The consensus of the faithful in Bahai theology
Posted by Sen on March 28, 2017
“…the apparently democratic idea of the consensus of the faithful always ends by according authority to a category of scholars …”
In 1992, a letter on behalf of the Universal House of Justice stated that:
Some people [in the Bahai community] have put forward the thesis that in place of the Guardian’s function of authoritative interpretation, a check on the Universal House of Justice should be set up, either in the form of the general opinion of the mass of the believers, or in the form of a body of learned Baha’is – preferably those with academic qualifications.
The former is in direct contradiction to the Guardian’s statement that the members of the Universal House of Justice are not “allowed to be governed by the feelings, the general opinion, and even the convictions of the mass of the faithful, or of those who directly elect them.” …. As to the latter alternative: this would constitute usurpation of a function of the Guardian.
(The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, Issues Related to Study Compilation)
The House of Justice’s message may be referring to an article published in the Journal of Bahai Studies a few months before, in which Jack McLean wrote that “Baha’i derivative theology (commentary) is the subjective, relative, and nonbinding elucidation of Baha’i teachings by competent scholars. Subjective here means that the commentary is particular to the viewpoint of the writer and becomes objective only where a common consensus exists as to its validity.”
In both the House of Justice letter and the article, the consensus of the faithful and the opinions of scholars are placed in parallel. McLean refers to a “common consensus,” but this is a consensus about the elucidations provided by “competent scholars.” While he might be thinking in terms of competent scholars producing elucidations and the whole religious community endorsing them, it seems more likely to me that he means that a consensus of scholars would endorse the elucidations of individual scholars, making them “objective,” and by implication authoritative. I think he is drawing on the idea of the scientific consensus in a field in the hard sciences, which refers to the body of data and theory which is not controversial in that field.
However this posting is not really about a handful of Bahais who think that the general opinion of the Bahais has some authority, rather I want to call attention to the usually inarticulate suppositions that the Bahai community requires a doctrinal authority and doctrinal uniformity, and that harmony in the community requires that the force of inertia behind what Bahais generally have believed over the generations should in some way be respected.
Bearing in mind that the communities of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have had many centuries to try ideas, and sometimes show us what doesn’t work and what might, I turned first to the doctrine of the consensus of the faithful (consensus fidelium, or in Arabic ijma‘/ إجماع) in Catholic and Sunni theology, and found an interesting link between the doctrine of consensus and the development of clerical roles in Christianity and Islam. And I found that the consensus of the faithful is loosely related to what I will call the discernment of the disciple (sensus fidei, or in Arabic, feraaseh), and that the latter teaching is confirmed in the Bahai writings and in our experience as Bahais.
As we will see below, there are differences between the implications of giving authority to the general opinion of the mass of the believers, or to a body of learned Baha’is, but when we look at McLean’s proposal, and at the doctrine of the consensus of the faithful in Jewish, Christian and Islamic history, we will see that the apparently democratic idea of the consensus of the faithful always ends by according authority to a category of scholars who are deemed to express the consensus. The two ideas can best be considered together, but I will concentrate here on the consensus of the faithful, in the first place because, in Islamic and Christian theologies, that is the headline doctrine, while the role of the religious scholars, the divines, emerges in practice as the divines speak for the consensus, and in the second place because Baha’u’llah’s thinking on the role of the divines in society and in the Bahai community will be the subject of another posting. Here it will suffice to say that, in my opinion, the suggestion of “a body of learned Bahais” ever existing as a formal structure in the Bahai community, let alone existing as a “check on the Universal House of Justice,” can be decisively dismissed, as it has no basis in the writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, and the rational arguments in favour are based on two false premises: that the Universal House of Justice is intended to be our guide to the Bahai teachings, and should therefore be fully informed of them, with the help of theological experts, and that the ‘legislation’ the Universal House of Justice is supposed to produce resembles civil law, requiring the advice of experts in jurisprudence.
Before also dismissing the suggestion that the consensus of the faithful could in some sense substitute for the Guardian’s roles in Bahai theology, it must be acknowledged that there is a genuine problem here, alluded to in the House of Justice’s letter in the words “in place of the Guardian’s function of authoritative interpretation.” We have no Guardian, so the Bahai community has no living authority who can tell us what the Bahai teachings are, or say what is not a Bahai teaching. Moreover one of the roles of the Guardian was to tell the Universal House of Justice when one of its enactments conflicted with the meaning or spirit of the Bahai Writings. (See Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 150).
It is easy to say (as I do) that there is no Guardian today, there cannot be a Guardian in the future, that there is nothing in the Bahai Writings giving any standing to the collective opinion of the believers, and that there is a good deal against giving the opinions of the faithful any doctrinal role: “the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself,” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 143) and “what is required is that these servants should purify the heart, the mother lode of divine treasures, from every marking; should repudiate imitation [taqlid] of the legacy of their fathers and ancestors; and close the doors of friendship and enmity to all the people of the world..” (Baha’u’llah, Seven Valleys, my translation, pp. 5-6 in the Persian text). Moreover I can point to several instances in which the opinion of the mass of the Bahais has been wide of the mark. So the short answer is, the Guardianship has ended, and the consensus of the faithful has no standing, let alone being a substitute for a Guardian: get used to it.
This short answer is true, but I believe that Bahai theology is justified to the extent that it helps people to deal with questions that arise from faith, and “get used to it” is not helpful. When we consider the diversity of views in the Bahai community, and the fads that periodically fascinate large sections of the Bahai community, such as ‘peace by the year 2000,’ racial axiologies, communitarianism or Fanon and Freire’s liberatory pedagogies, we look for some assurance that there is a centre that will hold things together in the long term: something more cohesive than millions of individuals looking at the Bahai Writings, and at Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, and then making up their own version of Bahai beliefs and practice. Is there anything in the idea of consensus that can give some hope of coherence? I’ve noticed that, as the Universal House of Justice’s 1992 message quoted above fades from memory, some Bahai authors have begun to revive the idea that “consensual Baha’i understandings” or “understanding by common consent” (Jack McClean, informal communications) are a yardstick, or rather a stick they can use to beat other Bahais with. While that’s wrong, I want to be sure that I’m not throwing the baby of hope out with the bathwater. Could there be some merit in developing consensual understandings? After all, what could be more Bahai than consultation, consensus and (the new buzz word) coherence?
Background in Christianity and Islam
The assumption that whatever many Bahais think on a question should be a guide to our own understandings is something we bring into the Bahai Faith from our various backgrounds. In Christianity, the Church Fathers translated their assurance that the believers are guided by the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14:17) and by Christ, as he had said “I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” (Matt. 28:20) into a conviction that the body of believers collectively could not agree on an error (“Ecclesia generalis non potest errare” in the much later formulation of Thomas Aquinas (Summa. Th. Suppl. 25.1)). We can see here the link between the discernment of the disciple and the consensus of the faithful. Although the Christians knew from the Gospels that the disciples had disputes among themselves, which Jesus resolved, they believed that the disciples, and the believers everywhere and of every age, would never agree on an error. (Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est, in the words of Vincentius de Lérin) However in Matthew 14:16, 19:14, and 19:26, and in Mark 9:13 and 10:24, Jesus corrects misunderstanding held by the disciples in general, and in Matthew 20:25 he explicitly corrects the thinking of ten of the disciples, and the other two (James and John) implicitly suffered from the same misunderstanding. On the face of it, the New Testament is telling us that the faithful can and do agree in error. Nevertheless, it became a Roman Catholic doctrine that the consensus fidelium – what is stated with the agreement of all believers – cannot err. Therefore, one could deduce Christian doctrine from what Christians had generally believed and practiced in the past. Following the great schism and the Reformation, a more modest formulation would be that Roman Catholic doctrine could be deduced from what Christians in communion with the church at Rome had generally believed and practiced.
In Sunni Islam, authority in the community is ultimately based on consensus (ijma‘ ) among the faithful, for the first Caliphs were chosen by consultation among community leaders. Consensus is also a source of doctrine and religious law, alongside the Quran and the traditions, because there is an Islamic tradition that Muhammad promised “My people will never agree on an error.” Islamic theologians have expressed this in the form “their consensus cannot but be protected from error,” where “protected from error” translates ma’sum, the term that in Bahai theology is sometimes translated as “infallible.” (See Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, 50.) Some theologians have included themselves in the consensus: the Quran and traditions have been read and understood by the Companions, by the community and now by the theologians. Therefore a reading of the Quran or traditions that is contrary to the consensus, as understood by the last in the line (the theologian), must be wrong. The principle excludes the possibility of going back to the Quran to discover new truths, or to critique past and present understandings. Thanks to ‘ijma, the consensus of theologians effectively becomes the highest authority in Islamic theology.
The way the doctrine is used in practice is self-contradictory, for it is used by one Muslim theologian to demonstrate that another Muslim must be wrong. But if one Muslim can be wrong, then there is no consensus. The scope of the consensus must therefore be narrowed, so that the other person is not included in it. There is however no consensus on who participates in the consensus: is it the consensus of the companions of Muhammad, or of the first few generations of Muslims, or of the Islamic scholars of a particular period, or is it the voice of the whole community today? In the latter two cases, does the community include the Shiah Muslims, and other groups, or does ‘my community’ refer only to Sunni Muslims of a certain school? The most common view is that the consensus is the common view of the most widely respected Sunni divines, of any school, in a particular period. They are characterised as having the authority ‘to bind and loosen,’ which can in principle give the Muslim community the flexibility to adapt the accepted readings of the texts and respond to new issues. But it would be unrealistic to expect this principle to be the foundation of an Islamic reformation today, for today more than ever there is no consensus on who are the most respected divines, even within Sunni Islam, and no consensus among the divines on many pressing issues.
In Shiah Islam, there was at first no need to elevate the consensus of the believers to an authority, as the line of appointed Imams had authority to interpret the scripture and traditions. Early Shiah theologians made a bow to their Sunni counterparts by conceding the validity of the tradition “my people will never agree on an error,” but they said the consensus of any generation was not valid unless it included the Imam of that time. But if one had the interpretation of the Imam, any other opinion was superfluous, so the Sunnis and their authoritative divines were not really being thrown a bone. Only the Imam’s opinion really counted.
Because the Shiah had invested so much in the interpretive authority of the Imams, and had insisted that an Imam had to be part of any consensus, when the line of Imams recognized by twelver Shiism ended, they could not easily shift to relying on a consensus of divines. They had voluminous interpretations of law and doctrine from the more productive Imams, particularly the sixth Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq, and this carried them forward for some centuries. By the 18th century, however, the need for a living interpretive authority was being sorely felt. This need is one motive for the rise of the Usuli school of twelver Shiism, in which extraordinary interpretive authority is given to the most learned divines, the mujtahids. This is the school of Shiism that dominates in Iran today, and is also the majority religious affiliation in Iraq.
This brief history should alert us to six issues:
– The doctrine offers no sure protection against schism, for the communities that hold it have been rent by schisms.
– The presence of a strongly based interpretive authority in early Shiism made the doctrine redundant. The same was true of the Bahai Faith: the idea that consensual understandings have some authority was not voiced during the days of Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. I have not found any appeal to consensus understandings in the Bahai community prior to 1992, then the Universal House of Justice first challenged the idea, although I have found it suggested in internet discussions after 1992. Conversely, it was the lack of a scriptural basis for the Caliphate in Sunni Islam that committed that community to including consensus among the sources of Sunni doctrine: to deny it as a doctrine would also be to destroy the consensual foundation of the Sunni polity.
– The doctrine of consensus may sound democratic and consultative, but in practice it has been compatible with, or actually assisted, the rise of clerical authority and the doctrinal authority of a church hierarchy. Usuli Shiism presents us with an interesting case: when changes in the world created a pressing need to revitalize the doctrine of consensus, it led to a marked increase in the authority of the divines as compared to the ordinary believers, leading to the situation in Iran today. In Western Bahai communities today, a new emphasis on the importance of achieving common understandings of Bahai teachings among the laity has gone hand in hand with the development of a quasi-ecclesiastic hierarchy of religious experts, at the various levels of the “Teaching Institutes.”
– Although the letter from the Universal House of Justice that was quoted at the outset presents “a body of learned Bahais” and “the general opinion of the mass of the believers” as if they were two alternative ways of dealing with the end of the line of Guardians in the Bahai community, with equivalent effect and equally weak foundations, there are differences. In the Bahai case, the idea of a body of learned Bahais is speculation about a future solution to the perceived problem of the lack of a living Guardian. It has no immediate impact on the lives of Bahais today, because there is no such body of experts. Consensual understandings, in contrast, are offered as a source of confirmation and a basis for polemics in the Bahai community today: the argument is not that the House of Justice might one day be guided by the mass of the believers, but rather that consensual understandings today should guide and admonish those other, misguided, Bahais who think differently. The appeal to consensus grows out of the usually inarticulate supposition that the Bahai community requires a doctrinal authority and doctrinal uniformity, and that harmony in the community requires that some authority should be accorded to what Bahais generally have believed over the generations.
Different as the two positions are, they sometimes flow together in an appeal not to the consensus of the faithful but rather to “the existing consensus of Baha’i scholars” (Steve Cooney, ‘The World Order of Baha’u’llah,’ Online Journal of Baha’i Studies Volume 1 (2007), 495). This nicely illustrates the point made above, that the appeal to consensus is in the first place polemic and exclusionary and then, and as a result, tends to support a hierarchy of religious experts as a source of Bahai theology.
– The doctrine is used largely in internal polemics: it’s a device to prove the other fellow is out of line, when one does not have a logical or scriptural argument. An appeal to consensus is only needed in doctrinal disputes when there is no consensus, but since there is no objective way of saying who is inside and who is outside of the consensus, it resolves nothing. If this is true of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, which have bodies of trained and formally recognized religious experts, it is doubly true of the Bahai community, which – leaving aside the still fluid phenomenon of Ruhi class tutors and coordinators – does not.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also say that I have a dog in this fight. My longstanding opposition to the principle of consensus may have something to do with the fact that I have been dismissed as the “dissident voice” where my research produces something new. One critic commented “if Sen is right, generations of Bahais have been wrong,” and another referred dismissively to Bahai scholars who “love to advance theories that are clearly at variance with consen[s]ual Baha’i understandings.” The plural ‘scholars’ here is a euphemism, as I was the only target of the words.
Consensual understandings in Bahai theology
Despite my prejudice against the doctrine, based on the precedents in Christian and Islamic history and from having been at the wrong end of the appeal to consensus too many times, I have looked to see whether there might be some virtue in consensus-building with regard to the Bahai teachings, and the appeal to that consensus as a source of doctrine. I should distinguish this from consensus-building with respect to action. Abdu’l-Baha refers (in the “Seven Candles” letter) to “unity of thought in world undertakings” (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 32), and indeed, how else could the machinery of international governance work, if not by consensus?
Shoghi Effendi refers to “the collective effort and wisdom of the community at large” and wrote:
….let us first strive to live the life and then arise with one heart, one mind, one voice, to reinforce our numbers and achieve our end.
(The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 34)
The Universal House of Justice writes:
Baha’is eschew the adversarial approach of dispute and confrontation, and seek rather the methods of consultation, … with its goal the achievement of consensus in the pursuit of truth. Baha’is aim to persuade others of the correctness of their views through their example and the use of reason, and shun the techniques of pressure, condemnation and abuse which are a deplorable feature of much of the present-day quest for social justice.
(October 24, 1990, in Messages UHJ 1986-2001)
The second sentence shows that consensus in the pursuit of truth refers to interactions between Bahais and the wider society, a process that could not produce a consensus on Bahai teachings. The theme of the 1990 letter suggests that ‘truth’ refers not to doctrine but rather to the true state of affairs relating to social issues. And if the reference to “consensus in the pursuit of truth” has encouraged some to think that consensus on doctrinal matters might be achieved in the Bahai community, the 1992 letter’s rejection of “the general opinion of the mass of the believers” can be seen as a corrective to that misunderstanding.
A letter on behalf of the Universal House of Justice (14 November 2005) states:
Baha’u’llah has liberated human minds by prohibiting within His Faith any caste with ecclesiastical prerogatives that seeks to foist a self-assumed authority upon the thought and behavior of the mass of believers. Indeed, He has prescribed a system that combines democratic practices with the application of knowledge through consultative processes.
Here again, it cannot be religious truths that are to be determined by democratic practices, but rather practical truths: what is to be done. In the same vein, a statement from the International Teaching Centre, regarding developments within the Bahai community, refers to developing “consensus and unity of thought” about “the nature and the extent of the action to be undertaken” (‘Building Visions of Growth’ ). There are many more such examples, expressing aspirations to consensus for practical purposes without implying that the consensus of the faithful is a source of doctrine.
Even within the area of consensus-building as a preparation for action, not every use of consensus is a good one. The Universal House of Justice has condemned “a clear attempt to create a constituency of like-minded persons [a consensus] to bring pressure to bear on the institutions of the Faith to make changes in the policies and practices of the Baha’i community” (June 21, 1989). Here I think the distinction is between forming a practical consensus as to the needs and opportunities of the Bahai community, which will usually include a need to change and an idea of how to go about it, and supposing that this consensus will be binding on the Bahai institutions. The first is good, especially where it is flexible and iterative, for this is “the application of knowledge through consultative processes.” The second would be incompatible with the framework of Bahai belief and practice. The authority of the Local and National Spiritual Assemblies and the Universal House of Justice outranks the practical consensus which we seek to achieve through consultation and reflection. Consensus as a practical preparation for change and action is desirable, but with the clear understanding that any practical consensus achieved among the faithful does not limit the freedom of the elected representatives of the community to act, and to direct the Bahais to act, as they in their own consultation may decide.
My search has led me to conclude that, leaving aside references to consensus-building for practical purposes, there is no basis in the Bahai Writings for treating consensus as a source of doctrine, or standard of orthodoxy. Unlike the Christian and Islamic traditions, in the Bahai Faith the consensus of the believers has no authority, and as regards our understandings of Bahai teachings, consensus is not said to be either possible or desirable.
A reasonable objection to this would be, that there is a “need for the breaths of the Holy Spirit” (see Makatib-e Hazrat-e Abdu’l-Baha, vol. 5 p. 41), for the “confirmations of the Holy Spirit” (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha p. 60), and various forms of divine guidance that are promised to the individual – under certain conditions – in the Bahai Writings. Assuming that these were not merely conventional expressions, these authors must surely have thought that all that guidance, coming from the one God and the one Holy Spirit, must at least prevent the faithful from agreeing in error? Isn’t individual guidance by the Holy Spirit a singular, whose plural would look rather like a consensus of the faithful doctrine?
There are in fact parallels in the Bahai Writings for an allied doctrine that is found in Islamic and Christian theologies, which I will call ‘the discernment of the disciple.’
In The Gems of the Divine Mysteries, Baha’u’llah quotes two of the Quranic verses that are used to support the doctrine of ijma‘:
“And those who strive for us, we surely guide them in our paths” (29:69)
“Fear God and God will teach you.” (2:282).
If we all strive for God and fear God, would we not find ourselves on the same path and in agreement?
The discernment of the disciple
A very recent statement, Sensus Fidei (2014) by the International Theological Commission, relates the consensus of the faithful in Catholic theology to the sensus fidei, which is an individual’s instinctive recognition of true teaching born of inner transformation and participation in the life of the religious community. It is a widespread experience of religious life, and not only within Christianity, that an instinct for the right and true can develop in the individual. Jeremiah says:
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me… (Jer 31:33-34).
The Letter to the Romans (2:15) refers to the faithful:
… who do shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also witnessing with them, and between one another the thoughts accusing or else defending.
There is a ‘tradition,’ which Shaykh Ahmad quotes from one of the Imams, while Sunnis attribute it to Muhammad (see Sunan At-Tirmidhi 3127), to the effect that one should “beware of the discernment (feraaseh) of the believer, for he sees with the light of Allah.” Abdu’l-Baha quotes this tradition twice, with reference to the discerning eye of Mirza Abu’l Fadl, in the course of the “tablet of a thousand verses” which he wrote for Abu’l Fadl.
The feraaseh is a light that God deposits in the heart, through which the believer distinguishes truth from falsehood and right from wrong. The word appears in only a few places in the writings of Baha’u’llah, and is translated as ‘observe carefully’ or ‘ponder’, which is to say, ‘use your spiritual discernment.’ However the concept of the discernment of the disciple, using other Arabic and Persian terms, is found in many places in the Bahai writings. In the Tablet of Unity, Baha’u’llah writes:
The truth with all of its attributes and actions is and always has been distinguishable from aught else and those who are possessed of insight (basar) have not and will not be mistaken over this. (Ad’iyyeh-ye Hadrat-e Mahbub 401)
and in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf :
They whose sight is keen, whose ears are retentive, whose hearts are enlightened, and whose breasts are dilated, recognize both truth and falsehood, and distinguish the one from the other. (p. 9)
In another work he writes:
Know thou that the passages [of scripture] that We have called “ambiguous” appear as such only in the eyes of them that have failed to soar above the horizon of guidance and to reach the heights of knowledge in the retreats of grace. For otherwise, unto them that have recognized the Repositories of divine Revelation and beheld through His inspiration the mysteries of divine authority, all the verses of God are perspicuous and all His allusions are clear. Such men discern the inner mysteries that have been clothed in the garment of words as clearly as ye perceive the heat of the sun or the wetness of water, nay even more distinctly.
(Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 26)
In the Surah of Sorrows he writes “if thou discernest them with the eye of thine innate nature (be nazr al-fetra), thou wilt find that they are wolves.” (Paragraph 27 in Cole’s translation). Here the discernment of the disciple comes from the nature (fetra) that is innate to every human person and which is able to perceive the nature of things directly, once acquired veils have been removed.
Fetra (or fetrat or fetra) has a range of meanings in different kinds of Islamic literature and there does not appear to be any adequate treatment of it in the literature in European languages. It is clear that in relation to personal hygiene and adornment, fetra refers to the natural appearance of the body as created in the image of God, and the question is the extent to which it is permissible to alter this appearance; in the literature relating to the legal position of minors it refers to a sort of primal religion which children are considered to belong to at birth; and in rationalist Islamic apologetics it is the natural religion accessible by untainted reason. Shoghi Effendi renders it in his translations with words such as ‘inner ears,’ ‘discerning hearts,’ ‘innate powers’ and ‘the nature made by God.’
In the Kitab-e Iqan, Baha’u’llah refers to the transformation of the heart giving supernatural insight :
… upon whatever hearts the bountiful showers of mercy, raining from the “heaven” of divine Revelation, have fallen, the earth of those hearts hath verily been changed into the earth of divine knowledge and wisdom. … What blossoms of true knowledge and wisdom hath their illumined bosoms yielded! … Methinks they have been moulded from the clay of infinite knowledge, and kneaded with the water of divine wisdom. Therefore, hath it been said: “Knowledge is a light which God casteth into the heart of whomsoever He willeth.” It is this kind of knowledge which is and hath ever been praiseworthy, and not the limited knowledge that hath sprung forth from veiled and obscured minds. This limited knowledge they even stealthily borrow one from the other, and vainly pride themselves therein!
He cannot have meant that all the opinions of “those who are possessed of insight” can be relied upon, for we are not, individually, consistent: our opinions on one matter may be carefully and prayerfully developed and informed by the power of the Holy Spirit, while on another matter we take someone’s word for it, carelessly apply faulty logic, or begin with incorrect information, bad translations or a faulty text. We cannot too easily rely even on our own innate insight, although with a thorough knowledge of oneself and complete honesty, one can place a degree of reliance on insight. Moreover, insights can lead us to truths that we later confirm by reason and research, including the use of scripture and its authoritative interpretations.
The Roman Catholics’ International Theological Commission compares the sensus fidei to an instinct because “it is not primarily the result of rational deliberation, but is rather a form of spontaneous and natural knowledge.” In his commentary on the tradition “He who knoweth his self knoweth his Lord,” Baha’u’llah refers to this instinct as one of the signs of a new outpouring of grace in the world, saying that by its aid “no man shall ever stand in need of his neighbor,” and he says that:
… the majority of them that have sought and attained His holy court have revealed such knowledge and wisdom, a drop of which none else besides these holy and sanctified souls, however long he may have taught or studied, hath grasped or will ever comprehend. It is by virtue of this power that the beloved of God have … been exalted above, and made independent of, all human learning. Nay, from their hearts and the springs of their innate powers hath gushed out unceasingly the inmost essence of human learning and wisdom.
From both of the verses quoted above, it is apparent that the discernment of the disciple, in Baha’u’llah’s thinking is not something reserved for spiritual adepts. “This power” or “instinct,” this “spontaneous and natural knowledge” is spontaneous not in the sense of coming out of nothing, but rather, as growing spontaneously in a process of attentive listening in the light of the Spirit, participation in the life of the community, the use of reason, and a readiness to learn.
The eye of innate nature
As noted above, the discernment of the disciple comes from the nature that is innate to every human person. In the Bahai Writings the connection is made in at least three ways. The first is in anthropology (doctrines about the human person). The Bahai teachings, and the Abrahamic tradition generally, present the human person as created in the image of God. In the Bahai scriptures this does not take the form of a creation myth, but rather as a demythologizing explanation of the Abrahamic creation myth. The inner meaning of the creation stories, according to Baha’u’llah, is that the human person’s role in God’s scheme is to embody all the attributes of God. Lesser creations embody some particular attributes of God, as the plant exhibits growth and the animal exhibits will and movement, but the human person also has the capacities needed to respond to God. Baha’u’llah writes (in Shoghi Effendi’s translation):
Having created the world and all that liveth and moveth therein, [God] …. chose to confer upon man the unique distinction and capacity to know Him and to love Him … Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing He hath shed the light of one of His names … Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self. (In Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, section XXVII)
From among all created things He hath singled out for His special favor the pure, the gem-like reality of man, and invested it with a unique capacity of knowing Him and of reflecting the greatness of His glory.(In Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, section XXXIV)
All things have their innate nature, their fetra. The innate nature of the human person is to express all the divine attributes, including the intellectual capacities such as knowing, creating and questioning, and to know and love God. This innate nature is latent, in the way that light-giving is latent in a candle before the flame is lit. This optimistic view of human capacity underlies Baha’u’llah’s statement quoted above, that “those who are possessed of insight have not and will not be mistaken,” and his statement that the term ‘infallibility’ [`esmat] “is applied to every soul whom God hath guarded against sin, transgression, rebellion, impiety, disbelief and the like.” (Tablet of Eshraqat, as translated in Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed after the Kitab-i Aqdas; more literally it reads “… when God has guarded anyone from sin (khataa’), rebellion (`esyaan), impiety (`eraaz) disbelief (kofr), joining partners with God (sherk) and the like, God grants each and every one of them the name of ‘infallibility.’) While doing wrong, and being wrong, are always possible, in Baha’u’llah’s view, they are not natural and inevitable.
The second connection between our innate nature and the discernment of the disciple is that God’s justice demands it. If our nature did not allow us to see right and be right, how could a just God impute to us our wrongs? Baha’u’llah writes:
He hath endowed every soul with the capacity to recognize the signs of God. How could He, otherwise, have fulfilled His testimony unto men, … He will never deal unjustly with any one, neither will He task a soul beyond its power. (In Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, section LII)
The third connection is epistemological, relating the discernment of the disciple directly to the work of the Holy Spirit, but involving our innate nature implicitly, since the argument assumes that human nature is open to inspiration by the Holy Spirit, and relies on the Holy Spirit to obtain certain knowledge. A number of the talks that Abdu’l-Baha gave in his journeys to Europe and America consist of lists of Bahai teachings, and of these, a number refer to the possibility and need for inspiration by the Holy Spirit. Peter Terry surveyed 37 such lists of principles available in English, and found 13 that include dependence on the Holy Spirit among the core Bahai Principles. (Lights of Irfan vol. 1, 2000, see page 144)
In Some Answered Questions, Abdu’l-Baha describes the criteria of understanding (edraak), dealing first with the senses, then with the intellect and reason (`aql), and with “tradition” (naql) which here means the transmitted record of divine revelation. This record of Revelation cannot be depended upon,
… because the traditions must be understood by the mind. As the mind itself is liable to error, how can it be said that it will attain to perfect truth and not err in comprehending and inferring the meaning of the traditions?
The fourth criterion, and the only reliable one, is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
… the Holy Spirit is the sound standard, for in it there is never the least doubt. Those [others], are aids to the Holy Spirit, which comes to a person: in it, he attains the stations of certitude. (My translation, page 225 in Mufavidat, Chapter 83 in the 1908 English translation).
The inspiration of the Holy Spirit is given priority over the records of Revelation (scripture), since it can illuminate moments in our experience, as well as illuminating scripture and religious history (naql), whereas scripture and tradition without the Holy Spirit is not a reliable criterion.
Understanding that has been confirmed through the Holy Spirit may be shared with others, as Abdu’l-Baha writes:
It is my hope that the breaths of the Holy Spirit will so be breathed into your hearts that your tongues will disclose the mysteries, and set forth and expound the inner meanings of the Holy Books; that the friends will become physicians, and will, through the potent medicine of the heavenly Teachings, heal the long-standing diseases that afflict the body of this world; that they will make the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the dead to come alive; that they will awaken those who are sound asleep.
(Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, section 219)
Why is consensus not the plural of discernment?
The sensus fidei, the feraaseh, or discernment of the disciple, the capacity that guides us to discern truth from falsehood, is the eye of our common innate nature, which when illumined by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit gives us insight (basar) that “will not be mistaken.” It takes us to the station of certitude and may even be ma`sum, protected from error. This is not reserved for an elite, it is the fruit of our innate nature and inspiration that is available to all, and the understanding it gives to an individual may be shared with others.
This teaching is something the Bahai Faith has in common with Islamic, Christian, and to some extent Jewish theologies. But while Sunni Islam and Roman Catholic Christianity treat the consensus of the faithful as a source of doctrine and a standard, the Bahai teachings exclude that possibility. The discernment of the disciple is not the foundation of a community consensus, in Baha’u’llah’s thinking, it is the foundation of the individual’s independence from the consensus. The question is why Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha did not make the apparently logical step, from the singular sensus fidei to the plural consensus fidelium?
One explanation may be found in the historical and polemic setting for which they wrote. In early Islam and Christianity, the doctrine of consensus was not developed in the first generation, and how much it was developed and emphasized depended on the perceived need for an authoritative source of doctrine. The Shiah had no real need for it, since they had the Imams, and neither did Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, for they were themselves the authoritative source of doctrine. Nor could they concede the validity of the consensus of the faithful in Christian and Islamic theologies, for as proponents of a new revelation they were arguing in many cases that Christians and Muslims had misunderstood their respective scriptures. For example, Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha gave symbolic interpretations of terms such as ‘star’ and ‘heaven,’ and stories such as that of Adam and Eve, while the mass of Muslims and Christians had understood these literally, at least until the 18th century. If Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha were right, then the consensus of the faithful had been wrong.
Another factor is the greater individualism of Baha’u’llah’s teachings, as compared to Islam, which is in turn more individualist than Christianity, which is more individualist than Pharisaic Judaism or Zoroastrianism. The great step forward made by the Pharisees and in late Zoroastrianism, and borrowed by the Christians and Muslims, was to individualize spiritual destiny and spiritual responsibility. They made salvation a property of the individual rather than the tribe or people, and related it to the ethical behaviour of that individual. Baha’u’llah extends this trajectory, with a greater emphasis on individual responsibility in religion, by replacing the concept of salvation with that of spiritual growth through many worlds. This growth is individual, incremental, and relative to the challenges that an individual faces and to his or her personal destiny: “Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, section CVI)
Jeremiah had looked forward to this, in the verse quoted above: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me…” (Jer 31:34), and this is reiterated in the New Testament in Hebrews 8:11. Baha’u’llah draws the same conclusion from the discernment of the disciple: it does not make the discerning believer a drop in the pool of a community consensus, rather it makes that individual independent of the opinions of others. He writes:
… the Days immediately associated with the Manifestation of God possess a unique distinction … It is for this reason that, in those days, no man shall ever stand in need of his neighbor. ….from their hearts and the springs of their innate powers (fetrat-eshan) hath gushed out unceasingly the inmost essence of human learning and wisdom.
(Tafsir (commentary) on the tradition, “He who knoweth his self knoweth his Lord,” translation by Shoghi Effendi in Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, section CXXIV)
The words “no man shall ever stand in need of his neighbour” (Ahadi muhtaaj beh-ahadi nabudeh wa nakhaahad bud) are an almost literal quote from the Persian Bayan, 4:10 (ahadi muhtaaj be ahadi nebaashod), where they explain a ban on teaching logic and (Islamic) fundamental theology. [Thanks to Omid Ghaemmaghami for this find.]
This epistemelogical individualism is stated again by Baha’u’llah in the second Arabic Hidden Word, where the voice of God says:
The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice (ensaaf, fair-mindedness); … By its aid you see (tushaahad, to witness) with your own eyes and not through the eyes of the servants [of God], and know through your own knowledge and not through the knowledge (ma`refat) of any among the servants. (My translation: the ‘knowing’ and ‘knowledge’ here refers to direct insight into intellectual realities.)
Another reason we cannot make the apparently logical step, from the singular sensus fidei to the plural consensus fidelium, is that there is a possibility that understandings confirmed by the Holy Spirit may be shared, but no guarantee that anyone will listen. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is a lunatic, and better shunned. How, then, could a consensus develop?
Yet another reason is, that it is often best if no-one listens. In religion, truth is only true for you when it is your very own truth. Indeed in the moral realm in general, understanding must be made our own, so that our actions may be self-actuated, and potentially moral. Baha’u’llah writes “the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself” and roundly condemns taqlid, usually translated as “blind imitation” in matters of religion. The taqlid that is condemned might be imitation of the consensual understanding among Bahais, or of a scholar, or of the existing consensus of scholars … whoever is being imitated, the imitated/imitation truth has no value at all for the imitator. It is like the time of day written on a piece of paper.
In religion and art and literature, and in relationships, a truth borrowed is not true. We need to possess our own truths, which means in effect that we each make our own truth, although not ex nihilo. This leads us to the familiar Bahai teaching of “the individual search after truth.” A truth borrowed is a truth debased:
Perchance we may divest ourselves of all that we have taken from each other and strip ourselves of such borrowed garments as we have stolen from our fellow men, that He may attire us instead with the robe of His mercy and the raiment of His guidance, and admit us into the city of knowledge.
(Baha’u’llah, in Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 15)
I will note here briefly, a point that will return in another posting, when we consider the desirable and undesirable forms of ‘imitation’ (taqlid) of a religious expert: when we say that a truth borrowed is a truth debased, the reference is only to truths of the heart. These are the truths of religion. Truths about religion, such as ‘Abraham preceeded Moses’ or ‘Abdu’l-Baha designed the House of Worship in Eshqabad’ are matters of history, factual claims that reach us only through a chain of transmission, and which we cannot know directly. We rely on authorities, who rely on authorities, and in the best case, the authorities are irrefutable documents or observable facts. Our knowledge of these truths about religion is different to the direct ‘seeing’ and understanding of intellectual realities referred to in the Hidden Word above.
The production of truth by the truth-holder is related to epistemological relativism. The collective dimension of relativism is a familiar Bahai teaching, expressed by Shoghi Effend:
[the Bahai Revelation’s] teachings revolve around the fundamental principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final. Unequivocally and without the least reservation it proclaims all established religions to be divine in origin, identical in their aims, complementary in their functions, continuous in their purpose, indispensable in their value to mankind.
(The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 58)
In the words of Baha’u’llah, “Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration.” (Quoted above). Because every age has its own problems (har ruz ruzi ast, “every day is one particular day”), the answers of one day differ from another, and the truths that a religion teaches society are relative to the time, not absolute. This is a perspectival epistemology in which a ‘day’ – meaning an era – is supposed to have one perspective. The second part of this verse says “every soul [has] its particular aspiration (har sar-raa aawaazi dard).” Literally, this is “every head has a melody (out of many possible ones).” An awaaz is a Persian melody that is always sung solo, since its timing is irregular. In this form, the word appears rarely in the Bahai texts, but the form awaazeh is common. This is a particular high note in music (dictionary of EJ Steingass) or simply a synonym for awaaz (Hayyim’s dictionary), and the word is used in the Bahai writings in the sense of celestial melody or the sounds of worship. Both words are sometimes used in the sense of a call or invitation. This is a perspectival epistemology in which the perspective is that of each individual.
Baha’u’llah expresses the production of truth by the individual truth-knower in visual terms in ‘the valley of unity’ section of his Seven Valleys:
Your excellency is aware that all the differences in the realms of being that are observed by the wayfarer in the stages of the path derive from the wayfarer himself. … Consider the visible sun; although it shines with one radiance upon all creation and all beings, … [yet] a mirror reveals its circular shape , … in crystal glass it kindles fire… In the same way, the particular character of a recipient object causes colours to appear, even as the lantern glass: if it is yellow, yellow appears; if it is white, white appears, … (my translation, pp. 10-11 in this Persian text)
The moral of this is, that variations in ‘truth’ arise from variations in our selves, and if I am a yellow globe there’s no point in my trying to borrow red light from someone else, for when the sun of truth shines on me the result will be yellow light, not red. It follows that ‘the individual search after truth,’ a principle frequently explained by Abdu’l-Baha, must refer to a search that continues as long as the mind is thinking. There is no point at which borrowed robes are as good tailor made.
All of which is to say, while the Bahai Faith does have a teaching concerning the individual’s sensus fidei, feraaseh, or discernment, one cannot conclude from this that the consensus of the faithful is an authority or even a guide for the individual’s beliefs or the development of doctrine in the community. Because religious truth is subjective, the development of discernment does not lead to consensus among the discerning, let alone among the mass of the faithful. The apparent impossibility of achieving doctrinal consensus in the Bahai community is not a negative finding, as those religious communities that do accept the consensus of the faithful as a source of theology have also not achieved doctrinal consensus. On the contrary: the doctrine creates rigidity in thought and a class of custodians whose interest is to prevent change, with the result that diversity in understanding is more likely to shatter the unity of the community.
Nevertheless, the Bahai Faith does have doctrines, dogmas and teachings (the terms are synonyms derived from different languages). It has ‘fundamental verities,’ and it has lists of Bahai teachings, but neither function in a way analogous to the 39 Articles of Religion in the Anglican Church, some of which are essentials of faith to be believed by all church members. There are at least three differences.
First, Bahai doctrines are not essential to salvation, since the either/or concept of salvation has been replaced by the goal of endless individual growth. Wrong understandings of Bahai teachings can get in the way of an individual’s growth, and in that case we do some pastoral theology to try to resolve that issue for that person, but right belief is not a condition for individual salvation, and this makes a huge difference to the way Bahais approach doctrine.
Second, while the Bahais are called on to affirm the Bahai teachings and witness to them to the world (including the community itself), this affirmation grows out of understanding. It is not something like signing the 39 Articles before entering Oxford University. When Shoghi Effendi speaks of these fundamental verities, he speaks of the need to understand them, to clarify them. If someone asked him whether a Bahai had to believe them, I think he would have replied that the question shows an incomplete understanding. In this view (which supposes a harmony between right reason and the will), more correct belief follows automatically from fuller understanding. One believes, by definition, that which one understands, if ‘understanding’ is the direct apprehension of intellectual realities.
Third, Bahai doctrines are not or should not be a basis for exclusion. The identity of the Bahais is intended to be based on having a collective centre — the person of Baha’u’llah, the example and interpretations of Bahai teachings provided by Abdu’l-Baha, and the Administrative Order that he designed in his Will and Testament. What individual Bahais get from this collective centre varies richly, our coherence as a diverse community derives from the coherence of Baha’u’llah as a person, and Abdu’l-Baha’s complete alignment with his father.
If right doctrine is not required for salvation, or for defining the true Bahai, or maintaining unity, then the ideas that “consensual understandings” might be provided by a body of learned Baha’is, or by reference to the general opinion of the mass of the believers, or by elucidations from the House of Justice (dealt with in a separate post on this blog), are all equally irrelevant, as well as lacking a scriptural foundation. The theological assertion that there is no scriptural foundation for treating any of them as authoritative sources also has a practical dimension: if there is no evident scriptural foundation for the authority of these sources, that all Bahais can recognise, any appeal to consensus, or the opinions of scholars, or elucidations of the House of Justice will cause disunity and defeat the intended purpose.
Consistent self-checking of our ideas about the Bahai teachings, in comparison to the scriptures, will certainly produce a degree of cohesion over time. The processes of growing understanding, or reducing misunderstanding, in the community will be fruitful, for that is that nature of understanding. It is alignment with reality. But whatever cohesion and consensus we achieve can only be an outcome, it cannot be an input. We can never appeal to the consensus, but we can expect to achieve it to some extent, provisionally.
The Bahai community is a young community in process, a diverse fellowship travelling together, as in the Canterbury Tales. In the process each generation looks back at the past and sees some things that the early Bahais did and wrote which we would no longer support. In this evolving process, there are diverse views at any one time. This is as it should be: we are working towards a transcendent ideal in a contingent world, which means that there is always a gap between the actual and the ideal. If it were not so, if we imagined that perfection was achieved and our understanding complete and immutable, the Bahai community would have reached the terminal stage of its life cycle.