Tuesday, 21 October 2008

More Bahai

After Anglican Evensong and some socialising on Sunday 19th, I spent quite a bit of time running around the Internet looking at some Bahai related websites and especially those of individuals. There is comment from Sen McGlinn here. He is one of those who has stayed loyal to Bahai believing despite being mysteriously removed from the rolls of believers by the Universal House of Justice (now with an interesting and definitely anti-uniformity view that pluralism is a sign of building the Kingdom of God). Another free-floating Bahá’í is Alison Marshall, and there is Eric Stetson who left the Bahai Faith for Christianity. He is interesting: with good material on the Bahá’ís, he's a chap who seems to dive in with both feet into a religion and then find a critical angle, as he is now doing with his Christian Universalism, though he gives statements that make assumptions about the historical Jesus I'd certainly challenge him about. His approach is different from mine: I am liberal and critical from the beginning.

This little reinvestigation gets more interesting as an update for me, because clearly the Universal House of Justice is losing it somewhere. There was the time of crisis, between 1957 and 1963, when the Bahai faith could not longer follow its expectation of a succession of family Guardians, because either Shoghi Effendi did not leave a will or some didn't like what they had read when going through his papers. Only the Guardian would have excommunicated people, and Shoghi Effendi knocked out quite a few, indeed left no one credible. A comment was made here someone of the Regents argument (Tarbiyat Community) that gets a kind of approval from Eric Stetson: there was no one who could be the Guardian, but the UHJ overreached itself beyond its intended powers, and really the Bahá’íis should have been like the Shia Muslims waiting for the return of the Hidden Twelfth Imam, in their case waiting for an eligible Effendi family descendent to take up the reins.

There does now seem to be a plethora of small groups, somewhat like the Judaea People's Front and the People's Front of Judaea etc.. There are those with different Guardians and those without, and those free floating. What seems to be coming from the UHJ is the various years-long plans that take account of the failure to recruit and retain. The education programmes are clearly strategies to retain, and in some cases to attract.

If, in a small faith, there is a large turnaround of people, in that they come in to the faith and then find themselves bored with the administration and fleeced for their money, then there are going to be quite a few people who retain the commitment of the faith, or at least discuss it knowledgably, and as leavers or removed start to change the very basis on which the faith exists. In the time of the Internet, every individual can be a publisher, and there are all kinds of ways to join up individuals. Clearly, with so many cats out of the bag, they can start to run around the streets with their own communities in their own ways.

My own view of Bahá’u’lláh is that he is an interesting man who made a transition of a faith stance from his appointed half-brother's militancy to peace via various religious sources, but rather claimed too much for himself (when he wasn't that original when you add it all up). There are the mistakes that rather upset this Islamic tradition of claiming infallibility, and I'm not sure that Sen McGlinn answers the point sufficiently, as if we don't know because we don't have the revelation but presumably Bahá’u’lláh does. The words should speak for themselves. Incidentally, I have a distrust of translations that by accident or design imitates the language style that appears in the Book of Mormon. The words ought not to have to rely on Shogi Effendi's strained olde worlde religioso English. Religious concepts are old enough without adding to the age-feel, like dropping old tea bags on paper. The real star of the show was Abbas Effendi or `Abdu'l-Bahá, a traveller in the West and who contradicted Bahá’u’lláh's own strictures against attending congregational gatherings: Friday prayers, synagogues, Unitarian and Christian congregations, and the like. As a charismatic figure he could, as a personality, break the rules and keep the factions together, whereas Shoghi Effendi as a lesser figure was a bureaucrat in a very Weberian sense. Abbas Effendi was even knighted.

So I suppose that, in adjusting my picture of the Bahá’í Faith, whilst the UHJ is the bigger strand, it is full of contradictions that come from its obsessive control of membership in an Administratiove Order, and its failures regarding its own adopted prophetic projections (no Great Peace, doesn't recruit as expected, losing a philosophical connection with advancing religious ideas elsewhere). The UHJ as it is will most likely produce a rather a tiny, failing religion, simply because people will leave either as ejected dissidents or via administrative boredom - and yet one with a future that might expand more organically outside of that frustrated core. In any case, it simply does not have the sheer intellectual and grounded resources that are available within Christianity, or Buddhism, or Hinduism, in the sense of development and it is missing a trick in not building them organically.

How could it be different? The Faith could just let be. The texts were produced from Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá, and that they are a value in themselves: they have clearly a strong spiritual impact, they represent a transition and a time and place even if they date quickly. So do all scriptures in Faiths (except where they are deliberately philosophical and abstract) and they become understood and used in various ways. To be a Bahá’í could be just a preference to use these scriptures and have Firesides and Feasts with a serving administration more transparent than the current layered-democratic centralism; perhaps, instead, a limited International Spiritual Assembly. Certainly there should be no censorship. It looks like, to me as an outsider, that the transition of 1957 to 1963 could be the Faith's long term undoing, and that it forgot about modesty and humility: but the seeds of such a bureaucratic approach of power was set by the first and only Guardian and possibly earlier during the First World War.


AdibM said...

I'd suggest reading Making the Crooked Straight by Udo Schaefer, it's a hefty book on Baha'i apologetics that addresses many of the qualms you've covered in this post.

Take care,

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Published by George Ronald, that was set up to distribute approved Baha'i texts. This is the problem, that the faith institutions have a system of approval over what subscribing Baha'is write. So people are suspicious: nor do I like the term "pseudo-academic attacks" as a defence. There are numerous people now who do academic work and these are neither attacks nor approvals. They just examine.

Anonymous said...

Another spot-on post.

My own view is that Baha'u'llah was a brilliant synthesiser and an archetypal Trickster (a pivotal figure) who initiated an eruption of spiritual insight and a regeneration of religious life. The first (and maybe only) post-modern shape-shifter messiah so to speak. That he is also the Manifestation of God for this age does not necessarily contradict this.

But the liberal and critical approach does not sit well with Baha'is (many of whom seem to have internalised the authoritarian defensiveness of the Faith). Baha'u'llah has become a plaster saint: suggest that he might on occasion have had some dictatorial tendencies or control issues and even the most "liberal" Baha'is will pounce. The inviolability of the idol is sacrosanct.

I will also mention (previous to your comments that the Baha'is have no time for homosexual relationships) that unlike the mainstream Baha'i community, the Tarbiyat Community welcomes homosexual singles and couples without preconditions. The way one lives one's life, regardless of sexual orientation or personal relationship status, is what matters. One should be known as a Baha'i who lives a life dedicated to the unity and betterment of mankind.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Yes, some people are like a hinge or bridge, that take hold of a faith at a time of crisis, make something other of it (or initiate) and then allows others that follow to shape and recommend. A Paul needs a Jesus but it takes a Paul to make a Jesus expand out of a local situation, and it takes an `Abdu'l-Bahá to make a Bahá’u’lláh. But after that comes tradition and formulation that is institutional.

kaweah said...

Hey Pluralist,

Welcome to the fray! Grab a pie!

The Baha'i Faith has attracted many people with a rather liberal message, and Adib reminds me that it is not the only religion that proceeds to capture those same converts with a barbed hook called "Authority". Those who comply worship an idol they call Unity, and with all the bureaucracy, the whole scene smells of the inspiring unity message of Mao and Stalin; but unity without power is no threat, so no worries. Move on. -Dan (rather biased Baha'i apostate)

AdibM said...

Adrian, I'm not sure if you're aware of the context in which Making the Crooked Straight was written, but it was done so in response to a roughly 400-page German work by a Swiss ex-Baha'i, self-proclaimed "embittered enemy of the Faith". He asserts a lot of the things that you and many other non-Baha'is (and ex-Baha'is) do, especially with regard to the Universal House of Justice, and Schaefer properly addresses all of those points. Why does it matter who published the work if it responds to the raised concerns accurately?

AdibM said...

And another note on Baha'i review, know that its purpose is threefold:

1. To ensure the accuracy of the presentation of the teachings of the Faith.

"The function of reviewing is, essentially, to check the Author's exposition of the Bahá'í Faith and its teachings, which may include verification of any quotations from Bahá'í writings. This function should not be confused with evaluation of the literary merit of a work or of its value as a publication, which are normally the prerogative of the publisher..." (The Universal House of Justice: from a letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the British Isles, March 11, 1965, reproduced in Lights of Guidance, p. 101.)

2. To protect the Faith from misrepresentation by its own followers.

"... The purpose of review is to protect the Faith against misrepresentation by its own followers at this early stage of its existence when comparatively few people have any knowledge of it. An erroneous presentation of the Teachings by a Bahá'í who is accounted a scholar, in a scholarly journal, would by that very fact, do far more harm than an erroneous presentation made by an obscure Bahá'í author with no pretensions to scholarship." (From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, October 8, 1980 reproduced in Lights of Guidance, p. 101.)

3. To ensure dignity of the form.

"It is an obligation of all Bahá'ís to present the faith in a dignified manner and therefore when writing articles about the Faith they should take into consideration the type of magazine or other publication in which the article is to appear. Should there be any question about its character they should consult with the National Spiritual Assembly. In addition, all authors should bear in mind that anything written about the Faith for publication is subject to review before submission to the publishers." (The Universal House of Justice: from a letter written to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, September 15, 1968 reproduced in Lights of Guidance, p. 101.)

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

This notion of misrepresenting a faith. We all do it! Everyone sees different angles and some push boundaries. Faiths are not written in stone, they are about what we do not know. Well some like authority to breathe over them, and constrain, but in the end all it does is creates dissidents who, in a free society, continue as they were.

Denominations developed in the Reformation because they received political support at a time when there was little religious freedom, but now there is religious freedom in these parts of the world, yet the UHJ behaves as if it can just monitor and control. There is something called trust, something called allowing people to make mistakes, and there is debate including for when mistakes are made. What the UHJ proposes and acts upon is hardly a New Jerusalem, is it? It looks like institutional fear.

kaweah said...

Hi again Adrian,

Just a weee bit more ...

What drove me from the Baha'i Faith more than anything was, under all its flowery and grandiose language, its intrinsic contempt for man. I'm no Christian, but I'll take original sin over utter blindness any day:

"Regard men as a flock of sheep that need a shepherd for their protection. This, verily, is the truth, the certain truth. We approve of liberty in certain circumstances, and refuse to sanction it in others. We, verily, are the All-Knowing."

--Baha'u'llah's "Most Holy Book"

Man's complete dependence on constant divine authority is the underpinning of the Baha'i "Covenant" as well as the Baha'i doctrine of "progressive revelation". It is fundamental to the religion, and quite naturally constricts the liberality out of its adherents.


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I have little time for progressive revelation as a concept. It assumes a kind of evolution of revelation, that it gets better and better. But there is no such yardstick available. So much revelation is human religious culture anyway: I think there is a clearer and simpler explanation for Baha'i concepts via human religious culture. And such is good enough, whether one believes that there is some mystery behind all this kind of material or not.

Priscilla said...

Greetings. I might quibble with a few details here and there, but overall I think you call it pretty well.

Susan Maneck said...

You need to do some fact-checking.

I don't know where you got the idea that the Guardian left a will but people didn't like what it said. Even those who imagine Mason Remey as the Guardian's successor, don't argue that he left a will. As for only the Guardian having the right to excommunicate people, I suggest that you read the Will and Testament of Abdu'l-Baha which clearly states the Hands of the Cause of God are supposed to do this. The Guardian only temporarily took this role upon himself.

Anonymous said...

Dear Pluralist,
Please read more about the Baha'i Faith, and also history of the other religions.

And I want to know about what do you mean by: "Comment moderation has been enabled. All comments must be approved by the blog author"?!!!

thank you