`Abdu’l-Bahá, from the Bahá’í Writings.
September 22, 2013. The Association for Baha’i Studies (ABS) has promoted Baha’i scholarship for 37 years. The ABS Special Interest Groups (SIGs) – one of them being the ABS Science and Religion SIG – have been an important part of this promotion of scholarship for many of those years.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about what the ABS Science and Religion SIG might do to respond to the challenges raised by the Universal House of Justice in its recent letter to National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada. This week I look at what our past experience tells us about how we might address those challenges.
A Short History of the ABS
I have been an active member of the ABS for 25 of its 37 years with a special focus on science and religion. In 1987, Payam Mavedatt and I organized the ABS Science and Religion Special Interest Group (SIG) in 1987 with the help of Dr. William Hatcher and several other friends. In Asia, several of us started the Association for Baha’i Studies Japan in 1991 and I served as a board member until 1999. After returning to the states in 2000, I was active as a board member of the Northern California Association for Baha’i Studies in the 2000 – 2005 time frame and then of the Association for Baha’i Studies itself for several years. What this means for this discussion is that I have participated in – and helped organize – a lot of ABS activities, and have seen what has been tried, what has been successful, and what hasn’t been successful.
ABS Throughout the Years
The history of the ABS can, for the purposes of this discussion, be broken down into several periods – the formative years, the peak years, the years of challenge, and the present.
The formative years can be taken to run from 1975 from when the ABS was founded under the auspices of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada. Very important in the early years was the strong involvement of William Hatcher and Hossain Danesh, then members of that National Spiritual Assembly, and the support of Ruhiyyih Khanum, the extraordinary Canadian-raised Hand of the Cause of the Baha’i Faith. By the end of the formative period, the ABS was well established, was characterized by dialogue, discussion, and excitement, and had enrolled a number of the Canadian believers and an increasing number of American believers as active members in its ranks.
The peak years, which can be said to run from 1985 to middle of the 1990s, the Association held annual conferences, started a series of monographs on the Baha’i Faith, launched the Journal for Baha’i Studies, established a Centre for Bahá’í Studies in Ottawa, fostered the creation of a network of ABS International Affiliates around the globe, created the Special Interest Groups, started Regional Affiliates in several regions of North America, and created a network of Campus Association for Baha’i Studies in universities across Canada.
The years of challenge saw internal debate about the direction that the ABS should take: Should it embrace academic models of scholarship as the standard of correctness and excellence, or should it focus more on grass-roots development strategies? And because there was turmoil about the authority and role of “the scholar” in the Baha’i community – and because the Universal House of Justice was slowly but surely clarifying that role – there was necessarily a period of struggle, confusion, and a loss of the focus that had characterized the formative and peak periods. Also, because of the considerable expansion of the activities of Baha’i communities around the world, the niche that ABS addressed no longer commanded the attention it once received. The ABS’s command of resources – especially people resources – started to decline. But it still retained considerable strength and prestige in the Baha’i world.
The present era, which I take as starting in 2005, saw a focus on maintaining the strength of the annual conferences (held alternately on different coasts) and a decline in other activities, a process accelerated by the growing loss of people resources. The regional ABS affiliates disbanded, the Special Interest Groups no longer had organizational activities and meetings at conferences, and the Journal of Baha’i Studies was published infrequently and sometimes not all.
What Has Been Successful and What Has Not
What the ABS has been successful at, in my opinion, is in providing an arena for Baha’is to share their scholarship, to become inspired by that scholarship, and to meet with friends from across the Americas and throughout the world. It has worked again and again as a networking organization for the friends. The continuing excellence of the annual conferences is a reminder, if one is needed, of how important those connections are to people.
Where it has been less successful is in driving the creation of new scholarship and creating an environment for active sharing of ideas and launching of activities. The new ideas inspired by the ABS conferences have been due to inspiration from talks in various conference sessions and conversations in the hallways, not to systematic processes built into the conference and into the ABS.
In the formative years, the pure delight of being involved with beginning of the ABS in cities, towns, and universities across Canada created an excitement and stimulating intellectual atmosphere that couldn’t help but trigger a thirst and love for scholarship and learning. In the peak years, the new Special Interest Groups and their activities as part of the conference encouraged people to meet together and share their interests.
But, it was in the years of challenge that the processes came closest to success. There were two aspects – one regional, the other at the Annual Conference. The regional conferences brought groups of people together for days of fellowship, discussion, and camaraderie, often enlivened by exciting doses of music and shared restaurant experiences in places like Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue. And because people were from the same region, the connections they formed and the relationships they forged could easily spill over into friendships and working together. The close connection of people made it possible to form communities of mutual interest.
The other aspects were the Special Interest Days at the Annual Conference. A whole day – eight hours of activities – was devoted entirely to the activities of the Special Interest Groups and they organized their own activities. This time together encouraged planning, consultation, follow-up, the discussion of themes, and the whole arena of activities of a community of interest.
Those Special Interest Sessions were not perfect, but when they were phased out in the annual conferences at the beginning of the present era, the Special Interest Groups, never completely formed in the first place, lost much of their reason for existing as well as their venue for meeting, consulting, planning, and creating community.
Summarizing, the ABS has served an important and stimulating role in the development of Baha’i scholarship and as a place for presenting of – and being inspired by – that scholarship. It has often been very successful at the all-important task of creating community. But the nuts and bolts of scholarship development – theme setting, assistance, guidance, accompanying, coherence, the processes of communities of practice involved in learning by doing – has either not been formalized into existence, or when it has, financial and resource constraints – combined with the almost complete focus of the ABS on holding successful annual conferences – has forced that formalization into abeyance.
We know how to come together, to hold conferences, and to create community. And in that past we have done that locally and through grass-roots development techniques as well as through national conferences. That’s the good news – we have a tremendous body of experience and good will stemming from 37 years of community activities.
But we have not been able to translate that expertise – that experience – into the all-important tasks of growing up the unique Baha’i approach to scholarship and learning into real contributions. In part, that is because our primary focus is on the annual conference. In part, it is because we have not had the concrete and very real guidance that the Universal House of Justice has now provided. In part, it is because we are being asked to do something that has never been done before.
If we take our experience – what we have learned – and combine it with the systematic process of scholarship development that the Universal House of Justice has laid out in front of us, we can have enormous success and we can make great progress. We will attract the needed resources – those devoted scholars, those dedicated people. And the present lack of activity will be seen as a pause before a great push forward.
Or we can do just a little, and the present will merely change into the past and we will all go our separate directions.