Our Response to 'Keeping the Faith 2.0' by the APPG on Faith and Society
At the UK Bahá’i Office of Public Affairs we’ve read your report “Keeping the Faith 2.0” with great interest. We wish to express our appreciation for your efforts and foresight in highlighting the vital role of Faith communities -- in particular, during the pandemic -- as one of the most valuable assets of society in the UK. Your initiative in establishing a Faith Covenant is a unique contribution, binding together diverse elements of society and achieving higher levels of functioning. Your report demonstrated how the pandemic served as an instrument to awaken the energies latent in Faith communities and how, through various partnerships, these energies were channeled for the betterment of local communities. Without the efforts of the APPG and the research it has commissioned these efforts may have gone undiscovered and the potential remained concealed. In our response, in addition to showing appreciation, we offer thoughts that we hope will keep these discoveries alive and assist in your continued efforts.
What you’ve pointed out in the “Keeping the Faith” report mirrors our observations from engagement in interfaith spaces and echoes our admiration for the tremendous contribution of Faith communities during the pandemic. The extent of the partnership between Faith communities and local authorities, however, only became apparent to us through the study of the APPG’s reports which we found inspiring and energizing. We hope to raise greater awareness of these efforts among local Bahá’i communities who, although small in size, reside within 1022 localities in the UK.
We can only agree that the societal partnerships you’ve mentioned must strengthen and identify further strategies to tackle post-pandemic challenges such as the cost-of-living crisis, work with migrants and refugees, and spread awareness of the climate crisis. The question remains how these partnerships should be maintained and enhanced. In section six of the report, there are a number of thought-provoking recommendations on principles and practices for post-pandemic partnership and we hope to share further reflections about those in this brief response.
Your work and the current series of reports resonate with us because, for the past few decades, Bahá’is worldwide have embarked on a learning process to build fortified and outward-looking communities, devoting considerable time and energy to learning how neighbourhoods and localities working together can bring about material and spiritual progress. More specifically, our office [under the aegis of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’is of the United Kingdom, an elected body of the UK Baha’is] has been mandated to define conceptual frameworks and discourses -- rooted in experience -- that contribute to the direction of this process. What follows is a humble offering of our observations and extracts from the modest Bahá’i experience in the UK and around the world.
The Three Protagonists and the Question of Trust
At its heart, the Faith Covenant proposes a collaborative process between two or many entities. Similarly, the functioning of the Bahá’i community has heightened our awareness about the importance of cooperation among three protagonists namely: the individual, the community, and the institutions. We understand that it is by strengthening their dynamic relationship that their “powers are combined and multiplied”. In this vein, we believe that your foresight and efforts to capture the learning and encourage local authorities to value those “hard-reached” lessons by maintaining engagement with Faith communities are of tremendous value. In the long term, these efforts could potentially foster an environment conducive to the adoption of new models of governance at the local level.
We recall how a decade ago a faith-inspired literacy project, organized by a group of youth from different backgrounds and designed to enable children from a deprived area, was discouraged by the local authority because of intolerant policies toward faith-based initiatives! At the heart of this experience was a lack of trust. Questions abound in an age of rapid technological advancement about why so many social problems persist. And we observe that, in that regard, our society suffers from a deficit of trust at all levels. Trust is a spiritual value, a prerequisite for any collaboration, and the cornerstone that binds society together, a theme which has featured strongly in your report.
Of course, words, however wise, aren’t automatically trusted, nor will they necessarily translate into fruitful action without essential training to develop spiritual, emotional, intellectual, practical skills and consciousness, applicable to social action projects. In your report, you refer to the term “spiritual capital” and its role in the production of other types of capital. In our experience, an effective training programme builds on spiritual principles to harmonise and develop capacities of group communication, consultation, planning, and the ability to carry out acts of service to society.
"There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonises that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures." ref
It is within this framework and understanding that the Bahá’i community has devised a series of educational programs from accumulated global learning, aimed at developing the spiritual capacity of individuals and communities to serve humanity at the grassroots. Intrinsic to this process is a close cooperation with other like-minded social actors who also desire to bring about meaningful change in the area where they reside. And it is with this understanding we support and affirm the development of a specific, value-based training program as one major element that would encapsulate the recommendations of the “Keeping the Faith 2.0” report. In time, the training program could be adapted and tailored to the exigencies of each local community. It is our observation that without such value-based training the process will follow a fraught and arduous path.
Another aspect of the Faith Covenant that captured our attention and could be an integral part of a training package, was the reference to the principle of “Freedom of Religion or Belief” which is uncommon in such discussions. In our experience, this universal right is one of the most difficult precepts to implement. A reality check and examination of whether there is a unified vision and understanding about this principle as part of the training material is vital for the smooth operation of any social action endeavor which involves both secular and Faith sectors.
Diversity and Inclusion
Leadership in the Bahá'í community, whether from individuals or institutions, entails empowering others to participate and enabling them to play their part. The importance of diversity and inclusivity in collaboration between Faith communities and local authorities is frequently mentioned. One criticism -- sometimes levelled at both religion and local government -- is the underrepresentation of women and youth. Yet it was reassuring to hear at the launch of your report that these groups must be given a seat at the table; not just after decisions have already been made, but during all stages of planning.
The Bahá’i Writings describe humanity as having “two wings — the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength the bird will not fly.” We believe that the role of women in society must be regarded as equal to men before true progress can be achieved. In practice, this requires genuine inclusion of women in the community work and collaboration your report describes, otherwise efforts towards development will be stunted.
The Bahá’i community also places particular emphasis on empowering youth and devoting time to understanding their role in bettering communities. The younger generations are commonly misunderstood and neglected in conversations about societal progress, but they have the energy, intellect, and time to be able to contribute significantly. In particular, with the advancement of internet activism over the last decade, youth are more aware and informed than ever on the important issues of our world. Children and teenagers have led the global movement on climate awareness by protesting and spearheading environmental clean-up projects that discourage littering and encourage more eco-friendly practices such as recycling and abandoning single-use plastics.
Faith groups and local authorities should make an effort to collaborate with today’s youth and harness their passion for positive change. A diverse range of age groups working together provides for mutual learning. Combining the energy of youth with the experience of their elders can only hasten collective advancement towards the more harmonious and unified society we all desire.
An overarching framework for action and communication
Throughout section 3 of your report, we noticed a reoccurring and common thread concerning the importance of communication for achieving multiple aims; from building trust to planning and achieving a cultural shift.
Bahá’is use a signature tool of consultation to conduct discussion, discourse, and administrative meetings. We engage within a cyclical process of action, reflection, and consultation in a humble posture of learning. Because this is a new era never experienced before -- as humanity stands at the threshold of its maturity -- no one has a blueprint for dealing with the extent of diversity we witness. Hence, transformation must occur simultaneously within human consciousness and the structure of social institutions through collective learning. The advantage of a cyclical process of consultation, action, and reflection is that one will be tolerant of mistakes without assigning blame, while each of us becomes the primary agent of our own development. In this process the Bahá’i community proposes a unique approach. If learning in action is to be the preferred mode of operation, the process of consultation needs to be fully appreciated. Whether concerned with analysing a specific problem, attaining higher degrees of understanding on a given issue, or exploring possible courses of action, cooperative consultation immeasurably aids the collective search for truth.
The consultative process enables universal participation and promotes an array of diverse points of view rather than the discussion succumbing to the influence of the most vocal or dominant. As all views are examined and understood, clarity is achieved. In this conception of the collective investigation of reality, truth is not a compromise between opposing interest groups as it is perceived and practiced, even in many democracies. Nor does the desire to exercise power over one another animate participants in the conversation. Together, all seek the power of unified thought, inspiration and action.
We end with the following extract from the Baha’i writings.
“Consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion, for the light of reality becomes apparent when two opinions coincide. A spark is produced when flint and steel come together. Man should weigh his opinions with the utmost serenity, calmness and composure. Before expressing his own views, he should carefully consider the views already advanced by others. If he finds that a previously expressed opinion is more true and worthy, he should accept it immediately and not wilfully hold to an opinion of his own. By this excellent method he endeavours to arrive at unity and truth. Opposition and division are deplorable… Therefore, true consultation is spiritual conference in the attitude and atmosphere of love. Members must love each other in the spirit of fellowship in order that good results may be forthcoming. Love and fellowship are the foundation.”