Here is the latest letter of the Universal House of Justice – via the Secretariat – to the National Spritual Assemblies of the World (if you nod off, try to wake up by the last two paragraphs):
DEPARTMENT OF THE SECRETARIAT
Bah??’? World Centre . P.O. Box 155 . 31 001 Haifa, Israel
Tel: 972 (4) 835 8358 . Fax: 972 (4) 835 8280 . Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
14 November 2005
Transmitted by email
To all National Spiritual Assemblies
Dear Bah??’? Friends,
Recently, questions have arisen which have prompted the Universal House of Justice to comment further on matters treated in the compilation “Issues Related to the Study of the Bah??’? Faith”.
The Bah??’? principle calling for investigation of reality encourages an unfettered search for knowledge and truth by whoever wishes to engage in it. When applied to the Revelation of Bah??’u’ll??h, it inevitably gives rise to a wide range of responses. Some, attracted to the Message, embrace the Cause as their own. Some may respond positively to certain precepts or principles and willingly collaborate toward shared aims. Some may find it to be an interesting social phenomenon worthy of study. Still others, content with their own beliefs, may reject its claims. Bah??’?s are taught to be respectful of the views of others, believing that conscience should not be coerced.
Upon becoming a Bah??’?, one accepts certain fundamental beliefs; but invariably one’s knowledge of the Teachings is limited and often mixed with personal ideas. Shoghi Effendi explains that “an exact and thorough comprehension of so vast a system, so sublime a revelation, so sacred a trust, is for obvious reasons beyond the reach and ken of our finite minds.” Over time, through study, prayerful reflection, and an effort to live a Bah??’? life, immature ideas yield to a more profound understanding of Bah??’u’ll??h’s Revelation. Service to the Cause plays a particular role in the process, for the meaning of the Text is clarified as one translates insights into effective action. As a matter of principle, individual understanding or interpretation should not be suppressed, but valued for whatever contribution it can make to the discourse of the Bah??’? community. Nor should it, through dogmatic insistence of the individual, be allowed to bring about disputes and arguments among the friends; personal opinion must always be distinguished from the explicit Text and its authoritative interpretation by ‘Abdu’l-Bah?? and Shoghi Effendi and from the elucidations of the Universal House of Justice on “problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure and matters that are not
expressly recorded in the Book”.
In searching for understanding, Bah??’?s naturally acquaint themselves with published materials from a variety of sources. A book written by a disinterested non-Bah??’? scholar about the Faith, even if it reflects certain assumptions and puts forward conclusions acceptable within a given discipline but which are at variance with Bah??’? belief, poses no particular problem for Bah??’?s, who would regard these perceptions as an honest attempt to explore a religious phenomenon as yet little understood generally. Any non-biased effort to make the Faith comprehensible to a thoughtful readership, however inadequate it might appear, would evoke genuine Bah??’? appreciation for the perspective offered and research skill invested in the project. The matter is wholly different, however, when someone intentionally attacks the Faith.
An inescapable duty devolves upon the friends so to situate themselves in the knowledge of the Teachings as to be able to respond appropriately to such a challenge as it arises and thus uphold the integrity of the Faith. The words of Bah??’u’ll??h Himself shed light on the proper attitude to adopt. He warns the believers “not to view with too critical an eye the sayings and writings of men”. “Let them”, He instructs, “rather approach such sayings and writings in a spirit of open-mindedness and loving sympathy. Those men, however, who, in this may, have been led to assail, in their inflammatory writings, the tenets of the Cause of God, are to be treated differently. It is incumbent upon all men, each according to his ability, to refute the arguments of those that have attacked the Faith of God.”
A different type of challenge arises when an individual or group, using the privilege of Bah??’? membership, adopts various means to impose personal views or an ideological agenda on the Bah??’? community. In one recent instance, for example, an individual has declared himself a “Bah??’? theologian, writing from and for a religious community,” whose aim is “to criticize, clarify, purify and strengthen the ideas of the Bah??’? community, to enable Bah??’?s to understand their relatively new Faith and to see what it can offer the world”. Assertions of this kind go far beyond expressions of personal opinion, which any Bah??’? is free to voice. As illustrated, here is a claim that lies well outside the framework of Bah??’? belief and practice. Bah??’u’ll??h has liberated human minds by prohibiting within His Faith any caste with ecclesiastical prerogatives that seeks to foist a self-assumed authority upon the thought and behavior of the mass of believers. Indeed, He has prescribed a system that combines democratic practices with the application of knowledge through consultative processes.
The House of Justice is confident that the principles herein presented will enable the friends to benefit from diverse contributions resulting from exploration of the manifold implications of Bah??’u’ll??h’s vast Revelation, while remaining impervious to the efforts of those few who, whether in an explicit or veiled manner, attempt to divert the Bah??’? community from essential understandings of the Faith.
With loving Bah??’? greetings,
Department of the Secretariat
Eventhough the letter doesn’t explicitly say who the quoted author is, there is only one recently published work which qualifies: Church and State: A Postmodern Political Theology by Sen McGlinn (previously mentioned in here).
Now, I’ve got a crazy idea! Let’s turn to the author’s own words to see if we can understand better what is going on here. Maybe the context or the full sentences used may yield some further enlightenment. I know, I know, you’re nervous. After all, shouldn’t we just go with the quote snippets provided in the UHJ’s letter? why would we need to do any more reading? reading is hard! why not just take the letter at face value and go and make some guacamole and kick back? Somehow, I think you will find the courage to postpone guacamole time when you remind yourself what Baha’u’llah said about justice:
O Son of Spirit! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behoveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.
Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words of Bah??â€™uâ€™ll??h
Are you ready? Here is the full and unadulterated text from McGlinn:
This book presents my own understanding of the Bahai teachings on some issues that are now critically important to the Bahai community and its relations with the world. My approach has been enriched by my Christian background and education, my studies of theology and church history at Knox Theological Hall and Holy Cross Seminary in Dunedin, New Zealand, and studies of Persian and Islamic Studies at Leiden University, in the Netherlands.
I should declare at the outset that my stance is not that of a historian or academic scholar of the science of religion, but of a Bahai theologian, writing from and for a religious community, and I speak as if the reader shares the concerns of that community. As a Bahai theologian, I seek to criticize, clarify, purify and strengthen the ideas of the Bahai community, to enable Bahais to understand their relatively new faith and to see what it can offer the world. The approach is not value-free. I would be delighted if the Bahai Faith proved to have a synergy with post-modernity, if it prospered in the coming decades and had an influence on the world. The reader who is used to academic studies of religion that avoid such value judgements will have to make the necessary adjustments here and there. I do not however write as an apologist: the goal is a serious study that can aid the Bahai community and others to discover the potential for contemporary religious life which lies within the Bahai scriptures, rather than simply to repackage the Bahai Faith in a palatable form for present needs.
from foreword of Church and State
Hmmm. Now, lets see. I don’t know about you but I need a dictionary to know exactly what theology (or a theologian) is all about – especially since the author uses it twice in the above paragraph, as well as in the secondary title of the book.
Main Entry: theÂ·olÂ·oÂ·gy
Inflected Form(s): plural -gies
Etymology: Middle English theologie, from Latin theologia, from Greek, from the- + -logia -logy
1 : the study of religious faith, practice, and experience; especially : the study of God and of God’s relation to the world
Alright. Assuming that’s a correct definition, a theologian would be someone who studies or practices theology. And so basically the author is stating that he is a Baha’i theologian, someone who is dedicated to “the study of religious faith, practice and experience…”. I don’t see anything out of sorts there. Anyone who studies the Baha’i Faith can make the same assertion and they would be correct. Albeit within polite Baha’i circles you are more apt to hear the phrase Baha’i scholar but Baha’i theologian isn’t incorrect. Apart from that, in the foreword section quoted above, the author seems to be taking great pains to set out clearly his bias and perspective on the subject. He furthermore sets out his intentions and goals in creating the work the reader is about to explore. This is rather admirable because it at least shows an acknowledgment of bias and an honest admission of partiality.
Nowhere does the author make any claims of status, station or rank. He rather simply clarifies what his shortcomings are and what his end purpose is. This is rather interesting when it is contrasted to what the Secretariat claims he is doing – asserting an ecclesiastical rank or station.
I apologize beforehand but I’m not good with big words so I had to crack open my dictionary again. It tells me that “ecclesiastic” pertains to the institution of clergy… a cleric in other words. Not once does the author use the word ecclesiastical nor make any allusions to it. It is in fact the Secretariat which introduces this loaded word and promptly places it in McGlinn’s mouth. The Secretariat is building a strawman argument (and taking great relish in knocking it down).
Of course, everything the Secretariat says regarding the absence of clergy within the Baha’i Faith is true. But it is also true that McGlinn never makes such a claim nor even alludes to “foisting a self-assumed authority upon the thought and behavior of the mass of believers.” In fact, one could very well argue that it is the Secretariat that is engaging in such behavior since this letter is such a strongly worded smear of a scholar’s work that it will probably result in less Baha’is reading it. Just a hunch, but I’m guessing that we won’t see any study circles devoted to Church and State anytime soon.
Either the Secretariat lacks a common household dictionary (and the requisite intelligence to use it) or they have misinterpreted McGlinn’s words with malicious intent. I’m not really sure which it is but it doesn’t really matter because as you’ll agree, either is as bad as the other.
Its also interesting that the Secretariat sees itself as a gatekeeper obligated to tell Baha’is what is and what isn’t “essential understanding of the Faith”. According to Baha’i scriptures this is outside of the purview of the UHJ and the Secretariat. In any case, aren’t Baha’is entrusted with this responsibility themselves? Shouldn’t they themselves decide what is and what isn’t “essential”?
It never ceases to impress me that with all the workload the House of Justice has, they somehow (miraculously?) find the time to do book reviews. Something like the ongoing abuse of a young Baha’i girl at the hands of her father (who is an NSA member and chairperson) can be left unaddressed for four years – until there is risk of public exposure and humiliation – but a book that dares question or illuminate must be pounced upon posthaste. One day I’d like to risk madness and take a peek behind the curtain at the logic which creates such lopsided priorities.
And would it be cynical for me to point out that whenever the House of Justice lobs a bombshell it is outsourced to the Secretariat? What is the Secretariat anyway? (apart from a horse who could run really really fast) Isn’t it simply the mouthpiece of the House? Can the Secretariat distribute any letters without the approval of the House? Is it an independent organ? Yes, no and no. And if you recall, it was also used to lob the “spiritually corrosive” letter which explicitly identified four people and labeled them as such. Until then I had no idea that the Secretariat was able to peek into the very souls of men and judge their spiritual worth. Live and learn, I suppose. In the end, the use of the Secretariat makes it very convenient for the House of Justice and its defenders to disavow any responsibility by pointing out that it wasn’t them but rather the wayward Secretariat writing the letter in question. I’ll leave it to you to decide if this defense is adequate.
Now if you’re really feeling naughty you may wish to take a peek at another recently published book: The Baha’i Faith in America by William Garlington. I can’t wait to read the jeremiad from the Secretariat about it.
Check out Karen’s post on the October 14th 2005 letter.