Sunday, June 28, 2009

Some adjustments in my thinking following work in Wikipedia

I've been working for some time in Wikipedia on various articles both Baha'i related and not over the last several years. Over the last few years I've found a niche on a track where there had been fairly little work that I thought deserved a lot more attention. Many who've heard of the religion have known it to be the "the second-most geographically widespread religion after Christianity." Some would also be aware that the religion has been among the fastest growing in the world for some time. And while such statistical statements may feel weighty to some they are, after all, but just a few words trying signify a great deal more where lots of people in lots of ways have been engaged in spreading a religion for over some 160 years. So there is a lot more depth and breadth of substance behind the statistic that deserves to see the light of day.

This set the stage for me when I was wrestling with an element in an article on Religion in Australia. A couple editors were going back and forth on the size of the Sikh community in Australia. In January 2008 I stepped in alittle to smooth things and thought, here's all this back and forth over essentially a couple sentences - there's more material scattered in Wikipedia already about the Baha'i Faith in Australia that could be made into a more substantial article than this Sikh entry. So there it was - I slapped a few sections together from other places and did just a little research - Baha'i Faith in Australia. Of course as all things Wikipedia others got involved if they were interested but when the basic work was done I had this kind of cold sweat dripping down my back and a realization there were some 250 countries with waiting articles - and then there could be provinces and cities, and continent or language groupings.... I was sure the available documentation would be too thin to cover some places but surely I was looking at a fantastic volume of work to be done. If I managed to crank out an article a week it would still take me years plus updates as things would change on the scale of years (see for example Vietnam. I also quickly learned there was indeed more info available online than I had used in that first artlcle so I returned with lots of updates and revisions. After I got started on the project a number of other editors refined the articles from systematic weaknesses I had and I tried to learn to fix those things as I went along - many of them were more about style issues and referencing structures. There's also a whole world of interlinking one article to others - I had made a category to pull the articles together and others chimed in reconstructing them to make more sense and then February, in one of my relatively rare instances of anonymous editing, I thought to put back a mention to the new article back in the Religion in Australia article where the whole thing began. And the category settled down to Bahá'í Faith by country. The spread of articles also related to other work that had been done - the Bahá'í Faith by country article (as opposed to the category which was assembled by linking from each separate article.) Sometime I may go into greater depth on the development of those articles but the point that gave birth to this blog entry is to hihlight more about what came out of the experience of writing, to date, some fifty articles about the Baha'i Faith in various countries.

One thing I got out of it was a larger appreciation of the spread of the religion in Africa - how fast and surprising it was even to academics who saw it appear from nowhere and grow to substantial size in a few years. The prolonged effort of Enoch Olinga came up time and again, but also others. There were the special case of Kenya which really has a unique, so far, history. And there was a growing appreciation of the struggles of people to bring the religion to diverse places. Along in October last year my wife and I went on Pilgrimage and I had finished some 27 countries - seemed like an auspicious number. And I brought along a computer partly to help communications back home and a way to dump pictures (neither of which panned out too well) but I also was in a position where I could show other pilgrims what I and others had managed to put together about the history of the religion in their countries. Many shared they had little or no idea of the history in their country and expressed very sincere thanks for the work and studied the material while on pilgrimage. A few shared that they new significant parts but they were equally thankful and offered to ship me boxes of materials(!) So much work to do! A few chimed in that they might be interested in amending or adding articles of their own but the world is a busy place. But I was mostly gratified that I had contributed to the depth of the experience of other's pilgrimages by reminding them of the trail of effort that brought the religion to them through the waves of effort launched fifty or one hundred years ago from the Revelations of the Bab, Baha'u'llah and the succession of leadership in the Faith.

But there were other insights beginning to gleam out of the work. I was struck by the events following Abdu'l-Baha's release of the Tablets of the Divine Plan which specifies calls for people to go abroad to spread the religion. In short, though the Baha'i community was fairly small, perhaps in the few thousands, outside the middle east, the response seemed ... disproportionately small. Martha Root certainly took a huge jump kicked off by the tablets but beyond her.... there just wasn't that much. Australia was part of it but then along comes Shoghi Effendi and his plans and committees and there's a really very enormous push to systematically get people moving. It's truly a huge effort that takes off - especially in the face of some communities where the religion hadn't been really doing very much. Surely it can't be that Shoghi Effendi was somehow just more effective than Abdu'l-Baha?!

And slowly a widening insight to the pattern came into more of a focus. Look at the history of India, South Africa and Turkmenistan vs, let's say - Philippines, Kiribati, and Cameroon. There are other examples - it's not a pure west vs east thing or early vs late thing. I began to realize there had been a kind of short hand in my understanding of the kind of people Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi were and the work they undertook and I realized it was kind of wrong or lead to the wrong idea of things. Abdu'l-Baha is portrayed as a common man, comfortable with average people. His writing is very approachable and there's a strong sense of being at one with a wide variety of people. Shoghi Effendi is portrayed as a deeply educated cultured person with a tremendous grasp of language and taste. It would seem from things that the way a personality is should lead itself to the way things are for an organization. Look at the business culture of Apple vs Microsoft and the personalities of Bill Gates vs Steve Jobs. And there's another model of such influences to my thinking - look at physics; how it's deeply mathematical and abstract though the personalities of Einstein vs Dirac, for example, are so hugely different. So maybe there's a pattern. If a strong personality is the main influence in an organization then the organization picks up that personality. If there are diverse personalities involved then sometimes the organization subtracts out the differences and you are left with what it still in common - and believe me there's very little in common between Einstein and Dirac. But in the case of the Baha'i Faith you have this unexpected, to me at least, other pattern. Abdu'l-Baha is this man of the people, yet in his day the Baha'is sought strongly to appeal to social and intellectual leaders and tended to concentrate in enclaves. Shoghi Effendi is strongly academic but under his leadership the Baha'is in many places sought out the common man. The culture or personality isn't one of reflecting an opposite nor of a delayed expression of one personality moving out among the Baha'is. It's more like ... like how children grow up - that at one point in their life they are totally focused on putting things in their mouths and then they are all about asking "why" and then they bring you picture after picture after picture they draw or they become totally focused on a movie and watch it over and over and over but you also begin to see an integration of things underneath each wave of development. So what I'm saying is that the Baha'i Faith, as a community, has a developing culture and personality distinct from but also related to, it's leadership ... and it's evolving. We've had patterns of looking at "people of capacity" and "direct teaching" since I joined the religion and increasingly the waves are overlapping with currents going in different directions like in a developing ecological system.

I think we're on the verge of something.... on the outside we've had more attention to the religion in the last year than has ever been paid - even when the religion played a more direct party in history (see history of World War I especially in Palestine when war plans had to change) or was more successful in defending it's right to exist (see history with Morocco and Egypt when Baha'is were vindicated individually or collectively) when we were just a fraction of our present size and on the other hand this increasing complexity of capacity and it's expression inside the community.

1 comment:

Nick said...

Hi Steven! I am enjoying your blog... great work! and I hope you will continue studying the history of the Faith in NC.

Amazing how large the Wiki article is now. I was the first poster for the Baha'i Faith (other than a CB) way back when... and now it is huge. ...actually, I was asked to write the first article when someone saw my posts in srb. Nothing remains from those early posts; they have been so severely edited.

warmest regards,
c in raleigh