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Signed by Five

Posted by Sen on October 6, 2019

As I have often pointed out, it’s important to distinguish between the letters written by the Guardian and those written on his behalf. It is also important to distinguish between letters from the Universal House of Justice and those from the Secretariat or another body at the Bahai World Centre. Knowing which is which requires some checking and perhaps a direct enquiry, because many publications and databases quote from letters issued by the Secretariat, saying that they are quoting the House of Justice. Moreover letters from the Secretariat quite often cite memoranda from the Research Department, so that these too come to be cited as ‘from The House of Justice’ or on behalf of the House of Justice. This is a muddle: some clarity is needed.

In 1996, a letter on behalf of the House of Justice described the procedure used for letters signed as coming from the secretariat:

As to whether there is a distinction between correspondence from the World Centre that has been signed “The Universal House of Justice” and that signed on behalf of the Secretariat [sic: they mean, “on behalf of the House of Justice”]: In brief, the manner in which each of these letters is prepared depends upon the contents of the letter. Drafts of letters which contain newly formulated policies are consulted upon and approved during a meeting of the House of Justice; correspondence dealing with previously enunciated policies, or with matters of a routine nature, are prepared, as delegated by the House of Justice, by its Secretariat and initialed by at least the majority of the members of the House of Justice before being dispatched. All letters written over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat are authorized by the Universal House of Justice.”
(22 October 1996)

Twenty years later, the procedure was described to me – and I welcome independent updates on this – as based on departmental responsibilities, with each department of the Secretariat overseen by a member of the House of Justice. Each member reviews the matters arising relevant his department, and selects some for consideration by the House of Justice itself. Others he handles himself, or passes to his secretaries to respond to. In either case, this produces a draft communication, which will usually be a letter but may be instructions to be given orally, either to a Counselor or, more rarely, to the Secretary of a National Spiritual Assembly. The drafts approved by members are deposited at a central place where other members can read them. When a draft has received the signatures of at least 5 members, it is sent as a communication from the Secretariat in the name of the House of Justice.

The two descriptions are not contradictory. Pending an update of the 1996 letter, it appears that individual members are expected to recognize issues that call for “newly formulated policies,” implying that there is a set of reigning policies. Either these policies do not exist in a codified form, or the codification is not communicated to the community. The first of these seems more probable, i.e., that “current policies” are determined by the individual member in accordance with his personal understanding which is a mix of where he thinks the House of Justice should go, what he has experienced of the House in action, how much he knows of the relevant Writings, and how much he thinks he knows, but incorrectly.

If there was a compilation of established policies, I think it would have been published, enabling the entire community to know the policies and understand the thinking of the Universal House of Justice and implement it intelligently in their own diverse circumstances. Moreover, the House of Justice, as a body charged with ‘elucidating’ (‘illuminating’) obscure matters would surely be transparent about its collected policies if it was in a position to do so. Non-transparent illumination is a contradiction in terms. So I think it very likely that the established policies of the House of Justice are determined by the members individually, case by case.

In my opinion it would be desirable for policies that are intended to guide the community as a whole to be published as a matter of course, and also for the community to be notified when a policy is no longer in force, through the same ‘gazette.’

From both descriptions, it appears that where a letter is sourced from the Secretariat, either an individual House member or a secretary has investigated, decided on a response and drafted the letter for signature by the designated member and four others. This means that the particular circumstances of the case in hand are known, at most, to one member of the House: the other four signatories see only the draft response. If the draft is prepared by the Secretariat, as stated in the 1996 letter, then none of the members would be informed of the facts of the case. To be more exact: neither description of the process says that the background file is attached to the communication, let alone that the signatories are expected to read that file. Given this limitation, their signatures are in the nature of a “no objection” to that response, for they do not have enough information to say whether this response is the best possible response in the circumstances. They can say whether the response is in accordance with their own understandings of existing House policies, but not whether it is correct as regards the facts of the case, unless they take the initiative to inform themselves diligently. Neither of the descriptions mentions this possibility, but no doubt it is possible for a member to ask for more information before signing the response. The members could also, presumably, disagree with their colleague’s judgment that the issue did not warrant consultation by the House as a body. But it’s not likely to happen, if they have only read the draft response. That response by definition will present the issue as a routine matter covered by existing policies.

Neither description of the 5-signature process provides for any consultation, although it is presumably available as an optional extra. The procedure as described assumes that the response is prepared by a single member of the House, or by “the Secretariat” – without specifying whether that is one or more secretaries. Baha’u’llah writes “The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.” (Translated from the Persian, in the compilation _Consultation). So if such communications seem sometimes to lack the gift of understanding, this may be attributed not to the limitations of the individuals, but rather to the procedure they work within. Anyone working in this framework day after day, making individual judgment calls checked only by people not familiar with the facts, must be forgiven for some suboptimal decisions. It is admirable enough if the person given such individual responsibility — to speak on behalf of the House and shape the lives of individuals and communities — can win the spiritual battle against developing a god complex.

Letters sent out by this method – with five signatures – are sent in the name of House of Justice and generally received as coming from the House of Justice and covered by infallibility. Some have even called them letters from God – a blasphemy if meant literally, but perhaps excusable as rhetorical exaggeration. But then again, not so excusable, if the exaggeration is designed to be taken literally by those culturally and psychologically predisposed to do so!

It would be a mistake to have very high expectations of the outcomes of such a process, and such letters certainly cannot be considered infallible, because of the lack of investigative procedures such as hearing both sides, because of the role that individual members’ understandings have played in the process, and because the infallibility of the House is limited, formally and procedurally, to decisions taken in a meeting of the body, whether unanimously or by majority vote. Abdu’l-Baha says, in Some Answered Questions:

… infallibility in essence is confined to the universal Manifestations of God and infallibility as an attribute is conferred upon sanctified souls. For instance, the Universal House of Justice, if it be established under the necessary conditions — that is, if it be elected by the entire community — that House of Justice will be under the protection and unerring guidance of God. Should that House of Justice decide, either unanimously or by a majority, upon a matter that is not explicitly recorded in the Book, that decision and command will be guarded from error. Now, the members of the House of Justice are not essentially infallible as individuals, but the body of the House of Justice is under the protection and unerring guidance of God: this is called conferred infallibility.

This limitation of the infallibility of the House to decisions taken by the body, and not by members individually, dovetails with other Bahai teachings: the abolition of the clergy within the Bahai community, the central role of consultation in Bahai affairs, and the high evaluation that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha accord to discursive rationality in all spheres of life. Trust in reasoned discourse, in turn, relates to their teaching that humanity has reached the age of maturity. I leave all these interesting topics aside here, noting merely that what appears as a mere procedural requirement regarding meetings of the House is a necessary result of deeper and wider teachings about human nature, and the nature of the Bahai community and modern society.

The section of the 1996 letter I have quoted above (from the Secretariat) ends with the sentence “All letters written over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat are authorized by the Universal House of Justice.” Respectfully, I disagree. The author of this letter has just described the procedure of preparing a draft that is then “initialed by at least the majority of the members of the House of Justice before being dispatched.” The procedure as described does not leave any room for authorization by the Universal House of Justice itself before dispatch. What we may assume is that the House of Justice has implicitly or explicitly authorized the Secretariat’s procedures. It has not authorized the contents of individual letters or verbal communications delivered in its name, unless the body itself has consulted on the exact wording of the communication. In that case, the decision always comes in writing, and with the signature of the House of Justice.

As regards memoranda from the Research Department, which are often cited or enclosed with letters from the Secretariat, the same 1996 letter states:

As to whether the materials prepared by the Research Department constitute the authoritative word of the Universal House of Justice on a particular subject, as raised in your third question, the House of Justice indicates that such materials, though prepared at its direction, represent the views of that Department. While such views are very useful as an aid to resolving perplexities or gaining an enhanced understanding of the Bahai Teachings, they should never be taken to be in the same category as the elucidations and clarifications provided by the Universal House of Justice in the exercise of its assigned functions. However, the House of Justice chooses to convey the materials prepared by the Research Department to the friends because it wishes them to be thoughtfully attended to and seriously considered.

Given that this letter is from the Secretariat, and that it is usually the Secretariat that cites or encloses the research Memoranda, “the House of Justice chooses to convey the materials …” should be parsed as “five or more members of the House of Justice have undersigned our decision to convey the materials…” A few of the communications of the Secretariat give me the impression that the authors think of themselves as the outward face of the House of Justice, rather than as staff of a subordinate auxiliary to the House. This is one example.

The International Teaching Centre

The International Teaching Centre has become a very prominent feature of the Bahai Administrative Order at the global level. From what has already been said, it is clear that ITC letters are not equivalent to the decisions taken by the House of Justice in consultation, and are not covered by infallibility. The process by which these letters are composed is entirely obscure: are they written by individuals designated with particular responsibilities, or are they the fruits of a consultation within the ITC, or with other parties? Yet I have recently noted a regrettable tendency to include these letters under the term ‘the guidance’ and to give them equal status with letters from the House. An example is John Hatcher’s 2007 ‘commentary,’ which was the subject of another commentary, by Eric Hadley-Ives, published on his blog a few days later. Eric Hadley-Ives quotes John Hatcher, “. . . When we have questions about any part of the guidance we are receiving [we should] go to the source itself: the authoritative text of the letters of the Universal House of Justice and the guidance in documents that have been prepared at its behest by the International Teaching Center.” Eric goes on to wonder why the writings of Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi are omitted here. That would be because John Hatcher believes that “letters that emanate from this infallible institution” [the House of Justice] are just like “a letter from God giving us the best advice for those actions we need to carry out right now.”

Consequences

I think it would be fair to say that Bahais and Bahai institutions, and not just in the English-speaking world, have been unaware that the great majority of the communications from the World Centre do not originate with the House of Justice itself, and are not covered by the infallibility of the House of Justice. This ignorance gives individuals and National Spiritual Assemblies the impression that infallibility is available “on tap” to answer their every question. And if you thought infallible guidance was available, why would you not use it, in preference to fact-finding and consultation? Especially if, as a National Assembly, you have past experience of your decisions being countered by the ‘House of Justice,’ which in most cases means, countered by the individual member of the House of Justice responsible for that branch of affairs or country. It is a vicious circle: given the promise of guidance and threat of correction from above, the possibility of asking the House for advice is over-used, so the system generates a volume of queries that makes the system a practical necessity.

The idea of “infallibility on tap” has another negative consequence: there is little dialogue between the House of Justice, the National Spiritual Assemblies and the community, because the House of Justice is seen as giving divine guidance on every point, so there is no need for discussion. Those who believe in infallibility on tap have also set themselves up for a crisis of faith, for it is inevitable that some decisions made with such a cursory process will be wrong in ways that even a true believer cannot deny.

Because National Assemblies routinely check their decisions with the House of Justice, and base the wording of their decisions on what they have received from the Secretariat, the possibility of a local Assembly or individual appealing an NSA decision to the House of Justice becomes a moot point, unless they word their appeal to emphasize that they believe the case is not covered by existing House of Justice policies. That will maximize the likelihood that the House of Justice itself may consult on the matter, and will benefit from the spiritual guidance it is promised when it consults collectively. But so long as the illusion exists that everything coming from the World Centre shares the infallibility of the House of Justice, it is hard to see how the evils of excessive centralization of decision-making can be avoided. If detailed divinely protected guidance is available, how can rationality, consultation and the development of local and national institutions compete? And so far as decisions come largely from the top – even if this follows a request for guidance — then compliance with the decisions must be monitored from the top, requiring great diligence from the Counsellors and the Assistants in the suppression of national and local subsidiarity.

The five-signatures method encourages a culture of perpetual infancy, and is irreconcilable with Baha’u’llah’s image of the human person as a mature subject, and of society entering the age of maturity. The availability of guidance on tap – if we give way to the temptation to use it – reduces the individual to a passive receiver of messages from above. It is hardly surprising if Feasts that are dominated by reading the messages of the month — assumed to be divinely guided – are not socially or intellectually stimulating. Passivity is being bred in to the community.

For National Spiritual Assemblies in particular, it creates another difficulty that they should be aware of. We do no know (I do not know) how the areas of responsibility of the House members are defined, or who is responsible for what area. Are they purely geographical or a mixture of geographical and thematic? The thing is, a National Assembly might develop a good understanding of the thinking of the House of Justice (in fact, of the member of the House they are dealing with, without knowing his name), and then be astounded by a letter on behalf of the House on, for example, the affairs of Iranians in exile, or Bahai Studies, or social and economic development, in their jurisdiction, simply because that theme is handled by a different member of the House, with a different understanding of House policies. For this reason I think it desirable that letters on behalf of the House of Justice should be signed with the name of the House member supervising that communication.

The Department of the Secretariat has made some attempts to restrain the tendency of individuals to ask the House of Justice for guidance on every issue, as a substitute for consultation at the lowest level possible (subsidiarity). One letter says :

[as for] …the circumstances under which an individual believer may submit questions to the National Assembly or the House of Justice, directly. As you know, Baha’is turn to Baha’i literature, their fellow-believers (particularly those well-versed in the Writings) and the local and national institutions of the Faith for answers to any question they may have. If these avenues are explored to the utmost and further clarification is still needed, the friends are free to refer to the House of Justice for such guidance.” (1998-01-02)

According to the “to the utmost” criteria, the believer who, disagreeing with a Facebook moderation decision or with another participant, gets on her high horse and writes to the House with a twisted report of the case, should be told firmly that this is not an issue to be resolved by guidance from the World Centre. She should be reminded that consultation is a great good, and the wider the better. I’ve never heard of that happening. The theory of encouraging wide consultation with institutions and knowledgeable believers needs to be backed by a firm policy of refusing to respond to requests unless they show that consultation has been tried first, and particularly with the Bahai whom the writers thinks is in need of correction.

Lack of awareness of the five-signature procedure also inclines Bahais, in a few cases, to exaggerations that make the Bahais appear to the outside world like a hair-brained cult. The natural tendency to remember the memorable and forget the unremarkable means that even a few memorable exaggerations can do harm to our public image for many years. Some examples of memorable and harmful exaggerations about communications from Haifa are included in Eric Hadley-Ives’ commentary, linked to above. I will not prolong their unfortunate life by repeating them here.

In ‘the supreme institution’ on this blog, I’ve pointed to the dangers of exaggeration, particularly for a new religious movement :

… In all religions, there are minimisers and there are exaggerators, and there is an internal dynamic that favours the exaggerators, so that in the long term the metaphysical claims a religion makes and the titles it uses inflate. … an exaggeration always appears more pious, even if technically wrong. And what is just “more pious” in this generation, is self-evident orthodoxy for the next. Those who want to seem more fervently pious then have to move up one step of hyperbole. … [but] hyperbolic language invites negative reactions from the state and society and other religious communities, it promotes conflict and is a barrier to conversions.

Implications

I’ve spoken about the consequences for the community of recognizing, or not recognizing, the qualitative difference between letters that are the fruit of consultation from the House of Justice, and the other communications we get from the Bahai World Centre, from the secretariat, the Research Department and the International Teaching Centre. The distinction also has implications for the debate about the scope of the infallibility of the House of Justice. Udo Schaefer’s argument for a scope that is tightly limited to legislation gets its motivation and persuasiveness from lumping together all the communications of House and the Secretariat, and saying, if all these are infallible, the result is absurd. That is an argument from results: it is not logically valid, but it certainly is a good reason for suspecting that a premise must be wrong somewhere. Udo Schaefer thinks the wrong premise is that all decisions of the House of Justice are infallible. He argues that in fact infallibility applies only to the “supplementary legislation,” defined as “the establishment of universal abstract legal norms that … are binding upon the entire world community” (An Introduction to Baha’i Law by Udo Schaefer, p. 354). Its judicial, administrative and policy decisions are not infallible, in his view. I have already critiqued his argument briefly on this blog.

It appears the Schaefer was unaware of the difference between letters from the House of Justice and those from the Secretariat when he wrote his main publications on infallibility, notably the 2002 ‘Infallible Institutions.’ He would not have had to abandon his argument however, because there are examples enough of errors in letters that are from a consultation of the House of Justice itself. An example is the Ridvan message of 2000, which erroneously stated that the German edition of Making the Crooked Straight had appeared “last year” [in 1999], when in fact it appeared in 1995. Circle shape, BorisThe message was silently corrected, and the original text is hard to find. I recovered it using the wayback machine / internet archive. This reminds me of a joke I heard attributed to a member of the House of Justice:
– “How do you make decisions when you are infallible?”
– “Very carefully.”

Given such errors, we still need either to understand infallibility as limited to a selection within the decisions and communication of the House itself – the Udo Schaefer approach – and/or understand infallibility as allowing for errors of a certain kind and/or degree of importance. The latter is my approach, which I will not enlarge on here. Suffice to say that excluding letters from the auxiliary institutions simplifies the picture, but does not resolve the issue of the meaning and scope of the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice.

An alternative

The House of Justice might consider the virtues of the model used by the United States Supreme Court and the Supreme Courts of other federal systems: the Court first filters cases presented to it, and in most cases refuses to hear them, for its function is not to provide for justice in each individual case – that is the task of the lower courts or in our case, of the National Spiritual Assemblies. Its task is to ensure coherence between the principles applied in the diverse lower courts, and to provide the _authoritative ruling on new issues. Normally, the lower courts (assemblies) themselves identify the principles involved in new issues, and make rulings that are tested by critique and by their effects over time. It is not the case that every new issue must _first be decided at the highest level: that is a recipe for paralysis. Rather, there must be a possibility of a decision at the highest level at some point, if and when this is necessary to ensure effectiveness and unity.

Related content:
Infallability and the meaning of khata’
Infallability as freedom

On Will McCant‘s blog:
Shaykh Ahmad on Infallibility

Short link: https://wp.me/pcgF5-38h

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10 Responses to “Signed by Five”

  1. I have seen the Guardian’s letters to individuals that have misspellings. When Baha’u’llah is most great infallibility then there must be lesser infallibilities. I’d say infallibility applies to the meaning of the statements, etc and not dates, names, spellings and so on which are by and large are inconsequential.

  2. Richard Hainsworth said

    As usual for this blog some strong statements are made on the flimsiest of evidence. The article begins with an admission that the author does not know the entirety of the process or procedure by which letters emanating from the Universal House of Justice are drafted, amended, or verified by the members of the Universal House of Justice. One fact is known and stated – that all letters signed by the Secretariat must have at least five signatures.

    After a cursory discussion about process and policy, the author states: “So I think it very likely that the established policies of the House of Justice are determined by the members individually, case by case.” And later in the section about consequences: “For this reason I think it desirable that letters on behalf of the House of Justice should be signed with the name of the House member supervising that communication.”

    It is a very strong assertion, or implication, that a single House member would draft any letter on any subject and that such a letter would be sent out unless four other signatures have been appended. That is the implication of the article.

    It seems to me that there is a high level of cynicism on the part of the author to assume that all of the members of the Universal House of Justice will abdicate their responsibilities and not read all of the draft letters emanating from the Universal House of Justice. But that is what would be needed for any one letter to be drafted and approved by five signatures and yet only be the new creation of a single individual. Only in such a case would it be possible for ‘an NSA … be astounded …’ to discover a change in policy or interpretation from one letter to another.

    This level of cynicism negatively colours this article, which isn’t good because it does seem to me that there ARE a couple of interesting issues raised in this article that are worthy of discussion, (a) how should the Baha’i community perceive letters from different elements of the Baha’i World Centre, eg., letters clearly signed ‘Universal House of Justice’ and letters from ‘the Secretariat’? (b) how to keep track of evolving guidance and what is actually meant by ‘policy’.

    As the author rightly suggests, the volume of correspondence with the World Centre is vast, and there is a practical need for filtering. From administrative practice, it is known that a significant proportion of questions in any field have already been answered, and so the existing responses can be delivered without taking up the decision-making resource. The real question then is how and when does a new question and/or contingency be identified that does need a new response. It seems to me that this is why the Universal House of Justice has made the distinction between ‘Secretariat’ and its own signed letters. This indicates that if a recipient of a letter from the Secretariat does not address the question asked, it can confidently be referred back without any implication of disbelief. In fact, in a conversation with an NSA member of a very active Baha’i community, I discovered that there were often occasions when there was a back and forth correspondence over a matter, in which existing guidance did not cover some exigency. Such a correspondence in itself should be considered a part of the consultation process. The question here is whether a matter upon which the ‘Secretariat’ has provided guidance is or is not covered by existing decisions of the Universal House of Justice. It is not a question about whether a letter signed by the Secretariat has the authority, or a lesser authority, than a letter signed by the Universal House of Justice.

    This article also does not incorporate the other interactions between the various components of the Baha’i World centre and the NSA’s, the Counsellors and individuals, nor does it touch on the flow of consultants and ad hoc committees that continually meet with members of the Universal House of Justice and other components of the World Centre. Reducing the interaction between the Baha’i World Community, indeed the whole of the World, and the Universal House of Justice merely to a stream of correspondence is an unwarranted simplification of the growing administrative capacity of the Baha’i World Centre.

    As to the evolution of policy and guidance, it is vigorous; as an example, I would point to the evolution of guidance on the Feast, namely who may attend and under what circumstances. I would be very interested to know how ‘policy’ is affected by time, the development of a Baha’i national community in some area, by the maturation of the Faith. How also should we/could we as a Baha’i community can know about geographic or historical policy changes?

    Finally, there is this rather astounding passage in the article: ‘The section of the 1996 letter I have quoted above (from the Secretariat) ends with the sentence “All letters written over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat are authorized by the Universal House of Justice.” Respectfully, I disagree.’ The author places himself above the Universal House of Justice? The addition of the word ‘respectfully’ does not in itself convey respect, and here rather indicates the opposite.

    The sentence cited from the letter of the Universal House of Justice is an assertion of fact. The Universal House of Justice has decreed that it authorises any letter over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat. It is not a matter of opinion. The clear meaning of the letter from which the sentence is extracted is that matters conveyed under the signature of the Secretariat have already been decided by the Universal House of Justice, and so there is no apparent need for renewed referral. Consequently, these decisions already have the authority of the Universal House of Justice. There is a further idea, not fully stated, namely that a matter can only be authoritatively decided when it goes through some fixed procedure, eg, when a matter is discussed and voted on by the entire membership of the Universal House of Justice. But it is for the Universal House of Justice – and no one else – to decide what procedures it uses and how its authority is to be conveyed. By way of comparison, the large decision-making bodies, such as Congress or the House of Parliament, do not make decisions per se by holding up their hands or voting on nuanced ‘policies’, they actually vote in a binary manner on formal texts, the exact wording of which has been developed by systems of committees etc. The letters of the Universal House of Justice and the Secretariat are much the same in that they are formal texts which have passed through a process and then published.

  3. Sen said

    I see that my article has achieved its purpose in one sense, for you spot two issues : ” (a) how should the Baha’i community perceive letters from different elements of the Baha’i World Centre, eg., letters clearly signed ‘Universal House of Justice’ and letters from ‘the Secretariat’? (b) how to keep track of evolving guidance and what is actually meant by ‘policy’.

    But then you also write :
    ” Respectfully, I disagree.’ The author places himself above the Universal House of Justice? … The sentence cited from the letter of the Universal House of Justice is an assertion of fact. The Universal House of Justice has decreed …”
    Apparently not noticing that the letter concerned is not from the Universal House of Justice. It is a letter prepared by one member or by the secretariat, and co-signed by at least five members of the House of Justice in their individual capacities. And Abdu’l-Baha says “the members of the House of Justice are not essentially infallible as individuals, but the body of the House of Justice is under the protection and unerring guidance of God.” (Some Answered Questions, linked to the source in the posting above).

    So in answer to your first question, “how should the Baha’i community perceive letters from different elements of the Baha’i World Centre” the very broad answer is — we should perceive that they are not the same. What they have in common is extremely minimal, as mentioned in your last sentence: they are each produced by “a process and published.” And the community should perceive that the letters on behalf of the House are not infallible guidance. I think you need to think this through in at least two cycles, like a boot-strap, because a great deal of what you think is from the House of Justice is not. It’s not just the phrase “All letters written over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat are authorized by the Universal House of Justice” that needs to be read again with a different set of glasses on.

    It is true that I do not know the entirety of the process or procedure by which letters emanating from the Universal House of Justice are drafted, amended, or verified by the members of the Universal House of Justice. However if partial ignorance was a bar to drawing conclusions, science would never progress into the areas in which we are partially ignorant. The important thing is to be constantly aware of where the ignorance lies, and open to changing views as further information is gathered. The blog format is very good for eliciting information from a broad pool and weaving it back into the cloth. A 2013 letter from the Universal House of Justice itself refers to a process in which “…growing numbers participate in the generation and application of relevant knowledge, … structures for the systemization of an expanding worldwide experience and for the equitable distribution of the lessons learned…” Another letter, on behalf of the House of Justice, says that Baha’u’llah “.. has prescribed a system that combines democratic practices with the application of knowledge through consultative processes.” This is the approach I am taking in my blog — it is ironic that the latter quote is from the letter on behalf of the House of Justice announcing my expulsion from the community, for supposedly NOT taking this approach !

    You refer to my ” assertion, or implication, that a single House member would draft any letter on any subject and that such a letter would be sent out unless four other signatures have been appended. That is the implication of the article.”
    I assure you that this is nowhere implied, suggested or even briefly imagined on my part. After all, I was the one who chose the title “Signed by Five.” That is carried through consistently. To the best of my knowledge, all letters from the Secretariat are signed by at least a majority (five) members of the House of Justice.

    You view of the responsibilities of the House of Justice members is admirable. You write:
    “It seems to me that there is a high level of cynicism on the part of the author to assume that all of the members of the Universal House of Justice will abdicate their responsibilities and not read all of the draft letters emanating from the Universal House of Justice.”
    That would indeed ensure that what the member responsible for Bahai Studies wrote was consistent with what the member responsible for German-speaking Europe wrote, but I think it’s aspirational on your part rather than a description of actual procedure, since both descriptions I have found state that only five signatures are required for a draft to be sent out. Of course it is possible that this blog article will elicit further information more in line with what you conceive to be the responsibilities of members. And it is possible that you comment will prompt the current members to act as you think they should. That fits with my vision of Bahai studies as closely engaged with community practice in a two-way dialogue.

    I agree that the back and forth between the National Assemblies and the Secretariat is a form of consultation. It should not be elided into the different kind of consultation within the House of Justice that Abdu’l-Baha refers to in Some Answered Questions, as conferring infallibility on the decisions made. And I agree that much is left out in this article, as regards decision-making at the Bahai World Centre, notably the decision-making within the ITC, which I know nothing about. A full description would be much longer, but my emphasis as you have noted is on “(a) how should the Baha’i community perceive letters from different elements of the Baha’i World Centre.” And it is a great step forward if the community can simply be aware that what comes from the House of Justice itself is not to be lumped together with what comes on behalf of the House of Justice, or from other bodies. The term “the guidance” may have to be abandoned. Then I think we would see less of people writing to the House as a substitute for working out their own salvation and consulting at the lowest level possible, and fewer people writing things such as “The author places himself above the Universal House of Justice?” There’s a difference between critical thinking based on facts and an attack on the institutions or cynicism.

  4. Sen said

    I agree, and there are some Shiah theologians who have said that the infallibility of the Imams is limited to substantial matters. The next question is, how do we know what is consequential, when the House of Justice does not say “this ruling is covered by infallibility.” My thinking for the present is that infallibility covers matters that are matters of protection — the complete opposite of where I started with the previous blog entry. Abdu’l-Baha says in Some Answered Questions :

    “there have been many sanctified souls who were not themselves the Daysprings of the Most Great Infallibility, but who have nevertheless been guarded and preserved from error under the shadow of divine care and protection. For they were the channels of divine grace between God and man, and if God did not preserve them from error they would have led all the faithful to fall likewise into error…”

    Getting a date wrong is not consequential to “divine grace” , and an error that is much more consequential but can be reversed by the House of Justice following feedback will also not lead all the faithful into error.

  5. James said

    The Universal House of Justice, Messages from the Universal House of Justice: 1963-1986, p. 157; cf. on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, to an individual, October 22, 1996 (“As to whether there is a distinction between correspondence from the World Centre that has been signed ‘The Universal House of Justice’ and that signed on behalf of the Secretariat: In brief, the manner in which each of these letters is prepared depends upon the contents of the letter. Drafts of letters which contain newly formulated policies are consulted upon and approved during a meeting of the House of Justice; correspondence dealing with previously enunciated policies, or with matters of a routine nature, are prepared, as delegated by the House of Justice, by its Secretariat and initialed by at least the majority of the members of the House of Justice before being dispatched. All letters written over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat are authorized by the Universal House of Justice.

    So “authorized by the Universal House of Justice.” End of story.

    This article is tempest in a teapot and much ado about nothing.

    It immediately reminded me of a letter from the Universal House of Justice dated 7 April 1999. The letter states, inter alia, “As a number of the friends are aware, a campaign of internal opposition to the Teachings is currently being carried on through the use of the Internet, a communications system that now reaches virtually every part of the world. Differing from attacks familiar in the past, it seeks to recast the entire Faith into a sociopolitical ideology alien to Bahá’u’lláh’s intent. In the place of the institutional authority established by His Covenant, it promotes a kind of interpretive authority which those behind it attribute to the views of persons technically trained in Middle East studies….As passages in the enclosed reprint make clear, this campaign of internal opposition—while purporting to accept the legitimacy of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice as twin successors of Bahá’u’lláh and the Center of His Covenant—attempts to cast doubt on the nature and scope of the authority conferred on them in the Writings…. In defiance of the clear interpretation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Guardian, for example, Bahá’u’lláh’s limiting of membership on the Universal House of Justice to men is misrepresented as merely a “temporary measure” subject to eventual revision if sufficient pressure is brought to bear. Similarly, Shoghi Effendi’s explanation of Bahá’u’lláh’s vision of the future Bahá’í World Commonwealth that will unite spiritual and civil authority is dismissed in favor of the assertion that the modern political concept of “separation of church and state” is somehow one that Bahá’u’lláh intended as a basic principle of the World Order He has founded. Particularly subtle is an attempt to suggest that the Mashriqu’lAdhkár should evolve into a seat of quasi-doctrinal authority, parallel to and essentially independent of the Local House of Justice, which would permit various interests to insinuate themselves into the direction of the life processes of the Cause….” httpd://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/19990407_001/19990407_001.pdf?6080d000

    Sen’s insistence in his essay on this blog that the Tablet of Emmanuel is about Emanuel Swedenborg and not the Bab (as affirmed by Shoghi Effendi in a letter written on his behalf: “this obviously refers to the Bab as the text shows it clearly and is in no way a reference to Swedenborg.” From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, May 6, 1943) ) is one of several examples of the promotion of “a kind of interpretive authority” which substitutes itself for the clear interpretative authority of the Guardian and elucidations of the Universal House of Justice. The reference in the April 1999 also seems to me to correctly summarize some of Sen’s views on separation of church and state and the Mashriqu’l Adhkár.

  6. Pim said

    All I can say after reading this essay and similar ones like it on this blog as well as your own insistent attempts to substitute your own interpretations for the Guardian’s is that I am profoundly grateful to the Blessed Beauty for abolishing the clergy. I agree with Richard Hainsworth that these are the usual “strong statements are made on the flimsiest of evidence” and your persistent level of cynicism lasting for decades now has resulted in yet another fruitless article of no value.

  7. Sen said

    Thank you Pim; if you think of something more specific to say, feel free to contribute again

  8. Sen said

    thanks James; I have a distinct feeling that the facts of history cannot be revised by a subsequent letter on behalf of the Guardian. The Guardian himself thought that the facts of history trumped a letter from Abdu’l-Baha:
    “The Guardian was meticulous about the authenticity of historical fact. One of the friends in Yazd wrote to him stating that the account given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in one of His Tablets about events related to the martyrdom of some of the believers in that place was in conflict with known facts about these events. Shoghi Effendi replied saying that the friends should investigate the facts carefully and unhesitatingly register them in their historical records, since ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself had prefaced His recording of the events in His Tablet with a statement that it was based on news received from Yazd.” (The Universal House of Justice, 1974 Jul 25, Infallibility of the Guardian)

    In the case of the Tablet of Emanuel, the fact is that the letter was in response to a question from a Swedenborgian about his hopes for the New Jerusalem church in New York. Later letters on behalf of the Guardian walked back on the first one that was quite sure it was about the Bab. When a single text is torn from its historical context, without regard for the other relevant principles (such as that revealed in the letter quoted above), the reading is vulnerable to serious misinterpretation.

    If you read a little further in my blog, you will discover that I have consistently denied having any kind of interpretative authority, and that I am opposed in general to the idea of a body of learned Bahais having a formal role in Bahai community processes.
    https://senmcglinn.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/a-body-of-learned-bahais/
    I am not responsible for what other people say about me and attribute to me. If you wish to discuss those things you should follow the paper trail back to find out who originated these accusation, and discuss them there. I am simply not interested.

  9. hasanelias said

    Hi Sen. Thanks for bring this topic.

    While I think this issue is academically and institutionally important (to make a differentiation of letters from the UHJ and from the BWC), I do not think it is something Baha’is around the world do think about or should be focused on, I think service ia lore important. I do think this is an issue of responsability of the institutions. They should make the difference: one thing is a letter from the UHJ and its Secretariat (this is on behalf of); and another completely different thing is a letter from the ITC or other BWC’s institution.

    If a believer said to the Guardian “all your letters are from God (yes, even those “on behalf of”!), one has to imagine his face of surprise, dissappointment and displeasure.

    So, individuals members of institutions should have the same caution and care as the Guardian had about this issue.

    I think more important today

  10. Sen said

    Absolutely, Shoghi Effendi would have been horrified — but we won’t see his like again. He was a most extraordinary man. He was also most displeased when he saw Bahais confusing letters on his behalf with his own letters — not because he wanted his high station to be recognized, but because when he instructed that a letter be sent “on behalf” he was sending a message about that status of that letter. The medium is the message. A secretary writes on his behalf :
    P.S. — I wish to call your attention to certain things in “Principles of Bahá’í Administration” which has just reached the Guardian; although the material is good, he feels that the complete lack of quotation marks is very misleading. His own words, the words of his various secretaries, even the Words of Bahá’u’lláh Himself, are all lumped together as one text. This is not only not reverent in the case of Bahá’u’lláh’s Words, but misleading. Although the secretaries of the Guardian convey his thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative, their words are in no sense the same as his, their style certainly not the same, and their authority less, for they use their own terms and not his exact words in conveying his messages. He feels that in any future edition this fault should be remedied, any quotations from Bahá’u’lláh or the Master plainly attributed to them, and the words of the Guardian clearly differentiated from those of his secretaries.
    (25 February 1951, in The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 260)

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