Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Culture Wars or Consultation?

Prayer and protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court. Photo courtesy of AOL News

I've been thinking a lot about the so called "Culture Wars" for a few months now, especially with the presidential campaign season in full swing and politicians, pundits and other members of the chattering class all weighing in on the divisive and controversial issues of the day, such as the U.S. Supreme Court's recent upholding of a ban on "partial birth abortion". What is it with American society and war anyway? We've had a War on Poverty, a War on Drugs, a War on Terror and now we are in a Culture War about everything from gay marriage to whether or not a Christmas Tree should be called a "Holiday Tree" instead. This Baha'i thinker is personally, war-weary. I just can't listen to the shouting match called "debate" in the popular media, in politics or in the academy anymore, much of which is either driven by or in reaction to the misguided political religion I have spoken of in the past.

In Baha'i spiritual practice there is a process of collaborative investigation of truth, and decision making called "consultation". Here are a few of the gem-like statements that Baha'u'llah makes about consultation:

The Great Being saith: The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion. Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.
(Baha'u'llah, Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 168)

Consultation bestoweth greater awareness and transmuteth conjecture into certitude. It is a shining light which, in a dark world, leadeth the way and guideth. For everything there is and will continue to be a station of perfection and maturity. The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.
(Compilations, NSA USA - Developing Distinctive Baha'i Communities)

The intent of what hath been revealed from the Pen of the Most High is that consultation may be fully carried out among the friends, inasmuch as it is and will always be a cause of awareness and of awakening and a source of good and well-being.
(Compilations, NSA USA - Developing Distinctive Baha'i Communities)

Consultation is a spiritual discipline in which the individuals involved freely and frankly offer their views, not as right or true, but as a "contribution to the consensus of opinion" at which point those views become independent of whoever offered them and belong to the consultative process itself and may be adopted, amended or abandoned entirely. If a consensus cannot be reached a majority of voices must prevail and all involved submit to the majority decision, whatever their personal beliefs may be. Participants move forward in unity and follow through on the decision faithfully in a way that allows the merits of the decision to become clear with time and decisions that may have been wrong to be corrected through the same consultative process. For me, however, it is not so much the practice of consultation that I find most interesting, but the sense that Baha'u'llah is not simply encouraging people to communicate or make decisions more effectively but is making a comment on the nature of knowledge itself.

In the above quotes from Baha'i Scripture, Baha'u'llah describes consultation as a "lamp of guidance that leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding", that it "transmuteth conjecture into certitude", that the "maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation", and that "it is and will always be a cause of awareness and of awakening". What I take from these and other quotes about consultation in Baha'i Scripture is that knowledge itself is most effectively acquired and gains its fullest maturation through relationships distinguished by a high degree of unity. Truth seeking is not an individual, but fundamentally relational process, with both its beginning and end being the relationship between the soul and God. When I think about it this way, it suggests to me that no matter how much knowledge I may acquire through my personal efforts, it is in relations that whatever I know will gain full maturity. This means that I need God and I need other human beings as well, including those who disagree with me. 'Abdu'l-Baha said it better than I ever could:

If...people meet together to seek for truth, they must begin by cutting themselves free from all their own special conditions and renouncing all preconceived ideas. In order to find truth we must give up our prejudices, our own small trivial notions; an open receptive mind is essential. If our chalice is full of self, there is no room in it for the water of life. The fact that we imagine ourselves to be right and everybody else wrong is the greatest of all obstacles in the path towards unity, and unity is necessary if we would reach truth, for truth is one.
(Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 136)

It is way past time to call for a cease-fire as far as the Culture Wars go. What Americans need is unity. Unity is the principle and consultation is the practice. Let's give it a try.