Although Baha'i communities celebrate Baha'i holy days and have regular meetings, there are very few set forms or rituals. This means that Baha'is are free to introduce large elements of local culture—such as music, dance, song, and theatre—into such Baha'i meetings as the Nineteen-Day Feast and Holy Day commemorations, as well as into social events such as weddings or funerals.
Scholars who have studied Baha'i communities in such places as Papua New Guinea, Africa, and among American native peoples have commented on the fact that there is a marked contrast between becoming a Christian and becoming a Baha'i. Christian conversion may include the expectation that converts will leave behind their native culture and customs and adopt the imported (usually European) culture of their new religion; Baha'i converts maintain their native culture alongside their Baha'i identity. This does not mean however that all of the customs and culture of the native society are brought into the Baha'i community; only those that do not conflict with basic Baha'i principles and laws are absorbed. For instance, if a culture oppresses women, a minority group, or a social class or caste, the Baha'i community would work to eliminate such attitudes and customs.
Though the Baha'i Faith has very little in the way of public rites and rituals, a broader consideration of the usage of this term and the practices of the Baha'i community into which a new convert needs to be acculturated invites further comment. Since about 1996, the whole Baha'i community has been in the process of being reoriented toward a new culture or ethos. This new culture has not yet fully come into existence and so may more accurately be described as an ideal. But enough of it is in place in enough parts of the world to be able to characterize it. It does not contradict what is described above in that it does not replace or suppress local culture but rather can overlay this and indeed encourage it to flourish.
Among the features of this new culture is its orientation toward serving the wider community. Thus, Baha'i institutions are introducing a systematic program of peer-mentored study circles that will give every Baha'i the skills to be able to institute such services as children's classes, junior youth groups, devotional meetings, and study circles. The range and complexity of these service activities is gradually being extended, and it is anticipated that they will become increasingly focused on the social and spiritual needs of the wider local community.
Another aspect of this new culture is that it is a culture of learning, where local groups of Baha'is come together at reflection meetings to consult about the needs of their community and the resources they have and then to draw up plans for local action. The experiences of other areas and guidance coming from the national or international level of the Baha'i community are fed into this consultation process. Once the plans are made and executed, the whole community meets again to reflect on the successes and failures of the plan, studying what lessons are to be learned, and consulting about new plans of action.
There are several other features of the new culture that Baha'is are trying to create. One is the fact that there are no individuals in hierarchies of power in this culture. Authority and direction come from the elected institutions at local, national, and international level. However, it is the institutions that are authoritative, rather than the individuals in these institutions. The decisions made by these institutions are the result of a consultative decision-making process. Furthermore, except for extreme circumstances when an individual's behavior is threatening to cause divisions in the community or is bringing the religion into disrepute, power resides largely with the individual Baha'is. The institutions have the authority to lay plans of action before the Baha'i community but they do not have the power to coerce Baha'is to carry out these plans. Initiative and the power to carry plans forward rest with individuals.
|Principles of Freedom and Authority in the Baha'i Faith
From the Writings of Shoghi Effendi
Let us also remember that at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views. If certain instructions of the Master are today particularly emphasized and scrupulously adhered to, let us be sure that they are but provisional measures designed to guard and protect the Cause in its present state of infancy and growth until the day when this tender and precious plant shall have sufficiently grown to be able to withstand the unwisdom of its friends and the attacks of its enemies.