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."

http://www.bahai-studies.ca/archives/PL-unedited.wma (tape)

http://www.bahai-studies.ca/archives/ABS2008PaulLample.pdf (text)

12 comments:

Baha'i Dialogue said...

I have some reservations about adopting Paul Lample's characterization of "the learned Baha'i" which I will cite as follows:

"The learned Bahá'í is not a "gatekeeper" or "priest." [16]"

Many a learned Baha'i has indeed served as a "gatekeeper" of sorts, inasmuch as it is usually learned Baha'is who write books and articles which are what are read by enquirers and which lead to them being attracted or repelled by the Faith. If learned Baha'is depict the Faith as "liberal" then liberals will be attracted to it...if we depict it as "moderate" then moderates will be attracted to it...and if, God forbid (tongue in cheek...) we were to depict it as "conservative" then we can be sure that conservatives would be attracted to it, and liberals and moderates would head for the hills... Also, the learned Baha'i also functions to some degree like a "priest" inasmuch as other Baha'is turn to that individual seeking answers to their questions, guidance when they are confused and suffering, absolution when they have made mistakes. For example, there are numerous learned Baha'is, psychologists and therapists who give talks, direct workshops, write articles and books and consult with individuals and institutions in order to carry out a pastoral function very similar to that required of the pastor, priest or chaplain. Of course there is no formal process of preparing or setting apart learned Baha'is as gatekeepers and priests as there is in most other religious communities, and in that sense the Baha'i community seems to be quite unique in being made up entirely of laymen, of both genders.

"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. [16-17]"

While it is true that "the purpose of Baha'i scholarship is not merely to explain the community at a moment in history" and while we may all hope that "it is 'less Baha'i' now than what it will become in future", Baha'i scholarship includes studies of actual Baha'i communities, both in the past and in the present, and much can be learned through the application of the social sciences to the study of in the flesh Baha'is. Cases in point include many works of Baha'i scholarship including, to cite only two examples among many that come to mind, the history of the American Baha'i community by Rob Stockman, and the sociological studies of the Canadian Baha'i community by Will and Debbie Van den Hoonard. While Baha'i scholarship is not limited to this function, this is undeniably one of its indispensible functions. The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of Canada in fact commissioned Will and Debbie's study of the Canadian Baha'i community's implementation of the Baha'i principle of gender equality...the study would not have been commissioned if this Institution was not convinced that the findings of these sociologists would be of considerable value.

"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. [17]"

There are many learned Baha'is who are indeed archeologists in the sense that they seek the meaning of the words of the Bab and Baha'u'llah, of 'Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi in the context in which they were written and uttered, that is, in light of the teachings and traditions of Islam, in relation to the teachings and traditions of other religions, and correlated with each other. In some cases there may well be "layers of erroneous interpretation and practice". It is certainly constructive for scholars to examine current theological views and personal and institutional practices in light of the actual words of the Central Figures and Guardian of the Faith. And while enroled Baha'is adhere to a concept of Covenant which links the words of the Central Figures with those of the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice, they can nonetheless profit from examining the words of each member of that Covenant with an aim to discovering the potential meanings of those words in other contexts. To give one example, while the enroled Baha'i accepts the principle of the equality of gender based on the expositions of that principle in the utterances and writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi--based on his or her avowal of the Covenant that accords authoritative interpretation of Baha'u'llah to these two voices alone--nonetheless, it is of value for the learned Baha'i to explore the statements of Baha'u'llah on gender, even if they may sometimes appear to be in tension or contradiction to understandings of this principle that are current amongst Baha'is.

"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. [17]"

There are of course many learned Baha'is who are convinced that there are a plurality of intended meanings and intended aims for the teachings of Baha'u'llah, and that unity in diversity precisely acknowledges and protects the existence of that plurality. Their views have been published with the approval of Baha'i reviewers (and hence of National Spiritual Assemblies which are ultimately responsible for the decisions of those reviewers) for over 20 years now. Based on this perspective, that is, of some kind of perspectivism, there is lots of room for learned Baha'is to "shape the teachings according to some criteria of personal choice or creativity", and indeed, this is the only thing that learned Baha'is or any Baha'is, or any human beings for that matter can do, because not one of us sees the whole truth. The best we can do, according to this philosophy, is depict to the best of our ability the pieces that we perceive...that is, our perceptions of the teachings of Baha'u'llah, rather than presuming to believe that we know what those teachings are in the abstract, in the objective, "as they are in reality". I suspect that many learned Baha'is will continue to function as artists, and that any attempt to curtail their "personal choice or creativity" may well do more harm to Baha'i discourse than to allow and indeed to encourage a "thousand blossoms to bloom".

"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. [17]"

As the Guardian wrote, "The Revelation proclaimed by Bahá'u'lláh, His followers believe, is divine in origin, all-embracing in scope, broad in its outlook, scientific in its method..." and if it is "scientific in its method" then it must adhere or apply in some way the methods of the sciences. As the Universal House of Justice wrote to the religious leaders of the world, "...religious convictions, no matter how cherished they may be, must submit, willingly and gratefully, to impartial testing by scientific methods." In view of these comments, it appears inevitable that learned Baha'is will seek to apply scientific methods to the study of the Baha'i teachings, Baha'i community and Baha'i institutions. Indeed, we are exhorted to "submit, willingly and gratefully, to impartial testing by scientific methods" of our more "cherished...religious convictions". What confidence these statements indicate, confidence in scientific methodology, and confidence in our most cherished convictions, as well as confidence in the truth of the Revelation of Baha'u'llah. By definition, if Baha'is are to be engaged the Revelation of Baha'u'llah, which is "scientific in its method", then they must be impartial observers. Scientists cannot be partial and partisan, for otherwise they discredit themselves, and discredit the conclusions of their studies. While there is an unresolved discussion that extends far beyond the confines of the Baha'i community as to whether anyone can be truly "impartial" and whether anyone can "stand apart from the community to study it without influencing it or being influenced by it", nonetheless it is evident that objective methods presuming impartiality have been utilized in the sciences, and have been regarded as integral to the scientific method for centuries. There are many learned Baha'is who do their very best to apply scientific methods to the study of some aspect of the Faith and who try to be impartial observers. They try not to be swayed by what other Baha'is or other academics think and believe. They associate this impartiality with a cardinal Baha'i principle, that of the independent investigation of reality.

"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... [17]"

Some learned Baha'i are like scouts...others are more like gatekeepers, priests, anthropologists, archeologists, artists, and even the scouts usually try to be impartial observers, to see things through their own eyes rather than through the eyes of another. The degree to which the learned Baha'i "participates actively in the journey" depends to a very large degree on the receptivity of the community undertaking that journey to making space for their presence, their valueing, their inclusion. If the community on the journey has no place for learned Baha'is, or if they make learned Baha'is feel unvalidated, they should not expect to see them participating shoulder to shoulder with themselves. This is particularly true of Baha'i leadership, of Baha'i institutions--if they wish for learned Baha'is to participate actively in the life of the community, they must ensure that learned Baha'is are valued and included. The "scout" reports back to the journeying party and its leadership, and based on the scout's preview of what is to come on the journey, decisions are made that are of critical importance to everyone. Is that how learned Baha'is are treated by their fellow believers, and by the leadership of their community of faith? I am sure that many Baha'i learned would like to be treated like scouts...but until and unless that actually happens, in order to survive psychologically, socially, financially, they will continue to wear the multiple hats that they have worn for more than a century. And perhaps that plurality of function has kept us searching for truth with open hearts, with open minds, and if so, that's all for the good.

With warm regards,

Peter Terry

Pioneering Over Four Epochs said...

Readers here might enjoy another take on the new culture of learning in the Baha'i community since the mid-1990s. Go to Baha'i Library Online and click on "By author" at the top of the access page. Type "Price" in the author box and click on the word "Go." Then scroll down to the 46th item and you will be able to read a 14,000 word article written in 2008/9.-Ron Price, Tasmania

Pioneering Over Four Epochs said...

I have updated that article on the new culture of learning and growth, the new paradigm, in the Baha'i community that has been developing since the mid-1990s. That article/essay is now 125 pages and 60,000 words and can be located in the same place at Baha'i Library Online.-Ron Price in George Town Tasmania

Pioneering Over Four Epochs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pioneering Over Four Epochs said...

I deleted my comment because it was the only way to correct the spelling error that I had made. Go to this link for my newly updated book on the new Baha'i paradgim. My book contains commentary and inclusions from the most recent messages of the aqppointed and elected institutions of the Cause to: 21/4/'12.

Just skim and scan the post because the book is now over 500 pages at font-14.-Ron Price, Tasmania

Pioneering Over Four Epochs said...

This is the link:
http://bahai-library.com/price_culture_learning_paradigm

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