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A hierarchical tree-like model of the world can aid in understanding the following questions: are values relative or absolute? Is it old-fashioned to live with a moral code? Should we be conservative or progressive? Should our beliefs change over time?
Presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #109, Bosch Baha'i School (May 2012). Mirrored with permission from

Role of Principles in the Bahá'í Faith:
Principles and Fashion

by Farjam Majd

published in Lights of Irfan, 14, pages 261-280
Wilmette, IL: Haj Mehdi Armand Colloquium, 2013
Abstract: Are moral laws and values relative or absolute? Is living according to long-established moral values old-fashioned? How did past religions fall into ritualistic imitations? Should we be more conservative or progressive? And more generally, what do we believe in? Why do we believe in it? Should our beliefs change over time?

To explore these questions systematically, a hierarchical or tree-like model of the world is presented including two tree structures each having nodes and links defining multiple levels of organization: a system tree (specific to general) and a type tree (general to specific). Any entity at all, an object, a principle, a process, and the like may be represented as a node at some level in these two tree structures. This hierarchical model holds within itself and clearly manifests many important and inherent relationships between the entities it represents by virtue of the position of those entities on the trees. One of the relationships is simultaneity, which holds that properties at each level of a tree, both system and type, are simultaneously true; a round wall may be made of square bricks without contradiction. Another important relationship is relativity which provides that the more general entities (root in a type tree and leaves in a system tree) are more absolute with fewer alternatives, while the more specific entities are more relative with more alternatives.

With the aid of this model, relativity and simultaneity relationships may be viewed as a formulation of the principle of Unity in Diversity in the Bahá'í Faith. Additionally, the age old dichotomy of conservative-progressive is shown not to present a conflict in this model. On the contrary, they are shown to be necessary and gradual paradigm shifts when traversing the hierarchical model from root to leaves. It is also shown that the essence of an idea or root principle may be identified by pruning away the practical or non-essential artifacts of the idea, and that true moral laws and values are not relative, but their applications are. Another important facet of the relativity relationship is prejudices and blind imitations about "how things should be done," which often develop because people misidentify the levels to which those "things" belong in the type tree.

The principles revealed by Bahá'u'lláh are shown to be general principles at the root of the type tree and while in their application variations exist, in their essence they are unchangeable truths. Thus, it is argued that being principled has nothing to do with being old-fashioned or new-fashioned; or conservative or progressive because principles are timeless. The main conclusion drawn is that Bahá'ís must be open to alternative implementations of various principles, while at the same time being unshakably steadfast in regards to the foundational principles laid down by Bahá'u'lláh, and be assured that they are not making any wrong fashion statements by being steadfast.

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