News from the Association for Baha’i Studies Conference in Washington, D.C.

Don Otto Rogers delivering the 2009 Balyuzi lecture.
(All photos by Evan Wilder.)
Washington, D.C., 31 August 2009 (CBNS) — Close to one thousand participants attended this year’s 33rd Annual Conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies, held in Washington, D.C., August 13 to 16. The conference was organized by the Association, for the first time in collaboration with an outside agency, the International Environment Forum. There were two plenary presentations by guest speakers, Geographer Peter Brown of Canada’s McGill University and Professor Soli Shahvar of the University of Haifa, and an outstanding Balyuzi lecture from former International Counsellor and well known Canadian artist, Donald Otto Rogers.

The conference theme of “Environments,” with its broad consideration of natural, built and social/cultural environments, had a strong focus on current affairs as well as scholarship, both in plenary and breakout sessions. The Friday morning talk by Professor Peter Brown challenged the audience to consider a radical perspective on humans and nature, at one point defining human nature as “amphibious” in that humans live both in time and outside of time, and therefore consider future differently than other species. Peter Adriance, of the United States External Affairs Office, responded to his excellent presentation.

“We still look at economic issues separately from social or environmental questions despite all the efforts to integrate them,” explained Dr. Arthur Lyon Dahl in his keynote address on the conference theme. Dr. Dahl, President of the International Environmental Forum and retired Deputy Assistant Executive Director of the United Nations Environmental Program, called for a transformation of environments from the inside out, a theme that emerged in other presentations.

The young scholars panel.A panel on social and cultural environments featured, among others, Kit Bigelow of the U.S. Office of External Affairs, who spoke about how environment is created by language. Dr. Mark Perry, formerly of the University of Beirut took on and explored the future of the city and society in a changing natural and social environment, and Professor Payam Akhavan of McGill University’s Faculty of Law challenged the interpretation of Iranian persecution of the Baha’i community as solely based on religion, and looked at the implications of this for Baha’i identity. He noted that the Baha’i community’s previous role and identity as a generative force for positive social change can be re-established in the current context.

Otto Donald Rogers’ Balyuzi lecture was a highlight of the conference. He challenged the community to consider the arts as both an intellectual and spiritual endeavour. Addressing four themes of intellect, space, process and form, he took the audience on a detailed journey of the creative process as a means of exploring realities that exist on the cusp of the material and spiritual. The talk itself was preceded by a beautiful sung rendition of the Tablet of Ahmad, to which Mr. Rogers, deeply moved, made several references as an example of his theme. Four sets of Mr. Rogers’ abstract works were displayed for 15 minutes each during the talk, allowing the audience to consider his thesis that universal realities are captured in abstract art.

Professor Soli Shahvar speaking about the Baha'is and modern education in Iran.His talk wove together mystical elements surrounding the life of an artist with those from the practical dimensions of community life together. Mr. Rogers also explored the aesthetic beauty of the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, provided various metaphors from nature to emphasize the inherent unity among creation, and the interdependent relationship between them.

In relation to current activities of the Baha’i community, one audience member, Pejman Mosleh, was moved to comment after the talk, “The cluster is a work of art where the teacher drops from the edge, like a waterfall at ease with what awaits it. [That] was Don Rogers' pictorial description of the work of the plan before us, and of the confluence of the human heart and its environment. So elegantly simple, so simply elegant.”

Rogers explained the process of his work: “I walk into the studio and I see an empty canvas.” This empty canvas is physically bound in space, and intellectually open to the process and form of art. “I have to keep (this space) alive and together so it doesn’t fly off the edges. One must be absolutely precise,” he said. He compared keeping this space alive as similar to the fine tuning of a musical instrument. The use of this space is important, he added. “The mystic knower in Bahá’u’lláh’s Seven Valleys said ‘the death of self’ is needed here, and I think of this every time I go into the studio. I bring my mind to that edge and I allow the process to move me forward, I run to stay behind the process, to stay up with it. The process has a mind of its own.”

He then likened the artistic process to community-building; the process of artistic creation is iterative as is the process of creating community.

Luke Slott and MJ Cyr contributing to the musical performances.He appealed especially to Baha’i youth to use the electronic media and social networking to communicate and create bonds of a faith community much as the early Christians used woodcuts to illuminate their texts with elegance and beauty. We can use illumination, art, in our efforts to transform human hearts.

He concluded with this passage from Bahá’u’lláh: “That which he hath reserved for himself are the cities of men’s hearts,” noting that the Baha’is should be like keys to unlock the gates of those cities.

Guest speaker, Dr. Soli Shahvar, in his talk said how he had been intrigued by the paradox of Baha’i schools emerging under the oppressive Qajar dynasty, and being abolished under the supposedly more liberal Pahlavi dynasty. His perspective as an Israeli Jew of Iranian background generated questions in his mind that Baha’is, as insiders, sometimes forget to ask. In his talk “Opening and closing the door: the State and Bahá’í Schools in Iran”, he was able to further address the appalling absence of Baha’i history in Iranian historiography.

The conference was closed by presentations from Dr. Ann Boyles, Continental Counsellor who spoke about the nature of social changes required in the Baha’i community through a detailed analysis of five themes identified by Dr. Michael Karlberg, namely de-naturalizing old cultural practices, and changing psycho-spiritual structures, socio-structural dimensions, discursive constructs, and comprehensive discursive formations. In other words, the manner of thought, speech and behaviour need to change toward a new definition of and vision for the Baha’i community, a process that can in part be seen in section XI of the book “Century of Light”.

Dr. Boyles was followed by a panel of young scholars, including Anisa Khadem Nwakuchu, Maame Nketsiah, and Adam Ludwin. The Young Scholars Panel was remarkable for its engagement with current theory. Ms Khadem addressed the topic of religion being taken seriously in development theory, Ms Nketsiah spoke about the gap between theory and practice, and Mr. Ludwin’s talk included the potential overlap and synergies between the Baha’i teachings, studies at the Harvard Business School, and the process of innovation.

Professor Peter Brown giving a talk titled Building a Whole Earth Economy.The conference was also permeated with a rich musical presence. In the evenings various musical artists shared their creative talents, stirring the audience with their youthful and imaginative pieces. Many of the musical performances also explored the theme of “environments”. One of the musicians, Alicia Cundall shared this about her experience: “A highlight for me was being part of the artistic programs in the evenings. It was great to collaborate with renowned artists from across North America. We practiced for hours and hours, singing the Word of God together and praying that our pieces may touch and inspire the audience members.”

Another artist and fellow musician, MJ Cyr, had these words to share following the conference, “The ‘collective’ was formed within the four days of the conference. The spirit of unity we felt in such a short amount of time was electrifying!”
A sense of fellowship was fostered during the three days of the conference. Old friends reuniting and new friends being made, the intellectual and social dimensions pervaded by an energizing spiritual sense. A young Baha’i living in Montreal, Ilya Shodjaee-Zrudlo, said "It was heartening to see the humility and love that characterized the discourse of many of the youth who participated attentively in the various workshops. I believe this maturity comes from the whole-hearted and sacrificial dedication of this army of youth to the Universal House of Justice."

His wife, Jessica Adam-Smith, a fellow youth from the Montreal community, described, “the institute process and the framework of the [Baha’i] Five Year Plan hav[ing] transformed our understanding of learning itself, and it was interesting to see how people from different fields were applying these learning’s to their academic studies." The conference stimulated new possibilities and relationships, the potential for environmental sustainability and the understanding of our location in a social and spiritual environment much larger than our selves.

(With notes from Kim Naqvi, Donna Hakimian and Sandra Blaine.)