Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Wider Significance?

This very good continuing account of Baha'i history might just have wider significance for Anglicans. If anyone wants to know why I have been opposed to a formal Covenant in Anglicanism from the off, this is reason number two, after reason number one, which is that I have always been a credal minimalist (by which means either zero creeds or made ineffective).

The basic concept that is at stake in the dispute between conservative/ fundamentalist and liberal/ reform-oriented Bahais is what the Haifan tradition calls "the Covenant" - the idea that Bahaullah supposedly intended to found a religion led by infallible successors and a religious "Administrative Order" claiming to be perfect, free from error, and forbidden to be challenged on any issue. Any Bahai who has ever argued that this was not the true intention of Bahaullah for the Bahai faith - that he really meant for his religion to evolve in a more free-spirited fashion and for its leaders to be more humble in their claims - has either intentionally or unintentionally been supporting the position first articulated by the man whom Haifan Bahais consider the "Arch-breaker of the Covenant": Mirza Muhammad Ali, Ghusn-i-Akbar. It may be useful for this reality to be openly discussed, so that everyone involved in Bahaism will know where they really stand and act accordingly with boldness and conviction.

Covenants work like this: they exclude. In effect, Anglicans supporting the Covenant are supporting the concept of Covenant Breakers.

Ghusn-i-Akbar's or Muhammad Ali's group were called 'The Unitarians' on the basis (I understand - this may be incomplete) that they were People of the Book. Isn't that interesting - that they achieved this title based on a scriptural principle (regarding Bahaullah's writings) rather than having absolute authority in the next leader, on a sort of Shia Islam/ papal principle. Early Unitarians were also people of the Bible, that they read it straight up and could not find the doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible, or indeed an expressly evangelical view of atonement as doctrine. Not that this bothers most Unitarians now, whose view of faith is more about difference together and acts as a gospel of getting on in the world.


Anonymous said...

We are of one mind. I admire the Unitarian Bahais a great deal. I hope their time has arrived. Please help to keep the world informed of their progressive nature and rational mindset. Keep up the good work.

California, USA

Eric Stetson said...

Thank you for this interesting article. I think the concept of "covenant" is highly significant to people of all religions, and the way that most Bahais interpret their own religious covenant with God is a classic example of how the concept can be misused and produce damaging results.

Most Bahais believe that their religion has a covenant with God in which God will always provide a source of infallible religious authority for Bahais to follow (i.e. the successors of the Bahai prophet and/or their supreme religious institution, the Universal House of Justice), and in return Bahais must always agree with and obey this source of authority. The problem with this model of the divine-human relationship is that it assumes that God wants human beings to be obedient automatons, rather than independent thinkers questioning, searching for truth, and advancing on our spiritual journey according to an organic process of making our own mistakes and discoveries.

As a result, the organization that the vast majority of Bahais belong to is beset by an obsession with authority and an unhealthy skepticism of individual initiative and experimentation. This is the direct result of the doctrine Bahais call "the Covenant." Indeed, any religion that believes it has a special covenant with God that is the source of its leaders' legitimacy is likely to suffer from the same problem.

What Unitarian Bahais are doing in questioning the conservative Bahai notion of the Covenant has the potential to move Bahaism forward in a way that the covenantally-bound Haifan Bahai tradition never could. Adherents of other religions could similarly benefit from movements that reject rigid notions of covenantal authority, as this rejection is the very thing that enables necessary change and progress in religion.