Over the July 29-31 weekend, the Association for Bahá’í Studies-North America held its annual conference through a virtual platform for the third consecutive year since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s conference departed from adopting a singular theme and instead invited individual and group presenters to reflect on excerpts from a recent letter of the Universal House of Justice, the governing institution for the global Bahá’í community, addressing the relationship between academic and professional discourses and efforts to “contribute to the discourses that influence the direction of [spiritual and material] progress”.
Offering the program through a virtual platform facilitated increased participation in the conference. Approximately 3000 individuals from over 40 countries were able to participate. Registrants had access to pre-recorded presentations followed by synchronous sessions, where conference participants and presenters could explore presentation themes through informal discussion. More than half the presentations in this year’s program were group presentations: the fruit of collective learning initiatives, such as reading groups or working groups, that are supported by the Association of Bahá’í Studies in the months between its annual conference.
Presentations reflected a range of topics from academic disciplines including the arts, political science, law, history, environmental science, urban planning, Africana studies, and religious studies. In each presentation, as prompted by the conference’s framework, presenters sought to articulate “the implications that the [Bahá’í] teachings hold for the [the presenters’] fields of human endeavour as well as “a Bahá’í perspective on issues relevant to the progress of humanity”; and to focus on “transcending differences, harmoniz[e] perspectives, and promot[e] the use of consultation” through facilitated discussions.
In line with the keynote presentation by former member of the Universal House of Justice, Dr. Firaydoun Javaheri, the conference helped to build understanding that participating in academic and professional discourses is a core dimension of service that is coherent with other areas of endeavour for the Bahá’í community including community-building activities and social action. Dr. Todd Smith, a member of the conference’s executive committee, had the following reflection: “while congregating to learn in person is preferable, the conference affirmed that it is possible to create stimulating online spaces that are focused on transcending differences, harmonizing perspectives, and promoting the use of consultation towards advancing the intellectual life of the community.” Dr. Smith shared that next year’s conference will be held in-person, with many features open to participants online.
This year’s conference also benefited from the rich contributions of experts from outside the Bahá’í community. Prof. John Borrows, the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Law at the University of Victoria, offered insights on the role of local community in building relationships. Prof. Borrows shared that in learning how to live together based on spiritual principles, we can learn from the natural world in addition to the sacred teachings of divine messengers and insights from scientific inquiry. As the natural world precedes our existence as humans, we have an opportunity to learn from the Creator in the “winds, waves, pulses, vibrations, drones, barks, wines, growls, and calls and songs… [in which] the Creator has put in the sounds of the more than human world”. Prof. Borrows shared that “what Anishinaabe people do with their language and our practices is look to the natural world and find principles that we as humans could then take up and use to guide us as standards, principles, authority, criteria, measures, signposts, guideposts, for regulating our affairs and resolving our disputes.”
Dr. Azza Karam, a member of the United Nations Secretary General’s High Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism and Secretary General of Religions for Peace, explored the role of religion in global governance in conversation with Daniel Perell, a representative of the Bahá’í International Community in New York. Dr. Karam shared that religious institutions, religious non-governmental actors, religious communities and individuals have much to contribute to the current issues facing humanity as many of the original providers of care, stewards of large portions of land and voices of moral authority held in high regard by many of the world’s peoples. The need for such participation is especially needed at a time where governments, including governments from wealthy countries, struggle to provide their people with basic needs. At the same time, Dr. Karam expressed that religious institutions must be held to the same standards of governments to ensure that people of different faiths or no-faiths receive fair and equal treatment.
While acknowledging the grave challenges experienced by millions around the world, Dr. Karam expressed hope for the future grounded in the signs of collaboration by different religious communities and the involvement of young people observed at the grassroots: “I see remarkable resilience of communities of people in very difficult challenging times. I see a move to faith which is not to instrumentalize it [faith] but to find strength in it. I see more willingness to come together based on our shared commonalities as humans and societies. I also see remarkable resilience in our cultures, art, poetry, and film. We can easily get so absorbed in the darkness but we must also understand that right next to it is a remarkable form of human resilience.”
Pre-recorded presentations from this year’s conference program are available upon registration through the Association for Bahá’í Studies website. Presentations and supplementary materials will be available on the conference website until the end of September.