ABS conference points to new directions in Baha’i studies
In the 44 years the Association for Baha’i Studies–North America has been holding annual conferences, none was ever like this before.
On one level, it’s obvious. For the first time, it was held entirely on the internet, as the COVID-19 pandemic heightened the urgency of “exploring new areas and trying new things,” members of the ABS Executive Committee noted in a reflection shared online on Aug. 5.
But the difference went deeper for this conference, themed “Beyond Critique: Toward Constructive Engagement” and held July 24–Aug. 8.
When it came clear the conference could not be held in Dallas as planned, the committee made efforts to “create a space where everyone feels welcome,” said Julia Berger for the Executive Committee during the session titled “Fresh Approaches and Emerging Initiatives.”
And when it reached out for ideas about changing plans quickly, the ABS benefited from a “generosity of spirit” as other organizations shared their experience in bringing large conferences online.
Registration was opened to anyone with internet access, and fees were completely optional. Accordingly, more than 3,200 people registered, far more than any in-person conference in past years. That didn’t count multiple people on the same computer, tablet or phone.
Not only that, more than half were under age 40, representing the conference’s youngest-ever cohort of participants. Many live in remote areas or may have had other barriers to traveling to Dallas for a traditional conference.
The wide diversity of participants, bringing a fresh array of interests and questions, “has really opened our eyes to the possibilities of an online space,” Berger said.
And while not all future ABS events will likely be entirely online, the 2020 experience has sparked new ideas for “creating materials and spaces” to help the Baha’i community “shine the light of the revelation of Baha’u’llah on the issues of the day in a way that’s coherent with Baha’i approaches toward the generation of knowledge.”
Many presentations have been recorded and will be accessible on the ABS Vimeo channel.
Several sessions spotlighted collaborative group learning about taking part in discourses within professions and academic fields. A key purpose is to help those discourses “move to a greater understanding of truth, the production of knowledge that benefits mankind and addresses the needs of society,” said Selvi Zabihi, a member of the ABS Committee on Collaborative Initiatives.
Reading groups of around a dozen people each have been meeting via internet in recent months, engaging “thoughtfully and rigorously with important literature in their fields in a consultative environment,” in a way that reflects an evolving framework of concepts inspired by Baha’i teachings, said Eric Farr, another committee member.
The conference gave members of 14 groups a chance to share insights from their study of research articles or books, and from the processes of their learning.
Groups delved into areas as diverse as globalization, constructive agency and social change, African worldviews, jurisprudence and law enforcement, science and religion, youth and media, and more.
Several of the groups are working on documents that express insights that spring from their group research and discussion.
“The hope is, there might be somebody out there watching who might be inspired to bring together a group of friends in a common field in order to carry out this process together themselves,” Farr said.
Working groups and seminars
Collaborative learning has been a special focus for the ABS over the past few years, as it has organized working groups, seminars and other spaces.
Inspiration for these activities flows from a July 2013 letter from the Universal House of Justice, the global governing council of the Baha’i Faith, which states: “Every believer has the opportunity to examine the forces operating in society and introduce relevant aspects of the teachings [of the Baha’i Faith] within the discourses prevalent in whatever social space he or she is present.”
Working groups that focus on education, Africana studies and Indigenous studies offered formal presentations at this year’s conference. Others bring together people from such fields as law, health, media, etc. Several of the reading groups had emerged from those working groups.
Early in the conference, workshops were offered for people wishing to learn about contributing to the discourses in a wide variety of such fields.
And a new set of conference sessions explored how Baha’is could contribute not just to the ideas at the foundations of these fields, but also to the ways they generate knowledge. These “methodologies” presentations sprang from a virtual seminar in June that included members of working groups and others in specific fields.
The Baha’i concept of consultation, or discovering truth and making decisions in a respectful group setting, can have great value in discussions of the methods of generating knowledge, Zabihi said: “We’re seeing a special role that we can have in encouraging processes that have collaboration and consultation at the center.”
A key objective in this entire array of collaborative efforts is to look not only for ideas in those fields that are consistent with Baha’i teachings, but also for “blind spots” within those fields that may “limit thinking or perpetuate injustices,” Zabihi noted.
“And all this and more we have to do in a spirit of humble and genuine engagement.”
While the work of individual scholars will always be important, the ABS publication Journal of Baha’i Studies is also exploring how collaborative writing can enrich its future direction, said Michael Sabet, the Journal’s assistant editor.
Among other things, this could open up the Journal to articles that examine important topics through the eyes of multiple disciplines, in a spirit of mutual strengthening rather than competition. He envisioned that “scholars who are deeply informed in vastly different fields will be bringing insights from their studies into dialogue with the revelation [of Baha’u’llah].”
Looking farther ahead
The experience of this conference has the Executive Committee looking for “ideas and different approaches,” Berger said, and she invited participants to contribute ideas through the contact form available on the new ABS website. “It’s a period of intense learning and I think all of us are eager to get back and consult.”
Added Shabnam Koirala-Azad, another Executive Committee member: “We were very much planning to be in Dallas this year. … Going into this virtual space was not something that was planned.” But the ABS had always intended to “increase participation and accessibility, [and] diversify the participants who engage with the association.”
And in unexpected ways, events in the world have helped that process forward.