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:
“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…”
“.. 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.
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 – 2005-12-03
Theologians, the learned and the wise (2006)
Church, State, experts, consensus (Oct. 2009)
Theology – a defence (2009)
“No Clergy?” (2009)
“Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion” (2010?)
Method and focus in my Church and State (2010?)