Monday, March 31, 2008

The Inactive-Unenrolled Connection

It always drives me a bit nuts when someone says "99.9% of Baha'is believe X" or, even worse, "Six million Baha'is believe Y". These phrases used to come up a lot in debate, and my response is that one cannot make definitive statements like that when half (or more) of enrolled Baha'is are inactive in the Baha'i community. If you don't even have a current address, then you really don't know anything about what they think or believe -- and studies necessarily tend to overlook these folks. They are invisible and forgotten.

But one place where inactive Baha'is do become visible is in cyberspace; there are a lot of inactive Baha'is in the liberal online community. My statistics are incomplete, I'm afraid, since I don't insist that listmembers disclose their status, but my best estimate is that between 25-30% of the Unenrolled Baha'i email group subscribers are enrolled, but inactive, Baha'is. After all, inactive Baha'is have a lot in common with unenrolleds who have resigned from the Faith -- namely a belief in Baha'u'llah combined with disappointment with current conditions in the administrative community.

Now, I realize that this seems a bit on the negative side, on a blog where I said I was going to try to stay positive. But the outcome *is* positive. Inactive folks who haven't had anything to do with the Baha'i community for years, sometimes decades, find a place with us. We have no assemblies, no boring business meetings, none of the stresses that drove people away to begin with. Nobody's checking cards at the door. We offer support and understanding; sometimes, even deepening and mashriq. (I keep working and hoping for more of the latter.)

Now, obviously, there are some things missing. It isn't easy, creating community for unenrolled Baha'is -- and I definitely don't want to create a falsely rose-colored picture. But then it isn't easy getting an enrolled community off the ground, either -- I know, I've been there. It's strange, for all the put-downs about how insignificant the numbers of unenrolled Baha'is, I really feel like my community is bigger out here. I definitely have more Baha'i friends than I had when I was enrolled. For someone like me, who was isolated in a tiny, struggling real-life administrative community, the Internet community gave me wings.

Inspirational Video

I ran across this while cruising through the blogosphere. It's from Columbian singer Leonor Dely. Every once in while the idea comes up of doing an online mashriq -- I've even had a couple on my Unenrolled Baha'i list, although they tend to be hard to pull together. Something like this video would be great for an online devotional.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Prayers and Prayer Beads

Kimberly Winston has a website , and has written a book about prayer beads in the various religions. Her blog has a great deal about Catholic beads, but presumably she's planning on talking about the use of beads in other world religions -- and it seems like virtually all of them have some sort of prayer/meditation practice that uses beads. But she's starting with Baha'i prayer beads.

Besides the requirement in the Aqdas to recite "Allah'u'abha" 95 times, prayer beads can be used for a variety of repetitive meditations, to suit the devotee. There's the "Remover of difficulties", which Baha'u'llah has been reported to have told the friends to recite 500 times, or even more. There's the Quran verse 65:2-3, which Alison talked about on her blog. For a while the verse from the Kitab-i-Ahd: "Say: All things are of God" was popular among the cyberspace community. I have also, at time, borrowed from Muslim or Christian practice.

I got my prayer beads from Special Ideas. They are blue sodalite, which is one of the minerals composing lapis lazuli. According to folks who believe in the mystical properties of semiprecious stones, sodalite is supposed to represent "truth" -- an idea which I rather like to be reminded of as I pick my beads up.

All that being said, I actually prefer meditation without using prayer beads -- a kind of centering prayer focusing on Baha'u'llah. But He has left us with a great deal of latitude in our devotional lives; there's lots of room for experimentation.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Intone My Servant - Gems of the Mysteries

I've been meaning to do some looking at the Baha'i Writings here on Unenrolled Baha'i -- this is, after all, a religious blog, and a look at scripture now and then seems appropriate.

But I know myself well enough to know that if I have to pick a topic, and several quotes from different tablets, and put it all together in a logical essay, I'll never get around to it. Oh, I can do it alright -- it's just that my online writing tends to be spontaneous, and my disk drive is littered with would-be projects like that.

So, what I decided to do, in keeping with that spontaneous spirit, is about once a month or so, take whatever passage I read during my morning or evening devotions and talk about it a little bit. And, I'd call it "Intone My Servant", as kind of a column within the blog, because it comes straight from my devotional reading, rather than any intellectual point I'm trying to make.

I was planning on doing this around the first of the month, but as it happened, I was reading this today, from the Gems of the Mysteries, speaking on the Garden of Search:

In this journey, it is incumbent on the seeker to sever himself from all besides God, and to close his eyes to all who are in the heavens and upon the earth. His heart should contain neither hate towards any creature nor love for anyone, such as might prevent him from attaining the sanctuary of beauty.

That's from Juan Cole's translation, which I prefer. In case readers are using the official version:

In this journey, it behoveth the wayfarer to detach himself from all save God and to close his eyes to all that is in the heavens and on the earth. There must not linger in his heart either the hate or love of any soul, to the extent they would hinder him from attaining the habitation of the celestial beauty.[Gems of Divine Mysteries p.27]

This tablet sometimes reads like a combination of Seven Valleys and the Kitab-i-Iqan; it was written close to the same time, and covers the same themes. This instruction for travelling through the Valley of Search sounds much like what Baha'u'llah tells us in the Tablet of the True Seeker:

He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love nor hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.

This particular passage is associated with a happy memory. When I was a brand-new believer, I did a deepening on this theme, trying to answer the question of what kind of love would "blindly incline" us to "error". Oh, it was a big deal, and I took the group through the Bible (some Baha'is had never read Corinthians 13!), and the Upanishads, among other things. I know these good folks were wondering just what kind of fish they'd caught. It was the unity of religion, more than anything else that had led me to the Faith, and I think I was rather more enthusiastic about the concept than my audience.

But, the funny thing is, I don't remember where that search-oriented deepening took us i.e. what the answer was. And, I think, as in so many spiritual matters, the Answer (with a capital A) is not static; I think we always need to be asking ourselves if our love for something or someone is distracting us from God.

For those who approach sainthood (which doesn't include your humble blogger here), the love of God should so permeate us that we love all for His sake. Once Rabi'a was asked if she hated Satan, and she said that she was too busy with the love of God to bother about hating Satan. That's an ideal, and like all ideals it is probably literally unattainable, but we keep trying anyhow.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Godblogger Talks About Beating a Different Baha'i Drum

Umm Yasmin, over on Godblogger is an ex-Baha'i Muslim, but she has shared an article she wrote when she was a Baha'i, based on Scott Peck's idea about community, that I thought was worth reading.

God-inspired Organizations vs. God-inspired Individuals

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Unenrolled Miscellany

There are a couple of discussions going on about unenrolled Baha'i identity: One is on talisman9, where proofs of the growth of unenrolleds are being discussed. (You have to join to read it.) The other is Steve Marshall's blog article "No Assembly Required". Properly speaking, Steve is an inactive Baha'i, but he shares some of the same perspectives and motivations that ex-members have -- and, of course, his wife Alison is unenrolled, forcibly taken off the rolls by order of the House. (On second thought, "inactive" seems an inadequate description of the editor of Baha'is Online. We need a better word for an enrolled Baha'i that doesn't partipate in administrative matters, but is very involved with the Faith otherwise.)

I'm extremely shy of estimating numbers of unenrolled Baha'is -- I think that being unenrolled, to some extent, means getting away from the obsession with statistics that characterize the administrative Faith. However, I read one Baha'i scholar, who once worked at the National center, estimate the number of unenrolleds as around 10,000 in the U.S. -- and this included people who had a dual religious identity. He said that polls he participated in turned up Baha'is that National never heard of i.e. people who identified themselves as Baha'i but had never registered. But that number is still just an educated guess -- that's probably all we'll ever have.

What I see happening is that the *idea* of being an unenrolled Baha'i is growing -- people that at one time would have thought of themselves as ex-Baha'is who still retained an appreciation for Baha'i ideals are realizing that being off the membership rolls does not have to mean an abandonment of religious identity. Likewise, there are enrolled Baha'is who accept unenrolleds as fellow believers.

Sen McGlinn argues that this is a positive development in the religion -- that it marks an emergence from a sect-like structure. Think of any "cult" group you can name, and there is no distinction at all between membership and adherence, whereas one can run into Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists who do not belong to any formal organization. That is, having unattached adherents is a sign of maturity in a religion, not a sign of growing opposition, as it is sometimes described.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Unenrolled Baha'is and World Order

Question: Do you see yourself as a part of building the World Order of Baha'u'llah?

This is a very good question -- one which required me to do some thinking about the answer, which is "Yes". There is a tendency among Baha'is (not excepting myself) to identify the World Order of Baha'u'llah with the Administrative Order, but that's not really the case. There is more to the Baha'i religion than its administration, and more to the World Order of Baha'u'llah than just Baha'is. I see the World Order as having both the institutions of the Baha'i Faith, and non-Baha'i institutions -- in which Baha'is might participate, but they don't administer.

Then, looking at simply the Baha'i Faith, there are the administrative institutions, where membership and voting rights decide who participates, and the mashriq'u'l-adhkar and its auxiliary institutions, where being an enrolled Baha'i with voting rights doesn't matter. For the last couple of generations, the building of the administrative institutions has been the main focus -- to the point that the institutions for worship and service have sometimes been overlooked. (The recent creation of devotional meetings has been a wonderful reversal to this trend.)

There is a quote from 'Abdu'l-Baha' where he says that the heart of the believer is the mashriq'u'l-adhkar -- so it's a mistake to think of it simply as the physical House of Worship. The devotional groups many Baha'i communities have started since "core activities" became the rage are building the mashriq'u'l-adhkar. So are any unofficial Baha'i prayer groups. The mashriq is a worship community, and one's status as a voter in the administrative order doesn't matter there -- yet, the mashriq is a Baha'i institution. Unenrolled Baha'is are able to participate, both in local Baha'i communities, or in devotional groups they create, or singly -- worshipping God in the temple of the heart.

The same is true of the "service" part of the mashriq, which 'Abdu'l-Baha' said was essential. When your actions serve mankind, are you not building the World Order of Baha'u'llah? What is the difference if you feed the hungry at the direction of the LSA or you feed the hungry at a non-Baha'i soup kitchen? The hungry get fed through your service, either way -- and isn't the elimination of poverty so dire people lack food one of the aspects of the World Order? Did 'Abdu'l-Baha' wait for direction from an institution before he helped the poor? Yet, you cannot say he wasn't serving the goals of Baha'u'llah by doing that.

And finally, I don't believe in having too much emphasis on what the Baha'i future will look like -- all of our predictions will be wrong to some extent. We know what the goals are -- peace, race unity, religious tolerance, education, elimination of extreme poverty, equality of the sexes, etc. As far as I'm concerned, any activity that furthers those goals serves the World Order of Baha'u'llah.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Making Our Own Way

In spite of the corporate emphasis of the administrative Baha'i community, I've always felt that the Writings of Baha'u'llah were incredibly supportive -- indeed, they insist upon -- the individual's spiritual quest. I've found that this aspect of my Baha'i life has become even more important since I became unenrolled -- there are no assembly meetings, or plans, or any of that. There's just Baha'u'llah and me.

There are times I think being an unenrolled Baha'i is a matter of temperament. Some people are naturally introverted, others extroverted -- and they really don't understand each other too well. The extrovert sees the introvert "doing nothing", not knowing that the mind and the internal world can be very busy indeed. The introvert finds the rush of external activity a burden, and one that is often devoid of meaning. That doesn't make either way "right"; it's just a difference. For some, it would be very difficult to follow a spiritual path without having support, and face-to-face community. For others, tranquility and solitude are necessary to hear the still, small voice of God. If you can relate to the sayings "The kingdom of heaven is within you" and "Hell is other people", then being a Baha'i on your own probably doesn't seem like such a bad thing.

Baha'u'llah makes room for us. He absolutely forbids taqlid -- the blind following of clerical authority -- and exhorts us to "see with your own eyes". The Muslim congregational prayer is replaced by the individual choice of three different prayers, and such a light worship requirement that it is easy for the individual to create what works for him/her. Again and again, he exhorts us to "ponder and reflect", turning us in on our own hearts and minds.

In my evening devotions tonight, I just happened to come upon this: It is incumbent on one who journeys unto God and who emigrates for his sake to sever himself from all who are in the heavens and on earth, and to restrain his sould from all save him.[Gems of the Mysteries, Juan Cole translation] This, of course, is a theme that Baha'u'llah returns to again and again. And while may be possible to find detachment in the whirlwind of social affairs, I have a hard time seeing how.

One of my favorite verses about the power of individual contemplation is this: My friends, you are the wellsprings of my own discourse. In every spring, a droplet from the heavenly stream of divine meaning wells up. With the hand of certainty, cleanse these springs of the pollution of unfounded judgments and illusions. In this way, might you yourselves give convincing and unassailable answers to the sorts of questions that have been posed. In this greatest of dispensations, all must appear with branches of knowledge and sayings of wisdom.[Tablet of the Son, Juan Cole translation]

So, we are the wellsprings of His discourse -- we just have to work on cleansing the spring. And we have to do that ourselves.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Dealing with Opposition: Don't Apologize

It is impossible to take any stand, especially a religious stand, in public without provoking negative comment. Become known in cyberspace, and you're a mini-celebrity -- sometimes loved and sometimes hated. It took me a long time to figure out how to deal with this position wisely; I'm still not sure I always do. One of the temptations I struggle to resist is that of falling back into a defensive mode, arguing with the vicious and sometimes completely untrue things that are said.

When you're an unenrolled Baha'i, and you say so publicly, you make a whole lot of people unhappy. There are the fundamentalist Baha'is, of course, who flit between seeing you as a dark-souled enemy and looking down their noses in feigned pity. There are the anti-Baha'is, who seem to pretty much agree with the fundies in their rigid, acontextual view of Baha'i scripture, but view it all as bad and don't want anybody to be any kind of Baha'i, unenrolled or not. Then, there are the anti-religious, who think the whole bunch of us are completely ridiculous. When you get down to it, some people are going to keep pounding on you unless and until you see things their way.

If you don't allow others the freedom to decide what they want to believe -- and you aren't allowing for that if you speak of them harshly -- then you aren't treating them like human beings and have lost whatever moral high ground you think you've got. It's an easy trap to fall into, especially if you feel like you're under attack. I have mostly tried, in my years in cyberspace, to direct my criticisms towards specific issues and policies rather than individuals, although I've had a few exasperated moments that definitely disqualify me for sainthood. But I'm trying; I really am.

But today I was trying to turn my thoughts towards the people I am really talking to out here: Those souls who are moved by the Writings of Baha'u'llah, but who cannot find a place in the official Baha'i community. Their voices of encouragement are worth more than than all the rest of the fundies and antis put together.

I have always said that the only way to "win" -- if such a concept is really applicable at all -- is to be the best Baha'i you can be. Baha'u'llah's heart is open, even if others are not:

Every receptive soul who hath in this Day inhaled the fragrance of His garment and hath, with a pure heart, set his face towards the all-glorious Horizon is reckoned among the people of Bahá in the Crimson Book. Grasp ye, in My Name, the chalice of My loving-kindness, drink then your fill in My glorious and wondrous remembrance.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Infallibility: What Baha'u'llah Says

While I'm plugging other blogs, I notice that Alison has just posted a great essay on infallibility. This is a topic where misunderstandings have caused no small amount of harm.

One of the first things I was ever told when I was a new believer was that I should never believe anything other Baha'is told me about Baha'i teaching unless I could find it confirmed in the Writings -- and Alison goes straight to the source here.

Baha'i Thought

I've seen several stories on Baha'i Thought and Black America that I've been meaning to comment on, but somehow never got back to. So, I just decided to plug the whole blog. This is the kind of thing I meant when I said this blog is about Baha'i thinking that isn't administration-centered. Instead, Phillipe Copeland engages one of the most important Baha'i social principles and relates it to what's going on in the world. I sort of feel like I should contribute some intelligent commentary of my own here, but Phillipe does it better -- so check him out.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Decision to Leave

The other day a friend emailed me, recalling that I had said that I never encourage Baha'is to leave the Faith and asking for a quote to that effect. I've said this several times, but in hunting down an actual quotes, I only found some on my Unenrolled Baha'i list -- which is for members only, and therefore not precisely a "public" statement.

So, here goes: I never encourage anyone to leave the Baha'i Faith. In fact, I'm not keen on telling others what they ought to do, period. On the UB list, what I hope to do is clarify issues and give the disillusioned Baha'i emotional support while they make their own decision.

It's strange that this is one area where both angry ex-Baha'is and Baha'i hardliners seem to agree -- both express a good deal of exasperation about the moderate, liberal, or unenrolled Baha'i for hanging on to the religion, seeing Baha'i fundamentalism as the "real" faith and anything else as just watered-down wishful thinking. To me this demonstrates not only an unwillingness to engage with the Writings of Baha'u'llah on their own terms, it is an uncharitable dismissal of the complex emotional and social factors that go into one's religious choices. One reason I never tell anyone what to do with regard to their official status is that I don't stand in their shoes. For some, getting out would be very difficult; for others, staying would be just as difficult.

And, there's a part of me that just feels like saying "It's none of your business what my religion is. Why do you care so much? It's no skin off your backside, after all."

That's why I tend to deal will folks that show up to my list with a light hand -- their choice is not really my business. I'll help folks with the emotional fallout, if I can, but it's not for me to argue with what they decide.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Where I'm Going with This

A friend of mine yesterday, when he discovered that I plan a blog on non-administrative aspects of being a Baha'i, thought that I was creating a devotional blog. And, I thought about that. Certainly, the devotional life is a big part of Baha'i life outside the administration, and I do plan on doing some writing along those lines -- although I already do a good deal of talking about the devotional life on Karen's Path, albeit strictly from the perspective of my own personal experiences.

I think I'd like to go a little broader than that. What I have in mind is connecting with Baha'i thought that isn't dominated by administrative matters and the limitations of official discourse. For example, I happened to run into a blog called The Baha'i Liberty Blog, which is written by a young man who is engaged in reconciling libertarian political thought with Baha'i teaching. Now, I don't necessarily agree with that, although I was very close to being a libertarian myself when I was young, and there are several of his points I could argue with. (In fact, I can just picture my liberal friends thinking I'm nuts for linking to this guy.) But I was struck by how radical this approach is, for a Baha'i to so brazenly identify himself with a political philosophy. Agree or not, it definitely represents an attempt at some original thinking.

This, to me, represents a huge change in Baha'i culture -- a change which is directly linked to the freedom allowed by the Internet. I've seen other young Baha'is make brief mention of political candidates, too. Now, when I was enrolled, this was strictly verboten -- more, I think, by peer pressure than anything the administration ever did. Once in a while somebody would make a comment about the current President and it was slightly embarrassing, a faux pas. Baha'is weren't supposed to talk politics, period.

In actual fact, Baha'is, throughout their history have gone through both engaged and distant periods where politics is concerned. Baha'u'llah did not forbid politics per se, but did not want Baha'is involved with subversive movements. "Abdu'l-Baha' and Shoghi Effendi sometimes forbade and sometimes approved engagement with poltical matters. For example, Baha'is were involved in the Civil Rights movement, with Shoghi Effendi's approval, because of the Faith's clear teachings on racial equality, even though he made some very strong statements about Baha'is avoiding identification with the Republican or Democratic parties.

Baha'is, for the most part, are intelligent people who are genuinely concerned about the world around them -- and engagement with that world can't help but be political from time to time, whether you're concerned about poverty, education, the environment, women's issues or world peace The alternative is taking an above-the-fray attitude, which renders all those great Baha'i social teachings rather meaningless, except as applied internally.

But I'm optimistic about the potential of the Internet to bring out a variety of ideas and approaches. It's easier to break out of the mold when you're writing at a computer than over tea and cookies, face to face.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Starting an Unenrolled Baha'i Blog

An unenrolled Baha'i is a believer in Baha'u'llah who is not an official member of the Baha'i Faith, nor affiliated with any of the small Baha'i splinter groups. Sometimes you hear the term "independent Baha'i". There's also a good argument for "unaffiliated Baha'i", since it does not define adherents in terms of membership of the mainstream Baha'i Faith. "Unaffiliated" is a term that's also used in polls and studies to describe people who have a set of spiritual or religious beliefs, but are not formal members of any religious community.

But I started with the term "unenrolled" -- and I didn't invent it. It was around long before I started writing, used to describe people who hung around the Baha'i community, even confessing that they believed in Baha'u'llah, but for one reason or another, never signed on the dotted line. There are also numerous unenrolled Baha'is in places like Bolivia, where remote villages have heard of the Faith from Baha'i radio, but have never been reached by travel teachers to get signed up and organized. I'd love to know how the Faith is developing in such places, but I suppose anyplace too remote for the administration is also too remote for researchers as well.

The second way that people become unenrolled Baha'is is that enrolled Baha'is become disillusioned with conditions in the Baha'i community, or policies of the Baha'i administration, and they leave voluntarily to go it on their own. They have become visible with the rise of the Internet -- although I think they've always been there. I run into people who've been out of the Faith for a decade or more, and still have an attachment to Baha'u'llah. I myself was an enrolled Baha'i for thirteen years and have been an unenrolled one for nine.

The third category of unenrolled Baha'is are those that have been forcibly removed from the membership rolls against their will. The UHJ has essentially created this category as a matter of policy since 1997, by removing individuals they hold to be unqualified for membership. Since a person just doesn't stop believing in Baha'u'llah at the stroke of a pen, a cluster of Baha'is outside the mainstream Faith is the inevitable result -- although I'm not at all sure that the House anticipated that.

In the years since I left formal enrollment behind, I've sought way to create community among unenrolled Baha'is. It's no easy thing. The mainstream Baha'i community itself is rather thinly spread -- as one wag put it: " Baha'is are everywhere,. . . and nowhere." That is, you can find Baha'is in nearly every corner of the globe, but each corner has so few that they aren't very visible and have little impact on the wider society.

Unenrolled Baha'is are fewer in number, and even more widely spread. I have heard that, in some places, small informal groups gather under the radar of the administration, but most of us find company on the Internet.

Which brings me to the point of this blog: This blog is about any and all things Baha'i -- except the administration. I want to talk about being a Baha'i, without getting tangled up in Baha'i politics. I cover that adequately in my general blog . Here, I want to try something different. Let's see how it works.