Youth: every age its own problem
Posted by Sen on February 20, 2008
As a first experiment in blogging, here’s a letter I wrote to the Bahai Youth Council in 1996. The Council had written a jeremiad about the terrible state of youth, and invited comments. They got them.
To the European Bahá’í Youth Council
I have recently received a copy of your paper “The State of the Bahá’í Youth in Europe,” dated May 1995. That is a long time ago – particularly in the life of a youth – and perhaps this paper no longer reflects the thinking of the Youth Council. I hope so, at any rate, because the approach adopted in the paper does not suggest a way forward for either the Council or the youth themselves.
In addition to the general observation that one cannot expect positive output from negative input, two areas in particular struck me as needing re-vision: the approach to morality and to individualism.
As the ‘Prosperity Of Humankind’ statement prepared of the Bahá’í International Community says, “religion’s challenge is to free itself from the obsessions of the past… morality has nothing in common with the life-denying puritanism that has so often presumed to speak in its name..” This challenge must also be faced by the Bahá’í community. It demands a focus on the sources of morality rather than an attempt to restrain particular behaviours. The sweeping condemnations of the language, dress, self-expression, music, films, jokes, and reading materials of the youth in this paper focus on the most superficial aspects of behaviour, those in which the standards and fashions quite normally change with every generation. In fact the reference in this paper to “the tendency for Bahá’í youth to portray aspects of personal conduct and appearance which are not expressly prohibited in the Writings, but which do not reflect the spirit of the Teachings” seems to imply that the Council feels itself to be in possession of some deeper understanding of the spirit of the Teachings which enables it to discern the true path even in areas which are not covered in the Writings or which are expressly left to the responsibility of the individual, as in the case of styles of dress and music. The underlying problem, according to this paper, is that some youth suffer from “a very basic lack of understanding of the Bahá’í Faith”, but much of the ground covered in the paper speaks rather of the condition of (mutual) incomprehension known as the generation gap. This impression is strengthened by the fact that one of the few steps which the paper suggests the Council itself might take is to produce a compilation of the guidance given to the youth of the 80s. The inescapable conclusion is that the vision animating the Council is not to assist the youth of today to understand who they are, as individuals and as a generation, and what this implies in terms of opportunities and responsibilities, but rather to recreate the generation which was in its youth 15 or 20 years ago. But, as Heraclitus said, you cannot step into the same river twice.
Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements. (Gleanings, page 213)
What is required, it seems to me, is not just a resolve to ‘be more positive’ or ‘don’t be so old-fashioned’, but rather (or also) a more fundamental re-visioning on the part of the Council and a deeper and soundly-based understanding of the significance of the period of youth. It might well be fruitful for the Council to seek out people with expertise and experience in youth development work, in particular to seek advice from people whose vision of the processes which youth go through at this stage in their maturation and how these processes can be supported is of proven practical utility, as evidenced in their effects on the youth concerned over some years.
The difference between the good behaviour of a child and the sound morality of an adult (which is not to say that all adults are moral, or all children good) lies in the self-awareness which can be expected of an adult but not of a child. Adults should have an understanding of their own individual natures, of their strengths and weakness, their tendency to self-deception regarding their own motives or to tolerating an easy emotionalism as a means of evading rational decision, as the case may be. This awareness of one’s own identity is developed primarily in youth, and until it has been developed one can speak only of behavioural norms, not of true morality. Identity begets morality, or, more eloquently,
… man should know his own self and recognize that which leadeth unto loftiness or lowliness, glory or abasement, wealth or poverty. Having attained the stage of fulfilment and reached his maturity… (Tablet of Tarazat)
The formation of one’s own identity is a difficult process, and this difficulty largely explains the turbulence which characterizes the period of youth. One early part of this process is to successively take an objective distance from each of the various frameworks which provide one’s identity as a child. This necessary process of separation often involves adopting other frameworks which support one’s identity during a painful and uncertain period analogous to parturition. The most salient example is young peoples’ strong identification with their peers and differentiation of everything which relates to their peer group from the generation of their parents. This leads to the apparent paradox of conformist rebels: strong conformity in matters of taste and superficial behaviour within a generation which at the same time proclaims its individualism and rebellion in relation to an older generation.
A later stage involves consciously adopting for one’s own those roles and duties which are compatible with the personal identity, character, and aptitudes, with the soul’s “particular aspiration”, as this is discovered in the process of youth. These roles may include evidence of the “individual initiative and leadership” which the May 1995 paper notes that youth normally lack. It should be clear that this stage represents the maturity of one’s own distinct identity, not its subordination. It can only be based on the successful completion of the previous stage, which the May 1995 paper calls “the search for individuality and self-expression,” In the simplest terms, no individuality mean no individual initiative and no “individual response to the message of Bahá’u’lláh.”
The Youth Council’s position paper seemed to me to display a rather ambivalent attitude to the process of individuation: condemning its manifestations on the one hand while looking forward to its fruits on the other hand. My suspicion is that the Council has drawn on a strand of social criticism which one sees widely published in newspapers and which is to some extent carried over in Bahá’í publications, summer-school presentations and so forth, according to which the ills of society are to be attributed to individualism, without considering how strongly aspects of individualism, as a philosophical position, are embedded in the Bahá’í teachings. To give one example, both the Shi`ih faith and, until recently, the Catholic Church have denied the individual’s capacity to carry out an individual search for religious truth. This is reflected in their approach to moral questions relating to the position of the individual in society and in their expectations regarding norms of individual behaviour. Since the Bahá’í Faith does explicitly acknowledge the capacity of every individual to search for truth, its moral teachings and ethical norms, and also the way in which it seeks to convey these norms to new generations, will be radically different from those which functioned in either Persian or traditional European societies.
It seems important therefore, most particularly for those who have to deal with youth, to achieve some sort of understanding of the Bahá’í teachings regarding the station of the individual. I hope at least to show that the anti-individualist stance is not a necessary correlative of Bahá’í belief. These are of course just personal thoughts, and my ideas are in a process of change.
Some years ago, when I was studying at a Catholic Seminary, I was strongly influenced by the Liberation theologians, whose critique of Western society and individualistic theology was in turn very much influenced by Marxist critiques of Western capitalism. As time goes by, and history works itself out, I have begun to think that this view of modern Western society, or modern Western history, which attributes its ills to excessive individualism and the separation of the society into differentiated components may be completely wrong. The question comes down to deciding whether some key trends in post-enlightenment history, and particular its individualism, are part of the creative, or the disintegrative, processes which we know are occurring.
What I am beginning to question is a view shared by Marxists, many Liberation theologians, and some Bahá’ís, who see the individuation of society which accelerated so sharply at the enlightenment as a disintegrative, negative, movement. Individuation is seen as, at best, the regrettable side-effect of epistemological freedom, a side-effect for which remedies are sought. There is a tendency to look back to Medieval Christian society as an ideal integrated society: one in which the people and the land, the workers and their produce, the classes of society, the church and the community, were bound in coherent (i.e., meaningful) relationships. These relationships have been radically disrupted and, according to this view, we are in search of a new basis on which the integrated society can be re-established. Individualism is seen as a disintegrative philosophy on which nothing can be built. In literature Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot express this backward-looking philosophy most forcefully, not advocating a return to the past, but looking to the society of the past – the integrated society – for their model of what a society is. According to this view, the integrated but technologically inferior societies of the world are being swamped and destroyed by the virus of individualism which accompanies the spread of Western society.
In Christian theology, the critique of individualism means ‘grass-roots communities’, a theological critique of the competitive basis of capitalism as sinful, a view of the individual as essentially social (the human exists only as a social animal, we are ‘becoming human together’), and of sin and salvation as social phenomena: original sin is the structural sin of society which distorts our humanity. In the Bahá’í version of this, Western society is progressively disintegrating as its religion loses force, and excessive individualism is one of the secondary causes of the disintegration – perhaps the characteristic ill of Western society. This disintegrative process represents the negative phase of a cyclic evolution whose overall thrust is towards ever larger circles of integration, from the family group to the clan, from clan to city-state to nation and ultimately to world integration. Where other religions have offered individual salvation, the Bahá’í Faith offers social salvation.
Perhaps I have set up something of a straw man. The nostalgic nature of this view of pre-enlightenment/pre-capitalist society ought to immediately awake our suspicion, as should its close alliance with Marxist views of social dynamics. There are logical difficulties in saying that Western society is based on an individualistic ethos which is basically a-social or even anti-social, a contradiction of what it is to be a society, while the evidence of our eyes is that, since the enlightenment, Western societies have flourished, have merged into Western Society (with a conscious or unconscious capital letter), and are, indeed, threatening to swamp all others. Either Western Society is not based on individualism, or individualism is not so much at odds with the foundations of social existence as we had thought. Which of these is true is a question of definitions: if we define individualism narrowly in its destructive manifestations, we will find that it is not really basic, perhaps not even common, in Western society. If we define it broadly as the recognition that fundamental values are individual, that the collective gains its life from its members and not vice-versa, then we will find (see below) that it is not really destructive.
According to my summary, this view sees the evolutionary thrust of history as towards increasing socialisation and integration, and those trends which we associate with the Enlightenment, Liberalism, Westernism, etc., as a turning-aside from this great plan.
Now I’ll stand the straw man on his head, beginning with the concept of evolution, to see whether in fact these might be anonymous Bahá’í values, signs in fact of the working of God’s Greater Plan in history. I will begin with the concept of (social) evolution, since this commonly used to exemplify Bahá’í expectations concerning the future of society.
Suppose that evolution is marked not by increasing integration, but by increasing individuation. Grains of sand exist individually, but they are only individuated numerically. Amoebas are more or less the same. Sand and amoebas cannot be said to have any degree of unity – only degrees of identity. A complex and developed ecosystem consists of many individuated species, and the more complex and able species consist of individuated members: wild dogs and baboons, for instance, form societies in which some members, even to an outsider, clearly have individual characteristics. Because they are much more strongly individuated they can also have a kind of unity, and can work collectively. Equally, they can have disunity, conflict, can dominate or be excluded from the group. Amoebas do not form societies. So we can see an evolutionary trend towards individuation, and we see that individuation and social cohesion do not appear to be in conflict, or even to be balancing forces. On the contrary, social structures arise from individuation, and are dependent on individuation. Where the Greek philosophical tradition has regarded the particularities of individual members of a genus as accidents, of no great importance or even as marking a degeneration from the form which should ideally be common to all members of the genus, in this view the individuality of a thing is precisely the mark of God upon it, so that there is a theology of individuality:
When, however, thou dost contemplate the innermost essence of things, and the individuality of each, thou wilt behold the signs of thy Lord’s mercy . . .” [Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 41]
Each leaf has its own particular identity – so to speak, its own individuality as a leaf. … As each of these forms has its individual and particular virtue, therefore, each elemental atom of the universe has the opportunity of expressing an infinite variety of those individual virtues. No atom is bereft or deprived of this opportunity or right of expression. [Words attributed to Abdu’l-Baha, in The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 285]
The process of individuation reaches the moral level in the human being, who, as an adult at least, has the potential for individual responsibility. In addition to maturity, the individual requires certain means to exercise moral responsibility: material means (e.g. the right of property) and intellectual means (e.g. access to information). In the development of the child, and of the species, we see the means and the responsibility, like individuation and unity, spiralling upwards. The sphere of individual responsibility has successively widened, as the extent of the unity sought has increased. A ‘Western’ society is a society which relies on and ensures the adulthood (i.e., the individual responsibility) of its members in the spheres first of economic activity (capitalism), then of religion (the Reformation) and politics (democracy). This individual responsibility is a tremendous source of personal growth and motivation, and thus of energy for the civilization.
We can see that, in history, the development is towards greater specialisation, greater individuation, greater recognition of the autonomy and value of the individual. Individuation is the trend of history. The principle of property is the expression of this, for property is not theft but responsibility. Property rights are human rights, involving choice and therefore moral autonomy, and moral autonomy is the characteristic (adult) human quality.
In the development of any one individual the same process is repeated. A new-born baby has marginal individuality. The Liberation theologians would appear to be right in saying that the individual per se does not exist, he or she is formed by social relations (there seems to be an echo of this point in the Ridvan message to the world for B.E. 153). But observe the growing child: is not maturity the crystallization of a progressively formed individuality? Individuation is accompanied by moral freedom, in a boot-strap process: moral responsibility (choice, therefore based on freedom) leads to maturity (it individuates the person), which extends the epistemological freedom (the ability to see with your own eyes), which makes the individual morally responsible for what can now be seen.
It could be that we have two opposing tendencies here: a natural law leading towards individuation and a religious counter-force working towards the subordination of the individual to the collective. But I suggest that individuation is also the goal of religious history. In the beginning was the tribe, whose members shared one spiritual destiny, mediated by the shaman. If the spirits were pleased, if the totem was well, the tribe prospered. This collectivism is repeated in early Hebrew religion. The great step forward made by the Pharisees (and borrowed by the Christians and Muslims) was to individualize spiritual destiny. However, although salvation was a property now of the individual, it was a mass-produced salvation. Different religions and different theologians might have differing ideas about what salvation was and how it was obtained, but each thought that it was one thing, obtained in one way. Enter the Bahá’í Faith, which replaces the concept of salvation with that of growth: growth is individual, progressive, and relative to the challenges which an individual faces and his or her personal destiny: Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. An individuated salvation therefore now accompanies individual epistemology.
Although a simple condemnation of individualism is not tenable, whether one is looking at the evidence of history or the Bahá’í teachings, it is also not possible just to take the reverse view. For instance, although salvation has become individual, in the sense that we must all fight our own spiritual battles and achieve, or fail to achieve, our own spiritual destinies, it is also true that if some people play with atomic crackers we all begin to glow in the dark. Our destinies are individual but inextricably related, and the maturity which youth are seeking involves both developing their own individualities and recognizing the intertwining of our destinies.
Well, these are as I said just my personal musings. This view of the station of the individual and the importance of the process of individuation – whether it is individuals in their youth or institutions as they pass through stages of maturity – ties in with a definition I have of the meaning of ‘organic unity’ in the Bahá’í Writings, as a unity of distinct organs, each developing according to its own nature, and each requiring the others to fully become itself. I would certainly accept that people who are operating on a different model of the meaning of unity would come to different conclusions about whether individualism, as a philosophical position, is in accordance with the Bahá’í teachings. I hope I have shown that individualism is at least not to be lightly dismissed as a corruption of the Faith from outside: it can also be the basis for a persuasive and comprehensive reading of the Bahá’í message, and of the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
I hope the Youth Council will find these musings useful, and also that the length of my musings on individualism will not overshadow the need for a reconsideration of the approach to morality which is evidenced in the Council’s position paper.
With warm regards