Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Year 2000 in the Baha'i Consciousness

I've been wondering lately at the role of the passing of the year 2000 has had on the increasingly sectarian attitude of the Baha'i Faith in recent years. To me, there has been a dramatic shift in emphasis from the Baha'i Faith as a universal religion that would embrace the whole of humanity, to the current viewpoint that it is a religion with very specific beliefs, and if you don't go along, then you should just get the hell out of Dodge.I never ran into this latter attitude until I came onto the Internet, and since then, things have gotten worse. Enrollments are at their lowest point in decades, and those who question the current direction the community is taken get into trouble -- as in this example. People are not becoming Baha'is, and longtime Baha'is are either leaving or becoming active. The astounding part of it is that the administration doesn't care! No longer are we reciting the mantra of "Entry by Troops" being around the corner; there is much more open concern about making sure that those who remain in the Faith has a particular, generally fundamantalist outlook, and those who don't share that are either silenced or pushed out. And, the administration just seems to think that it's a good thing for the Faith to shake out as much of what they regard as dead wood as possible.
Anyone who came into the Baha'i Faith before the mid-'90s was given a particular vision of the near future: Within the 20th century, mankind would be faced with an apocalyptic Calamity that would be so terrible that the nations of the world would recognize the necessity for a world government, and create the political arrangement called "the Lesser Peace" by Baha'u'llah. This deadline is based, apparently, on oral statements by 'Abdu'l-Baha', and from what I understand, the word he used does not literally mean "century" but is vaguer, more like "era" or "age".
Anyway, as late as the early '90s, Baha'is would speak of this as if it were a near-certainty. Not only ordinary Baha'is, but highly placed officials, like Peter Khan, who gave a talk on the subject -- I have the tape. He was discouraging an over-emphasis on apocalyptic speculation, while at the same time, taking it for granted that the Lesser Peace would arrive by the year 2000. The whole plan to finish the buildings on the Arc in on Mt. Carmel was based on something Shoghi Effendi said, that the completion of these buildings would coincide with the Lesser Peace, so there was a great drive to have that done before the end of the century. (They didn't make it; there's still one building left to go, and the spot is owned by someone else.) There were Baha'is who gave money to this effort, believing that they were somehow hastening the arrival of world peace by doing so.
These hopes gradually fizzled out as the last decade of the century progressed, and by the time 2000 came, it seemed that no one was talking about it any more. I guess the UHJ wrote a letter about it, but for the most part, this expectation that loomed so large in the Baha'i consciousness just sort of disappeared. No big crisis of faith, no big disappointment; it was just gone. What I'm wondering is what other hopes have been taken along with it.
As I mentioned, the expectation of "entry by troops" i.e., large numbers of converts, has largely disappeared. Things have been stagnant too long for even the most hard-headed fundamentalist to believe it anymore. The number of LSAs in the U.S. declined from a peak of 1750 in 1985, to just above 1100 in the mid-90s -- and it was explained away by a change in election requirements. Once upon a time, the preservation of these assemblies was a big priority, and a loss would have been considered a major disaster, but now, it's no big deal. People are leaving, and it's no big deal. It's as if the universal vision of the Baha'i Faith is gone completely, replaced by a view of Baha'is as a kind of spiritual elite with a lock on the truth. I can't help wondering if extending the expectation of the Lesser Peace into the distant future has contributed to that. We aren't really trying to bring in mankind anymore; the administration would rather have a handful of ideologically correct Baha'is than deal with the inevitable mess having a diversity of people within the Faith would bring. All the rage is the Ruhi program, which is meant to program people into the proper views, and expectations for growth are put off until each community has completed a certain amount of that program. The number and extent of these classes is now being kept track of, as a record of progress, just like the numbers of LSAs once were. It seems that they don't want converts until they are sure that those who are currently believers have adopted a fundamentalist view of the Faith, and the expectation is that they will bring in new believers who have a similar outlook. Gone is the outreach to freethinking, liberal "seeker" types, for whom they have a considerable degree of contempt; at least one NSA member is encouraging Baha'is to give up on that type and teach Christian fundamentalists. He says that the liberal types haven't responded to the message, but that's not true -- they *did*, once upon a time. The real issue is that the administration wasn't happy with that kind of convert, once they got them.

7 comments:

Baquia said...

Karen,

Actually, a lot of Baha'is are now denying that there was any expectation or specialness in the arrival of the millenium!

I kid you not.

I talked to a Counsellor who said with a straight face that no one had said anything about the year 2000 or that it had any significance.

And when I probed asking about the Arc projects and how they were to be paired with the arrival of the Lesser Peace and entry by troops he told me that the Lesser Peace and ETB are a 'process' (really drawing the word out) and not an event.

[Maybe later on they will claim that it didn't happen because the Int'l Baha'i Library wasn't built!]

So taking the challenge, I'm putting together all the explicit references to the millenium or the year 2000 (from Abdu'l-Baha, the UHJ and other authoritative sources) and will hopefully put it on my blog in a short while.

Karen said...

Oh, geez -- it's like the "memory hole" in *1984*, where history is erased and it is claimed that current policy always existed.

Be sure you get the Ridvan letter that launched the Arc project -- that clearly linked the Arc to the Lesser Peace. I think it was 1992 or 1993.

One could practically write a book on the changing millennial expectations of Baha'is -- expectations which varied dramatically as the century passed.

I was never into the whole prophetic fulfillment thing. I thought that it was just a set-up for failure to put too much weight on it -- not to mention a distraction from more important matters. Besides, it wasn't as if 'Abdu'l-Baha' put a huge amount of emphasis on it, either; I'm not sure even where his prediction of world peace "in this century" comes from.

But that Haifa makes policy based on prophecies like these is just a fact. The policy of discouraging Baha'is from leaving Iran is another example; they repeat over and over again that they expect Baha'is to be important in whatever regime follows the current one. And this is more important that getting Baha'is to where they can live somewhere in safety.

Sercxu said...

I presume the NSA member you're talking about is Dr. David Young, whose "Teaching Christians Effectively" workshops have proliferated. Funny thing; I took one of the early workshops from him, and in a conversation with a friend of mine he confided that his biggest challenge in serving on the NSA was other NSA members. Sort of a variation on the notion that one's biggest challenge as a Baha'i is other Baha'is.

Personally, I don't see any future in teaching fundamentalist Christians (or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or Sikhs or ???) There's just no way a Baha'i will have the kind of knowledge of scripture necessary to convince them (most Baha'is know very little about the religions they claim to be the fulfillment of), and anyway, we'd be better advised to talk to those whose life lacks a spiritual focus. Just my 2 mithqals...

As for millenial expectations, anyone with an ounce of sense should have realized nothing was going to be happening around the year 2000. The history of religion is rife with examples of those who thought the world was coming to an end, or Jesus was returning, or world peace was going to break out like spring wildflowers after a hard rain. Whether you're talking about the Millerites in 1843, or the Mormons around the end of the 19th century, or any other group you'd care to name, the pattern has consistently been the same: a reinterpretation by the leadership of the relevant scriptures/revelations, retrenchment, and an increased focus on obedience to the leadership or to the sacred writings. Why should we expect the Baha'i Faith to be any different?

In the end, I think the problem is this: human history isn't dependent on the Baha'i Faith. We may think it is, and it may be true that following the principles laid down by Baha'u'llah would make the world a better place, but the planet will move on with or without us. If we were focused on things spiritual, we would realize this isn't a bad thing--it can keep us humble and prayerful. However, we're sometimes so intent on the political-economic aspects of Baha'i theology that we forget that in the end, it's all about God, and He's going to see things through regardless--and if we persist in our obstinacy, He may find someone else to move things along.

Eric said...

I clearly remember Robert Henderson, of the USA's NSA speaking to a large group and making reference to the world peace by 2000 idea. This was probably at the international youth conference in Bloomington, Indiana in 1988 or else it was in 1989 when I was a volunteer at the National Center in Wilmette.

I remember him saying, "we know it is coming" and than something to the effect that we know it is coming because Baha'u'llah (or, he should have said 'Abdu'l-Baha) said it would.

As a younger Baha'i youth I had also believed in "Lesser Peace by 2000" idea (found in earlier editions of Baha'u'llah In The New Era), but by 1988 I had decided that when 'Abdu'l-Baha spoke of peace being firmly established by the end of "this Century" he meant "firmly established" the same way he meant "already built" when he said the Baha'i Temple near Chicago was already built when the cornerstone was laid down.

I remember the Henderson statement so well because at the time I was amazed that this man that I respected and loved so much (and I still have some respect and love for him, although it has diminished as I have become more familiar with his character) could have such a ridiculously literal interpretation of 'Abdu'l-Baha's words *and* share it with a big crowd with such an air of certainty. I remember discussing the "Lesser Peace by 2000" prophesy with some other Baha'i youth later that evening, and the consensus among us was that many literally-minded Baha'is would have a tremendous crisis of faith when 2000 came around and the Lesser Peace was not "firmly established" (except metaphorically, perhaps).

Well, 2000 has come and gone, and those who like to understand things literally remain in the faith and remain in positions of high service. Their strengths and abilities clearly lie in areas other than prophetic interpretation and use.

Anonymous said...

I personally would like to re-read the book "Peace by the Year 2000' which clearly led Baha'is to the assumption that something was going to happen about 2,000. I think everyone believed that the year 2,000 would bring something and that when it didn't all were surprised but we just keep on and like Noah if nothing happened just keep serving. The problem now is to get that sense of 'urgency' instilled into Baha'is again. Now there is no clear vision and goal anymore then how do they get Baha'is to work their butts off anymore or feel a sense of urgency anymore. I think this is the real dilemma. If it's a process and nothing really depends on us then we can take our time. So a goal which inspired a lot of sacrifice and hope has been lost and replaced with a vague 'process' which is not inspiring. I think the Ruhi Course is now what is being used to try and stimulate. But lost is the beautiful vision of the Lesser Peace replaced with studying a course. Entry by Troops was 'just around the corner' when I became a Baha'i and it still is now but in reality no-one knows which corner or when and so is there any need to rush around frantically anymore?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting analysis. I am one of those who have left. I was born into a Baha'i family, and grew up studying, reading, and learning. The stories of the turn of the year 2000 and the lesser peace, the idea of cataclysm and catastrophe were the stories and ideas I grew up with. In my memory, there was not a single Baha'i who didn't talk about this and use it as a way to bring in converts.

Although my reasons for leaving are complex, a contributing factor was the decades of insistence on these prophecies and a clear lack of preparation for the potential that they might not.

My experience in leaving the faith after finding answers to my questions elsewhere was even more troubling. Vitriolic tirades about Baha'is having the only truth were common. For a religion that talks of tolerance, I found none.

Even so, I truly see the Baha'i Faith as a phenomenal path for some people. It has much to offer, but this focus on prophesy was a clear problem. The lack of tolerance for people as they are is a second. The view of members of other religions as potential converts, not as genuine, valid followers of valid spiritual paths is yet again problematic.

Anonymous said...

Hi Baquia:
It's curious that Baha'ideny that the beginning of the Lesser Peace wasn't predicted in 2000.
Here I published a rip off from the BBC documentation "The Quiet Revolution" in 1984,where a high member of the UHJ testifies that and without any link to the Baha'i Library. Sadly it's in German synchronisation, but I'm sure,there are tapes of the original English version around.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukJvBaomu3U