Sunday, 19 October 2008

Bahá'ís and Education: and Christians too

When I was confirmed at the University of Hull in 1984 I invited a group of Bahá’ís along as I had also been attending their Firesides. None of them came; as I discovered Bahá’ís don't like to mix their religions (like they once did, when under `Abdu'l-Bahá). I was never going to be a Bahá’í, simply because they have a Qur'anic attitude to the words of Bahá’u’lláh their founder and Manifestation of God and `Abdu'l-Bahá too. It seemed to me that here was a new religion drawing on Shia religion, Sufism, the New Testament and coming out of Persia and into the Western orbit. It was sort of nineteenth century and early twentieth century literalism of the time that could soon be out of date. Plus I discovered contradictions: like men and women are equal, but only men can be elected to the nine person Universal House of Justice, and that's intended to be a joint secular and religious parliament for the world, and elections are layer by layer without campaigns or constituencies on a democratic centralism model (a highly conserving system) - at least since the one and only Guardian (Shoghi Effendi, the leader after `Abdu'l-Bahá) gave way to this model exclusively after a crisis of leadership. Oh and they have no time for homosexual relationships either.

It has always been an interest of mine how religions develop, and of course the Bahá’í one would be a perfect one to study except that the Universal House of Justice has been rather secretive about the records at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, Israel. Nevertheless, what it decides now and its attitudes to actual independent scholarship are of course public.

Bahá’ís have always been positive about education and they claim the right of independent search for the truth. Of course they do with seekers: but once you sign on the dotted line you do have conformist obligations to the Faith - and the truth of its founder and the leadership afterwards is taken as given. Nevertheless, Bahá’ís operate in this world, and they attend universities that expect critical methods in dealing with knowledge. Or at least they should: the situation in Iran remains appalling, where Bahá’ís cannot get into university and those that are there are systematically denied their qualifications. The situation is getting worse (and perhaps the UUA President Rev. Bill Sinkford should have thought about that when he met the Iranian leadership with all the pre-arranged questions).

Some of what the Bahá’ís are now saying about their participation in scholarship and about representing the Bahá’í Faith is showing some development. I was reading an interesting article that actually (if unintentionally) says something to Christians too about doing theology. Paul Lample gave a plenary talk at the 32nd annual conference of the Association for Bahá’í Studies – North America 29 August to 1 September 2008, and much of it reflects upon a further stress on education coming from the Universal House of Justice. Clearly they are using education as a means to keep those who are recruited, not as a replacement for Firesides but as a more systematic induction. Perhaps it is like the Methodist class system: people get tied into more structures, people, commitments and things to think about. But here is how he sees Bahá’ís studying and I think this transfers to other faiths (these are extracts):

The learned Bahá'í is not a "gatekeeper" or "priest." [16]

The learned Bahá'í is not an "anthropologist" of the Bahá'í community. The purpose of Bahá'í scholarship is not merely to explain the community at a moment in history and present the resulting picture as its reality. Bahá'ís recognize that, at any point, the community is far from that which Bahá'u'lláh has envisioned. It is "less Bahá'í" now than what it will become in future. [16-17]

The learned Bahá'í is not an "archeologist." The "true" meaning of the Faith is not lost somewhere in the past, to be recaptured by excavating layers of erroneous interpretation and practice. [17]

The learned Bahá'í is not an "artist" who is free to shape the teachings according to some criteria of personal choice or creativity. The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh have an intended meaning and an intended aim. Unity - even unity in diversity - emerges by seeking out and conforming to this meaning. [17]

The learned Bahá'í is not an "impartial observer." The resolution of important questions requires more than the application of methods of the natural sciences. It is not possible to stand apart from the community to study it without influencing it or being influenced by it. [17]

Perhaps the learned Bahá'í is more like the "scout" who helps to guide an expedition on a journey into unexplored territory. This is someone who participates actively in the journey, but whose specialized knowledge, skills, and experience informs various aspects of the struggle to make progress... [17]

These can be translated across to the Christian theologian perhaps, though the University has its theology courses open to anyone as it cannot be the place for a special interest group. Thus the University theologian can show much or no commitment to Christianity; and there is a huge diversity of what constitutes commitment to Christianity, whereas the learned Bahá'í has a rather stricter Covenant to follow (the Bahá’í stress on unity and maintenance via - in the not so extreme - declaring Covenant breakers becomes effectively uniformity rather than unity). So if these were transferred to Christianity they might say, instead:

  • The learned Christian may be a priest and give more promises than a layperson.
  • Anthropology is not enough for the learned Christian - God and Jesus should at least be considered.
  • Archaeology is tempting for many learned Christians (that there was the true faith) but we live in the present and are going to the future.
  • The learned Christian may be an artist, and produce highly creative theology (as postmodernists have done, for example).
  • The learned Christian is not, in the end, impartial, and may dispute impartiality.
  • The learned Christian is like a scout, using the intellect to go into new and interesting areas to examine how the faith may be developed, understood and applied.

This is in itself interesting, but so is the adaptations Bahá’ís must make in the world of different commitments and institutional expectations.

Bahá’ís claim that science and religion is not in conflict, but the following statement suggests that such could at least have the potential - and look which must have priority:

It would be unacceptable and completely unconvincing to a scientist, for example, if a quotation from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá were used in an attempt to overturn scientific understanding of biological evolution while justifying nonscientific concepts such as intelligent design which are, in fact, theological or philosophical in nature. Whatever the source of inspiration, a hypothesis must be tested according to the scientific methods and standards, producing change that can be articulated and justified within the domain of science. [17-18]

That is quite a far reaching statement, and certainly comes across as different in tone from all that I was told and heard in the 1980s. In other words, in doing science you do science and not do as Christian Creationists and Intelligent Designists do. But that statement admits the possibility that the revelation for now and its authoritative interpreter may not be correct when it comes to actually doing the science.

However, this all meets limitations as regards the presentation of the Faith:

A particular tool of scholarly inquiry, for example, such as historical criticism,49 may be very useful in shedding light on aspects of the teachings. Yet, the scope of the validity of such tools is a topic of discussion even within academia. While they may have value to Bahá'ís engaged in scholarly study of the Faith, they cannot be blindly accepted as instruments that yield "scientific truth" and used to justify propositions that overturn explicit Bahá'í concepts presented in the authoritative texts.50 [18]

Such a limitation is not placed on Christian theologians; and it is by this route that one gets different understandings of Christianity and its origins. The Bahá’ís cannot allow such diversity. Yet diversity is a product of maturity and confidence.

There is clearly a struggle here for Bahá’ís, in that they face different standards of performance and expectation between their own faith and the scholarly community, and then if both have their own rules and findings the Bahá’ís then have the problem of relativism, which their faith of revelation is forced to reject:

An individual is usually a member of more than one community of practice, and therefore, is able to contribute to change within a particular practice by introducing new insights from others. Different practices are, however, not relativistic groupings free to occupy distinct realms each with their "own" truth, since insights are ultimately checked against reality and must, over time, yield to it. [18] ...we can gain insights from these practices and bring them into the Bahá'í community-to the degree that they are acceptable within the range of internal standards of the Bahá'í teachings.

There is a tension here. In a hundred years there may be less paranoia in the Bahá'í community, that is within its make-up, coming from having excommunicated so many competitors for leadership in its reasonably short history and its subsequent maintenance of uniformity from the time of Shogi Effendi. Old faiths do mature, they do produce schools, and there is competition. Faiths undergoing a lot of rapid change, including change in their environment, can crack when the speed of change increases and interconnections go across stress points (see a previous post). We are seeing this in Christianity now: Roman Catholicism papering over the cracks, and Anglicanism not doing so but finding parties separating and competing for supremacy.


Anonymous said...

An excellent and insightful article. As a member of a (relatively liberal) "minor Baha'i division," I appreciate the candor of your remarks and the accuracy of your observations. Be prepared for an onslaught of objections invoking esoteric talking points. Cheers.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Fascinating and tell me more. Which minor Bahai division is this - an older one, or a newer one? I'm aare of the Unitarians, the Free Bahais, what happened with the French...

Anonymous said...

Both old (originally Remeyite Orthodox) and new (reorganized as Tarbiyat Baha'i). Here are a couple of links:

The Haifan Baha'i do not recognize the existence of the Tarbiyat Community: members are regarded as apostates. That's the unity of religions for you!

An ecumenical concordat amongst the various divisions might make the Baha'i belief in unity a bit more ... ah, credible. Of course, if one insists that there are no Baha'i divisions (i.e., no independent movements as in Judaism) then there is nothing that needs to be recognized, though it seems there is always something that needs to not be recognized.

Anonymous said...

I thought is striking that Lample did not mention the possibility that the learned Bahai could be a servant.

The starting point seems to me to be ""Are they equal, those who know, and those who do not know?..." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, citing Quran 39:12). We *have* to start here because it is the inequality between those who know and those who do not that creates the issue in the first place. But we can also see that the person with a free dollar is not equal with the person who has no dollar to spare; the person with a wonderful singing voice is not the equal of the croaker.

That leads us immediately to the parable of the talents: the non-use of knowledge is not an option. And it seems to me that the proper use of the knowledge, the dollar or the talent is to help our fellows, most especially those in most need of whatever we have to offer.

If the 'talent' that we have to use for our fellows is knowledge specific to a religious community, one use for it will be to minister to the faithful - and especially those in the most need. That may mean simply teaching it to those who do not know: "First drink thou therefrom, and proffer it then to such as turn towards it amongst the peoples of all faiths."
(Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 56)

However when I think of the needy, whom knowledge can help, it is not the merely ignorant, but rather the conflicted, that I have in mind. There is no end to learning, and the process of learning is not a "problem" that needs to be ministered to. Ignorance is therefore a normal state, just as much as learning is. But intellectual conflicts, doubts, a feeling of internal contradiction about our own beliefs and committment -- this is a problem, and painful. This is where the person with specific religious knowledge may be able to help.

Very often such conflict comes because what our innate feeling for the good tells us is not in line with what we think "religious" teachings are. For instance, many believers walk around with a daily world-view which recognises that religion is not everything, while feeling that as believers, religion ought to be the ruling line (and passion) in every aspect of life. They know for instance that church and state have to be separated, that religion and scientific knowledge are two different things, that one cannot run a company on the basis of giving all to the needy -- but their religious world-view says that ideally religion should be everything to them and one religious ethic should govern all spheres of life. So they are conflicted: what they really do believe and act, what stands them in good stead in actually living in a complex and religiusly pluralist world, is not the same as what they think they ought to believe and feel. And they know in their hearts that they think religion tells them they ought to seek to realise in the world, would in fact never work in the world.

The problem in this case is not with religion as such, but with a religious world-view that was formed in another age, and no longer answers. There is a need for a postmodern religious world-view, that corresponds to the postmodern society we live in and, despite Lample, I do think that the learned-as-artist has a role to play in this.

Other internal conflicts are more particular. Pluralist has encountered the Bahai Faith and found the Bahais have "a Qur'anic attitude to the words of Bahá’u’lláh." But then if we look at the words of Baha'u'llah we find:

"The first and foremost testimony establishing His truth is His own
Self. Next to this testimony is His Revelation. For whoso faileth to
recognize either the one or the other He hath established the words
He hath revealed ... " (Gleanings p. 105)


"He Who is everlastingly hidden from the eyes of men can never be
known except through His Manifestation, and His Manifestation can
adduce no greater proof of the truth of His Mission than the proof
of His own Person." (Gleanings, Page: 49)

This looks like Roman Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox approaches to the relations between the Book and the Person, and it contrasts with mainstream Islamic theologies and with the more fundamentalist of Protestant theologies, in both of which the inerrancy of the text is so central to their agendas that they can be more like religions of the worship of the Book than 'religions of the Book.' So if one encounters Bahais with a Quranic attitude to their scripture, one can recognise this for what it is: reading the Bahai Faith within a protestant framework that is foreign to it, resulting in a tension. Once the tension is identified, it goes away. We see that while the Bahais might suffer from "twentieth century literalism", Baha'u'llah did not. So when your intuition told you that something was not right here, you were right.

So now I have offered this piece of knowledge that I had and you did not - which is no more than knowing where to find the relevant texts - to you and anyone else reading it, and perhaps it resolves a conflict for you. This is what I mean by using knowledge as a servant, to minister to the faithful.

I could go on with examples, relating to what you say you found in the Bahais you met, but I want to cut back to ""Are they equal, those who know, and those who do not know?..." and Lample's suggestions.

I think that the role of the servant is a better model for the learned believer than that of a scout, because the scout explores where he wants to go, and the servant helps people where they are.

In the first place, if we are talking about people with religious knowledge who write or speak about it (theologians), the theologies that start with where people are and where they are hurting are vastly more readable than those that report back on the territories that the scout found interesting. Scouting is a hobby for the private sphere: it is not the kind of service that a theologian offers to his or her community. Lively and effective theology is always pastoral.

In the second place, if we are not clear that our scouting is a hobby, and the real work is serving the community where it finds itself, we set up a trap of pride or frustration for ourselves, because we imagine we have some right to set the agenda.

If we are first clear that the function of religious knoweldge (theology) and of the theologian is to minister to the faithful, where they are and with whatever needs they have, then there is no need to make a priori rules about what this involves. It may involve artistic creativity. It may involve simple teaching, or pastoral work. It may involve archaelogical activity, in the form of text-critical and philological work that re-examines the those areas in which the Text seems to be teaching one thing, while the Spirit is telling us another. It may involve being the impartial, or critical, observer and reporter, for self-deception is the innevitable accompaniment of a misfit between what we think we ought and what we know is right. The one who cries that the king is in the altogether, the altogether, is also serving the community.

Sen McGlinn

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

You make a good case, and I suppose the scout and the servant is like the prophet and the pastoral. You are surely right, that this aspect is missing. He is talking about belief and education: but certainly any learning should come to one's own community to spread the benefit.

Whether ones own coming to a view matters or not, presumably the words of Baha'u'llah remain without error?

Yes I think there needs to be at least an understanding why postmodern/ relativist religion has relevance now, and some theologies to reflect this.


Thanks for the info on what happened to the Mason Remey Orthodox Bahais and how it developed to the Regents.

Sen McGlinn said...

you asked: "presumably the words of Baha'u'llah remain without error?"

The short answer is: how would we know? We never have the Revelation, we only have our understanding of it, and we can be sure that our understanding does contain errors. So how would we know whether the Revelation has errors, or not?

The longer answer is that `ismat or infallibility in Bahai theology is not like infallibility in the field of engineering, or inerrancy in Protestant views of the bible. I've discussed this a little in some postings at:

under 'i' for infallibility.
The essence of it is that, wherever infallibility is discussed in the Bahai writings, it seems to be about freedom: freedom to annul the past religious law and make a new one, in the case of the Manifestation.
But as Baha'u'llah himself says, the word has "numerous meanings and divers stations." (Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 108)

Sen McGlinn

Susan Maneck said...

I think you are distorting what Paul Lample said. He was not saying a Baha'i could not be an anthropologist, etc. Obviously some are and a few even study the Baha'i Faith from an anthropological standpoint. What he is talking about is the function of Baha'i scholarship *within* the Baha'i community, not the function of a Baha'i academic presenting the Baha'i Faith to the academic community. It is within this context that Paul Lample is urging Baha'is to be 'scouts' who break new ground.

Anonymous said...

Dear Pluralist,
I found your blog very interesting, it remembered me some articles which I read from a Shi'a mullah in Qom- Iran about the Baha'i faith.

thank you