Report on Successful Association for Bahá’í Studies Annual Conference, August 2013

The very successful 37th annual conference of the Association for Bahá’í Studies held in Irvine, California, August 15-18, 2013, was attended by some 1,500 people, many notably young and diverse. Focusing on the theme of “Learning in Action: Scholarship and the Generation of Knowledge,” the conference provided a variety of plenary talks and special-interest group meetings that looked at both the creation of new knowledge and its application in the real world. 

The first plenary, Thursday evening, featured a talk by Hooper Dunbar, a former member of the Universal House of Justice, on “The Ocean of Revelation: Dynamic Source of All Learning.” Mr. Dunbar provided an overview of the writings of Bahá’u’lláh about revelation being an ultimate source of knowledge.

Friday morning Hoda Mahmoudi, who holds the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, spoke about “The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace and Academic Discourse,” describing the development of the endowed chair and its progress in bringing the insights of the Bahá’í revelation to the university.

Friday evening, Rainn Wilson, a Hollywood actor who is also a Bahá’í, gave a fascinating address titled “The Matrix and Morality.” He compared many of the plot ideas of The Matrix, a popular dystopian science-fiction movie, to idea in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá, though utilized in very different ways, noting how one could talk about Bahá’í concepts and principles to friends and colleagues through the comparison.

Saturday evening, Layli Miller-Muro, executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center, gave the Hasan Balyuzi lecture on “Knowledge into Action: The Bahá’í Imperative to Serve Humanity.” She focused particularly on the Tahirih Justice Center, an organization she founded to assist women with legal issues related to abuse and persecution, and the ways it is implementing Bahá’í principles in its service. She shared many practical insights the Center had gained in such matters as the importance of explaining to others that they were Bahá’í-inspired.

Sunday morning, the plenary session featured three excellent talks. The first one, given by Nava Ashraf, an associate professor at Harvard University, focused on “action research,” which involves not only an observer but the participants as active researchers as well.

The second was a video interview with Richard Thomas about scholarship, learning, and action in the field of race relations. It involved the perspectives of two generations with Ramya Nararharisetti and Aaron Yates also participating and reflecting on key racial issues.

The third Sunday morning presentation was a panel including Josh Homnik, who works at MTV, and Hashem Selph, a producer and writer for the Deepak Chopra channel. They discussed how the commercials and other creative media they produce reflect not only the message they are hired to convey but also Bahá’í principles.

Most plenary addresses were videotaped and will be available for purchase through the ABS website at http://www.bahai-studies.ca/. Plenary addresses from the 2012 annual conference are already on sale.

Each evening of the conference included a dynamic arts program, one of which included the screening of Luminous Journey: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in America, 1912, a new  150-minute film about `Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to North America created by Wilmette Institute faculty member Anne Perry and her husband, Tim Perry.

Some 37 break-out sessions were held on specialized topics, many sponsored by the Special Interest Groups of the Association for Bahá’í Studies.

The Wilmette Institute had an active presence at the Association for Bahá’í Studies conference. It had an informational display, including free Wilmette Institute Post-it note pads, which proved popular and were taken quickly.

The Institute sponsored two sessions where people could ask how Wilmette Institute courses work and what courses are being scheduled.

The director of the Wilmette Institute had conversations with a dozen faculty or potential faculty, exchanging ideas about developing courses further or creating new courses, and brainstorming new ways to use technology. The conference was one of the most valuable opportunities in years for the Wilmette Institute to network with new people and to strengthen relations with existing faculty and learners.

The 38th annual conference of the Association for Bahá’í Studies will be held in August 2014 in Toronto, Canada.