Scholarship and review in the Bahai community
This is an old letter, from 1990, written soon after my arrival in Europe, to a Continental Counsellor in Europe. Somehow or other, an extract of it has been circulated, as part of an effort to make it appear that I had some dastardly plan to organise a body of scholars who would be empowered to impose their ideas on the Bahai community. I think that anyone reading the whole thing (it’s long) can see for themselves what it says, without further comment from me. This letter is something of a time capsule. In the 22 years since this was written, the development of the internet has enabled everyone with an internet connection to publish their research on blogs or web sites, and to read the work of others. Back then, publishing appeared crucial to the development of the Bahai community, and the barriers to publishing warranted serious consideration.
If I was writing this today, I would stipulate that learning and validation through practice in the Bahai community, does not imply that the consensus of the faithful has any authority in Bahai theology. And I would not be so quick to define the Bahai community as a community of belief (an orthodoxy); nor is it a community defined by religious practices (an orthopraxy). But that is another story.
Open Circle Publications …Maastricht, Netherlands, 2.2.90
Thank you for finding the time to meet with us at De Poort. It’s a good start, I hope, to the sort of working relationship within which all sorts of problems can be resolved, and I was very happy with the contacts made.
In the course of a conversation, there are many loose ends, and I was very conscious that afternoon that we had little time and could not afford to go back to points passed-by. I’ll try to pick up a few now.
I enclose an Open Circle flier, which will give an idea of the scope of our publishing. I expect it will remain more or less as a hobby while we’re in Europe, because one needs a list of 30 or 40 quite substantial titles to make a postal distribution system workable, and, with the present review system, it just takes too long to get a title through. In any case, Europe seems quite well served with publishing trusts etc, although the books here are very expensive.
I said I’d send you a copy of my recent writing: I’ve just done a review of Rigg’s Apocalypse Unsealed (it’s still a draft – I’ve a couple of dates to find yet), and a letter to Herald of the South. I’d be grateful for any comments on these.
You will note that the letter to Herald of the South, like the banned paper on The Guardianship and the House of Justice, has as its theme the need to be quite precise about the relationships between central figures and institutions. I see the theologian’s task primarily as the correlation and criticism of the things the community says and does against the standard of the Writings: that is, theology is mainly a service-discipline which helps to keep the language clear and the ideas coherent. I said once (in another banned paper) “The community needs the effort of scholars, not to support old conceptions of the Faith, or to introduce new ones, but, primarily, to maintain the clarity and vigour of any and every conception against the decays of cliché, fatuousness, simplification, and the erosion of time. The scholars, so long as the separation of the learned from the rulers, and administration from doctrine, continues, can also prevent the Faith decaying into a new orthodoxy, in which executive authority is used to maintain doctrinal stances. But the community does not exist for the scholars, it exists to worship God and to make its understanding of God’s purpose a reality in the world. Those who keep the tools of thought sharp are a very minor part of the enterprise, indispensable only in the longer term.”
There are, of course, other uses of scholarship, such as checking and making available texts, public presentation of the Faith, correlation of the teachings to current issues, researching and presenting our history, etc. It’s the narrower sense, of scholarship as a check on the language of the community concerning God and God’s Revelations, which I intend by the term “theology”: but I’d be the first to admit that the terminology is imprecise, and that the distinctions between the kinds of scholarship in practice are not so clear. I think that the negative connotation of the word ‘theology’, to which you referred, comes from the idea that theologians make doctrines, which of course they have no authority to do. What they should do is ask what are the doctrines?, how do they relate to one-another?, how securely based are they?, how can we say that now?, and, most persistently, what does it mean?
As you noted, this means an interest in limits, in trying to get it right, however impossible that may be. I was interested in this respect to hear you call the Guardian the ‘Centre of the Covenant’. Shoghi Effendi writes that “There is a far, far greater distance separating the Guardian from the Centre of the Covenant than there is between the Center of the Covenant and its Author” (Dispensation of Baha’u'llah, p 59), so I had rather thought that, to make clear the distinction between the stations, it would be better to reserve the title Center of the Covenant exclusively for ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Please don’t feel that I am finding quotes to hit you with: it may well be that the terms are used in a different sense elsewhere in the Writings, and, even if this is not so, I’m really interested in the language which the Baha’is use and what they mean by it. The community of belief is the context and prerequisite of a theologian’s work. I’d be interested to know where this use of the title comes from, who uses it so, and what they understand by it.
I was interested also in JJ’s understanding that we should not discuss the issue of the service of women on the House of Justice. This reflects, perhaps, the Continental Board of Counsellors‘ letter of 4 July 1988, which was the cover-letter for the House of Justice’s 31 May letter on the topic. Yet the Counsellors’ letter, while it seems to be saying that the material should not be circulated to the believers, also says that the assistants should be well-prepared for questions. Sonja and I, and I think many other Baha’is, confront the issue repeatedly in our teaching. Indeed, it’s our policy to be quite frank about the exclusion of women from the House of Justice before anyone signs a declaration card: while this puts some off, we don’t have declarants finding out later and accusing us of deceiving them. TT (England) described a public meeting in which he faced an obviously primed critic who asked leading questions on the Baha’i belief in the equality of men and women, and the[n] sprang the UHJ question, so that the whole audience saw, not only the inconsistency, but also that something was being concealed. Any odour of concealment or insincerity is absolute death to teaching; it’s offensive to the subject and it contaminates the teacher. The last thing we should be doing is trying to pretend that there is no issue. It would be well to note that the Universal House of Justice’s letter on the topic says that it is not subject to speculation – referring I think to a concern that some friends might try to form pressure-groups to press for change. They did not say that it was not a subject for speculation, and, indeed, it’s difficult to see that they could. We are creatures made to know, restless to understand: to try to thwart this basic urge is like damming a river with a fish-net.
Re MacEoin, I don’t know the long history of the relationships which led up to the break, but I have read the Religion articles, and I wonder how much of the conflict is simply the result of some Baha’is ‘shooting from the hip’ without stopping to ask whether they were defending the Faith or their own ideas. In particular, Hatcher and Afnan seemed to take offence to the idea that the Bab’s conception of His mission had changed during His ministry. Shoghi Effendi describes Baha’u'llah’s Revelation as being born, growing, and finally bearing it[s] greatest fruit in the final period at Akka. There is evidence that there was a sharp break in Jesus‘ conception of his role, marked by His withdrawal over the Jordan for a period, and some scholars have classified the material of the Koran according to the markedly different interests of different periods. Orthodox Christians and Muslims have resisted these ideas, because of a conception of the Manifestation as only incidentally part of time (this despite the Bible’s “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature” and Muhammad’s insistence that He was a man like ourselves.) I don’t know of anything in the Writings which would commit us to defending the doctrine that the Bab’s teachings did not grow and develop. Perhaps, if we took a really hard look at how much of what MacEoin said was really contradicting the Writings, we would find that much of the problem lay in the uncritical acceptance by the friends of some standard, but quite limited, understandings of the Faith. No doubt he also got very annoyed and lashed out — I suspect that there was no-one else with a comparable knowledge of the Writings and history to whom he could talk, and a great many people who thought they knew it all, telling him to go and deepen.
It was also particularly tough for him because, if he followed the reviewing proceedure, he would have to give up his career, and I suspect he has no other. He has so much specialised in Babi and Baha’i studies that he would take a real loss if he stopped writing and teaching on these topics, but he can’t credibly present research which has been censored by the object of the study. Just as there are standards appropriate to Baha’i scholarship, (in the sense of disciplined thinking within and for the community of belief), there are standards appropriate to the academic study of religion, and one cannot take the standards of one context and impose them on another. (I’m not in that bind: if I go on to an academic appointment it will be in Christian or Islamic studies, because the conditions do not yet exist in the Baha’i community for academic studies of the Faith by Baha’is.)
Bearing in mind the sacrifice which was asked of him, and that some of the things to which Baha’i's objected may not contradict essential teachings of the Faith, perhaps it would be as well not to call him too easily an ‘enemy of the Faith‘, unless the House of Justice has so designated him.
I guess that one of the objects of our meeting, for you, was to find out how I feel about the reviewing procedure myself. I wasn’t really helpful: the question was too big to answer and, in the end, I think we only talked about the risk it raises of public exposure. We can limit that by not trying to conceal the process: it would look much more damaging if it is unravelled by ‘investigative journalism’. But since it’s not really our function in the divine plan to please the world, this is not the most important consideration. A more important aspect of this is the standing of Baha’i scholarship in the non-Baha’i world. As you will be aware, non-Baha’i scholars have been critical of the review process, claiming that it invalidates Baha’i scholarship. They can present a picture of the Faith governed by an hierarchy which determines [the] orthodoxy of ideas, and rewrites history, using the review process to stifle dissent and a servile Baha’i scholarship to argue its case. If Baha’i scholarship is seen to be intent on maintaining orthodoxy, rather than pursuing truth, then it should and will be discounted, and non-Baha’i scholars will be able to present their views of the Faith without any real input from Baha’i’ scholars. What has been created is two worlds: the Baha’i scholars talking to the community, and the non-Baha’is describing the Faith to the world. I think we could learn a lot from closer cooperation with the non-Baha’is, but I could hardly expect them to accept as compulsory the results of the review process, so in practice I can’t offer to publish them.
However, much as we would like to have some credibility in the academic world, for its own sake and for its influence on the centers of power in society, that’s not really our mission and, after the exposure of the reviewing process in Religion, it’s a battle lost anyway. The real problems with reviewing are internal ones.
The application of the reviewing process to the publication of individual opinions is a source of disharmony between NSAs and those they must censor, creates cliques and ‘in-groups’ by limiting the circulation and choking the free critique of ideas, creates the suspicion that something is being hidden, and undermines the credibility of Baha’i scholarship and indeed of all of the literature known to have gone through the process, including those published Writings on whose authority and authenticity ordinary Baha’is must base their belief. It is unjust to the publishers, whose property it effectively confiscates without compensation, it blurs the distinction between the spheres of the Guardianship and the elected institutions and reduces the credibility of our claim that reason and the free investigation of truth have a legitimate role in religion.
The circulation of essays and papers serve in effect as deepenings, as a dialogue in writing between scholars working in a field. It is necessary here, as in a consultation, to have freedom to speak and especially to have freedom to print ideas which may be wrong. Writers with any humility (or realism) publish things for the first time with the expectation that something is bound to need correction, when the responses come in. Since the reviewing policy is aimed mainly at seeing that a presentation is ‘accurate’, the two are not going to sit well together, and a situation which guarantees clashes between the committee and publishers will be set up. By making reviews voluntary the existing machinery could offer some guidance and moderation while giving the deepening process the freedom to be wrong which it requires. Shoghi Effendi, in an interpretation of the closing passages of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament, makes it clear that the only exception to the rule of freedom of speech is in relation to covenant-breaking material, and I as publisher would observe that limit, and that limit alone, so far as matter for internal use goes.
Most of the above objections apply only to the application of the compulsory review policy to works of Baha’i scholarship intended for internal consumption and not purporting to be more than the opinions of the authors. I see no objection to voluntary review, and the principle of review — whether by peers or by committee, is part of the feedback mechanism in the self-critical process. Theology (in which I include religious history, philosophy of religion, and exegesis) grows out of, and must relate to, a community of belief which (eventually) validates or rejects or changes what theology offers. It is not a field in which the individual seeks and discovers truth in isolation. The review process is a reminder of this principle and a first step in the validation process. [On a more personal note: this is why I want to publish my own essays. Since starting the study of The Dispensation of Baha'u'llah, I have had my ideas about the Faith changed a great deal, so that in some areas relating to the covenant, authority, infallibility, administration, and the Guardianship, it is hardly recognisable as the same Faith I believed in a few years ago. It follows that I'm no longer speaking the same 'language' as most of the Baha'i community, which is getting pretty lonely. I have more research I'd like to be getting on with, I need to publish and get some feed-back on what I've already done. But most of what I've written has already been banned.]
Another objection specifically to a compulsory review is that it substitutes administrative machinery for the wisdom and virtue of the friends. Shoghi Effendi writes “Nothing but the spirit of a true Baha’i can hope to reconcile the principles of … freedom and submission, of the sanctity of the right of the individual and of self-surrender…” (cited, UHJ EMail to NSAUSA, 30 Mar 88). There can be no virtue without the freedom to excercise it, no wisdom unless there are choices to be made.
There is an (avoidable) risk also, that the existence of the policy will lead us into insincere defences of it. This is what happened in the Religion articles: Hatcher and Afnan tried to present the policy as a voluntary peer-review, which really was not honest. MacEoin pointed out the differences, both in mechanism and in intent, and of course that was devestating for the Faith, not only for what was revealed, but primarily because the Faith was seen to have been defended dishonestly. I was deeply ashamed: all of us must to some extent be affected by the inference that the Baha’i's have more interest in making propaganda than in speaking plain. Though there is no doubt that MacEoin is often bitter towards the Faith, on this occassion he had little choice: if he said nothing he would be allowing untruths to pass, which is the academic equivalent of a doctor breaking the Hippocratic oath. He told the world the truth, but he didn’t take the opportunity to put the knife in, which he might have done. We can’t defend this policy with any Baha’i principle, or any standard accepted in the world, at best we can say that it is a temporary necessity in view of certain (unfortunately undefined) dangers. What we absolutely must not do is dissemble or conceal it.
There are some practical problems with the Memorandum on Bahaí Publishing – the most important being that it does not give any guidance as to the standards to be applied. The meaning of ‘promptly’ in the Memorandum needs to be defined also, for each kind of publication, and reviewed as technology changes. Also, different levels of review are appropriate for different materials, ranging from new translations of scripture down to the bound and unbound circulation of papers among scholars, and the Memorandum does not allow for these differences. Nor does it tell us what to do with newsletters, such as that of BAFA here, or, in New Zealand, a newsletter for Baha’is working in education, and the newsletters of local communities which are circulated beyond the LSA area. One cannot review news, because the process is so slow. In practise it would appear NSAs turn a blind eye where the policy is obviously inapplicable, and I’ve no objection to that, since the review policy was originally intended to watch the standard of the presentation of the Faith, and, at the time it was instituted, there were no Baha’i publications of this type.
One has the sense of a structure designed for a purpose being more-or-less adapted to new needs, and getting increasingly ramshackle. The review process is well-designed to ensure “a dignified and accurate presentation of all Baha’i literature and its distribution to the general public.” (Though, as you will see in the review of Riggs’ book, this is not always achieved) Few would dispute that the Baha’i community, through its institutions, has a right to control the way its members and lesser institutions present its image to the world. However this is only the ‘public face’ of the reviewing procedure, which is now also used to prevent the publication of views which might ‘serve to foster contention among the friends to no good purpose’. In other words, it is used as a tool to help define what it is to be an orthodox Baha’i, and to ensure that the friends are not unduly troubled by heterodox opinions or inconsistent facts.
Some standard of orthodoxy is necessary to the community, for it is after all a community of belief. Some boundaries are necessary, and some interpretations must be excluded. We would all be distressed to find a Baha’i advocating extermination for the Third World as a way of “eliminating the extremes of poverty and wealth”, for example. But the elected institutions are responsible for unity of administration, while unity of doctrine is based on the Writings, on the Guardian, and, by implication, on the appointed institutions. Even if one allows that the elected institutions have some legitimate interest in doctrine, censorship is a singularly wrong-headed way to try to control doctrine. Modern history, and Baha’i history in particular, contains many examples showing that ideas can only effectively be countered with ideas, while suppression creates a group dynamic which reinforces and polarises dissent. ‘Abdu’l-Baha says that ‘interference in matters of conscience causes stability and firmness and attracts attention”. (Crisis and Victory, extract 70) It creates sub-groups and, ultimately, separate communities. Banning produces an ‘in’ group, who have got a copy of the text, and an ‘outer’ group, functioning on hearsay. It gives the attractive flavour of the forbidden to what might otherwise seem dull or pedantic, and it protects these papers from any searching critique, since their authors will generally not allow them to be cited before publication. In short, papers which have the fortune, or misfortune, to be banned acquire an almost legendary status, while others which are perhaps equally important are overlooked, and the development of a modern Baha’i scholarship is distorted by a preoccupation with heresies. I think that the method will prove futile, since, in the age of photocopiers, once a paper is given to one person its diffusion is beyond any control, and because educated people at least are no longer prepared to conform their beliefs to simple statements of authority. A reasoned case which takes account of the historical evidence is required, and of course one cannot refute in detail a paper which has not been formally published. There is no obvious way of knowing in advance what books or papers will be deemed to ‘foment discord.’ Predictability is important, since few of us, whether as scholars, or publishers, would wish to spend time on texts or subjects which the National Spiritual Assembly is likely to say may not be published, or has already banned. One way of making the process more predictable would be to ask the NSAs to give reasons when they decide that a paper cannot be published at all. One could then build up a picture of the standards which are being applied.
The biggest aggravations are the unpredictability of the process, replies which show little knowledge of the topics, or give no reasons for decisions, and above all (as a publisher) tardiness. But some of the fault perhaps lies in the very nature of a committee structure. A committee, if it is to function with the normal rules as to quorum, and is only 2 or 3 persons, cannot reliably provide prompt reviews, since there will always be times when members are away on holiday or in ill health, and at other times a major publishing project will tie up the committee’s time for long periods. Having to have a single national committee for reviewing also creates a bottle-neck. I have suggested to the NSA of NZ that designated LSAs who have the resources available might be authorised to review works, perhaps in a limited field – such as publications in one tongue, or on one subject – on which they have the required expertise. National committees might also review materials relevant to their field. Personally, I think the whole process should be taken out of the hands of the elected institutions, and be made a task of specially appointed auxiliary board members (comparable to those appointed here for youth and women’s issues). However, since the appointed members cannot make binding administrative decisions, this would also mean a shift to a voluntary review process, which is perhaps too much to hope for now. Of course a voluntary system would not constrain those who write in bad faith, but then no Baha’i system could. Only the scholarly system of mutual criticism will correct excesses of this type.
In the Roman Catholic church, it is left to the author/publisher to find two people, from those authorised, who will give their “no objection” to the book. If a book appears without this behind the title page, readers will know that it must be of rather questionable orthodoxy. It’s a good system, effective as a restraint, fast and flexible, and actually results in higher standards. One can seek a reviewer with some expertise in the field, whereas an NSA and reviewing committee are not in practice able to review some scholarly work effectively. Some Baha’i scholars have specialised in their field for years and have achieved world-wide stature as historians, philosophers, or textual commentators. These scholars’ ideas can be tested — but only by publishing them and letting their peers try to improve on them. The NSA puts itself, in some cases, in the embarrassing position of having to put its ‘pass’ on works which it cannot effectively judge, which is why I suggest that scholarly works should be printed with a disclaimer to the effect that the NSA does not endorse the ideas expressed.
Some essays will put forward ideas which are contrary to the present ideas held in the Baha’i community in general, saying that the concepts of the Faith held by Baha’is are incorrect. This will apply to the opinions held by NSA members as much as to any others. If the NSA assumes the competency to review scholarship for ‘accuracy’ then these new understandings of the Faith will be able to be disseminated only so fast as the NSA can come to terms with them. Once published, of course, the criticism of other scholars will no doubt overturn some of the new ideas, and the NSA would have to come to terms with that, in turn. The NSA needs to distance itself from the arena in which ideas are put up and knocked down. If it is ‘passing’ on ideas it will be in a perpetual no-win situation.
It seems to me that this sort of situation will always be the norm. Though there are times when the NSA identifies a deficiency in the community’s understanding of the Faith, and seeks to lead the community to better understanding, in general the friends will elect members who are deepened believers, but they are unlikely (God willing) to elect an NSA of leading scholars. The usual situation will be that the NSA members will have a knowledge of the Faith which is comprehensive but reflects the views normally current in the community. Baha’i scholarship will focus on the areas in which the authors believe that the present comprehension of the community is lacking, or the language or logic used is inadequate, because those are the areas in which there is something interesting to say. I see this as the most important function of Baha’i’ theology, it amounts to the community’s process of self-criticism. Where an NSA puts compulsory controls on the process it creates a closed system like that of past religious orthodoxies. It would also effectively annul the separation of the rulers and learned, which creates a dialectic process of internal criticism of belief and ideas, and so would remove one of the chief advantages of the abolition of the clergy. The separation of legislation from interpretation, and administration from doctrine, is one of the key ideas in Shoghi Effendi’s vision of the Baha’i administrative order. One might hope that NSAs would limit themselves to checking that facts and quotations are accurate, and so avoid making rulings on interpretation and doctrine. Where they simply make corrections and suggestions, in the way that you and JJ described, there’s no problem (so far as internal literature goes). But I know that in New Zealand, the United States, and Britain at least, NSAs have used this power to decide which ideas may not be expressed in the community. This seems to me to be a usurpation of the Guardian’s role. The institutions cannot expect to recieve the confirmations and guidance of Baha’u'llah unless they stay within the sphere set out for them. This is the real heart of the matter, because it is not a question of expediency, or what is good for the community, or even of integrity, but of the basic covenant principles.
Since scholars are bound to be criticising ideas which the NSA will (generally) share, there is a certain sense of injustice or disproportion in the idea of the NSA exercising compulsory jurisdiction over the scholar’s publishing. The sense of disproportion is a fruitful source of friction between scholars and administration.
So much for the general objections. I suspect that you may be rather more interested in how it’s all affecting me. Most of the problems above affect me in a detached way, as risks and problems which result for the community from the reviewing policy. As a publisher, the aggravating aspects I noted above certainly aggravate me — particularly the incredible slowness of the process. As a writer, I’m not particularly troubled by not being able to have my say; I’ve got the benefit of having put things on paper, and, while it would be pleasant to be able to publish and get feedback, so long as (or to the extent that) I can read what other people are writing, I’m not too critically set back. I’ve heard that Tillich wrote under a complete publication ban for 30 years, and still produced a very powerfully conceived systematic theology. As a theologian, I’m somewhat troubled by the apparent gradual tendency to blur distinctions which I regard as essential, but I’m not going to form a separate purist sect: I’m not that sure of being right, and, in any case, the very least that infallibility must mean is that God will put it right eventually, and that one may not oppose what God tolerates. So I’ve chewed through most of this.
What remains to bother me is the banned material that I haven’t been able to get hold of. One’s belief has always to be conditional, based on what one knows and understands at a given time, but knowing that the institutions who stand most to gain from one’s continuing belief are keeping some material back has to qualify one’s belief in a rather more radical sense. It’s not just that there are papers by Baha’i scholars which are kept from the community, but also that these same institutions are responsible for selecting the portions of the Writings to be translated, and deciding what sections of the records in the archives are to be open to examination. In doing so they are guided by their own priorities and values, particularly by their own task of ensuring the protection and growth of the Faith. But these are not the same as my personal needs as a believer, to know what really happened, what was really written, and so forth. Since I don’t have Arabic or Farsi myself, and am no historian, access to originals would be meaningless to me. I can’t get assurance on the point until the House of Justice is prepared to allow scholars to check its originals and other documents and publish their results – which doesn’t seem likely at present. Still, I find it possible to live with this level of uncertainty, relying rather more on faith and grace, and rather less on easy certainties, than used to be the case.
Love from us both
Sonja and Sen
encl. Open Circle flier
letter, Herald of the South.
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