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In the on-going dialectic between cultural tradition and cultural change, which offers the greater benefit for a people?
Tradition holds that it transmits a people’s values from generation to generation, and therefore conveys its spiritual force into the future; while cultural change holds that it evolves a people’s values responsively as circumstances alter, sometimes drastically, therebye preserving a people’s spiritual force to adapt.
You can resolve this dialectic by assigning to tradition the role of preserving eternal principles, and assigning to change the role of finding practices suitable to new conditions. Thus both tradition and change contribute their value to a nation’s spiritual force.
The Evolving Definition of a Nation
But wait—that whole preceding logic depends upon a “people” staying put, together, while conditions may or may not change around them. What if only some of the people stay put and some large portion of them migrate? This has been our global experience in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Famine, war, epidemic, and economic collapse have driven millions upon millions from their traditional lands and nations. For all of us, in whatever country we find ourselves today, whether driven there by disaster, drawn there by opportunity, or located there since time immemorial, we are now engaged in creating a new form of nationhood requiring a new form of spiritual force. What new mystique, ethos, vision, values, and purpose will identify our nation and fill it with spiritual force?
In nature, higher complexities come into being because a composition will benefit the participating elements. At the level of human society, a successful nation state will come into being and thrive first by protecting and providing for ALL the peoples within its borders. But reciprocally, the nation itself will benefit by employing the talents of all its peoples in complementary service to each other. This is the latent synergistic relationship waiting to be awakened between individuals and their nation state.
But how can a nation grow into such successful functioning if it is constantly being changed from within by waves of migration?
As early as 1875, Abdu’l-Baha initiated an emerging model of nationhood based on universal education, which anticipated later Euro-American movements for adult and lifelong education. Additionally, two momentous documents prepared by Baha’i institutions offer an expanded understanding of national development: Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Baha’u’llah and The Vision of Race Unity: America’s Most Challenging Issue.
From these two documents, a number of themes emerge that help define the world-enhancing, spiritual influence of any given nation:
- the process of human maturity as it applies to a nation;
- the reciprocity between individuals and their nation;
- the need for racial unity and harmony to benefit the nation; and
- the unique contribution of each nation to the world commonwealth.
We’ll address just one here: the way that the maturing of nations resembles personal maturation.
National Behavior Can Resemble Adolescence, Senility, or Healthy Maturity
In the case of nations, maturity refers to the emergence of wisdom and patterns of noble, peaceful and constructive behavior—hard to imagine when nations “act out.”
In a period of history dominated by the surging energy, the rebellious spirit and frenetic activity of adolescence, it is difficult to grasp the distinguishing elements of the mature society to which Baha’u’llah beckons all humanity. – The Universal House of Justice, Individual Rights and Freedoms, p. 20.
For adolescents (and adolescent nations) the notion of moderation or self-regulation may sound like external control, as in the abhorrent imposition of censorship. The principle of self-regulation is based on recognition that any action, including essentially beneficial ones, can cause harm if carried to an extreme. This would apply to physical actions such as exercise or driving a car, or cultural actions such as speech and literature, dress or public behavior.
From a Baha’i point of view, the exercise of freedom of speech must necessarily be disciplined by a profound appreciation of both the positive and negative dimensions of freedom, on the one hand, and of speech, on the other. – Ibid., p. 22.
The subtle moral balance implied in the foregoing consideration of freedom of speech is just one of many instances of creative tension among values that a society must incorporate as it matures. How do we reconcile the age-old tension between the desires of individuals at one extreme, and the needs of their culture as a whole at the other? Baha’is find a balance using the principle of following the higher benefit when individual desire and societal well-being come into conflict.
You’ll find much more on this topic in “The National Family,” a chapter of Elaine McCreary’s new book Our Seven Families, published by GR Books, available at Amazon.com.