Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Method and focus in my Church and State

One of the friends wrote, with respect to my book Church and State:

> to write a book which
> states that “the Baha’i fundamental texts state that future Baha’i
> institutions will have this form” would be an implicit challenge to the
> capacity of the House to direct change.

Ah, but that is not what I have said. What I say is that the Bahai
teachings *already have* a certain form, they say quite explicitly
that the separation of church and state is a Bahai principle, that
the machinery of Bahai administration must not be allowed to replace the
government, etc. etc,

… but there is no claim by me or anyone else I think that the Bahai
institutions will in the future conform to those explicit teachings. On
the contrary, the scriptures, and Shoghi Effendi’s interpretations of
scripture, give the House of Justice the right to make enactments that
“conflict with the meaning and … depart from the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh’s
revealed utterances.” (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p.

This means that a better understanding of the meaning and spirit of
Baha’u’llah’s words, by the believers or by the members of the UHJ,
does not reduce the scope of action of the House of Justice at all.
Its decisions determine “what is to be done” in a contingent world,
where the ideal can never be completely realised. If the decisions of the
UHJ did have to be in line with the teachings, it would be in an
impossible position in practice.

The most we can hope for is that the decisions of the UHJ will,
circumstances permitting, progressively approximate to the Bahai
teachings, and that the trajectory laid out in this progressive
approximation will be one appropriate to the community and the world at
each stage

I hope that. I don’t do prognostications about what will happen in
the future, but I hope it

More on the passage in WOB page 150 mentioned above at


Another of the friends then noted that I do not speak against the House (of Justice) in my book, “you entirely ignore it, and do not quote from its guidance.” The guidance mentioned here is a letter the UHJ wrote to me in 1995. I responded:

I do warn the reader on page 2 of Church and State that I am looking inward to what the Bahai scriptures say, not forward to how they might be applied: “As a theologian rather than a political scientist I am interested in principles rather than political mechanisms or history, and particularly in how those principles relate to the nature of the Kingdom and ultimately to the nature of God. Topical applications of these principles are a separate question. ..”

The reasons why the UHJ cannot be used as a source of Bahai theology are not covered in the book: it could not be done briefly because it has to start by explaining the concept of the Covenant and then the Will and Testament, then Shoghi Effendi’s explanations of the two spheres of the Guardian and the House of Justice, in ‘the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah’ — and the upshot of all these words would be that the UHJ cannot be used as a source for Bahai theology. I am planning a second volume on Covenant and Commonwealth that will start precisely with the Covenant and will deal with the separation of the doctrinal, liturgical and administrative spheres.

It’s not a question of agreeing with a UHJ letter or not. There are earlier letters from the UHJ which say emphatically that the local assembly and the local government are separate institutions and must be kept that way, even if they should have the same memberships. I do not quote those letters that support my thesis either. The point is more fundamental than the differences between the UHJ’s guidance at different times. It is this: the Covenant stipulates legitimate sources for Bahai teachings, they are the authentic writings of the Bab, Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. Bahai theology (as distinct from the academic study of the Bahai Faith or Bahai community) has to start with the Covenant. The Covenant is our hermeneutic framework, it tells us what we can read from which texts, what uses are legitimate and which are illegitimate.

For those who do not understand this aspect of the Covenant, it is no shame to use letters from the UHJ in a way that is strictly speaking illegitimate. But once understood, it would be unconscionable to pick out a UHJ letter that agrees with what we say to bolster our argument. That is, in effect, to shove the UHJ into the shoes of the Guardian, when it suits.

I am somewhat at a loss to understand your next argument [that when Shoghi Effendi envisions the possibility that the UHJ’s enactments may “conflict with the meaning” and “depart from the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh’s revealed utterances” he is describing not all decisions of the House of Justice, only those when it is enacting legislation on subsidiary matters where the Text is silent.]

This argument seems to be saying that while the UHJ may *legislate* in a way that is not in accordance with the Bahai teachings, when it is not legislating it has perfect insight into the Bahai teachings! That is, that it is fallible when legislating but infallible when not legislating. But if that were so, the UHJ would be able to ensure all its legislation was in perfect accordance with Bahai teachings simply by not legislating before lunch, leaving some notes on the table giving itself guidance, and then coming back after lunch to legislate, following its own guidance. Your suggestion also has no scriptural foundation.

Our friend continued
> Turning now to the letter which the House of Justice addressed to you [in 1995],
> … The House is not enacting anything new; it is presenting, in logical form, the guidance
> previously enunciated by Shoghi Effendi …

Well exactly, it is not enacting anything new, it is presenting some of the guidance already given us by Shoghi Effendi, Abdu’l-Baha and Baha’u’llah. Those sources by and large are available in their original contexts, for example in the writings of Shoghi Effendi. So why would I cite a citation rather than the primary source? If I wanted to cite “Render unto Caesar” I would cite Matthew 22:21 as the source, not Matthew Henry – even if I had in fact used Matthew Henry’s commentary to locate the verse or to understand its significance. It’s a general rule in scholarship in all fields: track back and cite the *original source* wherever possible. Where I do cite the UHJ’s 1995 letter to me (eg in Church and State page 50, 243) it is in reference to some item of information not available in Shoghi Effendi’s published works.

There are only two texts from Shoghi Effendi that I can think of, in the 1995 letter to me, for which the source is not published. In that case my procedure is to cite the 1995 letter as the intermediate source, like this:

A letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi in 1939 says:

“The Bahais will be called upon to assume the reins of government when they will come to constitute the majority of the population in a given country, and even then their participation in political affairs is bound to be limited in scope unless they obtain a similar majority in some other countries as well.”
(Cited in UHJ letter 27 April 1995, ‘Separation of Church and State’)

( : this quote is not used in Church and state, it belongs in a hoped-for third volume, on Bahai teachings on politics. )

As far as I know, this is the correct citation procedure: going back to the primary sources wherever possible, however useful secondary sources may have been.

> The letter the House wrote to you is the setting
> in which the gems of Shoghi Effendi’s guidance are placed. It appears
> to me that your logic is, that since the guidance in the letter from
> the House to you was developed without the benefit of the presence of
> the Guardian; therefore its statements on church and state may
> conflict with the meaning and the spirit of the Teachings.

Not at all: never said that, never implied it, don’t believe it. The separation of the spheres of doctrine and legislation existed when Shoghi Effendi was alive, since he defined it: it is not something created by his absence.

> your sweeping dismissal of the guidance of Shoghi
> Effendi in that letter,

Wherever did I do that! Honest to God, you amaze me. I quote Shoghi Effendi as the source and authority on Bahai doctrine all the time, in all my writing. In Church and State, pages 230 -244 are about church and state in the writings of Shoghi Effendi, and there are many more references scattered through the book. Just look at the index under ‘Shoghi Effendi” or use the index of scriptural sources used on page 436, which notes that I have used the following:

‘The Administrative Order’: general 173, 241; (see further World Order of Baha’u’llah 143-157)
Arohanui: 47 350, 51 350
Baha’i Administration: 84 218, 231; 147 3, 231, 256, 353; 185 19
Citadel of Faith: 31-2 232; 32-3 233
Directives from the Guardian 78-9 240
‘The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah’: general 173, 241 (see further The World Order of Baha’u’llah 97-157)
God Passes By (1974 edition): xv 321; 43 81; 114 89; 211 172, 173; 239 188; 326-7 242
Messages to America 96-7 248
Messages to the Baha’i World 8 252; 155 237, 332
The Promised Day is Come: 70 242; 71 281; 72 358
Unfolding Destiny: 76 256; 90 227; 98 227; 208 227; 426 3, 81, 150, 231,353
‘Unfoldment of World Civilization’: general 234 (see further The World Order of Baha’u’llah 161-206)
The World Order of Baha’u’llah (the book, not the essay) general 282; 4-5 228; 6 312; 7 236, 322, 327, 345; 16 313; 41 231; 66 231, 240, 243,247, 280, 309, 331; 150 249, 301, 311; 152 241; 153 242; 163 339; 192 234; 202-4 234, 235, 310
‘The World Order of Baha’u’llah’ (essay) see The World Order of Baha’u’llah 3-12.

The first number in each pair is the page number in the source, the second and subsequent ones separated by commas are the page number(s) in Church and State. For example, the first quote from Shoghi Effendi used in the UHJ’s 1995 letter to me is from Directives 78-9. From the list above you can see it is cited in Church and state page 240 (a discussion follows). The second quote used in the 1995 letter to me is WOB p 66, the list shows it is cited or discussed in Church and State pages 231, 240, 243,247, 280, 309, 331, and so on.

A “sweeping dismissal of the guidance of Shoghi Effendi in that letter” ?? Of all the baseless things that have been said about my book, that absolutely takes the cake.


Related content:
Compilation on the learned
What is theology, and what’s it good for ? (2008)
The knower as servant (response to Paul Lample) (2008)
Knowledge: project or process? (2009)

and in the email archive:

Scholarship and review in the Bahai community (1990)
Scholars in the Bahai Community 1 (1996)
Scholars in the Bahai Community 2 (1996)
Foreword to ‘Church and State’ (2005; see the section on the limits of theology)
Theology – 2005-12-03
Theology 2005-10-17
Theology 2005-10-21
Theology – 2005-12-03
Theologians, the learned and the wise (2006)
Theology 2006-02-13
Theology 2007-01-01
Theology 2008-06-03
Church, State, experts, consensus (Oct. 2009)
Theology – a defence (2009)
No Clergy?” (2009)
Theology 2009-10-00
Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion” (2010?)

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