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Foreword to ‘Church and State’


This book presents my own understanding of the Bahai teachings on some issues that are now critically important to the Bahai community and its relations with the world. My approach has been enriched by my Christian background and education, my studies of theology and church history at Knox Theological Hall and Holy Cross Seminary in Dunedin, New Zealand, and studies of Persian and Islamic Studies at Leiden University, in the Netherlands.

I should declare at the outset that my stance is not that of a historian or academic scholar of the science of religion, but of a Bahai theologian, writing from and for a religious community, and I speak as if the reader shares the concerns of that community. As a Bahai theologian, I seek to criticize, clarify, purify and strengthen the ideas of the Bahai community, to enable Bahais to understand their relatively new faith and to see what it can offer the world. The approach is not value-free. I would be delighted if the Bahai Faith proved to have a synergy with post-modernity, if it prospered in the coming decades and had an influence on the world. The reader who is used to academic studies of religion that avoid such value judgements will have to make the necessary adjustments here and there. I do not however write as an apologist: the goal is a serious study that can aid the Bahai community and others to discover the potential for contemporary religious life which lies within the Bahai scriptures, rather than simply to repackage the Bahai Faith in a palatable form for present needs.

I should also say that I place myself somewhere towards the progressive end of the contemporary Bahai spectrum, in other words, that I feel quite at home in a differentiated, pluralistic, individualistic and globally integrating world, and I hope and expect to see post-modern society prosper. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a very different Bahai discourse which regards a postmodern society as a non-viable option since – according to traditionalist ideas of a ‘what society is’ – differentiation and individualism are symptoms of the disintegration of society. Rather than looking forward to an unpredictable synergy with postmodernism, a really new world order, the conservative Bahai discourse hopes to re-establish a society in the traditional sense, once the progressive disintegration of society, as they perceive it, has run its course. The reader should be aware, then, that this is only one among the competing discourses within the contemporary western Bahai community.

Since this book is a reexamination of the Bahai teachings that are relevant to the art of politics in its broadest sense, I presume some knowledge of previous interpretations of the Bahai writings, of the central figures of the Bahai Faith, and the institutions of the Bahai community. A list of introductory and reference works on the Bahai Faith is provided at the end of the book.

As a theologian rather than a political scientist I am interested in principles rather than political mechanisms or history, and particularly in how those principles relate to the nature of the Kingdom and ultimately to the nature of God. Topical applications of these principles are a separate question. The theological principles will undoubtedly need to be supplemented from both practical experience and detailed historical research. It is to be hoped that my intellectual and spiritual debts, and my leaning towards theological rather than historical analysis, have been the source of selective enrichment, rather than bias. The reader is, at any rate, forewarned.

The views offered here are not an authoritative view of the Bahai teachings, nor a definitive statement of my own views on these topics. These are samples from a work in progress, born out of an ongoing argument with myself. It is published now rather than at some other time partly because I have achieved a degree of certainty that at least the broad lines of these ideas do accurately represent the Bahai teachings, but chiefly because the issues dealt with here have become so pressing for the well-being of the Bahai communities in the west, and offer such potential for fruitful dialogue with the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, that a start must be made.

… (the complete Contents page, Foreword and Introduction are on this blog, in PDF format.

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27 Responses to “Foreword to ‘Church and State’”

  1. Kalzera said

    I read an article that contained a link to this asking why you were Disenrolled. I personally think it has to do with these lines:

    “I should declare at the outset that my stance is not that of a historian or academic scholar of the science of religion, but of a Bahai theologian, writing from and for a religious community, and I speak as if the reader shares the concerns of that community. As a Bahai theologian, I seek to criticize, clarify, purify and strengthen the ideas of the Bahai community, to enable Bahais to understand their relatively new faith and to see what it can offer the world. ”

    You close by saying you aren’t an authoritative source, but I think the diction of the above lines sort of weakens that statement by the time you get to it. Maybe if you revised this without coming across so strongly it might hasten your re-enrollment; or, if you didn’t use the word “Theologian.” That word alone resembles the idea of “clergy” even though it doesn’t mean such, which, again, might have been the cause for your coming across so strong.


  2. Sen said

    I agree with you: the various other suggestions about the reasons for my disenrollment are speculative, and can at most supplement what the Universal House of Justice itself has written. Its letter of 14 November 2005 reads to me like a shocked stung reaction to these words.

    As you say, on the next page I say “The views offered here are not an authoritative view of the Bahai teachings.” I also say, on the first line of the first page, “This book presents my own understanding of the Bahai teachings..” I put that on the first line for a reason!

    However I doubt that the Universal House of Justice had actually seen these two pages, because while I had sent some copies of the book to the World Centre library, they could barely have arrived by 14 November, let alone been catalogued and noticed. I think it’s much more likely that someone sent the UHJ just the words they re-quoted in the 14 November letter, without the context “my stance is not that of a historian or academic scholar of the science of religion, but of a Bahai theologian …” That contrast to academic scholarship would tell any reader what I mean by ‘theologian.’ If the UHJ had been given those words, they could hardly have reacted as they did, because what they themselves have written about Bahai scholarship advocates the theological approach. In religious studies, the theological or ‘emic’ approach is contrasted to the objective study approach that ‘brackets out’ one’s own faith positions (‘etic’). The emic-etic pair is one of the basic definitions used in fields such as anthropology of religion or sociology of religion: anyone educated in these fields would understanding that I am saying that my approach incorporates my own commitment to Bahai belief and the Bahai community – not that I have any authority in the community.

    Theology is faith seeking understanding, it starts within a faith position and investigates it, asking “what does this faith mean, is my understanding consistent, is it based on good sources, are there alternative understandings?” Theology does this for a purpose: to strengthen faith, to purify of it of extraneous things inserted into it from history or culture, to keep understanding fresh and stimulate dialogue, to renew the formulations of faith in contemporary language, to defend the faith against critique, to assist the believers in living the life of faith. If someone doing the objective study of religion displayed these motivations, they would be rightly accused of making value judgements: who is to say that it is ‘better’ to use what one faith-tradition calls ‘authentic scripture’ rather than oral traditions? An objective study can only say which sources the believers use, not what doctrinal validity they have.

    A theologian is not necessarily a cleric, or vice versa. Theology is a field of study. I study, and write about, theology, ergo I am a theologian, just as someone who teaches philosophy is a Bahai philosopher. I’ve discussed this, and referred to some other Bahai theologians, in an email on this blog.

    Other related texts on this blog
    Theology 2006-02-13 (includes a rephrasing of the Foreword in avoid the “T” word)
    Bahai studies and the academic study of religion
    Theology 2009-10-00 (The 4 purposes of theology)
    The 4 purposes are also discussed in ‘Theology: a defence
    The knower as servant (on the pastoral role of theology)
    Theology 2008-06-03
    Theology 2007-01-01
    Theology 2005-10-17
    Theology 2005-10-21
    and in the last couple of paragraphs of ‘What is theology and what’s it good for?,’ which say:

    … the core issue remains: what is theology, and what is it good for? This is often formulated as the issue of Reason and Revelation, but that is a misstatement. The ‘reason’ in this case is our reason, the ‘Revelation’ is God’s revelation of Godself and God’s will, and clearly our reason is inadequate to the task. The formulation ‘Reason and Revelation’ decides the issue before we start, in favour of Revelation.

    But the formulation is wrong, because we never have the Revelation – we each rather have our own understanding and recognition of the Revelation. That understanding and recognition is something we make for ourselves; it is always inadequate and incomplete, it contains inconsistencies, it is mixed with other ideas we have brought in our baggage, and it can always be improved upon. So our understandings – our ideas, not the Revelation itself – can be criticized, clarified, purified and strengthened. And that I think is what theology is good for.

  3. suresh rao kumaran said

    dear sen,
    hope u still remember our recent interactions.if u do good,if not hope these next remarks will assist yr spiritual quest.
    have read the foreward n what little in yr presentation of the early comments of yr book church n state.
    my first comment would b for yr to b sure of what u seek to highlight in yr quest for spiritual i hope u realise that with u views n comments,which i must say are so correct in their analaysis,is what do think can yr contribution b to the those still very devotedly sincere bahais,still in the community thinking they are saving the world with their rhetoric.i must say here,u have hit right on target!!with yr explaination thus far.on my side i find it very acceptable as i have nothing to lose but all to hope for.but u are challeging an established highreachy,where i believe have no interest to maintain,but WILL DO ANYTHING to keep their hold ont he vast wealth now already acquired,n think that if u too become n irritant which to them u are,u will pay!!
    second,hope my comment will explain the path yr work has someone has actually shown,or at least seen for himself the path to spiritual salvation promised at least.its not that we were or are cheated as bahais,or those who accepted what was to us a beautiful teachoing for global properity n weel being but if yr stand is to b or remain with the bahai highflying org,then i dont think u will get further,from where u have been,n are now.u need to break free from,with THEM!!break completely,there is not n iota of wrong in it.i have left,its been 15yrs now,n i must say,my life has so much more meaning now then when i was with them.they have wronged,n must,n wil pay for their wrongdoings>they are cheating,have cheated,n will will resort to anything to keep their office n work going!so hope u realise the depth of yr own devotion,n i must say here of what BAHAULLAH chose to give only to u.
    so love always to u and sonja,good to have u as afriend,but if u are,n will b tested,like all others,think yrs would b on yr depth of knowledge,n yr ability to keep sane by just always being HUMBLE.werent we told in many instances of the ultimate test being that of knowledge?m ceratin u will find yr path,n if we happen to cross,remeber,us as friends for life!

  4. Sen said

    Thank you,

    I have no desire to “get further” :

    He seeth in himself neither name nor fame nor rank, but findeth his own praise in praising God. He beholdeth in his own name the name of God; to him, “all songs are from the King,” and every melody from Him. He sitteth on the throne of “Say, all is from God,” and taketh his rest on the carpet of “There is no power or might but in God.” He looketh on all things with the eye of oneness, and seeth the brilliant rays of the divine sun shining from the dawning-point of Essence alike on all created things, and the lights of singleness reflected over all creation.
    (Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 17)

    Since “all is from God,” I see no need to “break free” nor any reason to believe that established hierarchies, of any sort, will be able to frustrate the workings of providence. On the contrary: much becomes clear in the apparently oppositional process, that would not be clear in a smoother one.

    In any case, our role is to serve the servants of God, in whatever place we find ourselves, with what we are given to use.


  5. Hi Sen. I enjoy your blog, and learn a lot from it. I also understand the term “theologian” in the sense you wish to articulate. Indeed, I wish sometimes that I could pursue a path of Baha’i “theology” – I enjoy the study, and admire the diligence.

    For all of that… the term itself seems to be one that inherently places the Faith at risk – it places your voice as authoritative, no matter what disclaimers you make, and it articulates a posture that in opposite the posture the Faith asks us to all take, in relinquishing such titles. I don’t quite know how else to explain my point, and I’m sure I’m not speaking well. But it seems to me that for the protection of the Faith, you had to be removed from it – your removal allows you to be a “Baha’i theologian” as you put it, without granting that the Faith acknowledges any such thing.

    Well, that’s just my thought – your current station stands as a cautionary tale to my own interests and inclinations, but does not seem in any way punitive. I do hope that you are able to articulate a vision for yourself that enables your future enrollment AND your continued study.


  6. Sen said

    I think there’s more going on than just a misunderstanding of what a theologian is, although the negative associations of the word undoubtedly played a role. I think the community is also uncertain of its principles, and uncertainty leads to defensive reactions. On the one hand there are quotes like these:

    “Those divines,” “…who are truly adorned with the ornament of knowledge and of a goodly character are, verily, as a head to the body of the world, and as eyes to the nations. The guidance of men hath, at all times, been and is dependent upon these blessed souls.” (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf 16-17)

    “The divine whose conduct is upright, and the sage who is just, are as the spirit unto the body of the world. Well is it with that divine whose head is attired with the crown of justice, and whose temple is adorned with the ornament of equity.” (Baha’u’llah quoted by Shoghi Effendi, I do not know his source)

    “The divine who hath seized and quaffed the most holy Wine, in the name of the sovereign Ordainer, is as an eye unto the world. Well is it with them who obey him, and call him to remembrance.” (Baha’u’llah quoted by Shoghi Effendi, I do not know his source)

    “Great is the blessedness of that divine,” …, “that hath not allowed knowledge to become a veil between him and the One Who is the Object of all knowledge, and who, when the Self-Subsisting appeared, hath turned with a beaming face towards Him. He, in truth, is numbered with the learned. The inmates of Paradise seek the blessing of his breath, and his lamp sheddeth its radiance over all who are in heaven and on earth. He, verily, is numbered with the inheritors of the Prophets. He that beholdeth him hath, verily, beheld the True One, and he that turneth towards him hath, verily, turned towards God, the Almighty, the All-Wise.” (The Summons of the Lord of Hosts 47-48)

    “Respect ye the divines amongst you,” … “They whose acts conform to the knowledge they possess, who observe the statutes of God, and decree the things God hath decreed in the Book. Know ye that they are the lamps of guidance betwixt earth and heaven. They that have no consideration for the position and merit of the divines amongst them have, verily, altered the bounty of God vouchsafed unto them.” (Lawh-e Maqsud, in Summons of the Lord of Hosts 203)

    “The people are ignorant, and they stand in need of those who will expound the truth.
    The Great Being saith: The man of consummate learning and the sage endowed with penetrating wisdom are the two eyes to the body of mankind. God willing, the earth shall never be deprived of these two greatest gifts. ”
    (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 170-1)

    There are certain pillars which have been established as the unshakeable supports of the Faith of God. The mightiest of these is learning and the use of the mind, the expansion of consciousness, and insight into the realities of the universe and the hidden mysteries of Almighty God.
    (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, 126)

    On the other hand, all authority in the Bahai community is in the hands of the Assemblies and the Universal House of Justice. Until the Bahais are really clear in their own minds that there is no contradiction here, anyone with greater learning will be suspected of being a threat to the authority of the Assemblies. It’s sad, but probably inevitable, and perhaps something will be learned through the process that could not have been learned without the conflict and expulsions.

  7. Tony Bristow-Stagg said

    Sen – I am amazed at the information contained in your Blog, it is a wealth of information.

    I noticed you said they were your personal views and have read your replies.

    I would like to add my comment on this quote from above;

    “but of a Bahai theologian, writing from and for a religious community, and I speak as if the reader shares the concerns of that community. As a Bahai theologian, I seek to criticize, clarify, purify and strengthen the ideas of the Bahai community, to enable Bahais to understand their relatively new faith and to see what it can offer the world.”

    I would consider the station of Abdul’Baha when reviewing this quote. Abdul’Baha the perfect living example of Baha’u’llah’s Words and Faith only wished to be called Abdul’Baha, His glory and Praise was that of Abdul’Baha. Service to the Blessed Beauty was His adorning. This was a station gifted by Baha’u’llah

    Then we have to consider Shoghi Effendi the appointed Guardian. His entire adult life was in service to the cause and to the believers. This station also from the Covenant of Baha’u’llah.

    Then there were the appointed Hands of the Cause, appointed by the Guardian to assist Him with the protection and formation of the Baha’i Administrative order. This is a unique station.

    Then there is the Universal House of Justice that is a body of Elected Members, this also from the Covenant of Baha’u’llah. The Station is that of the entire body of elected members and does not fall to any individual within that body.

    After that there are the appointments of the Universal House of Justice to which each is given a specific Task to perform. There is no Station or special right to any individual in these appointments. They can give guidance based on the authorized interpretations of the writings. They can give their own interpretation with the knowledge and disclosure that it has no Authority. (They are also part of Us the Believers)

    Then there is Us the believers, who may have great knowledge or very little, but we can also give our own interpretation with the knowledge and disclosure that it has no Authority.

    In my opinion, We can not state that we are a “Baha’i theologian, writing from and for a religious community”. This we can not do, we do not have the authority.

    I would say that this may be the issue?

    All the best in life & Faith Regards Tony

  8. Sen said

    As for whether that little piece, taken out of context, was the cause of my disenrollment, I can only repeat what the House of Justice has said:

    As to the questions raised in your email letter of 10 December concerning the removal of Mr. Sen McGlinn from Bahá’í membership, the House of Justice wishes to assure you that such an action is not taken lightly. It has nothing to do with a believer’s expressing a personal understanding, or even holding an erroneous perspective, about some aspect of the Teachings. Nor was the action taken on the basis of a single statement drawn out of context from the preface of his book.

    So they are aware that the words were taken out of context, and must therefore be aware that no claim to authority was made.

    As for your statement that the Bahai community cannot have scholars who write (or teach) as a “Baha’i theologian, writing from and for a religious community”, I have some materials which might lead you to reconsider. In a number of his talks, Abdu’l-Baha contrasts the opinions of the materialists or philosophers and those of the theologians. For example:

    “In regard to this question, theologians and materialists disagree. The theologians believe that Christ was born of the Holy Spirit, but the materialists think this is impossible and inadmissible, and that without doubt He had a human father.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 87)

    “This is what the philosophers of the present state; … But the theologians say: No, this is not so. Though man has powers and outer senses in common with the animal, yet an extraordinary power exists in him of which the animal is bereft.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 185)

    He is contrasting two different ways of using human reason. The one is to turn to natural phenomena and examine their laws and limitations, and deduce (for example) that the virgin birth of a male child is impossible. The other is to start with the spirit of faith, and examine, using reason and evidence, the implications and problems of that Faith. This is called theology. The theologian might for example consider whether “born of the Holy Spirit” (a statement in the language of religion) and “having a human father” (a statement of material fact) exclude one another.

    If we look at the guidance from the House of Justice on Bahai scholarship, we find them leading us, not to a particular prescribed methodology, but to a certain broad approach, which is not that of academia but rather one rooted in the life of the community, and embued with the spirit of faith. They are saying, in contemporary terms, that we need theologians, and not necessarily academics, as useful as they may be. For example, in a letter of 4 January 2009 to the NSA of Australia, in relation to the Yerrinbool Bahai Centre of Learning,

    “…the nature of the Centre’s programs would change. Still concerned with specialized aspects of the Faith, it would not conduct courses in Bahá’í 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 Bahá’í community who assume a degree of authority on the basis of some formal qualification. Nor would the courses of the Centre simply repeat, in the final analysis, what will already be covered in local deepening classes. They would seek, rather, to relate the teachings of the Faith to a range of social issues, drawing on existing bodies of knowledge in such disciplines as history, economics, philosophy, political science and sociology.”

    Now compare that to what I actually wrote in the Foreword to Church and State, as a warning to the reader not to expect me to take a “religious studies” perspective:

    This book presents my own understanding of the Bahai teachings on some issues that are now critically important to the Bahai community and its relations with the world. My approach has been enriched by my Christian background and education, my studies of theology and church history at Knox Theological Hall and Holy Cross Seminary in Dunedin, New Zealand, and studies of Persian and Islamic Studies at Leiden University, in the Netherlands.
    I should declare at the outset that my stance is not that of a historian or academic scholar of the science of religion, but of a Bahai theologian, writing from and for a religious community, and I speak as if the reader shares the concerns of that community.

    Those words were added in response to the criticism from my university supervisor, on reading the first draft, that I had taken a somewhat theological, rather than history of religions (or ‘religious studies’) approach. I have the greatest respect for the best scholars in the discipline of the history of religions, and I draw on their scholarship in just the way the House of Justice says we can draw on ” history, economics, philosophy, political science and sociology.” But I decided not to rewrite my work to give it a more objective flavour, because that would not be a true objectivity. The fact is, I write from faith, I address the questions that result from having a faith, and I seek to aid people of faith generally and Bahais in particular. Knowledge is a two-edged sword: it can be used for good or evil, or as in the parable of the talents, it can be buried in the ground and wasted. I chose to use my knowledge and skills mainly to serve a religious community, and only secondarily to further the academic understanding of religion.

  9. Tony Bristow-Stagg said

    Sen – Thank you for the reply – I have found another letter which explains the actions of the Universal House of Justice, so I do not need to follow up on that matter and will leave that in your hands.

    As for the mentioning of philosophers, materialists and theologians in the Baha’i writings. I see no issue here as they are quoting what has happened in the past up to the present day. They are not condoning this within the Baha’i Faith as such.

    The writings give us another direction to follow. Once again this I leave in your hands as I am sure you have been advised by the Universal House of Justice as to where the issues are!

    All the best in Life & Faith, Regards Tony

  10. Sen said

    O people of God! Righteous men of learning who dedicate themselves to the guidance of others and are freed and well guarded from the promptings of a base and covetous nature are, in the sight of Him Who is the Desire of the world, stars of the heaven of true knowledge. It is essential to treat them with deference. They are indeed fountains of soft-flowing water, stars that shine resplendent, fruits of the blessed Tree, exponents of celestial power, and oceans of heavenly wisdom. Happy is he that followeth them. Verily such a soul is numbered in the Book of God, the Lord of the mighty Throne, among those with whom it shall be well.
    (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, 96-7)

    This Wronged One hath invariably treated the wise with affection. By the wise is meant men whose knowledge is not confined to mere words and whose lives have been fruitful and have produced enduring results. It is incumbent upon everyone to honour these blessed souls. Happy are they that observe God’s precepts; happy are they that have recognized the Truth; happy are they that judge with fairness in all matters and hold fast to the Cord of My inviolable Justice.
    (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, 62)

    Respect ye the divines and learned amongst you, they whose conduct accords with their professions, who transgress not the bounds which God hath fixed, whose judgments are in conformity with His behests as revealed in His Book. Know ye that they are the lamps of guidance unto them that are in the heavens and on the earth. They who disregard and neglect the divines and learned that live amongst them — these have truly changed the favor with which God hath favored them.
    (The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, 203, also in Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, 128.

    Beware, O My loved ones, lest ye despise the merits of My learned servants whom God hath graciously chosen to be the exponents of His Name ‘the Fashioner’ amidst mankind. Exert your utmost endeavour that ye may develop such crafts and undertakings that everyone, whether young or old, may benefit therefrom. We are quit of those ignorant ones who fondly imagine that Wisdom is to give vent to one’s idle imaginings …
    (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, 150-1)

    (KA173) Happy are ye, O ye the learned ones in Baha. … Ye are the billows of the Most Mighty Ocean, the stars of the firmament of Glory, the standards of triumph waving betwixt earth and heaven. Ye are the manifestations of steadfastness amidst men and the daysprings of Divine Utterance to all that dwell on earth. Well is it with him that turneth unto you, and woe betide the froward.
    (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, 82)

  11. Tony Bristow-Stagg said

    Sen – Thank You for the reply with the wonderful quotes from the Baha’i Writings. I can assure you I admire your knowledge. I see the wisdom of the words in the quotes you have provided and they are well worthy of study, of deep meditation and reflection. The Universal House of Justice has made it’s decision based on the writings of Baha’u’llah. I hope with all my heart that your love for Baha’u’llah will guide you to the wisdom of this decision.

    You have my respect and well wishes

    Regards Tony

  12. Sen said

    Thank you Tony. I accepted the wisdom of the UHJ’s decision long ago. See the Surah of the Cave, from about verse 65, which gives the story of how a man called Moses (not the Prophet of that name) learns that one cannot complain of God, until one has seen the end to which God works. The difficulty I have is only that my disenrollment causes confusion for the friends, some of whom find it put the House of Justice in a bad light, while others think up reasons for the decision, attributing various actions, words or motives to me. I have asked the House of Justice for a statement I could use at such times, so that the House of Justice’s action is described in words of their own choice, but they have not replied thus far. If I do receive a statement from them which may help the friends, I will be sure to share it.

  13. Sen, in the introduction you wrote:

    ” What is needed is not simply to recast Bahai thought in contemporary terms, or to hold the theological thinking of the Bahais up for critical examination in the light of Bahai scripture (both useful functions of theologians), but rather to drag Bahai thinking bodily from one world- view into the next.”

    Can you give some examples of what anyone might do, to help drag Baha’i thinking bodily from one world- view into the next?

  14. I’m confused. In some places I see you saying that common values are not necessary for a healthy society, and that in fact a lot of grief has been caused by trying to impose common values on national communities.

    On the other hand I see you saying that the Baha’i community, with its wide diversity of people in every corner of the world and every corner of society, will wither and die, and do the world no good, if the entire community is not dragged bodily into a common world view embodying post-modern values and the values of the Enlightenment.

  15. I see the same paradox in a different form: I see you saying that common values are not necessary for a healthy society, and at the same your vision of a healthy society revolves around some post-modern values and Enlightenment values, and your arguments in support of it appeal to what you yourself call values.

  16. I’ve been aware for some time that I have my own religion, different from the religion of any Baha’i I know, and continually evolving, in the light of what I’m continually learning from others and from my experience. I have my own world-view, different from the world-view of anyone I know, and continually evolving, in the light of what I’m continually learning from others and from my experience. That looks very much to me like the differentiation, individualisation and pluralism I see you saying that we need to embrace as indispensable for a healthy society.

    I also see you saying that a lot of the tragedies in recent history have been due to the efforts of governments to impose a common ideology and value system on all their citizens.

    “This tragic misconception of society as national, of its supposed need for common values, and the overestimation of the role of the state, underlie some of the darkest passages in the history of the 20th century.”

    Then I see you devoting your life to a one-size-fits-all world-view for all people, and a one-size-fits-all theology for all Baha’is all over the world, and saying that the only way for the Baha’i community to flourish, and to do the world any good, is by dragging that entire *global* community bodily into that world view. That seems to me diametrically opposed to everything else I see you saying.

  17. Sen said

    I use the term “postmodern” to refer to a period in history, and a kind of society, rather than a philosophical or ideological construct or a value system. Medieval theology and philosophy, be it European-Christian, Jewish or Islamic, was written within the framework of a medieval society, it tried to answered the questions that medieval people had, and it took a lot of things for granted: that there is a king or prince who rules, that religion is organised around a dominant institution, that government is not entirely arbitrary, but should be governed by laws, that different classes of people have different rights and duties, and so on. If it did not work within this framework, it could hardly have communicated with or helped the people of the time, for that was the world they lived in. Nevertheless the medieval theologians and philosophers had a wide variety of approaches and values.

    In the same way, a theology or philosophy addressed to people in a postmodern society has to begin with an awareness that society has gone through an (uncompleted) fundamental change, whose main dynamics are structural differentiation and the displacement of the state from the prime actor in society to a position as one organ in society; individualisation and the concept of human rights and the primary value of the individual, rather than of any collective; individual mobility (geographically and in the cultural system) and religious and cultural pluralism; global integration of subsystems such as government, science and the market; and relativism as an intellectual framework. Another key dynamic is progress, but a high valuation of progress (and a high speed of progress) is something postmodern society has in common with modernist societies.

    Anyone, the Bahais included, who tries to address people’s questions without recognizing that their world has changed, or worse, who present a programme to recreate an older form of society, will be at best unable to help, and irrelevant. There will be no audience.

    When people’s world and their issues is so far removed from their world-views and inherited wisdoms, social thinkers put on seven league boots. They must present whole pictures of society that are persuasive and useful in broad outline. Now is not the time for minute studies of particular details, because any such study would have to be framed by an explanation of the postmodern world and society as it actually is: this cannot be assumed as common knowledge. The early enlightenment is a comparable period: there would have been little point in debating the merits of proportional representation as against first-past-the-post elections, when the concept that the sovereignty of the state is based upon the sovereignty of the individual (and not the genealogy of a ruling family) was still permeating through society.

    I am certainly guilty of using value and values in two different senses, but I think a reader will easily distinguish them. The values of a society or group within a society I define as a ranking (a valuation) of virtues. Society needs virtuous participants, the state needs virtuous citizens, but neither requires a uniformity in values. See ‘pluralist society‘ on this blog, and particularly the discussion with Stella Ramage in the comments to that post.

    The “value of the individual,” on the other hand, refers simply to the worth of the individual.

  18. Sen said

    Re Jim’s comment #13: “to drag Bahai thinking bodily from one world- view into the next.””

    In a period of incremental change, a religious community needs to be reviewing its thinking and the way it is expressed to ensure that it is answering the questions of the day, in language that is accessible and persuasive for the time. And there is always the need to check whether beliefs do actually accord with scripture: this is regardless of the pace of change. But when society is going through a major structural change, as I believe the postmodern society-in-the-making is, tinkering will do no good. One has first to adopt a world-view that corresponds to the world as it is (and this is generally done wholesale, not bit by bit, because a world view by definition is a reasonably coherent whole), and then begin again from first principles, or in the Bahai case, from scripture and its authorised interpreters, to derive what is in effect a new belief system. This is comparable to one kind of religious conversion: the convert gets to the point of being able to imagine that what is being presented might be true, and rather than holding that possibility in suspense until every question that arises (from one’s old point of view) has been answered, the convert reaches the point of being able to ask the questions that arise supposing that the new point of view is valid. This is critical and experimental conversion, – reason is not abandoned or overwhelmed by conviction. Although reason and critical questioning are involved, there is not a lot of possibility for discussions with those who are engaged with the questions that arise when the new framework is examined from the perspective of the old.

    I think that postmodern society, and a postmodern Bahai theology, present us with a challenge of this kind. My wording in the Foreword is less than optimal, but I cannot think of any better way to say it. People cannot be dragged into this: they have to make the step themselves, dragging their baggage with them, and unpack and resort it for themselves, to see what is good, what can be discarded, and where the gaps are that need to be filled.

    However this is not merely optional, like the decision to adopt the spring fashions or not. Society has in fact changed in fundamental ways, and any individual or community that ignores this or merely tinkers with adjustments will receive signals from its environment telling it that change is required. Declining membership, ageing membership, declining conversions, low retention, less immediate interractions with society (becoming a safe enclave), and criticisms of irrelevancy and or incompatability with best principles, voiced from within and from society, are all signals that a patch-and-pump approach may at best keep the boat afloat, but what is really needed is a new vessel designed for effective work in the currents now flowing. At the individual level, people suffer cognitive dissonance: what they actually think and believe in their hearts is not what they think they ought to think and feel. Becoming willing to adopt a new framework experimentally is one possible response; another is digging in the heels, turning inward, denying one’s own experience and reason.

  19. So when you say “dragged,” you mean dragged by the reality itself, which becomes harder and harder to explain in the old view, rather than by any people intent on dragging it?

  20. Sen said

    More or less Jim. I do not think I am able to drag anyone anywhere; but I also think that we, the Bahais, have to drag our thinking (or more precisely, our minds) from one world into another. And that this is not entirely a free choice: the fit of old assumptions about what society is and how it works, and old formulations of the Bahai social teachings, to the world as it is must become increasingly uncomfortable as time moves on.

  21. In the introduction you wrote:

    “We can scarcely understand, now, the extent to which the Christians of the second and third centuries saw their religion in terms set by the shape of Roman society and the Roman state. If we do focus on that, we also see the magnitude of the transition initiated by Augustine’s theology, in disentangling the Christian religion from outdated suppositions about society.”

    Are you hoping to do the same thing for the Baha’i Faith? Help create a theology that will initiate a massive transition, disentangling the Faith from outdated suppositions about society? If so, that looks to me like a response to the same need that I see highlighted in the foreword to “One Common Faith”:

    “. . . the accelerating breakdown in social order calls out desperately for the religious spirit to be freed from the shackles that have so far prevented it from bringing to bear the healing influence of which it is capable.”

  22. Sen said

    Yes, this is certainly what I hope will happen: the Bahai Faith and other religions will be formulated in ways that are disentangled from old world-views, and they will contribute to a healthy world society and to healthy individuals.

    I was never quite happy with the wording of that part of the Introduction: I had a sense of the role of Augustine’s theology in the transition from the classical European world and world-view to a post-classical world-view, but I didn’t find the telling example or term to encapsulate it, and since it’s a side-issue anyway I left it to the reader to puzzle out.

  23. Sen, I’m evolving a new vision for myself, of possible futures for the Baha’i community and for the world, considering the new insights I’ve found here about differentiation, pluralism and other features of today’s world, and I’d like to see what you think.

    1. In my vision of a healthy society, differentiation and pluralism, like patterns in a fractal, appear not only at the level of the overarching spheres and within each individual, but also at all levels of all subgroups in between.

    2. In my vision of a healthy society, all the groups at all levels value, encourage and support all the other ones.

    3. Within the current systems, of the Baha’i community and of society in general, even with all their defects, the virtues needed for a healthy society, including the virtues needed in the members of institutions, and the virtues needed for healthy differentiation and pluralism, are growing and spreading, and will continue to do so. What ensures that they will is the growth and spread of the spirit of faith and the love of God, which can happen under all ideological banners including atheistic ones.

    4. The growth and spread of the *virtues* needed for healthy differentiation, pluralism, and other features of a healthy society, do not in the least require any *ideology* of differentiation and pluralism, or any ideology currently associated with the Baha’i Faith or even with religion, to be widespread, nor do they require any other ideologies, even contrary ones, to be stigmatized and marginalized. In fact, I see diverging and even mutually exclusive ideologies as indispensable for a healthy society, at every level, and I see valuing them all as just as indispensable as valuing any other kind of diversity.

    5. One way I see to help accelerate the spread and growth of the virtues needed for a healthy society, for anyone who wants to, is to encourage and support people we see practicing and promoting the virtues most lacking, regardless of their ideologies and value systems. Another way I see is to join hands with people we see systematically training themselves and others in those virtues, again regardless of their ideologies and value systems. The most consequential way I see for anyone to help is in learning to nurture the spirit of faith and the love of God, in ourselves and in others.

  24. Sen said

    I agree with all your points entirely Jim. Point five suggests that we can also be aware of, and support, the institutional frameworks that promulgate virtues now and are able to transmit them to later generations. At their best, organised religions are part of the institutional framework of virtue; so are cultural communities and educational organisations.

  25. Lindsay Clarke said

    Hi Sen,

    I have just finished reading Church and State and it has left me feeling exhilarated. After a short break I will read it again, I need to retrace some parts to fill in details and to gain more certainty about what you propose throughout the book. I have a strong personal attachment and interest in the idea of the use of public law to manage and promote ‘the happiness of the nations’. I am therefore excited by what you write. At this time I don’t wish to make any concluded observations regarding the book, but I wish to thank you most sincerely for taking the time and making the effort to write it. My Baha’i life exists independently of any community (except Facebook) and it depends upon finding relevant sources from which to gain some inspiration. For various reasons my life feels like it has been long and difficult. Your book has just made it much more interesting.

    Of course you are a Baha’i theologian and of course it is plainly obvious to anyone with half a brain that you did not use the title to make a claim of authority. It seems to me perhaps someone else needs to read the book again.

  26. I am too a fan of this blog. And I would like to read the book in question, though – it will be a while before I do, since I my reading list is really quite overwhelming at present (and yet! I’m determined to accomplish it!) That said, I would like to ask Sen these questions, because the passage quoted in the Universal House of Justice’s letter (14 November 2005) raises the following concerns for ***me***. And – I don’t view my objections as being “out of context.” The sentences themselves are concerning. Here are my two questions:

    1. In what sense can you write “for” the Baha’i Community? I haven’t consented to such, nor am I aware that you have (or had) any authority to do so. So what does the word “for” mean to you? I’m trying to understand the word in some sense that does not mean that you are speaking on my behalf, but I’m not coming up with that understanding.

    2. In what way can you “purify” the Baha’i ideas? What information do you have that suggests that you have the means to do so?

    Well – I am not the Universal House of Justice. I am not capable of knowing why they disenrolled you (nor, for that matter, what that even means “disenrolled.”). I enjoy and count on your blog for lots of information, and I generally trust your scholarship as a source of ideas, even if I don’t always agree with the conclusions drawn. But I personally don’t think that the two word choices mentioned above can be contextualized by other words – they by themselves mean something I don’t personally think is within the scope of any of us to do. That said – I am genuinely interested in knowing the answers to my questions, since – I freely acknowledge that there may be some meaning that I’ve overlooked and therefore completely missed your point.

    (Also – for the record – I was SO happy when the Universal House of Justice announced the new Houses of Worship, including the local houses. Having read your work on that topic here, it seems that you were quite prescient on the topic. :))

  27. Sen said

    Hi Queentiye,
    I write (primarily) for the Bahai community, in the same way as Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) writes primarily for children. They are my intended readers. This is stated in the Introduction:
    “This is also a Bahai theology, in the sense that I write primarily for the Bahais, and therefore use Bahai scriptural and historical sources. But a Bahai theology can hardly be exclusive, since Bahai scriptural resources include the Bible and the Quran…”

    Every good author has a reader in mind, and writes to serve the reader. Bad authors write to express themselves. My book sits somewhat uneasily between two stools, since I actually write to serve Bahai readers, but a dissertation is expected to be written for an academic audience, for a handful of fellow-researchers in the field. The Foreword explains to the academic audience, that the book is not exactly what they might expect a dissertation to be.

    The purification of our understandings is a matter of detecting and critiquing the assumptions we bring with us when we approach the Bahai Writings. In the Introduction I refer to holding “the theological thinking of the Bahais up for critical examination in the light of Bahai scripture.” I am by no means the first to point to this. A letter from Ruhi Afnan (possibly on behalf of Shoghi Effendi) to an American believer says:

    To deepen in the Cause means to read the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and the Master so thoroughly as to be able to give it to others in its pure form. There are many who have some superficial idea of what the Cause stands for. They, therefore, present it together with all sorts of ideas that are their own. As the Cause is still in its early days we must be most careful lest we fall under this error and injure the Movement we so much adore. There is no limit to the study of the Cause. The more we read the Writings, the more Truths we can find in Them, the more we will see that our previous notions were erroneous. With deepest love I remain,
    Yours in His Name.
    (Signed) RUHI AFNAN.
    (published in the US Bahai News, October 1930, p.3)

    Archimedes said that given a long enough lever, and a fulcrum, he could move the world. Where is the fulcrum outside our own frame of reference, that enables us to see where we have mixed prior assumptions with our understanding of the Bahai teachings? How does a fish critique water? One external fulcrum we can use is the Bahai Writings and the example of the lives of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, but since we are already looking at those teachings — through the lenses of our own world-view — a ‘back to the sources’ approach is only a partial answer. In the Introduction I say “the Bahai secondary literature, including statements issued by the official bodies of the Bahai community, show how deeply the thinking of the Bahai community is – unconsciously – committed to an old world-view. Assumptions about the nature of religion, the shape of society and of religious community, and the relation of the individual to these collectives are taken over from a pre-modern world-view, and are assumed to be self-evident, or are explicitly labelled as ‘the Bahai teachings,’ although they have no possible anchor in the Bahai scriptures. We cannot hope to entirely extricate the Bahai faith from all such assumptions and see it ‘as it really is,’ for our religions are part of our world-views, and none of us can live without organising our thought and perceptions in terms of one or more world-views. We can however try to see the Bahai Faith within another world-view, as one part of the global polysystem of post-modern society, and I believe that we will see that it makes eminent sense when viewed in that way.”

    This is an external fulcrum of another sort: not to try to achieve a neutral stance unaffected by a world-view, but rather to adopt another set of premises by way of experiment, to give a bifocal effect.

    On a more practical level, we go about purifying our ideas by debating them with other Bahais, and through a set of learned skills. We learn to ask ourselves “where is that in the Writings,” “does that contradict anything in the Writings,” “does that match Abdu’l-Baha’s behaviour,” “is the text reliable,” “can it be read another way,” “what was the cultural and linguistic context of the original,” and “what specific individual situation may have shaped that decision, or text?” In other words, we learn to think theologically, as well as piously. And we learn how to access sources, what sources are reliable, and where to ask for help. These skills are useful for keeping our feet out of holes, but they should not be over-rated either. Getting our doctrines right does not have the overwhelming importance in Bahai practice that it has in Protestant Christianity. In the Bahai framework, doctrinal correctness does not seem to have any relationship to salvation. Bahai life is not a matter of ortho-doxy (testifying to the correct teachings), but rather of embodying the Bahai spirit in that particular life that has been given to us, individually, to live. But still … what if we were to present the Bahai Faith mixed with some idea of our own, and that idea of our own became a veil that kept someone else from appreciating what Baha’u’llah has to offer?

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