He cannot override …
Posted by Sen on December 30, 2008
In Shoghi Effendi’s 1934 letter ‘The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah,’ there’s a well-known paragraph in which he says that “the Guardian of the Faith has been made the Interpreter of the Word and that the Universal House of Justice has been invested with the function of legislating …”. I want to look at the paragraph after that, which deals with the fact that the Guardian is a member of the House of Justice; so that while the spheres of the two institutions are distinct, their memberships overlap. How would that work, with the Guardian or his representative in the room, while the House of Justice was making its decisions?
Shoghi Effendi writes:
1. Though the Guardian of the Faith has been made the permanent head of so august a body he can never, even temporarily, assume the right of exclusive legislation.
2. He cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members, but is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Baha’u'llah’s revealed utterances.
3. He interprets what has been specifically revealed, and cannot legislate except in his capacity as member of the Universal House of Justice.
4. He is debarred from laying down independently the constitution that must govern the organized activities of his fellow-members, and from exercising his influence in a manner that would encroach upon the liberty of those whose sacred right is to elect the body of his collaborators.
(The World Order of Baha’u'llah, p. 150)
Sentences 1 and 3 tell us that the Guardian cannot legislate – which means for us, that we cannot take his writings (or, of course, those of his secretaries) and treat them as if they were Bahai law.
Sentence 4 tells us that nothing the Guardian says or does can limit the right of the Universal House of Justice to determine its constitution, or the liberty of the delegates to the international convention to elect whomever they choose to the UHJ.
Both of these underline the fact that the separation of the two spheres of the Guardianship and the House of Justice is no mere rhetorical gesture: it has actual effects on the practices of the two institutions and on how we act towards them. The separation of the spheres of the Guardianship and the House of Justice is like the separation of powers in a civil constitution: it is the basic framework, within which must else that is said about each institution must be understood.
Sentence 2 is the one I want to focus on here. It says that the Guardian “cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members, but is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Baha’u'llah’s revealed utterances.”
The Guardian knows of course that Abdu’l-Baha wrote, in his Will and Testament (p. 11), that “the Guardian of the Cause of God, as well as the Universal House of Justice … are both under the care and protection of the Abha Beauty, under the shelter and unerring guidance (`ismat) of the Exalted One…” That word `ismat is the one that is often translated as ‘infallibility’ (although it’s also ‘chastity’). Its root meaning is ‘protection,’ but in theology it is at once a protection from doing wrong, and a divine authorisation to make changes in religion which it would be blasphemous for souls without `ismat to make.
So, knowing that the Universal House of Justice has `ismat, that it is assured of the unerring guidance of the Bab, as is the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi nevertheless considers the possibility that the Universal House of Justice might pass an enactment which conflicts with the meaning and departs from the spirit of Baha’u'llah’s revealed utterances. Which, of course, the Guardian would then be obliged to object to. Further, Shoghi Effendi says that in such a situation, the Guardian can protest, but not override the decision. The Guardian is the ultimate authority on what the meaning and spirit of the Bahai Writings is, but the Universal House of Justice is not obliged to change a decision it has made that is in conflict with those Writings.
So what does this tell us?
First, the Guardian’s concept of the scope of the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice is that it is limited. Infallibility does not prevent the UHJ making decisions contrary to the Writings, and contrary to what the Guardian says. Conversely, if we try to look at the decisions of the UHJ and deduce from them what the Bahai Writings mean, or what their spirit is, we are building a house on sand. There is no guarantee that the UHJ’s decision will correctly reflect that meaning and spirit, let alone that we will be able to correctly understand the UHJ’s intent. So if we want to understand what the Bahai Writings teach, we have to go to the Writings and to what the Guardian has said about them.
Second, if an enactment made by the Universal House of Justice is valid, even if the Guardian has objected to it, then there are no grounds for saying that the decisions of the Universal House of Justice are not valid if the Guardian or his representative is not present, as is the case today. This paragraph is therefore a strong argument against those Remeyite remnants who have claimed that the Guardian has to be present to make the UHJ’s decisions valid.
Thirdly, it again highlights the importance of the separation of the spheres of the Guardianship and House of Justice, the first concerned with doctrine and the interpretation of scripture, the second with administering the complex affairs of the Bahai Commonwealth and legislating on matters not revealed in the Writings. The House of Justice is not a department or subordinate of the Guardian: it has its own responsibilities and may quite properly find itself obliged to do something which, according to the Guardian, departs from the spirit of the Writings.
I think I can give an example of that: the policy of pre-publication ‘review,’ of which Shoghi Effendi writes:
“Let us also remember that at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views. If certain instructions of the Master are today particularly emphasized and scrupulously adhered to, let us be sure that they are but provisional measures designed to guard and protect the Cause in its present state of infancy …” (Baha’i Administration, p. 63)
“…the present restrictions imposed on the publication of Baha’i literature will be definitely abolished.”
(The World Order of Baha’u'llah, p. 9)
In the presence of the UHJ, the Guardian’s role would be to say what the meaning and spirit of the teachings is. The House of Justice has other tasks: it has to protect the community, to administer its funds and affairs, to conduct its external relationships with governments and other bodies, and so on. Something like the “right of the individual to self-expression” may be a clear Bahai teaching, but at a given time impractical or unwise to implement. A ruling of the House of Justice is not any less binding if it is contrary to a Bahai teaching, but neither is the Bahai teaching annulled because the House of Justice has, at a particular time, made an enactment that is against it. The doctrinal and the practical must simply remain in tension, until such time as it is possible to bring the rulings of the Universal House of Justice more in line with the meaning and spirit of Baha’u'llah’s revealed utterances. Bahai teachings and doctrines exist in the scriptures, and cannot be changed. Bahai practice is a pragmatic practice, in the contingent world, where many factors must be balanced. The Universal House of Justice may make decisions contrary to the spirit or letter of the Bahai Writings, but still be making the right decision for that time and in that case.
Jesus said: “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark: 2:27) Yet the sabbath was not abolished by his saying it.