Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Pinna to the UHJ, May 2006

To THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE
DEPARTMENT OF THE SECRETARIAT
Bahá’í World Centre
Haifa, Israel

May 21th, 2006
5 ‘Azamat 163 B. E.

Dear friends of the Universal House of Justice, I am a believer from Cagliari, on the Italian island of Sardinia. My card number is xxxx.

I have learned with shock and dismay about the expulsion of scholar Sen McGlinn, from Leiden, in the Netherlands, and about the boycott of Kalimat Press on the part of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States of America.

I am writing to you as the supreme authority of the Bahá’í Faith, in the hope that you might reconsider your decision, and induce the NSA of the United States to reverse theirs.

Both decisions involve the status and image of devoted believers and outstanding scholars who have dedicated their lives to studying and spreading the Bahá’í message. Both appear utterly at variance with the principle of independent search for truth, which was established by the Manifestation of God for this age, and with the Sacred Writings’ repeated urge to strive for excellence in learning as in all other human endeavours. Both have caused much suffering among sincere believers and may result in damage being done to the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh.

As was the case with the expulsions of New Zealand poet Alison Marshall and Canadian writer Michael McKenny, the motives for the disenrollment of Mr. McGlinn or the boycott of Kalimat Press were not clearly stated, either to the people involved or to their fellow believers. While, in conscience, I cannot abstain from again calling your attention to the fact that such fogginess raises serious issues of injustice, it is not with due process – or the lack thereof – that I am concerned with here.

What seriously worries me is the rather narrow conception of intellectual freedom in general, and scholarly research in particular, that Bahá í authorities have foisted upon Bahá’í men and women of learning.

That attitude is evidenced in a document issued on your behalf by the Department of the Secretariat on November 14 2005, and subsequently disseminated onto the Internet and onto official Bahá’í Bulletins such as Note Bahá’í in Italy. That paper does not mention Mr. McGlinn explicitly, but makes it easy to recognize him by quoting, out of their proper context, some sentences from the Foreword to his new book Church and State, self published in the Netherlands and distributed in the USA by Kalimat Press.

The Department of the Secretariat writes:

“A different type of challenge arises when an individual or group, using the privilege of Bahá’í membership, adopts various means to impose personal views or an ideological agenda on the Bahá’í community. In one recent instance, for example, an individual has declared himself a “Bahá’í theologian, writing from and for a religious community,” whose aim is “to criticize, clarify, purify and strengthen the ideas of the Bahá’í community, to enable Bahá’ís to understand their relatively new Faith and to see what it can offer the world”. Assertions of this kind go far beyond expressions of personal opinion, which any Bahá’í is free to voice”.

Whoever wrote that passage deliberately chose to ignore the scholar’s opening words:

“This book presents my own understanding of the Bahá’í teachings on some issues that are now critically important to the Bahá’í community and its relations with the world”.

Later in the same Foreword, the author says:
“The reader should be aware (…) that this is only one among the competing discourses within the contemporary western Bahá’í community”.

Furthermore, he warns:

“The views offered here are not an authoritative view of the Bahá’í teachings”.

It could not be any clearer that Mr. McGlinn is not “imposing” either his views or a personal agenda on his readers. On the contrary, he is offering for examination – which entails acceptance, further enquiry or confutation – his personal findings, based on deep and serious research of the Writings (including scarcely known items of Scripture) and of closely scrutinized secondary sources. That is the standard way knowledge – in the Humanities as well as in Chemistry or Genetics -is pursued in Universities and reputable learning institutes around the world. That is also the way many Bahá’í scholars interact with one another and with non- Bahá’í intellectuals who have an academic interest in our Faith. Somehow, Sen McGlinn, who is pursuing a doctorate in Islamic Studies at a prestigious university in the Netherlands, seems to be treated differently.

As to his defining himself as “a theologian”, again the true meaning of his words appear to have been distorted by means of omissions. He states:

“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 Bahá’í theologian, writing from and for a religious community, and I speak as if the reader shares the concerns of that community”.

As Church and State is McGlinn’ Master’s thesis, written mainly for an audience of scholars and academics, it is evident that the author wants to make clear from the beginning that his is not the detached, non committed work that such an audience would expect: it is the work of a believer.

Now, to the incriminatory sentence:

“As a Bahá’í theologian, I seek to criticize, clarify, purify and strengthen the ideas of the Bahá’í community, to enable Bahá’ís 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 Bahá’í 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”.

Mr. McGlinn here declares himself a militant Bahá’í scholar, an “auteur engagé” deeply involved in the life of the religion he writes about. This has nothing to do with claiming authority inside the community. It is, on the contrary, an act of integrity on his part. Moreover, one that requires courage, since the gulf between scholarship and religion is wider in Europe than it is in the United States or Canada.

I am reminded here of a passage in a letter written on behalf of our Beloved Guardian:

“As the Cause develops it will need more and more people who are really versed in their branch of learning and who can interpret the teachings to suit the facts”.(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, cited in Bahá’í Youth 16). [online at http://bahai-library.org/compilations/scholarship.khan.html ]

That is precisely what Sen McGlinn is doing: studying, analyzing and translating a text; weaving it into its socio-historical context, deconstructing its transformations and its interpretations over the years and bringing to light their implications, past, present and future; offering his conclusions for discussion to fellow scholars, both Bahá’í or non Bahá’í. In short, he is doing historical, theological, philological work, without claiming any of the sacred prerogatives of the elected Institutions.

Yet McGlinn’s words, twisted and taken out of context, are used against him in official documents distributed to the National Spiritual Assemblies of distant countries where he is not known for the respectful, joyful, law-abiding Bahá’í that he truly is, and where he is unable to defend himself. Consequently, his reputation will likely be smeared, his significant contributions to the understanding of the Bahá’í Cause marginalized and rejected.

That is hardly what the Blessed Beauty had in mind when he said:
“In truth, knowledge is a veritable treasure for man, and a source of glory, of bounty, of joy, of exaltation, of cheer and gladness unto him. Happy the man that cleaveth unto it, and woe betide the heedless”. (Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf)

It is being claimed in Internet forums that Mr. McGlinn’s topic was inherently improper. That looks plausible – though far from acceptable – in the light of the November 14 document, which in turn refers to the Compilation “Issues related to the Study of the Bahá’í Faith”, where the problem of a new approach to the relationship between Religion and Civil Power is described as part of a campaign of “internal opposition” to the Teachings:

“Shoghi Effendi’s explanation of Bahá’u’lláh’s vision of the future Bahá’í World Commonewealth that will unite spiritual and civil authority is dismissed in favour 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”.

Now, I am neither a historian nor a theologian, and I am somewhat puzzled that an issue relating to an event that may or may not take place hundreds of years in the future can lead to such disputes. But as a thinking person with a solid background in the Humanities I wonder how Sen McGlinn’s thesis could be rejected without further investigation, especially when he quotes passages from Bahá’u’lláh and Abdu’l Bahá, and when he shows how omissions or interpolations may have altered the original texts.

How can the scholar’s conclusions be found wanting, unless his quotations are unveiled as false, or his translations exposed as mistaken? How can his thorough and painstaking search for truth be so easily dismissed when every Bahá’í, nay, every man and woman on earth, have been called by Bahá’u’lláh to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears?

During his 1912 visits to the United States and Canada, the Master had this to say about intellectual investigation:

“All blessings are divine in origin, but none can be compared with this power of intellectual investigation and research, which is an eternal gift producing fruits of unending delight. (…)Therefore, you should put forward your most earnest efforts toward the acquisition of science and arts. The greater your attainment, the higher your standard in the divine purpose. The man of science is perceiving and endowed with vision, whereas he who is ignorant and neglectful of this development is blind. The investigating mind is attentive, alive; the callous and indifferent mind is deaf and dead. A scientific man is a true index and representative of humanity, for through processes of inductive reasoning and research he is informed of all that appertains to humanity, its status, conditions and happenings. He studies the human body politic, understands social problems and weaves the web and texture of civilization. In fact, science may be likened to a mirror wherein the infinite forms and images of existing things are revealed and reflected. It is the very foundation of all individual and national development. Without this basis of investigation, development is impossible. Therefore, seek with diligent endeavour the knowledge and attainment of all that lies within the power of this wonderful bestowal”. (The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 50)

What else did Mr. McGlinn do, except raise and devote his personal and professional life to carrying out Abdu’l Bahá’s instructions and exhortation? How is it that his reward is banishment from the community of the Blessed Beauty?

On a more general level, why should any topic be considered taboo, out of the reach of independent scholarly examination? Where was any Bahá’í authority – including the Universal House of Justice, may God enlighten and protect it – given the right/capacity to set rules and guide-lines (such as lists of approved subjects and/or methodologies) for scientific research and intellectual endeavour in general?

With all due respect, humankind has been through that before. Or shall we have to revert to blindly believing that the “Sun” rotates around the “Earth” because a misinterpreted piece of Scripture, or a religious authority, says so?

As to the November 14 Document’s assertion that Bahá’u’lláh has prescribed “a system that combines democratic practices with the application of knowledge through consultative process”, I frankly fail to see how that could apply to scholarly research, which is subject to peer review, and not to democratic scrutiny on the part of non competent individuals. Einstein’s Relativity Theory is not less true because the general public cannot grasp its meaning. The appropriate tools for investigating reality are not derived from religious authority, but are the products of the intellectuals themselves, be they medical doctors, literary critics, astrophysicist.

Bahá’u’lláh and Abdu’l Bahá praised knowledge and the learned with vigorous and moving words, freeing them from the diktaats of religious authority. The Master said:

“Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, said, ‘That which is in conformity with science is also in conformity with religion’. Whatever the intelligence of man cannot understand, religion ought not to accept. Religion and science walk hand in hand, and any religion contrary to science is not the truth”. (Wisdom of Abdu’l-Baha).

Powerful words even today, but even more so at the time they were spoken. Perhaps their revolutionary challenge to the status quo is lost to those of us who live in secularized Western democracies, where an obscurantist clergy has little or no power. There is no need to remind the Department of the Secretariat, let alone the Universal House of Justice, of how hostile most clerics in Iran were towards what they saw as Western values and culture; how they opposed innovation in every field, from scientific research to technology, from education to law making. The situation was not much better in the Western world, where Darwin and his followers were denounced as impious for demonstrating that the universe had not been made in 6 days some 6 thousand years ago, as Christian conservative theologians would have it. And where the head of the Catholic Church issued a “Syllabus” condemning as an error, among other things, the principles and methods of modern science.

Those were the days when Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed:

“Knowledge is one of the wondrous gifts of God. It is incumbent upon everyone to acquire it. Such arts and material means as are now manifest have been achieved by virtue of His knowledge and wisdom which have been revealed in Epistles and Tablets through His Most Exalted Pen – a Pen out of whose treasury pearls of wisdom and utterance and the arts and crafts of the world are brought to light.

Great indeed is the claim of scientists and craftsmen on the peoples of the world….” (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, pp. 51-52)

The Founder of our Faith had words of approval for all true scholars and warned his followers that it was incumbent upon them to pay respect to the learned. Abd’ul Baha and Shoghi Effendi encouraged all Bahá’í’s to develop their own intellectual qualities and abilities:

“Make every effort to acquire the advanced knowledge of the day, and strain every nerve to carry forward the divine civilization”. (Abdu’l-Bahá, from a Tablet, translated from the Persian)

“We need Bahá’í scholars, not only people far, far more deeply aware of what our teachings really are, but also well-read and well- educated people, capable of correlating our teachings to the current thoughts of the leaders of society. We Bahá’ís should, in other words, arm our minds with knowledge in order to better demonstrate to, especially the educated classes, the truths enshrined in our Faith”. (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual dated 5 July 1949, quoted in International Teaching Centre, Scholarship 4)

Our sisters and brothers in Iran submit themselves to unspeakable dangers to attain higher education. How can it be then that we, who live in free Western societies, and who should bring the light of Bahá’u’lláh’s message to Mankind, now cast away our most brilliant minds, our most devoted scholars? It is no mystery that Sen McGlinn is only the last one in a list of believers that have been singled out for hidden investigation, criticism and abuse by various Bahá’í authorities who, although acting in good faith, did not even possess the cultural tools to judge the erudites’ work.

Now, one can understand that such unfortunate episodes may happen at the local level, where people of good faith and little learning may be shocked and unbalanced by methodologies or theories that are commonplace in more knowledgeable circles. One can also come to terms with the fact that in a wide and growing international community, people of varying levels of education and awareness may be brought by national sub-cultures to address the same issues in very different, conflicting ways. Building unity in diversity cannot be without pain! However, one would expect the International Teaching Centre and the Department of the Secretariat to be above that, and to play an active role in helping the believers to become more acquainted with the ways of the learned, rather than punish and banish the latter.

Instead, we see a stifling anti-intellectual policy and those who work to widen the community horizons treated as enemies. I have personally corresponded with academics in Europe who are concerned but dare not speak their minds for fear of being sanctioned. People who have remarkable reputations in their branch of knowledge but will not apply their research skills to Bahá’í studies because they cannot bring themselves to face the hostility of Bahá’í authorities. Or because they cannot, in good conscience, submit their works to pre publication review at the hands of unqualified bodies with a vested interest in the matters examined.

Would anyone trust a medical doctor who submitted a Protocol for lung cancer treatment to the scrutiny of a NSA? Would you honestly trust a history of the Counter Reformation written by a Catholic historian and vetted by his archbishop?

Now, this leads to my second concern: the boycott against US-based publishing house Kalimat Press.

In October 2005 the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States instructed all Local Spiritual Assemblies and Bahá’í booksellers to gradually cease from keeping and selling titles handled by Kalimát Press. The NSA stated that some of its books “aside from those which have enriched Bahá’í literature over the years, contain matter inimical to the best interests of our Faith” and that “it is highly inappropriate for Bahá’í institutions, which are obligated to safeguard such interests, to provide channels of distribution for publishers promoting such titles|”.

Further explanation was sought for by Kalimat Press itself and by some concerned Bahá’í’ authors. The NSA declined to go into any detail as to what the “inimical” works were, explaining they had no wish to draw a list of forbidden books.

Now, while one is relieved to hear that the Bahá’í Faith is not going to have an Index Librorum Prohibitorum such as established by the Catholic Inquisition, one cannot help wondering what the inimical titles may be, and why.

Since all the books published by Kalimat Press have passed Bahá’í Review, one must infer that the problems lie with the titles that Kalimat distributes. Among them one can’t avoid to single out Mr. McGlinn’s Church and State, professor Juan Cole’s Modernity and the Millennium, Dr. William Garlington’s The Bahá’í Faith in America: three outstanding, stimulating works that happen to apply, from different perspectives, the methods of contemporary western scholarship to the study of the Bahá’í Faith.

All three appear in Kalimat Press’ series “Studies in the BabX and Bahá’í religions”, that has significantly raised the standards of Bahá’í scholarship, and made Bahá’í studies an acceptable subject in academic circles worldwide. This in itself is no small accomplishment, and one our Beloved Guardian would have no doubt appreciated. Labelling any of these books “inimical to the best interests of the Faith” might not only result in damaging the cultural standards of the community as a whole; it might also put at risk the teaching of the message of the Blessed Beauty to prominent and well-educated people.

Shoghi Effendi was adamant that it was our duty as Bahá’ís to contact men and women of learning, distinction and responsibility:

“The more people of capacity who accept the Faith, the higher will become the standard of the entire group. (17 June 1942, written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi)

Particular care was to be used when addressing the learned, present and future:

“As to teaching work in colleges and universities, this is very important, for students as a whole are open-minded and little influenced by tradition. They would easily enter the Cause if the subject is properly presented and their intellect and sentiments properly satisfied. This, however, should be attempted only by persons who have had university training and are therefore acquainted with the mind of the intelligent and educated youth”. (3 February 1932 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, published in “Bahá’í News” 64 (July 1932), p. 4)

It seems what we need now is a more profound and co-ordinated Bahá’í scholarship in order to attract such men as you are contacting. The world has–at least the thinking world–caught up by now with all the great and universal principles enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh over 70 years ago, and so of course it does not sound “new” to them. But we know that the deeper teachings, the capacity of His projected World Order to re-create society, are new and dynamic. It is these we must learn to present intelligently and enticingly to such men! (3 July 1949 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi)

Today, just as in the times of the Guardian, we need books such as those that Kalimat Press has published over the years: thoroughly scholarly, commendable works, stimulating for the mind and soul. It is a solace to peruse challenging works on the Bahá’í Faith that can – without embarrassment – be brought to the attention of learned and demanding readers. It is these readers that we need to attract “to raise the standard of the entire group”. The very same readers whose support and sympathy we are now risking to alienate.

The boycott of Kalimat Press will not go unnoticed in the academic circles of the United States. Nor will the expulsion of Sen McGlinn go unnoticed at Leiden University, where he works and where he’ll soon be busy researching his Ph.D. dissertation. Middle East Studies is a relatively small field. Academic worlds interconnect, and news spreads fast.

I wonder what the former Italian students of Professor Alessandro Bausani’s, now tenured professors themselves at the Universities of Rome or Naples, will have to say about those two cases, especially as they are currently being asked to petition the Italian Government in support of the right to higher education of Iranian Bahá’ís.

As an Italian Bahá’í, I find it depressing to think that the precious work of our open-minded, enlightened and devoted community, that has a leading role in many progressive activities (including inter-faith dialogue, development of integration policies for destitute immigrants, and of academic programmes for the enhancement of business ethics) should be put in jeopardy by the expulsion of an honest, devout scholar in the Netherlands, or by the boycott of a distinguished independent publishing house.

Since I am a professional journalist, I have sometimes been called to lend a hand in PR work in favour of our beleaguered sisters and brothers in Iran. It is my duty to warn the Universal House of Justice, may God enlighten and protect it, that academics, politicians and prominent journalists in Italy are unlikely to give their heartfelt support to an organization that expels scholars for doing (or publishing) scholarly research.

For all the above reasons, I beseech you to reconsider your decision to expel Dr McGlinn. Please, give him back the place in the Bahá’í community that is the right of “a receptive soul who hath in this Day inhaled the fragrance of His garment and hath, with a pure heart, set his face towards the all-glorious Horizon”. Please, encourage the Bahá’ís around the world to benefit from reading, engaging, confronting his deep and honest intellectual efforts, as well as those of Kalimat Press, its owners, directors, and authors. Please, consult with the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and urge them to remove the ban on Kalimat Press that risks strangling a meritorious publishing house.

“Blessed are the rulers and the learned among the people of Bahá . They are My trustees among My servants and the manifestations of My commandments amidst My people. Upon them rest My glory, My blessings and My grace which have pervaded the world of being. ( Bahá’u’lláh, Kitab i Ahd)

Best regards

Daniela Pinna
~~~~~
Short link to this letter: http://wp.me/PcgF5-11e
Short link to the UHJ’s answer http://wp.me/PcgF5-11h

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