Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

What is theology, and what’s it good for ?

Posted by Sen on October 1, 2008

On my web site, I’ve put up my part of two discussion threads about theology, and how the Bahai community can face the fact that some people know more than others, on particular topics, but without replicating the structures of past religions in which greater knowledge often translates into greater authority.

It’s the first and third items on the page
Click on the blue PDF buttons.

The threads have started because of my statement in my Master’s dissertation, Church and State, a postmodern political theology:

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 judgments will have to make the necessary adjustments here and there.”

The Universal House of Justice (who had apparently seen only a selective citation, omitting the words in italics) found the idea of a Bahai theologian objectionable, calling it “a claim that lies well outside the framework of Bahá’í belief and practice,” and removed me from the membership rolls of the Baha’i community.

At various times, people have suggested that the real reason for my disenrollment was something else: – ‘challenging the UHJ’; ‘wanting to set up a body of experts to define Bahai theology’; ‘wanting to give the Mashriqu’l-adhkars some kind of doctrinal authority’; doing something unspecified in Tehran, political involvement, disregarding Bahai review, or the actual content of my book Church and State(i.e., that the separation of the religious order and political order is an essential Bahai teaching and is indeed one of the ancient teachings of the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Babi and Bahai Faiths.

The House of Justice itself has said, in separate letters, that Bahai review and the contents of Church and State were not the basis of its decision to expel me, the others are also obvious canards. They can be unmasked by asking the spreaders of falsehoods: (a) “So if you know the real reason Sen was expelled, how did the UHJ tell you this?” (b) “are you saying that the UHJ was not being honest about its reasons?” And (c), “suppose that what you say was the real reason, where’s the evidence that Sen actually did or wrote what you say?”

Having disposed of the misinformation, the core issue remains: what is theology, and what is it good for? This is often formulated as the issue of Reason and Revelation, but that is a misstatement. The ‘reason’ in this case is our reason, the ‘Revelation’ is God’s revelation of Godself and God’s will, and clearly our reason is inadequate to the task. The formulation ‘Reason and Revelation’ decides the issue before we start, in favour of Revelation.

But the formulation is wrong, because we never have the Revelation – we each rather have our own understanding and recognition of the Revelation. That understanding and recognition is something we make for ourselves; it is always inadequate and incomplete, it contains inconsistencies, it is mixed with other ideas we have brought in our baggage, and it can always be improved upon. So our understandings – our ideas, not the Revelation itself – can be criticized, clarified, purified and strengthened. And that I think is what theology is good for.

Post Script 2018:
I have been reading Udo Schaefer’s ‘Loyalty to the covenant and Critical thought‘ (PDF) and found this section nicely relevant:

While we have to be scientific in our methods, it must be clear that the revelation of Baha’u’llah remains our point of reference. When we systematically explore this revelation, we are not scientists but theologians. A theologian is not merely a student of religion; he is committed to his faith. He who pursues religious studies just for their own sake, as {l’art pour l’art} so to speak, and sacrifices his spiritual ties and commitment to the revelation on the altar of studies, offers no benefits, but only causes damage.

~~Sen McGlinn~~
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Compilation on the learned
The knower as servant (response to Paul Lample) (2008)
Knowledge: project or process? (2009)

and in the email archive:

Scholarship and review in the Bahai community (1990)
Scholars in the Bahai Community 1 (1996)
Scholars in the Bahai Community 2 (1996)
Foreword to ‘Church and State’ (2005; see the section on the limits of theology)
Theology – 2005-12-03
Theology 2005-10-17
Theology 2005-10-21
Theology – 2005-12-03
Theologians, the learned and the wise (2006)
Theology 2006-02-13
Theology 2007-01-01
Theology 2008-06-03
Church, State, experts, consensus (Oct. 2009)
Theology – a defence (2009)
No Clergy?” (2009)
Theology 2009-10-00
Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion” (2010?)
Method and focus in my Church and State (2010?)

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