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In search of spiritual democracy

Posted by Sen on September 14, 2018

In the 30’s and 40’s, Shoghi Effendi was encouraging the Bahais to establish the various organs of the Bahai Administrative Order, while some Bahais, notably in the Bahai community in North America, were resisting. They put forward an alternative vision, in which Baha’u’llah’s “Houses of Justice” were thought to refer to democratic governments, and the Bahai community was inclusive and had no permanent organization at all. Three ‘quotes’ from Abdu’l-Baha were central to this vision of what a Bahai community could be: “you cannot organize the Bahai Movement, the Bahai Movement is the spirit of the age” “There are no officers in this Cause” and “The foundation of this Cause is pure spiritual democracy.”

I have already written extensively on ‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’ on this blog. In brief, it seems to originate with Percy Woodcock’s 1909 pilgrim’s notes, mistakenly taken up by Star of the West magazine in 1914, and then into various other publications. The same posting includes a historical survey of anti-organisational sentiment in the Bahai community in the United States, which was opposed by Louis G. Gregory, Agnes S. Parsons, Mariam Haney and, from 1920, by Mason Remey. Peter Smith has outlined the resistance to organization, and the election of precursors to the Local Spiritual Assemblies, in ‘The American Bahai Community.’ I will only repeat here one point I’ve made in ‘You can never organize’ : the power of such memes comes not from their credibility as texts, but from an already existing distrust of organization in religion, with which such texts meshed, and from the particularly anti-episcopal character of religion in the United States.

Here I would like to deal more briefly with the “no offices” and “spiritual democracy” memes. The most influential of the early publications in which these words appear is Bahai Scriptures (pp 499-450), a compilation that mixes authentic and dubious texts. It is no longer printed or distributed in hard copy, but it has given a new lease of life by being digitized. The words attributed to Abdu’l-Baha are:

Meekness and humility are the hallmarks of faith. As soon as a believer feels himself the least degree superior to others, the beginning of his spiritual decline has set in, all unaware to himself. There are no offices in this Cause. I do not and have not “appointed” any one to perform any special service, but I encourage every one to engage in the service of the Kingdom. The foundation of this Cause is pure spiritual democracy, and not theocracy. The difference between me and others is this: I confess and acknowledge my own inability, weakness and humility, and know that all these outward confirmations are the favors of the Blessed Perfection. There are some who imagine, and little by little come to believe, that their spiritual successes are by and through themselves.

My particular focus here is on the highlighted words. They are obviously implausible, as Abdu’l-Baha did appoint people to perform special services, and he knew Baha’u’llah had done the same. Moreover if at that time there were Persian terms for “democracy” (as distinct from “republic”) and for “theocracy,” Abdu’l-Baha did not use them in his writings, but his interpreters and editors did. For example, “democracy” appears three times in the English report of a talk Abdu’l-Baha gave at the Orient-Occident-Unity Conference (translated by Amin Farid, notes by Joseph Hannen) on April 20, 1912, but not in the Persian notes of the same talk (see here).

It’s unlikely that Abdu’l-Baha ever said “the foundation of this Cause is pure spiritual democracy.” The source is probably Ahmad Sohrab, since the same words are found in Sohrab’s I Heard Him Say, page 120, published in 1937. While Bahai Scriptures was published 14 years earlier, in 1923, it is very likely that Sohrab had communicated the words in a private letter or a letter to be published in a Bahai newsletter, before he included it in I heard Him Say, which is a retrospective compilation. As we will see, in 1914 he had inserted a quote about “spiritual democracy” into his translation of a tablet from Abdu’l-Baha. Sohrab is very free in attributing his own ideas to Abdu’l-Baha, so where he is the only known source of words, they must be regarded as especially doubtful.

It is a fair assumption that the Bahai Scriptures example of the “spiritual democracy” meme is a bit of western egalitarianism and anti-clericalism, championed by Ahmad Sohrab, and put into the mouth of Abdu’l-Baha. This iteration says “The foundation of this Cause is pure spiritual democracy, and not theocracy.” This is interesting because “theocracy” here evidently means a hierarchical religious organization with authority, whereas today we use it to mean a state ruled by the religious authorities.

The alert reader will notice that quotes of this text sometimes says “there are no offices” and sometimes “there are no officers.” Which is the authentic form is a moot point, since the quote is not authentic in any form.

These words, first published in 1923, are probably not intended by Sohrab as a rejection of the Guardianship, which was established in Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament and became public early in 1922. I doubt that there is enough time between Sohrab’s learning of the Will and Testament and the typesetting for Bahai Scriptures for these words to have been written in response to the Will. Holley’s ‘Introduction’ to the volume is dated February 12, 1923. However the quote about having no officers was loved by Ruth White and Hermann Zimmer, who led campaigns against the Guardianship, and it is used today by groups or individuals who oppose the Administrative Order of the Bahai community, groups such as “Free Bahais,” “Reform Bahai,” “Orthodox Bahai Faith” and the like.

Another form in which the idea of “spiritual democracy” is found is a talk by Abdu’l-Baha that is reported in The Promulgation of Universal Peace, where it is dated November 23 1912 and located at the Great Northern Hotel in New York. The relevant part reads:

The effect of such an assembly as this is conducive to divine fellowship … By it the very foundations of race prejudice are uprooted and destroyed, the banner of spiritual democracy is hoisted aloft, …(p. 447)

There are no Persian notes to check the authenticity of the report, and no indication of the source: the report was not first published in Star of the West. The editor of Promulgation says the source is notes taken by Edna McKinney. Because there are no Persian notes of this talk, we know it only via an interpreter, whose words were recorded or later remembered by Edna McKinney, who presumably passed her notes to Howard MacNutt, an editor who in other instances has been shown to have a very free hand in embellishing his texts. In one case I’ve discussed on this blog, he frankly interpolated the text.

The phrase is also attributed to Abdu’l-Baha by Ahmad Sohrab in a diary entry for 23 May 1914, published in Star of the West, Vol. 7 nr. 18, February 7, 1917.

The Bahais must be always on the alert, so that they may not fall into this pit. They must keep the religion of God pure and uncontaminated, a haven of rest for the despondent souls, a safe harbor for the shipwrecked, a divine antidote for the ailing ones, a torch of light for those who are groping in the darkness, and a spiritual democracy for the down trodden and the outcast.(p. 180).

Sohrab kept a diary in Persian, and translated parts and sent them to friends and Bahai magazines, but there is reason to think that he also wrote some recollections in English, some time after the event, and claimed that he had taken the words from his Persian diary, to give them more credibility. I have commented on this previously on this blog. In the same diary report he says that Abdu’l-Baha said “The religion of God is the leveller of all social inequalities and the destroyer of sacerdotal distinctions. In the court of the Almighty there are no offices or positions.” This is the germ of Sohrab’s later rejection of the Guardianship, and refusal to obey the Spiritual Assembly of New York. In the Bahai community there are indeed offices and positions. Moreover Abdu’l-Baha wrote explicitly of the preservation of ranks in society, and the dignity and rights of each: “The justice of God requires the observation of mutual rights, and the divine law proclaims the preservation of reciprocally related ranks.” (The Art of Governance)

Our search for the term “spiritual democracy” has found three unreliable oral sources for the ‘spiritual democracy,’ but it is not yet ended: the term also appears in a letter from Abdu’l-Baha to Miss Beatrice Irwin in London, and translated by Ahmad Sohrab. The paragraph says, in Sohrab’s translation:

My spirit is aflame and burning; my heart is broken, mournful, heavy and despondent; my eyes are weeping and my soul is on fire. Oh! I am so bowed down and sorrowful.

O people! Weep and cry, lament and bemoan your fate. Then hasten ye, hasten ye, perchance ye may become able to extinguish with the water of the new born ideals of spiritual democracy and celestial freedom, this many flamed, world consuming fire, and through your heaven inspired resolution you may usher in the Golden Era of International Solidarity and World Confederation. (translation dated October, 1914, printed in Star of the West Vol. 5, p. 245).

However there is nothing that could be translated “O people!” “spiritual democracy and celestial freedom” or “the Golden Era of International Solidarity and World Confederation” in the tablet, which has been published in Persian. Sohrab has simply made all this up. That section says, in fact:

My soul is burning and melting, my heart, inflamed, is grieving; my eyes are weeping and my liver on fire! Will you [i.e., the various kinds of world leaders previously addressed] then talk and moan and cry rivers, that you may pour water on this many-flamed fire? Nay rather let this world-consuming fire be extinguished by your efforts.

In a number of other places in his translation, Sohrab has embellished and expanded on what Abdu’l-Baha wrote, but in this section he has gone beyond embellishment to interpolation.

Short link:
Related content:
‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’
Bahai lore (tag)


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Houses of Worship in all the lands

Posted by Sen on September 1, 2018

[Revised September 8, 2018]

I have put up a revised draft on the first chapter of my thesis on the Bahai Commonwealth. The topic is not crystal-ball gazing about the future, but rather an examination of the intentions of the community’s founders, by looking at their writings and actions. Chapter 1 is on the House of Worship. I am hoping for feedback please: what is wrong, what is missing, what is redundant? It is a PDF file available here : commonwealth-HoW-181004

Posted in Community, Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, Theology | 10 Comments »

To be a Bahai: the recollections of Wendell Phillips Dodge

Posted by Sen on April 28, 2017

Abdu’l-Baha and a child in Haifa, Israel, courtesy of

When asked on one occasion: “What is a Bahai?” Abdu’l-Baha replied: “To be a Bahai simply means to love all the world; to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.”

These words, often quoted in Bahai literature, are not authentic Bahai scripture, although the source is somewhat reliable. The words are among those supposedly spoken by Abdu’l-Baha on the Cedric as the ship arrived in America on April 11 1912. Read the rest of this entry »

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The consensus of the faithful in Bahai theology

Posted by Sen on March 28, 2017

“…the apparently democratic idea of the consensus of the faithful always ends by according authority to a category of scholars …”

In 1992, a letter on behalf of the Universal House of Justice stated that:

Some people [in the Bahai community] have put forward the thesis that in place of the Guardian’s function of authoritative interpretation, a check on the Universal House of Justice should be set up, either in the form of the general opinion of the mass of the believers, or in the form of a body of learned Baha’is – preferably those with academic qualifications. Read the rest of this entry »

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Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet of Emanuel

Posted by Sen on July 25, 2016

There’s a Tablet translated in Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, selection 29, that begins “O thou who art captivated by the truth …” and in which the eighth paragraph says:

Emmanuel was indeed the Herald of the Second Coming of Christ, and a Summoner to the pathway of the Kingdom. It is evident that the Letter is a member of the Word, and this membership in the Word signifieth that the Letter is dependent for its value on the Word, that is, it deriveth its grace from the Word; it has a spiritual kinship with the Word, and is accounted an integral part of the Word. The Apostles were even as Letters, and Christ was the essence of the Word Itself; and the meaning of the Word, which is grace everlasting, cast a splendour on those Letters. …

It is our hope that thou wilt in this day arise to promote that which Emmanuel foretold. …

Read the rest of this entry »

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“… a body of learned Bahais”

Posted by Sen on July 15, 2015

Ivan Sakhnenko, The Anatomy Lesson
On a facebook group, one Bahai wrote:
Obviously the House of Justice needs someone w/ an appropriate background to explain the Writings to them.” This was in the context of letters that showed the Universal House of Justice’s understanding of Bahai teachings evolving over time. I will give more details below.

I am sure the suggestion was well meant, but I think it is heading in the wrong direction entirely. However first I will have to explain why the suggestion could be made. The ‘problem’ for the Bahais, is that it is clear from doctrine and practical observation that the Universal House of Justice, the head of the Bahai community, does not always understand the Bahai scriptures correctly. If there was a guarantee that it would always be correct, the Guardianship would have been unnecessary. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Guardian and the Governor

Posted by Sen on July 30, 2013

Someone asked a question in the comments to this blog, which is so important I have decided to answer in a new posting. He asks whether a government leader [in Israel] who enrolled in the Bahai community would have had temporal authority over the Guardian, had the line of guardians continued, or would the governor have had to defer to the authority of the Guardian, as the head of the Bahai community? Read the rest of this entry »

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A question answered: Chapter 1 of Some Answered Questions

Posted by Sen on July 14, 2012

One of the participants on the Facebook group Bahais United in Diversity wrote:

I’m afraid I have to point out that Abdu’l-Baha contradicts himself [in the proof of the existence of God, in the first chapter of Some Answered Questions]… First he suggests that “Nature has neither intelligence nor perception.” So God must exist. Then he says that “man is the branch; nature is the root,” and asks “can the will and the intelligence, and the perfections which exist in the branch, be absent in the root?”
So the will and the intelligence and the perception are in nature after all… and God becomes unnecessary to explain order in nature and the emergence of human life.

It’s a sharp observation, but the problem lies in the translation rather than in Abdu’l-Baha’s reasoning. Read the rest of this entry »

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UHJ elucidations

Posted by Sen on March 7, 2011

In a discussion on Talisman9, one friend said that he felt obliged to incorporate any statement made by the Universal House of Justice under the infallible protection of God into his corpus of beliefs, and another said that if the Universal House of Justice makes a certain understanding of doctrine an inherent part of its legislation, he felt obligated to understand and believe that. Does the *UHJ’s power of elucidation imply this? Read the rest of this entry »

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‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’

Posted by Sen on December 16, 2010

I’m not a historian: I’m interested mainly in the timeless task of understanding the Bahai teachings, leaving history to those able, and crystal-ball gazing to those interested. But those who don’t know their history, will repeat mistakes in understanding quite needlessly, so sometimes we need to look back at the history of an idea in the Bahai community, especially where it is a mistaken idea that keeps resurfacing. In this case I am looking at some words attributed to Abdu’l-Baha, Read the rest of this entry »

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Eleven essentials: the Bahai principles as taught by Abdu’l-Baha in London

Posted by Sen on October 27, 2010

Towards the end of his life, Baha’u’llah wrote a number of works that included numbered lists of his teachings. Abdu’l-Baha also wrote several letters that include such numbered lists of essential teachings. Not surprisingly, Abdu’l-Baha sometimes adopted the same format when speaking to gatherings, however the records of these in English are often unreliable. One of these talks – one for which there are authenticated Persian notes (here), not just notes taken in English, caught my attention because it includes “the separation of religion and politics” as a key principle and also refers to this as “not entering into politics” — a formulation that will be more familiar to Bahais. An earlier report of this talk is published in Abdu’l-Baha in London (which incidentally shows that not all talks in that book cannot be authenticated). Naturally that report, based on an interpreter’s words, is more compact than the Persian version which I have translated. Its list of principles differs, Read the rest of this entry »

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Religious law as a symbolic language, in Gate of the Heart

Posted by Sen on September 14, 2010

Continuing with the readings from Nader Saiedi’s Gate of the Heart, I’ve turned to the first of six principles of moral and spiritual action that Saiedi finds in the Persian Bayan. He calls it ‘the mystic character of action.’ Read the rest of this entry »

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Perfection and conservation in Gate of the Heart

Posted by Sen on August 12, 2010

Continuing with the readings from Nader Saiedi’s Gate of the Heart. I’ve selected a section beginning on page 315, where it is headed ‘Perfection and refinement’ — a title that doesn’t do justice to the implications of these concepts for a theology of positive stewardship for the natural world.
Read the rest of this entry »

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Worship as Paradise, in Gate of the Heart

Posted by Sen on July 20, 2010

Continuing a series of postings to give readers a taste of Nader Saiedi’s Gate of the Heart , I’ve chosen a section on pages 248-251 entitled “Worship as Paradise.” Naturally, in the book, Saiedi cites his sources, but if you want those, you will have to buy the book.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Destiny and Freedom in Gate of the Heart

Posted by Sen on July 13, 2010

I’ve been reading Nader Saiedi’s Gate of the Heart and I’m boundlessly enthusiastic. It’s more than a milestone of Bahai Studies: it contains much understanding that will help many of us trying to live the life of Faith – which the Bab, I think, would call the life of the heart. With the author’s permission, I’m going to make paraphrases of some sections, starting with a section on the Bab’s teaching on Destiny on pages 210-216. Read the rest of this entry »

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Abdu’l-Baha on individuality

Posted by Sen on March 23, 2010

Portrait of Abdu'l-Baha in Badayi'u'l-athar

The following talk given by Abdu’l-Baha, on individuality and personality, is of interest both for understanding how he thought about the human person, and for its relevance to individualism in Bahai belief. It is authentic Bahai scripture, albeit in an early translation, because it is translated from Persian notes taken at the time. Abdu’l-Baha’s practice was to check and correct the Persian notes of his talks, so — assuming that was done in this case, which is a safe bet — the text below has the same status as Some Answered Questions and Memorials of the Faithful, which were produced in the same way. The talk was published in Star of the West vol 4, no2, April 9 1913 from page 38. Read the rest of this entry »

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Mary, and Mary, and Mary

Posted by Sen on January 25, 2010

James Tissot, View from the Cross

One of the friends asked about the two, or three, women called Mary in this letter from Abdu’l-Baha:

There is no harm in any affliction which befalleth thee in the love of El-Baha, … Remember the hardships of the disciples, and what Mary, the Virgin; Mary, the Magdalene; and Mary, the mother of Jesus Read the rest of this entry »

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Church and State in Scripture

Posted by Sen on October 6, 2009

cimabue_detailIn a conversation with a friend about the translation of the 8th Ishraq (discussed here), I realised that he thought the whole question of the Bahai teachings on church and state hinged in some way on doubtful matters: on the translation of the Ishraqat, on whether the words “the consummate union and blending of church and state” had been interpolated into a report of Abdu’l-Baha’s words, (See the entry ‘A consummate union’), and such like.

Nothing could be further from the truth: Read the rest of this entry »

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Foundations for inter-faith sharing

Posted by Sen on April 18, 2009

symbols39-starBahais have been frequent participants in inter-faith fora, and like all the participants we need to work out what our basic stance is: are we there to protect our interests and have our say; are we counting the other participants as anonymous Bahais and including them into our project; are we there to show what we have to offer that other religions do not have, and so win converts?
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Conversation with God

Posted by Sen on February 28, 2009

We had a potluck for yummy-ha, with pecan pie. It was followed by imaginative and effective musical devotions: first all learning to sing a simple prayer with variants, and then all humming that tune while some short readings were read slooowly, the spoken phrases matching the musical phrases.

mantisheadSince the potluck took place at the day and home which regularly hosts a Ruhi circle, the devotions flowed straight on to a Ruhi session, Book 1 Chapter 2, on Prayer. The first words of the chapter are “Abdu’l-Baha says that prayer is conversation with God.” No source was given. This part of the Ruhi book raises a lot of questions, and questions are always good.
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1917 and all that

Posted by Sen on February 6, 2009

paperstorm Amended April 3, 2011
The Bahai community has a tendency to get carried away with its enthusiasms for prophecies that supposedly give an insight into the immediate future. I’ve discussed one of these in Century’s end, about the expectation that “unity of nations” would be achieved by the year 2000. The story this time goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the Bahais were waiting for cataclysms to strike in 1917, followed by a world at peace in which “all nations shall be as one faith.”
Read the rest of this entry »

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House of Justice, House of Worship

Posted by Sen on January 21, 2009

wilmette1hoj-pillarsNow concerning nature, it is but the essential properties and the necessary relations inherent in the realities of things. And though these infinite realities are diverse in their character yet they are in the utmost harmony and closely connected together. As one’s vision is broadened and the matter observed carefully, it will be made certain that every reality is but an essential requisite of other realities. Thus to connect and harmonize these diverse and infinite realities an all-unifying Power is necessary, that every part of existent being may in perfect order discharge its own function.
(Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, pages 20-21)

In a letter dated 7 April 1999 the Universal House of Justice warns among other things of an “attempt to suggest that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar should evolve into a seat of quasidoctrinal authority, parallel to and essentially independent of the Local House of Justice.” Although I am not aware that this idea has ever been put forward in the English-speaking Bahai world, the letter may be taken as evidence that it has or may emerge somewhere. So it seems a good idea to consider the relationship between the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar or House of Worship and the Houses of Justice (i.e., the Bahai administrative institutions, which at the local and national level are now known as Spiritual Assemblies). To understand the institutional relations at the core of the organic Bahai community, we will also have to include the guardianship.
Read the rest of this entry »

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Century of light

Posted by Sen on January 15, 2009

BahaIn Century’s end, I showed that Bahais of my generation widely expected universal peace to arrive in the twentieth century. Some of the texts on which this belief was based did not refer to the twentieth century; others did refer to the twentieth century or dates in the 20th century, but were pilgrims’ notes. There may be more, but I have found five such unauthentic sources:

onecandle– The Maxwell’s pilgrim’s notes, anticipating the Lesser Peace by 1953.
– Esselmont’s pilgrim’s notes, in the first edition of Baha’u’llah and the New Era, anticipating universal peace by 1957. As Dan Jensen has pointed out, the 1950 edition changed the date to 1963, but it is still just a pilgrim’s note, and universal peace was also not achieved in 1963.
Sarah Kenny’s Haifa notes anticipating the Lesser Peace in the 20th century.
– A report in the Montreal Star on September 11, 1912, printed in Abdu’l-Baha in Canada p. 35, saying that peace would be universal in the 20th century.
– A talk reported in The Promulgation of Universal Peace page 126, and in Star of the West 3.8.14, calling the twentieth century the century of international peace.
Read the rest of this entry »

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Century’s end – my two cents

Posted by Sen on January 12, 2009

spinningtopWhen I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Corinthians 13:11

The word ‘century’ appears unproblematic: a period of a hundred years, which in common usage begins with the year 00 (although sticklers will insist that the century begins in the year 01, so that the 21st century began on 1 January 2001). But in reading the Bahai texts, things are not so simple. In this post I want to look at the peculiar significance Bahais have mistakenly attached to the 20th century and what can be learned from the whole affair; in the next posting I will look at what the Bahai writings really say about the ‘century’ (not the 20th century).
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The future of religions

Posted by Sen on January 5, 2009

One of the friends asked:

What is the ideal future envisioned in Baha’i religion? Is it a global order in which the world is composed of many diverse religions, each tolerant of one another, and the Baha’i just one amongst many? Or would the Baha’i be the organizing principle?

Read the rest of this entry »

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He cannot override …

Posted by Sen on December 30, 2008

wobIn Shoghi Effendi’s 1934 letter ‘The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah,’ there’s a well-known paragraph in which he says that “the Guardian of the Faith has been made the Interpreter of the Word and that the Universal House of Justice has been invested with the function of legislating …”. I want to look at the paragraph after that, which deals with the fact that the Guardian is a member of the House of Justice; so that while the spheres of the two institutions are distinct, their memberships overlap. How would that work, with the Guardian or his representative in the room, while the House of Justice was making its decisions?
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The knower as servant (response to Paul Lample)

Posted by Sen on October 20, 2008

I’ve been reading Paul Lample’s “Learning and the Evolution of the Bahá’í Community.” From page 15, he presents various possible roles for the “learned Bahai” in the Bahai community, saying among other things that learned Baha’i is not an “artist”, and concluding “Perhaps the learned Baha’i is more like the ‘scout’ who helps to guide an expedition on a journey into unexplored territory.” I found it striking that he did not mention the possibility that the learned Bahai could be a servant, someone who uses knowledge to minister to the faithful.
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What is theology, and what’s it good for ?

Posted by Sen on October 1, 2008

On my web site, I’ve put up my part of two discussion threads about theology, and how the Bahai community can face the fact that some people know more than others, on particular topics, but without replicating the structures of past religions in which greater knowledge often translates into greater authority. Read the rest of this entry »

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