Teaching vs. Proselytizing: UHJ Letter

bahai-teach-or-proselytizeA while back we talked about the difference between teaching and proselytizing. This is becoming more and more of an issue as Baha’is are being prodded to use more “direct” teaching methods. These involve going door to door in neighborhoods – something which we, at one point, were proud that we didn’t do.

27 years ago someone was concerned about this and wrote to the Universal House of Justice. And they wrote back the better below. By the way, if you have a question for the UHJ, you can easily email them using this email address: secretariat @ bwc [dot] org

The first part deals with the question but it also veers off into a discussion of the Covenant and the difference between interpretation and legislation. I’m assuming that the questioner brought these topics forward, otherwise, it is a stretch to link them to the question of proselytizing vs. teaching.

It is also interesting that at the end of the letter, the House of Justice says:

For this reason a number of points are not expressed in the, National Baha’i Constitution (the Declaration of Trust and By-Laws of National Assemblies); these are left to each National Spiritual Assembly to decide for itself.

When in fact, the document in question was changed in recent history (from its previous wording) to disallow National Spiritual Assemblies from instituting such changes as term limits.

In any case, here is the complete letter:

The Universal House of Justice
The Bah??’?­ World Centre
3 January 1982

To an individual Baha’i

Dear Baha’i Friend,
The Universal House of Justice has received your letter and has asked us to assure you that you should feel no diffidence in raising the sort of questions that you have expressed. It seems clear from your letter that you have been greatly attracted to the Message of Baha’u’llah and have accepted His Faith before, as you say, becoming “fully committed,” and are, therefore, now having to face and resolve problems that many believers overcome before they declare their faith. The House of justice urges you not to let it worry you. All through life Baha’is are faced with tests of many kinds, and problems and doubts, but it is through facing and overcoming them that we grow spiritually.

On the particular issues that you raise, the House of Justice has instructed us to send you the following comments.

Teaching vs. Proselytizing
It is true that Baha’u’llah lays on every Baha’i the duty to teach His Faith. At the same time, however, we are forbidden to proselytize, so it is important for all believers to understand the difference between teaching and proselytizing. It is a significant difference and, in some countries where teaching a religion is permitted, but proselytizing is forbidden, the distinction is made in the law of the land. Proselytizing implies bringing undue pressure to bear upon someone to change his Faith. It is also usually understood to imply the making of threats or the offering of material benefits as an inducement to conversion. In some countries mission schools or hospitals, for all the good they do, are regarded with suspicion and even aversion by the local authorities because they are considered to be material inducements to conversion and hence instruments of proselytization.
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Naw Ruz Message – Year 166

To the Baha’is of the World

This Naw-Ruz marks the centenary of one of the outstanding events in the Apostolic Age of the Baha’i Dispensation, the interment by ‘Abdu’l-Baha of the sacred remains of the Bab in their permanent resting place on God’s holy mountain. In the words of Abdu’l-Baha: “The most joyful tidings is this, that the holy, the luminous body of the Bab …after having for sixty years been transferred from place to place, by reason of the ascendancy of the enemy, and from fear of the malevolent, and having known neither rest nor tranquility has, through the mercy of the Abha Beauty, been ceremoniously deposited, on the day of Naw-Ruz, within the sacred casket, in the exalted Shrine on Mt. Carmel.”

In commemoration of that triumph of the Cause, the members of the Universal House of Justice, accompanied by the members of the International Teaching Centre, have today offered prayers of thanksgiving in the Shrine of the Bab on behalf of the worldwide Baha’i community, expressing gratitude for the unfailing divine protection vouchsafed to the Cause of God. In their solemn contemplation, their hearts were stirred as they recalled the indelible image of the Master left to posterity when, on this day a hundred years ago, having with His own hands laid that peerless Trust in its final place of repose, He rested His head upon the edge of the blessed casket of the Bab, and “sobbing aloud, wept with such a weeping that all those who were present wept with Him”. They remembered, too, the manifold obstacles with which He had been confronted in constructing this sacred edifice and His unbounded relief at having accomplished one of the principal objectives of His Ministry.

naw-ruz-spring-flower-blossom

A century ago, the Faith was emerging from a period of severe crisis during which the incarceration of ‘Abdu’l-Baha by His inveterate antagonists in the Ottoman Empire had been renewed, a grievous assault on the unity of the Cause had been launched by the Covenant-breakers, and an upsurge in the persecution of the heroic Persian believers had produced a fresh wave of sacrifice. In the immediate future there lay dazzling victories. The strenuous and fate-laden journeys of ‘Abdu’l-Baha to the western world would release incalculable spiritual powers destined to give rise to unprecedented progress of the Faith in the American and European continents He visited. The Tablets of the Divine Plan would set in motion processes designed to bring about, in due course, the spiritual transformation of the planet. The Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Baha would establish the basis for a future world order.

Today the Cause of God is again confronted by cruel and relentless opponents seeking in vain to eradicate it in the land of its birth. However, this is occurring in a world far different from that of a hundred years ago, when the Faith was largely unknown and its defenders were few. From all parts of the world the followers of Baha’u’llah appeal for justice, while providing, in the example of their lives, compelling evidence of the absurdity of the accusations leveled against their Iranian brethren. In this appeal they are joined by fair-minded people of all backgrounds, including thousands of Iranians who express their concern at the denial of the human rights of their Baha’i compatriots.

The sacrifices of the Bab and the dawn-breakers of the Cause are yielding abundant fruit. Energized and confident, the followers of the Greatest Name throughout the world have mobilized their resources in a vast and concerted endeavour to offer the healing balm of Baha’u’llah’s Teachings to the multitudes of humanity. The magnificent progress achieved over the past century demonstrates the invincible power with which the Cause is endowed. It is but a portent of the ultimate realization of the oneness of humankind.

The Universal House of Justice

You can find the Naw Ruz letter from the House, here– translated in Persian and French – along with other relevant documents, reports and academic papers.

If Infallible, Why Do We Need to Elect the UHJ?

You know, I’m really blessed to have such amazing participants here. Although I may not agree with everyone, I’m thankful that each one of you is here, contributing your thoughts and asking some fascinating questions.

Once in a while, a question or comment is so thought provoking that it merits more than a simple reply from me but an attempt, no matter how feeble, to give it the exposition it deserves. So for that purpose (as well as to give it a relevant thread of its own, as the original blog post was on another subject), here is the featured question…

universal-house-of-justice-infallible

Curiousasked:

My first question is why is there a need to go through an election for UHJ members if the complete Baha’i congregation is not suppose to question the UHJ decisions? In other words, if everyone is meant to assume that everything the UHJ does is absolutely correct, what is the logic in reelecting the members. Wouldn’t it just be obvious that the same members are kept in all the time? Shouldn’t the election just be for the case when a position opens on the UHJ? So why do the Writings call for elections?

After receiving a non-answer, Curious tried again:

I understand the UHJ members get old and tired and resign. That leaves a vacancy which I understand needs an election to fill. My question is why the need to reelect every 5 years (I believe)? If these 9 men are infallible on a collective level in their arbitration, why do they need to be reexamined via election? How does this create stability? It seems very time consuming and costly. And in the end aren’t they usually reelected anyway? So why did the Master and Guardian call for reelection? What is the true purpose?

Before I try to answer this question, let me say that the Baha’i community is starved today for such thinking and such questioning. We need less and less Baha’i Ruhi-style, spoonfed “answers” and more thought expanding questions. Compare and contrast the 1970’s LA Class‘ penchant for questions and Ruhi’s fetish for “answers”. Sigh.

For Pete’s sake! As Baha’is we have a whole month named after them… but how often do we really devote time and mental space to explore really good questions? Not enough. This is the biggest mistake that Baha’is make.

Now to attempt an answer. First, the Universal House of Justice is infallible, only under certain conditions. For example, we have guidance from Abdu’l-Baha regarding means by which the UHJ should come about and function. If those conditions and prerequisites are discarded, that is, if the process isn’t followed, then the result lacks the intended meaning.

Second, I don’t believe in the infallibility that you don’t believe in. By that I mean that probably the second biggest mistake that Baha’is make is to misunderstand the meaning of infallibility. This, no doubt, stems from the first mistake – for had they actually questioned and investigated, they would most assuredly find the truth. In actuality, “infallibility” does not mean “factual inerrancy”. Anyone who attempts to argue otherwise is not only ignoring simple logic but the Baha’i Writings themselves.

For a tongue-in-cheek reductio ad absurdum exposition see: Magic 8 Ball or a dart board for “infallible” decision making. But Curious‘ question takes things to another level by asking, if this body is “infallible” then why hold elections? Brilliant.

The reason why Curious‘ question is so useful is that if we are to attempt a real answer, it pulls away the superficial assumptions that we may have and forces us to really try to understand what is at the heart of the Baha’i Administration.

Yes, it is true that the UHJ membership for the vast majority, has been a life-long affair. At one point members were not even allowed to resign due to health or age but actually served until death. That has thankfully changed and we recently saw two members resign to enter retirement. However, this brings us to another issue. That the membership of the UHJ has come from a narrow subset of the Baha’i community. Even more damaging, this subset is itself appointed by the UHJ. So in effect we have the UHJ choosing candidates by appointing them to the ITC and then these (male) members of the ITC are elected to replace retiring UHJ members. This closed system is an accurate description of the current state of the Baha’i leadership but it doesn’t mean that it was meant to be this way, nor that this is ideal.

In fact, most recognize that this is detrimental to the well-being of the worldwide Baha’i community. For the past 20 or so years we are witness to an ossification at the highest levels. But who do we have to blame? Ourselves. We are the ones that elect the same members of the LSA over and over again. We are the ones that send the same Baha’is, year in, year out, to be delegates. Furthermore, this is clearly not what Abdu’l-Baha intended since the appointed arm and the elected arm of the BA were delineated in duty and responsibility, as well as authority, with no overlap whatsoever.

Finally, to return to some semblance of brevity: the Baha’i Writings call for regular elections because the purpose of the UHJ is the highest in the world – that of servitude.

Related Previous Discussions:
The Concept of Infallibility in the Baha’i Faith
Is the Universal House of Justice Infallible? (Part I)
Is the Universal House of Justice Infallible? (Part II)
Individual Conscience Within the Baha’i Faith
Meditations on Baha’u’llah: Infallibility 1
Meditations on Baha’u’llah: Infallibility 2
Meditations on Baha’u’llah: Infallibility 3
He cannot override…
Commentary on the Divine Unity

Rainn Wilson’s Soulpancake on Oprah

If you haven’t been following the launch of Rainn Wilson‘s new website, soulpancake.com then you haven’t missed much because up until today it wasn’t more than a sign-up page. But now, it is finally here and you can signup, join, and take part in the conversation.

Rainn Wilson’s aim is to create a place to really delve into spirituality, religion and all those questions about God, the meaning of life, the universe, everything…

Here is Part 1 of his sit down interview with Oprah to introduce the site and the inspiration for this project (the Baha’i Faith):


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LA Class Newsletter [#35]

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My Notes:

This next installment of the LA Class deals with the aftermath of the letter written by Dr. Denis MacEoin regarding the ineffective outreach of the Faith and its flirtation with irrelevancy to an ever advancing world.

There are a wide variety of reactions so I’ll let you read them for yourself. But once again, I’m simply floored by how much time has stood still within the Baha’i community. If no one told me, I would never imagine that this discussion had taken place 30 years ago. Enjoy.

If this is your first newsletter, you can read the introduction to the LA study class, here.

On with the 70’s class . . .

[START DOCUMENT]

[Ed. personal address removed]

Vol. IV, No. 2
February, 1979

Denis MacEoin’s remarkable and outspoken indictment of misplaced emphasis in the Baha’i Community which he characterized as growth fixation, socially irrelevant and politically naive received both grim agreement and some angry opposition during the lengthy January 28, meeting of our class. At this point, we suggest that you re-read the letter which appeared in the last newsletter.

As the discussion began, Tony Lee expressed the view that Baha’i Communities have two responsibilities. The first of these is to insure their own survival by bringing in new members and ordering their own community life. The second of these is to actively work to assist their fellow men. This active concern for society, however, is usually ignored or forgotten as communities concentrate on developing their own internal structure.
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