Sunday, October 19, 2008

Paul Lample on the role of the learned Baha'i

"A variety of metaphors help clarify the role of a learned Bahá’í in contributing to the progress of the Bahá’í community.

"The learned Bahá’í is not a “gatekeeper” or “priest.” While the effective work of trained, knowledgeable, and insightful individuals shed light on the context and meaning of the writings in many ways, the community of believers is not dependent upon a body of specialists in order to understand the meaning of the text. The Word of God is accessible to all believers, according to their capacity. The experience of the community derived from practice, the growing understanding of the implications and meaning of the text over time, and above all, the guidance of the Universal House of Justice contribute to shaping both the believers’ understanding as well as the perspective and direction of scholarly activity.

"The learned Bahá’í is not an “anthropologist” of the Bahá’í community. The purpose of Bahá’í scholarship is not merely to explain the community at a moment in history and present the resulting picture as its reality. Bahá’ís recognize that, at any point, the community is far from that which Bahá’u’lláh has envisioned. It is “less Bahá’í” now than what it will become in future.

"The learned Bahá’í is not an “archeologist.” The “true” meaning of the Faith is not lost somewhere in the past, to be recaptured by excavating layers of erroneous interpretation and practice. Such an approach is especially problematic if it is used to justify a search for the meaning of the Faith in Bahá’u’lláh’s writings alone, while ignoring the role of the authoritative institutions He established to guide His Faith.

"The learned Bahá’í is not an “artist” who is free to shape the teachings according to some criteria of personal choice or creativity. The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh have an intended meaning and an intended aim. Unity—even unity in diversity—emerges by seeking out and conforming to this meaning. One cannot select, rearrange, or craft from the teachings, according to subjective standards, a particular narrative or design. If such an approach were pursued, the Faith would become nothing more than an individual or cultural adornment.

"The learned Bahá’í is not an “impartial observer.” The resolution of important questions requires more than the application of methods of the natural sciences. It is not possible to stand apart from the community to study it without influencing it or being influenced by it.

"Perhaps the learned Bahá’í is more like the “scout” who helps to guide an expedition on a journey into unexplored territory. This is someone who participates actively in the journey, but whose specialized knowledge, skills, and experience informs various aspects of the struggle to make progress: constructive perspectives into the past, present, and future; insight and technical capacity for ongoing study of the text; problem posing and problem solving; the defining of culture and intercultural relations. On this journey, the learned individual/scout does not have authority, and, while making a vital contribution, like any other participant is fallible and learns over time." (tape) (text)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Are all theologies equal?

Passages from Scriptures can be cited in favor of virtually any point of view. Theologians have been playing that game for centuries, indeed for millennia. If I am wrong, I would like to see more substantial grounds for admitting my error than those which have been suggested so far.

Twenty years ago it was proposed that Baha'u'llah approved of a diversity of points of view suited to the consciousness of varying individuals, and a single text was cited in support of that proposition. That text was excerpted from a Tablet addressed to Jamal-i-Burujirdi, which has been translated in its entirety by Dr. Khazeh Fananapazir and published in the “Baha’i Studies Bulletin” (5:1-2). It was pointed out that the Guardian translated an excerpt from this Tablet, in which the cited text is also found, and that he did not translate that text nor include it in Gleanings (V). In fact, in the excerpt he translated, we do not find any reference to theological disagreements among Baha'is. The Guardian strove mightily to clarify normative Baha'i doctrine. He did not tell Baha'is they were permitted to believe whatever they wished, unless Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha had not revealed any guidance on a particular question, and in such cases he indicated that there could be no normative Baha’i position:

"You have asked the exact meaning of the term 'Fear of God' mentioned in Bahá'í Sacred Writings; it often means awe, but has also other connotations such as reverence, terror and fear." "We have no way of knowing what science Bahá'u'lláh meant when He said it would largely eliminate fear; as no further mention of it was ever made in the teachings, the Guardian cannot identify anything with this statement. To do so would depart from his function as interpreter of the teachings; he cannot reveal anything apart from the given teachings." (Lights of Guidance, p. 237)

"Regarding your question about vaccination: these are technical matters which have not been specifically mentioned in the teachings, and consequently the Guardian cannot make any statement about them. No doubt medical science will progress tremendously as time goes by, and the treatment of disease become more perfect."
(From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, December 24, 1943: Bahá'í News, No. 173, p. 3, February 1945; in Lights of Guidance, p. 292)

"We cannot be sure of the authenticity of the scriptures of Buddha and Krishna, so we certainly cannot draw any conclusions about virgin births mentioned in them. There is no reference to this subject in our teachings, so the Guardian cannot pronounce an opinion.
"As our teachings do not state Zoroaster is the connecting link between the Euphrates and the Prophets in India we cannot assert this. "Abraham and Krishna are two separate individuals, with no connection that we know of.
"We know no more about the prophets mentioned in the Íqán than what Bahá'u'lláh states in that Book." (November 25, 1950 to an individual believer; in Lights of Guidance, p. 503)

"Your question concerning Brahma and Krishna: such matters, as no reference occurs to them in the Teachings, are left for students of history and religion to resolve and clarify." (April 14, 1941, to an individual believer; in Lights of Guidance, p. 503)

"There are no dates in our teachings regarding the actual dates of the Prophets of the Adamic Cycle, so we cannot give any. Tentatively we can accept what historians may consider accurate. Naturally the dates referring to Muhammad, the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh we are sure of." (November 25, 1950 to an individual believer; in Lights of Guidance, p. 503)

What has not been discussed, in all of these years, and related to the text cited from this Tablet to Jamal-i-Burujirdi, are the circumstances surrounding its revelation. The Tablet was apparently revealed in response to the complaints of a Baha'i teacher about another Baha'i teacher. The former, called Ismu'l-lahu'l-Jamal by Baha'u'llah, and who is now generally remembered as Jamal-i-Burujirdi, claimed a certain station for Baha'u'llah in his extensive and much celebrated career as a Baha’i teacher throughout Iran. The latter, called Haji Akhund and whose given name was Mulla 'Ali-Akbar-i-Shahmirzadi, disagreed with Jamal-i-Burujirdi regarding the station of the Blessed Perfection. Baha'u'llah enjoined peace between them, writing "Nothing whatever can, in this Day, inflict a greater harm upon this cause than dissension, and strife, contention, estrangement and apathy, among the loved ones of God. Flee them, through the power of God and His sovereign aid, and strive ye to knit together the hearts of men in His Name, the Unifier, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise."

Baha'u'llah does in fact assert, in this Tablet, as has been often cited, "There are those who have attained to the highest levels of spiritual comprehension ( a`la marátib-i `irfán ) while others are different therefrom. For example, one person envisages the Unseen the Transcendent, the Inaccessible One ( God; ghayb-i maní` la yudrak) in the Person (haykal) of the Manifestation ( of God; zuhúr) without making any distinction (fasl; or division) or connection ( between them; wasl; or union). Others there are who recognise the Person (haykal) of the Manifestation (of God, zuhúr ) as the Appearance of God ([Himself or theophany, zuhúr'u'lláh) and consider the commands and prohibitions of the Manifestation (of God, zuhúr) to be identical with such as originate with the one True God. These two positions (maqám ) are both acceptable before the throne of God." Hence, a difference in perception among the believers is not only permitted but accepted as inevitable. However, He does not indicate in this text or anywhere else that ALL perceptions of the station of the Manifestation of God are accurate and acceptable. In more recent times, we have become well acquainted with scholars who have espoused perceptions of the station of Baha'u'llah which conform neither to one nor to the other of these two acceptable positions. We would do well, I suggest, to consider the association that historically existed between certain theological positions and the ultimate relationship to the Faith of the learned ones who espoused such positions. For example, do people who perceive Baha'u'llah as "just another prophet", or as a religious genius, or a spiritual philosopher, or only infallible in a metaphorical and mythical sense, do such people evince a willingness to sacrifice their lives, their belongings, their families even for the Cause of God?

Let us consider the fate of each of the two parties whose disagreement resulted in the revelation of this Tablet. The former, called "perfidious" by Shoghi Effendi for his ultimate disobedience to 'Abdu'l-Baha and abandonment of the Baha’i community he had spent so many years carefully teaching and encouraging, is among those who have, like Lucifer, assumed high office only to ignominiously fall to the depths of opposition. The latter was appointed a Hand of the Cause of God by Baha'u'llah, and gave his entire life in loyal service of the Faith. Is it not possible that the perceptions of the soul result in actions which either attract us to the Beloved or ultimately result in a weakening of such attraction and ultimately an estrangement? As was pointed out to me some years ago, what are the perceptions of those Baha’is who happily sacrifice their safety, their health, their possessions, and their lives for the Faith of Baha’u’llah? Can one make the ultimate sacrifice for One if we believe that His station is little higher than that of a common man?