Change is a Law of Nature

Sarah Brown, wife of the British Prime Minister took part in the London Pride march. Photograph copyrighted 2009, Marco SecchiLondon July 4th 2009: Sarah Brown, wife of the British Prime Minister took part the London Pride March. This photo is used with permission by photographer, © Marco Secchi 2008.

One of the most beautiful aspects of the Baha’i Writings in my view is that religious law can be flexible and adapt.

“The second classification or division comprises social laws and regulations applicable to human conduct. This is not the essential spiritual quality of religion. It is subject to change and transformation according to the exigencies and requirements of time and place.”

(Address by Abdu’l Baha Abbas before Congregation Emmanu-El, San Francisco, Cal.
(Martin A. Meyer, Rabbi) Saturday, October 12, 1912.
– Star of the West, Vol. 3, No. 13, p. 3)

Abdu’l-Baha places principles such as justice and equality into the first classification, as part of what all religion is concerned with and which does not change. By “second classificiation” Abdu’l-Baha is referring to daily practices that are to some degree related to social conditions while being based on principles in the first classification such as justice and equality.

Times are changed, and the need and fashion of the world are changed. Interference with creed and faith in every country causes manifest detriment, while justice and equal dealing towards all peoples on the face of the earth are the means whereby progress is effected.

(Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 87)

While in London last month, I was reminded of the nature of change when I saw this photograph on the front pages of a newspaper and then read the accompanying article, about a public apology by the leader of the Tory party for past support for Section 28.

Section 28 (a ban on councils and schools promoting homosexuality as a valid lifestyle) was axed in 2003, but it was introduced in the 1980s under a Tory government which is why this apology is so significant. The words quoted in various newspapers were: “I’m sorry for Section 28. We got it wrong. It was an emotional issue. We have got to move on and we have moved on,”

Laws and statutes of governments civil and federal are in process of change and transformation. Sciences and arts are being moulded anew. Thoughts are metamorphosed. The foundations of human society are changing and strengthening.

(Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 228)

Seeing this image of the Prime Minister’s wife, Sarah Brown and another photograph of the Prime Minister meeting with Stonewall (they work to reduce homophobic bullying in schools), also part of the UK Gay Pride celebrations, gave me hope to think one day the Baha’i community could change too. Change enough so that gay Bahais wouldn’t lose their voting rights for doing what heterosexuals do: marry. We have a long way to go but that doesn’t mean that I have to give up.

The morals of humanity must undergo change. New remedies and solutions for human problems must be adopted. Human intellects themselves must change and be subject to the universal reformation. Just as the thoughts and hypotheses of past ages are fruitless today, likewise dogmas and codes of human invention are obsolete and barren of product in religion. Nay, it is true that they are the cause of enmity and conducive to strife in the world of humanity; war and bloodshed proceed from them, and the oneness of mankind finds no recognition in their observance. Therefore, it is our duty in this radiant century to investigate the essentials of divine religion, seek the realities underlying the oneness of the world of humanity and discover the source of fellowship and agreement which will unite mankind in the heavenly bond of love. This unity is the radiance of eternity, the divine spirituality, the effulgence of God and the bounty of the Kingdom. We must investigate the divine source of these heavenly bestowals and adhere unto them steadfastly. For if we remain fettered and restricted by human inventions and dogmas, day by day the world of mankind will be degraded, day by day warfare and strife will increase and satanic forces converge toward the destruction of the human race.

(Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 144)

A few months ago my gay Baha’i brother Daniel Orey received a letter from his NSA which began with “It is with deep sadness that the National Spiritual Assembly has learned that you openly married your male companion in a same sex marriage ceremony…” further on the letter states that the National Spiritual Assembly has no choice but to remove his Baha’i membership rights because of his marriage and of his “support of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle for Baha’is”.

All are one people, one nation, one species, one kind. The common interest is complete equality; justice and equality amongst mankind are amongst the chief promoters of empire and the principal means to the extension of the skirt of conquest. …Times are changed, and the need and fashion of the world are changed… …justice and equal dealing towards all peoples on the face of the earth are the means whereby progress is effected.

(Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 87)

So how can I respond to this as a Baha’i myself who believes that homosexuals are as equal as heterosexuals with the same rights and responsibilities? Daniel is one of the few gay Baha’is who has not been afraid to be honest and open. I don’t blame gay Baha’is who have partners in secret and admittedly if a heterosexual couple married as Daniel did, they might lose their voting rights as well, because he didn’t get his parents’ permission and hence couldn’t have a Baha’i ceremony. But I’ll stick to two points made in the NSA’s letter, because they seem to be the reason for his loss of his voting rights: “same sex ceremony” and “support of homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle for Baha’is.”

It should also be borne in mind that the machinery of the Cause has been so fashioned, that whatever is deemed necessary to incorporate into it in order to keep it in the forefront of all progressive movements, can, according to the provisions made by Bah??’u’ll??h, be safely embodied therein.

(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 22-23)

The topic of equality for homosexuals in the Bahai community often ends up with individuals getting emotional on one side or the other and there ends the dialogue. My attempt here is to see what we can do to move forward on this discussion because I do believe that the Bahai Teachings are for all of humanity and so far haven’t found anything in the Bahai Writings to contradict this. So as a Bahai I continue. This is an important issue for Baha’is to discuss, because, for example, in my own country, the Netherlands, it would be breaking the law to discriminate against homosexuals. I’m not suggesting for one minute that Dutch Law supercedes Baha’i Law, but we need to think about the issues involved in applying Baha’i principles in a changing world.

There’s obedience to one’s country on one hand. There’s the principle of equality. There’s the discussion about just what is the nature of marriage in the Bahai Writings? I would like to base this discussion on what is in the Writings, rather than what we have been told or heard is a Bahai Teaching. My attempt is not a protest nor any attempt to change any Baha’i Adiministration’s policy. My goal here is for a debate on this based on the Baha’i Writings because, I argue, if the Baha’i Teachings are so great, then we will find the answer by applying the Baha’i principles of justice and equality. We don’t need to pretend nor see it as a mystery, we can use science as our aid.

In various places Abdul-Baha states science is a way of keeping religion in balance as much as science needs ethics. And so back to my original thoughts on this topic: the theme of change as a principle of nature.

Science is the discoverer of the past. From its premises of past and present we deduce conclusions as to the future. Science is the governor of nature and its mysteries, the one agency by which man explores the institutions of material creation. All created things are captives of nature and subject to its laws. They cannot transgress the control of these laws in one detail or particular. The infinite starry worlds and heavenly bodies are nature’s obedient subjects. The earth and its myriad organisms, all minerals, plants and animals are thralls of its dominion. But man through the exercise of his scientific, intellectual power can rise out of this condition, can modify, change and control nature according to his own wishes and uses. Science, so to speak, is the breaker of the laws of nature.

(Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 29)

Here is my suggestion for a debate on this topic in the hope of creating an atmosphere of consultative dialogue from various viewponts. To break up the discussion on the topic of homosexuality into several topics so we could see what we can learn from each other. Topics I thought I should try for in later blogs are “the nature of marriage” and “science and religion.” Suggestions for other topics are welcome.

This topic is on the theme of “change”, what is the role of this in the Baha’i Teachings and practice? How does this relate to the Baha’i Writings which don’t change (the fact that they are authenticated and written and seen as Scripture)? And other Writings that are important such as Letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi? What Baha’i principles favour the acceptance of same-sex marriage today, and which Bahai principles restrict this?

The Trouble with the World

I doubt my ability to doubt
The topic being discussed currently in various Baha’i forums is a speech given by Peter Khan, on July 3rd 2009 titled “Reflections on the Ridvan Message”. You can read the complete speech here.

There isn’t much remarkable about it but if you manage to hack through the thick underbrush of verbiage you’ll find that almost at the end Khan says:

The solution is childish simple; the solution is so simple, it [sic] hardly worth mentioning. The solution is no more and no less than unreserved acceptance of whatever the central authority of the Cause, in this case the Universal House of Justice decrees.

Unfortunately Khan doesn’t explain what he really means by ‘decrees’.

Does that mean anything the House decides? every word they write? every answer they give to a questioner? every letter of guidance to members or national administrative bodies? or does it mean what they decree as in their legislative authority within Baha’i administrative structure?

It would seem that Khan has a wide understanding of ‘decrees’ since he mentions the guidance for ‘direct teaching’, as well as the implementation of Ruhi courses as the only option within the institute process.

This obviously opens up the hornets nest of the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice.

Oy vey! Here we go again.

Brendan wrote a commentary: Second Thoughts on Peter Khan.

Karen is dispassionate.

Alison believes that Khan is overstepping.

As for your humble scribe, I’m not sure what else I can add to what has already been written before here and elsewhere on this topic. I’m not comfortable with the conviction that Khan has in an absolutist understanding of the decrees of the House of Justice and can’t help but think of this gem of a quip:

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
Bertrand Russell

No advancement in any field would be possible if at least one person did not doubt if there was a better way to do things. If one person didn’t doubt the dogma of their day. If one person did not have so much doubt that they investigated other potential answers and avenues.

This is true for scientific advancements of course. But it is equally valid in any field of human endeavor.

Do you think that anyone would have believed in the Bab if they first hadn’t a seed of doubt regarding the commonly accepted notion within Islam that Muhammad was the ‘last prophet of God’?

So I respectfully submit to you that believing that we can simply put away questions and do without further investigation of truth is the biggest mistake that Baha’is make.