My husband and I love learning about the history of places we travel to. Any new place we explore, we look up the local history and read it together as we tour the area. On one such trip, we encountered a confusing landmark. It depicted a certain man and described his wonderful legacy, including building a community centre and funding other associated services. But we knew the person depicted had also done some awful things, like force an entire community to relocate just because he wanted their land. The fact that he did good things for the community at the same time was news to us, but also didn’t quite make him a hero in our eyes–-at least not in the way he was depicted in the landmark. Before that moment, we’d kind of thought of him as an evil character in history, and this new information about good things he did was really challenging our perceptions.
My brain likes simplicity. All human brains do. Simplicity is easy to understand, and our brains like to take the path of least resistance. It had been easy to think of this guy as all bad. The new information was hard to integrate. We wrestled with our emotional reactions for a while.
This is probably one of the reasons that arguments get boiled down to catchy slogans that stir our emotions. It’s just so much easier when an argument can be reduced to the barest of bones. How often does a nuanced argument go viral? I can’t think of any. But a two or three word hashtag? Every day.
Society speaks more and more in slogans. We hope that the habits the friends are forming in study circles to work with full and complex thoughts and to achieve understanding will be extended to various spheres of activity.
The Universal House of Justice
I find it hard to discern truth in this era of hashtag arguments. First off, my emotions are stirred by my conscious or unconscious associations with certain slogans or catchphrases, and this can cloud my judgment. Second, an oversimplified argument is easy to accept or reject wholesale without investigating the truth for myself. As I align myself with one slogan or another, it becomes almost a signal to other people that I belong to a certain school of thought or movement, removing my agency even more. If I investigate too closely, I might no longer be accepted in this group of like-minded people. How often have I seen a political hashtag on someone’s Facebook wall and said to myself, “that’s one of my people,” or conversely, “they’re wrong,” without a second thought?
I find it ironic that an argument can be made too simple, making it harder to find the truth, but here we are.
Truth is usually not simple at all. Like the historical figure who did important beneficial work while still causing suffering, there is nuance in most things. Even in the study of the Baha’i Writings, Shoghi Effendi counsels us to think complexly.
We must take the teachings as a great, balanced whole, not seek out and oppose to each other two strong statements that have different meanings; somewhere in between, there are links uniting the two. That is what makes our Faith so flexible and well balanced.”
I think reality, like the teachings, must be taken as a “great, balanced whole.” Challenging as it is, building the muscle of complex thinking will lead me to a more nuanced, and hopefully more accurate, understanding of that whole.
So how do I build that muscle?
I first have to examine my own habits of thought. I ask myself, “What or who influenced my understanding of this topic? Where did I find the information I’m using?” I can’t help but be influenced by the environment I’m surrounded by. The media that pervades our lives, the friends that we surround ourselves with, the social media algorithms designed to populate our feeds with things we already agree with–-all of these aspects of our environments are subtly influencing our thinking. Simply becoming aware of my environment can help me seek out different sources of information otherwise missing from my life.
I also practice recognizing when I’m having an emotional reaction to a certain phrase or slogan, and try to pause when I catch myself doing so. In order to truly investigate the truth, I want to be mindful of those emotions and look past them to try and understand the idea presented without accepting or rejecting it out of hand.
That kind of dichotomous thinking, that ideas or arguments must be accepted or rejected in their entirety, is another sign of my brain’s desire for simplicity. But it’s possible for one part of an argument to be true while other parts are not. When I strive to understand, rather than accept or reject, I find that I can more easily distinguish those parts that are true. As I bring together the true elements from many different sources, my understanding becomes more nuanced.
I also want to be open to new information, even if it might challenge my view on a topic.
It is not possible for you to effect the transformation envisioned by Baha’u’llah merely by adopting the perspectives, practices, concepts, criticisms, and language of contemporary society. Your approach, instead, will be distinguished by maintaining a humble posture of learning, weighing alternatives in the light of His teachings, consulting to harmonize differing views and shape collective action, and marching forward with unbreakable unity in serried lines.
The Universal House of Justice
To me, the visual image conjured by the phrase “humble posture of learning” helps me reflect on what investigation of truth might look like in my own life. I imagine someone thinking, listening, and absorbing information. There’s no speaking in that mental picture, just learning. That reminds me to pause and think before I react or respond.
The Universal House of Justice also advises “weighing alternatives in the light of His teachings.” This is particularly challenging to me because while I’m certain there is a truth to be sought, and that it can be found if I weigh things in light of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation, I can never be 100% certain I’ve understood the Revelation correctly. After all, I’m only human. If I assume my understanding of Revelation is already 100% correct, I run the risk of fanaticism and dogmatic thinking. But if I let go of my certitude that Revelation contains the truth, then I could fall into relativistic thinking–the idea that there is no singular truth, and any given opinion is equally valid.
Once again, the practices I try to cultivate help me walk that line. If I can pause and check my emotions, I can say to myself, “I could be wrong. Let’s find out.” I can make space to try to understand and to weigh the truth in light of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation.
I’m not great at this yet, but I’m working on it. With the grace of God, I hope I can occupy that in-between space of investigation without acceptance or rejection, put aside my instinctive reactions and adopt a humble posture of learning, and come ever closer to understanding truth in all its complexity.
Maia is a new mom, graduate student, and public librarian in the United States with a passion for community building. You’ll often find her writing in coffee shops, reading with her lap cat, and exploring backroads with her husband.