In search of a theory or theories – further comments on the pre-ma thesis

Entry 19: 19.10.2010

With the start of the 3rd semester, I’m happy to include further details about the learning that has taken place, in relation to the pre-master project, preparing a thesis. Learning & development takes place in so many contexts. I am familiar, have experience, take or have taken an interest in at least five areas of learning;

1. language acquisition and learning (Luxembourgish),

2. learning how to play a musical instrument (trumpet),

3. make visible through radio interviews interesting and valuable contributions people have made to society (TLR828 N-Ireland, RTL 92,5, Radio ARA),

4. how we live by metaphors and the use of stories as a learning tool and

5. learning & development within the Bahá’í community.

For the pre-master thesis, I had chosen to analyse audio recordings made during a two hour meeting with 7 participants of a ‘study circle’ and the material used during the meeting. The 3 research questions identified were:

What tools are used in study circles that promote learning and change?

What metaphors do Bahá’í authoritative centers use?

How does learning and development take place in the Bahá’í community, specifically in study circles?

A definition of a ‘study circle’ seems appropriate, as it is not just a class with a teacher and students. Study circles are also called collaborative study for individual and social transformation. In the definition section more explanation is made available.

What the Bahá’í community is engaged in at present on worldwide scale justifies a case study and research as to how learning takes place in the Bahá’í community.

When we learn, we gain or acquire knowledge or new insights. What theories can help shed light on how knowledge is acquired within the Bahá’í community. By trying to answer this question, I looked at some perspectives offered in Lample (2009, pp. 161-189, Chapter 5, A Problem of Knowledge).

I hope to highlight now some existing theories in this field, discussed in the chapter, which may shed light on the topic.

…there is a process of understanding and action in which the Bahá’í community explores reality, grows in comprehension and knowledge, unifies thought, and contributes to transforming the world in accordance with the truths expressed in Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation. However, there are certain predominant perspectives in contemporary thought that clash with this approach to understanding and action, viewing it as hopelessly naïve, as rigid and fundamentalistic, or as potentially oppressive. It is useful, therefore, to enquire into these perspectives and explore Bahá’í understanding and practice in more depth. This will not only assist in developing a response to certain types of criticism of the Bahá’í community, but will provide an opportunity for additional insights into the teachings. It is crucial, also, for weighing how these contemporary perspectives influence our own thinking.

Since the enlightenment, humanity (more particularly, Western thought) has sought universal and objective standards for the investigation of reality and discovery of truth so that understanding and practice could be freed from subjective influences. In this perspective, knowledge—a true understanding of reality—serves to defeat superstition and the arbitrary imposition of power that produces tyranny and oppression. The appeal to authority drawn from traditional beliefs is to be displaced by rationality and empirical evidence undistorted by bias or sectarian values. Through institutions like the state, power struggles among individuals are to be restrained; foundational theories of justice and liberty are to define proper social order. In this expansion of rationalism, religion is relegated to the category of subjective belief

and progressively dissociated from questions of what is true and what is right. Given time, it is believed, science and reason will solve the problems of humanity and release it from ignorance and superstition, globalization will rationalize the international political and economic order, and universal human rights will be extended to all humanity.

These assumptions, aims, and methods have been challenged by postmodern thought. Jean-François Lyotard defined postmodernism as ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’. Nicolas C. Burbules commented on this definition, writing that it is an ‘inability to believe’.

… postmodern thought can be seen not as an attempt to reject modernity, but as an interrogation of its weaknesses that opens the way for a new, more effective orientation if the consensus required for collective human endeavor can be re-established. It is an effort to provide greater respect for “the other” and an opening in the social realm for voices that had been suppressed or marginalized.( The effort includes, for some, making a new place for the contribution of religion to society. See hunter Baker, “Competing orthodoxies in the Public Square: Postmodernism’s effect on Church-State Separation,” in Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 20, n. 1, 2004-05, pp. 97-121). Modern thought sought methods and ideals that would provide a sure basis for prosperity and justice. Postmodern thought challenges these assumptions and approaches, but cannot provide a satisfactory alternative.

The assumptions and intersubjective agreements that formed the basis of the social reality that became the modern world have been challenged, contributing to the process of disintegration that is tearing asunder institutions, belief systems and social relationships. New understandings, new agreements, new behaviors, and new social structures are needed. Postmodern critique is, in a way, an effort to define the crisis of

the old world order. Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings are concerned with the resolution of this crisis, addressing what needs to be done during the period of transition to establish a new order.

Lample identifies two challenges, one centers of the question of power as it pertains to the relationship between individuals and groups and the other on the question of knowledge.

What is knowledge? How do human beings know? How do we determine what is true? How reliable is knowledge derived from religion or from science? Is there some foundation upon which human knowledge rests, or are we forever left with uncertainty and doubt? How do we know that our understanding of the Bahá’í teachings is correct? Must we accept every statement of the text as equal to any other? When it comes to knowledge, why have religious communities typically divided along the lines of liberalism and fundamentalism? Must this fate inevitably befall the Bahá’í Faith?

Lample discusses the liberal-fundamentalist viewpoints and concludes that they don’t provide tools for describing the Bahá’í perspective towards gaining knowledge.

The liberal-fundamentalist dichotomy is a schema, a lens, through which reality is perceived. however, in certain situations a lens will enhance sight, in others it will distort it.

Lample then ‘strives to move past liberalism and fundamentalism’ saying that it makes such a framework unacceptable when applied to the Bahá’í community. He proposes a different framework for human rationality.

One such insight is provided by Richard J. Bernstein in the book, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis. Bernstein is of the opinion that modern intellectual and cultural life is affected by an uneasiness that has spread to almost every discipline and every aspect of society. The source of this uneasiness, he suggests, is the opposition between objectivism—the view that knowledge must be grounded on a particular basis—and relativism—the view that any claim to truth, knowledge or morality are not absolute but exist only in relation to a particular culture, society, or historical context.

… Drawing upon the work of a number of individuals, he proposes an approach whose features include the importance of dialogue among a community of inquirers, practical reasoning born of experience, and an ability to refine human understanding through action over time.

This perspective seems most appropriate as a theory to analyse the Bahá’í approach to knowledge.

Knowledge, in this perspective, involves a shift from epistemology—the branch of philosophy that attempts to define a reliable means for generating knowledge—to hermeneutics—the principles of interpretation used to unravel communication and human understanding. Knowledge is not conceived as an exact description of reality, but involves insights into reality that can guide effective practice. It is not a bedrock, but as a rope in which insights are like fibers, that “may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.” (Charles Sanders Peirce, in Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, p. 224).

I realise that getting to this theory or approach to knowledge has taken quite a bit of explaining but I see it essential as a starting point for further research. I include Paul Lample’s book in e-format where the entire chapter on knowledge can be consulted.

Bibliography Entry 19

Sanders Peirce, Charles in Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism, p. 224

Bernstein, Richard J. Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis. University of Pennsylvenia Press, 1983

Lample, P. (2009). Revelation & Social Reality. USA: Palabra Publications. Retrieved from available as download:


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