Interconnectedness & Sustainability

I came across the invitation at the on “advanced boundary-crossing research approaches”.

We are living in an unprecedented historical situation: never before have the global stakes been so high, never before has so much knowledge been intentionally produced and disseminated, and never before has expertise been bound in so many separate research specialisations. As a consequence, there is a widespread call today for knowledge and practice bridging disciplines, paradigms, cultures, and worldviews. And indeed, in recent years various advances have been made in boundary-crossing research that facilitate (re)connections between theory and practice, facts and values, history and future, sciences and humanities, East and West etc.

On this background, the international symposium “Research Across Boundaries – Advances in Theory-building” brings together, for the first time, around 30 leading researchers from more than 15 countries and as many different research areas. They are representatives of an array of contemporary integrative frameworks and research practices. The goal of the symposium is to foster dialogues among them and additional participants through plenum, small-group and open space sessions, in order to discover common concerns and stimulating differences regarding advanced boundary-crossing research approaches.

The University of Luxembourg, built since its foundation in 2003 upon principles of interdisciplinary, international and cross-cultural collaboration, is a most appropriate host for this symposium on advances in boundary-crossing research, the Grand-Duchy of Luxembourg offering a remarkably cosmopolitan context for it. Description of the symposium

This led me look again at the paper by Peter Khan on ‘some aspects of Bahá’í Scholarship’.


This essay identifies four core ideas that should characterize Bahá’í scholarship: the central position of the Creative Word in the acquisition of knowledge; the interconnected Bahá’í model of the world; the progressive nature of Bahá’í law; and the organic relationship of scholarship and the Covenant. Bahá’í scholarly activity rests on the constructive interaction of faith and reason, avoiding the extremes of materialism and superstition. Five principal forms of Bahá’í scholarly activity are discussed: study of the Faith’s historical origins, textual analysis, investigation of religious concepts, application of the teachings to contemporary issues, and study of social and historical phenomena in the growth of the Faith. Suggestions for future research are outlined; the spiritual attributes that should characterize individual scholars are discussed; and the article concludes with prospects for the greater unification of knowledge in the future (Khan, 1999).

2. Interconnectedness

The second core idea concerns the concept of interconnectedness. My understanding is that the Bahá’í model of the world is one of interconnectedness, and of mutual and reciprocal actions. This may become a little clearer when I give you some examples. What I see as the Bahá’í model, in both the spiritual and the material aspects of creation, is entities and processes which interconnect with each other—a dynamic model of interrelationships, rather than a static model. These relationships may be of a positive feedback form, mutually constructive for growth, or of a negative feedback form, operating to preserve equilibrium.

Let me use some examples. My reading of the Writings is that the concept of individual spiritual development is intimately related to social development, the development of society. This is, I think, the underlying basis for having an Administrative Order and provides insight into the spiritual consequences of the Administrative Order. We see individual and social development as interacting in a mutually supportive and constructive manner. A message of the House of Justice on universal participation written in September 1964 (M e s s a g e s 1 9 ) develops that concept in a very interesting way from the organic model—the model of interconnectedness. This stands in contrast to the prevailing view, which embraces what we could describe as a false dichotomy: the view that individual spiritual development occurs by going off into a cave, or in the desert, or withdrawing to a monastery, and working on yourself in isolation, and when you get yourself into a shining, polished condition, then you come out into society. The concept of the Bahá’í Faith is not of withdrawal from the world in order to perfect one’s spirituality, but rather doing so interactively with society. We see this separation of individual from society for spiritual development as a false dichotomy.

A similar invalid separation applies to the concepts of spiritual and material. They are, in the society around us, regarded as antithetical. The conventional view is that the more spiritual you are, the less materially involved you should be. People who are rich are, by definition, considered to be unspiritual, as are people who are involved in commerce. Conversely, some societies in the world are regarded as highly spiritual, as opposed to the Western world which is stigmatized as being corrupt and materialistic, despite the fact that these societies are filthy dirty, with dispirited and apathetic people living in a degraded condition, their womenfolk are suppressed and denied education, and there is no aspiration to education or material development. People of such societies are considered as spiritual by the conventional standards of the world around us. All this, I think, is an example of what I would regard as another false dichotomy.

A comprehensive understanding of the interaction of spiritual and material is obviously far beyond our conception. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, for example, in the Tablet of Purity (S e l e c t i o n s 129), refers to cleanliness as having a spiritual effect. There is obviously a mysterious aspect of the interaction between internal and external environments. The Guardian, in often-quoted passage, refers to the interaction of the internal environment within the individual and the external environment in the larger society around us, and describes them as mutually supportive and interactive rather than being unrelated or in conflict with each other. When the Terraces on Mount Carmel are dedicated and the Arc Project buildings are complete, and when the world becomes more clearly aware of them, we will be asked why we have spent so much money on beautiful gardens and marble-clad buildings at a time when people are starving. A fundamental answer to those questions will include our development of the concept of the relationship between the internal and the external environments and their mutually supportive, reciprocal nature.

Several implications arise from this sense of interconnectedness. One is that we might best look at any spiritual concept with which we are dealing from a holistic or systems perspective. Elements interact with each other and processes influence each other; therefore, we cannot accurately get a comprehensive view of any one entity in the Bahá’í model of the universe by looking at it on its own. One also has to look at it in its interaction with other elements of our model of the universe in order to appreciate it. This becomes much more challenging and much more difficult than in traditional scholarship and it requires a more global perspective.

The second implication is that we can profitably draw on analogies and insights from an organic body—from biology, zoology, physiology, and the like—in order to illuminate certain aspects of the Bahá’í model because our concept of the world, with its spiritual and material components, is basically organic. All kinds of interaction, some of a mysterious nature and others more obvious in the universe around us, arise from its organic characteristics. For example, in biology there is the concept called homeostasis, whereby the body has a tendency to use negative feedback to return to equilibrium when subject to perturbation. If the temperature of the body rises as a result of an external stimulus, certain mechanisms come into play which are designed to return the temperature to the normal 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This is a very interesting biological concept, well known to those who study physiology. It has very

important implications for the study of Bahá’í law enforcement in the functioning of the Administrative Order, because one can show that the Bahá’í approach to law enforcement, dealing with people who violate Bahá’í law, is intrinsically homeostatic. It is designed to return the body of the community to equilibrium, and to a proper healthy condition. One can get greater insight into the Bahá’í administrative processes, and make a number of aspects of Bahá’í law enforcement palatable to those who may be skeptical about it, by appealing to the homeostatic analogy from biology.

The subject of interconnectedness, interdisciplinary, international and cross-cultural collaboration and the symposium on advances in boundary-crossing research in Luxembourg (16-19 June) leads me to think about sustainable development and the concept of sustainability. Thinking in a ‘sustainable way’ about things, how I use natural resources, how much I consume of this or that, means also relating various different concepts together. I’m not alone in the world. The people in Luxembourg seem to live far beyond their means. If everyone lived like they live in Luxembourg, they would need a minimum of five planets to satisfy their consumption (point 24, 16.6.2010) (more info may be found from the Conseil supérieur du développement durable In this example the link between interconnectedness and sustainability is made evident. What research has been done between those fields, sustainable development and interdisciplinarity?

What possible visions, strategies and directions may guide us into the future?

The Future

A passage written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice in August 1977, published in the Bahá’í Scholarship compilation, discloses to us a vision of the future, particularly useful to us now as we struggle to build the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. It states:

As the Bahá’í community grows it will acquire experts in numerous fields—both by Bahá’ís becoming experts and by experts becoming Bahá’ís. As these experts bring their knowledge and skill to the service of the community and, even more, as they transform their various disciplines by bringing to bear upon them the light of the Divine Teachings, problem after problem now disrupting society will be answered. . . . Paralleling this process, Bahá’í institutional life will also be developing, and as it does so the Assemblies will draw increasingly upon scientific and expert knowledge— whether of Bahá’ís or of non-Bahá’ís—to assist in solving the problems of their communities.

In time great Bahá’í institutions of learning, great international and national projects for the betterment of human life will be inaugurated and flourish. (no. 39)

This indicates where we are going with our first halting, and indeed rudimentary, steps in Bahá’í scholarship. We are heading towards a Bahá’í community which will be composed of individuals who are active rather than passive; a community of people oriented towards the development of the powers of the mind, revelling in the statements made by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in S e c r e t of Divine Civilization, where He praises the powers of the mind and celebrates its capability for contributing to human progress. It will be a community in which the members are mutually encouraging, free from jockeying for position and from an obsessive desire for status and position. It will be disciplined but open-minded. It will be at the forefront of progressive ideas and it will be the leaven for the creation of a new civilization. The process of civilizing humanity, and of sustaining an advancing civilization, will be fueled by those future Bahá’ís who have drawn on insights from the Bahá’í Writings.

Peter Khan states in his concluding remarks:

It seems to me that we can envisage ultimately a greater unification of knowledge. The first rudimentary steps taken into interdisciplinary studies are no more than a beginning towards a unification of knowledge, perhaps in a distant part of the Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh.

In the message titled “The Unfoldment of World Civilization,” in the book The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, the Guardian refers to the great advances in knowledge which will occur in that period. The notes to the Kitáb-i-Aqdas also mention a statement of Bahá’u’lláh about the emergence of a science which He calls “divine philosophy” at the time of “the coming of age of the human race” (Kitáb-i-Aqdas 250). My speculation is that the fusion of various forms of knowledge will occur in this more distant time. We will at that time have a far deeper insight into the nature of matter and its relationship to spirit.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá identifies spirit with the power of attraction at the mineral level (Bahá’í World Faith 338) and relates it to one aspect of a generalized characteristic of the world of creation, which He describes by the term “love” (Promulgation of Universal Peace 255). When, at a distant time, we obtain a deeper understanding into the nature of matter and its relationship with spirit, we can expect that it will yield greater insight into such things as:

• The interaction between physical medicine and attitudes of mind in promoting the healing process, which is intrinsically a question of matter and spirit, with the human spirit interacting with matter

• Questions of psychology, creativity, motivation, and the nature of human beings

• Particle physics, now confronted with a bewildering array of subatomic particles, and the various endeavours to develop a unified field theory

• Issues in astrophysics, such as the interconnectedness of the elements of the universe

• The nature of life

‘Abdu’l-Bahá speaks of the influence of the remote elements of the universe on life on earth, and of the influence of the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh being unconstrained, as far as its effect in the universe. At some future time our concept of matter and spirit will include a comprehensive understanding of the interaction of the very distant parts of the physical universe with life on this earth, perhaps through fields and particles, and it will prove to be far more mysterious and subtle than we can imagine today, and far beyond the pseudoscientific assertions of astrology.

We have intriguing statements of Bahá’u’lláh that “every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute” (Gleanings 163). Now, we can take this narrowly and anticipate that the Mars Lander will meet little green men on that planet. Or we can take it at a more fundamental level and ask ourselves, what does this say about life? What does Bahá’u’lláh mean by this term? What is the nature of the evolution of life in the universe? I think this subject will be illuminated in the more distant future, as our knowledge of matter and spirit grows.

Finally, we can well envisage what Bahá’u’lláh foreshadows as a sign of the coming of age of mankind—a new approach to the transmutation of elements. This must await that time of maturity when we have a deeper understanding of interaction of matter and energy and have developed that “divine philosophy,” the nature of which is beyond our comprehension—just as scientists in 1900 could not comprehend, to even the slightest extent, the progress which has been made in this century in semiconductors, optical communication, computers, electron microscopy, surgical techniques, genetic engineering, molecular biology, and medical diagnosis. How much greater will be the progress in the future, and how great will be the wonders of the ever-advancing civilization which is the destiny of humanity.

I’m confident that the above material may serve as a basis for further research in these exciting times and areas of research: interconnectedness & sustainability.

Further info about the symposium

International Symposium “Research Across Boundaries”

University of Luxembourg, 16-19 June 2010


Ernest Boyer argued some 15 years ago that

in the coming century, there will be an urgent need for scholars who go beyond the isolated facts; who make connections across the disciplines; and who begin to discover a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated, more authentic view of life.” *

In the context of an unprecedented proliferation of research specialisations and more and more pressing problem-solving needs in society, Boyer, among others, emphasized the dire need for connecting knowledge and research approaches across boundaries. This “scholarship of integration” is thought to complement the traditional scholarships of discovery, teaching and application inside specific fields. And indeed, major advances in integrative theory-building across the boundaries of paradigms, disciplines, cultures and contexts have been made in many places in recent years, e.g. through multiparadigm and multi-method research, cross-disciplinary meta-theory or cross-cultural or cross-sector participatory research. Various theory-driven attempts have been deployed to bridge, among other boundaries, the sciences and the humanities, face-to-face settings and virtual networks, societal needs and the dynamics inherent in research itself.

The contemporary boundary-crossing frameworks discussed on the symposium are ranging from quantum theoretical inspirations to cybernetics and complexity approaches, from action theory to cybersemiotics and integrative meta-theorising. The philosophical underpinnings will cover meta-paradigms like transdisciplinarity, integral theory, critical realism, relational contextualism, and participatory and emancipatory worldviews. These frameworks will shed light on each other and on specialised research, thus stimulating profound dialogue and reflection.

Regarding these advances in boundary-crossing research many new questions are emerging, among them the following: How “real” are the boundaries delimitating research fields and approaches? How consensual or controversial are boundary-crossing attempts in academic and policy discourse? Do they share specific characteristics with each other? How might they challenge some of the assumptions that unduly limit widespread research practice? Which new research avenues are boundary- crossing approaches opening up? How do they link to specialised theory and research practice? How can they catalyse innovative ways to tackle the hyper-complex local and global challenges of our era? How can they best be legitimated, communicated and institutionalised?

Issues of boundary-crossing research paradigms and communities, of sense-making tools and theory families, institutional barriers and opportunities will be as much part of the dialogues as the relation between values and facts, playfulness and usefulness, parts and wholes, levels and domains, presence and absence. Further questions very likely to be addressed from a methodological perspective relate to method and creativity, contexts and generalisation, subjectivity and objectivity, reductionism and emergent complexity, and of course theory and practice. This international symposium is proposed to consider these and other topics on the boundary-crossing opportunities afforded by integrative theory-building. On three subsequent days it will bring together for the first time internationally leading proponents of boundary-crossing frameworks from philosophy, physics, social sciences and humanities, originating from different continents, countries and cultural backgrounds.

An excellent opportunity will thus be co-created to uncover convergences and divergences, challenges and successes of boundary-crossing theories and meta-theories. Furthermore, the requirements and opportunities for cross-connections between frameworks and further reflexive development will be discussed. Particular emphasis will be placed on capturing insights and supporting suggestions for collaborative ventures between different streams of boundary-crossing research. Several sessions of focused exchange and deep dialogue will be facilitated between the invited lead researchers of a variety of boundarycrossing research streams along the lines of their shared interests, possibly giving rise to a joint statement.

Face-to-face participation in the interactive sessions will be limited to a restricted number of selected contributors and further participants in order to ensure substantial discussions. The keynotes will be open to a larger public. The entire symposium will be well documented and resulting in original publications of high added value.

The language of the symposium is English.

* Boyer, E. L. (1994). Scholarship reconsidered: priorities for a new century. In G. Rigby (Ed.), Universities in the twenty-first century. London: National Commission on Education, p. 118.


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