Bahá'í Notions of Social Change

May 19, 2008

I now return to the second theme, the social theme, that I mentioned in a recent post responding to WorldChanging's Neighborliness, Innovation and Sustainability. In that previous posting, I hinted at link between Alex Steffen's emerging viewpoint on social change and the paradigm promoted by the Bahá'í teachings, and I'd like to start exploring that paradigm.

In the Neighborliness essay, Steffen writes,

"Bright green lives will not look like the lives we live today. That doesn't mean that they'll be less attractive. On the contrary. If we do it right both our quality of life and our measurable prosperity may increase dramatically. Showing how and why this can happen is one of my major obsessions at the moment.

But there is a side to this transition which is less science than art: understanding how we can reconnect with one another and our better selves."

However, as we change those systems, we're going to have to embrace new ways of pleasurably re-establishing the reality of interdependence in people's minds. We need to remind people how to be good neighbors, how to build friendships, how to share, how to see their enlightened self-interest in public goods, how to be a good citizen.

Steffen approaches sustainability from a humanist viewpoint. You will not find mention of religion anywhere on the WorldChanging site, and my occasional comments touching on religion go ignored by other users. That's fine. Nevertheless, it is clear to me that he is converging on the community ideals that the Bahá'ís have been promoting for more than a century. You see, Bahá'ís believe that religion at its best is exactly this art of "reconnect[ing] with one another and our better selves."

In some religions, one can find a war of ideas, pitting individual versus community "salvation." The Bahá'í teachings do not leave room for a war of ideas — because they very clearly promote both aspects. The writings of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá are replete with passages guiding individuals in themselves, guiding individuals within society, and providing direction to society and institutions. Regarding the communal / social aspect, 'Abdu'l-Bahá writes

"The happiness and pride of a nation consist in this, that it should shine out like the sun in the high heaven of knowledge. "Shall they who have knowledge and they who have it not, be treated alike?" [Qur'án 39:12] And the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world's multitudes should become a source of social good. Is any larger bounty conceivable than this, that an individual, looking within himself, should find that by the confirming grace of God he has become the cause of peace and well-being, of happiness and advantage to his fellow men? No, by the one true God, there is no greater bliss, no more complete delight." (The Secret of Divine Civilization, p2)

In a position statement on eradicating violence against women and girls, the Bahá'í International Community writes, "... Alongside critical changes in the legal, political and economic architecture slowly taking shape, the development of individuals' moral and spiritual capabilities is an essential element in the as yet elusive quest to prevent the abuse of women and girls around the world." They then go on to describe this "moral and spiritual" development process in greater detail, touching again upon this dual nature of salvation:

"The idea of promoting specific morals or values may be a controversial one; too often in the past such efforts have been associated with repressive religious practices, oppressive political ideologies and narrowly defined visions of the common good. However, moral capabilities, when articulated in a manner consistent with the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and aimed at fostering the spiritual, social and intellectual development of all persons, represent a key element of the kind of transformation required for a non-violent society to take shape. Moreover, such capabilities must be anchored in the central social and spiritual principle of our time - namely the interdependence and interconnectedness of humanity as a whole. The goal of moral development, then, is shifted from individualistic notions of 'salvation' to embrace the collective progress of the entire human race. As our understanding of the world's social and physical systems has evolved to embrace this paradigm, so too must we develop the moral capabilities required to function ethically in the age in which we live."


I hope to continue this thread in future posts, albeit with a divergence from the explicit WorldChanging theme.

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