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?

1 comment:

Susan said...

Dear Peter,

How would anyone here no what 'error' you have in mind, seeing as this is apparently a continuation of a discussion which occurred on a private email list?
I thought there had been a lot of discussion regarding the circumstances surrounding the Tablet to Jamal Bourjerdi. If Baha'u'llah stated in that Tablet either perception as to His station were acceptable providing they did not lead to conflict, I don't think you can use the subsequent fate of the two men as evidence that one was right and the other wrong on this issue. In fact, I would suggest that their
respective character and attitude than their theological differences. The one who became the Covenant breaker was the more intransigent and insistent that his own perspective was the only right one. His need to be right was more important to him than discovering the truth. Sacrificing ones property or even ones life is often easier than sacrificing ones ego.

The Bab, in the Kitab-i Panj Sha'n, alludes to this problem as well describing it as a failing of the heart not to consider all things within their own context, and that no position should be rejected out of hand (pp. 400-01). The Bab points to the numerous factions within both Christianity and Islam and insists that had they remained united by cleaving to the entirety of the scriptures they would have been able to recognize the new revelation. But since each one regarded themselves as the sole possessors of truth, they were quick to reject any new perspective. Thus, in clinging tenaciously to a single point, antagonisms arise among scholars which will eventually be directed against the next Manifestation and cause His followers to be persecuted.

The Bab goes as far as to say that it is better to remain ignorant than to create this kind of disunity. But note that it is not the learning itself which causes such problems, rather it is the inability of the scholars to work together in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance, resolve their differences and to humbly consider one another's views. (My thanks to Dr. Ahang Rabbani for bringing this text to my attention and for his commentary on it.)

It is all too easy to mistake rigidity for firmness, to imagine one is being firm by clinging to a particular aspect of revelation while rendering it false by failing to place it within the context of the whole. This is largely what happened to Charles Mason Remey. Remey always saw himself as a champion of the Covenant. During World War I when the believers in the West were cut off from access to 'Abdu'l-Baha, Remey zealously headed the Committee of Investigation which declared the founders of the Chicago Reading Room to be Covenant-breakers. After the death of the Guardain, because both the Will and Testament and Shoghi Effendi's writings had described the Universal House of Justice functioning alongside a living Guardian, it was inconceivable to his understanding that the line of Guardians should be brought to an end. Indeed if we think about it for a minute we realize that most of those who violated the Covenant have done so because they opposed many of the innovations which the authorized leadership was putting in place.

A very objective history of the Faith was written in the form of a doctoral dissertation by a non-Baha'i entitled "An Historical Analysis of Critical Transformations in the Evolution of the Baha'i World Faith." The author Vernon Johnson noted perceptively that major transformations were undergone by the Baha'i community each time leadership changed hands. Those who subsequently broke the Covenant were typically those who wished to hold the Faith back in the form they conceived it. As Johnson asserts "against each effort to innovate were segments of the faith's adherents who objected to the new developments and who saw themselves as loyal to the previous leader or system of the religion." (p. 393). The Babis insisted that the Bab's revelation would endure for 1,511 or 2,001 years. 'Abdu'l-Baha's opponents accused Him of overstepping His authority and claiming a station equivalent to a Manifestation of God. The opponents of Shoghi Effendi accused him of having killed the liberal and universal spirit of 'Abdu'l-Baha and constructing the Administrative Order into the narrow, sectarian mode of other organized religions.

When strong winds blow, the trees without any roots will be the first to blow over. But if the storm proves strong enough, even the mighty oak will be uprooted. It is the willow, which besides having strong roots, is flexible and can bend which best survive the most violent tempest. The greatest dangers in religion have come from those who were surest they understood God's Covenant most completely. This was true of those clerics who, in every age, have rejected God's Messengers and it has been true of some of the most infamous Covenant Breakers as well.

warmest, Susan