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Today, we cling more tightly to our doubts than to our certainties. To develop a positive, enthusiastic vision for the future, we must do more than cynically puncture the false dogmas of others.
A dogma is a settled belief that goes without question and is not open to reconsideration. In the realms of culture, religion, and politics, people settle into opposing camps and rally around particular points of view. In dogmatic ways of thinking, one true opinion is considered all light while all else is treated as darkness.
When we see ideological conflict in our communities and in the wider world, we typically understand it as a clash of rival dogmas. We perceive an overabundance of belief, a crowding of opinions, and a glut of competing ideas. We imagine an endless jostling for opportunities to put favorite theories into practice.
But perhaps this view of the world had more credence in the past than it does now. Today, disillusionment has penetrated more deeply. We seem to have fewer theories of what a good society would look like and how to get there. We cling more tightly to our resentments. We focus our minds more intently on sabotage than on constructive change. We settle more naturally into skepticism and suspicion than idealism or zeal.
Perhaps that’s because the idols of old dogmas have been torn down. But despite their fall, we haven’t become more agreeable and unified. Instead, our disputes have been re-established upon negativity. Competing dogmas have given way to competing forms of disillusionment: disagreements about which institutions and groups are more worthy of scorn. The light at the center of dogmatic thinking has gone out, leaving only the uncertain darkness that always surrounded it.
On the contrary, when I study the travels of Abdu’l-Baha to Europe and North America a century ago, I’m struck by the sheer enthusiasm he encountered. It wasn’t just that the Baha’is were really excited about the Baha’i teachings. Wherever he went, he found people who were passionate about all sorts of things: theosophy, international peace, women’s suffrage, metaphysics, civil rights, Esperanto, etc. Those enthusiastic people had very lofty hopes about what those ideals could achieve.
Abdu’l-Baha’s great success was that he spoke powerfully to the various convictions of those he met. At the time, the ideological landscape of Europe and North America was a kaleidoscope of diverse theories on human happiness and social well-being—and his wisdom and insight had a magnetic appeal to the proponents of each of them.
A few years later he remarked on this theme as he discussed how to promote universal peace:
As the teachings of Baha’u’llah are combined with universal peace, they are like a table provided with every kind of fresh and delicious food. Every soul can find, at that table of infinite bounty, that which he desires. If the question is restricted to universal peace alone, the remarkable results which are expected and desired will not be attained. The scope of universal peace must be such that all the communities and religions may find their highest wish realized in it. The teachings of Baha’u’llah are such that all the communities of the world, whether religious, political or ethical, ancient or modern, find in them the expression of their highest wish. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 318.
The challenge today is not just showing that something accords with another person’s highest wish, but also in getting them to acknowledge any kind of highest wish whatsoever. Too many of us have no experience believing that a beautiful society is even possible. But that enthusiastic thirst for beauty is essential for appreciating the Baha’i teachings.
So when a person shows the slightest sign of genuine enthusiasm for something—even if we don’t agree with it—it’s important that we respect it and appreciate its power to refine their noble inclinations. The world is not as awash in dogmas at it once was. Any light that chases the gloom of despair can grow and evolve into a constructive force. If all we do is stomp on other people’s enthusiasms, they don’t necessarily move onto new and better convictions. They’ll probably just adopt a mood of suspicion and distrust or move on to poisonous resentments and antipathies.
Baha’u’llah taught that our actions can give others hope. But they can also tear others down:
O ye beloved of the Lord! Commit not that which defileth the limpid stream of love or destroyeth the sweet fragrance of friendship. By the righteousness of the Lord! Ye were created to show love one to another and not perversity and rancor. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah. pp. 138.
In another place, he urges us conduct ourselves in such a way that energizes the hearts of others:
Be thou as a throbbing artery, pulsating in the body of the entire creation, that through the heat generated by this motion there may appear that which will quicken the hearts of those who hesitate. – Ibid., p. 143.
That’s the challenge the Baha’i Faith sets before us. It’s not enough to demonstrate what we’re against. There’s enough of that already. To step decisively towards a better world we must show others what’s worthy of our enthusiasm—and theirs as well.