Excerpts from a paper by House of Justice member Paul Lample which he adapted in giving his plenary talk given at the 32nd annual conference of the Association for Bahá’í Studies – North America, 29 August to 1 September 2008. A link to the full text is available here.  Audio of the talk can be accessed from here.

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Learning and the Evolution of the Bahá’í Community

by Paul Lample

With regard to the harmony of science and religion, the Writings of the Central Figures and the commentaries of the Guardian make abundantly clear that the task of humanity, including the Bahá’í community that serves as the “leaven” within it, is to create a global civilization which embodies both the spiritual and material dimensions of existence. The nature and scope of such a civilization are still beyond anything the present generation can conceive. The prosecution of this vast enterprise will depend on a progressive interaction between the truths and principles of religion and the discoveries and insights of scientific inquiry. This entails living with ambiguities as a natural and inescapable feature of the process of exploring reality.”

(On behalf of the Universal House of Justice, letter to an individual, June 19, 1995.)

How do we Bahá’ís, with our diverse, sometimes conflicting, understandings of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings, collaborate to bring about the society that reflects His will? The answer will have to be found in learning, over time, to better understand the text and translate it into efficacious action consistent with its divine intent.

To expand the Faith, to build Bahá’í communities, to apply the teachings to address social concerns, to educate youth or children, to engage in scholarly study and research or to work in any other area for the progress of the Cause or the advancement of civilization provides opportunities for achieving a balance of study and action in which questions are raised, problems defined, and solutions attempted. By engaging in an ongoing conversation about how to understand the teachings and, simultaneously, an ongoing reflection on action about how to translate these teachings into reality, the Bahá’í world gradually learns how to contribute to the emergence of a civilization that reflects the oneness of humanity.

For, on the one hand, the teachings do not provide a recipe for the creation of a new world order, while on the other, there are certain principles, procedures, methods, and processes found in the Revelation must be properly implemented. There is not “one way” to do things, but, at the same time, we cannot indiscriminately support all activities and all methods.

Learning—consultation, action, and reflection on action in light of divine guidance—over the course of our lives and over the course of the dispensation is the means by which we find our way forward toward Bahá’u’lláh’s intended purpose for humanity. To speak of the need for learning is an acknowledgement that we are not perfect, we make mistakes, and we must learn to do things better over time. It is an appreciation that human knowledge is limited, and we must continually strive for a better understanding of the meaning and implications of the Revelation. It is also an acknowledgement that the Faith is organic, our responsibilities will evolve and capacities will develop over time, and we will act at ever higher levels of complexity and achieve greater results in the future. Without learning, our thoughts and actions are trapped in an endless circularity. The challenge is to grasp this learning process and use it to support systematic action—to learn how to learn.

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Construction of the Centre of the Study of the Texts

For decades, the Bahá’í world struggled with the problem of sustaining large-scale expansion. In the Four Year Plan, the Universal House of Justice focused attention on consciously cultivating a capacity for learning about growth, and by the year 2000, observed that it had taken root.

The culture of the Bahá’í community experienced a change. This change is noticeable in the expanded capability, the methodical pattern of functioning and the consequent depth of confidence of the three constituent participants in the Plan—the individual, the institutions and the local community. That is so because the friends concerned themselves more consistently with deepening their knowledge of the divine Teachings and learned much—and this more systematically than before—about how to apply them to promulgating the Cause, to managing their individual and collective activities, and to working with their neighbors. In a word, they entered into a learning mode from which purposeful action was pursued.(5)

The culture of learning that is emerging is characterized by dialogue rather than debate, by constructive experience at the grassroots level rather than elaborate planning from the top, by systematization rather than freneticism, by reflective refinement rather than derogatory criticism. It has proven effective in resolving long standing challenges that paralyzed the progress of the community. This paper will examine the learning process that is driving growth and will explore its implications for other areas of concern to the further development of the Bahá’í world. …

Shoghi Effendi explained that the growth of the Faith would involve three stages, beginning with a “steady flow” of fresh recruits that would be followed by entry by troops and, eventually, mass conversion.(12) Signs of the start of the second stage, marked by the entry of large numbers of new believers, were already evident in some countries in Africa and in Indonesia during the lifetime of the Guardian.(13) Starting in the late 1950s, and accelerating over the next three decades, campaigns of rapid enrollment unfolded whereby hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands entered the Faith quickly in country after country. Membership in several countries surpassed 100,000 believers, while in India, the number of believers surpassed two million.(14) Despite the success in obtaining new enrollments, however, no national community was able to achieve the appropriate balance between expansion and consolidation necessary to sustain the process of entry by troops.

In 1996, Bahá’í communities were, for the most part, small and inwardly directed. In some countries this was the result of the lack of effective teaching, and, in others, the lack of success in deepening the new believers who were enlisted in successive waves of teaching activity. The December 26, 1995 message of the Universal House of Justice that introduced the Four Year Plan “focused the Bahá’í world on a path of intense learning about the sustained, rapid growth of the Faith.” It drew on previous experience, but could only describe “in general terms the nature of the work that would have to be undertaken in meeting the challenges ahead.”(15)  By 2006, after a decade of learning, the House of Justice was able to describe a new pattern of action involving a coherent integration of activities for expansion, consolidation, and spiritual upliftment that were mutually reinforcing and which could be readily replicated in other areas. “The elements required for a concerted effort to infuse the diverse regions of the world with the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation,” it stated, “have crystallized into a framework for action that now needs only to be exploited.”(16) “The way forward is clear, and at Ridván 2006 we will call upon the believers to steel their resolve and to proceed with the full force of their energies on the course that has been so decidedly set.”(17)  The problem of sustaining large-scale expansion that stymied the Bahá’í world for almost four decades found a resolution in less than ten years.

The achievements of the Four Year Plan were attributed by the Universal House of Justice to a change in the culture of the Bahá’í community that resulted from a new capacity for learning. Learning drove progress across the entire decade, from the first efforts to establish training institutes at Ridván 1996 to the emergence of intensive programs of growth in certain clusters by Ridván 2006. What was the nature of this learning process? What were some of the specific lessons learned?

At the start of each Plan, and at Ridván and other strategic points during the decade, the Universal House of Justice provided guidance to the Bahá’í world based on its current level of development, summarizing what had been learned and accomplished, and outlining new directions and challenges… As the institute process was established in a cluster, the believers involved acquired the habit of gathering periodically in reflection meetings to study the guidance from the Bahá’í World Centre, consult on the progress of their area, share experiences, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their efforts, and try to discover more effective approaches. A steady stream of questions flowed to the Bahá’í World Centre, to which the Universal House of Justice would respond with clarifications or additional elucidation. The flow of guidance to all parts of the world resulted in the blossoming of new activity and in a flow of experience and insights from communities around the globe back to the Bahá’í World Centre. …

Learning about growth did not result in a simple formula for action. Rather, sacrifice and perseverance, critical thought, and constant valuation and revising of methods were required. In clusters where progress may have been stalled by one or more vexing challenges, it was often difficult to appreciate the accelerating movement of advanced clusters that was unmistakable from a global perspective. And invariably, obstacles would arise whenever the friends in a cluster advanced into new, uncharted areas of endeavor. Within a cluster, it was the daily struggle of individuals to grasp the Plan and act on it that drove progress. …

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The Seat of the Universal House of Justice, and entrance to the Centre for the Study of the Texts in foreground

While it is impossible to summarize all the lessons learned in the decade from 1996 to 2006, the following examples illustrate how various elements emerged and were combined to shape an integrated pattern of action that has proven its effectiveness in diverse settings worldwide.

• At the start of the Four Year Plan, the House of Justice observed that institutes “must offer courses both at a central location and in the villages and towns so that an appreciable number of believers can enter its programs.”(18)  No specific approach was described, however, for offering the courses at a distance. By 1998, as a result of the experience in one area, a practical approach was discovered involving the establishment of study circles, groups of some “six to ten believers in the towns and villages throughout the country, who will go through a series of basic courses together with a tutor.”(19)  Because of their proven effectiveness, study circles soon became a feature of institutes worldwide.

• In 2001, the House of Justice made reference to stages of community building and observed that “among the initial goals for every community should be the establishment of study circles, children’s classes, and devotional meetings, open to all the inhabitants of the locality.”(20) One year later, as a result of the experience gained by implementing these activities, the House of Justice observed an evolution in these activities that went far beyond what was originally envisioned:

Where a training institute is well established and constantly functioning, three core activities—study circles, devotional meetings, and children’s classes— have multiplied with relative ease. Indeed, the increasing participation of seekers in these activities, at the invitation of their Bahá’í friends, has lent a new dimension to their purposes, consequently effecting new enrollments. Here, surely, is a direction of great promise for the teaching work. These core activities, which at the outset were devised principally to benefit the believers themselves, are naturally becoming portals for entry by troops. By combining study circles, devotional meetings and children’s classes within the framework of clusters, a model of coherence in lines of action has been put in place and is already producing welcome results. Worldwide application of this model, we feel confident, holds immense possibilities for the progress of the Cause in the years ahead.(21)

• The experience with some twenty-five area growth programs in the Twelve Month Plan contributed directly to the specification of propitious conditions for the establishment of intensive programs of growth presented in the Five Year Plan. Yet in 2001, it was not possible to describe the specific nature of an intensive program of growth, but only to clarify some desirable conditions and outline general principles. “Success will depend on the manner in which lines of action are integrated and on the attitude of learning that is adopted,” the House of Justice wrote. “At the core of the program must lie a sound and steady process of expansion, matched by an equally strong process of human resource development,” it further explained. “A range of teaching efforts needs to be carried out, involving both activities undertaken by the individual and campaigns promoted by the institutions.”(22)

By the midpoint of the Plan, the features of the intensive program of growth emerged from experience and, by its end, they could be clearly defined… While, in 2001, it was not possible to describe an intensive program of growth, by the start of the new Plan in 2006 they were well understood and a goal was established to multiply their number to more than 1,500 worldwide.

While these examples provide some insight into the progress made, a number of problems also arose… In the effort to establish a culture of learning, it is difficult to escape the pull of old patterns of behavior. …

Some countries struggled for years to have their institute become fully operational and to integrate training with systematic growth. The initial implementation of the sequence of courses and the translation of new skills into action was often wooden and awkward. Out of a desire to apply the guidance “correctly,” there was a tendency in isolated cases to go to extremes… Among some of the specific problems that arose were the following:

• Study circles, initially intended as a means to provide institute courses to individuals in their communities proved to be attractive to those who were not Bahá’ís but were interested in studying the teachings. As many of these individuals accepted the Faith, often after studying one or two books, it was realized that study circles could be tools of teaching as well as training. Some mistakenly concluded, however, that Bahá’ís were being told to abandon firesides or other teaching methods and replace them by study circles. To a query on this matter a letter written on behalf of the House of Justice responded:

To call upon the Bahá’í world to focus its energies on a certain set of activities at a particular stage in the unfoldment of the Divine Plan does not in any way diminish the importance of other endeavors. . . . While it is highly desirable to include seekers in study circles wherever possible, the individual believer retains the inescapable duty to teach the Faith on his or her own initiative.(26) …

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Participants at the 32nd annual conference of the North American Association for Baha’i Studies meet in a break-out session. The conference was held in San Diego.

(Emphasis added. Photos Copyright Bahá’í international Community – view here, here and here.)