Posted by Sen on March 7, 2011
In a discussion on Talisman9, one friend said that he felt obliged to incorporate any statement made by the Universal House of Justice under the infallible protection of God into his corpus of beliefs, and another said that if the Universal House of Justice makes a certain understanding of doctrine an inherent part of its legislation, he felt obligated to understand and believe that. Does the *UHJ’s power of elucidation imply this? (*Considering how often ‘Universal House of Justice’ is going to appear on this page, I think it’s best that I abbreviate it to UHJ. No disrespect is intended.)
The UHJ’s functions of legislating and elucidating are derived from Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament:
It is incumbent upon these members (of the Universal House of Justice) to gather in a certain place and deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book.
This doesn’t specify what the outcomes will be, but it is implied: if something causes difference the outcome will be a ruling leading to unity, if it is obscure the outcome will be non-obscurity (elucidation), if it is something not expressly recorded, the outcome will be a specification of what was not explicit. The word ‘elucidation’ is implied, as it is the opposite of obscure.
Shoghi Effendi used the word elucidation with reference to the UHJ in just one place I know of:
Touching the point raised in the Secretary’s letter regarding the nature and scope of the Universal Court of Arbitration, this and other similar matters will have to be explained and elucidated by the Universal House of Justice, to which, according to the Master’s explicit instructions, all important and fundamental questions must be referred. (Baha’i Administration, 47)
Shoghi Effendi wrote this in April 1923, before the English translation of the Will and Testament was generally available, which may explain why it refers to the general purport of the Will and Testament, in words that do not correspond exactly to the text. I am not aware of anywhere, whether in the Will or elsewhere, where the Master literally says “all important and fundamental questions must be referred to the Universal House of Justice” (although he does discuss the wisdom of “referring some important laws to the House of Justice,” in one tablet). But that is a fair summary of the purport of the Will and Testament, and other letters and statements of Abdu’l-Baha.
There seems to be no case where Shoghi Effendi has taken a Persian or Arabic scriptural text and translated a word as “elucidate” or “elucidation.” So we cannot get a binocular view of the word’s meaning for Shoghi Effendi, by drawing on his translation work.
The scope of the UHJ’s infallibility
Neither of my friends was saying anything so simple as ‘everything from the UHJ is Bahai doctrine.’ Rather they were deducing the obligation to adjust their beliefs in the light of the UHJ’s elucidations from their understanding of the UHJ’s infallibility. Both agree that infallibility does not apply to everything the UHJ decides: not for example to its lunch menu.
My second friend thinks that the infallibility of the UHJ applies only to its formal legislation, in much the same way as “the infallibility of the Guardian is confined to matters which are related strictly to the Cause and interpretations of the Teachings ….” (Letter on behalf of the Guardian to an individual, October 17 1944). My first friend, and I, think it applies more broadly to the UHJ’s activities in accordance with its scriptural mandates. In my case this is because I observe that Abdu’l-Baha in some places uses the word legislation (tashri`) to refer to the whole function of the religious order in society, as the social organ that follows, propagates, systematises, implements and where necessary further specifies religious teachings as they apply to society. (See ‘Executive and Legislative‘ on this blog). In other places he uses a more specific term for the legislative work of the House of Justice, istinbaat, which in his Tablet on religious law and the House of Justice, I have translated as ‘deductions,’ that is, educing (drawing out) the legal implications of the religious texts. If we allow our understanding of the term ‘legislation’ to include Abdu’l-Baha’s broad application of legislation/tashri’ to all the proper activities of the religious institutions in society, we can bridge the gap between those who agree with Schaefer’s minimalist thesis, and those who think the scope of the UHJ’s infallibility is wider than legislation alone.
When is the UHJ elucidating?
The elucidations of the Universal House of Justice stem from its legislative function, while the interpretations of the Guardian represent the true intent inherent in the Sacred Texts. The major distinction between the two functions is that legislation with its resultant outcome of elucidation is susceptible of amendment by the House of Justice itself, whereas the Guardian’s interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied. (Messages 1963 to 1986, 646)
“…the House of Justice asks us [the Bahai World Centre Secretariat] to state that, while it would be possible to codify and cross-reference the Baha’i teachings, it would also be important to take into account such functions assigned to the Universal House of Justice in the Baha’i Writings as its role in elucidating all matters “which have not outwardly been revealed in the Book” and in ensuring the essential flexibility of the Cause. (Dec 15, 1994)
However we have seen above that the Guardian’s one mention of the UHJ’s power of elucidation is a paraphrase of a section in Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament, which says that the members of the UHJ should “deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book.” Both Shoghi Effendi’s translation and the Persian behind it indicate that these are three parallel functions. The text does not say that the UHJ should only deal with questions that are obscure so far as these are not expressly recorded in the Book. Matters that are expressly recorded can also cause difference or be obscure! This makes me more Roman than the Pope, as the Dutch say. I think the UHJ’s own formulation of the scope of its elucidation, quoted above, is unnecessarily narrow. Elucidation may be the resultant outcome of legislation, but it may also be given in the form of general letters to the community, letters to individuals, the guidance it gives to the Continental Counsellors, decisions on “problems which have caused difference” and so on. By my definition, whatever sheds light where there was obscurity, is elucidation.
The UHJ’s own practice makes me think that elucidation — by reference to specific scripture and facts — is the UHJ’s method of first choice. If there is sufficient specific and clear scripture to draw on, the required degree of uniformity in practice can be achieved by pointing to it, and its relevance, providing for translations where necessary, and adding relevant facts, while leaving it to the consultations of assemblies and the reason of individuals to apply the information. Legislation in the narrow sense, of making a new religious ruling for the Bahai community, is necessary only where sufficient uniformity of practice cannot be achieved by elucidation alone.
I am supported in my understanding that elucidation and legislation are two separate tasks facing the House of Justice by another letter from them which says:
The Universal House of Justice, beyond its function as the enactor of legislation, has been invested with the more general functions of protecting and administering the Cause, solving obscure questions and deciding upon matters that have caused difference. (Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 157, paragraph 75.6)
The implications of the UHJ’s elucidations
However my friends and I were not discussing the scope of the UHJ’s infallibility, or of its elucidations, but rather the implications of the UHJ’s elucidations for our own beliefs. The question in essence is how we can have a separation of powers within the Bahai Administrative Order, between the sphere of the interpretation of scripture and doctrine centering on the Guardian, and the sphere of legislation centering on the House of Justice, if both are defined by Bahai doctrine as infallible? If we believe the UHJ has been guided to write a letter or make a ruling that embodies a particular understanding of Bahai teachings or a reading of a scriptural verse, doesn’t consistency require us to adopt that understanding or reading ourselves, just as our belief in the legitimate appointment of Shoghi Effendi as “the Interpreter of the Word of God” obliges us to adjust our understandings of Bahai teachings in the light of his interpretations? Both my friends answer ‘yes’ to this.
But this gives two paradoxes. The first is that the House of the Justice and the Guardian have indicated that the understanding of Bahai teachings inherent in the UHJ’s legislation may change, or be incorrect, yet my friends propose to correct their own beliefs today, to conform to an elucidation that in the nature of things is past. As for changing elucidations, the UHJ has written,
The major distinction between the two functions [of elucidation and authoritative interpretation] is that legislation with its resultant outcome of elucidation is susceptible of amendment by the House of Justice itself, whereas the Guardian’s interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied. (Letter of Oct 25, 1984, Power of Elucidation)
In addition, an enactment of the UHJ may be contrary to the spirit of the Bahai Teachings, as Shoghi Effendi writes:
He [the Guardian] cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members, but is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Baha’u’llah’s revealed utterances. (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah 150)
An example of this is the Bahai ‘literature review process,’ which is contrary to the Bahai principle of free expression, but was necessary at a certain stage of development. Shoghi Effendi writes:
Let us also remember that at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views. If certain instructions of the Master are today particularly emphasized and scrupulously adhered to, let us be sure that they are but provisional measures designed to guard and protect the Cause in its present state of infancy and growth until the day when this tender and precious plant shall have sufficiently grown to be able to withstand the unwisdom of its friends and the attacks of its enemies. (Bahai Administration, 63)
… the present restrictions imposed on the publication of Baha’i literature will be definitely abolished;…
(The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 9)
Shoghi Effendi’s contrast between the Baha’i principle of freedom of conscience and speech, and the provisional measures necessary at a certain time, implies an awareness that the decisions and acts of the Head of the Faith cannot always fully comply with all Bahai teachings. The Bahai teachings are a constant ideal, their embodiment in the Bahai community, including the UHJ’s work, is contingent. The contingent expression of the ideal teachings never reaches the ideal, but may grow towards perfection endlessly, providing we remain aware of the gap, and do not simply reinterpret the teachings to match current policies. The UHJ has also acknowledged the possibility of differences, writing:
in the realm of interpretation the Guardian’s pronouncements are always binding, in the area of the Guardian’s participation in legislation it is always the decision of the House itself which must prevail. (Letter of May 27 1966, in Wellspring of Guidance, 82)
The inevitability of there being some gap between the contingent and ideal throws some light on Shoghi Effendi’s statement that an enactment of the House of Justice could “conflict with the meaning and .. depart from the spirit of Baha’u’llah’s revealed utterances,” but it is not the only possibility to consider. It could also be that the House of Justice and its members make a decision without being aware of something in the Bahai Writings and teachings which is relevant. The UHJ itself has written that it..
… is not omniscient, … . Like the Guardian, the House of Justice wants to be provided with facts when called upon to render a decision, and like him it may well change its decision when new facts emerge… .
(Letter of June 14, 1996: Infallibility, Women on House of Justice)
“It is true that ‘Abdu’l-Baha made statements linking the establishment of the unity of nations to the twentieth century. For example: “The fifth candle is the unity of nations — a unity which, in this century, will be securely established, … (Messages 1963-68, 281)
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)
The UHJ thought Abdu’l-Baha anticipated that the unity of nations, in the first quote, or the Lesser Peace, in the second quote, was linked to, or could be, established before the end of the twentieth century. But they were wrong: the text does not say “twentieth century,” it says “this century.” If one took either letter as an interpretation of the text, it would lead one astray. However, those Bahais of the 1970s and later who took the UHJ’s message as a statement of what is to be done, and not an interpretation of scripture, would be on the right track. The letter of 29 July 1974 goes on to say, “It is apparent that the disintegration of the old order is accelerating, but the friends should not permit this inevitable process to deter them from giving their undivided attention to the tasks lying immediately before them.” Although the UHJ’s understanding of what the scripture said was incorrect, its guidance on what needed to be done can be seen in retrospect to have been correct, for the end of the 20th century was not accompanied by any great change in the world. (On the meaning of ‘century’ in this context, see ‘Century’s end’ and its sequel, ‘Century of Light’ on this blog.)
An un-enacted enactment?
In the quote we are discussing (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 150), the Guardian entertains the possibility that an enactment of the UHJ might conflict with the meaning of Bahai scripture. Some have suggested that “enactment” here really means a proposal being discussed among the UHJ members. There are two objections to this: first, that Shoghi Effendi was capable of saying that, if he meant it, and had plenty of opportunity later to explain what he really meant, if it was not as it appears, and second that the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha did not require a Guardian to be present in the UHJ’s meetings. It allowed a Guardian to send a representative to the UHJ’s meetings. So it was quite realistic for Shoghi Effendi to allow for the possibility that a Guardian might hear about an enactment made by the UHJ after the event, and at that stage point out that it was not in line with the letter or spirit of Baha’u’llah’s writings, and quite natural for Shoghi Effendi to provide for this actual possibility by stating that the Guardian could not overrule the UHJ’s enactment but could ask them to reconsider the decision.
A straightforward reading of the Guardian’s words is that the enactments of the UHJ may — in view of contingencies, or lack of information about the Baha’i writings — conflict with the meaning and depart from the spirit of those teachings, but that the UHJ’s enactments and any elucidations they embody are quite distinct from the Bahai teachings, which do not change and are not affected by the UHJ’s decisions.
The second paradox in my friends’ position is that the UHJ itself has denied the authority of any beliefs and interpretations of scripture that may be implicit or explicit in its statements (see below). The UHJ writes :
The elucidations of the Universal House of Justice 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. (Letter of Dec 15, 1994, Elucidations of the House of Justice)
The major distinction between the two functions is that legislation with its resultant outcome of elucidation is susceptible of amendment by the House of Justice itself, whereas the Guardian’s interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied. (Letter of Oct 25, 1984, The Power of Elucidation)
Doesn’t this imply that, in the opinion of the UHJ, an elucidation by the House is NOT a statement of truth? Further, the UHJ writes:
Upon the Universal House of Justice… “has been conferred the exclusive right of legislating on matters not expressly revealed in the Baha’i writings.” Its pronouncements, which are susceptible of amendment or abrogation by the House of Justice itself, serve to supplement and apply the Law of God. Although not invested with the function of interpretation, the House of Justice is in a position to do everything necessary to establish the World Order of Baha’u’llah on this earth. Unity of doctrine is maintained by the existence of the authentic texts of Scripture and the voluminous interpretations of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi together with the absolute prohibition against anyone propounding “authoritative” or “inspired” interpretations or usurping the function of Guardian. Unity of administration is assured by the authority of the Universal House of Justice. (In, Messages 1963 to 1986, 56)
That absolute prohibition does not make an exception for the UHJ: they too are not allowed to give authoritative interpretations, and to say an interpretation is non-authoritative automatically means that one is not obliged to incorporate it into one’s own beliefs. The UHJ itself says that its elucidations have a status analogous to the inferences we all draw when we are reading texts:
Authoritative interpretation of the Writings was the exclusive domain of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. When the House of Justice stated that the “father can be regarded as the ‘head’ of the family,” it was giving expression to its own inference as you indicate. This inference, … is based on the clear and primary responsibility of the husband to provide for the financial support of the wife and family, and on the provisions of the law of intestacy, which assigns special functions and rights to the eldest son.
(The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 633)
How is elucidation meant to work?
Another critique of the position my friends expressed relates to the meaning of elucidation. The UHJ uses the word elucidation — whether in regard to its own work, or the Guardian’s letters, or Baha’u’llah himself — to refer to a statement that leads to a higher level of understanding:
Some sayings of the Manifestation are clear and obvious. Among these are laws of behaviour. Others are elucidations which lead men from their present level of understanding to a new one. (Letter of 3 June 1982)
That is, an elucidation is an argument addressed to one’s reason. Therefore when the UHJ gives an elucidation, it does not breach the absolute prohibition against anyone propounding “authoritative” … interpretations because it is not intended to be authoritative: it is not to be accepted simply because it is stated, rather, it is to be considered, understood, weighed. If it persuades, it persuades by its cogency, not because of the authority of its author. To short-circuit this process of understanding, by treating such statements as necessarily true, vitiates the purpose they could serve for an individual’s own development. He or she would be left saying, I believe it, but I don’t understand it. For such a person, there has been no light shed, no elucidation has happened.
Elucidation can include non-authoritative explanations, either because the person or body does not have the authority of interpretation, or does not wish to assert it, or because the thing explained is, for example, the World Order rather than the text of scripture. For example, Shoghi Effendi writes to the North American NSA of the time:
The Guardian is confident that you will elucidate and give the widest publicity to these already established principles, …[of the sovereignty of the NSA and the freedom of the convention delegates] (through the Guardian’s secretary. August 12, 1933, published in USBN).
Shoghi Effendi also lists the elucidation of his own plans as one of the functions of the Hands of the Cause, who “…in addition to their individual participation in the deliberations at the forthcoming Conferences, as my special representatives, entrusted with a four-fold mission: to … elucidate the character and purposes of the impending decade-long spiritual World Crusade and rally the participants.” In a memorandum addressed to the UHJ, dated September 15, 2003, the Research Department refers to an explanation previously provided by the Research Department itself, and published in Note 33 to the Kitab-e Aqdas, as an elucidation. But it is not an authoritative statement: it persuades us because it is informed and correct, not because it comes from the Research Department. In fact the UHJ itself has said that “It is … vital that the believers understand clearly that these Research Department statements should be regarded as representing no more than the views of the members of that Department.” (‘Function of Research Department’ September 25, 1988) Such views may cast light on obscure matters, but they are not necessarily authoritative or even correct. Some of the notes from the Research Department that were published in the first edition of the English translation of the Kitab-e Aqdas were corrected in a list of corrections that was circulated soon after the publication of the Aqdas, for they were found to be inadequate or partly incorrect.
However (in contrast to what I have written elsewhere), elucidation is not necessarily non-authoritative. Shoghi Effendi uses the word elucidate in relation to the Bab’s answers to questions concerning the Iranian philosopher Mulla Sadra, Baha’u’llah’s elucidations of the Bab’s teachings, and his own efforts, in The World Order of Baha’u’llah, to elucidate the distinguishing features of that world order. So it appears that for Shoghi Effendi, as in the quote from the UHJ given above, an elucidation is not a lesser species of interpretation, but rather an explanation of religious truth that persuades by its cogency and the strength of its facts, not because of the authority of its author.
It’s because the houses of justice make decisions in the realm of “what must be done” not “what the revealed Word means,” that one is never required to adjust one’s own understanding of Bahai beliefs to align with ideas or beliefs embodied in the UHJ’s decisions. Equally, “what is to be done” for Bahais is what the UHJ says: if the UHJ (or the local or national assembly) says something not in line with the Bahai scriptures, it must be put into effect. Any other position would lead to scriptural literalism, rigidity, and sect formation, as individuals decide they know what is or is not in line with scripture. Equally bad would be a religion whose leadership decides what Bahai teachings are from time to time, so that there is no conceptual distinction between principle and practice. Abdu’l-Baha’s separation of these two spheres of the Guardianship and the House of Justice, of doctrine and legislation, was an innovation in religion as dramatic as the move from the unrestrained and undifferentiated sovereignty of the monarch to the separation of powers in the political sphere. It promises a continuing stable tension between what ought to be, and what has to be done, without diluting the principles or imposing an impractical literalism on the Bahais and their institutions.
That puts the burden on us, to read the UHJ’s words as statements of “what must be done,” and to do it, and not as statements about what we should believe. Yet our understanding should be influenced by what we ourselves learn in doing “what must be done.” Moreover the UHJ is not barred from using both reason and scripture to explain itself, and we may well find its reasoning and the scripture it quotes persuasive, and adjust our understanding accordingly. What we may not do is treat it as authoritative for Bahai beliefs simply because it comes from the UHJ: that would be to turn the UHJ into a substitute Guardian. If we are to be faithful to the Covenant in our own thoughts, we keep a mental reservation that the UHJ’s elucidation might be wrong in logic or interpretation, or be based on incorrect or incomplete information. And if we are writing or speaking in any systematic and self-critical way about the Bahai teachings — if we are doing Baha’i theology — we may not include the UHJ’s words among the formal sources of our theology, but must refer always to the scriptural sources.
Updated: 12 Jan. 2014. Added quote relating to the inferences of the UHJ.
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