ABS Religion and Society Discourse Seminar at Louhelen: A Resounding Success

The Religion and Society Working Group of the Association for Bahá’í Studies met at Louhelen Bahá’í School, in Michigan, USA, on April 21–23 for three days of study, discussion, and planning in a seminar called “Religion and Society Discourse.” Seventeen attended, a number of whom were graduate students or recent students in fields related to religious studies.

Friday Evening. The Friday evening session was devoted to introductions and a review of the guidance from Bahá’í institutions about discourse, for a major purpose of the seminar was developing ways to take the insights of the Bahá’í Faith and apply them to current concerns in broader society.

Saturday Morning. The Saturday morning session began with a panel focusing on how to evaluate the nature of existing discourse, how to generate relevant contributions to it, and how to describe the experience of contributing to such discourse. Gerald Filson, who works in the Canadian Bahá’í Office of External Affairs, described the interfaith discourse in which his office has participated and which it has helped to shape. Julia Berger, a PhD candidate and former staff person at the Bahá’í International Community offices in New York, described Bahá’í involvement in discourse at the United Nations. Todd Lawson, Professor Emeritus of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto, spoke about his participation as a Bahá’í in many conferences on Islamic Studies and his uniformly warm relations with Muslims at the university and in the field of Islamic Studies.

During the rest of Saturday morning, Ashraf Rushdy led a discussion and study of sections 4 and 5 of One Common Faith, which define the nature of religion, its role in society today, and how it is approached and understood in public discourse. Thus the document helped to frame the discussions for the rest of the weekend.

Saturday Afternoon. The Saturday afternoon program began with a study of fifteen pages from Joseph Camilleri’s article “Postsecularist Discourse in an Age of Transition.” The Australian scholar agrees with criticisms of the “secularist theory”—that society is becoming less and less religious over time—but questions what it would mean to describe the current understanding of society as “postsecular.” The article surveys the secularist theories of Charles Taylor and Jürgen Habermas and contrasts them with Tala Asad’s more pessimistic view of secularism, which, it argues, is implicated in state violence. The paper provoked a lively discussion and provided context for considering the ways in which Bahá’ís can get involved in public discourse about the role of religion in society.

The rest of the afternoon and Saturday evening were devoted to three presentations by students. Kevin Naimi, who is working on a PhD at the University of Toronto, presented a survey of seminal nineteenth- and twentieth-century contributions to hermeneutics, the systematic study of the meaning of texts. Earlier philosophers, Kevin said, tended to emphasize the idea that a text had a single, eternal meaning intended by the author, which careful and systematic study could recover. Later philosophers, however, emphasized the contextual nature of a text, the difficulty of recovering the meaning of something written in a different time and place, and the subjective and personal nature of understanding a text. Kevin offered some tentative conclusions about the Bahá’í principles relevant to hermeneutics.

Saturday Evening. After dinner, Aaron Morgulis, a Policy analyst at Innovation Science, and Economic Development in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, presented on “Naturalism and the Philosophy of the Mind.” Naturalists have usually understood the mind as a material phenomenon, but a number of philosophers have offered other explanations. In his presentation, Aaron explored reasons why some have challenged the intelligibility and viability of the naturalist view of nature and the mind and considered Bahá’í passages related to the issue.

The Saturday evening session concluded with Tara Rahimi, a lecturer at the Justus Liebig University Giessen in Germany, presented on “The Practices of Hipsterism: The Dynamics of Competing Frameworks in Analyzing Contemporary Phenomena.” She noted that research from a purely materialistic framework has interpreted hipsterism in terms of its focus on fashion and a certain “hip” lifestyle but missed concerns about injustice and a wish to transform society, because the interpretive framework is blind to those aspects of hipsterism.

Sunday Morning and Future Plans. During the final session on Sunday morning, the group reviewed the weekend and then broke into two groups to focus on next steps that the Religion and Society Working Group could take. One of the groups will propose a panel for the August Annual Meeting of the Association for Bahá’í Studies. The second group plans to meet informally at the Annual Meeting to discuss its next steps. The closing lunch included many hugs and warm good-byes as the participants reminisced about their time together and looked forward to future meetings and collaborations.

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