“Consultation: A Revolutionary Model of Democratic Governance,” a Web Talk by Dr. Brian Aull, Offers Insights into Consultation and Ideas for Public Discourse

Dr. Brian Aull’s talk on “Consultation: A Revolutionary Model of Democratic Governance” on Valentine’s Day was anything but the usual recitation of the facts about consultation. You may want to plan a deepening for yourself or your community or study group on the talk and consult about how it could help you in the coming Five Year Plan and in public discourse during the current election cycle in the United States. The talk is now available on the Wilmette Institute’s YouTube channel. 

Fundamentals. Dr. Aull, staff scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began his Web Talk by putting the topic of consultation in the context of a number of fundamentals in the Bahá’í Faith. First, he says that Bahá’í consultation is revolutionary, for Bahá’u’lláh says that “Mankind’s ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System” (Gleanings 136). The revolution encompasses humankind’s personal redemption and also the principles by which humankind is governed. Second, consultation is meant to be a model. The Universal House of Justice has written that the “Administrative Order is not to be viewed merely as an improvement on past and existing systems; it represents a departure both in origin and concept” (Individual Rights and Freedoms in the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 6). Moreover, consultation must be a part of the governance. The House of Justice, quoting Shoghi Effendi, says that the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh is “‘none other but the achievement of this organic and spiritual unity of the whole body of nations,’ indicating the ‘coming of age of the entire human race’” (Individual Rights and Freedoms 6).

Dr. Aull brought the first section of his talk to a conclusion by comparing and contrasting democratic systems and the Bahá’í administration system. For example, in democratic systems, humans are considered self-centered, and governance must try to manage the resulting competition. In the Bahá’í system, Baháu’lláh says that human beings are mines “rich in gems of inestimable value” (Gleanings 260), and governance tries to elicit and harness the riches. In democratic systems, legislators represent the interests of the constituents, while in the Bahá’í system people serving on elected bodies are guided by moral principles. Dr. Aull goes on to discuss three additional points but said he could make many more such points.

Principles of Consultation. In the second part of his talk Dr. Aull defined consultation as a spiritual conference that is conducted in an attitude and atmosphere of love, the purpose of which is the investigation of truth—all of which is very different from decision-making processes in parliamentary debate. The individual qualities required in consultation are: purity of motive, radiance of spirit, detachment from all except God, attraction to Bahá’u’lláh, humility and lowliness, patience and long-suffering, and servitude to Baha’u’llah. Group qualities for consultation include love, harmony, freedom from estrangement, and prayer.

Then Dr. Aull discussed the ground rules for consultation: considering views already expressed, offering one’s own views as a contribution to consensus, not feeling hurt if someone disagrees, not belittling others’ contributions. The goal is to let the shining spark of truth come out after the clash of differing opinions. The steps to making a decision include ensuring the prime requisites and conditions, finding all the facts (no cherry-picking), identifying the relevant spiritual and ethical principles, applying the principles to reach a decision, and unanimously supporting the implementation of the decision.

Contrast to Other Processes. A particularly informative part of Dr. Aull’s talk was his contrast of the Bahá’í system of consultation to other systems:

  • A principled process vs. expediency, seeking power and privilege
  • A truth-seeking process vs. ideological bias and trying to win the argument
  • A service-oriented process vs. power-seeking or serving the few
  • Based on genuine communication vs. talking past each other, persuasion rather than learning
  • Synthesizing the insights of the participants vs. differing points of view leading to paralyzing conflict
  • Inclusive vs. elitism or prejudice, discounting some’ opinions
  • Unity a priority vs. blame game and character assassination

Dr. Aull then contrasted consultation to the congressional process with its mixed goals and motives and its methods. He referred to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s description of a parliamentary session he observed in France, with its antagonism, contradiction, altercations, useless quibbling, confusion, turmoil, and a physical encounter. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said it “was not consultation but comedy” (The Promulgation of Universal Peace 72). Shoghi Effendi, in 1923, advised the Bahá’í community: “Beware, beware lest the foul odour of the parties and people of foreign lands in the west, and their pernicious methods, such as intrigues, party politics and propaganda . . . should ever reach the Bahá’í community . . . and thus bring all spirituality to naught” (Lights of Guidance 10). Dr. Aull concluded the third section of his talk by contrasting consultation and compromise; consultation and debate; and consultation and consensus-building. He quoted the Bahá’í International Community’s Office of Public Information in The Prosperity of Humankind (11–12):

Present-day conceptions of what is natural and appropriate in relationships—among human beings themselves, between human beings and nature, between the individual and society, and between the members of society and its institutions—reflect levels of understanding arrived at by the human race during earlier and less mature stages in its development. If humanity is indeed coming of age, if all the inhabitants of the planet constitute a single people, if justice is to be the ruling principle of social organization—then existing conceptions that were born out of ignorance of these emerging realities have to be recast.

Upcoming Wilmette Institute Course. In the fourth part of his talk, Dr. Aull announced his upcoming Wilmette Institute course “Applying Bahá’í Principles to Discourses on Governance in the United States.” It begins on February 22 and ends on April 16. But his announcement was not motivated by self-promotion. Rather, he was emphasizing how the course and the topic can be used in the discourses of society, a theme in the current and coming Five Year plans. He shared three passages from the Universal House of Justice, all from its Ridván 2010 letter (par. 27, 29, 30):

. . . two interconnected, mutually reinforcing areas of activity: involvement in social action and participating in the prevalent discourses of society.

. . . apply the teaching and principles of the Faith to improve some aspect of the social or economic life of a population

. . . public discourse can range from . . . introducing Bahá’í ideas into everyday conversation to . . . preparation of articles . . . [on] climate change and the environment, governance and human rights . . .

Dr. Aull followed by talking about how he got involved in public discourse in 1985 when the Cambridge Spiritual Assembly was asked to present The Promise of World Peace, the statement on peace by the Universal House of Justice, to the nine City Councilors of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The result was that City Council passed a resolution in June 1986. That one event, Dr. Aull said, led to many conversations.

Recently Dr. Aull has published a book called The Triad: Three Civic Virtues That Could Save American Democracy, which addresses the dysfunctional state of public life in the United States and virtues the lack of which makes politics fail. He also mentioned several other books among civic-renewal literature, including We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America by Peter Levine.

Summary. Dr. Aull ended his talk by saying that the “Bahá’í Faith offers a model of human governance rooted in lives of spiritual awareness and ethical virtue.” Part of that model is consultation, a decision-making process for the maturity of human society; it is distinguished by the spirit of the process, not just the mechanics. His final comment was this:

We should learn to present this [model] intelligently and enticingly to activists and leaders of thought.

After the end of his talk, Dr. Aull answered some twenty-five questions, which are part of the talk now available on the Wilmette Institute’s YouTube channel.

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