are all religions equal?

Another question coming from Reddit here, this time from the /r/AskReligion subreddit: “Why do some people believe all religions are equal?” And this one has a pretty simple answer, at least, from a Bahá’í perspective.

Bahá’ís believe that all the world’s great religions are, in fact, one religion that has been revealed progressively over time by different Manifestations of one and the same God—Abraham, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh.

The fact that these Manifestations have differed from each other doesn’t mean that God changed; instead, it means that they each revealed God’s word in a way that was suited to the capacity and to the reality of the people to whom they appeared. The fact that the great religions differ from one another, then, is due to them being revealed at different times to different peoples, as well as to the rituals that human beings have built up around the essential spiritual message they were given.

This is why you’ll often hear Bahá’ís talk about all the great religions being paths to God: They’ve all been part of a long process of education that has spanned all of human history, and that will continue into the future.

If you’re interested, there’s a lot to read about this process of progressive revelation on the official website of the Bahá’í Faith.

good books to help you start learning about the bahá’í faith

People often come to visit /r/bahai (Reddit’s Bahá’í group) to ask questions. Every now and then, people drop by with the question: “Where do I start learning about the Bahá’í Faith?”. Here’s my answer to a recent thread, specifically asking for books to read to get a good overview of the Bahá’í Faith.

A good place to start if you’re looking for Baha’i books is the Baha’i Reference Library, which has a number of authoritative Baha’i texts. You can also find all of these for purchase at the Baha’i Bookstore online, and for free in e-book form.

The order you read them in kind of depends on your own background and what you’re interested in, but a good place to start is with Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words, which is like a distillation of the spiritual teachings that lie at the core of all of the world’s great religions.

If you have a strong mystical bent, you might want to follow that up with Bahá’u’lláh’s Seven Valleys and Four Valleys, or Gems of Divine Mysteries. Both of these are essentially letters to individuals who had asked about certain spiritual truths, such as the path taken by a soul on its spiritual journey.

If you’re really interested in Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on the evolution of religion throughout history, and His interpretation of past religious prophecies, you should definitely read the Book of Certitude, aka the Kitáb-i-Íqán. I’ve known a lot of people who’ve started learning about the Bahá’í Faith through this book; it really delivers some penetrating spiritual insights.

There are also more general introductory books about the Bahá’í Faith that are available. Two commonly recommended books for those interested in reading about the Bahá’í Faith are A Short History of the Bahá’í Faith by Peter Smith, and A Short Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith by Moojan Momen. If you want a very quick foretaste of both books, you can check out this combined review. Smith has also published a newer book, An Introduction to the Baha’i Faith, which you might want to consider as well.

countering hate and violence

Someone posted a question on the Baha’i group on Reddit, asking “What can be done by one person to counter hate/violence in the world?” It was a great question, so I decided to try and give it an answer. Here goes.

As I see it, the most potent antidote to a rising tide of hate and violence is to help yourself and others around you—especially young people—to raise their capacity to show spiritual qualities such as love, kindness, steadfastness, justice, reliance on God and compassion, and to serve humanity selflessly.

Get involved in a junior youth group and give young people a space where they can learn what it means to transform themselves and their community at the same time. Or get involved as a teacher of children’s classes so you can give younger children the spiritual foundation they’ll need to become agents of change within their communities. Work with a teaching team so that you don’t burn yourself out, and so that you can coordinate your actions with others.

It’s important that we not underestimate the uplifting and transforming power of these seemingly simple acts of service. Carried out consistently, persistently, and with a spirit of service, they can completely change the face of our communities—not only Baha’i communities, but the greater community.

If you want to see what this can eventually lead to, check out the Frontiers of Learning video. In particular, the section from Colombia brings me a lot of hope, but all of them show the transforming power of collective action within the framework of the Plan.

the five-year plan

So some people on Reddit were talking about Bahá’í jargon recently, and someone asked for the definition of the Five-Year Plan—because it’s been “evolving so much, I don’t know what it currently is anymore”. Here, then, is a stab at a definition.

Literally, the series of Five Year Plans are simply global plans, carried out under the guidance of the Universal House of Justice, to implement the Divine Plan as elaborated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in His Tablets of the Divine Plan. There have been other “Five Year Plans” in the past, but the current series of four consecutive plans began in 2001 and will last until 2021, to be followed by further plans.

The current series of plans has been characterized by two principal, complementary movements, which have remained the focus of each plan in the series:

  1. The movement of increasing numbers of collaborators through the training institute process—which offers them training to offer specific, concrete acts of service, including but not limited to the “core activities”—study circles, children’s classes, junior youth groups, and devotional meetings;
  2. The movement of clusters from one stage of development to the next, where each stage is characterized by a higher level of intensity, organization, and systematization.

The first in the series of Five Year Plans (2001–2006) introduced these two complimentary movements, and provided an opportunity for national Bahá’í communities to define “clusters” as distinct geographical divisions within their countries. This was done to break down the task of measuring community development and growth to a more manageable sub-national level.

This was also when most people were introduced to study circles and to the materials of the training institute. At this time, not many people grasped the purpose of the training institute, believing it to be yet another deepening program among many others. This perception gradually began to shift as Bahá’ís began to implement the institute process across the world, building up experience and reflecting on which kinds of implementations worked and which didn’t. Children’s classes and devotional meetings were also introduced as core activities, to be open to all.

The second in the series of Five Year Plans (2006–2011) introduced the junior youth spiritual empowerment programme as an element of the plan, as communities worldwide identified the need to engage young people between the ages of 11–14 as a particularly receptive population. At this point, what’s now known as Ruhi Book 5 was added to the main sequence of institute courses, allowing participants in the institute process to receive training on how to engage and empower junior youth to arise and serve humanity.

One of the main numeric goals of this particular plan called for the establishment of 1,500 intensive programs of growth in clusters around the world. This entailed the establishment in these clusters of a working, self-sustaining, and ever-expanding institute process in which new collaborators could be trained in specific acts of service and then arise to carry forward that same process. As Bahá’ís embraced the process and arose to serve, striving to understand what an intensive program of growth should look like in their clusters, a great deal of learning was generated that would inform future plans.

The third in the series of Five Year Plans (2011–2016) set a new numeric goal of 5,000 programs of growth worldwide. In this case, the requirement was that there simply be a program of growth—i.e., an institute process operating at any level of intensity. At this point, many of the clusters that had established an intensive program of growth during the previous plan began assisting believers in adjoining clusters to establish the institute process there. The concept of “milestones” was also elaborated during this plan; using this terminology, the numeric goal for this plan was for 5,000 clusters (or fully one-third of all clusters worldwide) to reach the first milestone.

It was also during this plan that the construction of new Houses of Worship were announced in several countries and clusters worldwide. The importance of nurturing the devotional character of a community through devotional gatherings become much clearer as Bahá’ís gained a better understanding of the connection between worship and service, and the unique role of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár in community life.

The fourth in the series of Five Year Plans (2016–2021) is the one we’re in now, and it calls for raising the level of intensity in each of the 5,000+ clusters targeted during the previous plan, so that each of these clusters can be said to have an intensive program of growth in place (i.e. a working, self-sustaining, and ever-expanding institute process). In other words, each of these clusters are to reach the second milestone or beyond during this plan. At this point, enough learning has been generated through the experiences of Bahá’í communities around the world that the framework of the plans is clear and needs only to be exploited to its fullest potential.

tl;dr: An evolving series of plans with the overall aim of developing the capacity of more and more individuals, communities and institutions to serve humanity. Each plan in this series has had its own particular focus and goals, but each one has built on the last and served to carry forward two complimentary movements: The movement of increasing numbers of collaborators through the training institute process, and the movement of clusters from one stage of development (or organization/systematization) to the next.

fasting month

burning sunriseToday, Bahá’ís all around the world—including yours truly—begin to observe the Fast! The Bahá’í Fast occurs every year during the month of March, and consists of nineteen days during which Bahá’ís from the ages of 15 to 70 years abstain from eating or drinking from sunrise ’til sunset. The Fast comes to an end with the celebration of Naw-Rúz, which takes place on the spring equinox, which falls on March 19th/20th this year. Naw-rúz is a celebration of revival, renewal, and springtime, in both the physical and spiritual senses. Fasting is a period of preparation for this springtime, during which we not only fast physically, but pay special attention to our spiritual life as well, in order to come into a new year with our souls refreshed and strengthened.

This year, owing to the recent changes to the Bahá’í calendar, the Bahá’í Fast begins and ends a day earlier than we’re used to—from 1–19 March. As in previous years, I’ve posted a collection of sunrise and sunset times for various cities around the world, but it might be easier for you to go straight to the source to look up the correct times for your own city. (Admittedly, posting times for 20+ random cities is a bit of a shot in the dark.)

milestones of the five year plan

640px-Borne_routière_MadagascarSo by now, you’ve probably gotten a copy of the long-awaited letter from the Universal House of Justice, dated 29 December 2015, to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, which spells out the framework for the upcoming Five Year Plan. (If not, it’s available online, from the official Bahá’í Reference Library website!)

First things first: It’s a really awesome letter. A friend and I read through it the day it came out, and we felt that it was one of the most complete letters we’ve read—in terms of describing the entire process of growth from the initial stages, through the establishment of a program of growth, past the intensification of growth and into the far reaches of activity where Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation starts to permeate into the fabric of society. We were also able to see quite clearly the stages at which our clusters were located in the process, and the next steps awaiting us as we progressed from one milestone of growth to the next.

Those “milestones”, though—what are those? In the interest of cutting through some of the jargon, here’s my attempt at a brief explanation/recap of “milestones” in the context of the Five Year Plan. Continue reading