Monday 10 November 2008

Conversational Study

I am very grateful to Priscilla Gilman for her comment on my recent Episcopal Café entry (which amounted to a correction of detail) and, as a result, finding her two blogs, one more personal and one directed at Baha'i matters. It is called Baha'i the Way, which gave me a little giggle. The latter is rich with detail that would grace any test of validity in social science research, in that she has been deeply into the Baha'i community over some twelve years, learnt all about its ways and means, and has since freely withdrawn. For a change, I'll use her own image, where she sees a resemblance between her and the early caligrapher Mishkin-Qalam.

She has provided some links that show how the top heavy system works: that the Universal House of Justice itself chooses the small pool of individuals from which its own future members are drawn, and there are similar conserving results at lower levels.

Here is one report and explanation that looks at the latest UHJ line up at Baha'i Rants.

The more general lesson emerging all the time is that an administration of a faith cannot be confused with the faith itself. When it is, the members of the faith will spill out. I'm pleased to see independent publishing too, and names that I have come across before that appear again. We make a mistake if (in Christian terms) the Church becomes the religion. What is heartening is how the Baha'i Faith is becoming established by individuals outside of the administration (though Priscilla herself is now attends The Episcopal Church).

I find her own blogs very warm as well as enlightening. She reproduces words by the Baha'i scholar R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram that shows Abdu'l-Baha in a very human and yet still charismatic light. He was a very touchy-feely person with others, and did attract women to him, though he behaved himself throughout. Some women desired to be the mother of a possible and rumoured third manifestation born in the USA, which combines religious and sexual fantasies if nothing does. He would involve himself in horseplay with men. He did know some dirty jokes in Turkish too, which makes the man more human. All this underlines the fact that it was Abdu'l-Baha who had the main impact in the West, though he was not the manifestation but the son of - the Bab was the first and Baha'u'llah the second (according to the Baha'i myth).

Priscilla herself makes the important point that the Baha'i ethic does not allow one to see the bad in someone else, but to have a rounded view you should see the whole character. And to be suspicious is to be protective. The administration does the dirty work of having a poor view of someone, and then ejects them from the faith - though she wonders how many abusers might it have ejected when it ejects those Baha'is inactive gay relationships. This binary tendency in the Baha'i Faith also extends to what is religious and a duty (laid out by the administration and its plans) and what is just a secular chore. Not so: most faiths realise that the mundane is also the religious, that even doing the washing up is a religious task.

All these problems can be ironed out if the Faith becomes independent, open to critical scrutiny and, one has to say, removing the notion of infallibility from manifestations and seats of authority. Abdu'l-Baha himself, she points out, rejected evolution whilst insisting on the lack of conflict between religion and science. He was infallible, apparently. Well he was wrong. As she says:

Dance around with ‘Abdu’l Bahá’s other words and a grab bag of philosophical and scientific ideas all you want (as some writers have done), but to reject the evolution of novel species from other species is to reject evolution; that is what evolution is.

Indeed it is. The paradox is this: scrap infallibility, and say turn the Universal House of Justice into an International Spiritual Assembly, and the contents of the faith - its origins, the evolution of its core messages, its timeliness and its mistakes - begin to look interesting. As it is, as Priscilla states, the current [infallibly expected] Entry by Troops isn't happening to the Baha'i Faith but to the Pentecostal and similar end of the Christian faith in developing countries.

Very good blogs all round. Oh and I appreciate Andrew's comment (as just discovered) about my previous entry.


Anonymous said...

I can see that if "infallible" means "always propositionally correct" then it is a barrier. But that does not seem to be what Baha'u'llah means by the term. He says it has "numerous meanings and divers stations." (Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 108). In his use of the term, and Abdu'l-Baha's, it always seems to relate to being beyond criticism: the Manifestation brings new laws and cannot be criticised for changing the law of God, since that is his function, when the law needs changing. The UHJ is beyond criticism, and this is related to its ability to change its own decisions - but it is not authorised to change what is revealed.

There's more on this at

One passage that really throws a light on the "infallibility means never being wrong" supposition is this, from Shoghi Effendi:

"Though the Guardian of the Faith has been made the permanent head of so august a body he can never, even temporarily, assume the right of exclusive legislation. He cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members, but is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Bahá'u'lláh's revealed utterances. He interprets what has been specifically revealed, and cannot legislate ...
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 150)

This envisions a situation in which the UHJ makes an enactment, the Guardian thinks that it contrary to the letter or spirit of the Bahai teachings (which means, it is contrary to the teachings) -- and the ruling nevertheless stands. The UHJ has authority to make rulings that are contrary to Bahai teachings. Once again, we see that infallibility is related to being elevated above criticism.

I don't think that means being elevated above discussion. If the UHJ made a ruling contrary to Bahai teachings because it knew no better, that could be discussed, the Guardian if he was present could point it out. But if in the end the UHJ feels that the decision is necessary (as for example Bahai review is felt to be a necessity, although admittedly contrary to the teachings) then that is the decision.

This resembles a rule in Islamic law: "necessity makes legitimacy." It means that what is otherwise forbidden may be permitted when necessity requires it. The practical administration of a community in a contingent world cannot be 100% ideal, it is often a matter of making least-worst choices.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your appreciation of my mention of your nine theses.

Since the number nine is regarded as sacred in the Baha'i Faith, may one assume that you are a crypto-Baha'i?

I also made mention of your Episcopal Cafe entry on Baha'i Rants, as I believe there are lessons for Baha'is in their lessons for Christians; but my opinion is very much a minority one.

Your comment on the closed hermeneutic circles that seek to preserve Christologies from open scrutiny is equally applicable to the Baha'i Faith. In his book "Misquoting Jesus," Bart Ehrman specifically discusses the anger of Jesus in relation to the leper who sought to be healed. Unfortunately, most Baha'i believers (enrolled or otherwise) brook no criticism of the central figures of the Baha'i Faith; they remain sacrosanct plaster saints, above criticism and reproach, an attitude which reflects the internalized authoritarianism of the Faith.

I am comfortable with a Manifestation of caprices and contradictions; attempts to frame a harmony of the Writings (or the Gospels, for that matter) seem reactionary and defensive at best.

However, having come from a familial and religious background of Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism (both Western and Eastern rites), one text I can unreservedly recommend is "Paradise and Paradigm: Key Symbols in Persian Christianity and the Baha'i Faith" by Christopher Buck (distributed by Kalimat Press); it is truly a bridge-building book.

I also appreciate your admiration for John A. T. Robinson. Twenty years ago, I presented a paper to the religious studies department of a Catholic university on Jesus becoming a window into God, as Robinson puts it in his "Honest to God." The Jesuit Order of Canada later rewarded me with an academic prize in Theology for my heresy.

I'm afraid I've been too contaminated by other views through other windows to be much of a True Believer in anything. Faith, for me, is a process hypothesis that requires an indulgence of doubt along with a trust in the unsettling Otherness of existence itself.



Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Apologies for the slow updating of comments.

Nothing is beyond criticism - criticism (and discussion) is a means to make decisions, and criticism can often reverse decisions.

I'm not a crypto-Baha'i: such correspondence is pure accident, and I think I am quite contaminated too across the board.