Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Enacting Thought: Divine Will, Human Agency, and the Possibility of Justice

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Enacting Thought: Divine Will, Human Agency, and the Possibility of Justice

Article excerpt

High hopes and bitter disappointments shaped the theory suggested by social critics in the second half of the twentieth century. They had experienced communism without equality, nationalism without freedom, and modernism without prosperity. In order to explain these failures and chart directions for future action, many focused on the power of deeply ingrained habits of thought to shape social structures. Antonio Gramsci, seeking to understand the complacency of Italian factory workers, wrote about hegemony: the uncritical assent given by mass society to its own domination by a few (Femia 44-45). Probing humanity's responsibility for the Holocaust, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno argued that the commodification of culture and a misplaced faith in rationality had deprived human beings of moral consciousness and will. Pierre Bourdieu's concept of habitus and Michel Foucault's description of a power/knowledge nexus also explored the heavy social weight of accumulated thought.

These diagnoses of social stagnation resonate with some aspects of Bahá'í ideas regarding how humanity created its current problems. It can be argued that critical social theory and Bahá'í scripture share the concept that thought shapes structures, which then influence thought; the recognition that self-interested actions have consequences over time; and the perception that unquestioned imitation of the past perpetuates and facilitates oppression. The fundamental difference between the Bahá'í perception of the relationship of thought and action and that of critical social theory is the Bahá'í recognition of humanity's capacity to transcend oppressive thought and create structures that embody justice using the power of the Word of God.

Social action builds on a theory of social reality. The belief that social structures embody injustice and shape people's experience of reality leads to a strategy focused on breaking oppressive structures. On the other hand, the belief that structures develop gradually, as an expression of human thought, leads to a strategy of social transformation based on changing the way people think and act. This paper argues that the theory of social action inherent in the Bahá'í Revelation focuses on human action as the agent of Divine Will. Human beings utilize the transforming power of the Word of God to envision and enact social structures that embody God's intentions for the world.

It is possible to see in the Writings of the Central Figures of the Bahá'í Faith the view that social structures are embodiments of thought, which gather substance through generations of human decision making. Once those structures are created, they influence both the thoughts and actions of the people who live inside them. The character of thought determines the character of the social structures. Self-interested, turning-away-fromGod thought gradually creates social structures which hold people in unproductive, oppressive patterns of action. Humanity is liberated from oppressive social structures by thought that comes from God: human beings responding to the Will of God create social structures which reshape human thinking, purify human actions, and gradually develop alternative patterns of interaction and new social structures. In this perspective, religion is not a set of beliefs; rather it is a divine energy, a will, that becomes realized in human action (Dunbar 10-1 1).

The concept that Divine Will acts on human agency to shape social structures can be traced through the Authoritative Writings of the Bahá'í Faith. The Universal House of Justice, asserting that solutions "for every social problem" can be found in spiritual principle, explained that "[t]he essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures" (Promise par. …

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