2011 Association for Baha’i Studies Conference: One of the Biggest Ever
The Association for Baha’i Studies held its thirty-fifth conference on August 11-14, 2011, Thursday through Sunday noon, in Burlingame, California, a mile south of San Francisco International Airport. With 1,550 in attendance, it was one of the largest conferences ABS has ever held.
The conference’s theme was “Transforming Habits of Thought,” a phrase drawn from the Universal House of Justice’s December 28, 2010, message to the Continental Board of Counselors. Eight plenary addresses, all excellent, were given during six plenary sessions. Kenneth Bowers opened the conference with an address about “Building Administrative Capacity,” which surveyed the fifteen year history of the institute process and offered many examples of new habits of thought (many found through trial and error) that have influenced the way in which we teach the Faith.
For many the highlight of the conference was the Hasan Balyuzi Lecture on Saturday night. Delivered by Dr. Nader Saiedi, the talk explored “The Birth of the Human Being: Beyond Religious Traditionalism and Materialistic Modernity,” defining human beings in terms of their free will and consciousness and exploring the implications of that definition for the oneness of humanity and human rights.
The conference closed with a funny but profound presentation by the actor Rainn Wilson, who spoke about “Soulpancake: The Intersection of Art and Faith,” emphasizing the importance of selecting professions about which one is passionate and calling for Persian Baha’i youth (who carry the blood of the Dawnbreakers and also that of the spiritual descendents of the Dawnbreakers) to arise to serve the Cause.
In addition to the plenary sessions, twenty-nine simultaneous breakout sessions, offering fifty-three presentations, were held all day Thursday, Friday afternoon, and Saturday afternoon. Planned for the most part by the Association’s Special Interest Groups, the breakout sessions explored such fields as education, social research and social change, philosophy, psychology, law and governance, human and natural environments, business ethics and management, science and religion, the arts, international affairs, the study of religion, bioethics and health sciences, and human rights. Dedicated attendees had to make difficult choices.
The arts figured very prominently in the conference. Every plenary session began with devotions, which usually included a generous and diverse amount of music. The Friday evening plenary session was an arts gala with rap, opera, and performances on Chinese and Persian instruments. All evening plenary sessions were followed by a late evening arts program, which proved popular with the conference’s very large number of youth and young adults.
While none of the plenary speakers this year were non-Baha’i, the conference’s diverse offerings had something of interest for everyone. Those who attend the ABS conferences regularly were able to see the continued expansion of the Baha’i community’s capacities in the form of more varied and sophisticated talks, forums, and artistic performances. The impressive conference bodes well for the Faith’s future and lays down a marker challenging next year’s presenters to put into practice their transformed habits of thought.