Cultural Pluralism in the Bahá'í Community
by Peggy Catonpublished in dialogue, 1:1, pages 7-9
Los Angeles: 1986
Many of us grew up in homogeneous communities, communities where we held shared values and common social institutions. We felt a sense of rightness, of belonging, of wholeness. We were participating in a system we felt was based on absolute and time-tested truth, and we retained from it a sense of knowing what was right and what was wrong.
When we became Bahá'ís, we accepted a larger system, one that incorporated other religions and cultures besides our own. We began participating in building new social institutions as well as new values and behavioral models with other Bahá'ís who come from different backgrounds. We became part of a more heterogeneous community in which people did not necessarily share our experiences and perceptions. It became necessary for each of us to shift from the attitude of having the only answer to accepting that others have beliefs and customs that may be just as valid as our own. The Bahá'í experience has required all of us to shift from a single to a pluralistic perspective.
The former view implies that only one way of thinking and acting is permissible or correct. The latter view holds that there are many possible and acceptable ways to feel about such universal issues as the nature of the individual, family, and society. Throughout the world there are systems of values and belief orientations that have worked and made sense in those communities for generations, if not centuries. From a pluralistic point of view, there is no absolute rightness or inherent superiority to any of these systems. As with each of us, however, members of various communities often perceive their system as having merit or truth above all other systems.
The idea of relative truth implies a situational or contextual approach to living, where a solution is dictated by attention to the various details of the situation and how they affect the participants. Thus a strictly principled approach, particularly one based on the idea of one absolute truth, may be superseded by higher principles or solutions based on other factors.
For example, in a values problem that involves the dilemma of giving sanctuary to Central American refugees in the United States, individuals have decided on a solution based on their own values orientation: such as the priority of the principle of saving lives and abiding by international law relating to refugees over the principle of breaking the law of one’s own country. The contextually oriented individual will examine the details of the situation, look for all possible solutions, and more importantly, assess the immediate and long-range effect on the individual and his or her relationship with the refugees, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the community.
In becoming Bahá'ís we may feel we have replaced our original set of traditional verities with another more inclusive set. The Bahá'í teachings present us with the concepts of progressive revelation, cultural context, and a unity in diversity. Yet this may seem to present a dilemma, one which some of us solve by either interpreting this new Bahá'í system through our former system or by accepting differences temporarily while waiting for an eventual evolution to a unified and integrated “new world order.”
Coming from our past experience and need for secure absolutes, we often search for something that will recreate that security on a universal scale. Nonetheless, in each of our minds, this new Bahá'í system often unconsciously takes on the character of our previous patterns of thought and behavior. So, if we were used to church services, our meetings have that flavor. If we were used to a mosque our meetings appear in that form, and so on. In our search for security, we tend to claim that there is one true meeting style, ours, and we fail to see how much what we call Bahá'í is formed and influenced by our personal experiences.
One way we handle the anxiety that a multi-cultural or multi-ideational situation produces is by attempting to avoid or deny differences. For instance, we may say that everyone is the same in God’s eyes. Still, there are differences, differences that we bring with us and which will continue to exist under the Bahá'í umbrella into the anticipated Golden Age of a Bahá'í-oriented world civilization. To expect, even at that future time, that we will find the homogeneity of a small community within a global network is to project our background into the future, and, in effect, to forget the diversity dimension of unity.
Diversity, while highly desirable and recommended by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in his flower garden analogy, is not in and of itself conducive to unity. Different value systems result in behavioral styles which may seem “wrong” to members of different cultures and, thus, be a source of tension or conflict within the Bahá'í community. For example, those ascribing to informality, wearing casual or sporty clothes to a meeting, and those ascribing to formality, donning their best, might instinctively feel at odds with one another. Persons raised in an authority-oriented system would insist on knowing what his respected teacher or her administrative body would say, while the individualist would emphasize the nature of independent investigation and grassroots initiative. All of these people find their justification in the Bahá'í writings and even use their own personal compilations of quotations or case histories as evidence.
The above examples are, of course, simplified. In actuality, we ascribe to a complex set of values, both culturally and individually determined, which we carry and act from when encountering each other. And it is precisely in such encounters with persons from other cultural backgrounds that we are tested in the give and take essential in consultation and collective action. In the midst of these efforts to set the style and content of Bahá'í endeavors we may feel out of place while at the same time see others as out of place. We long for a cohesive social system in which we can feel at home, knowing how to behave and what to expect.
Traditionally, groups have competed for dominance in order to establish a cohesive social system. The ruling group defines the social and cultural rules which then form the context within which other groups operate. In the United States, for example, the Anglo-American group, and their values have tended to dominate: individualism, the Protestant ethic, competition, and democracy are the overarching values of this society.
To a certain extent, this has also been true within the Bahá'í community. Although goals and plans are part of all Bahá'í community life the world over, different cultures have responded to the Bahá'í administration in unique ways. In the U.S., there appears to be a higher degree of direction and control over the activities of Bahá'ís than in other parts of the world. The Anglo-American system of administration, dress and behavior, emphasis and thought patterns have formed the code which community members have been exhorted to follow. Emphasis upon plans, goals, and objectives in terms of achievements of externally verifiable statistics shows us a community that is future oriented, concerned with progress, planning, material goals (albeit in the guise of spiritual goals), measurable units, and individual responsibility, all these being American and particularly Anglo-American characteristics.
I suggest that the behavior patterns of the American Bahá'í community are not accurately reflective of a world culture, but have been justified as an interim solution to the need for social cohesion and unified direction within the American setting. Within this context of cultural dominance, other groups such as blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, youth and intellectuals have formed American Bahá'í subcultures. They operate both within the dominant system when necessary and within their own system when possible—reflecting minority patterns within the wider American community. Thus at a large gathering or general meeting you might see members of a number of groups, all participating in a program which follows a certain format and involves behavioral styles which are, for the most part, patterned after those of the dominant group.
Attendance at general Bahá'í meetings by members of these subcultures varies according to their commitment to the group, adherence to the basic style of the dominant group, and comfort level at the meetings. They may also participate in their own activities. Although we may hold meetings that address minority group issues and needs, this does not necessarily mean we are dealing effectively with cultural diversity. In many areas, Los Angeles for example, we are actually drifting away from integration — both ideologically and culturally.
The recent immigration of large numbers of Iranians to North America has created a special case for Bahá'ís to deal with the reality of cultural pluralism and its related stress. In some cities, their numbers and cohesiveness have gradually made their group the dominant one, displacing the Anglo-Americans. This has caused a great deal of stress, and appears to be the cause of the disappearance of many Americans from the mainstream of local activities. Statistics can be misleading, but the steady decline of participation in community affairs has become clearly evident and has risen to the top of many local Assemblies’ agendas.
To acknowledge respectfully the validity of another culture is not necessarily to agree with it or to give up one’s own. Tolerant respect works well on an abstract level when a group is over “there” living in their own community—but not when they are working on a committee with us. Here, it is essential that one begins to learn about the other person’s point of view and be able to view the situation from his or her perspective, even to work from within that person’s frame of reference. This might be equivalent to learning a cultural language, much as I would learn a verbal language when wanting to converse with someone who doesn’t speak English. While this does not necessarily imply loss or change of personal identity, it does provide for greater flexibility in communicating. With it comes the recognition that others may not be willing or capable of doing the same. At the very least it may alleviate discomfort and frustration. In addition, it may allow you to communicate your view in terms the other may be able to better understand, and at least acknowledge, if not accept, your ideas.
As Bahá'ís, we adhere to an ideology that both encourages diversity and insists on harmonious co-existence. We are presented with diversity in our communities due to the multi-cultural appeal of the Bahá'í teachings. In working out such a harmonious situation, we often find discrepancies between our professed beliefs and our actions. If we cannot effectively deal with those discrepancies, we may pretend that they do not exist. “Racism, what racism? We are all Bahá'ís.” However, we all know that having the ideology is not the same as having it realized.
In these days, it would be better to try and understand each other, to accept that there are cultural and belief systems as valid as our own that can and do operate within the Bahá'í context, and to realize that the synthesis of Bahá'í behavior is evolving and will never, even at the time of its full flowering, consist of the uniform social system that was the reality of our forebears.