Monday, December 29, 2003

I ran into an article the other day by Udo Schaefer, called Loyalty to the Covenant and Critical Thought I actually have a warm spot for Schaefer -- he’s one Baha’i writer that I can say was an influence on me when I was enrolled, but then he’ll go and say things that irritate the hell out of me. Most of the article I agree with -- he quite eloquently speaks about anti-intellectualism in the Baha’i community, and its dangers. He even talks about how accusations against intellectuals that they are “against the Covenant” are responsible for the dissidence online, although I note that he carefully avoids saying that the fundamentalists that caused this are not just run-of-the-mill ignoramuses, but in powerful positions in the administration itself. The situation of the narrow-minded accusing Baha’i liberals of being uncovenantal has been around for a long time; what made things explode (or as he puts it, made liberals “throw the baby out with the bath water”) in 1996 was that the UHJ started making the same accusation. Then, those such as myself who were appalled by the situation became equally “uncovenantal”, because the “infallible” UHJ made these judgements. A Baha’i can treat fundamentalists as an irritant to be put up with, until the point comes when they are directly threatening you with administrative authority behind them.

What irritated me was his characterization of liberals as being “in danger of ignoring the revelation”, and “influenced by the Zeitgeist”. I guess I’ve been in too many Internet discussions where fundies pull out the line that “you can’t pick and choose”, and implying that liberals are just not all that serious about Baha’u’llah. I actually had one of them tell me that I ought to just find a liberal Christian church, so I can do what I want -- as if to be liberal means that it doesn’t matter at all what religion you sign up for because you’re sort of creating your own anyway. That sort of attitude just drives me bananas.

I don’t know of any group of people that have taken the Writings more seriously, and examined them more closely than Baha’i liberals. I don’t hear anyone saying “La-di-da, that’s out of date; let’s pitch it”. The liberal arguments are a whole lot more thoughtful that Schaefer gives them credit for. The prime example is his discussion of the liberal tolerance of homosexuality. The impression I get is that he can’t even have read the online arguments about this -- he’s just shaking his head over how anyone could possible ignore the plain prohibition against homosexual acts in the Writings. First of all, even if one conceded that homosexual activity is against Baha’i law, there is absolutely nothing in that law that requires that gays be treated as many have been in the community. Silly myths abound -- Baha’u’llah is supposed to have called homosexuality an abomination (that’s Leviticus, not the Aqdas), or that His pen broke at the very mention of such a horrible sin. Baha’u’llah did not even set a punishment for it -- the Baha’i community could make it entirely a matter of personal conscience if it chose. As a Baha’i, I am required to abide by Baha’i law -- but I am not required to lecture, harass, shun, or otherwise mistreat others who have difficulty with the law, or who may disagree with my understanding of it. Schaeffer characterizes the very “support” liberal Baha’is give to homosexuals as a violation of Baha’i law. It isn’t against Baha’i law to show sympathy and tolerance towards people.

Secondly, Baha’u’llah did not prohibit “homosexuality”; He prohibited two specific acts: pederasty, and sodomy. And those two passages are the only mention of the subject in the Writings, as far as I know. Schaeffer quotes the passage that prohibits sodomy as a kind of absolute proof of his position, but “sodomy” is not equivalent to “homosexuality”. For one thing, female homosexuals don’t commit “sodomy” or use “boys“ for their sexual enjoyment, so Baha’u’llah didn’t say a single word about them. From what I can tell, the Arabic term “livat” is just as flexible in meaning as the term sodomy is in English. In California law, a person who commits sodomy has specifically committed forcible anal intercourse, and the victim could be either male or female. So, the bottom line is, it isn’t that cut-and-dried, and anyone who has followed liberal arguments on this ought to know that. Other than those two brief references, there are letters written on Shoghi Effendi’s behalf, which I think are very problematic from the standpoint of Baha’i law. I have a real hard time seeing letters by secretaries as authoritative interpretation. Now, I do think that they reflect Shoghi Effendi’s opinion, namely that all homosexuality is immoral. However, there is not a solid basis for a blanket prohibition in the Writings themselves. I regard it as a thing that the community just has to hash out -- but there are real arguments on the liberal side, not just the “Zeitgeist”. It’s a matter of looking at what the Writings say, and even more importantly, what they *don’t* say.

Another statement that bugged me was this: A theologian is not merely a student of religion; he is committed to his faith. He who pursues religious studies just for their own sake ... and sacrifices his spiritual ties and commitment to the revelation on the altar of studies, offers no benefits, but only causes damage. Now just exactly what is that supposed to mean? Religious studies is certainly a legitimate field of inquiry, and simply because one writes about it from an academic point of view is not a sign of lack of commitment to one’s own religion. Not everyone has to be a theologian or apologist.

The other thing that bothered me is that he claimed that “the view has been voiced that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ was not infallible because he never declared that he was infallible.” I don’t know where this is from. Most of the discussion about infallibility online has been over that of the UHJ and Guardian. When ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s infallibility is discussed, it is usually in the context of his statements that contradict what we now know about science and history. But the weirdest statement of all is this one: A teaching authority only makes sense when it is infallible, when truth is fixed in a binding manner. Otherwise, there would be no authority at all, and everyone could be their own “Pope”. This is plain ridiculous. You don’t have to be infallible to be have authority -- I think this is a big mistake Baha’is make, and it’s behind a lot of the attitude fundamentalists have. There is something in between infallibility, and everyone “being Pope” -- namely, a distinction between authoritative representations of the Baha’i Faith’s position, and opinions given by individual believers. Shoghi Effendi himself said that religious truth is relative, so why does it have to be “fixed in a binding manner”? This fear of the individual somehow making himself God crops up regularly in Schaeffer’s writing; it’s a real bugaboo for him, and seems frankly bizarre in a paper that is otherwise promoting the use of reason and an atmosphere of tolerance.

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