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                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Theology 2007-01-01

This was a posting in response to IMO on Beliefnet,
Mon, 01 Jan 2007.
(I didn’t note the URL at the time, and beliefnet seems to have moved to a new system without taking their archives along )

IMO (post 57):

> we can theologize all we want. Doing so from a
> standpoint/status of any authority, academic,
> sacerdotal and/or otherwise is not a Baha’i practice.

So Bahais generally can do theology, but academics may not? Do you
have chapter and verse where this rule is written?

Obviously no-one can speak with any authority. The first words of the
first line of the first page of Church and State are “This book
presents my own understanding …” and on page 2 “The views offered
here are not an authoritative view of the Bahai teachings, nor a
definitive statement of my own views on these topics. These are
samples from a work in progress, born out of an ongoing argument with

Providing they clearly say that they have no special authority, I do
not see why academics should not have the same status in the Bahai
community as non-academics, or why I as an MA student should be
counted as an academic. Can’t I count as a Joe Blog and have full
rights? Do I have to renounce my university degrees to be acceptable
in the community?

> Have no knowledge any more than any else.

But that’s the crunch. Some people do have more and some less
knowledge. Abdu’l-Baha writes:

Those eminent divines and men of learning who walk the straight pathway … are alert to the present need and they understand the requirements of modern times, and certainly devote all their energies toward encouraging the advancement of learning and civilization. “Are they equal, those who know, and those who do not know?… Or is the darkness equal with the light?” [Qur’an 39:12; 13:17.] (The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 32-3)

The problem is not just ‘what are the Bahai teachings about knowledge
and learning’ but more practically: how do we continue to treat each
other as equal members of the community, but without denying the
obvious fact that some know more about some subjects than other people
do (so we can learn from one another). How do we *not* simply
replicate the structures of other religious commu nities, and human
communities generally, where knowledge is power? We could all take a
vow of equal ignorance, but that is not an adequate solution. The
community has to learn not to feel threatened by knowledge

> the mantle of >Baha’i theologian authority which to no one has been given. Let me use Marx and Hegel
> as an analogy. Neither were revolutionaries; indeed Marx was the
> antithesis of a member of the working class in his personal life.

There are two paths to solving this problem. One is to ban new ideas
and censor publication and limit education, and be vigilant to be
safe. The other is to combat bad ideas with good ideas, which requires
open debate and more education, and stay dynamic to be safe. It is not
possible to compromise halfway between these paths because they go in
opposite directions. I think the second
path is the way to go.

No Bahai theologian I know of – – Udo Schaeffer, Julio Savi and Jack
McLean being among the better known – – has *ever* even once claimed
any authority. The issue would not even exist if it were not for
stereotypes and prejudices about what ‘academics’ are like. There’s a
challenge – find any example of a Bahai theologian or historian or
scholar in any other field who has claimed to be any more or better
than anyone else.

> am truly surprised that someone so well read,
> should have missed the >tenor writings have to say about the accreting theologies
> and dangerous theologians of the past.

“He Who is the Seal of the Prophets hath said: “Increase my wonder
and amazement at Thee, O God!” ” (Gleanings from the Writings of
, p. 162)

It gets even more surprising than this, when we look for answers in
the Writings instead of just waving them round in a general way. So
show me where this is in the Writings. Come with chapter and verse,
and build an argument. That’s how to do theology. I suspect that you
will find that it is the leaders of religion who are most frequently
condemned: where Baha’u’llah encountered real theological objections
and questions, he explained and reasoned with the people rather than
condemning them. The few theologians who are mentioned (such as Luther
in Secret of Divine Civilization) are praised. Others are condemned
for particular acts, or for hypocrisy, for wealth pomp and pomposity,
for interference in political affairs rather than for being

The interpretation of the verses is made more difficult by the fact
that the dominant school of Shiah theology in Baha’u’llah’s time, the
usulis, had made the authority of the religious scholars a point of
doctrine. Laymen were required to find a mujtahid and follow his
rulings. The minority school, the akhbaris, rejected this, and the
early Shaykhis, Babi and Bahais tended to come f rom the akhbari
school. Obviously Baha’u’llah rejected the doctrine of imitation. So
how can we know that usuli theologians are being condemned for doing
theology rather than for claiming authority?

But I don’t want to do your research for you: if you really think this
is in the writings somewhere, find the supporting verses, find the
verses that seem to point in the other way, and show what you think is
the best way of understanding the whole.

Shoghi Effendi’s Promised Day is Come, from page 77 (“Leaders of
religion,” ) to page 110 can serve as a model of how to construct an
argument based on scriptures. He has also collected a hundred or so
examples of condemnations of the clergy and religious leaders, so he’s
done a lot of your work for you. But he concludes on pp 109-110:

Nor should it be thought for a moment that the followers of
Baha’u’llah either seek to degrade or even belittle the rank of the
world’s religious leaders, whether Christian, Muslim, or of any other
denominations, should their conduct conform to the professions, and be
worthy of the position they occupy. “Those divines,” Baha’u’llah has
affirmed, ” . . . who are truly adorned with the ornament of knowledge
and of a goodly character are, verily, as a head to the body of the
world, and as eyes to the nations. The guidance of men hath, at all
times, been and is dependent upon these blessed souls.” And again:
“The divine whose conduct is upright, and the sage who is just, are as
the spirit unto the body of the world. Well is it with that divine
whose head is attired with the crown of justice, and whose temple is
adorned with the ornament of equity.” And yet again: “The divine who
hath seized and quaffed the most holy Wine, in the name of the
sovereign Ordainer, is as an eye unto the world. Well is it with them
who obey him, and call him to remembrance.” “Great is the blessedness
of that divine,” He, in another connection, has written, “that hath
not allowed knowledge to become a veil between him and the One Who is
the Object of all knowledge, and who, when the Self-Subsisting
appeared, hath turned with a beaming face towards Him. He, in truth,
is numbered with the learned. The inmates of Paradise seek the
blessing of his breath, and his lamp sheddeth its radiance over all
who are in heaven and on earth. He, verily, is numbered with the
inheritors of the Prophets. He that beholdeth him hath, verily,
beheld the True One, and he that turneth towards him hath, verily,
turned towards God, the Almighty, the All-Wise.” “Respect ye the
divines amongst you,” is His exhortation, “They whose acts conform to
the knowledge they possess, who observe the statutes of God, and
decree the things God hath decreed in the Book. Know ye that they are
the lamps of guidance betwixt earth and heaven. They that have no
consideration for the position and merit of the divines amongst them
have, verily, altered the bounty of God vouchsafed unto them.”

PS.. Apologies to anyone really called Joe Blog who may read this

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 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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