The Ruhi Problem
by Anthony Lee2005-02
I have posted this essay by Lee because the Ruhi program is such a central focus of Bahá'í activity at this point in time, and I think it valuable to have other viewpoints about it. Sometimes, from criticism comes evolution. This is only one person's perspective, though, and doubtless will not be shared by most readers. If you would like to compose an essay about the Ruhi approach, or a response to this piece, please email me. [-J.W.]
In response to this situation of low growth and poor community development, the Universal House of Justice requested all national communities to develop their human resources through systems of systematic training and group study. The intention was to enthuse Baha’is to teach more and develop their community life, which would in turn attract new converts to the religion. And importantly, it provided new converts with a system of learning, so they would not drift away from the religion after their initial enthusiasm.
So since 1996, the House of Justice has requested all national communities set up “training institutes.” These institutes use a decentralized system of locally based group learning, “study circles”, which are led by a trained tutor. Study circles are supposed to develop the “spiritual insights, knowledge, and skills” that are needed for the large-scale growth of the Baha’i community. Baha’i communities, encouraged by institutions such as the International Teaching Centre, have used the “Ruhi” books as the curriculum for these study circles. Currently, there are seven such books: “Reflections on the life of the spirit,” “Arising to serve,” “Teaching children’s grade 1,” “The Twin Manifestations,” “Teaching children’s grade 2,” “Teaching the Cause,” “Walking together on a path of service,” and Baha’is are encouraged to complete them all in a consecutive fashion.
There are many positive aspects to study circles. Some of these are direct–new converts or Baha’is who have little familiarity with primary texts will undoubtedly benefit from a systematic introduction to basic Baha’i beliefs, and from reading scripture. It introduces learning methods that will complement an individual reading of scriptures including participatory learning and memorization. A by-product of study circles is that Baha’is socialize on a more regular basis than the occasional Feast or Holy Day activity. This will be beneficial to atomized nature of life in most urban communities. The link to service projects is a welcome aspect of study circles.
Of course, in general, any Baha’i community activity might be regarded as positive, regardless of the shortcomings and weaknesses of any particular program.
A number of problems arise indirectly as Baha’i communities are focused on completing the sequence of Ruhi books. First, Baha’i communities now give the appearance of a one trick pony. There seems to be little else going on in most Baha’i communities. Interreligious dialogue, deepening, scholarship, firesides, and individual initiatives appear to have reduced--and in some cases stopped altogether. The evidence for this is necessarily anecdotal, as there are no sources of information on the activities of Baha’i communities worldwide. Second, an unintentional by-product may be disunity. Communities are being split between those that have completed the sequence of books and those who have not. An elite is being created, who may feel, in some ways, better qualified to lead local Baha’i initiatives. However, because of the time commitment involved to complete the sequence of books, and the mindset it attracts, those without full-time employment or those without rich family, social, and cultural lives can best afford the time to complete these books.
There are also other issues. The idea that the Baha’i community should all undertake and focus on one activity seems to contradict the fuller vision of a united and diverse Baha’i community, with members all contributing in their own individual ways to furthering the aims of the Baha’i Faith.
Ruhi study circles in principle embrace not only learning but also worship and service, and have a strong social component. Where this is also done in practice, their all-embracing nature (which most participants experience as positive) inhibits criticism of the contents of the course. Ruhi activities can become a virtual substitute for Bahá'í community life, but with the important difference that they are focused on and led by an individual leader, and that they offer participants who go through the training process a means of climbing the ladder and attaining leadership themselves. The structure of assemblies, feasts and committees remains in place, but if the heart of community life is taking place in Ruhi circles, they preside over an empty husk.
The Ruhi Books
It seems strange to expect that materials developed for largely uneducated rurally based Colombians would transplant well into other places in the world. A closer look at the Ruhi books would support this view – for example, the recommendation that participants visit families in Book 2 would be inappropriate to most Westerners. But there are more serious problems with these books.
First, they promote one way of reading scripture that focuses on a plain, outward, and acontextualized understanding of a quotation. A quotation from a Baha’i source is cited, without any historical or other context, and the participants are asked a series of questions about it – some in the form of multiple-choice yes/no questions. Other approaches to reading texts are not introduced, which undermines Baha’i approaches to interpretation that promotes a multiplicity of methods. Second, some of the passages that are used for reflection are not from authoritative sources - for example, in Book 1, there are passages from Star of the West and Promulgation of Universal Peace where Abdu'l-Bahá's terminology may not be accurately reflected in the English translations used (or, for that matter, ‘Abdu'l-Bahá's words may not have been accurately recalled). Third, there is commentary in the books written by those that developed it that is not necessarily consistent with Bahá'í thought. In Book 1, for example, in the sections on prayer, it states that we should not move abruptly from prayer into another activity. This makes sense for most people, but it is not true to imply that it is a Bahá'í practice.
Much emphasis is placed on a county in South Florida where a core number of Baha’is have completed the sequence, and around 40-50 individuals who were not Baha’is have converted having undertaken some study circles. It is proposed that this forms a model of how the Ruhi books can advance the process of “entry by troops”. There are three problems with this approach. First, we have no way of knowing whether it is the study circles or something indirectly related to these courses that has been the factor that enabled these individuals to convert. It is possible that mobilizing Baha’is to do anything in large numbers will attract non-Baha’is, and it is the non-specific aspects of the study circles that work, such as socializing with Baha’is. If that is the case, then it would argue for increased numbers of deepenings, firesides, and a myriad of other activities, rather than solely study circles. Second, we have no way of knowing if these individuals would have become Baha’is anyway, irrespective of study circles or not. Third, we have no way of knowing if the study circles put off other individuals who may have become Baha’is but didn’t. It has been suggested that intellectuals and prominent people would not find this approach positive. Fourth, there may be other clusters that have met similar criteria as South Florida, and yet have not experienced any growth. Information on all “A-Clusters” could be released and discussed.
What is notable is that there has been no critical discussion of Ruhi books or study circles in any Baha’i periodicals--differences of opinion are not tolerated well by many Baha’is, who mistake the concept of unity with quashing all dissent. But there are deeper problems caused by the way that uncomfortable discussions on internet lists were handled and individual Baha’is reprimanded that has presumably scared most thinking Baha’is from speaking out critically about this or any community-related issue. As the Ruhi books are the most important and prevalent activity of Baha’i communities, this is all the more alarming.
My own issues are not so much with Ruhi as it is. I have actually never participated in any of the courses and can´t say much about them. Most Baha’is who I know who have participated in these courses have found them of some value. But there are two issues that bother me and that I think are major factors in the "Ruhi-problem": One is the very idea of a uniform system that is supposed to be used not only by each and every believer in the whole world, which is in itself objectionable. What is even more dangerous is that each and every "seeker" in the whole wide world is supposed to fit in the narrow Ruhi-framework and be converted through it. We are asked to invite our friends and colleagues, regardless of their cultural, academic, social background to Ruhi Book 1! This is something that is never going to work. And it will do a lot of damage to the reputation of the Faith. I also fail to see how this fits in the statement of the House of Justice back in 1996 or so, speaking about a variety of Institute programs that need to be implemented, each serving different national and even regional needs.
This demand for uniformity has become coercive in the Baha’i community. I recall overhearing a conversation between two Baha’is in which one said that she did not like the Ruhi study circles and the other responded that such reservations meant that she had problems with the Covenant. Another Baha’i, in an e-mail conversation, wondered how one might offer criticisms of the Ruhi system without appearing to attack the Covenant. The second issue is the way we "evaluate." There is no critical assessment that would allow for a modification and adaptation or, if necessary, substitution of study-materials. Evaluation, here, means only counting Baha’is and non-Baha’is participating in courses. If the number is higher than X we move on to another category. In other words, the content is not evaluated, only the implementation. The Ruhi-system is treated tantamount to a revelation from God. It is perfect and suitable, nothing to change about it: it just needs to be implemented. If it doesn´t work, it´s not the material that´s wrong. We were just too dumb to use it.
A few weeks ago, I witnessed, what I think will be the forth-coming immunization-strategy, should Ruhi not succeed in the promised way. A friend insisted: "Ruhi is perfect!". When I asked, him: "What do we do, if in 10 years from now, Entry by Troops isn´t here, despite Ruhi?" his reply was: "Then it´s our fault, we haven´t implemented it correctly"!! In the long run, I see two problems: one is, the community will be split, a number of activities have already ceased, a number of friends have pulled back from activities, because of the perceived attitude "either you´re with Ruhi, or you´re not working with us". You can't even be supportive of the process and suggest changes. You will immediately be seen as "Anti-Ruhi".
The other is: should Ruhi prove to not be such a success after all, frustration might spread in large parts of the community.