A few weeks ago, fellow Baha’i blogger J. A. McLean wrote an article titled “Dissidents and the Baha’i Faith”. It attracted a lot of attention, especially from quite of few of those naughty, naughty “dissidents”.
So much so that Jack seems to have changed his mind about the whole thing and decided to call it all off… by erasing his post from his blog.
However, the internet and the technologies it contains allows us to punch a few buttons and take a ride in our own time machine (also known as, Google Cache) to retrieve Jack’s original post.
In all its effulgent glory (minus the holy numbered comments), behold:
Thursday, August 23, 2007
DISSIDENTS AND THE BAHA’I FAITH
On the Internet today one may find webpages, websites and member lists that contain disgruntled views and/or bitter attacks, usually against the Bah??â€™? Administrative Order, from a relatively small number of so-called dissident and ex-Bah??â€™?s. A dissident is not, of course, an ex-Bah??â€™?, but someone who still claims to be a follower who has serious grievances against the Bah??â€™? Faith and who continues to militate for their acceptance. A dissident must be distinguished from the individual, who for personal reasons, chooses not to associate with the community, and from the person who, for one reason or another, drifts away from the Faith. Surprisingly, some of these attacks are made even by â€?Bah??â€™?s in good standing.â€?
In the early 1990â€™s, I gained first-hand experience of this phenomenon when I was a temporary member of the original Talisman list, hosted by ex-Bah??â€™?, Dr. Juan Ricardo Cole. I subsequently resigned from Talisman I when Dr. Cole, in his grand design to be the â€?gadflyâ€? reformer of the Bah??â€™? Faith, made direct, frontal attacks on the Universal House of Justice. What is perhaps not so well-known was that by that time Dr. Cole had been remonstrating with the Universal House of Justice more or less steadily for about 20 years.
It is not the purpose of this message to reanimate the specifics of Coleâ€™s case which are well-known to those who once belonged to Talisman I and who are familiar with his articles that attempted to blacken the reputation of the Bah??â€™? Administrative Order. He has since found new enemies: his blog is largely devoted to attacking the foreign policy of the United States government. However, I would like to make some general comments about dissidents and ex-Bah??â€™?s, whether it be Juan Cole, Francesco Ficicchia in German-speaking Europe in the 1980â€™s and â€?90â€™s, and/or the like-minded Internet club of present or past hostile critics.
The behaviour of these individuals, if one wants to step back and observe it, reveals a negative dynamic or pattern of behaviour that continues to be dismally instructive. I am submitting the following observations, consequently, not to revive some old grudges, nor to perpetuate present ones, but because I seriously doubt that the Bah??â€™? community has seen the end of the complaints of the constantly disgruntled, the doctrinally innovative and the permanently embittered. While space is lacking here to set out fully the entire dynamic of this pattern, I would like to comment briefly on the climate of sympathy that seems to be created, at least momentarily, for the grievances of these individuals.
Allow me to preface these observations with this comment: I do not doubt for a moment that these persons have been hurt or that some have been betrayed by a fellow believer or that some decision by an administrative body has not gone their way. Most Bah??â€™?s, if they live long enough, will experience betrayal, or be subject to an administrative decision that has not been in their favour. The latter phrase applies sometimes to members of these very same institutions. These experiences contribute to our awakening to the stark realities of the human condition.
One of the keys to the sympathetic ear temporarily lent to the disgruntled has to do with the way that organized religion is generally perceived in contemporary society. In modernity, religion and spirituality have gone their separate ways. Individuals may willingly affirm their theism or spirituality but many disavow being official members of an â€?organized religion.â€? Of course, the whole notion of being against organized religion per se is a strange one, when one thinks about it. People, generally, do not object to organized government, to an organized judiciary, to organized political parties, to organized education, to organized medicine, clubs, associations and societies. But except for official members, the religious â€?organizationâ€? in a secular age has become definitely suspect.
And for good reason. This climate of suspicion has been created by a long history of the violent repression of doctrinal minorities, and other past or present moral travesties. Uninformed observers, consequently, tend to be predisposed to accept the viewpoint of the dissident without further reflection or investigation. If she has dissented from a religious institution, ergo, the charges must be true and she must be a victim: at least, that is the hasty conclusion. This predisposition was clearly at work for a time in Juan Coleâ€™s case, just as it was for another ex-Bah??â€™?, Francesco Ficicchia.
What the dissidents fail to realize, and do not accept, is that the Bah??â€™? Faith, while it allows for a fair and reasonable largesse of individual interpretation, has nonetheless its own doctrinal boundaries and ethical norms. But in the final analysis, these doctrinal boundaries and ethical norms are simply not accepted by these individuals who, driven by frustration at the non-acceptance of the perceived moral rightness of their cause, ego-mania, hyper-individualism and the principles of â€?liberal democracy,â€? engage in corrosive attacks which by definition are beyond the ethical norms and the principles of consultation which Bah??â€™uâ€™ll??h has mandated to replace acrimonious and divisive debate.
The founders of the Bah??â€™? Faith have repeatedly warned their followersâ€”some individuals even balk at the very notion of a warning–of the grave moral and spiritual consequences that accompany such hostile, confrontational approaches. But these individuals, unless they disaffiliate themselves from the religion to which they belong, and although they have knowingly accepted these doctrinal boundaries and ethical norms, imagine that these standards do not apply to them. They clearly view themselves as belonging to a different category. Dissidents believe somehow that they are fully within their rights to violate these norms with impunity.
Yet, just like the perpetrators who claim to be victims, they act shocked and surprised, and charge betrayal and harassment, when the government of their religion finally asks them to withdraw or takes measures to remove them permanently from the membership list. This removal, I should add, usually takes place after a lengthy and patient hearing and exchange of views, counselling and, final warnings. This careful process, however, has sometimes resulted in charges of fascism and religious fundamentalism being levelled against the institutions of the Bah??â€™? Faith. Of course, neither Bah??â€™? doctrine nor covenants gives any one a licence to radically alter Bah??â€™? belief or ethical practice to the point of making it unrecognizable to the community itself and to the institutions of the Bah??â€™? Faith. But for these individuals, this seems to be quite beside the point.
As sequitur to this last sentence: the point of this message is not, as might be supposed, simple justification, the basic preoccupation of theology, of administrative sanctions taken against these individuals. Methodologically, the confrontational, heavy-handed approach is also unsound. It is both strange and ironic when this defective, ineffective tool originates with the learned. Phenomenologist of religion, William Brede Kristensen, the Norwegian-Dutch scholar (1867-1953), in his instructive essay â€?What is Phenomenology?â€? was perhaps the first to make the point that serious students and scholars of religion must identify with the faith of others to the extent that they â€?must therefore be able to forget themselves, to be able to surrender themselves to othersâ€? (p. 49). The respected comparative religionists, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Huston Smith have since made the same point both in their writings and in their lives by profound study and congenial practice with followers of faiths outside the Christian tradition.
Kristensen is promoting here, not some objective and detached study of a particular religionâ€”let alone an inflammatory one–but rather a process of initiation into the sympathetic understanding of â€?the faith of other men,â€? as the title of Cantwell Smithâ€™s 1962 comparative study of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Chinese philosophy, Christians and Jews put it. Smithâ€™s innovative little book aimed to elucidate, not only the beliefs of these world religions, but also and especially, how these religions formed the personal values of the men and women who practiced them, and how their personal beliefs motivated their lives. In other words, Cantwell Smith recommended that the observer be willing to be taught by the participants of the tradition he or she was investigating, and to assume their point of view, without necessarily adopting their faith. In the academic study of religion, then, the testimony of believers is consequently the starting point and the meeting place of authentic understanding and must necessarily carry great weight.
Some may think that this argument is irrelevant and has no bearing on the present case; these individuals are, after all, already Bah??â€™?s, and are no longer studying the faith to which they belong. But Kristensenâ€™s views are pertinent to this discussion. The point is that with Cole, Ficicchia, and present-day dissenters, the testimony, sacred writings, history and ethical norms of believers were either ignored or distorted to the extent that members of the Bah??â€™? Faith were no longer able to recognize their own religion in the distorted or hostile depictions by these critics. So much for the elementary protocol advocated by Brede Kristensen, Cantwell Smith and Huston Smith and other respected scholars of religion.
What one sometimes reads from these poisoned pens is even more surprising since some of them claimed, or still claim, to be Bah??â€™?s. It is no wonder that the appointed and elected institutions of the Bah??â€™? Faith ultimately came to the intellectually defensible conclusion that they were not. Neither is it a wonder that the Universal House of Justice has written that character, that is, active spirituality, ethics, values and norms, and methodology cannot, and should not, be separated. In this, as in all things Bah??â€™?, character and methodology are one.
Posted by J.A. McLean at 11:45 AM 9 comments
I was unable to retrieve the nine comments, if anyone has them, please forward them for inclusion.