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The field of endeavor known broadly as “organizational development” has emerged in the last 50 years, advancing methods of conflict resolution by means of systematic dialogue.
The work of David Bohm (1917-1992) remains timeless and urgent in this respect, and so I speak of him here in the present tense. An MIT professor of quantum physics, he also devoted himself to the science of meaningful, productive conversation among groups of twenty to forty individuals in an effort to bring clarity to an otherwise casual and often incoherent experience. Bohm’s work, notably his book On Dialogue, advocates the global need for genuine supportive dialogue between people of different opinions and cultures, with the aim of widening collective consciousness and unifying conflict and divisions.
Bohm says that in coming together we need first to suspend our habitual assumptions and our knee-jerk opinions, and to consider these as not real but as mere reflections in a mirror. In this way, the group might enter “participatory consciousness,” as he called the deeper objective of his work:
The opinions … don’t matter so much. Eventually we may be somewhere between all these opinions, and we start to move beyond them in another direction—a tangential direction—into something new and creative. – David Bohm, On Dialogue, pp. 30-32.
For Bohm, that “something new and creative” is an “empty space where we are not obliged to do anything, nor to come to any conclusions, nor to say anything. … where we can let anything be talked about.” – Ibid., pp. 19, 49. It is an “opening up of the mind, [a] looking at all the opinions.” – Ibid., p. 53.
In this way, Bohm’s empty space is a helpful way station on the journey toward conflict resolution, but to call it empty is unhelpful, I think. Were we to consider the matter more closely, we would discover that his so-called empty space has been the arena of meaning-making and spiritual striving for millennia, contentious though it be, throughout humankind’s religious history.
As a scientist and as an atheist, Bohm, I am sure, would rather not enter that space as a religious seeker, precisely because much religious thought appears rife with superstition and hypocrisy, and because religious feelings and pronouncements are among those very habitual assumptions which should be suspended if not expunged in the first place, he would say.
I might agree with Bohm on this, were it not for the fact that that empty space has now been freshly edified and illuminated by the glad tidings of the Baha’i revelation, which counsels us as to how to behave and communicate in groups, let alone how to comport ourselves as members of the human race, and goes deeper into the matter than even the brilliant Bohm went.
While we Baha’is are also invited to suspend, if not dispel entirely, our immediate, habitual, and often unthinking responses to one another, those who participate in Baha’i decision-making bodies must also:
… search out the truth and not insist upon their own opinion, for stubbornness and persistence in one’s views will lead ultimately to discord and wrangling and the truth will remain hidden. The honoured members must with all freedom express their own thoughts, and it is in no wise permissible for one to belittle the thought of another, nay, he must with moderation set forth the truth … – Shoghi Effendi, Unfolding Destiny, p. 8.
In fact, one particular, primary technique operates in Baha’i group dynamics, rooted in its first principle of the independent investigation of truth. It is called consultation, and is characterized by the suspension of biases, prejudices and phobias in a mutual search for understanding. Baha’i consultation rests on the obligation and courage to ask questions of ourselves, of one another and of our world. Baha’is believe this obligation is underwritten by spiritual authority, so it guarantees that the search for truth forms a sacred and sustainable methodology across all of human experience.
In this way, the Baha’i scholar Farzam Arbab, physicist, philosopher, and former member of the Baha’i Universal House of Justice, defines the value of asking questions as having a world-changing significance. In fact, he says we must develop a meta-conversation as to what intellectual, moral, and spiritual structures underpin our civilization. He says we need to develop a sincere respect for what he calls the scientific mind, which is precisely that capacity to ask questions searchingly and to follow courageously where the answers lead. He writes:
Sifting through the habits of thought, the principles, the methods, and the conceptions that underlie civilization today and deciding which can be retained and expanded upon and which need to be cast away is not a trivial pursuit. Which of our societies cherished conceptions of social progress, which methods of education, which conceptions of work, wealth, love, justice, freedom and authority, are the playthings of childhood and infancy? And what is there to replace them? … we cannot stand to the side and say, “Everything will be made new” and then take pride in moving to the forefront of processes belonging to a world that we believe is collapsing. I have no answers to the kinds of questions I am now asking; I am only expressing my hope that if we create the right kind of conditions, we will be able to identify and rigourously describe some of the elements, both old and new, of the intellectual foundations of a new civilization. – Farzam Arbab, “The Intellectual Life of the Baha’i Community,” The Journal of Baha’i Studies, Vol. 26, number 4, 2016.
In other words, by means of vigorous consultation and focused question-asking, we might just arrive at a more beautiful, just, peaceful, and sensible planetary existence.
Indeed, the poisoning of oceans, the extinction of animal species, the oppression of women, famine, fleeing families—all describe human problems subject to our inquiring minds and the sacred obligation to ask why, to seek the truth courageously and searchingly. Baha’i philosopher William Hatcher, incidentally, allowed that scientific scrutiny be applied to the phenomenon of the Baha’i Faith itself, and to religion in general, Bohm might be interested to know.
While Bohm concentrates on the dynamics of conversation in groups, Baha’i principles such as equality of men and women, agreement of science and religion, universal peace, one universal language, moderation of the extremes of wealth and poverty, and a world commonwealth are understood to have authority, and thus give shape and definition to that empty space so devoid otherwise of moral and spiritual scaffolding, serving as a reasonable basis for measuring progress and any fair-minded action.
But apart from any one principle, including that of the independent search for truth, we must reach even deeper into life in groups, and life on planet Earth. Even before we earn our bona fides as good consulters, we must first question ourselves as to what impedes upon our own purity of heart. More than anything, the work is anchored in the soul of man, where only spiritual authority can penetrate, where the virtues of love, compassion, kindness, and mercy reside, awake or asleep, as the case might be. Call it empty if you must, but this space belongs to God, always has, and has the power to thrill us and to propel us forward.
Therefore, consider the adventure and the excitement of the work before us. Just know, as Bohm and Arbab caution us, this work is not the plaything of childhood and infancy, but learning anew how to talk to one another face-to-face:
The prime requisites for them that take counsel together are purity of motive, radiance of spirit, detachment from all else save God, attraction to His Divine Fragrances, humility and lowliness amongst His loved ones, patience and long-suffering in difficulties and servitude to His exalted Threshold. … In this day, assemblies of consultation are of the greatest importance and a vital necessity. … The members thereof must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should any one oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions. – Shoghi Effendi, Unfolding Destiny, p. 7.