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                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Theology 2005-10-21

To: ZZ, research into history
Subject: Re: a word from AA
Date sent: Mon, 21 Nov 2005

> I think one of the problems with using the term “Baha’i theologian”
> is determining who is or who isn’t a Baha’i theologian.

Hi Z,

Theology is the study of the scriptures, teachings and religiously
significant practices of a religion, written from within the religious
community concerned, and primarily for readers in that community. A
theologian is just someone who does theology, i.e., who studies the
scriptures etc…

A theologian is not someone who has a sacerdotal role, like a priest
giving sacraments, or a pastoral role (preaching and looking after the
faithful), or a leadership role. Theology is like political science –
the people who teach and write political science are not generally
political actors themselves. Generally speaking, the kind of
personalities that love most of all to study and talk are not willing
to be drawn too closely into power politics. But cross-overs are
possible: the priest and theologian Ratzinger became Pope Benedict for
example. That just shows that one man can wear three hats, not that
the theologian’s hat implies the priestly or leadership role.

Everyone has a theology, just as everyone has philosophy, but in
practice we call people “philosophers” or “theologians” only if they
write or teach on those subjects. Many Bahais write from a theological
point of view — ie from within the religion, for the community:
Taherzadeh, Balyuzi, Jack McLean and Udo Schaeffer have been most
prolific, but Julio Savi has written the first systematic theology,
and there is also Saiedi, John Hatcher, Mirza Abd’l-Fadl (sometimes),
Momen and Cole (once), Sours, Matthews, Conow, and the authors of the
Ruhi books and so on …. dozens of authors, perhaps more than a
hundred, not to mention the teachers at the Wilmette Institute’s
courses in theology. A substantial part of Bahai studies is Bahai
theology, so you can see why the UHJ’s letter has set the cat amongst
the pigeons. There are some theologians on this history list, because
sound religious history, and accurate scriptural texts, are the two
inputs theology needs.

A second major part of Bahai studies addresses the history,
scripture, teachings and practices of the community from within, but
addressed primarily to the outside. This group would include Mirza
Abd’l-Fadl, Udo Schaeffer, Esselmont and many others, writing books
ranging from introductions to the Bahai Faith to apologetics (defences
against attacks). The UHJ letter explicitly legitimises this sort of

A third major part is the study of the history, scripture, teachings
and actual practices of the community from the outside, where the
author “brackets out” his or her personal commitment and describes the
topic from a distance, aiming at objectivity. This has been called the
‘history of religions’ approach, and many of its practitioners are in
fact focusing on religious history (including biography), using
academic methods. It is also called the comparative religions or
science of religions approach. The same outsider’s stance is used by
people studying the sociology of a current religious community, such
as in Margit Warburg’s recently translated book on the Bahai
community, and her many previous articles. Warburg is not a Bahai: the
useful thing about the history of religions approach is that it can be
used by people of any religion or none, and they can talk in a common
language because they have all bracketed out their personal
convictions. Authors who adopt this stance include Abbas Amanat
(recently republished too), Peter Smith, Cole, Momen, Browne, Gail and
Chapman. The Tarikh list is devoted to this type of scholarship. The
UHJ’s letter accepts the value of this sort of writing when it is done
by non-Bahais:

A book written by a disinterested non-Baha’i scholar about the Faith, even if it reflects certain assumptions and puts forward conclusions acceptable within a given discipline but which are at variance with Baha’i belief, poses no particular problem for Baha’is, who would regard these perceptions as an honest attempt to explore a religious phenomenon as yet little understood generally.

but the UHJ has previously written:

in attempting to achieve what they understand to be academic objectivity, they have inadvertently cast the Faith into a mould which is essentially foreign to its nature, taking no account of the spiritual forces which Baha’is see as its foundation. Presumably the justification offered for this approach would be that most scholars of comparative religion are essentially concerned with discernable phenomena, observable events and practical affairs … This approach, although understandable, is quite impossible for a Baha’i, for it ignores the fact that our world-view includes the spiritual dimension as an indispensable component for consistency and coherence, and it does not beseem a Baha’i to write … about his Faith as if he looked upon it from the norm of humanism or materialism.

In other words, we are presented in such articles with the spectacle of Baha’is trying to write as if they were non-Bahá’ís.
(Compilations, Scholarship, p. 26)

The letter to all National Spiritual Assemblies of 14 November 2005 is
a supplement to the previous letters collected in the compilation of
scholarship. It reinforces the point that the objective or history-
of-religions approach is only acceptable from non-bahais, and adds a
new element. I had said that “my stance is not that of a historian or
academic scholar of the science of religion, but of a Bahai
theologian, writing from and for a religious community, ” — that sets
out my stance, writing from inside the belief system, using its
scriptures as a basis — and further “and I speak as if the reader
shares the concerns of that community … to criticize, clarify,
purify and strengthen the ideas of the Baha’i community, to enable
Baha’is to understand their relatively new Faith and to see what it
can offer the world” — that sets out my audience and purpose. The UHJ
responds “Assertions of this kind go far beyond expressions of
personal opinion, which any Baha’i is free to voice. As illustrated,
here is a claim that lies well outside the framework of Bahá’í belief
and practice. Baha’u’llah has liberated human minds by prohibiting
within His Faith any caste with ecclesiastical prerogatives that seeks
to foist a self-assumed authority upon the thought and behaviour of
the mass of believers

The problem is, you see, if Bahai authors study the Bahai teachings
from within, rather than from without, and if they write for Bahais,
and especially where they use sound arguments based on scriptural
sources, there is every possibility that some Bahai readers will be
persuaded or even transformed. It is the arrogance of authors, that
they write not for the pure pleasure of writing but also with the
insidious intent of improving the reader or the world.


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 – 2005-12-03
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?)
Method and focus in my Church and State (2010?)

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