LA Class Newsletter [#33]

SKIP TO NEWSLETTER

My Notes:

This newsletter is the two year anniversary of the LA Classes! I just had my third birthday, so this is mighty apropos.

Within this newsletter it is obvious that there was now clear friction between the status quo and new ideas being thrown around. In other notes this was implicit if you read between the lines. But here, it is very evident.

Tony Lee presents an idea that can not be easily shot down: that the process of revelation is a dialogue, rather than a monologue. Although most Baha’is assume that individual believers had no role, except as subservient and passive believers that simply followed the Central Figure of their day, the actual historical evidence is surprising.

And although the writer of this newsletter, as always, pokes fun at the class as being “heretical”… the institutions were by now taking notice of the same thing. But they weren’t laughing.

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

On with the 70′s class . . .

[START DOCUMENT]

[Ed. personal address]
“Hermosa Bench, love it or leave it.”
Vol. III No. 11

We celebrated the second anniversary of our study class with a verbal dustup over what special role – if any – individual Baha’is have in shaping the Abha Dispensation, Tony Lee got things off and running by re-stating a favorite theory of his. It is his thesis that the Baha’i Faith as we know it is the result of interaction between the Central Authorities of the Faith (be they the Bab, Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi or the Universal House of Justice) and individual Baha’is. Most Baha’is, however, behave as if the revelation as a monologue spoken from the prophet to the people. While a central figure provides authority and spiritual impetus for the body of the believers, Lee argued that it is an interaction between charismatic figure and the followers that creates the dynamic of growth and change.

He cited the conference at Badasht in which the Babis – on their own initiative – discarded Islam, deciding that the Babi Faith was a new revelation to which they owed their allegiance and that the laws fo Islam (the sharia) were dead. The Bab, the Author of that revelation, was in prison at the time and had no influence over the conference, although He later ratified its actions. The proclamation of the doctrine of the equality of men and women was launched by Tahirih at that same conference, again, on her own initiative and without the sanction of the Prophet. That stand was later affirmed and is a major Baha’i social tenet. A third and more contemporary example is the establishment of the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. A group of early American Baha’is learned of the construction of the temple in ‘Ishqabad and asked Abdu’l-Baha’s permission to erect one in the United States. Again, the original idea was that of the believers which the Central Authority later endorsed.

Lee said that he believes that this interchange [sic] is not only misunderstood and unappreciated by the modern Baha’i community, but that it has become significantly weakened over the past 20 or 30 years. The community lost the spark of intellectual foment because of a shift to emphasizing the expansion of the Faith. This policy of worldwide expansion has been successful, but the lack of intellectual activity that has resulted from it is catching up with us. As a result, Lee asserted, we now find ourselves lagging behind current concerns and have dropped from leadership (when in the 1920′s and 30′s our advocacy of interracial fellowship, global peace and world government were little short of revolutionary) down to irrelevance. (that is, now, in the 1970′s, our social positions fail to address the needs and problems of mankind.)

This point of view did not win universal acceptance among the members of the class. For example, Lisa Janti, currently the chairman of the Spiritual Assembly of Los Angeles, countered with a different view. She said that the reason the early Babis and Baha’is played such a fundamental role in shaping the Faith was because they had no access to the Writings of the Central Figures. However, as the Writings became more available, the need to ask questions (and help shape policy) dwindled. The task for believers then became one of digesting and understanding the Teachings. She rejected the notion that Baha’i social principles are passe, saying that they have not been implemented by the Baha’is, but that is another matter.

Mrs. Janti said that other movements tend to emphasize the negative when it comes to social principles She cited the example of the women’s movement saying much of its energy is focused on abortion rights, which are a minor issue in the equality of men and women. She also expressed concern about the tone of Lee’s position, saying that when the Baha’is would ask a Central Figure questions of interpretation, they did so in the spirit of loving obedience and sincere reverence. Mrs. Janti expressed the fear that class members were copying the jaded cynicism of non-Baha’i movements which preach only the doctrine of attack, and never offer any healing remedy for the problems plaguing mankind.

Dr. Amin Banani, in whose Santa Monica home we were meeting. also voiced concern with Tony’s thesis. He said that while everyone agrees that there is a need for new thought in the Faith, it would be a mistake to assign responsibility for developing fresh ideas to some self-styled intellectual elite, among the Baha’is. Baha’i thinkers qualify as no special class among the ranks of the believers and are not the custodians of progress in the Faith. He pointed out that intellectual haughtiness is a disease of the educated and warned class members against falling into that trap.

Other class members said that those points did not go to the heart of the argument being advanced. Shahin Carrigan of Santa Monica said a kind of Baha’i bureaucracy has grown up and individual Baha’is are relying more and more on their local Assemblies and, in the process abandoning their individual responsibility to think and innovate. It i true, that we have failed to apply the Baha’i principles, but that is because many Baha’is simply do not know how to think. Beyond that, she said, Baha’is are fearful of taking any initiative because they will be shot down by the institutions of the Faith. Mrs. Carrigan said that there is no satisfactory distinction between individual responsibilities and institutional authority.

David Langness of Santa Barbara offered the opinion that the lack of intellectual activity in the Faith is a direct reflection of the fewness of thinkers within its rank. Baha’is in who are intellectually inclined sometimes become inactive simply because there is little value placed on creativity within the Baha’i Community. Those who want to think for themselves find little place in the community and so are forced out.

Shoghi Effendi was an intellectual, in the finest sense of the term, Langness continued, but there are few Baha’is who have followed him. Perhaps the nub of the issue is that intellectual activity centers on debate and the clash of opinions. This is sometimes just the thing that Baha’is want to shy away from, because they regard it as disunity. Langness said it is difficult for intellectuals to enter the Faith and remain within its ranks. He added that more attention ought to be paid to reaching thinkers and those whose ideas have influenced others.

Mehrdad Amanat of Santa Monica pulled the class back to the subject by saying we cannot support the unspoken assumption among Baha’is that our religion became a static, complete package with the death of Shogbi Effendi in 1957. The truth of the matter is that Baba’is lack meaningful answers to the major issues of this decade: human rights, Marxism, economic probems, etc. Criticism of the Baha’i institutions is not treason. Rather, it is the duty of the individual believer to offer his criticism to the institutions. Holding classes in which the role and performance of the institutions is criticized is in order.

But Mrs. Janti expressed discomfort with that view. She responded that the Assemblies are made up of amateurs doing their best. For the administrative institutions to succeed, it is much more important that the body of the believers offer their loving support, rather then their criticisms. And, she wondered aloud about the real motives and intent of the class.

Amin Banani brought things to a head by challenging the entire notion of shared authority in the Faith. He supported the view that the revelation comes from the Prophet and is not expressed in the form, of co-authorship between the religious figure and the body of believers. He asked Mr. Lee to clarify exactly what he intended by his opening statements to the class.

Lee responded that he was not talking about shared authority or issuing any challenge on that score. Authority has only one source in the Baha’i Faith. But, he claimed that a co-authorship of Baha’i history does exist between the Center of the Faith and the believers, The progress of the Faith and the direction in which it has grown are the direct result of the influence of its followers, as well as its Fournders. Even the Baha’i Writings themselves are inconceivable without the participation of the believers themselves.

Beyond that, the Baha’is should not see themselves in a position of waiting for the Universal House of Justice to tell them what to do. Perhaps, they should tell the House of Justice what to do. It is the prerogative of the Supreme Institution to reject their ideas. But, on the other hand, they may accept and a whole new of Baha’i history may be opened because of the initiative of one believer. The point is that a two-way dynamic exists and, for the Faith to progress input from the believers is essential. Religious revelation is not a one-way street and, Lee said, the Faith is not a body of Writings whose contents need only be analyzed for Baha’is to know what their task is.

David Langness supported the activist stance, especially as it applied to interaction between believer end authority figure. He pointed out that had it not been for Laura Dreyfuss Barney ?bugging Abdu’l-Baha to death? with her questions at the dinner table we would not now have the book Some Answered Questions which sets out the basics of how the Baha’i Faith views Christianity, among other topics. In view of that interaction which is the common thread of Baha’i history – it is appalling that Baha’is really believe the entire revelation was handed down, holy and pristine, for the believers to merely read and reflect on.

But, David Young disputed this view, arguing that Baha’is asking for guidance in the form of question does not amount to a ?co-authorship? of the revelation. Furthermore, he said, it is not true, that the Baha’is lack answers to current social questions such as socialism and human rights. It may be true that Baha’is can be criticized for their failure to take action in these realms where there is material relating to them in the Writings, but such a failure is another matter.

The debate was never resolved. Ron Carrigan said that there are gaps in the revelation where such fundamental issues as economies are not addressed. While the world desperately needs a new theory of economics there is simply no such theory in the Writings of the Central Figures of the Faith. And, the catch phrase “spiritual solution to the economic problem? is so vague that it is both meaningless and useless.

Tony Lee responded that such a lack of economic theory in the Baha’i Writings is undeniably, but that this should not be regarded as a deficiency in the revelation. It simply means that Baha’i thinkers should be challenged to work out such a theory based on the few economic principles recommended in the Writings. The problem is that Baha’is do not see this as their role. Most Baha’is believe that everything of importance has already been covered in the Writings and so there is no need for any further thought. It is common talk at firesides that Baha’ullah brought a new economic system.

One of the ironic highlights of the evening was that the main presentation scheduled for the class, a ten-minute tape-recorded speech which member of the House of Justice Dr. David Rube gave at the University of Illinois in 1966, was not trotted out until late in the evening. In that speech, among other topics, Dr. Rube out lined what he termed “Baha’i higher culture”. After first defining “lower culture” as those human concerns with basic survival — food, shelter, sex, material possessions — Dr. Ruhe said that what is needed in every society is a ?higher culture? – the arts and humanities. The Baha’i Faith bids to convert the whole of human society and so we must be concerned, not only with the basics of human life, but also with the “higher culture” of man. The future society ,ill be acre complex and lore demanding than anything we have known before. As Baha’is, Dr. Ruhe said, we must begin responding to those demands and assuming a leadership role in shaping our own culture. Including, our own higher culture.

Dr. Ruhe said that that Baha’is ought to learn a lesson from the Jewish Community which honors and credits its scholars, placing them in a special category in the community. He said that Baha’i artists must also be encouraged and supported financially. These higher activities are a necessary part of Baha’i community life.

RETROSPECTIVE

Now that we are all of two years old (and the betting was 6 to 5 that we would never make it this far), perhaps we aught to take stock. Class members and guests have presented papers on a wide variety of topics – everything from history to Baha’i theology. The class probably offers the only forum of its kind in Southern California, where Baha’is can discuss candidly and in depth – the issues and problems which face the Baha’i community at large. We now have between 70 and 75 people on our mailing list. Most of our subscribers support ($12 a year — that’s cheap, gang) comes from American Baha’is living in the United States. About a dozen Canadian Baha’is, for one foolish reason or another also subscribe to our newsletter. Several English Baha’is, in what we assume is a masochistic exercise read it as well. We also have subscribers in such unlikely places as the Central African Empire, Iran, Portugal, Chile, India, and even Zambia. Anytime you are in the area (to visit Disneyland, of course, Why else would anyone come to Southern California?) you are welcome to join in our mildly seditious sessions.

[END DOCUMENT]

Related Links:

The original scanned documents can be found here.

  • Sincere Friend

    The interaction between the followers and the Central figures is a dynamic that is part of the unfoldment of religion. Even the Aqdas was a result of someone requesting it.

    It seems though that in Mr. Lees arguments he wants to assert that the main stage of activity is between the Central figures and the believers. Rather its seem to me that the believers, by asking questions, then show their readiness to receive Revelation that is waiting for their responses to previous Revelation. The Creative initiative always rests with the Divine forces, but sometimes it appears from human perspective that the Revelation is a result of the interaction, as it would be in an ordinary human dialogue.

    Never forget the role the Holy Spirit has in religion.

  • Sincere Friend

    The interaction between the followers and the Central figures is a dynamic that is part of the unfoldment of religion. Even the Aqdas was a result of someone requesting it.

    It seems though that in Mr. Lees arguments he wants to assert that the main stage of activity is between the Central figures and the believers. Rather its seem to me that the believers, by asking questions, then show their readiness to receive Revelation that is waiting for their responses to previous Revelation. The Creative initiative always rests with the Divine forces, but sometimes it appears from human perspective that the Revelation is a result of the interaction, as it would be in an ordinary human dialogue.

    Never forget the role the Holy Spirit has in religion.

  • Randy Burns

    I think Tony’s point is an important one. He is taking a holistic and ecological approach to revelation and the activities that surround it. Within that context the assigned roles of Messenger and recipient of message both have importance, particularly so within the grounds of the Divine Drama itself. If you had met personally all of the personages at the conference of Badast, for example, could you have picked out the one who would end up founding the Baha’i Faith? Only a vain dreamer could think so.

    Cheers, Randy

  • Randy Burns

    I think Tony’s point is an important one. He is taking a holistic and ecological approach to revelation and the activities that surround it. Within that context the assigned roles of Messenger and recipient of message both have importance, particularly so within the grounds of the Divine Drama itself. If you had met personally all of the personages at the conference of Badast, for example, could you have picked out the one who would end up founding the Baha’i Faith? Only a vain dreamer could think so.

    Cheers, Randy