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UHJ, 14 November 2005

THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE
DEPARTMENT OF THE SECRETARIAT
Bahá’í World Centre . P.O. Box 155 . 31 001 Haifa, Israel
Tel: . Fax: . Email: secretariat@bwc.org

14 November 2005

Transmitted by email

To all National Spiritual Assemblies

Dear Bahá’í Friends,

Recently, questions have arisen which have prompted the Universal House of Justice to comment further on matters treated in the compilation “Issues Related to the Study of the Bahá’í Faith”.

The Bahá’í principle calling for investigation of reality encourages an unfettered search for knowledge and truth by whoever wishes to engage in it. When applied to the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, it inevitably gives rise to a wide range of responses. Some, attracted to the Message, embrace the Cause as their own. Some may respond positively to certain precepts or principles and willingly collaborate toward shared aims. Some may find it to be an interesting social phenomenon worthy of study. Still others, content with their own beliefs, may reject its claims. Bahá’ís are taught to be respectful of the views of others, believing that conscience should not be coerced.

Upon becoming a Bahá’í, one accepts certain fundamental beliefs; but invariably one’s knowledge of the Teachings is limited and often mixed with personal ideas. Shoghi Effendi explains that “an exact and thorough comprehension of so vast a system, so sublime a revelation, so sacred a trust, is for obvious reasons beyond the reach and ken of our finite minds.” Over time, through study, prayerful reflection, and an effort to live a Bahá’í life, immature ideas yield to a more profound understanding of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation. Service to the Cause plays a particular role in the process, for the meaning of the Text is clarified as one translates insights into effective action. As a matter of principle, individual understanding or interpretation should not be suppressed, but valued for whatever contribution it can make to the discourse of the Bahá’í community. Nor should it, through dogmatic insistence of the individual, be allowed to bring about disputes and arguments among the friends; personal opinion must always be distinguished from the explicit Text and its authoritative interpretation by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi and from the elucidations of the Universal House of Justice on “problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book”.

In searching for understanding, Bahá’ís naturally acquaint themselves with published materials from a variety of sources. A book written by a disinterested non-Bahá’í scholar about the Faith, even if it reflects certain assumptions and puts forward conclusions acceptable within a given discipline but which are at variance with Bahá’í belief, poses no particular problem for Bahá’ís, who would regard these perceptions as an honest attempt to explore a religious phenomenon as yet little understood generally. Any non-biased effort to make the Faith comprehensible to a thoughtful readership, however inadequate it might appear, would evoke genuine Bahá’í appreciation for the perspective offered and research skill invested in the project. The matter is wholly different, however, when someone intentionally attacks the Faith.

An inescapable duty devolves upon the friends so to situate themselves in the knowledge of the Teachings as to be able to respond appropriately to such a challenge as it arises and thus uphold the integrity of the Faith. The words of Bahá’u’lláh Himself shed light on the proper attitude to adopt. He warns the believers “not to view with too critical an eye the sayings and writings of men”. “Let them”, He instructs, “rather approach such sayings and writings in a spirit of open-mindedness and loving sympathy. Those men, however, who, in this may, have been led to assail, in their inflammatory writings, the tenets of the Cause of God, are to be treated differently. It is incumbent upon all men, each according to his ability, to refute the arguments of those that have attacked the Faith of God.”

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. As illustrated, here is a claim that lies well outside the framework of Bahá’í belief and practice. Bahá’u’lláh has liberated human minds by prohibiting within His Faith any caste with ecclesiastical prerogatives that seeks to foist a self-assumed authority upon the thought and behavior of the mass of believers. Indeed, He has prescribed a system that combines democratic practices with the application of knowledge through consultative processes.

The House of Justice is confident that the principles herein presented will enable the friends to benefit from diverse contributions resulting from exploration of the manifold implications of Bahá’u’lláh’s vast Revelation, while remaining impervious to the efforts of those few who, whether in an explicit or veiled manner, attempt to divert the Bahá’í community from essential understandings of the Faith.

With loving Bahá’í greetings,

Department of the Secretariat

~~~~~~~
Short link: http://wp.me/PcgF5-11o
There’s a copy of this letter at
http://bahai-library.org/?file=uhj_issues_study_comment

11 Responses to “UHJ, 14 November 2005”

  1. Google coughs up numerous sites, including that of Moojan Momen (“Baha’i theologian”), explicitly focused on Baha’i theology, “writing from and for a religious community”. Which one is the House referring to in the above letter? If the quotes in the 6th paragraph are from Sen, that does not in itself establish a reference to Sen in particular. Could be Moojan or somebody else, right?

  2. Sen said

    The quote is specifically from page 1 of my book _Church and State_ which was published about September-October 2005. The text of the first couple of pages are on my blog here. But yes, many Bahais do theology and would describe themselves as theologians, not as a claim to status but simply as describing how they approach their studies, starting with religious beliefs and asking what the belief implies: done well, theology tells you more about your own beliefs. “Theologians” (ilahiyuun) is a term used by Abdu’l-Baha in just this sense, in contrast to an objective scientific approach which starts with observations of material phenomenon and aims to tell you about the material world.

    Schaeffer, in Beyond the clash of religions, sets out to present a “new theological paradigm” which is “the pivot of a new theology.” In a footnote on page 12 he explains:

    The term “Baha’i theology” is used for a methodical, systematic reflection on the Baha’i revelation (sceintia fidiea) comprising God who manifests himself, the Manifestation (ie the prophetology), the Covenant, the image of man (the Bahai anthrology), Bahai ethics, Bahai political thought, social principles etc … I refer to Robert Parry’s ‘Philosophical theology in Bahai Scholarship’ in Bahai Studies Bulletin October 1992, and to Jack McLean’s highly instructive contribution ‘Prolegomena to a Bahai Theology’ in JBS 5 1 March-June 1992, in which he has defined the concept of Bahai theology more closely and argued for its validity as a discipline….

    The work by Schaeffer and Parry and McLean would all have been reviewed – in various countries – before being published, so it’s unlikely there was a widespread prejudice against theology in the Bahai community before 2005, although McLean does seem to be refuting the idea that the Bahai Faith has no theology. So why did the UHJ hit the roof when they saw (presumably out of context) the sentence they quote in their letter of 14 November 2005? I have no idea. The letter reads as if I hit some emotional “hot button” but I have no clue as to the background. I did once exchange letters with a member of the UHJ who said that the Bahai Faith had no theology and needed none, and who wanted me to stop studying theology, but that was long ago and that member is no longer on the UHJ.

    Retrospectively, I note the negative references to theology and theologians in “Century of Light” (2001) and ‘to the world’s religious leaders’ (2002).

  3. Given your extensive well-known, thorough, logical and insightful writings, that an analyst such as you, Sen, would not have a clue re his own disenrollment is a stunning fact that begs explanation. And even more so in light of your obvious high esteem for the Baha’i Faith.

    Stunning to the nth degree, since your words (from your book introduction) cited by the UJH-to-NSA letter seem to describe what every writer (such as the many bloggers) about Baha’i matters aims to do. If this is true, all (or none?) of these writers should be disenrolled, discarded by the officialdom.

    Stunning events raise numerous questions which tend to lead to investigations.

  4. Sen said

    Investigate all you like James, but I think there’s a basic lack of data. The only people who really know aren’t telling. Explanations such as “its a punishment for X” are both speculative, and unable to account for the fact that one can easily identify other Bahais who have broken more laws, have more peculiar views, exercise more influence, write more persuasively, are accorded more deference, brought the Faith into more disrepute, etc, than the handful of Bahais who have been disenrolled — so if explanation X is your flavour, explain why those people have NOT been disenrolled. The UHJ is generally forgiving to a fault: one fellow who brought the Faith into gross disrepute and lost his means of livelihood in the process, got a senior paid position in a Bahai school as a substitute.

    Perhaps its an idea not to look for retrospective explanations, but rather for future-oriented purposes. What could be the purpose of having some Bahais who are not enrolled?

    Looking into the long term, Bahai identity and belief will have to become distinct from enrolled membership. For example, an “unenrolled scientology follower” would be inconceivable: to be into scientology is to be a member of the organisation by definition. But there’s nothing odd about the idea of a Christian who is not registered with a church, or a Muslim not a member of any mosque or Sufi order, or a Buddhist who is not so fussed about the Mahayana/Theravada stuff, he’s just a Buddhist, a follower of the path laid out by the Buddha. As a rule, in a cult (in the sociological sense, a religious organisation at high tension with society), membership and identity are synonymous. If the Bahai Faith is to grow beyond that, membership and identity have to be distinguished.

    It’s just my speculation that this is the purpose served by disenrolling a few Bahais at this stage : that it will foster, a generation or two down the line, an “unenrolled Bahai” identity. However this speculation is at least subject to disproof. So far, those disenrolled have been knowledgeable and deepened in the Covenant, people who recognise that the UHJ is the only legitimate head of the Bahai community and therefore has to have the last say on who is a member and who is not. None of us have tried to set up a rival House of Justice, signed up with one of the various Remeyite claimants to the Guardianship, or joined the Unitarian Bahai Association and the like. In other words, we’ve accepted the identity of being unenrolled Bahais. If the UHJ was to disenroll people who did join or create an illegitimate rival to the UHJ, then either (a) my explanation is wrong or (b) it’s right but the UHJ chose the wrong people.

    At the same time as the UHJ seems (to me) to be fostering the eventual presence of “unenrolled Bahais” as a normal part of the (wider) Bahai community, what it is expected of those who are enrolled is increasing: they are expected to support a larger number of core activities (apparently in addition to, rather than instead of, the ones we find in the Writings), there’s a sort of catechism to be gone through, certain positions are becoming subject to a requirement of having done certain Ruhi books or being familiar with particular aspects of the current plan and the like, and more generally, the members are expected not to treat being Bahai as one aspect of their lives, but as permeating all their lives. That looks more like the profile of a religious order than a religion, more like “being a Fransiscan” than “being Catholic.”

    So my theory is that a couple of centuries down the line, we will see a relatively small cadre of enrolled Bahais who have the vote and do most of the work and run things, and a penumbra of unenrolled Bahais who either are “not that religious” or who are at a period in their lives in which enrollment is not realistic. Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice, each in their own role and station, will be at the centre of both the core and the penumbra, and people may move from one to the other as their committment or circumstances change. And in retrospect, some of those who have been unenrolled in the past 10 years will be seen as analogous to a chapel for the people, built outside the walls of a monastry: it serves the people where they are at, without imposing high standards, and if someone shows signs of a “vocation” (calling) they can consider joining the Order.

    It could all pan out quite differently, but that seems to be the way things are heading at the moment. At least it tells me what my job is: to serve the servants of God, with what I’m given, where I am placed

    As for the Foreword to my book – yes, it’s the arrogance of all writers and of speakers that they hope their words will have some effect. Otherwise, remain silent. It’s good practice to know what effect you are aiming for, and say it explicitly. Our ideas about the Bahai Faith are mixed with all sorts of non-Bahai influences, marred by misunderstandings, bad logic and inconsistencies, sometimes taken on faith rather than understood and believed, and expressed in ways that bring opposition rather than winning friends. I hope to improve the situation somewhat. A modest enough goal, I thought

    Sen

  5. Anon said

    Sen,

    I really enjoy many aspects of your blog and wish there were more Baha’is who took such a rigorous look at ideas and the writings.

    I may see what is going on – notwithstanding the issue of the word theologian – which I would have to think about a lot more – I think the crux of it is the word “for”. “Writing from and for a religious community.”

    Now first let me say I can completely see where one may be coming from, one might say at a speech “Unity is important” and then one might think “I’m speaking about the writings for my community to the larger community of all peoples and surely unity is important” and there is an innocent version of this that almost turns the issue into semantics.

    But there is also the risk or the possible emotional position of the speaker or author that they do speak on behalf of the faith or on behalf of the community. As individuals Baha’u’llah has clarified that in this dispensation we can all have our personal interpretations – and should – but we should not lord them over other people, cause disunity from insistence on them, etc. All of us, even House members when not deliberating as a formal part of the process of the House of Justice, only have personal interpretations. We do not speak “for” the community or “for” the faith.

    I really like the sentiment you are trying to get at, I see a spark of caring about ideas and wanting to engage the community and the world one these topics, and that is wonderful. There is a lot of excitement in the statement that is wonderful to see.

    Another word that may go too far – “to enable Baha’is to understand their relatively new faith”. So – again – I get it and *in a way* feel similar in that I give deepenings and am asked to speak here and there on ocassion. But, I honestly don’t see it as a process where I am enabling Baha’is to understand their faith. I see it more as I am sharing my spiritual path and spiritual musings and my thoughts In a general atmosphere of consultation and evolution. This may start to sound like new age nonsense, but it is really true. I don’t feel like any understanding I have at any time is 100% correct. Over my life I’ve learned new things and I’ve evolved m thoughts on many issues, and hope to keep doing so. So, in that case, how could my thoughts in any one month, week, or even year somehow be perfect mirrors of reality? I focus more on the fact that I am hopefully converging on truth over time, but this is a process that is continually in motion and I hope never stops. We can always be in a learning mode.

    We can look at some of the things early US or other western Baha’is have said, here are there, that we now know clearly aren’t in line with the faith, and if we look at the example of Abdul Baha then we can generate a spectrum of prevailing attitudes, thoughts and modes of interaction from the beginning of the Faith’s impact on western civilization through the Exemplar. I can see that all of us have millions of miles of progress in front of us and much of the understanding of many aspects of the Faith by the large body of the believers will continue to evolve every generation. Shoghi Effendi even calls us the Generation of Half Light to bring out this concept. So I don’t really know that anyone *really* understands the Baha’i Faith at all. What we understand are the writings in the context of our lives and upbringings and we stand at the interplay of our free will, our understanding, and our personal context/history. What we are doing in general through scholarship and conversation is all sharing our current understanding and evolving together heading in a certain direction. I cannot tell anyone for sure almost anything about the Baha’i Faith. But what I can share is what I’m thinking this month or week given where I’ve come from.

    Now, another interesting aspect of all of this is the role of Socrates and people like him and how he relates to the Baha’i Faith, acceptable feedback/criticism and personality types. To oversimplify and make something of an archetype out of it, he went around and questioned everyone and made them feel unsure about their beliefs to the point where they were made so uncomfortable that they killed him. “The Questioner” might be a name for this archetype. Don’t we have a month called questions? So we know there is something good here. But can it go too far? What is the best way to question someone’s beliefs? I don’t know. If a person decides that by personality and training they want to go around and make people question their beliefs and challenge ideas I think this is awesome. Socrates is one of my greatest heroes. But we then have to figure out how they are going to do it in light of the principles revealed in this revelation. How does unity come into play into this process?

    Socrates was a long time ago and before we had the example of Abdul-Baha. How would Socrates have acted if he accepted the role and example of Abdul-Baha? This is what I mean by we only have our current understanding and not a real understanding of the faith. How to consult, how to interact, how to disagree and yet search together for truth – I think there are a lot of things in there that none of us are doing right (Generation of Half Light) and I think in 200 years the nature of discourse will be far more enlightened and may not look much at all like it does today.

    So – again – I love the spirit of “I’m going to share a lot of ideas”, “I’m going to try my best to root out superstition”, and perhaps more controversial (but personally I think it is fine), “I’m going to challenge everyone” etc. etc. That is all really great. In my own limited way, I’d like to do some of those same things.

    So here might be a rewording, just for fun.

    (Quote from above)

    I am 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”

    (Showing a different angle of emotional relationship with the station of the individual at any single point in time- and again I’d still have to think about the Theologian part, for now I took it out and added the word theology later)

    I am a Baha’i who spends the bulk of his time reading, writing and thinking about modern theology, writing from within this religious community and sharing my approach and my conclusions, whose aim is to enable everyone to share my path of understanding these critical and fundamental principles brought forth by Baha’u’llah to help us all learn more about our relatively new Faith and to see how much it can offer the world.

    In summary: now we aren’t speaking “for” the community and we are also not personally “enabling Baha’is to understand their new Faith” but instead we are speaking for ourselves and humbly sharing our own understanding so that it may help others. In the second alteration we can recognize that our own ideas change with time, none of us have a full understanding such as a Manifestation themselves would have, and that the world evolves, every 50 years I think many prevailing attitudes, understandings of various issues, and models for interaction will all change and evolve quite a bit.

    Your last paragraph above does get at some of this already.

  6. Sen said

    Thanks for your comments. I write for the Bahai community, in the same sense as Enid Blyton writes for children. The Bahai community is the readership I have in mind, and in the first place, those within the community who have an intellectual issue that gets in the way of the religious life, something that interferes with sincere devotions, or is a barrier to teaching the Faith, or leads them to question their adherence to Baha’u’llah and his teachings. The issues sometimes arise from a lack of some particular knowledge, about the Bahai teachings, or from thinking one knows something that is not correct (eg, relying on a pilgrim’s note or a bad translation), or quite often unexamined assumptions about the world. American Bahais, for example, quite often suppose that the establishment of religion is incompatible with the separation of church and state, while UK Bahais don’t make that mistake, since England has an established Church and the separation of organized religion from politics and government. I regard theology as a service industry; so far as I have the bit of knowledge I offer it to others to resolve such issues. If I don’t have anything that can help, I keep my mouth shut. Keeping your mouth shut is an easy path to a reputation for wisdom.

    Naturally, most Bahai authors do not say that they are writing for the Bahai community: that is usually understood. But a university book is usually written for an audience of specialists in a field, to advance objective knowledge in that field. I felt the readers had a right to be warned that my stance was theological, seeking to assist the believers and potential believers, from a position of belief.

    “Enabling” is used in the sense of providing the tools and materials and encouragement: I cannot do the “understanding” part for anyone else.

    God forbid that I should challenge anyone’s faith. Christ says,

    “And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea. …… And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.”

    The “eye” that offends, for me, is a certain kind of questioning whose main purpose is to boost the ego of the questioner and make him or her appear sophisticated and intelligent.

    Rehearsing issues and answers is part of “enabling” the believers and removing stumbling blocks for those who have not yet committed themselves to a life of discipleship. It is far removed from raising questions for egotistical purposes.

  7. Hooshang S. Afshar said

    Sen, I could not find your name in UHJ email at the top if they mentioned you. I think you should write and ask for re-enrollment and your desire to apologize if they could be more specific what your error was. Quote as many you can from the writings on love, understanding, God’s mercy and compassion, and how you have refuted all criticisms and repelled attacks on the faith.

  8. Sen said

    Dear Afshar, I have indeed asked for re-enrollment several times. If the House of Justice wished to make a condition, such as an apology for something, they could certainly do that. As for refuting criticisms of the Faith, being disenrolled gives me more credibility, for no-one can say I am seeking a position in the Bahai Administration or following the party line. I am an independent voice presenting facts and logic. Perhaps that was the purpose the House of Justice had in mind, or it might be something quite different.

  9. Hi Sen,

    I mostly agree with the anonymous poster above, that the language of writing “for” notwithstanding the intent you offered, is too strong, and the tone that comes across is tat ones views are somehow more correct than someone else’s views. Unless directly contradicted by the Writings, I never assume that anyone is wrong – they just are where they are at the present moment, and I’m somewhere else. Too – I often get a spark of clarity that then seems little by comparison only days later, to a deeper understanding of the same matter. There’s something relatively “final” in the tone of your Writings – that seem to say “this is the way it is, the end.” I get what you say about if you have nothing to contribute be quiet. I think, however, that the Baha’i consultative process basically denies that attitude almost entirely. No one is to keep quiet – however off in left field their ideas are – the clash of differing opinions brings about the spark of truth. So I think that speaking from a place of authority (i.e., rightness) is probably a bit concerning in most cases, and keeping quiet if one may not be “right” is also concerning in most cases.

    I say that as my own opinion, not as an explanation for, or aid in your enrollment status. Of that, I have little to say. I’ve enjoyed your blog for these many years, and your contributions have helped me grow in understanding, even sometimes when I’ve basically disagreed with your position.

  10. Hooshang S. Afshar said

    Hi Sen, I read the Introduction to your book Church and State on line. Very enlightening with regards to the issue at hand. It was good to know you.

  11. Sen said

    Dear Hooshang, you might also like “Bahai meets globalisation,” which goes into more depth regarding the organic structures of a postmodern society.

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