Humanity is gripped by a crisis of identity, as various peoples and groups struggle to define themselves, their place in the world, and how they should act. Without a vision of shared identity and common purpose, they fall into competing ideologies and power struggles. Seemingly countless permutations of “us” and “them” define group identities ever more narrowly and in contrast to one another. Over time, this splintering into divergent interest groups has weakened the cohesion of society itself.1Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of the World, 18 January 2019. On humanity’s crisis of identity and the principle of human oneness, see also: Universal House of Justice, letter to the Followers of Bahá’u’lláh in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1 November 2022.
—The Universal House of Justice
The “crisis of identity” described by the Universal House of Justice is one of the defining features of the present moment. Questions of identity and belonging have surged to prominence in recent years, finding expression in virtually every aspect of collective life. As the forces of our decidedly global age challenge the boundaries, both literal and figurative, that define group identities, the secure sense of belonging these identities have traditionally supplied is increasingly frustrated or lost, resulting in confusion, insecurity, conflict, and ever more forceful assertions of difference. Paradoxically, even as the need for a deeply felt sense of human oneness has grown more obvious, categories of “us” and “them” have multiplied and become more salient around the globe.
Confronted with humanity’s crisis of identity, some thinkers have proposed the reimagination of national identity. A newly enlightened and capaciously inclusive form of nationalism, they suggest, can provide a shared context of belonging within which various narrower identities and attachments can be reconciled.2For example, see: Amy Chua, Political Tribes: Group Instincts and the Fate of Nations (New York: Penguin Press, 2018); Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018); Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal (New York: Harper, 2017); Yascha Mounk, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and What We Can Do About It (New York: Penguin Press, 2022). But solutions rooted in national identity, or in other familiar concepts such as liberal democracy, are struggling to resolve the crisis.
From the perspective of the Bahá’í teachings, the solution to our crisis of identity lies in the genuine and deeply felt recognition of human oneness. Specifically, the Bahá’í writings suggest that only a collective identity3As social psychologists explain, identity is a (self-)categorization that holds significant emotional meaning, typically entailing thick ties of empathy, solidarity, belonging, and love. Ties of identity thus differ from other, more cerebral or emotionally thin bonds of universal human connection such as those that might result, for example, from a rational commitment to the equal moral worth of all persons. See Monroe, K. R., Hankin, J., & Van Vechten, R.B. (2000). The psychological foundations of identity politics. The Annual Review of Political Science, 3(1), 419-447. 2000. rooted in the oneness of humankind can resolve our present crisis and fundamentally relieve the various long-standing tensions that surround it. The previously cited passage from Universal House of Justice goes on to elaborate this point:
“Rival conceptions about the primacy of a particular people are peddled to the exclusion of the truth that humanity is on a common journey in which all are protagonists. Consider how radically different such a fragmented conception of human identity is from the one that follows from a recognition of the oneness of humanity. In this perspective, the diversity that characterizes the human family, far from contradicting its oneness, endows it with richness. Unity, in its Bahá’í expression, contains the essential concept of diversity, distinguishing it from uniformity. It is through love for all people, and by subordinating lesser loyalties to the best interests of humankind, that the unity of the world can be realized and the infinite expressions of human diversity find their highest fulfilment.”4Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of the World, 18 January 2019. On humanity’s crisis of identity and the principle of human oneness, see also: Universal House of Justice, letter to the Followers of Bahá’u’lláh in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1 November 2022.
The notions of identity and human oneness reflected in this passage, and indeed throughout the Bahá’í writings, present a radical departure from the way these concepts are frequently understood in contemporary thought and discourse. Many prominent conceptions of our shared humanity, and in particular, those that emerge from the predominant intellectual frameworks of the West, are widely deemed homogenizing. They are also critiqued for being too far removed from the texture of everyday life to hold any relevance for the communities and relationships to which people immediately belong. The Bahá’í teachings offer a different vision. Far from threatening or contradicting the essential diversity of humankind, the Bahá’í writings suggest that a universal human identity is uniquely equipped to ensure the fundamental security and flourishing of our particular (i.e., narrower) identities, communities, and affiliations. This article considers why and how the Bahá’í expression of human oneness resolves both the collective crisis of identity we currently face and the long-assumed tension between the oneness and the diversity of humankind.
Humanity’s Crisis of Identity: Two Underlying Tensions
It would be helpful to begin by more closely examining the crisis itself. Two long standing tensions, or apparent contradictions, underlie humanity’s crisis of identity and complicate its resolution.
The first tension pertains directly to the nature of traditional group identities5In this article, the terms “group identity,” “collective identity,” “social identity,” and “identity” are used interchangeably. See footnote 3 for a brief explanation of what identity entails. themselves. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum explains in reference to the two-faced Roman god of duality, collective identities are “Janus-faced”: they are characterized by two contrasting aspects in chronic tension.6M. C. Nussbaum, “Toward a globally sensitive patriotism,” Daedalus 137, no. 3 (2008): 78-79. On the one hand, our traditional “bounded” identities—that is, identities that include some and exclude others—are deeply susceptible to instability, conflict, and destructiveness. Whether in the dividing lines of contemporary society or in the most catastrophic injustices of human history, collective identities can reveal an exceedingly ugly face. Observing the tensions that surround group identities, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah declares them “horsemen of the apocalypses from apartheid to genocide.”7K. A. Appiah, The lies that bind: Rethinking identity (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018), xvi.
On the other hand, the diversity embodied in our bounded social identities is vital. At the aggregate level, various forms of diversity are essential to the strength, stability, and flourishing of social systems.8For example: A. L. Antonio, et al., “Effects of racial diversity on complex thinking in college students,” Psychological Science 15, no. 8 (2004): 507-510; F. Arbab, “Promoting a discourse on science, religion, and development,” in The lab, the temple, and the market: Reflections at the intersection of science, religion, and development, ed. S. Harper (Ottawa: International Development Research Center, 2000), 149-237. Shared identities, furthermore, bind us together in social and moral enterprises, providing a basis for community, collective action, and mutual support. At a more personal and subjective level, our particular experiences and perspectives constitute important parts of our self-concept as human beings: they legitimately yearn for recognition, inclusion, and expression.
This dual nature of collective identity is also suggested in the Bahá’í writings. Shoghi Effendi, for instance, distinguishes unbridled nationalism from a “sane and legitimate patriotism,”9Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah. Available at www.bahai.org/r/895919188 and the Universal House of Justice describes “a love of one’s country that cannot be manipulated” and that “enriches one’s life.”10Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran, 2 March 2013. Universal House of Justice, letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, April 2002. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes this duality more explicit. “[D]ifferences, He writes, “are of two kinds. One is the cause of annihilation and is like the antipathy existing among warring nations and conflicting tribes who seek each other’s destruction … The other kind, which is a token of diversity, is the essence of perfection …”11‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/583780535
These two sides of our traditional bounded identities leave them in a state of chronic tension and instability which has, to date, stubbornly evaded resolution. Social identities are perpetually vulnerable to destructiveness and conflict. And yet, we cannot live without them.
The tension that characterizes bounded identities is amplified by their relationship to forces and movements that are unbounded. Economic globalization in its various forms, the heightened ease of transborder communication, the growing universality of our moral intuitions, the expanding consciousness of human oneness and interdependence more broadly, not to mention the countless interdependencies that propagated a deadly virus across the globe, are all widely thought to threaten the security of our traditional identities and affiliations.12W. Brown, Walled states, waning sovereignty (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2010); C. Kinnvall “Globalization and religious nationalism: Self, identity, and the Search for ontological security,” Political Psychology 25, no. 5 (2004): 741-767. Put differently: the legitimate yearning for rootedness and belonging is challenged by the porousness, fluidity, and expanded consciousness of an increasingly global age. The insecurity induced by these “universalizing” forces thus results in a more acutely felt yearning for the sense of rootedness traditional identities provide, as well as in the related impulse to bolster the security of these identities by sharpening the boundaries that define them. In other words, as our shared consciousness of the physical, social, moral, and economic space we inhabit as human beings is stretched to include the entire planet, humanity’s collective ambivalence toward its bounded identities both intensifies and becomes increasingly expressed in a second, broader tension between the universal and the particular—between the pull of bounded identities and attachments, on the one hand, and that of universalist forces and aspirations, on the other. This stubborn tension has led the political philosopher Seyla Benhabib to conclude, “Our fate, as late-modern individuals, is to live caught in the permanent tug of war between the vision of the universal and the attachments to the particular.”13S. Benhabib, The rights of others: Aliens, residents and citizens, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 16.
At the heart of humanity’s crisis of identity, therefore, lies a key question: Can humanity’s fundamental oneness be reconciled with its essential diversity? And can such a reconciliation be achieved at the deepest levels of human identity and meaning? The answer proclaimed in the Bahá’í writings, as we have seen, is unequivocally affirmative: it is through the deeply felt recognition of human oneness that the diversity of humankind thrives and finds its highest fulfillment. Why might an identity rooted in the oneness of humankind be uniquely equipped to protect and promote its diversity?
Unique Features of an Identity Rooted in the Oneness of Humankind
To begin answering this question, I suggest that a collective identity genuinely rooted in the oneness of humankind is qualitatively different than every other social identity because of at least two distinguishing features. These unique features, in turn, enable a universal human identity to stabilize and empower14Of course, not all identities—and certainly not every aspect of every identity—should be preserved or empowered. Identities (or aspects of them) that cannot be reconciled with the principle of human oneness (for instance, those rooted in racial superiority or in some other form of antagonism toward others) must ultimately be abandoned. On this important point, see also footnotes 32 and 48 below. our particular identities in ways that other overarching affiliations—nationality, for example—cannot.
The first feature that distinguishes an identity rooted in the oneness of humankind is rather obviously that it is non-exclusionary. Insofar as human beings and their communities are concerned, an identity genuinely rooted in our common humanity has no bounds of exclusion or parameters of otherness; it literally has no “other.”15What I wish to do in this article is to move away from the defensive posture that cosmopolitan theorists and other proponents of universalism often take to refute objections, and instead, lean into the notion of non-exclusion to identify its implications. Much has been written to question the possibility and meaningfulness of such a collective identity and, at a theoretical level at least, this skepticism has been ably addressed elsewhere. See, for example, A. Abizadeh, “Does collective identity presuppose and other? On the alleged incoherence of global solidarity,” American Political Science Review 99, no. 1 ,(2000): 45-60. This stands in contrast to all traditional social identities which, by definition, have outsiders, and are thus inescapably bounded and exclusionary.
I hasten to note that a non-exclusionary human identity need not cast humanity in opposition to non-human life on the planet, nor must it entail a sharp separation of human beings from their physical environment, precluding, for instance, the notion that we share a type of oneness with our ecosystem(s).16For an illuminating discussion of this topic, see P. Hanley, Eleven, (Victoria, Canada: Friesen Press, 2014), especially Chapter 12. Indeed, a genuinely non-exclusionary human identity should lead to a deeper appreciation of our broader interdependence, rather than to a destructive anthropocentricism, which is often an expression of the very same attitudes and predispositions that animate the exclusion, oppression, and destruction of human life on the planet.17Hanley, Eleven, 280. See also: Akeel Bilgrami, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014), Chapter 5.
The second distinguishing feature of a genuinely universal human identity pertains to the nature of the commonality on which it is based. Consider that, as scientific studies widely confirm, virtually all other group identities are ultimately socially constructed.18W.C. Byrd, et al, “Biological determinism and racial essentialism: The ideological double helix of racial inequality,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 661, no. 1 (2015): 8-22. This is not to say, of course, that these identities are not real, whether in their objective, material consequences, or in humanity’s subjective experience and valuation of them. It is to observe, rather, that the commonalities in which they are grounded are contingent (i.e., dependent) on a range of social constructs and impermanent socio-historical phenomena, for example, on fluid beliefs about social and biological reality, on the frequently contested details of history, on socially constructed parameters of membership, and tragically, on shared experiences of oppression and injustice.19Given its biological distinctions, one might object that an identity based on gender is an exception to this observation. But a very large proportion of what constitutes gender—our ideas about what different genders are, and how members of each should behave and feel, for example—is socially constructed. As the Universal House of Justice writes in a letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran dated 2 March 2013: “The rational soul has no gender or race, ethnicity or class…” For a related discussion, see also: Appiah, The lies that bind, Chapter 1. In this sense, then, the contingency of other collective identities is inescapable.
Strikingly, more than a hundred years ago, when the socially constructed nature of humanity’s dividing lines was far from obvious, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made these observations explicit. As he explained, “These boundaries and distinctions are human and artificial, not natural and original.”20‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, 23. And elsewhere: “Religions, races, and nations are all divisions of man’s making only …”21‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 131. Indeed, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá elaborated on the inherent contingency and impermanence of the various identities and affiliations that traditionally bind human beings together:
“In the contingent world there are many collective centers which are conducive to association and unity between the children of men. For example, patriotism is a collective center; nationalism is a collective center; identity of interests is a collective center; political alliance is a collective center; the union of ideals is a collective center, and the prosperity of the world of humanity is dependent upon the organization and promotion of the collective centers. Nevertheless, all the above institutions are, in reality, the matter and not the substance, accidental and not eternal—temporary and not everlasting. With the appearance of great revolutions and upheavals, all these collective centers are swept away.”22‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of the Divine Place, 14: Tablet to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada.
Drawing on the Bahá’í writings, this article posits that, in contrast to the necessarily contingent basis of all other identities, the basis of a universal human identity need not be socially constructed or contingent. Such an identity, rather, can be rooted in the non-contingent and ultimately investigable reality of human oneness.
This second unique and distinguishing feature of an identity authentically rooted in the oneness of humankind I will call its non-contingency. Specifically, by positing that the basis of a genuinely universal human identity is non-contingent, I take for granted first, that there is something distinctive and non-contingent that only and all human beings have in common;23As this article later discusses, the Baha’i writings offer a spiritual understanding of this human commonality, recognizing it as the human soul. and, second, that the expressions of this human commonality or “core”—expressions in the form, for example, of common yearnings, vulnerabilities, and experiences—are such that human beings, whatever their particular context, can come to recognize that a distinctive and non-contingent human commonality exists.24For the argument that follows to hold, a third premise is also needed, namely, that human beings are able to readily recognize the humanness of another without a widely articulated consensus on the content of our humanity. In other words, there is, or there can be, a reasonably widespread intuitive consensus about who falls within the community of human beings. ,25It is worth highlighting an important distinction between the non-contingent basis of a human collective identity (posited above) and the empirically contingent process whereby any social identity, including a universal one, is formed. To posit that a collective human identity can be rooted in a set of features that are not contingent on socio-historical constructs is not to say that the process through which such an identity emerges and becomes expressed—the process whereby we come to recognize and articulate our oneness and interdependence as human beings, for example, or the process that finally exposes our need for an identity based on this recognition—is not socially, materially, and historically contingent. Indeed, it is precisely the empirical conditions of our time, and the surge of historically contingent forces that shape them, which make the recognition of such a collective identity possible.
Not every possible basis of unbounded human affiliation will meet the criteria of genuine (or authentic) non-contingency. The article returns to this point in various ways below, especially when it considers what constitutes a genuinely non-contingent basis for collective identity from the Bahá’í perspective.
The sections that immediately follow, however, aim to show that when taken together, the two distinguishing features of a universal social identity posited above—that is, its non-exclusionary and potentially non-contingent basis—carry deep and far-reaching implications.
A Source of Fundamental Security
What implications follow from the non-exclusionary and non-contingent basis of a collective identity authentically rooted in the oneness of humankind? Consider first that these two features of a universal human identity can yield parameters of inclusion that are immovably all-inclusive—in other words, that are thoroughly stable and safe. In contrast, bounded and contingently grounded identities have parameters of membership that are inherently unstable. Because the boundaries of such identities are exclusionary (by definition, there are outsiders), and because they are contingent and fluid (they are socially constructed and therefore subject to reconstruction), their parameters of belonging are intrinsically susceptible to contestation, redefinition, exclusion, and othering. This threat of exclusion, of course, can come from without (i.e., othering of and by non-members). But significantly, it also comes from within. When parameters of inclusion are intrinsically bounded and contingent, the question of “who belongs?” can never be fully closed: today’s insiders can be cast as outsiders tomorrow. The instability of intergroup relations is thus augmented by the potential precariousness of in-group membership. The current discourse and political rhetoric surrounding many national identities helps illustrate this point. As the narrative of a national identity is recontested and retold, so too are its parameters of otherness redrawn: “Who counts as ‘real’ national and who doesn’t?” has become a strikingly unstable question in recent years, even in long-consolidated nations and democracies.
Thus, when parameters of inclusion are bounded and the basis of belonging contingent, the possibility of external threat is never fully eliminated and one’s claim to internal membership is never fully stable. Only a collective identity that is both genuinely non-exclusionary and non-contingently grounded—that is, an identity rooted in the genuine recognition of human oneness—can deliver a context of fundamental security: one belongs because one is human, full stop.26Identity and security are deeply intertwined concepts across a vast spectrum of disciplines and discourses, including political philosophy and contemporary public discourse. In philosophy, for instance, Charles Taylor’s influential discussion of identity and recognition emphasizes the guarantee of a secure feeling of permanence and continuity, while Avishai Margalit and Joseph Raz argue that the value to one’s identity of membership in a national group is the provision of a sense of security. In another prominent example, Nussbaum worries that the removal of local boundaries might leave “a life bereft of a certain sort of warmth and security.” The link between identity and security also finds concrete expression in many examples of contemporary politics and social unrest. The political rhetoric around “walls” and “wall building” in the United States, which was overwhelmingly articulated in relation to anxieties over collective identity and belonging, is but one recent example. The close connection between social identity and a feeling of security also has deep roots in the study of psychology. One of the key functions of a social identity, according to psychologists, is to satisfy the need for security. See: C. Taylor, “The politics of recognition,” in Multiculturalism: Examining the politics of recognition, ed. A. Gutmann, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 25-74; A. Margalit, et al, “National self-determination,” The Journal of Philosophy 87, no. 9 (1990): 439-461; M. C. Nussbaum, “Patriotism and cosmopolitanism,” Boston Review, October/November (1994); E. H. Erikson, Childhood and society, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1950); A. Giddens, Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern Age, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).
The distinctive characteristics of a universal human identity, therefore, reveal the possibility of a collective identity that is not only itself uniquely invulnerable to instability and destructiveness, but that is also uniquely equipped to relieve the insecurity and potential destructiveness of all other shared identities and affiliations. In other words, only a collective identity rooted in the oneness of humankind has the potential to deliver a stabilizing context of fundamental security to our particular—and otherwise unstable—group identities.
Empirical research in psychology suggests and substantiates this proposition in notable ways. Two threads of this research are briefly highlighted here. The first shows that a feeling of security (and conversely, the feeling or perception of threat) plays a critical role in constituting the context and nature of intergroup relations. Specifically, a substantial body of research finds that “felt security” relieves intergroup hostility, yielding a posture of empathy, care, and openness to out-groups,27O. Gillath, et al, “Attachment, caregiving, and volunteering: Placing volunteerism in an attachment theoretical framework,” Personal Relationships 12, no. 4 (2005): 425-446; M. Mikulincer, et al, “Attachment theory and reactions to others’ needs: Evidence that activation of the sense of attachment security promotes empathic responses,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, no. 1 (2001): 1205-24; M. Mikulincer, et al, “Attachment theory and concern for others’ welfare: evidence that activation of the sense of secure base promotes endorsement of self-transcendence values,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 25, no. 4 (2003): 299-312; M. Mikulincer, et al, “Attachment, caregiving, and altruism: Boosting attachment security increases compassion and helping,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89, no. 5 (2005): 817-839. while “felt threat” increases intergroup hostility and conflict.28For example: M. B. Brewer, “The importance of being we: Human nature and intergroup relations,” American Psychologist 62, no. 8 (2007): 728-738; M. B. Brewer, et al, “An evolutionary perspective on social identity: Revisiting groups,” in Evolution and social psychology, eds. M. Schaller, et al, (Madison, CT: Psychology Press, 2006), 143-161; L. Huddy, “From group identity to political cohesion and commitment,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, eds. L. Huddy, et al, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 737-773; D. R. Kinder, “Prejudice and politics,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, eds. L. Huddy, et al, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 812-851. See also: L. S. Richman, et al, “Reactions to discrimination, stigmatization, ostracism, and other forms of interpersonal rejection: A multimotive model,” Psychological Review 116, no. 2 (2009): 365-383; J. M. Twenge, et al, “Social exclusion decreases prosocial behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92, no. 1 (2007): 56-66; W.A.Warburton, et al, “When ostracism leads to aggression: The moderating effects of control deprivation,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 42, no. 2 (2006): 213-220. Thus, a sense of security is conducive to more caring and empathic relations with those who hold different bounded identities.
A second thread of evidence powerfully complements the first by suggesting that identifying with the humanity of others is associated with markedly higher levels of felt security. For example, in her analysis of in-depth interviews with Nazi supporters, bystanders, and rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, the political psychologist Kristen Monroe found that those who conceived of themselves first and foremost as part of all humankind29K. R. Monroe, Heart of altruism: Perception of a common humanity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). K. R. Monroe, The hand of compassion: portraits of moral choice during the holocaust, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). experienced distinctively higher levels of felt security.30K. R. Monroe, Ethics in an age of terror and genocide: Identity and moral choice, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). In this study, the rescuers manifested heightened levels of ontological security, while Nazi supporters fell on the other end of the felt security spectrum. It is notable that those who identified with the whole of humankind did so in a deep and profoundly felt way. They shared, in other words, a decidedly thick universal identity. Monroe’s extensive study thus also provides evidence of the empirical possibility of an affectively rich and deeply internalized universal identity. Studies employing different methods offer consistent results. Brain imaging in neuropsychology, for example, reveals that the amygdala—a part of the brain that plays a central role in the experience of fear and aggression—becomes highly active when the average subject is shown faces from different races. But when subjects are first primed to think of people as individual human beings rather than as members of groups, the amygdala does not react.31For example: M.E. Wheeler, S. T. Fiske, et al, “Controlling racial prejudice: social-cognitive goals affect amygdala and stereotype activation,” Psychol Sci. 16, no. 1 (2005): 56-63.
These two threads of empirical research thus suggest that identifying with the oneness of humankind is associated with a greater sense of security, and that a sense of security relieves intergroup hostility and yields a posture of empathy, care, altruism, and openness toward out-groups.
Taken together, these empirical findings begin to substantiate the implications drawn logically from the inclusiveness and non-contingency of a universal source of belonging. An identity based on the essential oneness of humankind detaches bounded identities from the threat of rejection, humiliation, and domination that has forever shadowed them, and from notions of superiority and inferiority that have stubbornly fueled these threats. In other words, by transforming the overarching frame in which difference is situated and perceived—by resituating our particular identities within parameters of inclusion that are thoroughly safe, immovable, and all-inclusive—a universal identity has the potential to fundamentally relieve the seemingly inherent instabilities of our particular attachments, and to resolve the chronic tension or duality that we observed at the outset. An all-encompassing identity can thus deliver the context of genuine and enduring security that has long eluded our bounded social identities.32To be clear, nothing in this argument should be taken to suggest that bounded cultures and identities must remain static or unchanging. To the contrary, a context of deep, all-pervasive security allows our particular cultures and identities to freely change and evolve without causing the feelings of insecurity and threat that often accompany such change. See also footnotes 14 and 48.
Beyond Security: Liberating the Particular
The preceding section developed the case that an identity authentically rooted in the oneness of humankind provides a context of fundamental security, stabilizing the tensions that have long shadowed our bounded identities. The implications of a genuinely universal collective identity, however, go beyond just relieving particular identities of their destructive and destabilizing potential. What a context of deep, all-pervasive security delivers is not merely a stable equilibrium of peaceful coexistence, but rather, optimal conditions for the vibrancy and flourishing of particular identities, and of human diversity more broadly.
The idea here might be put this way: when the cost and encumbrance of insecurity and its associated protective measures are removed, on the one hand, and when an open and empathic posture toward difference becomes pervasive, on the other, then uninhibited, constructive, and creative expressions of the particular from all sides become much more probable and robust. In a context of fundamental security, goals of survival and collective self-protection can give way to more generative and constructive goals. In other words, through the felt security and certainty of belonging that an identity rooted in human oneness provides, other identities find not only protection—from their own instability and from the threat of other groups—but also liberation or release from the constraining weight that a context of latent threat has imposed on the expression of their potential. Thus, the deeply internalized consciousness of the oneness of humanity frees our bounded identities both from the threats of instability, hostility, and oppression that have stubbornly shadowed them, and from the countless safeguards and constraints that have been devised to keep these instabilities in check. Far from stifling the diversity of humankind, a reimagined universal human identity can furnish a powerful lubricant for the free expression of diversity on newly constituted terms.
Notably, the relationship between freedom and the recognition of human oneness is emphasized and elaborated in various ways throughout the Bahá’í writings. In one passage, for example, Bahá’u’lláh writes, “If the learned and worldly-wise men of this age were to allow mankind to inhale the fragrance of fellowship and love, every understanding heart would apprehend the meaning of true liberty.…”33Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, 162. In another tablet, Bahá’u’lláh explains more explicitly that “true liberty” will be achieved when identification with and love for the whole of humankind is realized in people’s consciousness.34Bahá’u’lláh, Amr va Khalq Volume 3, 472. Translations from the Persian are by the author and provisional. See also: Nader Saiedi, Logos and Civilization: Spirit, History, and Order in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Lanham, MD: University Press of Maryland, 2000), 327-328. It is noteworthy that, in that passage, Bahá’u’lláh also characterizes the achievement of such an identity as “the ornament of utmost tranquility,” further associating universal human identity with a sense of fundamental security and freedom.
What comes into focus, then, is a radical and somewhat counterintuitive vision of human oneness that directly addresses the tension between the universal and the particular. The Baha’i writings suggest that it is by liberating the particular through the universal—by releasing, in other words, the particular from the insecurities, instabilities, and oppressive relationships that have constrained it—that a fundamental and enduring resolution emerges.35For a discussion of how this resolution compares to those that have been devised by some contemporary political theorists, see Shahrzad Sabet, “Social Identity and a Reimagined Cosmopolitanism” (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, 17 April 2021). Paradoxically, it is by leaning fully into a genuine and emotionally rich universalism that the particular thrives, flourishes, and fulfills its potential. Thus, and as the opening passage from the Universal House of Justice indicates, it is through the deeply felt recognition of our fundamental oneness that the infinite expressions of human diversity thrive and find their highest fulfillment.36Pursuing the logic of this argument further also illuminates the reciprocal and mutually dependent relationship between unity and diversity, and the assertion of the Universal House of Justice that “Unity, in its Bahá’í expression, contains the essential concept of diversity, distinguish ing it from uniformity.” Put briefly, a context of oneness not only facilitates the expression of the particular and the fulfilment of its distinctive potential, but the liberated expression of the particular, in turn, ensures that the emergent form of oneness is not uniformity, but rather, unity—that is, the close integration of diverse components which have transcended the narrow purpose of ensuring their own existence and found their highest fulfillment in relation to the whole.
Critiques of Universalism and the Distinctiveness of the Bahá’í View
The notions of identity and human oneness reflected in preceding sections present a significant departure from the way these concepts are frequently understood in contemporary thought and discourse, particularly in the contemporary discourses of the West. One of the most powerful and pervasive critiques of universalism—and of a collective identity rooted in the oneness of humankind, in particular—is that it poses a threat to diversity. Skeptics worry that, along a variety of dimensions (e.g., identity, language, culture, geography, institutions, etc.), the ideal of human oneness carries an inherent risk of uniformity. This homogeneity, they further worry, tends to project dominant cultures and identities, and is often propagated through (neo-)imperialistic processes.37O. Dahbour, Self-Determination without nationalism: A theory of postnational sovereignty, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012); A. Kolers, Land, conflict, and justice: A political theory of territory, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Farah Godrej, Cosmopolitan Political Thought: Method, Practice, Discipline, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). The Bahá’í writings, as we have seen, envision a radically different possibility. The concept of oneness that emerges from these writings is not uniformity, but rather, a notion of unity that “contains the essential concept of diversity.” This conception of oneness is also strikingly embodied in the practice of the Bahá’í community. Across the globe, the Bahá’í principle of the oneness of humankind is actively expressed in worldwide community-building efforts that are explicitly “outward looking”38Universal House of Justice, letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, 30 December 2021.: they are, by definition, open to the full diversity of human beings, including those with other or no religious beliefs.
Another prominent critique of universalism reflects the notion that ideas rooted in our common humanity are overly abstract and disconnected from the concrete texture of everyday experience. While universalist visions might be relevant to questions of directly global or transnational concern (e.g., global governance, “global” poverty, etc.), their relevance to the relationships, neighborhoods, and communities to which people immediately belong is unclear or remote. This is especially true, the argument goes, where collective identity is concerned. In contrast to the intimacy and warmth offered by our traditional group identities, a universal human identity entails a rational commitment to the cold and distant abstraction of human oneness. From this perspective, an identity rooted in the oneness of humankind is too far removed from the texture of everyday life and experience to deliver the color, warmth, meaning, and locality that our other identities provide. A variation on this critique is the now-popularized charge of elitism: if a global, universal, or “cosmopolitan” identity works for anyone, we are told (and can vividly imagine), it works for a small, out-of-touch tribe of frequent-flying elites.39C. Calhoun, “‘Belonging’ in the cosmopolitan imaginary,” Ethnicities 3, no. 4 (2003): 531-568; M. Lerner, “Empires of reason,” Boston Review 19, no. 5 (1994); Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism.”
The Bahá’í vision of oneness and identity also diverges markedly from this view. As the preceding sections have tried to show an identity genuinely rooted in the oneness of humankind transforms the overarching context in which all identities are expressed, reorienting identities and relationships at all levels of society. From the Bahá’í perspective, then, the domain of universalism does not lie exclusively beyond borders, nor is it some distant transnational space inaccessible to the masses. Its domain, rather, is everywhere: it is concrete, immediate, and ubiquitous, encompassing all the textured communities and identities human beings value, whether they hold international passports or not. In this view, the oneness of humankind finds expression as much in the particular, and as much within the bounds of local and national communities, as it does beyond them. Again, this conception of oneness is not only reflected in the writings of the Faith, but also, strikingly, in the practice and experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community across countless cultural settings. In the Bahá’í experience, a universal identity is both directly nourished by and expressed in a range of grassroots community-building efforts that are decidedly local in nature.40For an exploration of Bahá’í community-building efforts, please see the article “Community and Collective Action,” available in the Library.
A directly related and overlapping feature of the Bahá’í conception of human oneness—and of an identity rooted in the oneness of humanity, in particular—is the radical, thoroughgoing, and unprecedented nature of the transformation it entails. Unlike some notable conceptions of universalism, the Bahá’í principle of the oneness of humankind does not simply call for the “universalization” of existing identities, norms, and institutions.41The notable conceptions of universalism referred to here are primarily those that emerge from the school of thought known as “cosmopolitanism” in contemporary Western political theory. For a thorough comparison of contemporary cosmopolitan theory to a view derived from the Bahá’í writings , see Shahrzad Sabet, “Social Identity and a Reimagined Cosmopolitanism” (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, 17 April 2021). For examples of contemporary Western cosmopolitan thought, see: C. R. Beitz, Political theory and international relations, second edition, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); T. W. Pogge, Realizing Rawls, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); D. Archibugi, The global commonwealth of citizens: Toward cosmopolitan democracy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); D. Held, Democracy and the global order: From the modern state to cosmopolitan governance, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995). It does not, for instance, entail the extension of existing national systems of governance and democracy to the entire globe; nor does it simply call for the expansion of existing schemes of domestic redistribution, or the replication of national collective identities in the global plane. Rather, the Bahá’í conception of the oneness of humanity represents a qualitatively distinct and transformative shift that permeates every level of society, fundamentally reorienting all identities and relationships, and transforming all structures of society. As the Universal House of Justice writes, “the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations. It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.”42Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran, 2 March 2013. Similarly, this principle “has widespread implications which affect and remold all dimensions of human activity.”43Universal House of Justice, letter to an individual, 24 January 1994.
In other words, far from merely reflecting a linear and incremental expansion of scope from the national to global sphere, the deeply felt recognition of humanity’s oneness represents a fundamentally different and qualitatively unprecedented step in the evolution of humankind. In reference to the revolutionary changes that led to the unification of nations, for example, Shoghi Effendi writes, “Great and far-reaching as have been those changes in the past, they cannot appear, when viewed in their proper perspective, except as subsidiary adjustments preluding that transformation of unparalleled majesty … which humanity is in this age bound to undergo.”44Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, 45. Elsewhere, he explains that the principle of the oneness of humankind implies “a change such that the world has not yet experienced,” “a new gospel, fundamentally different from … what the world has already conceived.”45Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, 42-43.
The Risk of False Universalisms
Of course, any proponent of the oneness of humankind must heed a critical warning: humanity shares a long and continuing history of oppressive ideas about the “human.”46For example, see: Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (New York: New York University Press, 2020); Walter D. Mignolo, “Who Speaks for the ‘Human’ in Human Rights?” Hispanic Issues On Line, Fall (2009): 7-24; Rinaldo Walcott, “Problem of The Human, or the Void of Relationality,” The Long Emancipation: Moving toward Black Freedom, (New York: Duke University Press, 2021), 55-58. Indeed, theorists of various kinds legitimately worry that casting our humanity in essentialist terms (i.e., taking for granted that our humanness is constituted by certain universal features, as the premise of non-contingency suggests) risks elevating a particular conception of the human over others, potentially marginalizing non-dominant experiences and opening the door to false, oppressive, and exclusionary ideas.
Adequately addressing these important concerns lies beyond the limited frame of this article. Here, I acknowledge the significance of these concerns and briefly highlight two points that might be developed in relation to them. First, recognizing that a non-contingent basis for a universal human identity exists—a recognition, it should be noted, that countless human beings readily and intuitively evince—does not require an immediate commitment to any particular, fixed, or rigid conception of our shared humanity. Of course, on a biological level, the truth that human beings constitute a single species is a basic fact that few people today deny, and which can serve as a starting point for the recognition of our shared humanity. But to arrive at a fuller and deeper common understanding of human oneness—one that can sustain a richly-conceived collective identity—a process of genuinely open, inclusive, and dynamic inquiry is required. By explicitly positing that the content or definition of a universal human identity must (minimally) include the recognition of its basis as non-exclusionary and non-contingent, we guard against false accounts of the human that violate these parameters—accounts, in other words, that exclude some human beings, or that render their humanity contingent and therefore questionable.47The validity of this point depends on the third premise described in footnote 23, namely, that human beings are able to readily recognize the humanness of another without a widely articulated consensus on the content of our humanity. Or put differently, there is, or could be, a reasonably widespread intuitive consensus about who falls within the community of human beings. This particular formulation of a collective human identity thus creates a safe and stable set of parameters within which genuine dialogue and inquiry into the content and expression of the human can take place.48It also creates a set of parameters within which particular identities and their various aspects can be examined. Not all identities—and certainly not every aspect of every identity—should be protected and empowered. The criteria of non-exclusion and non-contingency helps identify identities (or aspects of them) that cannot be reconciled with the principle of human oneness, and that must therefore be abandoned or recast.
A related point is suggested in the Bahá’í writings. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá proclaims, “[T]ruth or reality must be investigated; for reality is one, and by investigating it, all will find love and unity.”49Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 123. In another talk, He explains:
“The first teaching [of Bahá’u’lláh] is that man should investigate reality, for reality is contrary to dogmatic interpretations and imitations of ancestral forms of belief to which all nations and peoples adhere so tenaciously … Reality is one; and when found, it will unify all mankind … Reality is the oneness or solidarity of mankind … The second teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the principle of the oneness of the world of humanity.”50Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 372.
Clearly, these passages assert the truth of the principle of the oneness of humankind. But by closely pairing that principle with the precept that human beings should actively investigate reality, the truth of human oneness is also rendered a testable hypothesis. Indeed, both the reality of human oneness, and ideas about the various forms and expressions it might take, are investigable propositions. The posture of free and independent investigation enjoined by the Bahá’í writings—that is, the principle that truth must be investigated free from the force of prevailing traditions, habits, and prejudices—both demands a critical interrogation of the (often oppressive) claims, structures, and relationships that bear the false imprint of universalism, and directly negates any assumption that universalism requires the imposition of a particular viewpoint or way of thought. In the Bahá’í view, a genuine recognition of the oneness of humankind can not only survive the free, open, and critical investigation of reality, but in fact, requires it. With the potential pitfalls of essentialism firmly in mind, but recognizing the transformative power that a genuine universalism could hold, the reality of human oneness might be regarded as a hypothesis that deserves the open, rigorous, and investigative posture that the Bahá’í teachings invite.51Relatedly, yet another critique of universalism claims that it threatens the diversity of thought that emerges from free and independent thinking. This critique might go as follows: the creation of national identities required, at best, a moderate manipulation of thought (through the invention and promotion of national mythologies, for example), and at worst, extreme suppressions of free and critical thinking (as in the case of totalitarian forms of nationalism). How much more of this manipulation and suppression would be needed, this critique asks, to bind the whole of humanity, with all its differences, in a collective identity? When we begin, however, from the premise that, unlike nationality, a universal identity need not be socially constructed, a different light is shed on the objection that the consciousness of human oneness depends on the curtailment of free and independent investigation. If one accepts, even as a hypothesis, that human oneness has a non-contingent basis, it follows that a genuinely free and critical investigation of reality—a commitment to truth and truth-seeking—could strengthen the possibility of a deeply internalized universal human identity, not undermine it. See also Nader Saiedi, “The Birth of the Human Being: Beyond Religious Traditionalism and Materialist Modernity,” The Journal of Bahá’í Studies 21, no. 1-4 (2011), 1-28.
A Spiritual Conception of Human Oneness and the Ongoing Learning of the Bahá’í Community
Drawing insights from the Bahá’í writings, and engaging prominent strands of contemporary thought and discourse, this article has developed the case that the solution to our collective crisis of identity lies in the genuine and deeply felt recognition of the oneness of humankind. But as the preceding section suggests, important questions remain: What might constitute the content—that is, the non-contingent basis—of a universal human collective identity? Can such an identity take shape and find expression across the vast spectrum of human diversity? And if so, how?
In this connection, the experience of the Bahá’í community and its grassroots community-building efforts present a potentially fruitful case for study. Bahá’í communities, the Universal House of Justice explains, define themselves “above all … by their commitment to the oneness of humanity.”52Universal House of Justice, letter to all who have come to honour the Herald of a new DawnOctober 2019. Significantly, for the Bahá’í community, this recognition of human oneness is a fundamental and defining feature of identity. It is a meaningful and deeply internalized commitment, entailing thick, emotionally rich bonds of genuine solidarity and love.53For a further discussion of why thick bonds of human identity might be highly hospitable to diversity, see Shahrzad Sabet, “Toward a New Universalism,” The Hedgehog Review Online, December 2020. Bahá’ís consciously strive to manifest a love that extends “without restriction to every human being”54Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of the United States, 22 July 2020. and to achieve “a sense of identity as members of a single human race, an identity that shapes the purpose of their lives …”55One Common Faith (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 2005), 44.
As alluded to earlier, the radical vision of human oneness that motivates this identity also shapes the practice and experience of the Bahá’í community in important and potentially illuminating ways. First, the Bahá’í expression of unity contains the essential concept of diversity. Second and relatedly, the Bahá’í concept of oneness finds powerful expression in the local and the particular: it assumes a deep confluence between a universal human identity, on the one hand, and a deeply felt sense of local community and belonging, on the other. As such, the Bahá’í principle of the oneness of humankind is actively and systematically expressed in local community-building processes open to the full spectrum of human diversity56In a letter dated 1 November 2022, the Universal House of Justice urges Bahá’ís to demonstrate “that vital Bahá’í attitude of being truly outward looking, sincerely open to all, and resolutely inclusive.” and extending to every corner of the planet. Around the globe, Bahá’ís—and all who wish to join them—are consciously learning how an identity rooted in the oneness of humankind can be cultivated and expressed across a range of breathtakingly diverse communities, identities, and experiences. In light of the two core concerns raised by critics of universalism—namely, that the ideal of human oneness stifles diversity and is detached from the texture and locality of everyday life—the evolving experience of the Bahá’í community presents fertile ground for learning. Additionally, the experience of the Bahá’í community addresses the further critique that universalist projects, in particular those pertaining to social identity, are utopian and unrealizable. The breadth, depth, and wide-reaching resonance of Bahá’í endeavors should at least prompt a reconsideration of this frequently assumed limit of collective human possibility.
Another essential characteristic of the Bahá’í principle of human oneness relates more directly to the basis of a universal human identity and the question of its non-contingency. From the Bahá’í perspective, what renders a universal collective identity truly stabilizing and non-contingent—in other words, what makes it uniquely invulnerable to the tensions, instabilities, and contradictions that characterize other sources of identity—is a spiritual understanding of the human oneness on which it is based. According to the Bahá’í writings, the fundamentally spiritual reality of human beings—the human soul—is not characterized by the contingent traits that define other, bounded social identities. As the Universal House of Justice explains, “An individual’s true self is to be found in the powers of the soul, which has the capacity to know God and to reflect His attributes. The soul has no gender, no ethnicity, no race. God sees no differences among human beings except in relation to the conscious effort of each individual to purify his or her soul and to express its full powers … This truth is directly related to another—that humanity is one family.”57Universal House of Justice, letter to the Followers of Bahá’u’lláh in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1 November 2022. Also illuminating in this connection is the equation of the spiritual and with true freedom in the Bahá’í writings. Even as the spiritual is equated with the universal, the realization of true liberty is equated both with the spiritual (i.e., freedom from the material world of nature) and with genuine universalism, further reinforcing this article’s earlier discussion of liberty. On this and related points, see Saiedi, “The Birth of the Human Being.”
Recall the core argument that, in contrast to all other forms of love and association, the non-exclusionary and non-contingent basis of an identity rooted in human oneness yields a collective identity that is uniquely stable and stabilizing. In more than one passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá affirms this idea directly, and explicitly ties the non-contingency of universal love and identity to a spiritual source. For example:
“… fraternity, love and kindness based upon family, nativity, race or an attitude of altruism are neither sufficient nor permanent since all of them are limited, restricted and liable to change and disruption. For in the family there is discord and alienation; among sons of the same fatherland strife and internecine warfare are witnessed; between those of a given race, hostility and hatred are frequent; and even among the altruists varying aspects of opinion and lack of unselfish devotion give little promise of permanent and indestructible unity among mankind … the foundation of real brotherhood, the cause of loving co-operation and reciprocity and the source of real kindness and unselfish devotion is none other than the breaths of the Holy Spirit. Without this influence and animus it is impossible. We may be able to realize some degrees of fraternity through other motives but these are limited associations and subject to change. When human brotherhood is founded upon the Holy Spirit, it is eternal, changeless, unlimited.”58Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 385-386.
Elsewhere, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá characterizes love for the whole of humanity as the one expression of love that is uniquely “perfect” (i.e., free from limits and instabilities) and again, ties this characteristic to the spiritual and the divine. He explains:
Love is limitless, boundless, infinite! Material things are limited, circumscribed, finite. You cannot adequately express infinite love by limited means.
The perfect love needs an unselfish instrument, absolutely freed from fetters of every kind. The love of family is limited; the tie of blood relationship is not the strongest bond. Frequently members of the same family disagree, and even hate each other.
Patriotic love is finite; the love of one’s country causing hatred of all others, is not perfect love!
Compatriots also are not free from quarrels amongst themselves.
The love of race is limited; there is some union here, but that is insufficient. Love must be free from boundaries!
To love our own race may mean hatred of all others, and even people of the same race often dislike each other.
Political love also is much bound up with hatred of one party for another; this love is very limited and uncertain.
The love of community of interest in service is likewise fluctuating; frequently competitions arise, which lead to jealousy, and at length hatred replaces love…
All these ties of love are imperfect. It is clear that limited material ties are insufficient to adequately express the universal love. The great unselfish love for humanity is bounded by none of these imperfect, semi-selfish bonds; this is the one perfect love, possible to all mankind, and can only be achieved by the power of the Divine Spirit. No worldly power can accomplish the universal love.59Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 36-37.
Spiritual forces and commitments are not only conducive to selfless association and universal love; for many human beings, they are also prime sources of meaning, purpose, and purposeful action. Casting a spiritual light on identity thus reveals a potent connection between the crisis of identity with which this article is concerned, and another pressing crisis confronting humanity, namely, our collective crisis of agency and meaning. Indeed, even as we collectively struggle to find a secure sense of identity and belonging, the yearning for a sense of meaningful agency—that is, the yearning to meaningfully shape our lives, to give purposeful expression to our potential, and to contribute constructively to the communities we inhabit—is also widely frustrated. The experience of the Bahá’í community and the conception of identity on which it is based suggest that the solution to these two crises ultimately converge. A spiritual conception of identity not only attaches an absolute sense of belonging to the condition of being human; it also provides a powerful source of purpose and agency, and a basis for meaningful, transformative action. In the Bahá’í experience, these two expressions of identity—being and doing—are deeply intertwined and often indistinguishable.
The aim of this brief section has not been to demonstrate or adequately develop these ideas. Rather, it has been to highlight how the efforts of the Bahá’í community across vastly different cultural settings might provide illuminating insights into the power and possibility of a universal collective identity and, in particular, into the potential of an explicitly spiritual conception of human oneness.
* * *
“Humanity,” the Universal House of Justice observes, “is gripped by a crisis of identity…” The Bahá’í writings proclaim that the solution to this crisis lies in a radically reconceptualized vision of human identity and oneness. Specifically, they suggest that a collective identity authentically rooted in the oneness of humankind is uniquely equipped to resolve both the tensions that have destabilized our traditional group identities, and the widely assumed tension between humanity’s oneness and its diversity. Drawing on the Bahá’í writings, and engaging prominent strands of contemporary thought and discourse, this article has developed the case that only a universal human identity can ensure the fundamental security and flourishing of our particular identities, communities, and affiliations. In this view, an identity genuinely rooted in the oneness of humankind represents a qualitatively distinct and transformative shift that permeates all levels of society, that reorients all identities and relationships, and that fundamentally protects and liberates our bounded affiliations from their otherwise inherent instabilities and contradictions. Above all, this article has tried to show that as humanity’s crisis of identity persists and intensifies, the Bahá’í vision of human oneness, and its evolving expression in the community-building efforts of the worldwide Bahá’í community, are worthy of close attention.
In neighborhoods and villages around the world, tens, hundreds, and in some places, thousands of people, inspired by the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, are engaged in activities that aim to “build community.” In their efforts, we can already see signs of the emergence of new patterns of collective life: a village coming together regularly at the hour of dawn to summon divine assistance before the day’s work; a group of people combining skills and knowledge to carry out a reforestation project; neighbors consulting on ways to establish classes for the spiritual education of their children; a population beginning to shed age-old prejudices and build new patterns of interaction based on justice and unity; young adults, in rural and urban settings, initiating small-scale agricultural projects to support their communities—examples like these and many more are springing up from every continent and multiplying.
The current global crisis has raised awareness about the importance of human solidarity and collective action. Within this context, it seems timely to ask ourselves: What is the place of community in our modern world and what is the kind of community towards which we aspire?
The image that is evoked by the word community can be quite different from one person to the next. Some think of a community simply as those who live in the same geographic area, regardless of whether its members interact; others use the word to refer to a collection of people who share common interests or are motivated by the pursuit of a common goal; and, for many, community is seen as a population that shares a common ethnic identity and set of traditions. We also come across people who believe that the sense of togetherness that we need as human beings can be fulfilled through virtual networks, and some thinkers even predict that the whole concept of a community as it has been traditionally known will eventually disappear.
Although certain aspects of the conceptions above may be valuable, the relationships that sustain society are also being reconceptualized by many in light of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. Our understanding of community, then, will need to move beyond anything humanity currently knows or has experienced. To build a common vision of community, we turn to the messages of the Universal House of Justice. For instance, in 1996, the House of Justice described a community as
a comprehensive unit of civilization composed of individuals, families, and institutions that are originators and encouragers of systems, agencies and organizations working together with a common purpose for the welfare of people both within and beyond its borders; it is a composition of diverse, interacting participants that are achieving unity in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.1Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 1996. Available at www.bahai.org/r/045175659
The House of Justice has also written about “vibrant communities,” describing them as being characterized by “tolerance and love and guided by a strong sense of purpose and collective will” and explaining that they provide an “environment in which the capacities of all components––men, women, youth and children––are developed and their powers multiplied in unified action.”2Universal House of Justice, from a letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors dated 26 December 1995. Available at www.bahai.org/r/864076551
Over the past decade, Bahá’í community-building efforts have unfolded in smaller geographic areas like neighborhoods and villages. This process has been very similar to the organic processes that take place in nature. Indeed, creating something new in social reality is, like the growth of a tree, an organic process that begins by planting a seed in fertile soil.
The process begins with a group of people inspired by a hopeful vision of change who take action together within the context of a neighborhood or village. The initial steps they take are not random or haphazard but rather unfold within a framework defined by the growing experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community. The various elements that cohere to advance this process include classes for the spiritual education of children; groups of junior youth who, together with an older youth, support one another, study together, and carry out acts of service; the opening of homes and community centers for collective prayer and discussions about the progress of a neighborhood or village; regular visits by neighbors to meet with one another and strengthen bonds of friendship; educational programs for youth and adults in which they reflect on the spiritual dimension of life and prepare themselves for a life of service; and in some places, initiatives that seek to enhance the social and material well-being of a population. Whatever the form and arrangement of activities, however, the process of community building is a process of transformation in which a population takes ownership of its own spiritual and social development.
The fruit of the process of community building is a unit of civilization that is characterized by the principles and teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. The House of Justice has explained the long-term nature of these efforts:
The work advancing in every corner of the globe today represents the latest stage of the ongoing Bahá’í endeavour to create the nucleus of the glorious civilization enshrined in His teachings, the building of which is an enterprise of infinite complexity and scale, one that will demand centuries of exertion by humanity to bring to fruition. There are no shortcuts, no formulas. Only as effort is made to draw on insights from His Revelation, to tap into the accumulating knowledge of the human race, to apply His teachings intelligently to the life of humanity, and to consult on the questions that arise will the necessary learning occur and capacity be developed.3Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 2010. Available at www.bahai.org/r/178319844
We are, of course, too early in these efforts to know exactly what the entire process looks like, what stages we will have to pass through, what obstacles we might face along the way, and what capacities will need to be developed at each stage of development by the members of the community, individually and collectively. These are questions we must ask ourselves in the years and decades to come, and answers to these questions will become clear to us as we engage in a systematic process of learning.
Much has already been learned about the early stages of community building: A group of people turns to the sacred Writings and the guidance of the Universal House of Justice and takes action within a framework defined by the growing experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community; it draws insights from the existing body of knowledge and reflects on experience; it has regular conversations in which questions are asked and ideas are clarified; and, as understanding advances, the group adjusts its plans, approaches, and activities. The result is that its efforts become more and more effective, and the process it is trying to promote advances. In this way, the Bahá’í community is gradually developing its capacity to operate in a mode of learning and, as an organic global community, is advancing collectively.
As people learn more about the process of community building and how to effectively contribute to it, certain questions arise. For instance, what is my conception of community and what contributions can I make to the development of my community? What are those qualities, skills, and abilities that need to be developed in individuals and in groups to build vibrant communities? What are the things that are needed to enhance the relationships in a community? In seeking answers to these questions, we turn to the guiding and operating principles involved. As we understand these principles better and internalize them, they begin to find expression in our actions. They influence how we see ourselves in relation to others which in turn influences how we interact with others.
There are many principles that are relevant to the process of community building. Foremost among these is the oneness of humankind. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, talked about the principle of oneness as “the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve.”4Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/264008982 He said that it cannot be seen as a “mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope” and that it cannot be merely identified with the “reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men.”5Ibid. It has profound implications for every aspect of the organized life of society. Having the principle of oneness in mind as the guiding and operating principle sheds light on the process of community building and gives direction to our efforts as participants.
In His letter to Queen Victoria, Bahá’u’lláh writes: “Regard the world as the human body.” This metaphor of the human body, or a living organism, was also often used by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when He wanted to illustrate the implications of the principle of the oneness of humankind. Like any analogy, there are limits to how much it can explain. Nevertheless, like the elements of the human body, “all the members of this endless universe are linked one to another.” He urged us to act as the members of one body, each connected to the other with “a linkage complete and perfect” 6‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/189063524 and contributing its part for the benefit of the whole. He said that “man cannot live singly and alone. He is in need of continuous cooperation and mutual help… He can never, singly and alone, provide himself with all the necessities of existence. Therefore, he is in need of cooperation and reciprocity.” The House of Justice, in commenting on this metaphor, has further explained:
In the human body, every cell, every organ, every nerve has its part to play. When all do so the body is healthy, vigorous, radiant, ready for every call made upon it. No cell, however humble, lives apart from the body, whether in serving it or receiving from it. This is true of the body of mankind in which God “has endowed each humble being with ability and talent”7Universal House of Justice, letter of September 1994 to the Bahá’ís of the World regarding subject of universal participation. Bahá’í Reference Library. Available at www.bahai.org/r/874127903
Some characteristics of the living organism suggest where to focus our efforts as individuals. For example, the cells of the body are intimately connected to each other; their existence is purely in relation to the whole body. There is no possibility for the cell to live without its connection to the rest. The purpose of the cell is to maintain the health of the body and, at the same time, its life depends on it. In this regard, a characteristic that stands out is the necessity for the basic units of the organism to be selfless. Cells, in their very essence, are selfless. They are made that way. They adapt their functions in order to respond to unforeseen needs or emergencies or to protect the organism. The cell also takes only what it needs from the organism. The behavior of healthy cells in the body illustrates well the high standard that the individual whose purpose is to work for the common good aspires to as a member of a group or community. This implies, for instance, giving of one’s time and energy generously, sacrificing when the situation requires it, being detached from the results of what we do, and carrying out our actions with sincerity and purity of heart.
This concept of selfless service and the responsibilities that everyone has in accomplishing the collective aim have many implications for the way we relate to others and to our work. It adds significance to various roles and responsibilities that we undertake. To see ourselves like the cells of the body implies that each of us gives our very best in fulfilling our responsibilities; each one is conscious that everything he or she does influences the functioning of the community. And since each of us is responsible not only for his or her part but also for the functioning of the whole, cooperation and reciprocity should characterize relationships. In such an environment, everyone strives to draw out the best in people and to help others develop their full potential and takes joy in the progress of others.
This concept of selfless service also has implications for the manner in which we approach the acts of service we undertake and our various roles and responsibilities in a community. Serving with selflessness and diligence requires making choices, because, unlike the cells, we have free will. To put the interests of the collective before our own and to devote ourselves to doing things with excellence; to be ready to collaborate; to prefer our brothers and sisters over ourselves; to orient ourselves toward that which brings about the well-being of the community; to move beyond the inertia that sometimes holds us back from working to the best of our ability––all of these are individual choices that have to be made consciously. To give of ourselves is embedded in our nature; it is a capacity within us that can be developed and strengthened through constant effort, prayer, reflection, and the acquisition of knowledge. Maybe a word of caution is also needed here: To put the interest of the community before our own does not imply that we lose our individuality. We do not become dissolved in the community. There are many references in the Writings that shed light on the question of serving the common good.
O My Servant!
Thou art even as a finely tempered sword concealed in the darkness of its sheath and its value hidden from the artificer’s knowledge. Wherefore come forth from the sheath of self and desire that thy worth may be made resplendent and manifest unto all the world.8Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/261142065
Senses and faculties have been bestowed upon us, to be devoted to the service of the general good; so that we, distinguished above all other forms of life for perceptiveness and reason, should labor at all times and along all lines, whether the occasion be great or small, ordinary or extraordinary, until all mankind are safely gathered into the impregnable stronghold of knowledge.9‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/574361742
How excellent, how honorable is man if he arises to fulfil his responsibilities; how wretched and contemptible, if he shuts his eyes to the welfare of society and wastes his precious life in pursuing his own selfish interests and personal advantages.10Ibid.
In these early stages of building this new kind of community that reflects the divine teachings, we have to learn how to manage the apparent tension between pursuing our own interests and contributing to the common good. It is a very real tension within human beings. Undoubtedly, this will always be the case, since it is part of human nature. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has explained:
Man is in the ultimate degree of materiality and the beginning of spirituality; that is, he is at the end of imperfection and the beginning of perfection. He is at the furthermost degree of darkness and the beginning of the light. That is why the station of man is said to be the end of night and the beginning of day, meaning that he encompasses all the degrees of imperfection and that he potentially possesses all the degrees of perfection. He has both an animal side and an angelic side, and the role of the educator is to so train human souls that the angelic side may overcome the animal. Thus, should the divine powers, which are identical with perfection, overcome in man the satanic powers, which are absolute imperfection, he becomes the noblest of all creatures, but should the converse take place, he becomes the vilest of all beings. That is why he is the end of imperfection and the beginning of perfection.11‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions. Available at www.bahai.org/r/265818142
Although this tension will always be there, the Bahá’í writings also explain that the desire to do good is inherent in human nature because we are created noble. This desire to do good, however, needs to be cultivated and strengthened. It is through faith and our spiritual alignment with the will of God that we are enabled to do this.
The image of the functioning of the human body also gives us insights into the quality of the relationships that should exist within a healthy community. In the human body, we can appreciate how healthy interactions take place and how they contribute to maintaining unity and harmony among the diverse parts. Different organs, each with their own assigned functions, work together to allow new capacities to emerge––capacities that are manifested only when all the parts are functioning properly, each in its own sphere, and in perfect synchronization. Some of these capacities are associated with a specific organ while others do not belong to any particular one; the emergence of such capacities requires cooperation and reciprocity among the parts of the body. Whenever this cooperation breaks down or is replaced by competition, the body’s ability to manifest these capacities is inhibited.
The intention of this presentation is not to present a thorough analysis of the process of community building. It is simply to share a few ideas for reflection on the efforts of Bahá’í communities worldwide to bring about a new kind of community and ultimately contribute to the emergence of a peaceful and just world civilization envisioned in the sacred Writings. In this connection, we have spent some time examining the implications of the principle of the oneness of humankind. The analogy of a human body was used to see how the principle of oneness is foundational to our conception of a community and guides our choices and our actions.
The Bahá’í world is still in the early stages of the process of community building, and there is a great deal to be done before the process reaches fruition. In light of the challenges facing humanity, the task before us may seem daunting indeed, but we are committed to this process over the long term and are inspired to make constant efforts to better understand the relevant principles and to reflect this understanding in our approaches. We draw on spiritual forces to assist us and to propel us forward, and the most powerful force binding us together is the force of universal love. ‘Abdu’l-Baha addresses us: “Strive to increase the love-power of reality” and “to make your hearts greater centers of attraction and to create new ideals and relationships.”12‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on Divine Philosophy, (Boston: The Tudor Press, 1918), 107. Love, He writes, is “the magnetic force that directeth the movements of the spheres in the celestial realms” and “the establisher of true civilization in this mortal world.”13‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/407306067
NEW YORK — Dizzy Gillespie is remembered not only for his genius as a trumpeter who broke new ground in jazz but also for his long-standing dedication to the teachings of Baha’u’llah. Reflecting on the life and accomplishments of this iconic figure 100 years after his birth would be incomplete without reflecting on the Baha’i belief that seemed most to inspire and drive his work—that all human beings are part of one family.
“Dizzy represented an organic breakthrough in music,” asserts jazz pianist Mike Longo about Dizzy Gillespie, his late collaborator and friend.
“His music is from such a deep place,” Longo says, scanning the walls of his apartment on Riverside Drive on Manhattan’s upper west side. Framed photographs capture the decades of a musical partnership that ranged from playing sold-out concerts in major venues to private practice sessions at Gillespie’s home in Englewood on the other side of the Hudson River.
But jazz was not the only uniting factor in Gillespie and Longo’s enduring friendship. Both men were attracted to Baha’u’llah’s message of oneness and unity—principles that would lead them to embrace the Baha’i Faith.
“The night I joined the band was the night he heard about the Baha’i Faith,” says Longo.
When Gillespie encountered the Baha’i Faith for the first time, after a concert in Milwaukee, he discovered that it immediately resonated with his thinking—and his music.
“Jazz is based on the same principles as the Baha’i Faith,” says Longo. “Interracial mixing was way back when jazz first started. Dizzy described jazz as a marriage between African rhythm and European harmony and so, if you look at that from a broader perspective, that’s a marriage between the black race and the white race. And Dizzy’s music specifically, when they say that the Prophet unleashes a new power in the universe, Dizzy’s concept of bebop…is a reflection of that.”
Gillespie’s deep commitment to unity and justice expressed itself through the inclusive spirit that characterized his music and his interactions with people of all walks of life.
Born John Birks Gillespie in Cheraw, South Carolina, on 21 October 1917, Dizzy Gillespie was at the cutting edge of the bebop jazz phenomenon in the 1940s, often considered the most radical and vital music of its time. Bebop is characterized by its high energy tempos and rapid key changes, complex chord progressions, and dazzling improvisations around a melody.
“They were doing very difficult things,” explains British jazz and art critic Martin Gayford. “Gillespie’s technique alarmed other trumpet players, particularly because he was playing so high.”
“While Charlie Parker came up with the phrasing and the rhythmic approach, Gillespie’s contribution was more the technical side of the harmony and great showmanship.”
“The photographs that typify the bebop era are of Dizzy, with his beret and goatee beard,” says Gayford.
That vibrant persona and sheer technical virtuosity—with Gillespie’s trademark cheeks ballooning out bullfrog-like around the mouthpiece of his distinctive bent trumpet—make him a hard act for trumpeters to follow today.
“When, at the age of 8, I first heard a recording of his music, I was just astonished by what the trumpet could do,” says James Morrison, the celebrated Australian musician who was at the helm of an anniversary tribute concert held at London’s Royal Albert Hall on 4 August 2017, as part of the world-famous BBC Proms concert season.
“I have always been inspired by his way of playing the trumpet,” says Morrison. “I’m very heavily influenced by him.”
Morrison, who played with Gillespie on a number of occasions, believes his outgoing personality helped to make his innovative music a lot more accessible.
“He was there pushing boundaries, but he was so approachable as a person. There is a clichéd idea that an innovator has to be a dark, brooding person, off in his own world. But Dizzy was so garrulous and made such a great connection with the audience.”
Encountering the Bahá’í Faith
It was just such an audience member who first introduced Gillespie to the Bahá’í Faith. Beth McKenty, a Canadian who attended one of his shows in Milwaukee, had been inspired to reach out to him after reading about the tragic death of Charlie Parker, bebop’s co-originator. Parker was a saxophonist, who had at one point claimed that Gillespie was the “other half of his heart.” He died in 1955 at the age of 34, following a long period of drug addiction.
“Beth had called Dizzy and told him, ‘Charlie Parker didn’t have to die like he died’ and could she talk to him,” remembers Longo. “And so that night, she and her husband came and Dizzy was sitting with them at the table and she told him about the Bahá’í Faith and gave him a lot of literature.”
After a period of intense reading and studying, Gillespie formally accepted the Bahá’í Faith on 5 April 1968, the night after the assassination of Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr. The musician was attracted by the emphasis given in Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings to unity, particularly by their assertion of the harmony of science and religion, the equality of women and men, and the oneness of humanity.
“He and I were both very upset about the racial situation here with all the riots and everything,” says Longo. “We were talking and I said, ‘It don’t have to be like that,’ and I remember we were saying, ‘There’s got to be somebody that represents the way we feel,’ and that’s when he discovered the Faith.”
Gillespie wrote in his autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop, “When I encountered the Bahá’í Faith, it all went along with what I had always believed. I believed in the oneness of mankind. I believed we all come from the same source, that no race of people is inherently superior to any other.”
“Dizzy was tuned into the vibe,” says Longo.
Gillespie had long been interested in exploring the rhythms and harmonies of diverse cultures, and Longo believes his music evolved even further after he embraced the Bahá’í teachings.
“It got deeper,” he says. “If you listen to the chronology of his recordings, when he embraced the Afro-Cuban thing, the music went to a much deeper level… It went to a world level. And if you think about the Faith, that was a reflection of all the people coming together, it went on to a level as close as a human being can get to perfection.”
Becoming a Bahá’í influenced Gillespie’s life in every way. He wrote that it gave him “a new concept of the relationship between God and man—between man and his fellow man—man and his family.”
“I became more spiritually aware, and when you’re spiritually aware, that will be reflected in what you do,” wrote Gillespie.
And jazz musicians, Gillespie believed, were among “the people most ‘in tune’ with the Universe.”
“What is more appropriate than a musician being in tune with nature and with our Creator?” he wrote. “The best example is the way that they perform; how do they come up with things that have never been played before? Where did they get it? They have to have some kind of divine inspiration.”
Longo concurs. “This music doesn’t come from thinking. You can’t think and play at the same time. It comes from behind the mind, so there’s a sort of a bliss place back there that’s totally spiritual. That is the animating force to our music. In fact all of the arts, and sciences as well. The power that Bahá’u’lláh unleashed is the animating force in the arts.”
“Dizzy said, ‘What you hear is the divinity in the music.’”
The United Nation Orchestra
“Gillespie was around for a very long time,” reflects Martin Gayford, “from the 1940s right through to the 1990s. So he became something of an elder statesman of jazz, and a great encourager of young talent.”
The most ambitious, and final, fusion of his music with his religious beliefs was Gillespie’s formation of his United Nation Orchestra, with which he toured the world in the 1980s. The Bahá’í principle of building unity that maintains and celebrates cultural diversity was Gillespie’s key inspiration for the big band made up of younger musicians from the United States and outstanding players and singers from Brazil, Cuba, and Panama.
“That’s what he believed in,” says Longo, “and so that’s what the principle of the United Nation Orchestra was.”
“In the Bahá’í religion we don’t believe in cutting loose anything good,” Gillespie wrote. “Cut loose your heritage? Bahá’ís believe that you bring it in and work with others. Bring it into the whole just like a master painting. Because I’m purple and there’s another cat who’s orange doesn’t mean that we can’t come into one big compatible complementary arrangement. Just contribute from your own uniqueness, but don’t get over in their groove. Stay outta theirs!”
A lasting legacy
Since his death in 1993 at the age of 75, Dizzy Gillespie continues to be revered by enthusiasts the world over. His music has become the subject of academic study and symposia; his recordings are constantly being remastered, reissued, and rediscovered by younger generations. In the coming months, tribute concerts marking 100 years since his birth are taking place across the globe.
“When you pay a tribute to someone, there’s that question – do you imitate them?” says James Morrison. “And I believe, sound-wise—no. There are recognizable ‘Dizzyisms’ in what happens, but a true tribute is to create the atmosphere. It’s always like he was having a party, and he would take that onto the stage. I’ve always felt that’s what I wanted to do too.”
But Mike Longo believes Gillespie’s music is still not fully understood. Speaking at the trumpeter’s funeral in 1993, Longo told the congregation that, “a lot of people know what Dizzy played but they don’t know how he played.”
“At this point in time most of the educators and so forth are imitating it,” he says. “They don’t understand the concept, they understand the notes. So they imitate the notes and they try to imitate the feeling, but they’re not coming up with the essence yet. So he’s not fully appreciated yet.”
“Might be another 100 years before that happens,” Longo laughs.