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                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Just like the Catholics?

This appeared in a thread entitled “Bahai is an example of good religion” in November 2008, on the Richard Dawkins forum. One of those not convinced that Bahai is an example of good religion wrote:

Honestly, reading the UHJs response [on Church and State, 27 April 1995] gives me cold shivers down my democratic spine, and it’s the ultimate infallible position of the Bahais. But everyone can read it themselves, without engaging in scriptual interpretations or quotes. Just like the Catholics, questions of faith are ultimately and infallibly answered by the UHJ.

My response:

Actually no – not for knowledgeable Bahais at least. The Bahai “church” is very unusual, perhaps unique, in that it has 3 separate institutions: the scriptures and the Guardianship are the authority on doctrinal matters, the UHJ is the executive authority that says ‘what is to be done’ (including making and applying laws and judging cases), and the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar is the institution of worship and liturgy etc. This is as important a step forward in religious community structures (ecclesiology) as the distinction between judicial, legislative and executive functions was in the evolution of civil government.

For example, the Anglicans have to (or feel they have to) split as a communion, that is, as a worshiping community, because in Christian churches the functions of administration, doctrine and liturgy are all embodied in one membership. A split on doctrine or administration leads to a split in the worshiping community, which is supposed to be the body of Christ. A difference about the correct or preferred form of service leads to a split in administration, because “membership” in the Christian churches is conceived as one thing – how could people who do not worship together be in the same church?

The dynamics in the Bahai community are completely different, because these three functions are separated in the House of Justice, Guardianship, and House of Worship (Mashriq). That means that a difference about an administrative issue, such as the recognition or not of a gay marriage, does not have to lead to a split in the communion, in the worshiping community. Like a good building, the Bahai community is designed with fire-walls.

This design means that the opinions of the UHJ about the meaning of the Bahai scriptures are just opinions. The UHJ does not have the function of interpreting scripture: if they started to say what Bahai doctrine is, they would be standing in the shoes of the Guardian, which is a big no-no.

Another reason for not treating the UHJ’s letters as statements of Bahai teachings, is that the opinions of the UHJ change from time to time, depending on the degree of knowledge and understanding of the members. The UHJ’s 1995 letter is not typical of all it has said on church-and-state. When the issue has come to the point where the UHJ has had to decide ‘what is to be done’, it has always decided in favour of preserving the distinction between Bahai institutions and civil government. There’s a letter written on behalf of the UHJ which refers back to several such decisions, taken in cases were most or all of the population in a place had become Bahais:

“It is clear that while Local Spiritual Assemblies must supervise all Bahá’í matters in their areas, …., they and the friends themselves must at the same time be good citizens and loyal to the civil government, whether it be a Tribal Council, a Cacique or a municipal authority.

“In another national community where the number of believers had increased to the point where the population of some villages had become 100% or almost 100% Bahá’í, the House of Justice upheld the above principle and stated that in each such village while they should elect the Local Spiritual Assembly, they should continue to elect the Local Council as required by the Government, and the function of those two bodies should be kept distant, even if there memberships were identical.”

(From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of Brazil, April 13, 1983)

This is also what the Bahai scriptures require: Shoghi Effendi for instance wrote:

Theirs [the Bahais] is not the purpose, while endeavoring to conduct and perfect the administrative affairs of their Faith, to violate, under any circumstances, the provisions of their country’s constitution, much less to allow the machinery of their administration to supersede the government of their respective countries.
(The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 66)

and Abdu’l-Baha had told the Bahais to call their Houses of Justice “Spiritual Assemblies” precisely because he did not want any misunderstanding on this point:

The signature of that meeting should be the Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality) and the wisdom therein is that hereafter the government should not infer from the term “House of Justice” that a court is signified, that it is connected with political affairs, or that at any time it will interfere with governmental affairs.

Hereafter, enemies will be many. They would use this subject as a cause for disturbing the mind of the government and confusing the thoughts of the public. The intention was to make known that by the term Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality), that Gathering has not the least connection with material matters, and that its whole aim and consultation is confined to matters connected with spiritual affairs. This was also instructed (performed) in all Persia
(Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v1, p. 5)

Their views did not prevail in the Bahai community in the 20th century, but precisely because they are scriptural they will in the long run outweigh the more ephemeral Bahai secondary literature, most of which has taken a theocratic stance in which the Bahai institutions become a Tribunal, or supersede the government of the city or country. This is a familiar story: when a thinker comes along who is as innovative as Baha’u’llah, it takes a generation or four for his thinking to penetrate. Most people at first don’t hear what he’s saying, but rather what they expect to hear.

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