Baha'i studies conference attracts 1,100

25 August 2006

SAN FRANCISCO — The impact of religion on the evolution of consciousness was explored during the 30th annual Association for Baha'i Studies (ABS) conference, held here 10-13 August 2006.

About 1,100 participants attended, examining a wide variety of scholarly interests in relation to the Baha'i Faith, including history, biography, spirituality and the arts, law and governance, race and intercultural issues, alternative health and healing, bioethics, and peace and conflict resolution.

In all, there were 77 presentations, of which about 20 were made by presenters enrolled in undergraduate or graduate university programs.

The theme of religion and the evolution of human consciousness was emphasized in many of these presentations.

"Religion awakens the soul to potentialities that are otherwise unimaginable," said Hoda Mahmoudi, in a session that compared contemporary sociological and Baha'i perspectives on modernity.

Dr. Mahmoudi, head of the Research Department at the Baha'i World Centre in Haifa, Israel, said in this way the messengers of God have always provided the "requisites for the rise of civilization."

"The Baha'i Faith views social change as both a necessary and essential attribute," said Dr. Mahmoudi.

Dr. Peter Khan, member of the Universal House of Justice, addresses the 30th annual Association for Baha'i Studies conference in San Francisco, held 10-13 August 2006. (Photo by Courosh Mehanian)SLIDESHOW
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Dr. Peter Khan, member of the Universal House of Justice, addresses the 30th annual Association for Baha'i Studies conference in San Francisco, held 10-13 August 2006. (Photo by Courosh Mehanian)

This concept of modernity is especially important in an era of globalization, she added, where the "cohesion of the nation-state has changed significantly, and globalization has eliminated the autonomy of the nation-state."

Roshan Danesh, a Canadian lawyer and legal scholar, discussed how legal systems have been influenced by religion.

"Any legal system depends on the legal emotions through recognizing some sense of the transcendent," said Dr. Danesh, saying that modern discourse about church and state rests on a framework created by the 11th century shift in power from the princely to the priestly class.

Today, said Dr. Danesh, we must look at the phenomenon of religion and the law differently, since 21st century reality is complex, global, and interconnected.

In this context, he said, the relationships of church and state will involve changing social meaning. Such a change, he said, is likely to fit well into the Baha'i emphasis on an evolutionary application of Baha'i law, which seeks to guide "mankind in a spirit of love and tolerance."

The centerpiece Hasan M. Balyuzi Memorial Lecture this year was delivered by Janet Khan, who has served in the Research Department at the Baha'i World Centre in Haifa, Israel, since 1983.

Dr. Khan's lecture focused on the life of Bahiyyih Khanum, the daughter of Baha'u'llah. It examined her role as a Baha'i leader in the early part of the 20th century and how that role reflects distinctive Baha'i concepts of rank and station.

Bahiyyih Khanum possessed a unique combination of humility, intellect, sacrifice, and wisdom, Dr. Khan observed. These qualities, coupled with her lineage, gave her a high rank and station in the Faith - and yet one that she did not overstep in any undue assertion of authority.

"Bahiyyih Khanum possessed an unaffected simplicity of manner and accessibility that made her available to all," said Dr. Khan, adding that she did not take advantage of her high rank to impose her will upon others.

In her actions, Dr. Khan explained, Bahiyyih Khanum also exemplified collaboration and trust. While placing a high value on the promotion of unity, she did not retreat from principle.

As well, Dr. Khan noted, Bahiyyih Khanum's life demonstrates that it is possible to avoid the superiority and the traditional abuses of power that frequently characterize the behavior of elites. Rather, she said, one can serve as an agent of change, based on respect for the widely disparate elements of society.

Such an example is important in a religion like the Baha'i Faith where there is no priesthood or clergy, said Dr. Khan.

"There are no figures exercising individual authority and enjoying unwarranted rights and privileges not accorded the general population," said Dr. Khan. "Each believer is expected to assume responsibility for his or her spiritual development."

Other well-attended sessions this year included a lecture by Duane Herrmann on the experience of the Baha'i community in Germany under the Nazi regime, John Grayzel's presentation on Unity of Conscience, and Omid Ghaemaghammi's presentation on the station and function of the Shiite Imams.

Mr. Herrmann's session was so popular that it was moved to a large ballroom to accommodate the 300 or so conference attendees who came to learn more about this little-known aspect of Baha'i history in Europe.

Mr. Herrmann explained why the small band of some 200-300 Baha'is in Germany in the 1930s were persecuted by the Nazi regime, to which it could hardly have been a threat. In 1937, the Nazi regime banned the Baha'i Faith and its institutions. Mr. Herrmann suggested this was in part because of the community's steadfast refusal to accept the idea of a "master race," believing instead in the oneness of all peoples and the need for a world federation.

Another convention highlight was a plenary address by Dr. Peter Khan, member of the elected international governing council of the worldwide Baha'i community, the Universal House of Justice.

He emphasized the importance of scholarship and education for all Baha'is, noting the Faith's teachings on the high value of learning and the acquisition of knowledge.

For Baha'is, Dr. Khan said, such learning should include the development of spiritual attitudes, practices and manners. He also said that those engaged in scholarly pursuits should also not hesitate to participate in core activities related to the development of the Baha'i community - such as study circles, devotional meetings, and children's classes.

Such activities seek to break down patterns of passivity among the members of society at large, he said, and thereby promote widespread and active involvement in decision-making and social action.

Artistic presentations showcased theatre, instrumental, and vocal performances. Among those who performed were Red Grammar and John Davey-Hatcher.

A special breakout session on the Neuroscience of Consciousness featured Don Hoffman, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine, and Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, head of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Unit at University College London. The session explored the connection between mind and brain, examining how neuroscience is tackling complex questions that impinge on the realm of the spiritual.

-- Reported by Sandra Bean