Recently, a gathering took place in which friends from diverse backgrounds, ages, geographies, and experiences came together to explore participation in discourse. Coherence, it seemed, was the key.
The weekend began with a study of a message of the Universal House of Justice dated 4 January 2009, which encourages examination and conceptualization of the community’s work in terms of three broad area of action – “enabling the protagonists of collective effort to strengthen the spiritual foundations of villages and neighbourhoods, to address certain of their social and economic needs, and to contribute to the discourses prevalent in society”. All of these efforts require coherence in methods and approaches, something that was implicitly, as well as explicitly, explored during the weekend.
Next, a message dated Ridvan 2010 was studied, particularly the paragraphs regarding “two interconnected, mutually reinforcing areas of activity: involvement in social action and participation in the prevalent discourses of society.” Though the content was overtly about social action as a field of endeavor, under a framework of coherence the same concepts and principles are easily applied to discourse. For instance, discourse, too, requires efforts to draw on insights from Revelation as well as tap into the accumulating knowledge of the human race; involves the application of the teachings of the Faith toward improvement of some aspect of society, keeping in mind a dynamic coherence between the material and spiritual requirements of life; is built upon the principle that access to knowledge is a right of all human beings; fosters universal participation in the generation, application, and diffusion of knowledge; is not the provision of insights and principles, but is concerned with building capacity to apply and reflect upon the application on concepts; is not a series of conversations one group of people does for others, but includes insights and perspectives from all; is founded on the immutable conviction that every human being is a mine rich in gems of inestimable value and can contribute to discourse.
While coherence was explicitly the topic of discussion, as demonstrated by the Ridvan 2010 and 4 January 2009 messages, the structure of the weekend sought to be implicitly coherent in approaches and methods with, say, what has been learned from the institute process. In efforts of community building all throughout the world – through “meetings that strengthen the devotional character of the community; classes that nurture the tender hearts and minds of children; groups that channel the surging energies of junior youth; circles of study, open to all, that enable people of varied backgrounds to advance on equal footing and explore the application of the teachings to their individual and collective lives” – Baha’i communities are learning about how to “raise capacity within a population to take charge of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development”. One of the methods and approaches toward this end is that all participate in the generation of insights. Reality is multifaceted, and therefore a sincere investigation of reality, or truth, requires the harmonization of diverse perspectives from all. In fact, the culture of protest that has come to characterize much of political activity is a predictable reaction to lack of ability to voice opinions in political decision-making processes, a clear injustice – for justice demands universal participation. A weekend gathering regarding discourse used the same participatory method and approach as has been learned from institute campaigns and study circles.
Another principle that this first area of endeavor – community building – is founded upon is the wedding of study and service. True education is the process of revealing the gems latent within all human beings so that mankind can benefit therefrom. Study and service. Neither is effective without the other. In such a short period of time, such as a weekend, study becomes the overwhelming emphasis. Yet, multiple times were participants asked to each one voice an insight through their subjective mind to enrich the collective understanding. And on the last day, individuals and pairs presented insights from specific-subject discourses that they had studied that morning, each presenting something unique that others didn’t have a chance to study.
By all accounts, the result of this coherence was highly energizing. These participants, who had been used to attending lectures and presentation, who considered the norm a 50 minute talk with 10 minutes for irrelevant Q&A, and who felt that they needed to muster up energy for any conference since all collective activity was draining, all verbalizing feeling charged by the end. Clearly, the galvanizing effects of participation in collective knowledge generation coupled with such a simple act of service as sharing insights with others was evident. Participants left animated and inspired to share their understandings of the conceptual framework they studied.
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At a foundational level, all areas of endeavor – whether a grassroots educational process aimed at the spiritual empowerment of large numbers, involvement in social action projects seeking to raise capacity, or participation in public discourses and humbly offering one’s perspective illumined by the Faith – are built upon conversations. It follows, then, that all the conversations we are having in these diverse areas and fields must be characterized by a high degree of coherence. In fact, in this way, the methods, approaches, principles, and framework will be more naturally coherent.
Coherence entails reflection on what we are learning about “meaningful and distinctive conversations” in the area of community-building, where we are seeking out receptive souls “who are willing to engage in a conversation about the world around them,” in order “to undertake with them an exploration of reality that gives rise to a shared understanding of the exigencies of this period in human history and the means for addressing them.” If we are striving for coherence across all three fields of endeavor, then the nature of our participation in the discourses of society will share some of the same qualities as conversations we are learning to have in our community building efforts.