Over the past few decades, The Universal House of Justice (the elected international body which guides the work of the global Bahá’í community) has outlined a vision of action for Bahá’ís that includes a number of separate but interrelated “core” activities: the gathering together of friends for the purpose of sharing prayers and reading writings of various religious traditions, the intentional study of the sacred writings of the Bahá’í Faith, programs for the spiritual education of children, and groups designed to allow pre-youth to explore themes of spiritual import and engage in service activities together.
Given the importance of these core activities to the overall efforts of the Bahá’í community, it seems prudent to discuss a concept that The Universal House of Justice describes as one of the primary impetuses behind all of these activities: engaging in “meaningful and distinctive conversations” with our friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and co-workers.
So what exactly does it mean to engage in “meaningful and distinctive conversations”? Why is it so important to do so? And what are some ways we can become more mindful of our everyday speech?
While this idea has received special emphasis from The Universal House of Justice in its recent messages, in many ways this concept has been discussed by all of the central figures of the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’u'lláh in particular has a number of passages in which he describes the importance of speech. The following passage is one of the most interesting of Bahá’u'lláh’s descriptions:
Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible. The Great Being saith: One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. (Tablets of Bahá’u'lláh, p. 172)
I cannot even begin to comprehend exactly what Bahá’u'lláh means when He says that every word is endowed with a spirit. But even so, it is clear that our speech has a powerful influence on the hearts and minds of those around us. It for this reason that Bahá’u'lláh frequently discusses the deleterious effects of the more negative forms of speech. In different places He describes the tongue as a “smoldering fire” and encourages us to refrain from idle talk and gossip. (Falen D’Cruz has an excellent post in Bahá’í Blog on backbiting for those interested in a more thorough treatment of this topic).
But engaging in meaningful and distinctive conversations requires more than simply refraining from gossip and backbiting. In other words, one can say that refraining from negative speech is a necessary but not a sufficient precondition of such conversations. From my perspective, these conversations require us to pay attention to both the substance of our discussions as well as the method by which we delivery what we have to say.
I find many of the Faith’s teachings on the latter point particularly interesting. I think we often assume that those who speak with the greatest passion, conviction, and unflinching resolve are the most influential in conversations. However, Bahá’u'lláh tells us that the truly wise and enlightened should primarily speak
…with words as mild as milk [and] with utmost leniency and forbearance so that the sweetness of his words may induce everyone to attain that which befitteth man’s station. (Tablets of Bahá’u'lláh, p. 172)
Even if we are having conversations with people who we vehemently disagree with on whatever the topic may be, engaging in fierce debates and verbal sparring matches rarely results in the promotion of mutual respect and understanding that can serve as the foundation of collective and unified action.
Similarly, the Bahá’í Faith teaches us that we should be particularly mindful of the beliefs and capacity of those we are engaged in conversation with. As Bahá’u'lláh states:
Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it. (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u'lláh, p. 176)
Even the teachings and principles of the Bahá’í Faith were only gradually revealed to society as our collective capacity to understand certain ideas developed over time, so we should remember this fact when discussing spiritual topics with those whose beliefs may be significantly different than ours. There is no point in trying to convince someone of an idea that they are not ready to consider or able to understand (I hope it’s clear that I’m using “able” here in the sense of their exposure to certain ideas in the past that allows them to engage in particular conversations in the present, rather than their innate “ability” to comprehend). Instead, we should attempt to find points of mutual interest and understanding and begin our conversations there.
Just as we must continue to refine our ability to discuss our ideas in the most effective ways possible, we must also continue to find opportunities to elevate our discussions to the realm of spiritual import. In this sense, engaging in meaningful and distinctive conversations requires us to reframe and re-imagine everyday subjects: to find the profound in the mundane, the significant in the trivial, the unifying in the controversial.
One of my favorite passages in the recent messages from The Universal House of Justice made me re-think the way in which I tell people about this amazing Faith that I care about so deeply. I used to believe that my primarily goal should be to teach people about the revelation of Bahá’u'lláh, to clearly elucidate its central principles, and to convince them of its truth. The Ridván 2010 message made me look at teaching in a completely new way. In the words of the The Universal House of Justice:
Whether the first contact with such newly found friends elicits an invitation for them to enroll in the Bahá’í community or to participate in one of its activities is not an overwhelming concern. More important is that every soul feel welcome to join the community in contributing to the betterment of society, commencing a path of service to humanity…
This obviously does not mean that we should not tell people about the person of Bahá’u'lláh or inform them of the central principles of His revelation. However, what seems most crucial is that we elevate our daily conversations in order to find others who have similar visions of the most effective ways to spiritually transform our communities. Because people with this vision come from every racial, national, ethnic, socio-economic, and religious background, we should always be attentive to opportunities to engage in meaningful and distinctive conversations.