Theology – a defence
On “Bahai Rants” blog, September 2009
In Church and State, I write for the Bahai community, not for a general public. I assume some knowledge of the Bahai Faith and don’t give references for things like “Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian” to prove he really was the Guardian. I take such basics for granted. The book is long enough without sourcing and footnoting the obvious.
On my blog I often do give references for really basic things, for instance with links to wikipedia articles or the BIC’s reference library, because on the blog I write for the general public.
I gather you are willing to accept that there can be “Bahai theology” and therefore Bahai theologians who write it or teach it. If Bahai theology is a legitimate study, then it must have a purpose, for if it served no purpose it would be one of those things that begin with words and end with words, ie not a legitimate study.
If Bahai theology does serve some useful purpose, one has to define that purpose, to know whether a partuclar example is good theology or bad theology. I have stated what I think the purpose of Bahai theology is, in the foreword to Church and State, which you can read on scibed here:
or as a pdf document here.
Note that the page begins by saying that the book represents my own understanding, that I point out later that other Bahais have different ideas, and on the next page I say that my views are not authoritative or definitive.
But to get back to the purpose of theology: in Church and State I defined my purposes as “to criticize, clarify, purify and strengthen the ideas of the Bahai community, to enable Bahais to understand their relatively new faith and to see what it can offer the world.” The list is not exhaustive, but I am not persuaded that it is wrong.
Criticism refers to theology’s self-critical method, and to criticism in the sense that the word is used in ‘literary criticism.’
Clarification follows from the systematic and critical method of theology, which exposes vague expressions used without thought about their meaning, and uncovers muddles. (see my blog for some examples!) Church and State addressed the Baha’i teachings concerning the House of Justice and the International Tribunal, which had been conflated in footnotes to the earliest translations of Some Answered Questions and in some influential early Baha’i books. As soon as it is noticed that two separate things are being discussed, the texts themselves become largely self-explanatory, because the apparent contradictions were due to approaching the texts with a confusion of concepts.
Purification is an aspect of theology’s self-critical method: as we study the Bahai texts in a systematic way, it becomes evident that some of what we thought were ‘Bahai teachings’ are contaminations, resulting from the adoption by Bahais, in various generations, of assumptions accepted in their various societies and political environments. It is difficult to detect and escape the gravitational pull of our philosophical, religious and cultural backgrounds, but we can try to do so by returning to the scriptural texts in a systematic way.
Finally, theology strengthens the ideas of the Bahai community, first by removing muddles, and then by locating the scriptural roots of the various teachings so distinguished. But more important is the role of any open discussion: what is discussed remains alive and lived, while what is merely taken as a given quickly becomes a dead letter. Thus a good theology is not necessarily one that brings about a change in ideas. A theology which takes what is known and ‘makes it new’ has also strengthened the ideas of the community.
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 – 2005-12-03
Theologians, the learned and the wise (2006)
Church, State, experts, consensus (Oct. 2009)
“No Clergy?” (2009)
“Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion” (2010?)
Method and focus in my Church and State (2010?)
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