Khan to convention, precis
Peter Khan speaks at the US Bahai convention, 2010
The audio file is at the USBNC site. There’s a precis below.
Some points of interest (my precis of the precis):
He appears to be preparing the friends for some major change to be introduced by the Universal House of Justice (see the last sentence). But perhaps he just wants the Bahais to accept the changes that have already occurred.
Church and state: he warns “We will face misrepresentation [20min] outside the Bahai community by sceptics who will accuse us of creating an organisation seeking political domination on a world scale …
He acknowledges the fall-off in participation by devoted Bahais, and says it is troubling [31min]
He distinguishes between “strategic applications of Shoghi Effendi” and his “enduring interpretations” – ie we will not be following every letter of Shoghi Effendi indefinitely. [46 mins]
Critique of Schaeffer’s thesis re infallibility
The threat of priesthood arising comes not from people seeking power, but from a tendency to cast individuals in a priestly role, even believers who would shrink from the thought themselves.
Related: Peter Khan’s discussion of the 2009 Ridvan message.
This is a precis, not an accurate transcription. The talk is 73 minutes long. The points of interest mentioned above are marked with **
Dear Friends, it’s a great pleasure for me to be here tonight and to be able to address you on a subject as fascinating to me as the issue of balancing constancy and change. .. As many of you are well aware, the interplay between constancy and change has been a major issue in each of the religions of the world in recorded history. It has been at one and the same time a source of strength to a growing religion and a source of fatal weakness to each of the great religions of the world, of the dispensations of the past. Each religion has at some point in its development had to confront: where should be the balance between constancy and change? Their failure to adequately address this issue has led to their decline. Today at this stage in the early years of the Bahai dispensation we now face that challenge. Conditions have developed, we have progressed through the heroic age of the Faith, we are now into the formative age of the Cause, and the question of how to find the correct balance between constancy and change confronts us. And it is this issue that I wish to address tonight.
[2min] Let me begin by illustrating the issue through a very brief reference to some of the characteristics of the world condition, and then the Bahai response to them. … First, for many, religion is irrelevant to practical life, because the religions they know were designed for a past world. Second: moral inversion, ie improper behaviour becomes normal and appropriate. Adherence to principle irrespective of consequences is regarded as odd, improperly rigid.
5min: Computer technology has bestowed undreamt-of advantages but brought with it some side effects: inexperience in studying texts that require repeated reading to be understood – people find only short texts palatable – so how can people be socialised to study and contemplate…
7min: devaluation and decrease in capacity for real life interactions with friends and strangers, because of cell phones etc…
9min: Abject failure of collective decision-making and governance throughout the world; inability to resolve conflicting views and approaches. Resolution is by force or by further division of countries into smaller fractions. Decline in respect for authority. Every time an authority figure announces a decision there is a reaction of disagreement
Conventional democracy has problems that make its survival questionable: manipulation of elections, excessive power of media interests; tyranny of the majority, alienation of the electorate.
11:30: Development of a pervasive sense of insecurity, no confidence in the future leading to extremism and polarisation, eg in 2-party systems. Societies become vulnerable to demagoguery. Simplistic solutions.
13min: Three consequences
First – Opportunities to attract people to the Cause. [14min] Core activities of the plan appropriate to address these issues.
Second – members of the Bahai community are suspect [sic] to a certain degree of influence by these influences. Tend to divorce religion from daily lives, to see the world as a matter of material forces, to some extent alienation from institutions and question their authority. [16min]
Third, vital necessity for administrators of the Cause to pay attention to community development strategies that meet the needs and opportunities of the present world. As the UHJ pointed out in the Ridvan message, we need a new culture, leading to a new civilization.
All of this requires us to look at the question of change. The transformation of spiritual values is necessary but not sufficient, we also need a systemic change in human organisation and modes of governance; a radically different culture. The creation of a new system of human organisation is a vast and difficult task, requiring the energies of millions of Bahais for centuries to come. We can lay its foundations today, confident in eventual fruition.
19min: We must recognise it will not be easy. Some believers — of devotion and integrity – some believers will at certain times misunderstand the necessary focus on organisational issues and functioning. And they will from time to time accuse us of having abandoned spirituality in pursuit of organisation. It’s inevitable. Spirituality to a lot of people has a very narrow definition, a definition that we would associate with other-worldliness, impracticality or a lack of focus on concrete issues. This is a false definition but it is often the one given. We will be required to focus on organisation; our organisation will become increasingly complex, as the number of Bahais grows and as the reach of the Faith extends deeper into society and one of the hazards we will face will be that of the disillusion of believers whose image of what a religion should be differs from ours.
**We will face at various points in the future misrepresentation [20min] outside the Bahai community by sceptics who will accuse us of creating an organisation seeking political domination on a world scale. As they view the extensive development of the world order, as they view the degree of discipline, the capacity for concerted and unified action transcending national borders, it is inevitable that in the future we will be subject to misunderstanding, misrepresentation, false accusation of a political nature.
Be that as it may, we must go ahead. The development of the World Order of Baha’u’llah must require, as it proceeds, changes in strategies and approaches. And this in many ways is the one point to be made of this talk. If I were kinder I would stop at this point, I’ve made my point. [22:30] The central issue is that one must expect that the Cause will adopt different strategies and approaches as it deals with a variety of circumstances appropriate to the growth of world order. Some of these will be similar to strategies described by Shoghi Effendi and some of them will be different and some of them will be radically different. And believers who confuse constancy with change will be worried that we are forsaking the interpretations of Shoghi Effendi when in fact all we are doing is changing some of the strategies of that master strategist that was Shoghi Effendi.
We can to a certain extent draw lessons from the experience of the Bahai community during its 160 or 170 years of existence of how it has dealt with significant change at various points in that history. With the end of the heroic age and the inauguration of the ministry of Shoghi Effendi there was significant and indeed dramatic [24min] change. Things that were very cherished by a number of believers were discarded. New practices were introduced by Shoghi Effendi in those early years of his ministry. This has proceeded during the ministry of Shoghi Effendi, during the interregnum and now during the ministry of the Universal House of Justice.
The mass of the believers faithfully if indeed doggedly have followed the instructions given to them by the World Centre. Some resisted change introduced by Shoghi Effendi and later by the Head of the Faith, some resisted change by strengthening their veneration of the practices of the early days of the religion. They took refuge in a return to the religious practices of what you might call sociologically the primitive age of religion because therein lay security, insulation from the forces of change. It’s a bit like what happens in present-day Christianity where there is a return to the Amish way of life as a way of resisting the destructive effects of modernity on Christian practice. Others welcomed the commitment [26min] of part of the Faith to change, say the measures introduced in the early years of the Formative Age. They saw it as giving a signal to them to propose radical change. They became extremists at the other end of the spectrum. They said, now is our chance to adapt this religion to make it more attractive to society, to abandon the discipline of the past, discard its fundamental principles, and make it grow rapidly. Firouz Kazemzadeh told a story …
[27min30] .. Some have returned to early practices of a different condition of the Cause in the hope of finding security while others have taken it as a signal to promote radical change which if it were accepted would undermine the very foundation of the Faith. These are tendencies in the Bahai community at every time of change…
28min: What protects us [from repeating history] is the uniqueness of the Covenant. Divisions not recurring. Nevertheless within the safety net of the Covenant we do find today – with the changes occurring since 1996 when the UHJ first called us to embark on this condition of advancing the process of Entry By Troops – we do have certain forms of reaction of believers troubled by what the UHJ has said and done. There is for example signs of reversion to earlier cultural practices. Takes various forms, eg where a believer says I quit involvement in the community I’m going to go home say my prayers observe the fast… and let the rest of you go of in this novel direction.” There is the resurgence in some quarters of a disdain for the Administrative Order as a post-apostolic age addition to the Faith rather than the unfolding of the powers of the organic unity that is the body of the Cause. There arise a few extreme and radical voices saying “The UHJ is wonderful it has made this change but this just the beginning. I can tell you what we really need to change…” – and then follows what makes one cringe. **Perhaps most troubling is that with this condition of change since 1996 there has come the distress of a small but significant number of devoted believers who have served the Cause with distinction and fidelity for many generations and who feel forsaken abandoned by present-day strategies and have not left the Cause – they will die as faithful believers – but they have become passive and deeply disappointed. Disillusioned. Apprehensive about where the Cause is going or even alienated. [31min] In more cynical moments I have characterised their reaction as that of the forsaken love, who find that the object of his affections has proven not to be as he had hoped. What is the solution to this situation? My view is that the solution is that of re-examining what it is that is constant in our religion and what is subject to change [32min] I want to propose such a model to you tonight. I suggest that the way forward … is to adhere to with unswerving devotion to those things that are constant and to those elements that are subject to change.
Firstly what is constant? … for the entire course of the dispensation? First, unwavering belief in the Manifestation and commitment to the work of the Cause. [33min] Easy to say – how difficult to maintain belief through the decades of Bahai community life with inevitable tests, that come from some of the teachings, tests from the pressures of non-bahai relatives etc.. and tests from tensions of local Bahai community life. How difficult it is to resist the seeds of doubt that can be sown either consciously or inadvertently by others who are conscious that 20th century history is marked by megalomaniac individuals with exalted claims.
A second constant element requiring constancy of us is adherence to the provisions of the Covenant and continuing effort to internalise the Covenant to explore its practical implications and support its institution. Easy to say [35min]. How difficult it is when the institutions of the Cause make decisions with which we disagree – when distant institutions whose members we do not know, make decisions that affect our lives. How difficult it is to be constant to the Covenant in the present day atmosphere of individualism and suspicion of authority. How strange it must seem to non-bahai that we are prepared to commit ourselves to a body in distant Haifa that we don’t know, have never met, we have no way of assessing the character of the individual members of the UHJ, but we say whatever they may say we will follow. How different that is from present-day society.
Another requirement is constancy of effort to practice the virtues of the Faith. How difficult to stand for the laws of the Faith that are unpopular that are an apparent vestige of 19th cent mid-victorian narrowness. How difficult to survive peer pressure, for children and youth in schools to resist the temptations their peers are succumbing to. But these are the requirements of constancy.
One more point of constancy – to strive to develop a spiritual outlook on life with an awareness of spiritual forces and their effect. The Writings — [Abdu’l-Baha’s tablet to Forel] discloses a model of the universe subject to spiritual forces which have a determining role in the course of human affairs. Shoghi Effendi in the World Order letters referring to “forces released …” .. mysterious statements about spiritual forces. E.g., in Advent of Divine Justice that refers to “the American nation and people subject for forces … ” [39min]
Now the changing aspects. [39:30] Difficulty, challenge to highly devoted believers. One of the things subject to change is the application of the Laws of the Faith. … another aspect subject to change is [41:30] is the external reach of the Faith. Destined to become far more deeply involved in the life of society than occurs with any religion of past dispensation. It will become far more deeply involved in the social and economic life, influencing thought and discourse .. [42:30] because we are not simply spreading a religion we are building a world order, which as the name suggests is an ordering of the condition and operation of humanity.  We will be challenged to redefine our concept of religious practice to include this broader and deeper involvement in society. One of the changing elements are its teaching plans and strategies. Our aim is ultimately to embrace the whole of human society and to build a strong foundation into which there can enter millions, tens of millions hundreds of millions of people as humanity gathers into the shelter of the World Order of Baha’u’llah.
The strategies used in days gone by .. [44:30] will change. There is an internal dynamic which is forcing us forward to meet our destiny. That dynamic compels us to change, which requires altered strategies and new strategies. Inevitably there will be people who will draw a letter of 1925 from Shoghi Effendi and say “look the Guardian said that and you ignorant people are doing this” And we will look at this and say, ‘you’re right it does contradict but we make no apology for that it’s a different condition of society. It may lead to a heated exchange, accusation of meddling with the interpretations of the Guardian. its not interpretation, it’s strategic applications of the principles. **The strategic applications of Shoghi Effendi are quite different to the enduring interpretations of SE which remain valid for the entire course of the dispensation.
 One other element of change .. is that the Universal House of Justice as head of the Faith will introduce administrative practices and **will create new institutions. Why do we need them? Regional assemblies, clusters, [47min] coordinators and animators etc… what is its legitimacy. Its authority lies in the remarkable power invested in the Head of the Faith, the Universal House of Justice. So we must become adjusted to the fact of changes in administrative practices, new institutions. A few years ago the Research Department made a compilation of the statements of the Guardian that certain administrative practices were provisional. .. [48:30] Much of what we take for granted … is subject to change.  The Cause has within it the necessity to change if it is to fulfill its destiny. If we are to remain involved in the work of the Faith we must find a balance between constancy and change. There is no other way… but unwavering adherence to the guidance of the Universal House of Justice.  (applause)
As you realise the UHJ is unique in religious history … promise of guidance to be free from error, and hence, infallible. This is an astonishing claim. .. [51:30] that body … whatever decision it makes either unanimously or by majority represent the Will of God. When it becomes apparent to the generality of people it will arouse derision suspicion anger distress in many quarters. It is a gigantic claim. It will become one of the distinguishing features of the Bahai Faith, a source of a lot of criticism as well as an emblem of its magnitude and greatness… [52:30] Another element of uniqueness of the UHJ is its being endowed with a specific commitment to make change. This is an institution that has change built into it, in its very fibre .. it is charged with making change. It has the right to make decisions within the specified parameters, that are equally binding as the laws of Baha’u’llah and to change its rulings. 
The magnitude of the authority and functions of the UHJ will naturally give rise to challenges to that authority, **often from devoted and well-meaning believers – not from malicious [persons] in all cases. Good believers, well-meaning, believers of great devotion to the Cause, and sometimes from the sceptical and sometimes from the downright malicious. Let me mention to you my own personal list of some of these challenges that I observe in the years of my service on the House of Justice – I do this without a skerrig of authority. One challenge arise from the well-meaning view that the UHJ is essentially an international assembly. We have local assemblies and NSA and now we have an international Assembly.  … It seems plausible and it makes for a satisfying symmetry, but it’s not true. It is not an international assembly, it is not a body that is basically like a board of directors of a multinational corporation .. if it was, one could make a good estimate of its decisions by studying the individual members. .. 
Another challenge to the authority of the UHJ arises from well-meaning and well-intentioned attempts to restrict its authority. For example **one school of thought has said that the UHJ is infallible but only when legislating, and it has legislated 7 or 8 or 9 times over the 47 years of its existence. I can tell you categorically this is not correct. I can be categorical because the UHJ has said that this is not so, drawing attention to the sweeping nature of the powers conferred on the UHJ in the 8th Ishraq and the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha and in other places. Its promise of infallible guidance is not only when it is legislating, although it has that unique function.
More subtly is the view that the House of Justice can make mistakes [59:30] because it needs information … so if given incorrect information it will make a wrong decision. That’s logically wrong. The House of Justice at times is given information which turns out to be incorrect, that does not mean it makes an incorrect decision. .. [1.01] its infallibility is not dependent on the provision of correct information. That would be an escape clause to disregard any decision of the UHJ by labelling it as based on incorrect information. This doesn’t apply. The UHJ is guided according to what Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha have stated.
More subtle distortions of the operation of the UHJ also occur. Again, often by well-meaning believers. One of these is the tendency to ascribe statements to the House of Justice without written documentary evidence. [1.02] If I said the UHJ decided so and so – you would say OK Peter Khan said it, it must be right. Heaven help us from such a view. Matters of religious authority are too crucial to be dependent on good feeling toward the interlocutor – they depend on unimpeachable evidence. i.e., in writing. We need to find a polite way of asking for evidence of authority. [1.05]
There is also – again in terms of tendencies to erode the authority of the Universal House of Justice – there is the tendency to adopt an authoritative perspective simply through the force of one’s eloquence or the loudness of one’s voice or the dogmatic nature of one’s statements or even the size of one’s physical presence. **It is to my mind both interesting and challenging to read, in the history of religions, how priesthoods arose in past dispensations. It wasn’t always someone drunk with the desire for power [1.06] who seized authority and proclaimed himself a priest. It is something that often arose gradually over a period of generations, as individuals became more and more authoritative. If you look at the evolution of the stature of the Bishop of Rome ultimately to the Papacy one sees and example of this, and one sees similar examples in Islam where there was no priesthood but it gradually crept in. This doesn’t mean we have people around who want to be priests, but it does mean that there’s a human tendency on the part of a devoted religious community to cast individuals in a priestly role, either due to their longevity – they’ve been around forever – or their formal academic qualifications, their charisma, or the fact that so many people hang upon their every word. And this quasi-priestly authority, often given to believers who would shrink from the thought themselves, is a gradual erosion of the authority of the House of Justice. It will not occur. We won’t have priests. It’s not going to happen. The Covenant will protect us, but we can make life a little easier, avoid the shedding of blood to a greater extent, if we do not, if we control our tendency, to endow quasi-priestly authority on capable knowledgeable individuals.
Getting to the end of my talk, there are
[1.08] at the farthest end of the spectrum apparently malicious attempts to create doubt in the minds of the believers about … by spurious stories about the House of Justice. For example one of the stories that has circulated on the internet which I suspect many of you have seen is the fact that 2 members recently were forced to resign because of disagreement with the other members. Some of you may have seen this some of you probably haven’t. The oddest thing in the world. We sat in the council chamber and were stunned by it. [1.09] It had not even a whisper of truth in it. It was ridiculous. That spurious story astonished us. The authority of the House of Justice rests upon the statements in the Writings. It does not rest upon anything I say. But I can say to you that I have never seen a body as unified as the House of Justice. Never in my wildest dreams – have I seen this. Sometimes – rare occasions I must admit – the House of Justice finishes its agenda before 5.30 pm. Like, 4.50 or 4.55, 5pm. And when that occurs which is rare I notice the members just sit back and chat with each other. We don’t want to leave each other. There’s nothing, the agenda’s done, we can go and there’s a horrible amount of stuff on the desk for you to deal with, nevertheless we just enjoy each-other’s company. Enjoy the pleasure of associating with each other. The level of unity is something I’ve never before seen.
There will no doubt be other ingenious attempts to weaken the image of the believers in the authority of the House of Justice. Some will be well-meaning, some will be from very well-intentioned believers, some will be from malicious people, some will be deliberate attempts to subvert the foundation of the Cause. All will fail because of the power of the Covenant.
[1.10:30] Through our adherence, our unwavering unqualified total commitment, to follow where the House of Justice leads without qualification without question without any reservation at all, we will succeed in preserving the balance between constancy and change and will be led through this difficult time of turbulence and unrest and disorder in the world.
I want to conclude by reading to you a passage from the Writings of the Guardian, and it’s a passage the Guardian wrote some 80 years ago, in the early years of his ministry, with the vast amount of work ahead of him to raise up local assemblies, to bring into being national assemblies, ultimately to give rise to the conditions favourable to the creation of the Universal House of Justice. At that time, in the early 1930’s, Shoghi Effendi looked ahead and he said, when that body comes into being, this is what it will be like. “Through it the pillars of the Faith on this earth will be firmly established and its hidden powers be revealed, its signs shine forth, its banners be unfurled and its light be shed upon all peoples. Then will all our cherished hopes and aspirations be realised. The tree of our endeavours bear fruit. The Will and Testament and our beloved be fully and firmly established, and the hidden powers of the Cause of our Lord and God be fully manifested.” And the Guardian’s words written 80 years ago concerning the House of Justice, concerning what will happen when it comes into being, those words conclude with this sentence. “Then will be unveiled before our eyes the inauguration of an era the like of which has never been witnessed in past ages.”
It is in this sense that we are called on to follow unswervingly, unhesitatingly, with no reservations whatsoever, the guidance of the Universal House of Justice wherever it leads us. Thank you.
[The final quote is from a statement presented in this way in Bahai World vol. 14 p 438: it is in fact a composite from two different statements of Shoghi Effendi in Arabic, written in 1929 and 1932, both addressed to the Bahais of Iran.]
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