’llah, he says:
For the revelation of so great a favour a period of intense turmoil and wide- spread suffering would seem to be indispensable.
In another place Shoghi Effendi writes:
Deep as is the gloom that already encircles the world, the afflictive ordeals which that world is to suffer are still in preparation, nor can their blackness be as yet imagined.
And one more passage, at risk of totally depressing my audience, is a very detailed and quite colorful passage from the authoritative Writings of the Faith, from Shoghi Effendi, in which he refers to the future in some detail:
Adversities unimaginably appalling, undreamed of crises and upheavals, war, famine, and pestilence, might well combine to engrave in the soul of an unheeding generation those truths and principles which it has disdained to recognize and follow. A paralysis more painful than any it has yet experienced must creep over and further afflict the fabric of a broken society ere it can be rebuilt and regenerated.
I call your attention to the phrase “broken society” which is almost echoed in the Riḍván Message which refers to the “broken world.”
It is apparent to me, as our Writings anticipate, that the declining process in the world will continue for an extended period. No time scale is given, but it may well be decades or indeed centuries. And during that time the extent of the breakdown of society, the ills afflicting mankind, will be of a magnitude and extent and duration far beyond our capacity to comprehend at the present time. As it continues, we might well anticipate a variety of reactions from the people around us.
First will be denial: “You know it’s not as bad as you’re saying, you’re acting like a Jeremiah, things are getting better”.
That denial will ultimately give rise to searching for a scapegoat, for the problem: that thing has caused it. It may be a particular minority, it maybe the Romani gypsies of Northern Ireland affecting that society, it may be the Jewish people in the Middle East, or it may be some other minority in another part of the world. The spread of education is an attractive villain: “People are going off to school, learning all kinds of crazy ideas and coming back and disturbing society.”
Female emancipation is a tempting target, “If women would stay at home, the kids would be much more settled and behave a lot better, and there’d be more jobs for the men, and things would be as I were in the Saturday Evening Post of the 1940s’ and ‘50s.” That, I think, would give rise to volatility in a search for extreme solutions: “Something is terribly wrong, we’ve got to find what the answer is. Is it this or it’s that? “Extreme solutions would be embraced and discarded, and we see some signs of that in the political process today in a number of countries, in the fact that elections swing from the extreme left to the extreme right. When each person is elected, the people become disillusioned, even in some cases driving him from power before his term is concluded; in other instances, they suffer him but they then elect somebody of the extreme opposite polarity. This would give rise further to an intense desperation of search and ultimately to despair and to hopelessness about long term planning: “what is the use of anything? Why try?”
Shoghi Effendi in one place refers to the declining process, and says its ultimate end is in “barbarism, chaos, and ultimate extinction .” The mercy is that fewer and fewer components of humanity will remain with it to this bitter and untimely end.
The Role of Religion
What is the fundamental cause? Why did it all happen? Where did it all come from? There are varieties of causes, there are some brilliant analyses which have been published in the literature of the present society and which attempt to trace the origins of the turmoil and unrest in the world. By and large they are very good: they’re insightful, they’re analytical and they’re perceptive, but they leave unanswered the question “where did that come from.” It’s a way children are when they say: - “Who made me?” – “God” – “Where did God come from?” – “Go away.”
Bahá’u’lláh has addressed this ultimate question, this fundamental question of human society in which He refers to the basic cause of the decline in the world as that of the loss of adherence to true religion. He says:
Religion is a radiant light and an impregnable stronghold for the protection and welfare of the peoples of the world... Should the lamp of religion be obscured, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness and justice, of tranquillity and peace cease to shine.”
It is in that context that one reads in the Riḍván 2009 Message references to the oppression throughout the world and reference to the fact that our purpose and the purpose of Bahá’u’lláh is to liberate humankind from the yoke of oppression.
What - we might ask - has oppression to do with the loss of religion? The answer is found in the Kitab-i-Iqan, where Bahá’u’lláh says:
What "oppression" is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it?
This is the ultimate oppression, not putting people in prison or driving them to become refugees to another country or depriving them of their human rights. The greatest oppression is that of a human soul yearning for the truth, yearning for the knowledge of God, not knowing where to go for it and from whom to seek it. There can be no greater oppression than that. This is the yoke of oppression, that Baha’u’llah has come to lift from mankind and that is what the Riḍván 2009 Message is all about.
Today we see the desperation of the search for truth and meaning. It takes its form in adherence to a variety of substitutes for true religion. For example, the rise of religious extremism and authoritarianism from religious leaders I would see as evidence of the decline of true religion.
Shoghi Effendi in Promised Day Has Come refers to the downfall of Islam, its loss of power and influence. How are we to evaluate that in terms of present day events which seem to indicate the very opposite, the resurgence of Islam, either Shi’a or Sunni, in a variety of countries of the world? I see that as evidence of the downfall, rather than the rise of Islam. Religious leaders have had to forsake spiritual influence for the naked exercise of power, often in its cruel and brutal form, in order to maintain their position and their authority.
Religious extremism, be it Christian, be it Muslim, be it Jewish, be it Hindu, or Buddhist, represents the decline of true religion and the onset of oppression.
The fermenting of hatred and division in the world, I see as an example of this oppression: trying to identify some external group to whom one can turn all one’s frustration, one’s anger, one’s venom, as part of achieving inner peace and satisfaction.
Another form of oppression I see is the search for instant meaningful solutions: the sense of hunger, the sense of something that is missed out on life, with the years going by, and translated into a search for an instant meaningful solution, which of course can give rise to break down in marriage and in society generally.
Indulging in extreme behavior to fill the spiritual vacuum, and maybe absorption in alcohol, involvement in narcotics or in promiscuity, or even deliberately seeking dangers in extreme sports, underlying that I see the oppression of a soul searching for meaning, looking for the truth, exactly as Baha’u’llah describes in Kitab-i-Iqan, and being driven by the desperation of that search to become involved in things we know are self destructive as well as unsatisfying to that need.
Another form of that oppression is the worship of idols. These are not idols of stone, wood or metal but political idols, entertainment idols, sporting idols. Look for example at the sentiments expressed in the world in the last few days with the untimely death of Michael Jackson. So much of what is being said has a quasi religious character: “Michael is not dead, Michael still lives, Michael will live on in his music”. Fans gather outside the gates of Neverland Ranch, flowers are put there, seventeen thousand people will go to the stadium on Tuesday for the commemorative service. He’ll end up like Elvis Presley, where you make a pilgrimage to Tennessee once a year, and so on.
With the worship of idols, we can of course very comfortably and very satisfactorily look down on the pathos of the behaviour being displayed but we can also recognize in it the desperation of search, of human beings like you and me who look for something to which they can devote their deepest feelings, something beyond themselves, driven by a sentiment that ultimately can only be satisfied by true religion. This search finds its present form in the worship of idols, including political idols, the quasi-religious sentiments with which charismatic political leaders are hailed when they first come to power and later the opposite occurs; the worship of sporting idols with the sense of devotion that normally is ascribed to religious practice. The absorption in irrational beliefs and theories represents yet another element of this oppression.
Why am I saying all this?
I’m saying this because I believe we, in our adherence to the precepts of the Riḍván Message should see that our devotion to the spread of the Bahá’í Faith is the fundamental solution to the declining process. We dwell on the nature of the declining process, as described vividly by Shoghi Effendi, not to become depressed, not to become discouraged, not to afflict each other with gloom and doom, but rather to find in the human suffering around us the motivation to serve the needs of the Cause, to contribute to the fulfillment of the present Five Year Plan and all the other elements to come in the future as part of advancing the process of entry by troops. We find motivation not only from the prayers, from the inspiration of the Writings, from the example and the encouragement of others, but also from the pictures on television of suffering, from what we know people are going through in Darfur, or Somalia, or Western Africa, or Cambodia, or other places.
In that we see a new energy to serve the needs of the Faith: they are directly correlated. It’s not an indirect correlation, how Bahá’í work aims fundamentally and directly at the relief of humanity from the decline.
As I’m sure you all know, service to the Faith is in many times inspiring, energizing and liberating, but let us also recognize that at times service to the Faith is tiring, frustrating, discouraging, and fraught with disappointment. It is part of the human condition and at such times our inspiration is drawn from the mission given to us to, as the Riḍván Message says, aid Bahá’u’lláh to lift the yoke of oppression from humanity.
The Nature of Civilization
The Riḍván 2009 message refers to the role of the Faith in “rebuilding a broken world”. Shoghi Effendi has referred to the present society in terms of the threat to the fabric of civilized life. He says:
If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it has been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation.
“The day is approaching” – he foreshadows - "The day is approaching when its [civilization's] flame will devour the cities...”
He refers to the future glorious destiny of mankind, but he asks the rhetorical question:
Must the inauguration of so vast, so unique, so illumined an era in human history be ushered in by so great a catastrophe in human affairs as to recall, nay surpass, the appalling collapse of Roman civilization in the first centuries of the Christian Era?
As you know the Roman Empire took about 400 years to collapse, it didn’t suddenly go bang, it declined and cracks appeared and then the whole thing progressively fell apart. Shoghi Effendi refers to the prospect of the present-day declining process leading to the fall of civilization, and in this case not simply in one part of the world, as in the Mediterranean world of Rome, but rather on a world scale. It’s worth our while taking a moment to review the fall of the Roman Empire. Much has been written about it, by a variety of authors extending back to Gibbon and Spengler, among others. But I’m interested in a couple of contemporary authors. Kenneth Clark, wrote a book titled “Civilization” and he referred to civilization as an entity that occurs at various times in history, and he said its nature is such that however complex and solid it seems it is actually quite fragile.
Those of you who recall the pictures on television at the time when hurricane Katrina afflicted New Orleans will have seen there a slight glimpse of the fragility of civilization, (although that was of course a temporary thing). Clark goes on to point out that the downfall of Roman civilization was due to a number of factors: the rise of fear, fear in the unknown, including fear of the mysterious supernatural; a lack of confidence in society, in philosophy, in laws and in one’s own mental processes, and in a decline in behavior, not so much in terms of immorality or promiscuity, but a lack of energy and vigor. Another of the most interesting studies of civilization is that of Radhakrishnan, the Indian philosopher and former Vice President of India who wrote a most entertaining book “Eastern Religions and Western Thought” in which as a non Christian he looked at that period of history with the fall of the Roman Empire and the ultimate rise of Christianity. He also ascribes a fall of the Roman Empire to be due to a variety of causes: greed and corruption. He refers to the growth of vast fortunes and widespread poverty throwing society out of balance, a most intriguing concept and phrase. And he summarizes what happened and said it was a period of disorder, the collapse of the higher intellectual life, the decline of righteousness, a time when philosophy failed, literature languished, and religion became rigid and superstitious.
We face the danger in our world of the collapse of civilization. We know that our religion aims to give rise to a world civilization. We know that it will come, an incontrovertible promise of Bahá’u’lláh, but the transition may well involve a massive and prolonged decline of civilization in its old form and the gradual rise of the new.
It seems to me that the Bahá’í Faith is, as far as I can tell, the first religion to self consciously see its ultimate purpose in the creation of a new civilization. My knowledge of history is limited, I’m an engineer, we don’t read books or anything like that, but it seems to me that when I look at, say, Christianity, the early Christians were bent on survival, bent on taking the glad tidings of the coming of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles as well as the Jews in the Mediterranean world and they succeeded. As Christianity developed so the Byzantine civilization arose. The early Arab followers of Muhammad gave no indication that they saw the glories of the civilization of Baghdad, Cordova, Damascus and Cairo in their future. It was initially a matter of eradicating paganism from their midst.
Our religion self consciously states from its various earliest days that its aim is to produce a new civilization and in that sense it formulates its strategy along those lines.
Let us say we had mysterious powers and we’re given a blank sheet of paper and told: - “Set out the requirements for making a new civilization”. And we think about it, consider what is a civilization, it’s obviously more than Palm Pilots and PCs, and things like that, there’s something much more fundamental to it.
How do you make a civilization?
A civilization involves a foundation of behavioral change through spiritual transformation. We can agree on that. A civilization depends upon certain moral and ethical, spiritual characteristics, but what else? What is the framework of the new civilization we are conceptualizing in this hypothetical example of given a blank sheet of paper and asked “please, set out a framework for a civilization”?
We would want to have certain things:
-We’d want an institutionalized practice of individual and community worship, for a variety of reasons
-We would want individuals comprising that civilization to engage in an exploration and application of divine teachings to daily life, so that we can build up a civilization in a reasonable and productive manner
-We would want civilized society to be imbued with a sense of altruism to the service of humanity. We don’t want selfish greedy people, but people who are altruistic, who think of the larger good.
-And essentially we would want them to transmit civilized values to the new generation of children and youth.
If you were to agree that those are the elements of the framework of a civilization then I must tell you, you have fallen into my trap, because what I have described are the elements of the core activities of the Five Year Plan. What I have referred to are things such as the devotional meetings, the institute process, study of the Ruhi Books, the focus on service to humanity, children’s classes, youth classes, the junior youth activities.
The point I make is that we are engaged, obviously in the spread of the Faith, in pursuit of the endeavors of the Five Year Plan and beyond, but far more than that we are establishing the roots of new civilization in our day-to-day activities of the present plan. This doesn’t mean that civilization will magically spring into being like the goddess Athena, rather it will come gradually, slowly, generation upon generation, decade upon decade, and century upon century, to realize its fruit in the Golden Age, but its roots are to be found in the activities of the present day at this time in history.
Handling Change in Religion
The Religions of the Prophetic Cycle
Let me now turn to my second point, in terms of underlying issues in the Five Year Plan. I want to draw your attention to the phenomenon of change in religion.
I want to offer you the assertion that all the religions of the Prophetic Cycle contain within them a basic contradiction: this doesn’t mean there was any deficiency in their Founder, but rather it was a evolutionary stage of human history. That contradiction I see in the fact that each of these religions had as a mission it accomplished very successfully, the liberation of the human spirit which produced creativity, innovation, invention and ultimately social evolution. And the contradiction arises from the fact that if you do that, the behavioral pattern prescribed at the beginning of the religion becomes out of date. That happens because the religion is successful: it produces civilization, produces creativity, produces change in behavior and the like, and so its initial behavioural principles, whether they’re given by the Manifestation, or by a group of clerics, become out of date.
This contradiction, then, produces division in the religious community. There is division between those who cling doggedly to authority and resist change: “Never mind. This was given to us by whatever either the church fathers, or the Founder of the religion Himself, we’ll continue to hold to it”, and so you get a dogged resistance to that change and ultimately fanaticism in defending the original form. And the other extreme we have those who embrace change, are at the cutting edge of society, who follow change, but of course they cannot agree on the authority: so you have the division in sects, the rise of Protestantism and the like, in terms of a commitment in change at the highly expensive price of a loss of authority; also there is a insecurity with that change. We see this in each religion.
In Islam we see it nowadays with the desperate attempts to recover the pristine spirit of Islam through a return to Shari’ a Law, and all the problems that brings. We see it in the attempts to return women to the relatively secluded life and lack of freedom which was characteristic of the early days of Islam, whether it was ordained by Muhammad or not is another question. We see also the attempt to restore the strictness of the dietary laws that were necessary in the early days of Islam. In all of these we see this tension.
In Christianity the same tension arises: the prohibition on divorce, applicable in the early days becomes a source of tension today; the church priestly authority, appropriate at the time when there was mass illiteracy, when one needed to turn to a leader or figure of authority, becomes another issue; and of course dietary laws. What is interesting is that Shoghi Effendi has referred to this tension and he says:
The cleavage between the fundamentalists and the liberals among their adherents is continually widening.
And he relates that to one of the facets of the declining process. A part of the decline is the increase in this tension between the two polarized extremes of these religious communities of the Prophetic Cycle.
Change in the Bahá’í Faith
We now come to the Bahá’í Faith. Obviously it must deal with change, and it must deal with it in two quite distinct, but somewhat related dimensions: one is legal and the other one is psychological.
Within the structure of Bahá’í Law the problem is straight forward: the authority Bahá’u’lláh conferred upon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and in turn upon the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice provides an impregnable stronghold for the legal authority to implement an appropriate degree of change. In the case of the House of Justice, the authority is given to implement change is quite fascinating, it has several components to it. They include:
- The right of the House of Justice to carry out progressive clarification and application of Bahá’í Law gives it authority to make change. For example Ḥuqúqu’lláh: it was around in the books for a long time, but it became universally applicable in 1992. There are a number of other laws in the Kitab-i-Aqdas not yet applicable, change will occur as the House of Justice decides to apply them.
- The right of the House of Justice to make and change subsidiary laws is also a legitimate application of the legal authority of the House of Justice to make change, obviously within the limits prescribed.
Shoghi Effendi has referred to the Faith as it developed in the future and he says:
“The Bahá'ís should not always be the last to take up new and obviously excellent methods, but rather the first, as this agrees with the dynamic nature of the Faith which is not only progressive, but holds within itself the seeds of an entirely new culture and civilization.”
And this right, the legal right of the House of Justice to make and change subsidiary laws is part of the apparatus of the Faith to remain progressive and at the forefront of cultural civilized change.
- The House of Justice is also given a remarkably broad authority, as stated in its Constitution; it has the right to found Institutions, to usher in the World Order of Baha’u’llah: this is an enormous degree of power and authority assigned to the House of Justice as its legal right in this religion.
Nevertheless it remains the challenge to the Bahá’í community to deal with the psychological dimension of change. I mention this because one tends to be secure if there is no change: one does the same old thing day after day, you do it in your sleep, you do it without even thinking, and everything is stable and comfortable. Change disturbs all that, and one just tends to be resentful of it: “this is not the way it used to be, I have very fond memories of childhood and the pattern of behaviour of that time.” Shoghi Effendi has in a number of places warned us of avoiding extremes. It tells us for example:
It is our primary task to keep the most vigilant eye on the manner and characteristic of the characteristic of the growth of the Faith,...lest extreme orthodoxy on one hand, and irresponsible freedom on the other, cause it to deviate from that Straight Path which alone can lead it to success.
And there are a number of other passages which deal with the same theme. There’s one of the House of Justice.
“In past Dispensations believers have tended to divide into two mutually antagonistic groups: those who held blindly to the letter of the Revelation, and those who questioned and doubted everything. Like all extremes, both can lead to error.
I mentioned this because one is more comfortable clinging blindly to the letter of the law:
- “Why are you doing this?”
- “Look, here it’s written black and white, read for yourself. It’s so clear!”
And yet we are warned to avoid the extreme of clinging blindly to the letter of the law, just as Shoghi Effendi warns us against extreme orthodoxy. And ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also of course warned us against this rigidity. In one place, this was a statement attributed to him, it’s in Star of the West, he says:
“Holding to the letter of the law is many times an indication of a desire for leadership. One who assumes to be the enforcer of the law shows an intellectual understanding of the Cause, but that spiritual guidance in them is not yet established.”
It’s quite a sobering passage from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
At every stage of the unfoldment of the Cause, where there has been change it’s been a test to the believers: my reading of Bahá’í history, is that the ministry of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, included actions which were a test to a number of the believers. It included His focus on the west - “there are still plenty of people around here to teach the Faith to, why worry about Canada or United States or Australia and other remote places?”
“We’ll get to them eventually”-; the Tablets of Divine Plan, a cause for the scattering of the friends all over the world, the setting up of organization in His Will and Testament.
These were a test to a number of devoted believers of that time. The same applies to Shoghi Effendi; his conduct was a test to some and of course the mist of history obscures this now, decades have passed; at that time there were a number of believers, sincere devoted believers, troubled by what Shoghi Effendi did. They didn’t become Covenant breakers, they did not doubt the validity of the Covenant, they were faithful believers, but they were troubled: “Why did he stop going to the mosque every Friday, when his grandfather, the perfect exemplar, had done that? Why did he adopt western clothes in contrast with his predecessors?” “Why from 1921 to 1937 did he focus on raising the Administrative Order? Was he not turning it into an organization rather than a dynamic spiritual free-from-constraint religion?” “Why did he call upon us to expel from the community those who flagrantly violated a Bahá’í law? Where was love? Where was forgiveness? Where was a sin covering eye?”.and so on “Why did he activate living Hands of the Cause and ultimately Auxiliary Board Members?” This was a very interesting strategy: initially the first ones were designated posthumously until we got a little more used to the concept and then the time came to appoint living individuals.
The House of Justice, in its conduct over the years has provided the same degree of test through change. Sincere, devoted, highly faithful believers were tested. When the House of Justice, in one of its first actions, combined the Eastern and Western pilgrims, I’ve talked to a number of people who were deeply tested by that. They remained faithful to the Cause, they remained devoted, but they were shaken by it. The decision that the Ḥuqúqu’lláh, in the absence of the Guardian, should come to the House of Justice was a test to many. The establishment of the Continental Board of Counselors tested a number of individuals who had some misgivings about appointed people and titles and all the rest of it, and then of course the Teaching Centre; the establishment of Regional Bahá’í Councils, even though the Constitution of the House of Justice has the right to found institutions, this was a test to the believers: “what will happen to the National Assemblies? Why was their power been taken? We got by very well without Regional Bahá’í Councils for decades, why do we need them now?” Etcetera.
The House of Justice far greater latitude than that, and I think if we would live for another century, we would see all kinds of changes in the future.
I dwell on this as my final point because the House of Justice in 1996 began a process of quite significant change and that change is a test to some sincere and devoted believers. The concept of clusters has been a challenge to some, not to everybody, but to some: “what about the LSA, are we going to forget about that? Shoghi Effendi gave us the LSA? Why do you need the cluster?”
The priority given to the core activities such as and the focus on the intensive and prolonged group study of the Ruhi books, has been a test to some: “it means we can’t have firesides? We can’t have deepening classes? What about all the things in the Writings? Is that all we have to study?” And the like.
The focus on Intensive Programs of Growth has been a test. The deeper involvement of the International Teaching Centre, the Counselors, and Auxiliary Board Members in the life of the community has been a test, not to disputative or contentious believers, but to a number of devoted believers who remember the old days, who remember when life was simpler: they went to Feast, we had a fireside, we went to deepening classes and occasionally did something else. Life was simple, life was straight forward, it was entirely comprehensible, and then along came this whole apparatus using words that do not appear in the Writings, as far as one can tell from earlier times: Cluster, Intensive Program of Growth, Core Activity and the like.
This is a challenge of change. It can be avoided very simply by allowing the Faith to remain static and to wither. We cannot do this, we have no choice, we have to build the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Things have to expand and develop in ways we cannot yet comprehend. This requirement of necessity is that change can and must occur if the Faith is to fulfill its ordained destiny and its future.
We must overcome any psychological barrier to change, any misgivings, any concerns and troubles. We must recognize that when there is change you get extremes. In this case the change since 1996 have produced in a few people a very colorful extreme: the accusation that the Ruhi material is only applicable to the Third World. This is very interesting, it’s very colorful, because when you open a Ruhi book what do you find there? The sacred Texts! The authoritative Writings.
If you look at Book 1, there are passages you can spend your life contemplating, just as devoted Christians have spent their lives contemplating the phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. Another extreme is the accusation that we are ignoring Assemblies, feasts, firesides, and deepenings; the false accusation that Anna’s presentation could be given by a parrot; these are an extreme distortion which reflect one’s unease and frustration at the change that has been brought about by the House of Justice.
The automatic equivalence in the minds of some between the House of Justice call to direct teaching, to present the coming of Bahá’u’lláh in more direct terms, based upon the condition of the world, based upon the spiritual hunger of mankind, trivialized and gravely distorted into a call for the universal application of door to door teaching. These are all expressions, to my mind, of the unease of capable and devoted believers who are struggling with change. Of course when you go to one extreme you get the other extreme, you get the criticism of those who are not involved in the Institute Process, extreme statements to not bother with the LSA or with firesides, the confusion between priority and exclusive, and so on.
This is the challenge we face and it’s inherent in the Riḍván 2009 Message. The solution is childish simple, the solution is so simple, it hardly worth mentioning. The solution is no more and no less than unreserved acceptance of whatever the central authority of the Cause, in this case the Universal House of Justice decrees.
If we would hold to that, if we would contemplate it deeply, if we would absorb the implications and meaning of unreserved acceptance and implementation of whatever the Central Authority in the Cause decrees we are safe. Nothing can trouble us, we are in an impregnable stronghold, and we would become part of this massive movement of humanity to rescue the world from the perilous disorder, the intense suffering of the declining process and to usher in the ordained new world civilization in the Golden Age of the Cause.