Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Same sex marriages – 5

Posted to Talisman9, December 31, 2010

In the discussion on homosexuality, some letters written on behalf of
Shoghi Effendi to individuals have been central. A recent letter from the
Universal House of Justice to an individual provides a new insight. I’ve
typed over the last paragraph without the macrons and apostrophes which
are liable to be garbled in different software and settings:

The Research Department at the Bahai World Centre has confirmed that the
Guardian’s manuscript notes for the Codification of the Kitab-i-Aqdas,
which includes in the list of prohibition the word “homosexuality,” are in
his own handwriting in English. Furthermore, Shoghi Effendi’s handwritten
notes in Persian clearly cross-referenced this entry to the specific term
in the Kitab-i-Aqdas concerning “the subject of boys” (Hukm-i-Ghilman).

(Universal House of Justice to an individual, 22 December 2010 )

This indicates that it was Shoghi Effendi who connected the
Persian/Ottoman pedophile practice referred to as “the subject of
boys” with the English term “homosexuality,” referring usually to a
relationship between adults of equal power, and including
relationships between two women.

In short, we can amend the relevant passage in the notes to the

134. the subject of boys # 107
The word translated here as “boys” has, in this context, in
the Arabic original, the implication of paederasty. [In a part of the
codification of the Aqdas that he wrote himself,] Shoghi Effendi has
interpreted this reference as a prohibition on [homosexuality]. [but see the first comment below]

The same letter states:

With respect to the incident to which you refer, media reports
incorrectly associated the Baha´is of Uganda with certain activities
directed against homosexuals in that country. In 2007 an interfaith
association consisting largely of Christian denominations began to take an
active role in opposition to homosexuality in Uganda. In a single
incident, a Baha´i representative to the association was unwittingly drawn
into this controversy; this involved providing an explanation of the
Baha´i teachings on homosexuality. The National Spiritual Assembly of
Uganda took immediate action, and the Baha´i community subsequently has
had no part in such matters.

The story from the Web site that you have quoted asserts that the
Baha´i administrative order in Uganda fell into line and added its
voice in support of the proposed death sentence for homosexual
individuals. This is absolutely false. With regard to the idea that
the House of Justice dispatched a Counsellor to Uganda to educate the
community, this is also not accurate. There is, however, a resident
Counsellor in Uganda who helped to resolve initial misunderstandings at
the time.

And in a follow-up on another list :

XX wrote:

> I think one must come to terms with the possibility that Shoghi
> Effendi was right = that Baha’u’llah took the position that
> homosexuality was undesirable within his community. If this were the
> case, would you abandon your support for gay marriage and gay rights
> or move beyond the position that everything Baha’u’llah said was
> somehow “infallible?” I believe issues like this evidence one of the
> major problems associated with revealed religion as it generally has
> been and continues to be understood

Text-based religion has a punctuated evolution, whereas societies change incrementally, so inevitably there is a period of increasing mis-match between the religious texts and the needs of society, until the tension becomes such as to generate a viable new start. Does anyone believe that Islamic law was perfectly right and dandy up to a certain day in 1844?

All the communities with a Text find parts of it that are no longer 100% applicable, as time goes by, and either quietly forget them or consciously construct work-arounds. The Bahai community for example has long set aside the condemnation of contraception, in a letter written on the Guardian’s behalf. It’s just a non-issue, anyone looking at that letter can see that it is not going to play today:

“…the Bahai Teachings, when carefully studied imply that such current conceptions like birth control, if not necessarily wrong and immoral in principle, have nevertheless to be discarded as constituting a real danger to the very foundations of our social life.”
(October 14, 1935)

Somehow, the foundations of our social life stand undisturbed, while we ignore this letter. Which is partly because the letter was overstated at the time, and much more because our society has changed, and its foundations are different, and its problems are different (over-population looks like a bigger global problem than population aging).

Abdu’l-Baha at least (and I presume Baha’u’llah) did not argue that the Law – even where explicit in the scripture – should be followed in practice regardless of social change.

In a talk he is quoted as saying:

Such changes and transformations in the teaching of religion are applicable to the ordinary conditions of life, but they are not important or essential. … In the Torah there are many commands concerning the punishment of a murderer. It would not be allowable or possible to carry out these ordinances today. Human conditions and exigencies are such that even the question of capital punishment — the one penalty which most nations have continued to enforce for murder — is now under discussion by wise men who are debating its advisability. In fact, laws for the ordinary conditions of life are only valid temporarily. … Time changes conditions, and laws change to suit conditions. We must remember that these changing laws are not the essentials; they are the accidentals of religion. The essential ordinances established by a Manifestation of God are spiritual; they concern moralities, the ethical development of man and faith in God. They are ideal and necessarily permanent — expressions of the one foundation and not amenable to change or transformation.
(The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 365)

and in a letter:

In brief, the foundation of this most great dispensation has been designed in such a way that its laws can remain appropriate to and consonant with all ages and eras, unlike the bygone religious laws, whose implementation is unattainable and impossible today. For example, consider the laws of the Torah. Today, they definitely cannot be implemented, for they include ten capital offenses. Likewise, Islamic religious requires the amputation of a hand for the theft of ten dirhams. Is it possible to enforce such a law today? No, by God!

While any text-based religion (your term: “revealed religion”) faces increasing tensions between its texts and the incremental change in the world, the alternative is far worse – a religion led wherever its leaders want it to go, schisms as they pull in different directions, and eventually a religious discourse that is no conversation at all because there is no common ground from which all the speakers start. At that point, rationality can no longer play a role: the dimensions of the pyramids, the shapes of the stars, the way the birds flew at dawn, can all be included or excluded at whim.

I won’t bite on “infallibility” – for it depends on what you think that means. It is in any case not a synonym for unchangeability

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2 Responses to “Same sex marriages – 5”

  1. Sen said

    On reflection, something more should be said on two points above.

    I wrote:

    “… we can amend the relevant passage in the notes to the Aqdas, …”

    The “we” here refers to a generic we, the readers of the notes to the Aqdas, and not to a secret cabal of intellectuals who are hell-bent on changing the Bahai teachings and imposing their views on the believers. That might seem blindingly obvious, but I’ve become aware that such things need to be stipulated for some readers with rather peculiar prejudices about intellectuals and academics.

    and I suggested the reading:

    134. the subject of boys # 107
    The word translated here as “boys” has, in this context, in the Arabic original, the implication of paederasty. [In a part of the codification of the Aqdas that he wrote himself,] Shoghi Effendi has interpreted this reference as a prohibition on [homosexuality].

    On reflection, I realise that I do not know what Shoghi Effendi’s intention was. If the connection between homosexuality and “the subject of boys” was very clear to Shoghi Effendi, he would hardly have needed to make a note to himself on the subject. He would be more likely to make such a note, if the connection between “boys” and homosexuality was a matter that he needed to go back to and check. But perhaps this note was not intended for himself, but for posterity?

    We might get more clarity on this from a study of other notes Shoghi Effendi wrote in the same document, or his general practice in drafts he was writing. Does he make a practice of noting points that he intends to check or revise? Or do his notes rather indicate additions he intends to make in a subsequent draft? Or does he leave notes for posterity, on the assumption that future scholars would check his draft texts to obtain greater clarity? A comparison between drafts of his writings that have such notes, and the final versions, might show which reading is more likely in this case.

    However the question is moot for us today, for we cannot know how Shoghi Effendi, or Baha’u’llah, would have responded to same-sex marriages recognised by law and accepted in society. This introduces the principle of obedience to the law of the land, and removes the factor of “scandalous behaviour.” A new situation has been created, different in each country, and the Bahai community’s responses to it will be guided by national conditions and the rulings of the Universal House of Justice.

  2. Rex Block said

    While not necessarily relevant to the subject of same-sex marriage, in reference to the “We” discussion above, the fifth definition of of “we” in is: “Also called the royal we. (used by a sovereign, or by other high officials and dignitaries, in place of I in formal speech): We do not wear this crown without humility.”

    Virtually every law and ordinance in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas begins with “We”: “Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power.”

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