Century’s end – my two cents
Posted by Sen on January 12, 2009
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Corinthians 13:11
The word ‘century’ appears unproblematic: a period of a hundred years, which in common usage begins with the year 00 (although sticklers will insist that the century begins in the year 01, so that the 21st century began on 1 January 2001). But in reading the Bahai texts, things are not so simple. In this post I want to look at the peculiar significance Bahais have mistakenly attached to the 20th century and what can be learned from the whole affair; in the next posting I will look at what the Bahai writings really say about the ‘century’ (not the 20th century).
Things of childhood
Let’s begin by going back in time, to see how the Bahais of 30 years ago looked at the approaching end of the 20th century.
On 29 July 1974 the Universal House of Justice wrote a letter about …
..the preoccupation of some American believers with the date of the Lesser Peace, and with their feeling that ‘the calamity,’ as a prelude to that peace, is imminent. It is true that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made statements linking the establishment of the unity of nations to the twentieth century. For example [in the “7 candles”]: “The fifth candle is the unity of nations — a unity which, in this century, will be securely established, causing all the peoples of the world to regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland.” And, in The Promised Day is Come, following a similar statement quoted from Some Answered Questions, Shoghi Effendi makes this comment: “This is the stage which the world is now approaching, the stage of world unity, which, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us, will, in this century, be securely established.”
It is significant that this preoccupation was among American Bahais: their sensitivity to this theme has been supported by the more millenarian character of American Christianity.
What is striking is that the UHJ has quoted a text referring to the unity of nations “in this century”, and has interpreted it as referring to “the twentieth century.” They have read what they expected to find in the words, rather than what is actually there.
In a similar letter to an individual believer dated April 15, 1976, the Universal House of Justice writes: “Abdu’l-Baha anticipated that the Lesser Peace could be established before the end of the twentieth century.” (cited here, page 6)
In a letter addressed to a Bahai Youth Conference on July 4, 1983, the Universal House of Justice writes “You will live your lives in a period when the forces of history are moving to a climax, when mankind will see the establishment of the Lesser Peace, and during which the Cause of God will play an increasingly prominent role in the reconstruction of human society.”
The UHJ’s reading of ‘century’ as “twentieth century” was the one generally accepted in western Bahai communities of the time, and this is the first important lesson to be learnt: the UHJ’s understanding of the Bahai teachings generally reflects what is current in the Bahai community. The UHJ does not, and should not, lead that understanding, because it is not empowered to interpret the scriptures in the way that Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi were.
Those who were Bahais in those days will need no persuading that the Bahai community from the 1960’s onwards generally believed that the Lesser Peace was to be achieved by the year 2000. There were quite a few books written about this:
John Huddleston, Achieving Peace By the Year 2000 (1988, 1992)
J. Tyson, World Peace and World Government: From Vision to Reality, a Baha’i Approach (1986)
Habib Taherzadeh, O Final do Seculo XX e a Paz Mundial [The end of the 20th century and universal peace].
Kathy Lee, in Prelude to the Lesser Peace (1989, page 92), assumes “that the Lesser Peace, the political unification of nations, will be established before or at the end of the twentieth century.”
Adib Taherzadeh, a member of the Universal House of Justice, refers in The Covenant of Baha’u’llah (1992), page 413, to “the founding of the Lesser Peace, which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states will be established in the twentieth century,” and links this to “the completion of the buildings of the World Administrative Centre on Mount Carmel”
Douglas Martin, a member of the Universal House of Justice from 1993, gave an interview with the BBC in which he asserted that the proof of the truth or falsity of the Baha’i faith would be that universal peace would arrive by the year 2000. Another member of the UHJ, David Ruhe, said in 1993, “Abdu’l Baha talked about the coming of the Lesser Peace before the end of the century, that is, before December 31, 2000. There will be surprising events in the next 7 years, … My own presumption is that there will be great crises we cannot anticipate.”
(Martin is cited by Cole in ‘Fundamentalism in the Contemporary U.S. Baha’i Community,’ Review of Religious Research, Vol. 43, no. 3 (March, 2002):195-217; the quote from David Ruhe is in his ‘Baha’i Horizons in the 21st Century.’)
For a picture of grassroots expectations among Bahais, I’ve found a 1992 interview with Barry Sweatman, of Port Adelaide, who “explained that Bahais distinguish the ‘lesser peace’ and the ‘most great peace.’ Concerning the former Barry said, ‘By the year 2,000 we will have the lesser peace which will be political acceptance of Bahaism and a world political system.’”
The consensus of the faithful
The institutions at the Bahai world centre, their members, other prominent Bahais of the time and the mass of the believers present us with a consensus: Abdu’l-Baha predicted the Lesser Peace coming before the end of the twentieth century. They were wrong – about the events and about what Abdu’l-Baha had said – and that points to the second lesson to be learned: in Bahai theology, unlike Catholic and Islamic theologies, the ‘consensus of the faithful’ (Consensus Fidelium) has no authority, for the very simple reason that it may be wrong, and quite often is wrong. As I showed in ‘he cannot override,’ Shoghi Effendi considers it possible for the Universal House of Justice to pass an enactment which “conflicts with the meaning and departs from the spirit of Baha’u’llah’s revealed utterances.” (WOB 150) According to the Universal House of Justice itself, its elucidations “…stem from its legislative function, and as such differ from interpretation. The divinely inspired legislation of the House of Justice does not attempt to say what the revealed Word means — it states what must be done in cases where the revealed Text or its authoritative interpretation is not explicit.” So neither what ‘everyone knows’, nor what the Universal House of Justice says, can tell us what the Bahai teachings are.
What Adib Taherzadeh, Ruhe, Martin and Sweatman were saying in the early 1990’s should have appeared terminally improbable by that date. In fact, what the Bahais were saying among themselves did sound ridiculous to anyone outside the community, and this is the third important lesson to be learned. The mutual confirmation within the community can make ridiculous things seem natural, and put the community out of touch with reality, and with the ordinary people it seeks to attract. The Bahais themselves, and their curious ideas, then become a barrier to people hearing what Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha really have to say to the world.
What was happening in the American Bahai community from the 1960’s to the 1990’s was the continuation of an earlier tradition of imminent millennial expectations there (and this is part of the reason why these ideas seemed plausible). In the late 19th century, Kheirella was teaching that there would be mass conversions to the Bahai Faith by 1917, and in The Dawn of Knowledge and the Most Great Peace (published in 1903, 1905, and 1908), Paul Kingston Dealy explained that in 1917 “the opposers of this Great Truth shall find themselves in the minority; then the laws and ordinances of God shall prevail to guide, rule and govern the nations of the world.”
The 1923 edition of Esselmont’s Baha’u’llah and the New Era states that universal peace would be established in 1957 (page 212): Esselmont says that he heard this from Abdu’l-Baha in a table talk. He also cites a talk by Abdu’l-Baha saying ‘This century is the Century of the establishment of the Kingdom of God upon the earth.” (Star of the West vol. 9 p. 7) and interprets ‘this century’ as a reference to the western 20th century. The text was later revised in the light of Shoghi Effendi’s statement that “in the Baha’i teachings themselves there is nothing to indicate that any definite degree of world peace will be established by 1957, nor by 1963” (cited in a UHJ letter of Nov. 6 1990). May and Mary Maxwell’s pilgrim’s notes also report Shoghi Effendi as predicting the Lesser Peace by 1953 (a typing mistake for 1963):
“They must establish this peace through their hearts as well as their minds. The prophecy of one hundred years after the declaration of Bahá’u’lláh, 1953, does not mean that the Bahá’ís will then become the world government, but that then will be the beginning of the Lesser Peace, …”
Sarah Kenny’s ‘Haifa Notes’ report Shoghi Effendi as saying “Material civilization is doomed and will be destroyed. Mankind cannot be cleansed and purified without its going. The Lesser Peace will be established in the 20th century.”
The formation of a consensus around what is wrong, does not make it right. But a consensus does make the implausible sound plausible, as Festinger noted in his famous study ‘When prophecy fails.’
When Prophecy fails
By 1999, these beliefs about the end of the 20th century really were becoming implausible, even to the American Bahais. Yet in March 1999 the Universal House of Justice wrote : “The Bahá’í writings indicate that peace among the nations will be established in the twentieth century.” They claimed that the Lesser Peace “can already be detected on the political horizon” and that the process leading to it “can be seen as having been definitely established in the twentieth century.”
By that time, they must have suspected that they were whistling in the wind: it had not happened, and it was not going to happen by the year 2000, or 2001. So why did they consider it necessary to say it, more loudly? There are psychological mechanisms at play here, which are illuminated by Fetsinger’s study of a group whose prediction of the end of the world had failed: they reacted with vigorous proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation.
But not everyone responded by proclaiming more loudly what they feared might be untrue. In June of 1999, John Huddlestone took a more sensible approach in a follow-up to his earlier book, entitled ‘Another look at achieving peace by the year 2000′ (Journal of Bahai Studies vol. 9 number 2). Huddlestone cites the reason for believing that Abdu’l-Baha promised peace among nations by the end of this century. It is words attributed to Abdu’l-Baha in a newspaper report, cited in Abdu’l-Baha in Canada (p. 35):
“Are there any signs that the permanent peace of the world will be established in anything like a reasonable period?” Abdu’l-Baha was asked.
“It will be established in this century,” he answered. “It will be universal in the twentieth century. All nations will be forced into it.”
Naturally this is not an authentic source: Abdu’l-Baha was speaking through an interpreter, the reporter made notes, he wrote these up into a story and submitted it to an editor, who revised and printed it. The word ‘twentieth’ could have been added at any one of these steps.
Huddlestone concedes that “it is totally unrealistic to talk of ending war … in the foreseeable future” but thinks it reasonable to understand the above quoted ‘promise’ as referring to “creating conditions that will result in a significant reduction in the incidence of violence.” This tactic for dealing with the failed ‘promise’ has been repeated by later writers: instead of examining the promise to see whether it is authentic, and really does refer to the western 20th century, the definitions of peace, unity of nations and Lesser Peace are diluted to the point of being meaningless. This is not satisfying to any critical thinker, and not a solution anyway, since there has not been even a ‘significant reduction in the incidence of violence’ – let alone unity of nations or the Lesser Peace. If in doubt, recite the following black nursery rhyme:
Rwanda, Darfur, Uganda, Iran-Iraq, Iraq
former Yugoslavia, and once again Iraq,
Afghanistan and Chechnya, Afghanistan again;
the rhyme could be much longer, but I can’t stand the pain.
In 2002, in the wake of the non-fulfilment of the ‘prophecy’, William Collins wrote an article in the Journal of Bahá’í Studies (‘Apocalypse and Millennium: Catastrophe, Progress, and the Lesser Peace’ Vol. 12, number 1/4). Collins correctly says that “Bahá’ís anticipate that there will be a centuries-long period when the simultaneous processes of disintegration and integration operate.” This is incompatible with a sudden and imminent establishment of peace by divine intervention. “The view that humanity had suffered its greatest calamities by the end of the twentieth century seems naive at best.” Yet he seems not to realise that the more catastrophic strand of millennialism in the American Bahai community, and its link to the western 20th century, has been unscriptural: based on unauthentic texts, misleading translations, and reading-in Christian millennialist ideas that would not have entered the head of Abdu’l-Baha or Shoghi Effendi.
A letter by the Research Department of the Bahai World Centre on 19 April 2001 takes the line of confirming “the promise by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, both orally and in writing, that the unity of nations will be established during the twentieth century, as an essential foundation for world peace” while distinguishing this ‘unity of nations’ from the Lesser Peace. The Research Department concludes:
“there is nothing in the authoritative Bahá’í Writings to indicate that the Lesser Peace would be established before the end of the twentieth century. However, there are clear statements affirming that the unity of nations would be, in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “securely established” during the twentieth century.”
But where are these “clear statements”? Like Huddlestone, the Research Department does not do the text-critical work to see whether there really was any specific promise attached to the western 20th century: the texts they cite are the newspaper report I’ve quoted above, The Promulgation of Universal Peace (not an authentic source), and the UHJ’s 1985 letter which says “peace will come in stages. First, there will come the Lesser Peace, when the unity of nations will be achieved…” That 1985 letter equates the Lesser Peace with the unity of nations, but in 2001 it is cited as evidence that they are two different things!
In 2003, Jack McLean presented a paper called ‘Did Prophecy Fail? The Lesser Peace and the Year 2000‘ at a Bahai Studies conference. This begins promisingly, by acknowledging that:
popular understandings and expectations of statements in the Bahai sacred writings which had anticipated the establishment of the Lesser Peace by the year 2000 did not materialize as expected. This disconnect calls for a re-examination of the scriptures …
The paper is valuable in many respects, but misses touching on one base: it does not reexamine the scriptures to ask ‘where does it say “twentieth”’ and it does not ask about the meaning of ‘century’ in the Bahai Writings. Like all of the earlier discussions, McLean supposes a century to be a period of 100 years, and supposes that the references to ‘this century’ in the Bahai writings refer to the 20th century.
Five lessons from childhood
Before turning to the Bahai writings to see what this ‘century’ business is all about, I would like to reiterate the lessons to be learnt from the failed prophecy episode.
First, we have seen that the UHJ’s understanding of the Bahai teachings reflects what is current in the Bahai community. This is what one expects in a community whose leadership is specifically not selected for religious expertise and learning, and is not authorised to provide authoritative interpretations of Bahai teachings.
Second, the ‘consensus of the faithful’ has no authority, and is quite often wrong. “Wherefore, my beloved, … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” (Philippians 2:12) knowing that whatever we think we know may well be wrong, but also knowing that to follow what others say is always wrong, since “…the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 143)
Third, that the mutual confirmation within the community can make ridiculous things seem natural, and put the community out of touch with reality. When our ideas rely too much on confirmation by our fellow-Bahais, we start to live in an artificial world.
Fourth: we need to be self-critical of our own motives in reshaping the Faith. People want to have an imminent expectation of a great change coming, so they make a ‘promise’ of imminent change for themselves. And when the promise they made for themselves fails, they make a new one. The latest I’ve heard is that the Bahais are expecting some dramatic change in 2021, the centenary of Abdu’l-Baha’s passing. And after that, we can start looking forward to 2063, the centenary of the formation of the Universal House of Justice. Anything but simply walking the walk and trusting in God. You can see why Moses had the golden calf ground up and eaten: the mere meltdown of the idols we make for ourselves doesn’t prevent recasting.
Fifth: we only make difficulties for ourselves if we rely on pilgrim’s notes and unauthenticated texts, however numerous or often-cited they may be. In this case, there is no authentic text that refers to either the unity of nations or the Lesser Peace coming in the twentieth century: the Bahais and the Universal House of Justice have been misled by a single statement attributed to Abdu’l-Baha in a newspaper report. In ‘Who is Writing the Future’ (1999) the Bahai International Community writes that “Bahá’ís view the twentieth century – – with all its disasters – as “the century of light.” Their sources for this are talks reported in Promulgation of Universal Peace pages 74 and 123, the first of which does not mention the twentieth century, and neither of which is backed by a Persian text. Such reports are ‘pilgrim’s notes,’ the Guardian having ruled that “Nothing can be considered scripture for which we do not have an original text.” (see also Shoghi Effendi, Messages to the Indian Subcontinent, p. 287). In ‘The World Order of Baha’u’llah’ he writes “I have insistently urged the believers of the West … to quote and consider as authentic only such translations as are based upon the authenticated text of His recorded utterances in the original tongue.”
This standard has not been followed, not by the Universal House of Justice, and not by leading Bahai institutions and their members, and is not even being taught to new believers. Yet it should be taught, from Ruhi book 0 or from the first element of whatever deepening process is being used, if the induction of new Bahais is to produce self-actuated and independent members of the Bahai community, able to find the authentic Bahai writings, read them, interpret them for themselves, and apply them in their lives.
I’ve discussed the issue of textual corruption, and given a specific example of the two layers of corruption found in The Promulgation of Universal Peace, in ‘Theocratic ideas and assumptions.’ There’s another example of the unreliability of these reports of Abdu’l-Baha’s words in my ‘Text Criticism of Paris Talks.’ These examples could be multiplied: what was true in Shoghi Effendi’s time is still true: “Much of the confusion that has obscured the understanding of the believers [is due to relying on unauthentic texts]” (World Order of Baha’u’llah page 5)
If we follow the Guardian’s instructions and “quote and consider as authentic only such translations as are based upon the authenticated text of His recorded utterances in the original tongue” then there are no references in the Bahai writings to specific events or qualities associated with the twentieth century. There are however many references in the Bahai writings to things that will happen in ‘this century.’ I will get back to those in another posting, on the Century of Light.
Postscript 1: The Bahai Distribution Service of Canada is now carrying a book by Don Dainty claiming that the end of the tribulations will come in 2011. I guess some people just cannot live without a prophecy that is about to be fulfilled.
[amended 24 October 2009, removed a quote attributed to the House of Justice, thanks to Grant Martin for pointing this out.]
[amended 13 April 2009: added Postscript 1]
[amended 2 March 2009: updated reference to Adib Taherzadeh]