Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Bahai vision of unity

I was walking through a local arcade recently when I came across a pamphlet from the Bahai church.

I'd heard of the Bahais before but didn't know much about them. I was surprised to discover just how intensely liberal the Bahai faith is.

The Bahai church originated in Persia in the mid-nineteenth century. It operates now in many countries, including America and Australia, and claims a membership of around 6 million.

The central tenet of the Bahai faith is the unity of mankind. The idea seems to be that as God made us out of a single substance we are to aim at a kind of single identity.

Thus one of the Bahai prophets is recorded as saying:

Since we have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

The result of this belief is that Bahais must attempt to transcend particular forms of identity in favour of a single universal one. As the Bahais themselves put it:

Bahais see unity as the law of life ...

Guided and inspired by such principles, the Bahai community has accumulated more than a century of experience in creating models of unity that transcend race, culture, nationality, class, and the differences of sex and religion, providing empirical evidence that humanity ... can live as a unified global society.

What's interesting is that the Bahais have arrived, through their religious beliefs, to a similar political outlook as Western liberals. Western liberals also want the individual to transcend particular forms of identity, as these are believed to impede our self-creation through individual will and reason.

In fact, Bahai writings sound remarkably like liberal ones, promising that the abolition of particular distinctions will bring about peace, liberation, equality and progress.

The thing is, though, do we really want to abolish particular forms of identity? Would we really want to live in a world in which, according to the Bahais, there would only be "one common fatherland," "one universal langauge," and the abolition of anything, including "cultural expression" which would make one portion of humanity "intrinsically distinct from another portion."

Think about what this would mean. We would no longer be able to enjoy a special sense of connection to our own particular national tradition, nor appreciate contact with other distinctive national cultures.

We would no longer be able to enjoy the more positive aspects of gender difference, nor identify in a positive way with our own sex (one Bahai pamphlet specifically outlaws the practice of men identifying as being a "masculine soul in a male body").

We would no longer be able to uphold the positive aspects of class cultures within our own countries. These class cultures traditionally provided standards of behaviour and distinctive forms of culture within a national community.

What we would have, instead, is a further descent into a society built on atomised, rootless, denatured individuals. Such societies seem to be easily dominated by a globalised commercial culture of little depth. They are not characterised, as the Bahais would have as believe, by a profound spiritual life.

In short, what the Bahai church offers is a religious pathway into liberal political activism. Even though the origins of Bahai lie outside Western liberalism, by asserting an absolute and abstract unity between people, the Bahai faith requires, just as Western liberalism does, the abolition of particular distinctions - an abolition of the very things which enrich our lives spiritually and which a church concerned for the spiritual life of its adherents should seek to support.

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