This letter has sparked considerable discussion on Baha'i forums for the last week or so, and only now have I had the chance to comment:
To all National Spiritual Assemblies
Dear Bahá’í Friends,
Recently, questions have arisen which have prompted the Universal House of Justice to comment further on matters treated in the compilation “Issues Related to the Study of the Bahá’í Faith”.
The Bahá’í principle calling for investigation of reality encourages an unfettered search for knowledge and truth by whoever wishes to engage in it. When applied to the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, it inevitably gives rise to a wide range of responses. Some, attracted to the Message, embrace the Cause as their own. Some may respond positively to certain precepts or principles and willingly collaborate toward shared aims. Some may find it to be an interesting social phenomenon worthy of study. Still others, content with their own beliefs, may reject its claims. Bahá’ís are taught to be respectful of the views of others, believing that conscience should not be coerced.
The claim that the Baha'i administration does not believe conscience should be coerced is quite simply false; they have repeatedly used the threat of sanctions and loss of membership on those they disapprove of. While, like most Baha'is they are tolerant of the beliefs of non-Baha'is, they are quite ruthless in making sure that Baha'is, especially those who are writers or public in some other way, toe the party line. In other words, freedom of conscience ends when you sign your membership card. The only way to regain that freedom, once you are made a target, is to resign that membership. When they say "freedom of conscience", they mean "freedom to be an enrolled member of the Baha'i Faith or not". They are quite happy for you to leave if you disagree with their interpretation of the Baha'i Writings, even if you are a passionate believer in Baha'u'llah -- and sometimes, they'll make you leave, whether you want to or not.
Upon becoming a Bahá’í, one accepts certain fundamental beliefs; but invariably one’s knowledge of the Teachings is limited and often mixed with personal ideas. Shoghi Effendi explains that “an exact and thorough comprehension of so vast a system, so sublime a revelation, so sacred a trust, is for obvious reasons beyond the reach and ken of our finite minds.” Over time, through study, prayerful reflection, and an effort to live a Bahá’í life, immature ideas yield to a more profound understanding of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation. Service to the Cause plays a particular role in the process, for the meaning of the Text is clarified as one translates insights into effective action. As a matter of principle, individual understanding or interpretation should not be suppressed, but valued for whatever contribution it can make to the discourse of the Bahá’í community. Nor should it, through dogmatic insistence of the individual, be allowed to bring about disputes and arguments among the friends; personal opinion must always be distinguished from the explicit Text and its authoritative interpretation by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi and from the elucidations of the Universal House of Justice on “problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book”.
This sounds very broad and liberal, but virtually *any* new perspective has the potential to cause "contention" because Baha'i conservatives react in such an extreme manner. The April 1999 letter, puts in this category such things as discussing the possibility of women serving on the House, the idea that the Baha'i Writings support the separation of church and state, and the hope that the mashriqu'l-adhkar will help develop a Baha'i community that is less administration-centered. All of these positions are squarely centered in the Baha'i Writings, yet people have been forced out of the Faith, or threatened for holding such "contentious" views.
As far as separating scripture from personal opinion, that's well-nigh impossible because people form differing views about what scripture actually means. What the administration means is that *their* collective and official view must be seen as the objective truth, and all other views are merely personal -- and if there is direct conflict, the other views can be targetted as unacceptable and "contentious". It should be remembered here that the House is, scripturally, given no interpretive power. That authority belonged to the now-defunct Guardianship, in whose name the UHJ now speaks.
In searching for understanding, Bahá’ís naturally acquaint themselves with published materials from a variety of sources. A book written by a disinterested non-Bahá’í scholar about the Faith, even if it reflects certain assumptions and puts forward conclusions acceptable within a given discipline but which are at variance with Bahá’í belief, poses no particular problem for Bahá’ís, who would regard these perceptions as an honest attempt to explore a religious phenomenon as yet little understood generally. Any non-biased effort to make the Faith comprehensible to a thoughtful readership, however inadequate it might appear, would evoke genuine Bahá’í appreciation for the perspective offered and research skill invested in the project. The matter is wholly different, however, when someone intentionally attacks the Faith.
This is an idea that has been repeated in several letters from the 1990s onward -- that it is perfectly o.k. for non-Baha'i scholars to approach the Baha'i Faith from an academic point of view, but it's not o.k. for a Baha'i to do so. There's a certain patronizing attitude here i.e. "It's so nice that you tried, within your inadequate and limited materialistic framework,to understand the Faith."
An inescapable duty devolves upon the friends so to situate themselves in the knowledge of the Teachings as to be able to respond appropriately to such a challenge as it arises and thus uphold the integrity of the Faith. The words of Bahá’u’lláh Himself shed light on the proper attitude to adopt. He warns
the believers “not to view with too critical an eye the sayings and writings of men”. “Let them”, He instructs, “rather approach such sayings and writings in a spirit of open-mindedness and loving sympathy. Those men, however, who, in this may, have been led to assail, in their inflammatory writings, the tenets of the Cause of God, are to be treated differently. It is incumbent upon all men, each according to his ability, to refute the arguments of those that have attacked the Faith of God.”
A different type of challenge arises when an individual or group, using the privilege of Bahá’í membership, adopts various means to impose personal views or an ideological agenda on the Bahá’í community.
This is back to the claim made in the April 1999 letter, that certain persons who are believed to be part of "a campaign of internal opposition" are attempting to "impose" their views. It has always baffled me how such "views" are to be "imposed". The world of ideas just doesn't work like that; one puts forth a thesis, and evidence to support it. The reader is free to accept or reject it. But the administration doesn't want that freedom; the fear is that ideas that conflict with the popular perception of Baha'i teaching may, through well-presented academic writings, become accepted within a significant portion of the community. It is, in fact, the administration that is trying to "impose" views; the scholars I know are trying to examine Baha'i history and scripture, and are putting forth their personal insights, and they have no power to "impose" anything. It is the administrators that have the power, and the status, within the community to insist that certain things are "fundamental" and may not be questioned or challenged, without undesirable consequences.
In one recent instance, for example, an individual has declared himself a “Bahá’í theologian, writing from and for a religious community,” whose aim is “to criticize, clarify, purify and strengthen the ideas of the Bahá’í community, to enable Bahá’ís to understand their relatively new Faith and to see what it can offer the world”.
This is presented as kind of a nefarious thing, but in context it is clear that the author is making a distinction between talking within a religious tradition, and coming from a purely academic viewpoint. To announce that one has some bias or vested interest in the subject being examined is a part of academic ethics; it is expected. Not only does the author specifically say that his book represents his personal viewpoint but that "I should declare at the outset that my stance is not that of a historian or academic scholar of the science of religion, but of a Bahai theologian, writing from and for a religious community . . ." Since Baha'is writing from an academic point of view "as if they were non-Baha'is" have been condemned, and a Baha'i writing "from and for a religious community" is also considered wrong, I'm not sure exactly how Baha'i writers are supposed to write at all -- except to echo what has already been established as orthodoxy. It's sad really that such a strict orthodoxy has arisen so early in the Baha'i Faith's history; we don't even have most of the Writings translated for most people to be able to read them and know what they say -- how, then, can we be so dogmatic about what is allowable and what is not?
Assertions of this kind go far beyond expressions of personal opinion, which any Bahá’í is free to voice. As illustrated, here is a claim that lies well outside the framework of Bahá’í belief and practice. Bahá’u’lláh has liberated human minds by prohibiting within His Faith any caste with ecclesiastical prerogatives that seeks to foist a self-assumed authority upon the thought and behaviour of the mass of believers.
To say that one is a "Baha'i theologian" does not imply "authority" within the religion. But I don't think that's the issue. If an approved-of author, particularly one having an administrative position, had written a book promoting a conservative point of view, and called himself a "Baha'i theologian", I doubt we'd be getting any objections. The problem is that the book in question challenges popular beliefs about the relationship between church and state in the Baha'i Writings. The author is not putting himself within a "caste with ecceslesiatical prerogatives", but challenging the entrenched dogma of the ecclesiastical authorities that already exist, who have made a pro-theocratic viewpoint into an official and unchallengeable teaching of the Baha'i Faith. The author's book, from what I understand, puts forward the thesis that the Baha'i Writings are, in fact, anti-theocratic. I leave it to the reader to decide which perspective is more likely to support a "caste with ecclesiastical prerogatives".
What is striking about this letter is that there seems to no other purpose to it other than to slander this particular author. Virtually everything else in it has been already said in earlier letters.
Indeed, He has prescribed a system that combines democratic practices with the application of knowledge through consultative processes.
And why should Baha'i authors, scholars, and yes, even theologians, not be allowed to participate in that process without fear that they will be accused of trying to undermine the Faith in some way?
The House of Justice is confident that the principles herein presented will enable the friends to benefit from diverse contributions resulting from exploration of the manifold implications of Bahá’u’lláh’s vast Revelation, while remaining impervious to the efforts of those few who, whether in an explicit or veiled manner, attempt to divert the Bahá’í community from essential understandings of the Faith.
O.K., here's the real issue -- that this author's belief that the Baha'i Faith institutions are not destined to evolve into a theocratic state, and that a "Baha'i State", by definition, would keep religion and government separate is considered a diversion from the "true" Baha'i teaching. But what "true" Baha'i teaching is what is contained in Baha'i scriptures, and those that are anti-theocracy argue from scripture, just like those who are pro-theocracy do. There is no longer any individual or institution that is scripturally qualified to impose a uniform interpretation of scripture on the Baha'i community. As in any other debate about ideas, the side with the strongest arguments and most solid evidence wins. But the UHJ has decided that a pro-theocratic stance is one of the "essentials" upon which Baha'is must agree, if they are to remain Baha'is. The question is "Why?" We are, after all, talking about something very speculative here; we are in the realm of millennial beliefs, ideas about what "God's Plan" for the future entails. It is just another instance where the definition of what it is to be a Baha'i is narrowing. Exactly how they think their dreams of the Baha'i Faith even growing enough even to become a significant influence in the world, much less a world theocracy, is going to happen if believing Baha'is are defined out of existence, and friends are named as enemies.