In this article first published in The Bahá’í World 2005-2006, Matthew Weinberg explores the source of our identity. Where should our attachments and loyalties lie? And if our identity or identities so impel us, how—and with whom—should we come together? And what is the nature of the bonds that bring us together?
At the heart of human experience lies an essential yearning for self-definition and self-understanding. Developing a conception of who we are, for what purpose we exist, and how we should live our lives is a basic impulse of human consciousness. This project—of defining the self and its place in the social order—expresses both a desire for meaning and an aspiration for belonging. It is a quest informed by ever-evolving and interacting narratives of identity.
Today, as the sheer intensity and velocity of change challenges our assumptions about the nature and structure of social reality, a set of vital questions confront us. These include: What is the source of our identity? Where should our attachments and loyalties lie? And if our identity or identities so impel us, how—and with whom—should we come together? And what is the nature of the bonds that bring us together?
The organization and direction of human affairs are inextricably connected to the future evolution of our identity. For it is from our identity that intention, action, and social development flow. Identity determines how we see ourselves and conceive our position in the world, how others see us or classify us, and how we choose to engage with those around us. “Knowing who we are,” the sociologist Philip Selznick observes, “helps us to appreciate the reach as well as the limits of our attachments.”1 Such attachments play a vital role in shaping our “authentic selves” and in determining our attitudes toward those within and outside the circle of our social relationships. Acting on the commitments implied by these attachments serves to amplify the powers of individuals in effecting societal well-being and advancement. Notions of personal and collective identity can thus exert considerable influence over the norms and practices of a rapidly integrating global community.
As we have many associational linkages, identity comes in a variety of forms. At times we identify ourselves by our family, ethnicity, nationality, religion, mother tongue, race, gender, class, culture, or profession. At other times our locale, the enterprises and institutions we work for, our loyalty to sports teams, affinity for certain types of music and cuisine, attachment to particular causes, and educational affiliations provide definitional aspects to who we are. The sources of identification which animate and ground human beings are immensely diverse. In short, there are multiple demands of loyalty placed upon us, and consequently, our identities, as Nobel laureate Amaryta Sen has noted, are “inescapably plural.”2
But which identity or identities are most important? Can divergent identities be reconciled? And do these identities enhance or limit our understanding of and engagement with the world? Each of us on a daily basis, both consciously and unconsciously, draws upon, expresses, and mediates between our multiple senses of identity. And as our sphere of social interaction expands, we tend to subsume portions of how we define ourselves and seek to integrate into a wider domain of human experience. This often requires us to scrutinize and even resist particular interpretations of allegiance that may have a claim on us. We therefore tend to prioritize which identities matter most to us. As the theorist Iris Marion Young stresses: “Individuals are agents: we constitute our own identities, and each person’s identity is unique…A person’s identity is not some sum of her gender, racial, class, and national affinities. She is only her identity, which she herself has made by the way that she deals with and acts in relation to others…”3 The matrix of our associations surely influences how we understand and interpret the world, but cannot fully account for how we think, act, or what values we hold. That a particular identity represents a wellspring of meaning to an individual need not diminish the significance of other attachments or eclipse our moral intuition or use of reason. Affirming affinity with a specific group as a component of one’s personal identity should not limit how one views one’s place in society or the possibilities of how one might live.
While it is undoubtedly simplistic to reduce human identity to specific contextual categories such as nationality or culture, such categories do provide a strong narrative contribution to an individual’s sense of being. “Around the world,” the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, “it matters to people that they can tell a story of their lives that meshes with larger narratives. This may involve rites of passage into womanhood and manhood; or a sense of national identity that fits into a larger saga. Such collective identification can also confer significance upon very individual achievements.”4 Social, cultural, and other narratives directly impact who we are. They provide context and structure for our lives, allowing us to link what we wish to become to a wider human inheritance, thereby providing a basis for meaningful collective life. Various narratives of identity serve as vehicles of unity, bringing coherence and direction to the disparate experiences of individuals.
In the wake of extraordinary advances in human knowledge, which have deepened global interchange and contracted the planet, we now find ourselves defined by overlapping identities that encompass a complex array of social forces, relations, and networks. The same person, for instance, can be a Canadian citizen of African origin who descends from two major tribes, fluent in several languages, an engineer, an admirer of Italian opera, an alumnus of a major American university, a race-car enthusiast, a practitioner of yoga, an aficionado of oriental cuisine, a proponent of a conservative political philosophy, and an adherent of agnosticism who nevertheless draws on insights found in the spiritual traditions of his forebears. One can simultaneously be a committed participant in local community affairs such as improving elementary-level education and an ardent supporter of transnational causes like human rights and environmental stewardship. Such juxtapositions of identity illustrate how individuals increasingly belong to multiple “communities of fate” in which long-existing spatial boundaries are being entirely redrawn and reconceptualized.5 Modernity has transformed identity in such a way that we must view ourselves as being not only in a condition of dependence or independence but also interdependence.
The recasting of longstanding narratives of identification and affiliation is giving rise to widespread anxiety, grievance, and perplexity. In the eyes of many, the circumstances of daily life lie beyond their control. In particular, “the nation-state…that preeminent validator of social identity—no longer assures well-being,” the anthropologist Charles Carnegie avers.6 Other established sources of social cohesion and expressions of collective intention are similarly diminished in their efficacy to ground the actions of populations around the planet, resulting in a sense of disconnection and alienation. The philosopher Charles Taylor attributes such disruption of customary social patterns to the “massive subjective turn of modern culture,” involving an overly atomistic and instrumental view of individual identity.7 This exaggerated individualism accompanies the dislocation from historic centers of collectivity that is a repercussion of the centrifugal stresses of globalization. Against this kaleidoscope of change, including the major migrations of peoples, the international nature of economic production, and the formation of communities of participation across territorial borders through the means of modern communications, the concept of citizenship, as membership in a confined geographic polity, is in need of reformulation.
Our connections to others now transcend traditional bounds of culture, nation, and community. The unprecedented nature of these connections is radically reshaping human organization and the scale and impact of human exchange. But globalization has been with us a long time; the movement of peoples, goods, and ideas is an inherent feature of human history and development. Virtually every culture is linked to others by a myriad ties.8
Culture is neither static nor homogeneous. Anthropological and sociological research reveals that cultures cannot be seen as fixed, indivisible wholes. The various manifestations of “social belonging” exhibit a “constructed and pliable nature.”9 Cultural resiliency has much to do with heterogeneity, assimilation of outside ideas, and the capacity to adapt. “We should view human cultures as constant creations, recreations, and negotiations of imaginary boundaries between ‘we’ and the ‘other(s)’,” the political scientist Seyla Benhabib emphasizes.10 The multifarious processes of integration now at work are serving to accentuate and accelerate such social, economic, and cultural interchange. Under these conditions, Benhabib adds, presumed lines of cultural demarcation are increasingly “fluid, porous and contested.”11 To perceive cultures, then, as objects of stasis, immune from the complex dialogues and interactions of human existence, is a fundamental epistemological and empirical error. As Appiah maintains: “Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.”12
Often, the insistence that the essence of cultural distinctiveness is its putative immutability emerges from a sincere desire to preserve and honor the power of an existing collective narrative. What is at issue here is a legitimate fear that valued identities may be lost or overwhelmed by unfamiliar external forces. Although an advocate of cultural rights designed to prevent such unwanted change, the theorist Will Kymlicka notes that “most indigenous peoples understand that the nature of their cultural identity is dynamic…”13 From this vantage point, Kymlicka believes that globalization “provides new and valued options by which nations can promote their interests and identities.”14 This suggests that a balance must be sought between the requirements of self-determination and the possibility of defining an aspect of self-determination as participation in the construction of a broader collectivity. Participation of this kind by a diverse array of cultures and peoples offers the promise of enriching the entire fabric of civilized life.
Recognition of the reality of globalization, however, does not mean that the current inequities associated with the process—how resources, opportunities, and power are distributed—should go unchallenged. And perhaps more important, the exhausted ideologies and intellectual frameworks that allow such inequities to persist must also be directly confronted.15 It is here where the insights provided by diverse human traditions and value systems can engage with the constructive phenomena of contemporary change to open new frontiers of identity—frontiers offering a peaceful and just future.
In 1945, aware of the imminent test of the first atomic weapon, Franklin D. Roosevelt warned: “Today we are faced with the pre-eminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace.”16 Clearly, the perceptions that human beings hold of themselves and each other matter. In a world convulsed by contention and conflict, conceptions of identity that feed the forces of prejudice and mistrust must be closely examined. Assertions that certain populations can be neatly partitioned into oppositional categories of affiliation deserve particular scrutiny. The notion of civilizational identity as the predominant expression of human allegiance is one such problematic example.17 For Amartya Sen, such thinking leads to “conceptual disarray” that can undermine international stability.
To view the relationships between different human beings as mere reflections of the relations between civilizations is questionable on both logical and pragmatic grounds. First, civilizations themselves are not monolithic in character; indeed, their vast internal diversity is among their distinguishing features. Second, as we have seen, reducing personhood to a “singular affiliation” denies the essential variety and complexity of human experience.18 Of most concern, argues Sen, is the danger that assigning “one preeminent categorization” to human beings will exacerbate and harden conceptions of difference between peoples.19 This presumption of a “unique and choiceless identity,” that people are what they are because they have been born into a certain ethnic, cultural, or religious inheritance, is an “illusion” that underlies many of the “conflicts and barbarities in the world.”20 “Reasoned choice,” Sen believes, must be used to examine the intrinsic merit of our antecedent associations as well as the broader social ramifications of identity.21
“A tenable global ethics,” Kwame Anthony Appiah concurs, “has to temper a respect for difference with a respect for the freedom of actual human beings to make their own choices.”22 For this reason, there exists an intimate relationship between cultural diversity and liberty. A sustainable and authentic expression of collective development must be a freely chosen path pursued by the members composing the group in question; current generations cannot impose their vision of what a desirable form of life is upon future generations. Existing mores, practices, and institutions can inform, validate, and even ennoble the human condition, but cannot or should not foreclose new moral or social directions for individuals and communities. Indeed, collective learning and adjustment are defining characteristics of social evolution. Because our perceptions and experiences change, our understanding of reality necessarily undergoes change. So too, then, do our identities change. “The contours of identity are profoundly real,” Appiah states, “and yet no more imperishable, unchanging, or transcendent than other things that men and women make.”23 At the same time, “if we create a society that our descendants will want to hold on to, our personal and political values will survive in them.”24
Significant portions of the world’s peoples, we know though, are deprived of the autonomy necessary to develop a plan of life or a corresponding identity that can inspire and assist them to realize life goals. The widespread subordinate social position of women and minorities restricts the latitude of their self-determination; members of these groups are frequently denied, in a systematic way, the chance to fully explore their individual potential and to contribute to the processes of cultural, social, and moral advancement. Constructions of identity can therefore be quite tenuous for marginalized groups or individuals whose personal characteristics fall outside received categories of classification. This can be especially true for persons of mixed ethnic, racial, or religious descent. Concepts of race and nation can serve as powerful instruments and symbols of unity, but can also lead to the isolation, dispossession, and “symbolic dismemberment” of minorities.25 In this regard, Charles Carnegie’s call for a “new consciousness of belonging” seems vital.26
The prevalent stance that identity is about difference is untenable. Perceiving identity through the relativistic lens of separation or cultural preservation ignores compelling evidence of our common humanity and can only aggravate the forces of discord and disagreement now so pervasive in the world. The only alternative to this path of fragmentation and disunity is to nurture affective relationships across lines of ethnicity, creed, territory, and color—relationships that can serve as the warp and woof of a new social framework of universal solidarity and mutual respect. A one-dimensional understanding of human beings must be rejected. As Amartya Sen underscores: “The hope of harmony in the contemporary world lies to a great extent in a clearer understanding of the pluralities of human identity, and in the appreciation that they cut across each other and work against a sharp separation along one single hardened line of impenetrable division.”27 This is an appeal for imagination in creating new ways of being and living; for a new vision of human nature and society—one that recognizes the unmistakable shared destiny of all peoples. The resolution of the problems now engulfing the planet demands a more expansive sense of human identity. As articulated by Bahá’u’lláh more than a century ago: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”28
The crucial need of the present hour is to determine the conceptual and practical steps that will lay the foundations of an equitable and harmonious global order. Effectively addressing the crises now disrupting human affairs will require new models of social transformation that recognize the deep interrelationship between the material, ethical, and transcendent dimensions of life. It is evident that such models can emerge only from a fundamental change in consciousness about who we are, how we regard others who enter our ambit—no matter how near or distant, and how we collectively design the structures and processes of social life, whether local or global.
Such observations lead to yet more questions. In a world of pluralistic identities and rapidly shifting cultural and moral boundaries, is a common understanding of human purpose and action possible? Can a genuine cosmopolitan ethic, one that fully embraces human diversity, emerge from the multiple experiences and perceptions of modernity?
A basis of an affirmative Bahá’í response to these questions can be found in Bahá’u’lláh’s exhortations to the world’s peoples to “set your faces towards unity, and let the radiance of its light shine upon you,” and to “let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self.” For Bahá’ís, though, such a perspective is not simply a matter of belief or hopeful aspiration, but is grounded in experience. 29
A conviction of the practicality of world unity and peace, coupled with an unwavering dedication to work toward this goal, is perhaps the single most distinguishing characteristic of the Bahá’í community. That this community is now representative of the diversity of the entire human race, encompassing virtually every national, ethnic, and racial group on the planet, is an achievement that cannot be casually dismissed. The worldwide Bahá’í community, as an organic whole, eschews dichotomies prevalent in public discourse today, such as “North” and “South,” and “developed” and “underdeveloped.” Bahá’ís everywhere, irrespective of the degree of material well-being of their nations, are striving to apply the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to the process of building unified patterns of collective life. In this undertaking, every member of the community is a valued participant. In this respect, the roots of Bahá’í motivation and the formation of Bahá’í identity have a long history.
In the early part of the twentieth century, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—Bahá’u’lláh’s son and appointed successor—urged the some 160 Bahá’í inhabitants of a small village in a remote part of Iran who were experiencing persecution to “regard every ill-wisher as a well-wisher.… That is, they must associate with a foe as befitteth a friend, and deal with an oppressor as beseemeth a kind companion. They should not gaze upon the faults and transgressions of their foes, nor pay heed to their enmity, inequity or oppression.”30 And further, they should “show forth love and affection, wisdom and compassion, faithfulness and unity towards all, without any discrimination.”31 But apart from enjoining upon them an attitude of remarkable forbearance and amity, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not address these followers as simple rural people with narrow parochial concerns. Rather, He affirmed their innate dignity by speaking to them as citizens of the world who had the capacity and the power to contribute to the advancement of civilization:
O ye beloved of the Lord! With the utmost joy and gladness, serve ye the human world, and love ye the human race. Turn your eyes away from limitations, and free yourselves from restrictions, for … freedom therefrom brings about divine blessings and bestowals…
Therefore, so long as there be a trace of life in one’s veins, one must strive and labour, and seek to lay a foundation that the passing of centuries and cycles may not undermine, and rear an edifice which the rolling of ages and aeons cannot overthrow—an edifice that shall prove eternal and everlasting, so that the sovereignty of heart and soul may be established and secure in both worlds.32
In short, the perceptions, preferences, and assumptions of the denizens of this small, isolated village were radically transformed. Their identity had been remade. They no longer were concerned just with local matters, and even though they were far removed from the mainstream of intellectual and cultural exchange, they regarded themselves as “servants” of the “entire human race,” and as protagonists in the building of a new way of life. They understood their “ultimate sphere of work as the globe itself.”33 That the broader Iranian Bahá’í community achieved, over the course of three generations, levels of educational advancement and prosperity well beyond the general population, even under conditions of severe religious discrimination, underscores the capacities that can be released when the moral and spiritual dimensions of human consciousness are awakened and purposively channeled.34 For those interested in apprehending the sources and mechanisms of individual and community empowerment, it would be difficult to find a more compelling example of social transformation than the case of the Iranian Bahá’ís.
In response to Bahá’u’lláh’s call for the creation of a universal culture of collaboration and conciliation, Bahá’ís drawn from almost every cultural and religious tradition “have achieved a sense of identity as members of a single human race, an identity that shapes the purpose of their lives and that, clearly, is not the expression of any intrinsic moral superiority on their own part…”35 It is an accomplishment “that can properly be described only as spiritual—capable of eliciting extraordinary feats of sacrifice and understanding from ordinary people of every background.”36
So it is clear that from a Bahá’í perspective, a universal identity is a vital precursor to action that is universal in its effects—to the “emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and culture.”37 In emphasizing our global identity, Bahá’u’lláh presents a conception of life that insists upon a redefinition of all human relationships—between individuals, between human society and the natural world, between the individual and the community, and between individual citizens and their governing institutions.38 Humanity has arrived at the dawn of its maturity, when its “innate excellence”and latent creative capacities can at last find complete expression.39 Accordingly, new social forms and ethical precepts are enunciated in the Bahá’í teachings so that human consciousness can be freed from patterns of response set by tradition, and the foundations of a global society can be erected.
Bahá’u’lláh thus speaks to the reshaping and redirection of social reality. That all individual action and social arrangements must be informed by the principle of the oneness of human relationships, gives rise to a concept of moral and social order that safeguards personal dignity while deepening human solidarity. In recognition of this central insight, the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í community, urges all to “embrace the implications of the oneness of humankind, not only as the inevitable next step in the advancement of civilization, but as the fulfillment of lesser identities of every kind that our race brings to this critical moment in our collective history.”40
From the basic principle of the unity of the world’s peoples are derived virtually all notions concerning human welfare and liberty. If the human race is one, any assertion that a particular racial, ethnic, or national group is in some way superior to the rest of humanity must be dismissed; society must reorganize its life to give practical expression to the principle of equality for all its members regardless of race, creed, or gender;41 each and every person must be enabled to “look into all things with a searching eye” so that truth can be independently ascertained;42 and all individuals must be given the opportunity to realize their inherent capabilities and thereby foster “the elevation, the advancement, the education, the protection and the regeneration of the peoples of the earth.”43
In the Bahá’í view, social origin, position, or rank are of no account in the sight of God. As Bahá’u’lláh confirms, “man’s glory lieth in his knowledge, his upright conduct, his praiseworthy character, his wisdom, and not in his nationality or rank.”44 This emphatic declaration of the essential moral and spiritual worth of every human being is echoed in an epistle of Bahá’u’lláh’s to a devoted follower: “Verily, before the one true God, they who are the rulers and lords of men and they that are their subjects and vassals are equal and the same. The ranks of all men are dependent on their potential and capacity. Witness unto this truth are the words, ‘In truth, they are most honored before God who are most righteous.’”45 Hence, embedded in the Bahá’í understanding of human identity is a fundamental expectation of justice and equality of opportunity, as well as an imperative of striving for greater moral awareness and responsibility.
It must be stressed that the “watchword” of the Bahá’í community is “unity in diversity.”46 Oneness and diversity are complementary and inseparable: “That human consciousness necessarily operates through an infinite diversity of individual minds and motivations detracts in no way from its essential unity. Indeed, it is precisely an inherent diversity that distinguishes unity from homogeneity or uniformity.”47 Just as integration of the differentiated components of the human body makes possible the higher function of human consciousness, so too is global well-being dependent on the willing give and take, and ultimate collaboration, of humanity’s diverse populations.48 Acceptance of the concept of unity in diversity implies the development of a global consciousness, a sense of global citizenship, and a love for all of humanity. It induces every individual to realize that, “since the body of humankind is one and indivisible,” each member of the human race is “born into the world as a trust of the whole” and has a responsibility to the whole.49 It further suggests that if a peaceful international community is to emerge, then the complex and varied cultural expressions of humanity must be allowed to develop and flourish, as well as to interact with one another in ever-changing forms of civilization. “The diversity in the human family,” the Bahá’í writings emphasize, “should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord.”50 More than creating a culture of tolerance, the notion of unity in diversity entails vanquishing corrosive divisions along lines of race, class, gender, nationality, and belief, and erecting a dynamic and cooperative social ethos that reflects the oneness of human nature.
The ideology of difference so ubiquitous in contemporary discourse militates against the possibility of social progress. It provides no basis whereby communities defined by specific backgrounds, customs, or creeds can bridge their divergent perspectives and resolve social tensions. The value of variety and difference cannot be minimized, but neither can the necessity for coexistence, order, and mutual effort. “The supreme need of humanity,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá underscores, “is cooperation and reciprocity. The stronger the ties of fellowship and solidarity amongst men, the greater will be the power of constructiveness and accomplishment in all the planes of human activity.”51 Diversity by itself cannot be regarded as an “ultimate good.”52
Unity, in contrast, “is a phenomenon of creative power.”53 To foster a global identity, to affirm that we are members of one human family is a deceptively simple but powerful idea. While traditional loyalties and identities must be appreciated and recognized, they are inadequate for addressing the predicament of modernity, and consequently, a higher loyalty, one that speaks to the common destiny of all the earth’s inhabitants, is necessary. And so, in our quest for solutions to the problems that collectively confront us, a first step must involve relinquishing our attachment to lesser loyalties. Yet, while Bahá’u’lláh is saying that at this moment in human social evolution a global identity is vital, an inherent aspect of such a universal identity is recognition of the spiritual reality that animates our inner selves. 54 To be sure, a global identity grounded in awareness of our common humanness marks a great step forward from where humanity has been, but a strictly secular or material formulation of global identity is unlikely to provide a sufficient motivational basis for overcoming historic prejudices and engendering universal moral action. Establishing a global milieu of peace, prosperity, and fairness is ultimately a matter of the heart; it involves a change in basic attitudes and values that can only come from recognizing the normative and spiritual nature of the challenges before us. This is especially so given that the vast majority of the world’s peoples do not view themselves simply as material beings responding to material exigencies and circumstances, but rather as beings endowed with spiritual sensibility and purpose.
In light of ongoing social turmoil and the upheavals of the last century, it is simply no longer possible to maintain the belief that human well-being can arise from a narrow materialistic conception of life. The persistence of widespread human deprivation and despair speaks to the shortcomings of prevailing social theories and policies. Fresh approaches are required. A just social polity, Bahá’ís believe, will emerge only when human relations and social arrangements are infused with spiritual intent, an intent characterized by an all-embracing standard of equity, unconditional love, and an ethos of service to others. Addressing practical challenges through a spiritual lens is no easy task, but it is to this objective that Bahá’ís are firmly committed. Through recognition of the centrality of spiritual values and the deeds they inspire, “Minds, hearts and all human forces are reformed, perfections are quickened, sciences, discoveries and investigations are stimulated afresh, and everything appertaining to the virtues of the human world is revitalized.”55 The power of a spiritually-actuated identity in furthering human betterment cannot be overestimated, for those “whose hearts are warmed by the energizing influence of God’s creative love cherish His creatures for His sake, and recognize in every human face a sign of His reflected glory.”56
It is still regrettable that the identity of certain individuals or groups emerges from a shared experience of oppression—from being the victims of systematic discrimination or injustice. In addressing this dimension of human identity, Bahá’u’lláh speaks forcefully and repeatedly about the rights and dignity of all human beings, and the indispensability of creating mechanisms of social justice, but He also explains that spiritual oppression is the most serious of all: “What ‘oppression’ is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth…should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it?”57 From this standpoint, it is in the displacement of a transcendent understanding of life by an ascendant materialism that we find the source of the disaffection, anomie, and uncertainty that so pervades modern existence. All forms of oppression ultimately find their genesis in the denial of our essential spiritual identity. As Bahá’u’lláh earnestly counsels us: “Deny not My servant should he ask anything from thee, for his face is My face; be then abashed before Me.”58
These words tell us that we must choose who we wish to be; we must “see” with our “own eyes and not through the eyes of others.”59 We must create our own sense of self and belonging. To have such power of choice affirms human nobility and is a sign of divine grace. Our different senses of identity consequently become fully realized through the development of our spiritual identity; they each provide a means for achieving our basic existential purpose—the recognition and refinement of the spiritual capacities latent within us. Through the tangible expression of such capacities—compassion, trustworthiness, humility, courage, forbearance, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good—we define a path of spiritual growth. In the end, though, whether we have attained our spiritual potential is enshrouded in mystery: “the inner being, the underlying reality or intrinsic identity, is still beyond the ken and perception of our human powers.”60
Connected with the idea of spiritual identity, then, is the inalienable sanctity of every human soul; that a unique destiny has been bestowed upon each of us by an all-loving Creator—a destiny which unfolds in accordance with the free exercise of our rational and moral powers. As Bahá’u’lláh indicates, “How lofty is the station which man, if he but choose to fulfill his high destiny, can attain!”61 This promise of new vistas of accomplishment for both the individual and society, is, for Bahá’ís, a source of enduring confidence and optimism. The forces now buffeting and recasting human life, Bahá’u’lláh attests, will serve to release the “potentialities inherent in the station of man,” thereby giving impetus to “an ever-advancing civilization.”62
The Bahá’í belief in the spiritual nature of reality, and its underlying unity, sheds new light on the question of religious identity. In stressing that “the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God,”63 Bahá’u’lláh is confirming a basic intuition that the truth underpinning the world’s great religions is in essence one. This explicit rejection of exclusivity and superiority, which have so dominated religious thinking and behavior, and suppressed impulses to reconciliation and unity, clears the ground for a new ethos of mutual understanding. For indeed, to believe that one’s system of belief is somehow superior or unique, has only led humankind to misery, despair, and ruin. In warning His followers never to assume what their own spiritual end might be, Bahá’u’lláh plants the seeds of humility and spiritual maturity so necessary for the creation of a world of tolerance and tranquility. In recognizing the divine origin of the world’s great religions, and that they have each served to unlock a wider range of capacities within human consciousness and society, the Bahá’í Faith does not and cannot make any claim of religious finality, but rather a claim of paramount relevance to humanity’s current spiritual and social plight. Its role as a reconciler and unifier of religions is clearly anticipated by Bahá’u’lláh: “A different Cause…hath appeared in this day and a different discourse is required.”64
Bahá’u’lláh clarifies that a moral logic pervades the fabric of human life, and that it is through observance of spiritual principles that the individual can realize the divinely intended goal of his or her existence. As beings capable of spiritual and moral development, our autonomy and welfare are not only determined by the laws and constraints of the natural world, but also by an objective spiritual world that is integrally related to it. To follow a moral path is not only to carry out the duties that we have to those around us, but is the only means for realizing true happiness and contentment. Our obligations to God, our inner selves, our family, and the wider community give definition to who we are and what our aims should be. For Bahá’ís, fulfillment of these obligations to the Divine will and to our fellow human beings ensures the emergence of a stable and progressive society. Moreover, by honoring such responsibilities, the nobility and rights of others are protected. In this sense, it is the requirement of individuals’ being able to meet primary spiritual and moral obligations that safeguards human rights.65
The Bahá’í teachings explain that moral insight is both transcendentally and dialogically derived. The values and ideals that bind human beings together, and give tangible direction and meaning to life, find their origins in the guidance provided by the Founders of the world’s great religious systems. At the same time, it is human action in response to such guidance that gives real shape to social reality. Bahá’u’lláh makes clear that all such action must be consultatively-inspired and directed. Given that human life has a “fundamentally dialogical character,” it is through interchange that individuals and the communities they compose are able to give definition to their identities and their long-term goals.66 Consultation can lead to the creation of new social meanings and social forms that reflect what is reasonable and fair for society to achieve. But any such process of collective deliberation and decision-making, the Bahá’í writings insist, must be devoid of adversarial posturing as well as dispassionate and fully participatory in spirit. It is through discourse which is inclusive and unifying that the religious impulse finds expression in the modern age.
Clearly, there can never be an absolutely objective or static understanding of what constitutes concepts such as social equity, human security, power, “the common good,” democracy, or community. There is an evolutionary aspect to social development—a dynamic process of learning, dialogue, and praxis in which social challenges and solutions are constantly redefined and reassessed. There are always multiple understandings of particular social questions and these diverse perspectives each typically contain some measure of validity. By building a broader framework of analysis that encompasses not only material and technical variables but the normative and spiritual dimensions of various social issues, new insights can emerge that enrich dialogues previously locked into narrow conceptual boundaries. A unifying sense of identity can obviously play an important role in facilitating and sustaining such a consultative path.
In many ways, the struggle to understand our identity is tied up with the question of meaning in modern life. Increasingly, calls are being made for rooting meaning and identity in community, but when the community is religiously, morally, and culturally pluralistic in character it is challenging for diverse voices to find common ground. It is here where the Bahá’í concepts of unity in diversity and non-adversarial dialogue and decision-making can offer a potent alternative vision of social advancement. Engaging in a cooperative search for truth will no doubt lead to the discovery and implementation of shared perspectives and values. Such open moral dialogue within and among variegated communities can lead to a process of action, reflection, and adjustment resulting in genuine social learning and progress.67 As Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes, “No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.”68
Meaning emerges from an independent search for truth and a chosen freedom grounded in social experience and social participation—a participation that leads to the enlargement of the self. Participation creates new identities and new solidarities. In Bahá’í communities around the globe, patterns of fellowship, knowledge-building, and collaboration among diverse peoples are giving rise to a new human culture. Bahá’ís have found that encouraging new modalities of association and participation is key to promoting meaningful social development and effective local governance that is democratic in spirit and method. Hence, Bahá’u’lláh’s statement that fellowship and sincere association “are conducive to the maintenance of order in the world and to the regeneration of nations.”69
Human beings are social beings. The self, therefore, cannot evolve outside of human relationships. Indeed, the self develops principally through endeavors that are participatory in nature. Virtues such as generosity, loyalty, mercy, and self-abnegation cannot be manifested in isolation from others. The Bahá’í teachings affirm that the essential arena of moral choice is the autonomous person. But this autonomy is exercised within a broader social context, as well as an all-encompassing spiritual reality that informs the nature of that social context. The Bahá’í teachings thus offer a social conception of human identity in which the inner aspirations of the self are aligned with the goals of a just and creative global polity. In this way, the Bahá’í community is able to reconcile “the right” with the “good.”70
Individual well-being is intimately tied to the flourishing of the whole. It is a reciprocated benevolence, founded on the ideals of service and selflessness, rather than utilitarian self-interest, that underlies the Bahá’í idea of social life. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states, “the honor and distinction of the individual consist in this, that he among all the world’s multitudes should become a source of social good.”71 While preservation of “personal freedom and initiative” is considered essential, so too must the relational aspect of human existence be recognized.72 The “maintenance of civilized life,” the Universal House of Justice explains, “calls for the utmost degree of understanding and cooperation between society and the individual; and because of the need to foster a climate in which the untold potentialities of the individual members of society can develop, this relationship must allow ‘free scope’ for ‘individuality to assert itself’ through modes of spontaneity, initiative and diversity that ensure the viability of society.”73
Given the social matrix of human reality, the quest for true self-determination and true identity involves finding one’s place within a moral order, not outside it. But in the Bahá’í view, such “ordered liberty” concerns the awakening of the soul to the capacities of integrity, kindness, and sincerity that lie within it. And spiritual growth of this kind must be fostered by the community in which the individual is embedded. Any conception of “the good”—an equitable society promoting the development of individual potential—must recognize the necessity of imbuing the concept of duty into society’s members. In this respect, laws and ethical standards are intended not to constrain but to liberate human consciousness so that a moral ethos can come into being. To a great degree, then, the emergence of the citizen devoted to a moral praxis results from the collective voice of the community. Although a path of social virtue and service must be freely chosen, the community must strive to cultivate and empower this voice.74 The ultimate expression of this spiritually motivated moral voice is a culture where action flows not from externally imposed duties and rights but from the spontaneous love that each member of the community has for one another. From our shared recognition that we are all sheltered under the love of the same God comes both humility and the means for true social cohesion.
This spiritually-based conception of social life goes beyond notions of mutual advantage and prudence associated with the idea of the social contract. While the principle of self-interested, rational exchange implied by the social contract indisputably represents an advance over coercion as a basis for social existence, there surely exists a step beyond exchange. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum states, the pursuit of “individual ends” must “include shared ends.”75 Social cooperation, as manifested through a “global society of peoples,” she argues, cannot be based on seeking mutual advantage, but can only result from recognizing that “a central part of our good is to live in a world that is morally decent, a world in which all human beings have what they need to live a life with dignity.”76 Yet, Nussbaum’s thoughtful critique of current social forms falls short in outlining a pathway for mediating among divergent identities and value systems so that unity on a global scale becomes a realistic possibility. For without a genuine, transcending love emanating from the heart of human consciousness and motivation, it is unlikely that contending peoples and cultures can come together to form a harmonious and interdependent whole. Under the pluralism of the social contract, however enlightened that pluralism may be, disunity reigns.77
Bahá’u’lláh instead offers a covenant of universal fellowship, a spiritually-empowered ethic of deep and abiding commitment, as the basis for collective life. As a result of this covenant of oneness, in the deprivation and suffering of others we see ourselves. Such a frame of reference opens the door to critical reflection and real social transformation. In the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.”78
The Bahá’í concept of an inhering human diversity leading to higher forms of unity suggests that we can and must move beyond a liberal construction of pluralism that is unable to provide an overarching vision of human development. But rather than engaging in a quixotic quest to overcome the innumerable evils at work in society or right the “countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age,” Bahá’ís are devoting their energy to building the world anew.79 As we have seen, recognizing the essential spiritual character of our identity is a defining feature of this project. Further, at this moment in our collective evolution, the appropriate locus for action is the globe in its entirety, where all members of the human family are joined together in a common enterprise of promoting justice and social integration. Here, it should be noted that the Bahá’í teachings envision social and political development unfolding in two directions: upward beyond the nation-state and downward to the grassroots of society. Both are vital and interlinked. In this regard, the Bahá’í community offers its own unique system of governance as a model for study.80
Bahá’u’lláh provides us with a potent new moral grammar that allows us to appreciate and nurture human diversity while expanding our horizons beyond the parochial to a solidarity encompassing the boundaries of the planet itself. By extending human identity outward to embrace the totality of human experience, Bahá’u’lláh offers a vision of a comprehensive good that recognizes and values the particular while promoting an integrating framework of global learning and cooperation. His summons to unity articulates an entirely new ethics and way of life—one that flows from a spiritual understanding of human history, purpose, and development. He also gives us new tools that allow us to negotiate amongour diverse perceptions and construct unified modes of living without resorting to adversarial means and the culture of protest that heretofore have characterized even the most advanced democratic polities. He exhorts us to “flee” from “dissension and strife, contention, estrangement and apathy…”81
By redefining human identity, the Bahá’í teachings anticipate the moral reconstruction of all human practices—a process that involves the remaking of individual behavior and the reformulation of institutional structures. It entails the internalization of spiritual concepts so that the theory, assessment, and reformation of social affairs reflect the ideals of altruism, moderation, reciprocity, and justice. When society draws upon the spiritual mainspring of human identity and purpose, truly constructive avenues of social change can be pursued. “Among the results of the manifestation of spiritual forces,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá confirms “will be that the human world will adapt itself to a new social form…and human equality will be universally established.”82
In our very longing for a world free from violence and injustice, lie the seeds of hope. But such hope can only be sustained by the certitude conferred by faith. As the Universal House of Justice assures us: “The turmoil and crises of our time underlie a momentous transition in human affairs…That our Earth has contracted into a neighbourhood, no one can seriously deny. The world is being made new. Death pangs are yielding to birth pangs. The pain shall pass when members of the human race act upon the common recognition of their essential oneness. There is a light at the end of this tunnel of change beckoning humanity to the goal destined for it according to the testimonies recorded in all the Holy Books.”83