Alain Locke: Faith and Philosophy



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Bahá’í Essays
Locke wrote four essays published in six volumes of The Bahá’í World: (1) “Impressions of Haifa” in vols. 1, 2, and 3 (1926, 1929, 1930), first published in Star of the West (1924)736; “Unity through Diversity: A Bahá’í Principle” in vol. 4 (1933);737 (3) “The Orientation of Hope” in vol. 5 (1936);738 and (4) “Lessons in World Crisis” in vol. 9 (1945).739 In the early history of Bahá’í publishing, this is an impressive and distinguished accomplishment. The Bahá’í World volumes are a record of the development of the Faith internationally. These volumes were the most important Bahá’í publications next to authorized translations of the Bahá’í sacred writings. In the realm of public relations, The Bahá’í World volumes served as the official international voice of the Bahá’í Faith, prior to the establishment of the Bahá’í International Community, which is a registered non-governmental organization (NGO) with consultative status at the United Nations. In this sense, therefore, Locke’s Bahá’í World essays not only passed through a system of internal review, but may be regarded as having official sanction. In addition, there is a fifth Bahá’í essay, untitled and evidently unpublished, that the present writer discovered among the Alain Locke Papers. For convenient reference, we have assigned it a title, drawn from the first line, “The Gospel for the Twentieth Century.”740

These essays profile Locke’s perspective as a Bahá’í, even though we have such sketchy details about his Bahá’í activities. How he came to write these essays, which customarily were invited, is an important consideration. Although Shoghi Effendi certainly supervised its publication and approved its contents, normally the editors of The Bahá’í World issued invitations to write articles. This was certainly the case with Locke, except that Shoghi Effendi personally solicited Locke’s final essay, “Lessons in World Crisis,” in sending the latter a cable on 17 January 1944, which read: “WOULD GREATLY APPRECIATE ARTICLE FROM YOUR PEN ON ANY ASPECT FAITH FOR CENTENARY ISSUE BAHÁ’Í WORLD VOLUME NINE LOVING GREETINGS SHOGHI RABBANI.”741 That the leader of the Bahá’í world directly contacted Locke with this personal request reveals the high regard that Shoghi Effendi had for Locke. The Guardian’s admiration for Locke was a long-held one. In probable reference to his essays, “The Orientation of Hope,” Shoghi Effendi wrote: “The article by Prof. Locke is very good and sufficient.”742 Later, in 1930, in a written on his behalf to Mrs. French, a project editor of The Bahá’í World, Shoghi Effendi suggested that “some first-class men” be asked “to write some articles” for the volume. “The articles should, however,” he added, “be scholarly and written by competent men.” Articles of such high calibre would make “great contribution” to the project.

It is highly significant that the first (and only) name that came to the Guardian’s mind at the writing of this letter was Alain Locke: “For example Mr. [sic] Locke of Washington could be asked to write an article on the Bahá’í teachings and the colour problem. I am sure he would do it willingly.”743 Later in this chapter, we will see how Shoghi Effendi sought Locke’s advice and feedback on the former’s translation of the preeminent doctrinal text of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh’s The Book of Certitude (Persian, 1861). There is no doubt about the importance of Locke’s literary contributions to the Bahá’í Faith and Shoghi Effendi’s appreciation of their great value.

Leonard Harris, the leading authority on Locke, has recognized the importance of these essays. In his magnificent collection of Locke’s philosophical writings, Harris chose to anthologize two of Locke’s four Bahá’í World essays: “The Orientation of Hope” (PAL 130–32) and “Unity through Diversity: A Bahá’í Principle” (PAL 134–38). But to call these mere “editorials,” as Leonard Harris has elsewhere done in his otherwise superb entry on Locke in American National Biography,744 is reductive in the extreme. Many of Locke’s published and unpublished essays are equally short. Rather, Locke’s Bahá’í essays are written in a dense style, packed with a special vocabulary of technical philosophical terms that double as common words, which the uninitiated reader will gloss over, missing the deeper meaning. Locke’s conceptual colors are deceptively simple, but rich and vivid. Examples of this style will be provided later in this chapter.

Let us now proceed to an analysis of Locke’s Bahá’í essays. Since “Impressions of Haifa,” has already been discussed in the chapter on “Pilgrimage” above, we will begin with “Unity Through Diversity: A Bahá’í Principle” (1933) followed by “The Orientation of Hope” (1936), although Harris has inadvertently inverted the order of these essays. This will be followed by a brief look at “Lessons in World Crisis” (1945), then Locke’s role as advisor to Shoghi Effendi in the latter’s authorized translation of the Book of Certitude, and finally a description of Locke’s unpublished Bahá’í essay, “The Gospel for the Twentieth Century” (undated).

Unity Through Diversity: A Bahá’í Principle”: A brief word on how Locke came to write this essay and its subsequent publication history is a natural place to begin. The important thing to remember is that this article was solicited at the express suggestion of the leader of the Bahá’í world, Shoghi Effendi, titled the “Guardian” of the Bahá’í Faith, as distinct from its prophet–founders, the Báb (d. 1850) and Bahá’u’lláh (d. 1892). Mention has already been made of Shoghi Effendi’s recommendation that Mrs. French invite an article from Locke for the forthcoming number of The Bahá’í World. The full text of that request is as follows:


Shoghi Effendi does not at present have any suggestions to give you about the forthcoming number. Maybe he will have some in the future. The only constructive suggestion he can now make is concerning the articles. Maybe if you from now ask some first-class men to write some articles and assign the subjects in such a way as to make them an interesting whole, it will be a great contribution to the book, The articles should, however, be scholarly and written by competent men. For example Mr. [sic] Locke of Washington could be asked to write an article on the Bahá’í teachings and the colour problem. I am sure he would do it willingly.745
This is quite a remarkable statement in that Alain Locke was the first (and only) name that immediately came to Shoghi Effendi’s mind when suggesting that articles be solicited from “first-class men” who were “competent” to write “scholarly” articles. This advice also reflects the Guardian’s agenda, where he accords priority to America’s racial crisis.

Locke was typically overworked and overbooked, although he did take considerable time off for his international travels. Consequently, he was often behind in his writing schedule. This included his commitments to Bahá’í publications as well. One interesting editorial technique intended to prod Locke into submitting his manuscript on time is illustrated by a short letter, dated 29 Dec. 1931, that Locke received from a letter a Mrs. Wanden M. La Farge, one of the staff involved in The Bahá’í World project. She wrote: “Dear Doctor Locke: No article for the Bahai [sic] World has appeared from you and this is merely a warning that the next step will be not one but a series of telegrams collect. With very best regards.”746 One oversight was the fact that Locke’s article lacked a title. It was Shoghi Effendi himself who brought this to the editor’s attention: “Professor Locke’s article in Part IV has no title. He would advise you to communicate with him regarding this matter.”747 Needless to say, Locke completed his essay and sent it in due time for publication.

As to the essay itself, any reader who is familiar with this particular Bahá’í principle will be struck by the title Locke had finally chosen, for the simple reason that Bahá’ís are accustomed to seeing it expressed as “unity in diversity.” Here, Locke offers a variant: “unity through diversity” (emphasis added). What does Locke intend by this change of preposition? Assuming his choice of “through” was deliberate rather than accidental, clearly “through” has a dynamic quality largely lacking in the static preposition, “in.” The sense here is that unity must work to fuse disparate elements of society rather than simply exist in the midst of them. Diversity is elemental to unity and a necessary component of it. That is why “through” is deeper, more thoroughgoing than “in.” Yet it would be reading too much into Locke to press this distinction too far, for elsewhere in his essay he does speak of “unity in diversity” (PAL 135). So the two are synonymous.

What is Locke’s message in this essay? In humanity’s search “to cure […] modern ills,” Locke says that “any remedy seriously proposed must be fundamental and not superficial, and wide-scale or universal rather than local or provincial” (PAL 134). Reflecting on the signs of the times, Locke writes: “Ten years ago, national, racial, or some equivalent circumscribed loyalty and interest would have been unquestionably assumed, and agitated almost without apology as axiomatic. I regard this change, although as yet a negative gain, as both one of the most significant and positive steps forward that humanity has taken,—or rather,—has been forced to take” (PAL 134). The growing “demand for universality” is “beyond doubt the most characteristic modern thing in the realm of spiritual values” (PAL 134).

In a trenchant critique of Western value, Locke takes the West to task for having made the mistake of conflating unity with uniformity. “What the contemporary mind stands greatly in need of,” writes Locke, “is the divorce of the association on uniformity with the notion of the universal, and the substitution of the notion of equivalence” (PAL 135). “Equivalence” is a key philosophical term for Locke. It is discussed elsewhere in this book. The problem is that, in its emphasis on “sameness,” the West has adopted the paradigm of the “melting pot,” which, rather than eliminating all differences, effectively maintains the cultural dominance of Anglo-Saxonism. Locke calls this “the specific blight and malady of the modern and Western mind.” (PAL 135). These are strong words. To achieve “[s]piritual unity,” this is what Locke prescribes: “What we need to learn most is how to discover unity and spiritual equivalence underneath the differences which at present disunite and sunder us, and how to establish some basic spiritual reciprocity on the principle of unity in diversity” (emphasis added). Note that “equivalence” and “reciprocity” are key philosophical notions in Locke’s philosophy, just as other terms like the principle of “loyalty” [“loyalty to loyalty”] which derives wholly from Locke’s Harvard mentor, Josiah Royce, author of The Philosophy of Loyalty. The meaning of these technical terms is treated elsewhere in this volume.

“This principle is basic in the Bahá’í teaching” (PAL 135). But Locke hastens to add that Bahá’ís ought not to claim ownership of this principle, but rather to promote it. And here Locke speaks to his Bahá’í audience. There is a very real danger, he warns his fellow Bahá’ís, in asserting this teaching of unity in diversity as somehow “exclusively” Bahá’í (PAL 135). This does not mean that Bahá’í truth-claims are invalid. Quite the contrary. Locke recognizes that indeed “there is no escaping the historical evidences of its early and its uncompromising adoption by the Bahá’í prophets and teachers.” But Bahá’ís must not insist “on this side of the claim.” Rather, Locke advises “the intelligent, loyal Bahá’í should stress not the source, but the importance of the idea, and rejoice not in the originality and uniqueness of the principle but rather in its prevalence and practicality” (PAL 135). “The idea,” moreover, “has to be translated into every important province of modern life and thought, and in many of these must seem to be independently derived and justified” (PAL 135). Locke offers a true test of Bahá’í universality: “The purity of Bahá’í principles must be gauged by their universality on this practical plane. Do they fraternize and fuse with all their kindred expressions?” (PAL 136). In other words, are Bahá’ís promoting their own principles primarily for the purpose of making this world a better place, rather than for proselytizing? Here, Locke uses purity of motive and disinterestedness as criteria of Bahá’í authenticity.

After cautioning Bahá’ís against the appearance of “sectarianism” (PAL 136) in “our factional and denominationalized world” (PAL 135), Locke makes a very interesting comment that seems to justify, however obliquely, his own involvement in the Harlem Renaissance and the “New Negro” movement that it promulgated: “Can anyone with a fair-minded sense of things, give wholesale condemnation to the partisanships of Indian Nationalism, or Chinese integrity and independence, or Negro and proletarian self-assertion after generations of persecution and restriction?” (PAL 136). In spending half his essay in framing these problems “of national, class and racial strife,” Locke asks the question: “Is there no remedy?” (PAL 136). This is where Locke’s faith as a Bahá’í and his philosophy as a cultural pluralist explicitly converge: “Josiah Royce, one of the greatest of the American philosophers[,] saw this problem more clearly than any other Western thinker, and worked out his admirable principle of loyalty, which is nothing more or less than a vindication of the principle of unity in diversity carried out to a practical degree of spiritual reciprocity” (PAL 137).

Locke implicitly defines Royce’s principle of loyalty as the “equivalence of value” between one’s own loyalty to one’s group and those of other groups (PAL 137). “In starting with the unequivocal assertion of equivalence and reciprocity between religions,” Locke adds, “the Bahá’í teaching has touched one of the trunk-nerves of the whole situation” (PAL 137). Here, “equivalence and reciprocity between religions” is Locke’s philosophical recasting of the “oneness of religion,” so common in Bahá’í parlance. He calls on Bahá’ís to carry this principle “into the social and cultural fields” in order to enlist the support of “the most vigorous and intellectual elements” of those societies.” In so doing, Bahá’ís will have “[t]ranslated into more secular terms” their own principles, achieving thereby “a positive multiplication of spiritual power” and an “application and final vindication of the Bahá’í principles” (PAL 137). He exhorts “every Bahá’í believer to carry the universal dimension of tolerance and spiritual reciprocity into every particular cause and sectarianism he can reach,” and to “share the loyalties of the group, but upon a different plane and with a higher perspective” (PAL 137).

Locke ends this remarkable essay by saying: “Each period of a faith imposes a new special problem” (PAL 137). The special challenge of “this particular critical decade” is the “task of transposing the traditional Bahá’í reciprocity between religions into the social and cultural denominationalisms of nation, race and class, vindicating anew upon this plane the precious legacy of the inspired teachings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Bahá’u’lláh” (PAL 137–38). Given the nature and purpose of The Bahá’ World publications, whose intended audience was primarily non-Bahá’ís, Locke’s essay is rather atypical. Virtually all essays in these volumes are sermonic in tone, but in such a way that propounds and promotes Bahá’í principles for the benefit of an outside audience. Locke’s admonitions to Bahá’ís represent a curious inversion of this norm. In some ways, Locke’s essay compares more closely to a letter from Shoghi Effendi to the American Bahá’ís. One cannot escape the feeling that, in this essay especially, not only was Locke setting the standards by which the Bahá’í Faith would be judged by the world at large, but how he himself would judge the Bahá’ís and his own involvement with the faith.

The Orientation of Hope”: “ ‘The Orientation of Hope’,” according to Harris, “is a definitive expression of Locke’s belief in the Bahá’í Faith and its focus on the universal principles definitive of spiritual faiths” (PAL 129). In this essay, Locke gives some fraternal advice to Bahá’ís, in much the same vein as the previous essay. At the same time, “The Orientation of Hope”—as Harris rightly observes—is Locke’s eloquent testimony to the strength of his own convictions as a Bahá’í.

In troubled times, where should we “orient our hopes”? The answer must be “worthy of the possessors of a virile and truly prophetic spiritual revelation”—meaning the Bahá’ís and the Bahá’í Faith. In the “present twilight hour,” in “this dusk of disillusionment,” Locke calls upon “those of us who are truly dawn-minded” (PAL 130) to rise to this challenge, as Locke frames it:
Must we not as true Bahá’í believers in these times embrace our principles more positively, more realistically, and point everywhere possible our assertion of the teachings with a direct challenge? […] Especially does it seem to me to be the opportunity to bring the Bahá’í principles again forcefully to the attention of statesmen and men of practical affairs […]. Is it not reasonably clear to us that now is the time for a world-wide, confident and determined offensive of peaceful propaganda for the basic principles of the Cause of brotherhood, peace and social justice? […] And to do that powerfully, effectively, the Bahá’í teaching needs an inspired extension of the potent realism of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá by which he crowned and fulfilled the basic idealism of Bahá’u’lláh. (PAL 130; 132)
Locke reaffirms his faith and solidarity with his fellow Bahá’ís. He advocates bringing the Bahá’í principles “forcefully to the attention of statesmen and men of practical affairs,” If, by this, Locke intends that Bahá’ís should do so explicitly, then this is where Locke himself did so only at Bahá’í-sponsored events, such as the Race Amity Conventions and the short-lived World Unity Conventions, in which Locke was a prominent participant. But, so far as the record allows us to judge, Locke refrained from doing so in his professional life. To be fair, everything that Locke advocated either flowed from or was consonant with his Bahá’í convictions.

The reader may wish to skip over the middle of the essay, in which Locke quotes H. G. Wells at some length. “I have cited this quotation,” Locke explains, “as a representative sample of the drift of intelligent thought today upon the whole world situation” (PAL 131). What likely governed Locke’s choice here was Wells’ use of the term, “new world order,” which ties in with the Bahá’í vision as articulated by Shoghi Effendi, one of whose published collections of letters to American Bahá’ís is titled, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh.

While eloquent, as practically all of Locke’s essays are, “The Orientation of Hope” has the feel of having been hastily written. Again, the message comes across as a “sermon” for the benefit of Bahá’ís, lest they become too insular and parochial. “I have but one practical suggestion,” Locke writes, “that without forgetting the language in terms of which we ourselves have learned the principles, we shall take pains to learn and speak a language which the practical-minded man of affairs, and the realistic common man can and will understand” (PAL 130). This Locke did and did well. In transposing the Bahá’í principle of “unity through diversity’ into the conceptual framework of cultural pluralism, and then translating this into a discourse of democracy that Americans could appreciate, Locke stands a model for Bahá’ís to emulate when it comes to “indirect” teaching. While Louis Gregory was the paradigmatic Bahá’í for promoting ideal race relations through a direct appeal to Bahá’í principles, Locke is an exemplar of the alternative approach. In this respect, Locke is the complement of Gregory, although Gregory’s was a far more “deepened” believer, with infinitely more certitude of faith. Locke, however, attained an incomparable prestige outside the Bahá’í community, and had a direct impact during one period of American history, the Harlem Renaissance. Eventually, Locke’s achievements would redound to the Faith itself, but far more so after his death than during his lifetime.

Lessons in World Crisis”: Would the fact that Shoghi Effendi personally solicited this article significantly impact on its quality? By Western Union cablegram, wired on 17 January 1944, the Guardian invited Locke to contribute what would be his final Bahá’í World essay. The cable read: “WOULD GREATLY APPRECIATE ARTICLE FROM YOUR PEN ON ANY ASPECT FAITH FOR CENTENARY ISSUE BAHÁ’Í WORLD VOLUME NINE LOVING GREETINGS SHOGHI RABBANI.”748 In response, Locke chose the most pressing issue of the day: the “cataclysmic world war” and what harsh lessons the world gain from it.

“The Twentieth Century seems destined,” Locke begins his essay, “to be the age of a terrestrial revelation of the essential and basic oneness of mankind.” Out of this welter of chaos and crisis, “the lesson of unity must be learned” on “a world-scale.” In the aftermath of this terrible war, Locke expresses the hope that humankind might finally learn from “the staggering futilities of disunity.” This crisis can be “solved only by a fundamental change of our individual and social attitudes,” which Bahá’í teachings had advocated for nearly a century. The event of the Bahá’í Centenary (1844–1944) provided an opportunity to reflect on world war and world peace, and on the principles that the Bahá’í revelation brings to bear on them.

What once was an issue contemplated only by “a few prophetic minds” along with “a small minority of clear-sighted liberals” has now become a matter of global concern. People “may not know the solution to the problem, […] but they do know it as a basic issue.” They “vaguely sense that it represents the great impasse of our present-day civilization.” Furthermore, a growing number of people now “realize that some basic spiritual reorientation is a prerequisite to the effective solution of many, if not most, of the specific political, economic and cultural issues of our time.” Locke uses the term “psychological disarmament” and points out that it was “found impossible because on the political and economic plane we had no moral conviction or even insight about an integrating principle.”749

In a statement that resonates with the Universal House of Justice’s recent message “To the Religious Leaders of the World” (2002), Locke speaks of the benefits of interfaith cooperation: “In our religious life, the leading religious liberals are increasingly recognizing the imperative need to inter-faith movements.” Locke refers to the ecumenical movement, to Protestant\-–Catholic rapprochement, and to Jewish–Christian dialogue. But “such effort has not as yet been adequately extended to the Muslim and Oriental fronts,” Locke says. In oblique reference to his own philosophical orientation, Locke recognizes the “leadership of cultural anthropologists.” Like the great Franz Boas, these researchers are “willing to admit the essential parity of cultures—a very necessary spiritual foundation for any true world order of peoples and nations.” Continuing in this vein, Locke notes that the “field of education” appears to be “on the verge of realizing that international–mindedness,” which can only come about through “a sense of common purpose among educators throughout the world.”750 Locke himself was a leader in that field and was President of the American Association for Adult Education.

Addressing racial issues, Locke observes that there is a general public awareness of the “threat of race and class cleavage within our Western societies” and that “no basic sense of human unity on a world scale can develop” unless and until world leaders arrive at “the desirable and right human values and attitudes.” Here, Locke argues that the most fundamental and surest recourse for changing the world is to transform how we look at it. Through a basic reorientation involving a global–minded change of consciousness, “a convergence of moral growth and development in the practical implementation of the ‘oneness of humanity’ ” might be attained.751

Locke concludes his essay by drawing a connection between the experience of World War II and its synchronicity with Bahá’í history: “It is highly significant that such developments as these coincide with the first Centennial of the Bahá’í revelation of these basic principles.”752 Locke speaks of a “converging series of confirmations” that “warrant our initial statement” that “The Twentieth Century seems destined to be the age of a terrestrial revelation of the essential and basic oneness of mankind.”753 In the short space of this essay, Locke has skilfully woven together major trends in current events and has made sense of them in terms of humanity’s terrible ordeal borne of profound disunity, and the hope that may still come about through a realization of the need for unity.

Unlike the two previous essays, which were really directed towards Bahá’ís, Locke’s “Lessons in World Crisis” is clearly written for non-Bahá’ís. The test in determining Locke’s intended audience is simple: Could “Lessons in World Crisis” have been published separately as a Bahá’í teaching pamphlet, and succeed? The answer, probably, is yes. Does the same hold true for “Unity through Diversity” or “The Orientation of Hope”? Not really. This shift in Locke’s focus is a new development for him. It reflects a move away from his preoccupation with reorienting Bahá’ís and in encouraging them to redirect their energies in placing a higher priority on deeds rather than words. Locke’s “Lessons in World Crisis” is a thoughtful and subtle invitation for seekers to investigate the Bahá’í Faith in light of its universal principles.


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