The Supreme Institution
Posted by Sen on December 16, 2008
Older Bahais, like me, will have noticed a new way of referring to the Universal House of Justice, as “the supreme institution.” I think I first noticed people saying this about 1985. In Anna’s Presentation we find “We have already spoken about the supreme institution, which is the Universal House of Justice…”. Paul Lample, in his Preface to A Wider Horizon, Selected Letters [of the Universal House of Justice] refers to “a continuous flow of guidance that comes from the Supreme Body.”
A google search turns up plenty of examples in more or less formal documents and presentations intended for the public:
and anyone who follows the blogsphere and discussion lists can find countless more examples of this.
Shoghi Effendi refers to the Universal House of Justice as:
the supreme legislative body at the World Administrative Center
(Citadel of Faith, p. 84)
the supreme administrative body in the Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh
(Directives from the Guardian, p. 50)
its [the Bahai Faith’s] supreme administrative council
(Citadel of Faith, p. 82)
the Bahá’í Supreme Administrative Body
(Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand, p. 98)
the Supreme Legislative Body of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh
(Messages to Canada, p. 25)
[the Bahai Faith’s] supreme administrative institution
(Messages to the Baha’i World – 1950-1957, p. 7)
[the] supreme legislative organ of nascent, divinely-conceived, world-encircling Bahá’í Administrative Order
(Messages to the Baha’i World – 1950-1957, p. 19)
the supreme legislative body of the Bahá’í world
(Messages to the Baha’i World – 1950-1957, p. 20)
the supreme legislative body of the Administrative Order of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh
(Messages to the Baha’i World – 1950-1957, p. 158; The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 316)
the supreme organ of the Bahá’í Commonwealth
(The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 7)
that Supreme Council that will guide, organize and unify the affairs of the Movement throughout the world
(Baha’i Administration, p. 39)
the Supreme Body [for] … the affairs of the Cause
(Baha’i Administration, p. 40)
…but never as the Supreme Institution. The terms Shoghi Effendi does use, make it clear that the UHJ is not the supreme body of anything except the Bahai community, and even there it is supreme within the administrative and legislative spheres. Shoghi Effendi also refers to himself, or rather the institution of the Guardianship, as “the supreme spiritual head of the community,” (Directives from the Guardian, p. 81), and to the Mashriqu’l-adhkar, the house of worship, is “the crowning institution in every Bahá’í community.” (Baha’i Administration, p. 108).
So the Universal House of Justice may be called the “supreme organ of the Bahá’í Commonwealth” or the “Bahá’í Supreme Administrative Body,” but it is not “the supreme body.” It is supreme within a sphere and in relation to a purpose. The point I’m making here is like the difference between an absolute monarchy and a constitutional monarchy: in the latter, the constitutional law is supreme and specifies the role and limits of each body. In the Bahai Faith, the Covenant plays the same role: it is both the charter and the limit for each organ in the Bahai body.
That the terms “the Supreme Institution” and “the Supreme Body” are widely used is certain. Yet the UHJ does not use such terms: it refers to itself rather as “the supreme institution of an Administrative Order” (The Constitution of The Universal House of Justice, p. 8 ) or as one of the two “supreme institutions of the Administrative Order” (1992 Preface to the Aqdas). However I have found three examples of this usage in letters from other institutions at the Bahai World Centre, which may explain how the new term first caught on (note the dates) :
“The Supreme Body has informed us that it believes … promoting within the Bahá’í community an atmosphere of tolerance for the views of others.” From a letter of the International Teaching Centre dated 22 March 1981
“The Supreme Body assures you of its continued prayers at the Holy Shrines for the growth and development of this important endeavour.” Department of the Secretariat to the National Spiritual Assembly of Peru, dated 08/12/86 (Compilations, Guidance for Baha’i Radio, p. 13)
In a letter dated 2 January 1986 written by the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World, the Supreme Body announced the inception of the fourth epoch of the Formative Age. (From the Research Department, published in A Wider Horizon, Selected Letters 1983-1992, p. 178)
This usage was not found in the 1960s or 1970s to my knowledge. I think the change in terms used for the UHJ is significant. I think that the shorter terms such as “the Supreme Body” are – usually – a way of indicating that the speaker asserts the UHJ’s ideal supremacy over everything and everybody. Whether that is the intention or not, it will sound that way to hearers.
The same sort of dynamics, an ‘inflation’ of titles and claims, exist in all religious movements that I know of, from New Religious Movements to Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and Shiah and Sunni Islam. In all religions, there are minimisers and there are exaggerators, and there is an internal dynamic that favours the exaggerators, so that in the long term the metaphysical claims a religion makes and the titles it uses inflate.
The dynamic that favours the exaggerators is that an exaggeration always appears more pious, even if technically wrong. And what is just “more pious” in this generation, is self-evident orthodoxy for the next. Those who want to seem more fervently pious then have to move up one step of hyperbole.
There is also a motivation for the minimizers: hyperbolic language invites negative reactions from the state and society and other religious communities, it promotes conflict and is a barrier to conversions. This is a particularly weighty motivation for NRMs and expanding, missionary religious communities. Justin Martyr in Christian history, or the “moderate” wing of the Ahmadiyya are examples. By resisting the trend to exaggerate, they achieved missionary success and defended their faiths from mistrust.
Sometimes the two groups will simply drift apart, as in the case of the Ahmadiyya, but if they remain together, the trend to exaggeration seems to almost always outweigh the minimizers because, in determining how the religion is transmitted down the generations, the internal dynamics of a religious community are far more important than the external dynamics. So just as economies are far more likely to inflate than deflate, the metaphysical claims of religious communities are far more prone to inflation than deflation.
Reading Shoghi Effendi’s “the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah” with this general religious tendency to exaggerate in mind, it appears to me that Shoghi Effendi, as he defines the station of the Manifestation, of Abdu’l-Baha, of the Guardian and the House of Justice, draws boundaries at both the top and bottom, but is more vigorous about denying and denouncing exaggerated claims. (The exception is the chapter on the Bab, where he seems more concerned to counter a minimisation trend that existed in the Bahai community of the time.)
The “sticklers” – those who, in a tradition with a written corpus of doctrines, insist on the exact words, nothing more or less, rarely seem to have much influence, perhaps because their influence is unseen (since its best outcome is no change in metaphysical claims and language), or because in any community there are only a few who are really interested in exactitude.
If we accept that there is a general dynamic in favour of the exaggerators, we can look at how this plays out in the long term, and here I think we do have to distinguish between New Religious Movements and other religions in a pluralist setting, on the one hand, and a dominant religious community on the other. Where a religion has been dominant for some time, so that it has become part of the culture, a doctrinal exaggeration that has been accepted as a pious practice can become “common sense.” The sale of indulgences in medieval Catholicism is an example. For a dominant religious community, there are few outsiders to remind the users of how blasphemous or absurd the claim sounds, there is no down side for the community.
But in a pluralist or NRM setting, exaggerations do have a negative effect: at the same time as they give the user credibility as a more fervently pious person within the community, they undermine the credibility of the whole religious community in the wider society. Can one imagine what a hearer hears, when hearing in Anna’s Presentation: “We have already spoken about the supreme institution, which is the Universal House of Justice…”. They are being asked to ‘silently agree’ to this proposition, and those with any brains will scream, no way!
Unless the religious community has a wise leadership that intervenes, the dynamics that promote exaggeration within the community will continue, despite the negative effects vis-a-vis the world. The internal dynamics are more important in shaping how the religion is transmitted, than the negative feedback from external reactions. Therefore, I suggest, for a minority religious community the inflation of terms and claims will continue, until it pops like a market bubble, when it reaches the point at which what one “must” say, under social pressure, in order to be pious and belong, has become so implausible that the younger generation and outsiders turn away from the religion entirely.