The 38th annual Association for Baha’i Studies – North America conference (ABS), entitled “Scholarship and the Life of Society,” focused on scholarship and its potential to contribute to the life of society.
Lisa Dufraimont, Conference Program Co-Chair, said during the first evening of the conference that the ABS seeks to stimulate scholarship, and that the ultimate purpose of scholarship is to develop knowledge conducive to the development of the life of society.
The approximately 1,200 conference participants came from a variety of places, backgrounds and academic disciplines, and had various reasons for attending. One participant noted that he came to the conference every year because he was taught as a child to always seek knowledge, an attitude which he felt was encapsulated in the proverb: “From cradle to grave, search for knowledge.” One aspect of the mandate of the Association for Baha’i Studies “is to stimulate an appetite for learning.”
One participant commented that the tone of the presenters was humble and exploratory, and that there is an increased focus on ways of working with like-minded individuals and organizations to generate knowledge that would be helpful for social progress. Other participants noted that they enjoyed having a space where they could connect with and learn from people from a variety of disciplines.
An increase in the number of plenary panels allowed a number of those in several academic fields to share their assessment of the strengths, weaknesses, methods, and the reliability of the methods, of three broad areas of human learning in light of the Baha’i teachings: the social sciences, the natural and life sciences, and the humanities. One presenter on the social sciences panel noted that while many thinkers in the field of political science tend to look at human activity through the lens of conflict, there are also a number of political scientists who are studying when, why and how people cooperate even when they do not have to in order to survive, and how people put aside selfish interests to participate in a group.
Another element of the conference was breakout sessions during which groups shared reflections on their experiences in participating in discourses in fields such as education, economics, the role of religion in society, and primary health care. A participant in the field of education noted that educators often know how to work with individuals but do not have a great deal of knowledge of how to help a group learn. She noted that the recent series of youth conferences called by the Baha’i community provided insights into how groups come together and organize. One participant who studies religion noted that rather than viewing it as a collection of static beliefs and practices, he found it helpful to examine the history of religious processes. Another noted that he was currently exploring the question of how religion contributes to healing divisions in Canadian society.
Participants also benefited from subject area consultations in which individuals from a variety of fields came together to look at recent guidance from the Universal House of Justice, the governing council of the Baha’i international community, on the intellectual life of the Baha’i community, and its greater involvement in the life of society, and to consult about their disciplines, share challenges and identify possible discourses, social spaces, and areas where there was potential for collaboration with like-minded individuals and groups.
As in previous years, distinguished Baha’is gave talks to edify and contribute to the thinking of participants. Mr. Paul Lample, member of the Universal House of Justice, gave a talk entitled “Toward a Framework for Action”; Dr. Haleh Arbab, Research Director of the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, presented on “Learning to Read Social Reality in Light of the Revelation”; and Dr. Vahid Rafati gave the 32nd Hasan M. Balyuzi Memorial Lecture on “The Evolving Role of Bahá’í Scholarship.”
The conference continued to include workshops on a wide variety of themes, and featured an arts evening music and story-telling.