Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Creating Communities in Exile

As many of you know, I have come to a place where I've been seeking ways to create real-life community among liberal and alienated Baha'is, without falling into the schismatic trap of creating an alternative "Baha'i Faith" -- which I pretty much view as an unworkable dead-end. But what I'm seeing out there, as a product of natural evolution, are groups that are both strongly oriented towards the spiritual and mystical teachings of the Faith, that are inclusive in their approach, and local in their reach. All it really takes is for someone who wants such a group is to contact like-minded people, whatever their "official" Baha'i status, within driving distance and set up meetings.

And there are all kinds of people who would be interested in such an approach: Unenrolled Baha'is, inactive Baha'is, ex-Baha'is who are still inspired by the Writings of Baha'u'llah, non-Baha'is who investigated the Faith, but were dissuaded from signing a card by some of the more authoritarian aspects of the Faith. The fundamentalist strain in the community has left a lot of disappointed people in its wake -- it really is just a matter of finding them, which can be a daunting task, I'll admit, but it can be done.

In some ways, conditions within the Faith has made such a development inevitable. I cannot be expected to forever hang around the edges of a religious community that has made it abundantly clear that it doesn't want me, or people like me, within its ranks. It kicks people out that think like I do, declaring us unqualified to be on the rolls of the Baha'i Faith. So, what's a lover of Baha'u'llah to do? One thing that fundamentalists always do is underestimate the commitment and depth of feeling on the part of religious liberals -- that's true no matter what religion you're talking about. We are expected to just drift away, since after all, we are assumed not to really take religion seriously anyway.

And, you know, I don't think that the Baha'i administration will be all that much bothered by this development -- assuming that such groups do not recruit aggressively and don't have an excessive focus on the flaws of the mainstream. At least, such groups have gone pretty much unnoticed or have been ignored, so far. The fears that were around in the late 90s, that Baha'i liberals would be named as covenant-breakers and shunned by their fellows, has not materialized. It seems to regard the problem as solved by liberals either leaving voluntarily, or being deprived of membership. The administration appears to be virtually asking us to create our own kind of community, since it sees us as being unqualified to be among "real" Baha'is.

It just took a while, I think, for that message to really sink into our heads. We are Baha'is, after all, and we really do believe in unity. It has been hard for us to accept that what the administration means by that word, and what we always thought it meant, are as different as night and day.


Anonymous said...

Hi Karen,


And there's nothing to stop us teaching aggressively as well. After all, teaching is a Baha'i duty and we can't let the administration's folly stop us fulfilling what Baha'u'llah requires of us. The people we come into contact with will decide for themselves if they want to officially join the community or not. The most important thing is that people learn about Baha'u'llah.


Anonymous said...

Dear Karen,
My wife and I were discussing this same issue last summer. I appreciate your comments. They give me a little hope. Do you have any suggestions for those of us who live outside of the major population centers? With a 20% retention rate, I know that there are four times as many ex-Baha'is as Baha'is, and half of the Baha'is are unhappy. That means we theoretically have a nine to one numerical advantage over the fundamentalists, but in the empty red states of middle america we are still few and far between.

Karen said...

Dear friend,

That's a tough one -- and something that stymied me for a long time. After all, the rural northern California area where I live is as "red state" as Middle America, with Baha'is just as widely scattered. I thought for a long time that I'd just have to make do with the Internet as my main contact with Baha'is, but over time I grew disatisfied with that, for a number of reasons.

I've really just begun working on this, as a project -- and I can't guarantee success. But, it's really just a matter of contacting people. For me that means a combination of old Baha'i friends who I know are alienated, and folks I've met on the Internet who live in the area.

Also, Alison's spiritual approach should not be discounted. As I understand it, she started with a commitment to holding a "mashriq" (worship service), even if she was the only one doing it -- and now she has a worship community going with regular prayer meetings that even advertises in the local newspaper!

'Abdu'l-Baha' says that the place we first build the mashriq'u'l-adhkar is in our own hearts.

Right now, all I have is a dream, hope in my heart, and a handful of friends, but Alison's example shows that it can be done. And one can't give up without at least trying.

I think the key thing is to keep a proper spiritual focus, rather than on what has hurt us in the Baha'i Faith. A group that focuses on "they done us wrong" isn't going to have a broad appeal -- and the only way any kind of alternative is going to survive is if it is attractive to people. One approach is not to require Baha'i adherence out of people who show up for these worship meetings, making it more of an interfaith kind of thing. Do Baha'i spirituality, but also be open to other forms, in a spirit of sharing.

If you'd like to make more Internet friends, you are welcome to join my support group, Unenrolled Baha'i.

Love, Karen

Anonymous said...

Hi Karen,

I'm also concerned like you about forming a de-facto schismatic group, which I would see as quite a negative thing.

What do you think about the example of Methodism? As I understand, it originated as a movement within the Church of England looking to revive the church. It started having its own meetings, but still encouraging members to go to the main church on Sunday; eventually its own meetings evolved into a church and hierarchy of its own - a defacto schism. How do we avoid doing the same?

Karen said...

Dear Andrew,

The short answer to that question is "I don't know." There's no way to predict, once something gets started what direction it will take -- groups tend to take on a life of their own, regardless of the intentions of the people that start them, as your example of Methodism shows. Certainly, nothing that I would be involved in would have the kind of control mechanisms that the Baha'i Faith does. I think heirarchy would be avoided by the fact that the discussions that have been happening about this envision more of a broad, spirituality-focused group rather than a religious sect. But there are no guarantees; any group will be what the members make it. There won't be anything at all, unless individuals are willing to step forward and do the actual work of putting it together.

But it comes down to a choice: Alienated Baha'is can either live without religious community, except what contact they can get on the Internet, or they can take the risks involved in creating community for themselves. It's not a good choice to have to make, but then it's a bad situation in the Faith that's forcing us into this position.

Anonymous said...

Dear friends,

Although I sympathize with the issues that are being raised here, I feel that they are being extended way beyond actual proportions. There may have been some things said by people that have offended us or caused us to feel unwanted. But in reality it is only a false condition that we are creating. It took me some time to realize that problems like this in my life as a Baha'i have only been caused by a mistake or non-tactful approach made by someone else. That is an issue that everyone is working with, including ourselves. Some of the things we have written here may seem just as hurtful to some people as the things which have been directed to some of us. The entire approach of an "us" and "them" mentality is absolutley frowned upon in the Baha'i teachings. I am very suprised that anyone would even use the words "fundamentalist" or "conservative" or "liberal" in relation to the Baha'i Faith. We should be ashamed. I am very shocked by this because I think that some of us who feel secluded by some Baha'is or some elements in the Administration should realize that it is not the Institutions themselves or the Baha'i community itself, but just ordinary people who have a lot of growth and learning ahead of them. For us to call ourselves "liberal" just shows how what we are saying is not much better itself. We ourselves have much learning to do. Among other things, I have seen the Institute Process make great improvements to our community. Its purpose is to unite people and to facillitate those 'learnings' to take place. I suggest that we all work together, that there be no more name calling and no more hard feelings. The message of Baha'u'llah is at least worth this much, if not more. What is Baha'u'llah's Faith worth to you?


Anonymous said...

I just ran into your blog as I was searching for a link between Al Gore and Baha'i Faith. Just as a note of caution to whoever reads your blog is that Baha'is in no way can affiliate with any political group, as it creates dissunity. From my glance at your blog it looks like your voting rights were taken away, which may have been a mistake or not. However, nowhere in the Baha'i writings are we encouraged to isolate ourselves from the Baha'i community. After all, how can any of us complain about what the Baha'i community did or did not do to our benefit, when Baha'u'llah Himself was poisoned by His half-brother, and still Baha'u'llah treated him with love at all times? AS Abdu'l Baha states, a man can be knowledgeble in the Baha'i writings all he can, meditate or be pensif all she wants, and what counts in God's eyes is his/her deeds. And instigating agroup against another is not a godly DEED. Nor is it complaining. As Abdu'l Baha said, when a thought of hate or war arises, opose it with a stronger thought of love/peace.
May Baha'u'llah's light guide you and your blog group, since it seems you very much need it because this group is formed of Covenant breakers, since there is only one way to be a Baha'i, and that is to partake in the Baha'i coummunity with love and unity, and living your egos at the door.