1995: Four Year Plan
Thank you very much.
Dear friends, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to meet with you this afternoon, and to speak about a subject which is of such fascination to me as the Four Year Plan.
As you can well understand my role in the Four Year Plan was as one of the participants in the consultation of the Universal House of Justice in the formulation of that document, but since Ridvan my role is that, as is your role, of studying this marvelous document trying to derive insight and understanding from it. And it is in that context that I speak to you this afternoon, I obviously do not speak for the Universal House of Justice, nor do my views represent necessarily those of the Institution. I speak to you as an individual believer who, as with all of us, had the opportunity to peruse this message and to try to derive insight from it.
As the days and weeks go by it becomes more and more apparent to me that the Four Year Plan represents not simply another in an almost infinite series of plans which have come from the World Center of the Faith during much of the formative age. Rather it seems to me that this plan represents a significant turning point in the development of the Faith. It is not like other plans, it has certain radically different features and my impression is that the Four Year Plan represents a far more concentrated attention on the development of the Bahá'í way of life, and ultimately the Bahá'í civilization, than has been apparent in any of the other plans in recent years. This is a different kind of plan, its emphasis is not only on the propagation of the Faith, on the enlargement of its size, but also to an extent not previously apparent in a plan, does it focus on the Bahá'í way of life.
As I endeavor to understand the nature and significance of this plan it appears to me that there are three very important principles which underlie it. Obviously this is an individual view, others would study the plan and they'd say there are seventeen important principles which underlie it and they'd view it as equally valid as mine. But as I look at it, it comes to my mind that there are three very important principles which one needs to think about and understand at as deep a level as possible in order to appreciate what this plan is about and why.
The first of those three is this, I believe that the Four Year Plan represents to an extent not previously apparent the unconventional view of the world which we Bahá'ís hold. We all live in a society which is going in a certain direction, which has its own interests, its values, its preoccupations, and its concerns. Immersed as we are in that society, it is nevertheless most important that periodically we stop and remind ourselves that our view of the world differs very markedly, very radically from that of the people around us. Central to that difference is the Bahá'í view about spiritual forces.
Our view, as best I understand it, is that any adequate model of the world in which we live must take account of the effect that there are great spiritual forces at work in it. This is not simply a matter of abstract theology. We believe that these spiritual forces have a direct bearing on the conduct of all individuals be they Bahá'í or not. But that vast majority of the human population which are not members of the Bahá'í Faith are nevertheless themselves influenced by these spiritual forces. The things I read in the Bahá'í Writings indicate to me that the existence and operation of these spiritual forces is essential to an adequate understanding of the policies of governments and social bodies and that the course of world events in the later part of the nineteenth century, during the whole of the twentieth century and beyond, can only adequately be understood in terms of the operation of spiritual forces. It is in this sense that I believe the Bahá'í perspective of the world is not simply a little different, not simply somewhat different, not even very different, but radically different from that of the people around us.
Our thinking about what is happening to us, what is happening to those around us, what is happening to the world in which we live, is strongly determined by the operation of spiritual forces. And you'll find this mentioned in the Four Year Plan particularly in paragraphs 37 and 38. The Bahá'í perspective is set out very clearly by Shoghi Effendi in a passage around the middle of The Advent of Divine Justice, and in that passage the Guardian speaks of what he calls a God born force. He tells us that this force originates with the coming of the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh, and he goes on to describe it in the words of the Bab as "vibrating within the inmost beings of all created things." And then he quotes Bahá'u'lláh in referring to this force and stating that its vibrating influence has upset the equilibrium of the world and revolutionized its ordered life. In these and many other passages from the writings of the Guardian we read not simply poetry, not simply inspiration, not simply ideas which inspire the heart, which move the soul, rather we read statements of truth, statements of precise analytical truth, describing the state and condition of the world and what is happening in it. And as I understand from this passage, the Guardian is telling us that a mysterious force has been injected into creation. With the coming of the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh that force is at work today, not simply in the hearts of the Bahá'ís, not simply in the institutions of the Bahá'í Faith, but far more broadly and far more generally, as the Bab says "vibrating within all created beings and all created entities of the earth."
This has several very important implications for us.
One of these is that we are challenged as Bahá'ís, to internalize in our thinking the existence and operation of that force. In other words to take it into account not only in our conscious thinking but in our unconscious being. Let me take an example, the force of gravity. It becomes part of our unconscious model of the world. If I throw a stone out the window, I naturally expect it will fall downwards and not upwards. I don't say to myself "now let me think, F = mg - what is the force of gravity, will it operate, which way will the stone fall, let me work out the calculation and so on." It's become part of my automatic thinking, I try not to fall out of airplanes, or to walk over cliffs or anything like that, not because of any calculated thought on my part but simply because the force of gravity has become part of my natural unconscious model of the world.
Now I think the great challenge to us as Bahá'ís is through our deepening, through our meditation and our prayer, to become so deeply conscious of the existence of this great spiritual force which has been injected into the world with the coming of the promised ones that it becomes automatic to our thinking. And of course the example of the life of Abdu'l-Bahá is peerless in offering us a model of a way of life in which the existence of these spiritual forces was so automatically part of his being.
This spiritual force is also crucial to our confidence and our vision of the future. If we don't take cognizance of this spiritual force we will quite naturally be fearful, be uncertain, be deeply troubled about the forces arrayed against us and the difficulties we face.
There was a very interesting letter written by the Universal House of Justice in January 197l to one of the National Spiritual Assemblies in Europe which at that time was facing great difficulties in the progress of the Faith, and it had carried out a very comprehensive and detailed analysis of the problems facing that country, of the lack of resources, material, and human, available to the Bahá'í community and the challenges before it. Having carried out that analysis it wrote to the House of Justice for guidance on what it should do. In the response of House of Justice there is one very crucial paragraph, it refers to the need for a greater realization of the power of Bahá'u'lláh to reinforce the efforts of those who serve Him, of His promise to do so, and of the impotence of all our deeds without this divine assistance. The crucial point that I want to draw your attention to is the following statement in this letter of the House of Justice, it says "Any evaluation of the situation is entirely misleading if it does not take this supreme power into consideration." I find this a very strong statement. It doesn't simply say that the analysis is inadequate, is incomplete, without accommodating the existence of this great mysterious spiritual force, rather it goes much further and says "any evaluation is entirely misleading" if the existence and operation of this spiritual force is not given due weight.
Our belief in such spiritual forces and their operation in the world, gives rise to the fact that we use in our conversation and in our Writings some very strange words. And one of the very strange words we use in Bahá'í discourse is the word "destiny". Our Writings refer to "destiny", they refer to the "destiny of individuals", they refer to the "destiny of nations". Here in the United States we have passages addressed to the United States Bahá'í community which refer to the "destiny of America". That there is a foreordained determined end to events in this country, and to the role which the people of this nation are, in fact, destined to play. This does not deny the legitimacy of individual discretion of our right to choose to follow or not to follow, to act correctly or incorrectly, but we are told that in the aggregate, in the macroscopic sense there is an ordained destiny to events in the world.
This was very much apparent when the Universal House of Justice issued its statement on world peace. And it described world peace as not only something we hope for and aim for and work towards, but something which is inevitable. There again, the sense of destiny which is informed by our cognizance of the operation of such spiritual powers.
One finds in The Advent of Divine Justice, where Shoghi Effendi, speaking of the destiny of America in the later part of that book, refers to the American nation as a whole, whether through the agency of its government or otherwise, he describes this American nation as gravitating under the influences of forces it can neither comprehend nor control, toward such associations and policies wherein as indicated by `Abdu'l-Bahá her true destiny must lie. This is revolutionary stuff. This is incredible. This is the kind of thing that will get you locked up if you speak about it too loudly outside this room, because what Shoghi Effendi is telling us is that this magnificent nation in which we are now resident is gravitating under the influence of forces it can neither comprehend nor control. What political commentator is going to agree with this perspective? Who is it who will have the courage to say the United States in its governmental policies is subject to forces it can neither comprehend nor control. Since this is election year, who will get elected on a platform such as this? Our view of the world is very, very, different from that of the society around us as Shoghi Effendi tells us in the passage I read, this nation as well as other nations around us are evolving towards that area where their true destiny must lie.
This concept of destiny, this concept of a fore ordained goal to the position of the various nations in the world derives from our cognizance, our appreciation of the mysterious spiritual forces that are at work in the world. In our daily lives we are subject to influences from all directions, we have the news on television, we have newspapers, we have conversation with friends in school or at work, or in social contact, and through all that interaction we are inclined to forget, to not give due account to the fact that our model of the world is radically different, is totally different from that of the people around us, our powers, our potential, our goal, our destiny, our purpose is entirely different because this great spiritual force is at work in the world.
It is for this reason that we who are Bahá'ís will at times find ourselves carrying out activities which to the world around us appear irrational. Activities of voluntary sacrifice. Activities, even if the time comes, activities of martyrdom. The policies of the Universal House of Justice, unless viewed in a spiritual perspective will at times appear irrational. Upon what rational basis did the Universal House of Justice decide to embark upon the vast constructional project we call the Arc project? In the state of Israel, on an exposed position overlooking an oil refinery in a major port of that country in a time of such turmoil and danger and upset and the prospect of destructive warfare in that country. Where was the rationality in such a decision? Why now? Why not fifty years later when maybe the country has settled down somewhat? Why at this time?
The answer can only come through the cognizance of the operation of powerful great mysterious spiritual forces. And I suggest this to be one of the basic principles underlying the Four Year Plan.
The second principle I see as basic to the Four Year Plan is its extraordinary emphasis upon processes rather than events.
And I think if you look through the messages of the Four Year Plan you'll find again and again, our attention is directed not simply to events, but much more than that to processes. We live in a world where the attention is principally upon events and occurrences. As Bahá'ís we give due weight to events. The twenty-first day of April is an event. One's birthday is an event. The night or day of the nineteen day feast is an event. We do not deny the significance and value of events. But the principle emphasis in our religion seems to me, to be on processes rather than events, and this, I think, derives from the fact that we see our religion and its community as organic, and in any organic body there are processes at work. The process of growth, the process of development of skills and abilities, the process of aging. All these things are processes which characterize the evolution in time of an organic body.
And I believe that the Four Year Plan to a greater extent than other plans directs our attention to the existence and operation of processes. This change of orientation, this change of viewpoint, from event to process has many significant implications.
It means we must become sensitive to recognize the significance of small events. If we are to be process oriented we must become sufficiently insightful, sufficiently sensitive to recognize that some small events are most significant in terms of process. Other small events are insignificant, they're nothing. But certain small events are very crucial.
We find several examples of this in the Bahá'í Writings. You'll find for example the remarkable example in "Unfoldment of World Civilization", the letter of Shoghi Effendi, where he referred to what is regarded as a very small, and fairly minor, and rather embarrassing event which occurred in the late 1930's where the League of Nations decided to impose sanctions upon Italy for its invasion of Ethiopia. And these sanctions did not work, the nations did not agree to follow them, or they agreed nominally but in practice they didn't, and everything was a horrible failure to the great embarrassment to the League of Nations. Shoghi Effendi on the other hand, treats that small event quite differently, he refers to it as an event without precedent in the world. He said "their decision is no doubt an event without parallel in human history, for the first time in the history of humanity, the system of collective security, which had been set out by Bahá'u'lláh, had been tried. Never mind it failed, it was a step forward, he saw it as very significant in the development of the process of world government.
There are many other passages in the Guardian's writings where he refers to the great significance of events which we would regard as relatively minor or relatively small. For example, let me take one more example from "Citadel of Faith", where Shoghi Effendi referred to the activities of President Woodrow Wilson, and Woodrow Wilson is in many ways regarded as a visionary whose actions did not lead to a very useful result, he was very disappointed of course with the actions of the United States Congress in relation to America's participation in the League of Nations. Shoghi Effendi, on the contrary, refers to the activities of President Woodrow Wilson in setting out his points about the future organization of humanity and playing a role in the establishment of the League of Nations, not only does he praise the great success, the achievements of President Wilson, but much more than that, he says that these achievements of Wilson signalized the dawn of the Most Great Peace. Not the dawn of the Lesser Peace, the dawn of the Most Great Peace. This further is an example of the divinely guided insight of the Guardian in seeing the great significance of events, which to the ways of the world were minor, were insignificant or relatively inconsequential.
It derives from the orientation to process rather than to event, and we need to draw upon our deepening in the Writings so that we acquire a similar sensitivity, a similar insight so we can recognize that in certain small events there is great significance from the prospective of process. It also means that we need great patience in setting the foundations for the future growth of the Faith. We need great confidence in carrying out events, or activities, which may seem mundane or inconsequential, but which are called upon at this stage in the growth of the Faith. We need the confidence to recognize that what we do is one step in the evolution of a great and mighty process in the future.
This process orientation also requires that we develop the wisdom to know what is appropriate at what time in the stage of the Faith, and what is inappropriate, what is best left to the future and what was appropriate thirty or forty years ago but is not appropriate today. The needs change as the process evolves.
The Four Year Plan of course is full of process. The House of Justice in a message of January, 1994 concerning the Arc Project referred to the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh as representing the operation of three interactive processes. One, the development of the World Center based upon the Tablet of Carmel, the second process, the development of the Administrative Order, based upon the Will and Testament of `Abdu'l-Bahá, and third, the development of the spread of the Faith around the world, based on the Tablets of the Divine Plan. These three processes are at work in the functioning of the Bahá'í community, they interact closely with each other, which means we must give due attention to all three simultaneously in the work of the Faith, and one finds that one can quite profitably analyze the form and structure of the Four Year Plan in terms of the operation of these three processes.
Sometimes as I travel I hear the friends speak about the Four Year Plan and they say its primary objective is entry by troops. Because I don't want to appear arrogant, or sanctimonious, or a know it all, I usually keep quiet when I hear them say that, but internally I cringe, because I don't think this is true. I don't think the Four Year Plan is about entry by troops. I think the Four Year Plan is about advancing the process of entry by troops, and as evidence I would suggest that one look closely at wherever this phrase "entry by troops" is used in the Four Year Plan, or the supplementary messages associated with it, and I will suggest that you will find there that the House of Justice has been very, very careful to use the phrase "entry by troops" in conjunction with the preamble of "advancing the process of entry by troops".
Our Four Year Plan is designed to move that process along. If, in the Cook Islands or in Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean, we're now enrolling three or four believers a year maybe at the end of the Four Year Plan we'll be enrolling twenty or thirty new believers a year, still relatively modest compared to the population of those areas but an advance in the process. And the orientation in the Four Year Plan to process is illustrated very strongly by the focus on advancing the process of entry by troops, and you'll find the compilation issued by the House of Justice, and prepared by its research department a few years ago, on entry by troops, is entirely process oriented, it is not event oriented, and I think by absorbing the distinction between process and event we will very successfully be able to orient ourselves to what the House of Justice has in mind as this central objective of the Four Year Plan.
The third of the three fundamental principles which I see as underlying the Four Year Plan is that of the concept of change.
I mention this because my observation of history is that religions have a lot of problems with change. It is very difficult for a religion or a religious community or organization to handle change. Change is unsettling, change can be disruptive, change can lead to division or polarization, most often under the impact of the development of society, when a religion is subject to the stress of change, its community tends to polarize. One segment of those who are traditional, who are resistant to new ideas, who don't want the settle condition change, who say "what's wrong with you? This has worked very well for so many decades. Why are you upsetting the apple-cart? Why are you changing all this?" And the other segment of those who are so focused on change, so attached to it that they follow superficial and ephemeral trends, destroying the foundations of the religious community, and creating disunity.
So change has historically been a difficult problem for religious communities to handle. Where does the Bahá'í Faith fit in with this? When we look at the Bahá'í teachings we find that the ideal human state which our religion is seeking to create in its followers is that not of a group of obedient automata, not of a set of robots following fixed instructions. The ideal human state that this religion we belong to is creating is that of creativity, of human beings who are innovative who generate knowledge through invention and insight. Our religion aims at social and individual development. It aims at change. Our religion is focused on creating an ever advancing civilization.
Our approach to change does not end with the death of the individual. Our concept of the after life is not of a static paradise where we sit around in lawns with water going by and eating grapes and things like that. Our concept of the after life is a dynamic one of change and progression beyond the dimensions of space and time, whatever progression may mean in such a setting. Progression - advancement toward God. It is for this reason I believe that the Bahá'í Faith represents to an extent never before seen in human history, represents a religion committed to change. Change is in our bones. Change is intrinsic to the very core of our religion. Change is basic to the purpose and the direction of our religion and you will find that the Four Year Plan calls for change and in many instances for substantial change.
`Abdu'l-Bahá states in a passage which is quoted in "Wellspring of Guidance"; he says "the times never remain the same, for change is a necessary quality and essential attribute of this world, and of time and place." And it is for this reason I believe that one of the major functions of the Universal House of Justice as an institution in the Cause is that of the promotion of change and the appropriate adaptation of the functioning of this religion to accommodate, facilitate, and promote change.
This has very vital implications for us. It means that we need to be well deepened in the Faith. Because if one is going to open the door to change, and we have not only opened the door, we have torn the door off its hinges, if one is to open the door to change as we have done, it is crucial that one derive the insight and wisdom and good judgment to distinguish between those things which should not be changed and should remain constant, and those things which are open to change. If we confuse that there will be all kinds of problems. If we change those things that should remain constant we'll undermine the foundations of the religion and ultimately be disobedient to Bahá'u'lláh. If we allow to remain fixed those things which are open to change, we will retard the purpose of the Faith which is advancement, development, creativity, innovation, an ever advancing civilization.
One of the main purposes of the Covenant is to provide the necessary means for initiative, creativity, and change within the boundaries of the preservation of integrity, purity, and the unity of the Faith. The Covenant has in a very real sense, been given to us by Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá to provide the right framework for change, so we can accommodate and facilitate change while remaining obedient to Bahá'u'lláh. By not changing those things that are constant, and distinguishing between that which is constant and that which is subject to change.
We find in our Faith as others find - who are artists, who are creative, who are great intellectuals, who are scholars - we find that obedience and discipline are essential prerequisites to creativity and change, and it is in that sense that the Covenant must occupy a central role in our lives, not simply to preserve the integrity and unity of the Faith, but much more than that to open the way to legitimate and appropriate change within the realm of that ordained by Bahá'u'lláh.
We need also cultivate that sense of security which is open to appropriate change which provides the necessary degree of flexibility, to the operation of the Faith. We need to avoid rigidity and also avoid the tendency to excessive fluidity, which of course is very disruptive as well as contrary to the teachings of the Faith.
It is for this reason that one finds in several passages in the Four Year Plan and also in the supplementary message to the Bahá'ís of North America and Greenland that the House of Justice emphasized the importance of trust and confidence towards the institutions of the Faith in order that the Cause may realize its potential. Because it is to the institutions of the Faith that we turn for guidance and coordination in steering us appropriately through the dimensions of change in guiding us into those things which are open to change and those things that must always remain fixed and constant. And as the years go by and as the perils of political correctness reach out to us, it will become more and more important to us to be very clear in our minds that there are certain things in our religion that are not open to change because they are ordained by the infallible authority in our Cause and there are certain other things which are open to change where change is welcomed as part of the exercise of human progress and creativity.
As I move towards the conclusion of my talk and it is that of the nature of the Bahá'í community. The point I want to make is that the Four Year Plan lifts the veil. The Four Year Plan lifts the veil and shows us what kind of community we are aiming to create.
And it seems to me it indicates we are aiming to create a religious community which is without precedent in the history of humanity, and which is without parallel in the various communities of mankind.
Let me illustrate my point. One of the major emphasis in the Four Year Plan is that of individual initiative. You'll find this particularly addressed in paragraphs 20, 2l and 22 of the Four Year Plan message: the repeated call to the individual members of the rank and file of the Bahá'í community to exercise an appropriate degree of individual initiative.
We are looking to create a Bahá'í community of activists. Of individuals who are active; who are not passive; who don't just sit there and do whatever they are told to do but who think for themselves; who participate in consultation; who offer their views; who exercise their individual discretion in various ways.
In contrast to so many organizations we see individual initiative and activism as a source of strength rather than weakness. So often organizations see their strength in the fact that they have this captive audience of people who will do whatever they're told: walk to the right, walk to the left, walk straight ahead, stand still, move, run, jump, whatever. We see our strength in individual initiative and activism. We seek to create that kind of community.
Beyond that our concept of a Bahá'í community is as described in paragraph 25 of the Four Year Plan message: a composition of diverse interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress. Not only do we call for individual initiative, but rather we call for diversity and interaction of the various participants in the Bahá'í community.
We do not see the ideal spiritual state as that indicated conventionally in religion: of the individual who retires to a solitary location to contemplate profound spiritual matters who lives as a hermit or a monk, as a recluse in a monastery, or in a desert. Rather, our concept of spiritual progress is of diverse interacting participants engaged in this quest for spiritual and social progress. It is a very, very different kind of view.
Another element of the vision of a Bahá'í community found in the Four Year Plan is the emphasis now placed upon self motivation. Especially in the development of the local community.
There is a very, very radical statement which appears in the messages leading up to the Four Year Plan of December last year and is also referred to in the Ridvan message. And that radical new element is a decision of the Universal House of Justice that starting with Ridvan 1997, all Local Spiritual Assemblies are to be elected only on the first day of Ridvan. The significance of this will become apparent in a few month's time.
Its significance is indicated by the fact that in a message of December 1995 to the Councilors, the House of Justice envisaged that this could lead to a substantial loss in the number of Local Assemblies. What does this mean? It means that henceforth the primary responsibility for the formation of Local Spiritual Assemblies will rest with the individual members of that community. Not in somebody sent from a distant location to round up relatively passive members of the community and say "Today is Ridvan, you haven't heard of Ridvan? Well never mind. It is Ridvan. We're going to go through this election and these nine people, not all of whom may be present, are the members of the Local Assembly and I'll be back next Ridvan and we'll go through the whole thing again." From now on self motivation is going to be central to the life of Bahá'í communities, and this hard decision, if I may call it that, will quite likely lead to a substantial loss in the number of Local Spiritual Assemblies next Ridvan.
If this gloomy prognostication proves to be correct, do not be alarmed, it is part of the healthy constructive growth of the Cause. The House of Justice in one of these several messages of the last several months says "if there is a substantial loss in the number of Local Assemblies at Ridvan 1997, the number will gradually come back and of course ultimately exceed the initial number." It is healthy for us now, at this point, to change the decision that had been made some years ago because of the nature of process thinking; to change the decision and say henceforth its going to be done differently and we're going to emphasize self-motivation in Local Assembly functioning.
It is part and parcel of the evolution of the Bahá'í community to the point that where it reaches a crossroads between quality and quantity, it chooses quality. Obviously it seeks both; we're looking for both quality and quantity. We would prefer that such crossroads decisions never arise, but if they do we will take quality rather than quantity.
Another element of the Bahá'í community, as expressed in the Four Year Plan message, is the renewed emphasis on knowledge and training in the life of Bahá'í communities. We are not saved by faith alone: we require knowledge, we require the development of skills and training. And so you find in the Four Year Plan an emphasis on centers of Bahá'í learning and Institutes - a far greater emphasis than has appeared in any previous plan.
Why? Because process thinking has led us to the point where, henceforth, knowledge, information, training and skills will be vitally important to the life of the Bahá'í community. It means that we are moving in the direction of a Bahá'í community which will not look like a Christian congregation in disguise. It will not consist of a small group of overworked administrators, who we call the Local Spiritual Assembly or the National Spiritual Assembly, surrounded by a congregation of passive participants. It will be a different kind of community from a Christian congregation.
In a so-called "third world", our Bahá'í community will not henceforth look like a missionary religion run by a group of Americans or Persians or Australians or Europeans with a large number of indigenous who basically do what they are told, and follow the instructions issued from the National Center. It will change completely, it will look like a different kind of community from anything found elsewhere.
This new kind of Bahá'í community illuminated by knowledge, diverse interactive participants, individual initiative, self motivation - this new kind of Bahá'í community will not come into being magically during the four years of the Four Year Plan. We are initiating a process, at the end of the four years these characteristics of which I speak will not have occurred in all the places we'd like them to occur, but the next Plan will build on it and the Plan after that.
We have set our course in a new and important direction which may take us many decades to achieve but will lead us to a Bahá'í community like nothing else we have ever seen. We will stand in this way in contrast to the society around us - a society distinguished more and more by alienation and passivity, lacking aspiration or vision, suspicious of others, without bonds of trust and community. A contrast between the Bahá'í community and the condition I have just described will become more and more apparent.
Many of the things we are calling for in this plan are the nuclei of great developments of the future. I look around the Bahá'í world and see the activities now being taken to create centers of Bahá'í learning. Some are very modest beginnings; in some places there is no building and it doesn't matter. In some place, it's fairly rudimentary in terms of what's done and the regularity of how systematic it is and whether there is a halfway decent curriculum or anything like that. But it is a start and I see in these centers of Bahá'í learning - fledgling though they might be - the seed, the beginning of great Bahá'í institutions of learning which will flourish in centuries to come. And those Bahá'ís of the future, hundreds of years beyond us, will look back and wonder at the small beginning made with these centers of Bahá'í learning in the various countries of the world. It is in this sense that I feel the Four Year Plan sets us at a turning point in the development of the Faith.
I have almost concluded my remarks but I have one more major point to make.
In my experience as a Bahá'í - which is an alarmingly long period as Johanna Conrad very kindly pointed out - I have noticed a number of misconceptions which have existed in the folklore of the Bahá'í community over the years and I am delighted to see that three major misconceptions are put to rest in the Four Year Plan message. By "Four Year Plan message", I refer to the Ridvan message and to the supplementary messages which go with it, all of which have been published in the Four Year Plan booklet that I hope you've had a chance to see.
So before I conclude my remarks, I want to refer to these three misconceptions and to indicate how I see the Four Year Plan as having dealt with them and hopefully put them to rest. To a well deserved rest.
The first misconception concerns the importance of education.
The Four Year Plan message seems to me very clearly to draw the attention of Bahá'ís young and old to the fact that the Bahá'í Faith needs well-trained minds. It needs people who understand the Bahá'í teachings, who are literate, who are well informed of world events, and who have a good, sound, strong education, as much as they can get, in accord with their life circumstances, their opportunities, their freedom, their abilities and their skills. In one of the messages of the Four Year Plan, the House of Justice enjoins the Bahá'ís to get trained minds, to contribute to the arts, crafts, and sciences for the advancement of civilization.
In the message to North America the House of Justice calls upon us to seek receptive souls on the campuses of colleges and universities. I mention this because occasionally hear people say "time is too short; divine deadlines have to be met," and so on. And this is certainly true; these are phrases that appear in House of Justice messages. But such phrases have to be looked at in context. Time is short, divine deadlines do have to be met, but we need believers with well-trained minds who are educated, who understand the ways of the world, who are well informed, who are capable of carrying out the work of the cause.
We need these friends with a great huge precondition. If they cannot meet that precondition, then no thanks. If they cannot meet that precondition, forget it. Don't get your education, don't study, don't do anything like that. That precondition is that in the process of getting their education - becoming well informed, becoming capable, acquiring great skills - that these friends remain active and devoted and committed to the work of the Cause. If the process of acquiring eminent skills and education has involved with it the price to be paid of diminishing one's commitment to the work of the Cause then it's too high a price to be paid. Obviously there are times when it is busy, there are examinations, there are things to be done. But nevertheless we look for believers who are not only well educated, very developed in a highly eminent and capable way, but at the same time have not relaxed their devotion to the Cause, their adherence to the Covenant, the commitment to the work of the Cause and the support of its institutions.
Those who can combine both of these disciplines are those who are like jewels to us as we move into the future. And that misconception about education I think is very much resolved by the Four Year Plan.
The second of the three misconceptions that I see resolved in the Four Year Plan concerns women.
As you know, our Writings very clearly specify the vital importance we attach to the application and realization of the equality of men and women. And as I travel around the world I find that from time to time there is a desire and a temptation to abridge this commitment in the name of traditional and cultural practices.
Yes, we all know that "equality of men and women is important in the Bahá'í Faith but this is something we should watch for the future. If we do it now our culture will be disrupted. The traditions which are central to our way of life will be overturned and there will be disruption."
That line of thinking I believe is totally invalid. And I think the Four Year Plan in several of its messages: the message to Africa, the message to the nations of the Pacific, and the Pacific Rim, the message to the Indian subcontinent, the message to west and central Asia as well as other places - all indicate that the approach of the Faith is that of uncompromising determination to bring about the full implementation of the equality of the sexes and if this involves change in traditional cultures, so be it. If that's the price we have to pay, so be it. We are committed to putting into practice what Bahá'u'lláh has called for. If there was to be no change in traditional culture, then what is the purpose of the Bahá'í Faith coming? Why are these teachings necessary if they are not to produce and promote change?
In that sense one finds the Four Year Plan repeatedly directs our attention to a greater endeavor: to bring about a full implementation of the equality of men and women. And this applies to all of us - to those of us who've come from a traditional background where equality has not been apparent, and have immigrated to the United States, as well as those who live in other cultural settings. We are committed fully to the equality of men and women irrespective of what your cultural background, or my cultural background is, and that misconception is very clearly resolved in this Four Year Plan.
The final misconception concerns the role of the United States.
As one travels, one hears American Bahá'ís, and others who are not American, question whether in fact the wonderful things said about the United States of America in the Bahá'í Writings - said by `Abdu'l-Bahá and by the Guardian - whether they still apply. And this line of argument generally takes the form of the relatively modest number of enrollments (which is a concern to the institutions of the Faith in the United States as well as elsewhere), to certain excesses of the American way of life, and to all kinds of other things. Those who are particularly extreme might advocate that America has lost its primacy. They might say "Well, that referred to the past it doesn't apply today. It's all been fulfilled. It's a different condition," or they might also say that "Oh, there are similar statements about every other country in the world, but only the ones about America get published and publicized."
There are a number of ingenious approaches to that line of thinking, and as somebody who, despite what I said last year in Wilmette, is not an American, and is in fact from Australia - it is a challenge to somebody who is not an American to give appropriate weight to the remarkable statements made in the Bahá'í Writings about the United States of America. Well, all of this is entirely irrelevant now because the Universal House of Justice - with the authority assigned to the House of Justice - has in the message to the North American believers answered this question very definitively, in my opinion.
In paragraph l4 of that message, the House of Justice quotes one of the very lavish statements of Shoghi Effendi about the United States Bahá'ís, the outstanding protagonists of the Cause of God. etc. etc., and then it makes its pronouncement and the pronouncement of the House of Justice is that when we survey the distinguished accomplishments of the American Bahá'ís during the past three years we see striking evidence of the continuing applicability of this description.
As far as I'm concerned the discussion's over. The House of Justice has there quoted a statement of Shoghi Effendi offering great and appropriate praise to the American Bahá'ís, and the House of Justice says there is evidence of the continuing applicability of these remarks and this assessment of Shoghi Effendi. So those who are concerned about the role of the United States of America in the Bahá'í community may rest easy that this matter has now been resolved by the House of Justice.
I now bring my remarks to a conclusion. My purpose has simply been to indicate to you what I see to be some of the significance of the Four Year Plan.
We're obviously living in very dramatic times. Great changes are occurring on a daily basis. The response of the Bahá'í World to the Four Year Plan has been, I think, without precedence in comparing it to the response to any previous Plan. We have wonderful things happening, we have great opportunities, we have an increased receptivity on the part of the people of the world to the message of the Cause. Days lie ahead of us which will be challenging, which will include difficulties, which will call for sacrifice, but beyond all that, the days which lie ahead of us as members of the Bahá'í Community will be exciting beyond any power we have to imagine and will lead us to victories the like of which we cannot yet even dimly comprehend.