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The knower as servant (response to Paul Lample)

Posted by Sen on October 20, 2008

I’ve been reading Paul Lample’s “Learning and the Evolution of the Bahá’í Community.” From page 15, he presents various possible roles for the “learned Bahai” in the Bahai community, saying among other things that learned Baha’i is not an “artist”, and concluding “Perhaps the learned Baha’i is more like the ‘scout’ who helps to guide an expedition on a journey into unexplored territory.” I found it striking that he did not mention the possibility that the learned Bahai could be a servant, someone who uses knowledge to minister to the faithful.

The starting point seems to me to be

“”Are they equal, those who know, and those who do not know?…” (Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, citing Quran 39:12).

We must start here because it is the inequality between those who know and those who do not that creates the issue in the first place. This is not a social inequality, it is inherent in knowing something that is valuable, or not knowing it. But we can also see that the person with a spare dollar is not equal with the person who has no dollar to spare; that the person with a wonderful singing voice is not the equal of the croaker. It’s the difference between having a potential, and not having that potential.

That leads us immediately to the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14, the one that starts:

The parable of the talents, as depicted in a 1712 woodcut. The lazy servant searches for his buried talent, while the two other servants present their earnings to their master.

“For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another, one…”

and ends

“.. cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness.”

We certainly don’t want to go there! So the non-use of knowledge is not an option. Whatever has a use, cannot be left to lie fallow. And it seems to me that the proper use of the knowledge, the dollar or the talent we have is to help our fellows, most especially those in most need of whatever it is we have to offer.

If the ‘talent’ that we can offer our fellows is some knowledge specific to a religious community, one use for it will be to minister to the faithful – and especially those in the most need. That may mean simply teaching something to those who do not know:

“First drink thou therefrom, and proffer it then to such as turn towards it amongst the peoples of all faiths.” (The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 56)

However when I think of the needy, whom knowledge can help, it is not the merely ignorant, but rather the conflicted, that I have in mind. There is no end to learning, and the process of learning is not a “problem” that needs to be ministered to. Ignorance is our normal state, just as much as learning is a normal activity. But intellectual conflicts, doubts, a feeling of internal contradiction about our own beliefs and commitment — this is a problem, and painful. This is where the person with specific religious knowledge may be able to help. When I find someone who does not know something I do know, I do not necessarily feel I ought to share with them. Each learning has its own trajectory. But when I meet a soul who is distressed by internal conflict, and I think that I have some piece of knowledge, some redefinition or logical connection, which could relieve that distress, I do feel an unconditional imperative to help.

Very often, intellectual conflicts come because what our innate feeling for the good tells us is not in line with what we think “religious” teachings are, or what “being religious” means in practice.

For instance, many believers walk around with a practical daily world view which recognises that religion is not everything, while feeling that as believers, religion ought to be their ruling line (and passion) in every aspect of life. They know for instance that church and state have to be separated, that religion and scientific knowledge are two different things, that one cannot run a company on the basis of giving all to the needy — but their religious world-view says that ideally religion should be everything to them and, ideally, one religious ethic should govern all spheres of life. This is a picture of religiosity derived from the age of ideologies, from a monist model of society, and it is no way to build a humane society or to live in a complex organic society. Such people are conflicted: what they really do believe and act, what stands them in good stead in actually living in a complex and religiously pluralist world, is not the same as what they think they ought to believe and feel. And they know in their hearts that what they think religion urges them to realise in the world, would in fact never work in the world.

The problem here is not with religion as such, but with a religious world-view that was formed in another age, and no longer answers. There is a need for a postmodern religious world-view, that corresponds to the postmodern society we live in, and I do think that the learned-as-artist has a role to play in this, despite Lample’s critique. Indeed I suggest that nothing can be contributed to the world except through creativity:

“Through the mere revelation of the word “Fashioner,” issuing forth from His lips and proclaiming His attribute to mankind, such power is released as can generate, through successive ages, all the manifold arts which the hands of man can produce.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 141)


“Beware, O My loved ones, lest ye despise the merits of My learned servants whom God hath graciously chosen to be the exponents of His Name ‘the Fashioner’ amidst mankind.” (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 150)

It goes without saying that God creates ‘ex nihilo,’ while we create from what God has given us. In the case of theology, we create from the examples of the Manifestations, from scriptural resources, and from questions. Creativity is not an optional characteristic of scholarship, it is inherent. The choice is between being conscious of it, and distinguishing it from the materials we were given, or being unaware of it and blithely supposing that what we ‘find’ in the Writings is simply their intended meaning — as if we could stand in the shoes of that Author !

I think that the role of the servant is a better model for the learned Bahai than that of a scout, because the scout explores where he wants to go, while the servant helps people where they are.

In the first place, if we are talking about people with religious knowledge who write or speak about it (theologians), the theologies that start with where people are, and where they are hurting, are vastly more readable than those that report back on the territories that the scout found interesting. Scouting is a hobby for the private sphere: it is not the kind of service that a theologian offers to his or her community. Lively and effective theology is always pastoral.

In the second place, if we are not clear that our scouting is a hobby, and the real work is serving the community where it finds itself, we set up a trap of pride or frustration for ourselves, because we imagine we have some right to set the agenda. As servants, it is the questions and needs of those we serve that set our agenda.

Thirdly, the idea of the scholar as a scout going out to unexplored territories implies that the community already knows all it needs to know about the territory it now occupies. If only

If we are first clear that the function of religious knowledge (theology) and of the theologian is to minister to the faithful, where they are and with whatever needs they have, then there is no need to make a priori rules about what this involves. It will involve some degree of creativity, and of reason, and of knowledge, and certainly of compassion. It may involve simple teaching or pastoral activity: assisting development rather than responding to those in distress. It must always mean responding to distress. It may involve archaeological activity, in the form of text-critical and philological work that re-examines those areas in which the Text seems to be teaching one thing, while the Spirit is telling us another. It may involve being the impartial, or critical, observer and reporter, for self-deception is the inevitable accompaniment of a misfit between what we think we ought to think and what we know is right. The one who cries that the king “is in the altogether, the altogether,” is also serving the community.

~~Sen McGlinn~~
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Compilation on the learned
What is theology, and what’s it good for ? (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?)

6 Responses to “The knower as servant (response to Paul Lample)”

  1. […]

    Paul Lample’s talk can be downloaded as a pdf from

    I was responding to a section on page 16, and not so much disagreeing with him (although I do disagree about the importance of creativity in scholarship) as pointing out one very obvious role of the “learned Bahai” that he has missed out. If we take Abdu’l-Baha as our model of Bahai scholarship, then the role of the servant must surely be the first thing that comes to mind. He meets people where they are, resolves their difficulties, helps them along the way.

    Lample sets out “A variety of metaphors [tp] help clarify the role of a learned Bahá’í in … the progress of the Bahá’í community.”
    – “The learned Bahá’í is not a “gatekeeper” or “priest.”
    – “The learned Bahá’í is not an “anthropologist” of the Bahá’í community.”
    – “The learned Bahá’í is not an “archeologist.” The “true” meaning of the Faith is not lost somewhere in the past,…”
    – “The learned Bahá’í is not an “artist” who is free to shape the teachings according to some criteria of personal choice or creativity….”
    – “The learned Bahá’í is not an “impartial observer.”…”
    – “Perhaps the learned Bahá’í is more like the “scout”…”

    My suggestion is first that the role of the servant cannot be omitted, and also that we do not need to lay down prescriptions about what the learned Baha’i should not be or do: we can ask ourselves whether what we are doing is serving the Friends, is serving humanity, is advancing civilization. The role of the servant, and the example of the Servant of Baha, already give us a critical standard that can be applied to every act and each project.

  2. William said

    Hi Sen

    One agreements, one disagreement. First the disagreement:

    I think you have missunderstood Paul Lample’s similie of the learned being like a scout. When he says scout I imagine a scout who is scouting for an army. That scout does not go where he wants to go. The scout has not a hobby but a job. I suggest that is a better reading of Mr Lample’s intended meaning.

    Agreement: I tend to agree that we do not need to lay down prescriptions as to what the learned Bahai should/should-not be. I find I am hard put to say in a few words why, but I ask – Are any of these prescriptions very convincing? It strikes me that they are either formalistic, almost empty, truisms: seek the truth, seek wisdom or understanding; or less empty but as GENERAL or UNIVERSAL advice, false. So Mr Lample says a learned Bahai is not an anthropologist of the Bahai community, archiologist or ‘impatial observer’. But sometimes each of these ‘roles’ makes perfect sense, leads to something of worth. Surely there are moments in some valid research/thinking by some learned Bahais in which archiology, anthropology or (especially) impartial observation are just the thing. Just as surely, they can at moments be a mistake. Learning is a comples business and can be carried out in many different ways.

    Lastly, I was much struck by your two quotations where Bahaullah refers to ‘the Fashioner’ in relation to the arts and the learned. It certainly suggests that He is saying that scholarship and science has an essential creative aspect to it. The first quotation might seem to be about the plastic and literary arts only, but the second seems to be inconsistent with that notion – ‘the Fashioner’ is just as applicable to science, it seems. I mean to look further into ‘the Fashioner’ in the writings.



  3. John said

    Dear Sen,

    I have a question , do you accept the possibility that you are not capable of understanding everything ?
    That you are not all-knowing, all-understanding?
    If your answer is yes couldn’t it be that there could be truths presented to you that you do not understand or recognise as truth, since you are not all-knowing by your own answer.Since truth can be presented to you without you recognising this truth cognitively, how do you decide to learn new truth ?Or better who decides what is true about your opinions and what is true of other opinions ?
    Maybe you want to share some of your thoughts..
    I do like your weblog/site bye the way 🙂

    Greetings John

  4. Sen said

    Hi John

    Limited understanding, and limited information, are among the few certainties we have. Abdu’l-Baha answered this question in Some Answered Questions:

    “The first method is by the senses–…

    The second is the method of reason, which was that of the ancient philosophers, the pillars of wisdom; this is the method of the understanding. They proved things by reason and held firmly to logical proofs; all their arguments are arguments of reason. Notwithstanding this, they differed greatly, and their opinions were contradictory. … Therefore, it is evident that the method of reason is not perfect, for the differences of the ancient philosophers, the want of stability and the variations of their opinions, prove this. For if it were perfect, all ought to be united in their ideas and agreed in their opinions.

    “The third method of understanding is by tradition [this is a bad translation, the word is naql, not hadith: naql is what is handed down ie scriptures] — that is, through the text of the Holy Scriptures–for people say, “In the Old and New Testaments, God spoke thus.” This method equally is not perfect, because the traditions are understood by the reason. As the reason itself is liable to err, how can it be said that in interpreting the meaning of the traditions it will not err, for it is possible for it to make mistakes, and certainty cannot be attained. This is the method of the religious leaders; whatever they understand and comprehend from the text of the books is that which their reason understands from the text, and not necessarily the real truth; for the reason is like a balance, and the meanings contained in the text of the Holy Books are like the thing which is weighed. If the balance is untrue, how can the weight be ascertained?

    Know then: that which is in the hands of people, that which they believe, is liable to error. For, in proving or disproving a thing, if a proof is brought forward which is taken from the evidence of our senses, this method, as has become evident, is not perfect; if the proofs are intellectual, the same is true; or if they are traditional [scriptural], such proofs also are not perfect. Therefore, there is no standard in the hands of people upon which we can rely.

    But the bounty of the Holy Spirit gives the true method of comprehension which is infallible and indubitable. This is through the help of the Holy Spirit which comes to man, and this is the condition in which certainty can alone be attained.

    [The last sentence is mistranslated: the meaning is:
    “But the Holy Spirit is the sound standard, for in it there is never the least doubt. Those [others], are aids to the Holy Spirit, which comes to a person: in it, he attains the stations of certitude.”]

    So there we have it: scripture, understood through reason (which is basically what I do on my blog, the marriage of reason and faith, or “faith seeking understanding”), is fallible because our own reasoning faculty is fallible. Also, the knowledge on which the reason works is limited: for example I have not read the bulk of Shoghi Effendi’s Persian writings, or the Bab’s writings, I haven’t read the Kitab-e Badi`, and there are quite a few of the less extensive Bahai Writings which are unavailable to anyone, preserved in unique manuscripts. So we work with a limited tool on limited resources.

    However, note Abdu’l-Baha’s last paragraph. It seems to me to be saying that certitude is not the product of more and more knowledge or more understanding of that knowledge. Certitude is the gift of the Holy Spirit and is apparently not propositional. It is a state of being. This I have, in as much as nothing shakes my faith, including big changes in my own understanding and knowledge. I attribute this to grace, not to effort or knowledge.

    Another interesting point about this section of Some Answered Questions is that the understanding which religion offers is not raised above the understanding that reason seeks. Our understandings of both are deficient, for the same reason: our own limitations.

    In addition to the theoretical impossibility of attaining certainty through the senses, reason or scripture, we also have limitations because of the period we live in. For example, I greatly admire Maimonides, and not so much, Origen. Both were engaged in renewing the marriage of reason and faith (which has to be re-made in each generation).

    Origen was a pioneer in a young community, and he achieved a great deal. He began laying scriptural texts and different versions of texts side by side and comparing them. He developed a pastoral theology around the idea of milk for babes and meat for the strong, which combatted Christian perfectionism which, had it gained the upper hand, would have stopped the growth of the religion dead. He also spent a lot of time on his rational proof that the soul is spherical, that is, in harmonising Christian theology with platonism in an area that proved to be an irrelevant waste of time. (Whereas translating Christian theology into the language of the Greek thinkers was valuable.)

    Maimonides in contrast hardly ever puts a foot wrong, but he was working in the 12th century of the Christian era, and he builds, roughly speaking, on 15 centuries of Jewish theology – which in his own day had become fruitless: the marriage of faith and reason had to be re-made. The dead ends had already been explored: with his knowledge of past Jewish scholarship and historical developments, he could see what not to do, an insight that Origen did not have.

    We live like Origen in the early centuries, it is only reasonable to expect about half of our work to be nonsense. We must trust to history to hold the good and blow the husks away.

    We can give ourselves a head start by formulating our questions carefully. Not asking, what will happen in the Golden Age, but what did Shoghi Effendi think when he spoke of the golden age? Not asking ‘what is the ideal form of government’ but ‘what did Baha’u’llah say about government.’ Not ‘what is the shape of the soul’ but ‘what do the scriptures say about the soul?’ That gives us questions whose answers are in the scriptures, and it directs us to look for correlations within the scriptures, rather than spinning off into speculations based on a single text, or none. It also directs me to what I call the biographical method, which is to say, always bearing in mind that this text and that text that I am examining come from one person, are the product of one mind and character, and the reading of both should be compared to my picture of the person who produced each.

    Finally, the Covenant gives us a hermeneutics. It tells us that the revealed word of Baha’u’llah is sovereign, that the explanations and the life of Abdu’l-Baha embody the teachings and spirit of Baha’u’llah, that the Guardian is the authorised interpreter of both of the above and “cannot legislate”, that the legislation and elucidations of the UHJ not authorised interpretations of the Writings. Each of these points tells us how to read the relevant texts, and when the writings and guidance are read in this way, I find that they are in fact coherent. Difficulties arise from three sources: reliance on unauthentic texts, category errors (eg confusing ‘established religion’ with ‘theocracy’), and failure to read each authentic text through the lens of the Covenant categories.

  5. John said

    Dear Sen ,

    Thank you for your answer it will take some time for me to digest, i would like to respond on it later
    on because it has given me new insights on how to deal with this.At the same time there are words wich i need to look up like “hermeneutics” :).. English is not my native tongue so in orde to read and understand english i need some more time. I also find that i need to digest things with my heart apart from my head,but thank you for your quick response.One quick question though : who translated Some Answered Questions into english ? Or were the original answers in english ? i think not because how would you otherwise have been able to see an original text which i derive from your remark about the mistranslation.

    Greetings John

  6. Sen said

    Hermeneutics are the rules and approaches used in interpreting a text. For example, if a physics text says the temperature is 10 degrees Celsius, we know to read that as between 9.5 and 10.5 degrees, because in the context of physics, if we meant 10.0 or 10.00 or 10.000 degrees we would say so. Sometimes “a hermeneutic” is an interpretative approach that someone consciously chooses: we can read the Old Testament texts to find examples of the exploitation of workers by the ruling elite (as one character in Fiddler on the Roof does). But I am using the word more in the first sense: the Covenant itself contains rules on how we should interpret texts, and it would be as foolish to ignore them as to ignore the conventions of physics when reading a physics text, because the writers were themselves conscious of these rules and expect the reader to apply them.

    Some Answered Questions was translated from Persian to French by Dreyfus, and then from the French to English by his wife. It was also translated from French into German. I am pretty confident that the French text is the source because Dreyfus was a translator (he did the Iqan and other works) and because details in the French translation are reflected in both the English and German translations and correspond to the understandings of the Faith that Dreyfus shows in his own books on the subject. For example, a footnote all three first editions says incorrectly that the International Tribunal is the same thing as the House of Justice – which matches Dreyfus’s own misunderstanding of the Church and State question.

    Dreyfus was a very good translator, but this was I think the first translation he attempted, and it is a demanding text because of the Islamic philosophical and scientific terminology it uses. It is not up to the standard of his Iqan.

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