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Emergence: Dimensions of a New World Order, by Charles Lerche:
Review

by Sen McGlinn

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 3:1
London: Association for Bahá'í Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1993-07-01
Emergence, Dimensions of a New World Order
Author: edited by Charles Lerche
Publisher: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, London, 1991
Review by: Sen McGlinn


Emergence is a collection of 6 essays which are intended to outline the dimensions of a new world order. Because there is no discussion of the relationship of the long-term vision of the first essay to the world order of the lesser peace which is discussed in the other essays, or of the role of some important institutions in the world order, what we actually have is several unrelated essays which highlight particular aspects of what the Bahá'ís intend for the world, while the articulation of the whole remains obscure.

The best of the essays are nevertheless very good. Arthur Dahl writes on The World Order of Nature. The ecological warnings are not new, and the realization that only global approaches can deal with the stresses which poor and industrially developed economies alike place on the environment is coming to be generally accepted. What was interesting here was Dahl's definition of the type of environmental concern which the Bahá'í Faith fosters. While we are intimately related to the world of nature, this is not nature-romanticism. Dahl speaks of managing nature wisely and the 'management of the biosphere'. This is based on a review of the Bahá'í Writings on nature, and on human nature. The emphasis is firmly placed in this essay on the oneness of humanity as the root principle, and the development of a world commonwealth of nations as the key instrument, which must govern our approach to global problems. The weak point in the essay is its attempt to align 'Abdu'l-Bahá's explanations of evolution literally with current knowledge of evolutionary processes, an attempt which leaves some rather large unanswered questions which distract from the point Dahl is making.

The editor, Charles Lerche, has contributed another valuable essay, on Human nature and the problem of peace. This outlines, and debunks, the 'falsehood that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive'. His most compelling argument against this view of human nature is that it uses evidence of the widespread aggressiveness of states - itself far from consistent or compelling - to argue for the natural aggressiveness of the individual (which does not follow), and then completes the circle by arguing that, since we are naturally aggressive, states will inevitably reflect this. The point deserves further development, with an examination of why, in some states and under certain conditions, a substantial part of a population can be persuaded to be aggressive and cruel.

It is unfortunate that Lerche includes, without comment, passages from the Bahá'í Writings which, prima facia, contradict his thesis concerning human nature: "self-love is kneaded into the very clay of man" (Secret of Divine Civilization 96-7, cited p. 119) and "If a man's Divine nature dominates his human nature, we have a saint." (Paris Talks 60, cited p. 117). Either these passages should be omitted, or the fact that they apparently say that human nature is sinful and humans are naturally selfish has to be addressed.

Holly Hanson contributes an essay on a Bahá'í Development Strategy, which identifies development strategies as characteristic expressions of the donor society's economic programme, be it capitalist or socialist. A comparison of capitalist, socialist, and Bahá'í development programmes, with the concepts of human nature and human society which lie behind them, leads to an exposition of the Bahá'í economic programme. This is seen, not as a middle way, but as a third way, incorporating as it does dimensions of human potential and purpose which the varieties of materialist philosophy leave untapped. The author thinks clearly and writes persuasively. In Eastern Europe, and elsewhere where the Bahá'ís face the temptation of placing the Faith somewhere on the ideological spectrum between socialist and capitalist, this essay will be particularly useful.

Peter Mühlschlegel has contributed an essay on A universal political thesis, which he formulates in these terms:

    Any foreign policy which serves goals other than the immediate transformation of the United nations into a fully functioning world federation, bears within it the seeds of future world wars and is equivalent to a crime against humanity.
This is an extremist formulation, for it would equate programmes of decolonisation, regional organisation, of bilateral disarmament, of humanitarian and educational assistance, with crimes against humanity, in as much as they do not immediately serve the federalist goal. This is clearly not the Bahá'í position, since the Universal House of Justice, in The Promise of World Peace, has given a very positive assessment of such 'favourable signs' and 'practical measures.' Nor, it becomes clear, is this really Mühlschlegel's view. A slip of the pen has given this most crucial paragraph of the essay an unnecessarily fundamentalist tone. What Mühlschlegel is actually concerned with is the concept of sovereignty, in military, economic, and monetary senses, exercised at international, national, institutional and individual levels. His astringent criticism of the system - or metaphor - of national sovereignty could better have been tempered with Shoghi Effendi's observation that, in the world commonwealth, the autonomy of the state members is to be definitely and completely safeguarded (World Order of Bahá'u'lláh [WOB] 203). Mühlschlegel attributes the continuing power of the thesis of national sovereignty to "A small group of politicians, diplomats, and military officers [who] do not wish to recognize that a radically new era has begun". If this were true, we would only have to remove this clique from power, and all would be well with the world. But the real causes are more complex, involving vestigial tribalism, insecurity, and a confusion of one's cultural identity with the forms of national power. There is a general, almost universal, tendency to conceive of humanity in terms of 'us and them' rather than as one whole, and these attitudes, rather than a group of 'criminals' who are 'obstructing progress', constitute the blockage which must be overcome.

Whether the issue of world federalism should, as Mühlschlegel argues, be made "one of the central themes of Bahá'í activity" remains a moot point. I would at least want to caution that, before venturing on such a project, we need a clear understanding of the process of federalization, as it is working at regional and global levels, and a clear view of the structure of the Commonwealth of nations towards which we are working. It might also be valuable to ponder why the great tides of changes which are affecting every aspect of life have been divided into God's major and God's minor plan, and the role of the Bahá'ís limited to the latter.

Brian Lepard has provided a brief history of the development leading to the United Nations, and an assessment of its achievements and current shortcomings. He then looks forward to a world commonwealth of nations, a universal federation of states, to be established in the near future.

This brings us to the first essay in the volume, Loni Bramson-Lerche's An Analysis of the Bahá'í World Order Model. Whereas Lepard, and all of the other writers in this volume, do not look further than the World Order of the Lesser Peace, Bramson-Lerche looks beyond the Federation of Nations, which she treats as an interim stage, to the Most Great Peace. And in the Most Great Peace, according to her understanding, the Universal House of Justice is "the supreme legislative and judicial body both in the Bahá'í administrative order and the Bahá'í World Order model". The institutions of the world government, (the Supreme Tribunal, International Executive, and World parliament) have apparently withered away. There is one passing reference to the role given by Bahá'u'lláh to 'just kings and presidents' in governing the world, but this is not explicated. Her ideal model is clearly of a monolithic church state embracing the whole world. There are passages enough which indicate that the civil order will be brought under the umbrella of Bahá'u'lláh, and some which even indicate that some at least of the institutions of the world government may be replaced by the Universal House of Justice (though the textual status of the latter passages leaves much to be desired), but these are not cited here. Nor is there any reference to those passages which would indicate that the institutions of a civil government are to continue.(1) Thus the very important question of church and state is left unaddressed: is the state to be baptized only to be abolished, or does it have a continuing role as part of the organic structure of the Bahá'í World Order? I think myself that the shape of the World Order at the time of the Bahá'í Commonwealth will be considerably more complex than Bramson-Lerche supposes, and will contain a permanent place for kings and rulers and civil government.

The identification of the Universal House of Justice with the supreme legislative and judicial bodies of the Bahá'í World Order model is supported in this essay by a single quotation from 'Abdu'l-Bahá, taken from The Promulgation of Universal Peace (455).

    He has ordained and established the House of Justice, which is endowed with a political as well as a religious function, the consummate union and blending of church and state. . . A universal, or international, house of Justice shall also be organized. Its rulings shall be in accordance with the commands and teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, and that which the Universal House of Justice ordains shall be obeyed by all mankind. This international House of Justice shall be appointed and organized from the Houses of Justice of the whole world, and all the world shall come under its administration.
This passage comes from stenographic notes made by Esther Foster from an extempore translation of a talk by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, for which we do not have an autograph original or a "verbatim record in Persian" (Unfolding Destiny 90). It is therefore to be classed as 'pilgrim's notes' rather than Bahá'í Writings. Shoghi Effendi has said that the interpreters of those days gave "imperfect, not to say faulty, renderings" (ibid. 89, see also p. 208), and 'Abdu'l-Bahá himself, referring to these talks, speaks of "errors and deviations committed by previous interpreters" (Promulgation of Universal Peace xx). Moreover slight changes were made in the text of at least some talks, in the compilation of Promulgation of Universal Peace, from earlier versions published in Star of the West, for reasons which are not clear (Bahá'í Studies Bulletin, 6:2-3, Feb. 1992, p. 81).

Moreover, while 'Abdu'l-Bahá says, according to these notes, that the Universal House of Justice has political functions, it is the author who has identified these with the legislative and the judicial body of the commonwealth. One might set against this another quotation, also from Promulgation of Universal Peace, and with no more authority than the passage above:

    The Bahá'í Cause covers all economic and social questions under the heading and ruling of its laws. The essence of the Bahá'í spirit is that, in order to establish a better social order and economic condition, there must be allegiance to the laws and principles of government. Under the laws which are to govern the world, the socialists may justly demand human rights but without resort to force and violence. The governments will enact these laws, establishing just legislation... (238)
Thus the quotations which Bramson-Lerche brings forward cannot bear the weight she puts on it, and the essay falls into two halves - a description of the Civil Order of the lesser peace and another of the religious order of the Most Great Peace.

The book as a whole is disappointing. Despite the high academic standard of the papers by Dahl, Hanson and Lerche, a certain spark is missing. I feel here that the authors' attention is focused on the visible artifact of scholarship - the published paper - rather than on issues being debated in the community. The genre of the academic paper in its various forms arose out of communities of specialists engaged in teaching, writing, conferencing and facing issues which needed to be argued and which mattered enough to warrant real engagement. In recent years Bahá'í scholars have discovered that the Faith can be presented in this format, and so gain new audiences and a new respectability. But this is old wine in new bottles, an essentially apologetic presentation of the Faith without the elements of fresh investigation and debate which gave rise to the form of the scholarly paper in the first place, and though the forms are satisfied, the result is rarely exciting.

The criticism above of Bramson-Lerche's paper may be mitigated by noting that her essay contains a passage on 'the catastrophe' (pp. 26-32 and note 144, pp. 59-63) which is the most vigorously expressed and readable passage in the whole collection. It deserves to be a paper in its own right. It is lively and coherent, and the author obviously believes very much in the position she is arguing (that 'the catastrophe' is the ongoing disaster of the 20th century, now drawing to a close, rather than some yet-to-occur event). It is to be hoped that the editor can find more writing like this for the next volume.

End Notes

  1. e.g. Shoghi Effendi's statements that these institutions are established "once for all" (WOB 202) and that it is not the Bahá'ís' purpose "to allow the machinery of their administration to supersede the government of their respective countries" (WOB 66), while Bahá'u'lláh says that: "The one true God, exalted be His glory, hath bestowed the government of the earth upon the kings. . . That which He hath reserved for Himself are the cities of men's hearts. . ." (Gleanings CXV). There is also a passage in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament: "This House of Justice enacteth the laws and the government enforceth them. The legislative body must reinforce the executive, the executive must aid and assist the legislative body so that through the close union and harmony of these two forces, the foundation of fairness and justice may become firm and strong, that all the regions of the world may become even as Paradise itself." (emphasis added)
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