Instant, exact and complete?
Posted by Sen on October 12, 2009
In a discussion group, one of the participants recalled that Shoghi Effendi had said that the requirement for appointment as a Hand of the Cause was “instant, exact and complete obedience.” It’s a familiar phrase in Bahai discourse, but is it from the words of Shoghi Effendi? Is it about the Hands of the Cause?
The phrase seems to enter Bahai discourse before 1919, since Albert Vail’s report on the Bahai Teaching Convention in Chicago in that year quotes it as if it were something familiar:
The fourteen great teaching Tablets have brought to the beloved in America a call clear as the bell of the voice of God. The friends of the Central States felt that they must not delay a moment but must rise for “instant, exact and complete obedience.”
– Star of the West vol. 10, p. 132 (July 13, 1919)
It becomes part of a prayer attributed to Baha’u’llah in 1923, in Bahai Scriptures page 186:
O our God, we beg of Thee by the King of Names and Maker of heaven and earth, by the rustling of the leaves of the Tree of Life and by Thine utterances, through which the realities of things are drawn unto us, to grant that the unity in the Love of God may be speedily established throughout the world; that Thou wilt guide us always and unmistakably to whatever Thou wouldst have us to do, and that we may ever be strong and fully prepared to render instant, exact and complete obedience.
The Research Department at the Bahai World Center, however, writes that this prayer is not authentic:
“The following works that commonly circulate in the Bahá’í community are not authentic: … “O our God! We beg of Thee…that Thou wilt guide us always…and that we may ever be strong and fully prepared to render instant, exact and complete obedience.” This prayer cannot be confirmed as authentic as no original has been found.”
(UHJ, 1992 Sept 27, Authenticity of Some Well-known Prayers)
The phrase might have been independently devised, but I think it is likely to have been borrowed from an article by Helene Blavatsky in the Theosophical Quarterly Magazine 1917-18:
“In civil law, in mechanical law, there is no such thing as conditional or delayed obedience — obedience must be instant and exact….”
Given the ties and overlap of memberships between the Bahais and Theosophists in the UK and USA in the 1920’s, it is quite likely that the person who put these words in the mouth of Abdu’l-Baha drew them from Blavatsky. But Blavatsky is repeating a theological ‘common place’ : “Instant obedience is the only kind of obedience there is; delayed obedience is disobedience” (Thomas a Kempis).
Townshend uses the phrase in 1939, but in reference to Christ:
Identifying Himself with the cause of God on earth, He demanded of everyone immediate, exact and complete obedience. (The Heart of the Gospel, p. 63)
Then Adib Taherzadeh uses it to praise the obedience of Haji Muhammad to Baha’u’llah. (The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 4, p. 25).
However my friend’s recollection, connecting this phrase with a Hand of the Cause, might well come from the following recollection of Hand of the Cause William Sears, concerning his meeting with Shoghi Effendi. Sears writes:
Now is the time for obedience.. In the words of the prayer, “Instant, exact and complete obedience.” We must be like the cypress trees standing outside the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh. They bow and bend low before the breeze of God from whichever direction it may blow.
The Guardian said that …
Sears does not attribute these words directly to the Guardian, whereas he does say that the following paragraph is what Shoghi Effendi said. I also think it unlikely that Shoghi Effendi would quote a prayer that is not authentic.
Although the original prayer attributed to Baha’u’llah is known to be unauthentic, the phrase seems to appeal to something in our psyche, and it lives on. It pops up in a course taught by the Association for Bahai Studies, and it has been given a new lease of life by a small Bahai splinter-group, the Orthodox Bahai, who apply it to obedience to their substitute for a guardian (see my blog entry ‘No Counterfeits!‘).
But not everyone finds “instant, exact and complete obedience” an unproblematic ideal. A Bahai novelist, Burl Barer, begins the life of his hero, The Saint, in a Catholic orphanage where “Both dogs and boys jumped at the sound of Brennan’s voice, and all offered instant, exact, and complete obedience to the priest’s shrill and insistent commands. All except one boy,...” With a start like that, you know that the disobedient little scamp will grow up to be the hero. The young Saint is reminiscent of the little village of Asterix, heroically refusing submission to Caesar.
Between Vail in 1919 and Barer, writing in 1997, lies most of the twentieth century, in which humanity has learned painfully that obedience can be a very bad thing, and disobedience may be heroic. Yet obedience is a necessity of social life, whether it be to the impersonal road rules, the personal authority of the ship’s captain, or to the majority decisions of a parliament or Bahai Assembly in which we have pooled our individual sovereignties. Obedience given unthinkingly and uncritically is not only socially dangerous, it is of no moral benefit to the person involved; willing, deliberate, wisely discriminating and well-directed obedience is demanding, and a balancing act.
I could preach it up a bit, but I’d rather refer you to a talk Ian Semple gave in 1991 on the subject of “obedience in relation to freedom of thought and … the importance of obedience both to the individual’s spiritual development and to society as a whole.” His theme is the importance of using one’s rational faculties at every stage. It captures the balancing act of obedience nicely.