The Annual ABS Conference: A Report about What You Missed in Discussions on Scholarship and the Life of Society

Some 1,200 Bahá’ís, especially young Bahá’ís, and friends of the Bahá’í Faith attended the 38th annual conference of the Association for Bahá’í Studies held on August 7–10. The venue was the magnificent Fairmont Royal York in the heart of downtown Toronto, Canada—once the largest hotel in the British Empire and still one of the most luxurious—the conference brought students of the Bahá’í Faith of every age together for four days of discussion, study, and artistic expression.

The annual theme of the conference—Scholarship and the Life of Society—was articulately explored on Thursday evening, August 7, in “A Framework for Action,” the opening keynote address by Paul Lample, a member of the Universal House of Justice. The next three mornings also featured plenary programs to explore the theme.

Friday morning, the role of the social sciences in the life of society was considered in talks by Geoffrey Cameron, who spoke about political science; Deborah van den Hoonaard, who explored quantitative sociology; and June Thomas, who considered urban planning. Saturday morning, the plenary panel explored the natural and life sciences: Beth Bowen discussed health sciences and bioethics; Kamran Sedig considered the human mind and its interaction with the world; Arthur Dahl warned about the dangers that arise when the results of the natural sciences are ignored by society.

The Sunday morning panel on the humanities featured talks by Elham Afnan on the state of literary studies; Susan Maneck on the importance of principles such as the oneness of humanity in the study of history; and Gerald Filson on the importance of reading philosophy.

Some of the plenary sessions also featured supplementary presentations that did not relate directly to the themes of the panels. Haleh Arbab spoke on “Learning to Read Social Reality in the Light of Revelation,” an exploration of some of the thinking behind the programs of the Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity. Roshan Danesh’s “Retelling Reconciliation” considered the Bahá’í community’s approach to reconciliation between the First Nations peoples of Canada and the mainstream population, in contrast to the legal and legislative approaches prevailing in society.

The Saturday evening program featured the Hasan Balyuzi lecture by Vahid Rafati, longtime member of the Research Department at the Bahá’í World Centre. In exploring the topic of “The Evolving Role of Bahá’í Scholarship,” Rafati first considered Islamic scholarship and Bahá’u’lláh’s words of advice to and criticism of Islamic legal scholars and theologians. He then considered the implications of Bahá’u’lláh’s advice and criticism for the development of Bahá’í scholarship and for such issues as the relationship of scholars to the Bahá’í institutions, to the Bahá’í community, and to scholarship outside the Bahá’í community.

The Saturday evening program also included three “distinguished scholarship” awards. The award in the book category went to Robert Stockman for his book ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in America. The award in the graduate thesis category was given to Selena Crosson for her doctoral dissertation “Searching for May Maxwell: Bahá’í Millennial Religious Feminism, Transformative Identity & Globalism in the New World Order (1998–1940)” (featured in the Wilmette Institute’s March eNewsletter). The Bahieh Moayyad-Khadem Award for Distinguished Scholarship went to Nasim Rowshanabadi.

The Friday and Saturday afternoon programs featured simultaneous breakout sessions on such subjects as the Arts; Bahá’í History and Biography; Bioethics and Health Sciences; Business, Ethnics, and Management Science; the Environment; Gender and Equality Studies; International Affairs; Law and Governance; Marriage and Family; Peace and Conflict Studies; Philosophy; Psychology; and Science and Religion.

Friday morning, in addition to a plenary session, also included a time when most of those involved in the topics covered in the breakout sessions met for informal discussions of their role in the life of society and the ways in which they could contribute to public discourse. The continued diversification and maturation of these special interest groups was a significant aspect of the conference.

The Wilmette Institute was featured in two of the simultaneous breakout sessions. In the Science and Religion session, Steven Friberg discussed lessons learned about science and religion education during the 2013 Wilmette Institute course on Science and Religion that he organized. Christine Muller, lead faculty for the Wilmette Institute’s Climate Change course, spoke to the International Environment Forum—whose breakout session constituted their annual meeting—about the changed attitudes and many accomplishments of the learners in the three Climate Change courses held to date.

The Wilmette Institute also had a display at the ABS conference and organized a dinner session for faculty and a dinner meeting for those wishing to know more about its courses and plans for the future.

The arts were woven into all the plenary sessions and an arts program followed all evening plenaries. The popular group Smith and Dragoman performed, the Toronto Unity Choir offered four songs, and the entire film The Luminous Journey (produced by filmmaker and Wilmette Institute faculty member Anne Gordon Perry and her husband Tim Perry) was shown to a large audience. Louise Profeit-LeBlanc offered native story telling in one plenary and presented her reconciliation blanket after Roshan Danesh’s talk.

Children and junior youth enjoyed programs of their own, making the 38th conference a diverse and fulfilling experience for people of all ages and interests. The site of the 39th annual conference was not announced, but it will most likely return to the West Coast in the United States. CDs of the plenary sessions will be available in the near future.

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