About … disenrolment
As I noted on the ‘about’ page of this blog, in November 2005 I was removed from the membership rolls of the Bahai Community following a decision of the Universal House of Justice. The reasons for my dis-enrollment and the purpose served by dis-enrollment are not at all clear to me, so I am not in a position to say much about the rights and wrongs of it. However other people, who know as little about it as I do, have been quite ready to explain the UHJ’s reasons. I think it is extremely unlikely that the UHJ has ever given anyone any information on the question, since the Guardian wrote:
Regarding the very delicate and complex question of ascertaining the qualifications of a true believer, I cannot in this connection emphasize too strongly the supreme necessity for the exercise of the utmost discretion, caution and tact, whether it be in deciding for ourselves as to who may be regarded as a true believer or in disclosing to the outside world such considerations as may serve as a basis for such a decision.
(Bahai Administration, p. 90)
[در مورد سوال خیلی حساس و پیچیده چگونگی اطمینان از خصوصیات یک معتقد واقعی، من نمی توانم تاکیدم در باره موضوعی با این درجه از حساسیت را، بر روی این بگذارم که آیا این تصمیم برای داخل جامعه امر است که چه کسی بهائی واقعی است، یا افشای نوع برخورد ما با موضوع است به دنیای خارج که ممکن است نشان دهد مبنای ما برای این تصمیم گیری چگونه است. –( تاکید کنم این ترجمه از من می باشد، و فهم من از مطلب را نشان می دهد]
Draft translation by Joo Ya, December 2015: improvements welcome.
I don’t wish to judge the UHJ’s decision, or defend myself; I present a few documents here to allow people to judge whether other people’s speculations about the reasons have any merit.
The explanations proposed are generally of one of two types:
– either I was dis-enrolled for the opinions I hold (and the pundits vary as to whether the offending opinions are on the meaning of infallibility in Bahai theology, the role of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar in the Bahai community, the Bahai teachings on the separation of church and state or something else), or
– I was dis-enrolled as a punishment (usually called a “sanction” in Bahai parlance), for some breach of Bahai law. Here various pundits have claimed I have advocated bigamy, done something unnamed in Tehran on a visit there a few years ago, breached the publication review process, claimed a position of authority in the community, challenged the Universal House of Justice, and so forth.
As for the first, Daniella Pinna wrote a long letter to the UHJ in 2006. Her letter supposes that my expulsion related to the research I reported on in my book Church and State. The Universal House of Justice in its reply says “Concerns with Mr. McGlinn’s actions have nothing to do with his treatment of topics such as church and state…” and “Every individual has the right to hold and express personal views” while also saying [in my paraphrase] that one who professes or propagates personal interpretations that violate Baha’u’llah’s criteria for understanding and practicing His Faith, removes himself from the Faith. That leaves open the possibility that I was dis-enrolled for some opinion that I have, or that the UHJ thinks I have, but not on “topics such as church and state.” [But In 2008 I got a copy of a UHJ letter to an individual about my disenrollment, dated 2006, which states that it was not because of my “personal understanding.”] I have no further information than that.
As for the second, the variety of sins attributed to me should be a warning that those who pose as explainers of the UHJ’s decision do not have any facts. Rather, on the supposition that dis-enrollment is a sanction for wrong-doing, they have tried to imagine a suitably serious offense for me. But so far as I know, the Universal House of Justice has not used the word “sanction” with respect to dis-enrollment, in my case or any other, and has not applied the procedures which are involved before any sanction, such as the removal of voting rights, is applied in the Bahai community. Nor have they indicated any action that those dis-enrolled could take if they wish to be re-enrolled in the community.
If we disregard explanations which are merely imaginative, we are left with what the Universal House of Justice itself has said, in its letter of 14 November 2005. That indicates that the decision was based wholly or primarily on some words in the Foreword to Church and State, which the UHJ has construed as a claim to personal authority. Since the UHJ itself has widely distributed that letter, I suppose that they will not object if people read the letter, and the Foreword to Church and State, for themselves and form their own opinion about the reasons for dis-enrollment and what purposes it may serve in the Bahai community. [But note that a subsequent letter has indicated that my disenrollment was not because of “a single statement drawn out of context from the preface of his book” — despite the apparent meaning of the November 2005 letter. ]
In 2008, there was a Q&A session on Bahai Rants, in which I responded to questions about Church and State. I’ve edited that up as one consecutive page here.
[The story continues: in 2012 I obtained a copy of a confidential letter dated December 19, 2005, written by some VIPs at the World Centre (not the UHJ), and addressed to Councillors. It explains my disenrollment by reference to two ideas I am supposed to maintain, one of which was an absurdity that has never crossed my mind, supported by maliciously selective quotations from my words; the other was a citation I had made from memory of Shoghi Effendi’s words, for which I had neglected to cite the source. When I followed up on this, the UHJ wrote to me that their decision that I did not meet the requirements of Bahai membership was not based on some fragments of my emails pulled out of context. As the two ideas named in that letter have not surfaced in internet speculations about the reasons for my disenrollment, it seems likely that the misquotes in the letter dated December 19, 2005 were discovered soon after it was first circulated, and Counsellors were told not to use it to explain my disenrollment. ~ April 2014]
[Update September 2016: It appears that a (possibly official) explanation for my disenrollment has recently been issued : “efforts, spanning over twenty-five years, to promote erroneous and misleading perspectives on the Baha’i teachings.” (Source withheld on request) This is positive in one sense, since the assertion that I was claiming some authority for my views has been dropped. I never claimed any authority, and state specifically that my views are simply my views. However what my “erroneous perspectives” are has apparently not been specified. Bahais may ask themselves whether their own perspectives might include something erroneous and misleading. Many Bahais have found some part of my research useful, some have claimed that my views are erroneous, but they diverge among themselves as to the topic and where my error lies. Probably there is no stance that I have outlined in my writing that is not held by at least one member of the House of Justice or the International Teaching Centre. So whether my error is left unspecified, or an attempt is made to reach agreement among the leaders of the community to specify what is an error, the result of this approach can only be more confusion, and even disunity.
On August 6 this year, in response to one of the friends who objected to my explanation of the Seven Candles of Unity and wanted it removed from my blog, I wrote to the Universal House of Justice asking “whether there is anything on my Bahai Studies blog that you would prefer me to remove?” If there are erroneous perspectives that warrant my exclusion from the membership rolls, this query will both reveal what they are, and solve the problem: I will remove them.
I have in the past (1997, 2007 and 2010) invited the Universal House of Justice and the International Teaching Centre to request explanations from me if they have any specific concerns. They have not responded, which suggests that my “erroneous and misleading perspectives” are not really a question of concern for those institutions — or that they found they could not reach agreement among themselves as to what was a question of concern. If an individual member of these institutions feels strongly that my perspective on some point is erroneous, he can write a paper or make a recorded presentation on the topic, and drop me an email to draw my attention to it.
My own view (which may be wrong) is that the Bahai community is not like a Protestant church, where membership is defined by uniformity of belief, and those with different opinions should found their own church. Nor it it like the Roman Catholic Church, where the consensus of the faithful is normative, and deviations from the consensus can incur sanctions, as in the cases of Hans Kung and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The Bahai community is not an orthodoxy at all: it is a community of people with a common centre (Baha’u’llah and his Covenant).
My guess is that it is neither my opinions nor my behaviour that concern the House of Justice, but qualifications. In 2009, a letter on behalf of the Universal House of Justice regarding the development of the Yerrinbool Baha’i Centre of Learning in Australia suggested that:
the nature of the Centre’s programs would change. …. it would not conduct courses in Baha’i studies in the same sense as those offered in universities by departments of religious studies, which, as you know, the House of Justice discourages since it could easily lead to a class of individuals in the Baha’i community who assume a degree of authority on the basis of some formal qualification.
I hope that in the long run the pendulum may swing back to encouraging university-level courses in Bahai studies, and academic approaches such as close reading, historical contextualisation and source criticism. Whether the tide turns or not, there is nothing I can do about this: I have formal qualifications and the knowledge and skills that justify them, and there would be no point in my renouncing the universities’ qualifications when I cannot un-know what I learned through the universities.
I think the Yerribool letter is based on misinformed stereotypes of academia, over-rating its dangers without seeing the benefits of the academic study of religion. The discouragement of university education in religion today will leave the community, 30 and 40 years later, lacking mature scholars who can study, translate, clarify and defend its teachings. There is also no present danger of a class of individuals coming from that quarter to assume authority in the community. The membership of the House of Justice and the International Teaching Centre, and to a lesser degree of the National Spiritual Assemblies of larger communities shows that authority in the Bahai community is accorded to high-prestige occupations such as medical doctors and the hard sciences. It would take a profound change of culture for religious historians and philologists to be given that degree of respect.
In any case, my approach to Bahai studies is not that of a religious studies department, but theology. Theology is the study of the implications of faith from within, or “faith seeking understanding.”
Short link: http://wp.me/PcgF5-11a