Tuesdays in the Chapel
Tuesday November 3 | 8:30am | MIT Chapel
Speaker: Brian Aull, Bahá'ì Chaplain, MIT
In this Cause consultation is of vital importance, but spiritual conference and not the mere voicing of personal views is intended. In France I was present at a session of the senate, but the experience was not impressive. Parliamentary procedure should have for its object the attainment of the light of truth upon questions presented and not furnish a battleground for opposition and self-opinion. Antagonism and contradiction are unfortunate and always destructive to truth. In the parliamentary meeting mentioned, altercation and useless quibbling were frequent; the result, mostly confusion and turmoil; even in one instance a physical encounter took place between two members. It was not consultation but comedy.
The purpose is to emphasize the statement that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion, for the light of reality becomes apparent when two opinions coincide. A spark is produced when flint and steel come together. Man should weigh his opinions with the utmost serenity, calmness and composure. Before expressing his own views he should carefully consider the views already advanced by others. If he finds that a previously expressed opinion is more true and worthy, he should accept it immediately and not willfully hold to an opinion of his own. By this excellent method he endeavors to arrive at unity and truth.
2 May 1912
Three Civic Virtues - Brian Aull, MIT Bahá'ì Chaplain
So what did I learn this summer?
As some of you know, this was the year I published The Triad, a book on American democracy. I undertook this because I have become very concerned about the direction American society is taking. We see a climate of hostile and divisive partisanship, political corruption, and dysfunction in our governing institutions. Alongside this are some very concerning problems: failing school systems, high incarceration rates, racial tension, decaying infrastructure, and a widening gap between the social classes.
This is a faith-inspired book. Its themes are rooted in the idea that as fellow human beings, we are members of an extended family. This is a teaching we find in all the great religions. It’s a deceptively simple idea. It can be one of those lofty ideals that we dismiss as obvious on an abstract level but unattainable in practice.
So my task was to answer the question: what would a democracy look like if it was inspired by this ideal? What specifically are the “better angels” of citizenship that could make this happen in the real world? I boil these down to three civic virtues in my book. After the first edition of the book came out at the end of January, I began having conversations with others who share my concerns. Over the summer, I discovered that other authors and activists had weighed in on these subjects. In fact, there is a growing body of writings on civic renewal; remarkably, when I examined their solutions, I found that they rely on the same civic virtues. People of very different backgrounds and training were arriving at the same answers. By the end of the summer, I had a better understanding of the civic virtues, why they are important, and what they look like in the real world. So what are they?
First, there is what I call service. The term usually connotes volunteer work, but I use it more broadly. It’s personal ownership of one’s role as a contributor to society. Citizens are problem solvers, not just recipients of benefits. An example is the California Redistricting Commission, in which a large number of civic-minded people arose to help redraw the electoral districts in the state, resulting in a new map that won praise from electoral reform groups.
The second virtue is learning. Again, I’m using a term broadly. It’s not academic learning, but civic learning. A key part of this is an approach to deliberation in which the participants seek to learn about the problem they want to solve. Instead of fighting for preconceived outcomes based on ideological bias, the participants gain new insights from the conversation. They figure out in a collaborative way what the outcomes should be. An example is the Strong Starts for Children program in New Mexico, whose recommendations for improving childhood education in the state came out of “dialog circles” comprising ordinary citizens.
The third virtue is community. This means building networks of relationships. People are different, and a powerful new capacity is created when they work together. It’s particularly powerful when the relationships bridge traditional divides of race or class or whatever. Catalyzed by a group of scholars from Auburn University, a racially diverse group of citizens began working together to revitalize a segregated, economically depressed, and dilapidated Alabama town. Initially, their meetings had a stiff and formal atmosphere. As their work progressed, something happened to them. Growing personal warmth melted away the estrangement, and a strong group identity emerged that transcended race. This in turn made them effective in eliciting cooperation and tapping diverse resources in the community.
Now imagine how constituents like those in these examples might transform the incentives of political leaders. They send a powerful signal: don’t tell us what you think we want to hear. Tell us the truth, and then we’ll help you do a better job.
The above examples and the passages shared this morning from the Bahá’í writings reflect the longer-term vision that inspired The Triad. This is humankind’s transition from political adolescence to political maturity. Adversarial debate gives way to collaborative learning. Radical individualism yields to a spirit of community. The blame game is replaced by acts of service. Most importantly, the realization that the human race is one family, endowed by its Creator with the capacity to build a progressive and prosperous world civilization, emerges as the self-evident truth of the twenty-first century.
(To learn more about The Triad and read other pieces by Brian Aull, go to http://www.AwakenDemocracy.com)
Be united in counsel, be one in thought. Let each morn be better than its eve and each morrow richer than its yesterday. Man’s merit lieth in service and virtue and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches. Take heed that your words be purged from idle fancies and worldly desires and your deeds be cleansed from craftiness and suspicion. Dissipate not the wealth of your precious lives in the pursuit of evil and corrupt affection, nor let your endeavors be spent in promoting your personal interest. Be generous in your days of plenty, and be patient in the hour of loss. Adversity is followed by success and rejoicings follow woe. Guard against idleness and sloth, and cling unto that which profiteth mankind, whether young or old, whether high or low. Beware lest ye sow tares of dissension among men or plant thorns of doubt in pure and radiant hearts.
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.