Sunday, May 22, 2005

One Common Faith, paragraph 36

Besides, the diversity of practices, the paper goes on to condemn the clergy of earlier religions, for their theological views:

More detrimental still to religious understanding has been theological presumption. A persistent feature of religion's sectarian past has been the dominant role played by clergy. In the absence of scriptural texts that established unarguable institutional authority, clerical elites succeeded in arrogating to themselves exclusive control over interpretation of the Divine intent. However diverse the motives, the tragic effects have been to impede the current of inspiration, discourage independent intellectual activity, focus attention on the minutiae of rituals and too often engender hatred and prejudice towards those following a different sectarian path from that of self-appointed spiritual leaders. While nothing could prevent the creative power of Divine intervention from continuing its work of progressively raising consciousness, the scope of what could be achieved, in any age, became increasingly limited by such artificially contrived obstacles

I think this is a little harsh -- after all, for centuries, the vast majority of people were not literate, and could not pursue "independent intellectual activity" even if they wanted to. I was just reading a while back that women in Saudi Arabia have gone from mostly illiterate to mostly literate only within the last generation. You can only begin to dispense with clergy when most adherents are educated -- and even then clerical training has some value, certainly in terms of study in the scriptural languages, and in having a perspective on the history of the tradition. In fact, technically, Judaism and Islam doesn't have "clergy", like Christianity; what they have are "scholars" which these communities depended upon to give rulings on religious law, because they are knowledgeable.

Besides, I don't find that Baha'i administrators are free from the faults it attributes to clergymen -- it has done its own share of "impeding the current of inspiration and discouraging independent intellectual activity". For all the claims that no one has individual authority within the Baha'i Faith, upper-level Baha'i administrators are enormously powerful, and their ideas very influential, even at times becoming doctrine with very little basis in the Writings. The idea that the Baha'i Faith is opposed to individualism is one outstanding example. And just like the religious leaders of old, Baha'i administrators are extremely concerned with holding on to their authority, reacting vehemently to the least challenge. The conflict I mentioned in my previous entry within the Anglican church over the acceptance of homosexuality would be inconcievable in the Baha'i Faith -- a person like Maggie Ross could easily be booted out of the Faith for writing an article like that, and that would happen long before any sort of cohesive movement for reform got off the ground. But, as she pointed out, it isn't about homosexuality (or women's rights, or freedom of expression or whatever issue you want to name); the response of religious leadership is really about power and control. And one feature of modern life that is going to cripple any chance the Baha'i Faith has to be more than just an exotic alternative to mainstream religion is that people can choose not to be ordered around by their religious leaders -- and they will. Even conservative Christian preachers complain that their congregations won't hang around on Sunday if they are lectured about their sins, creating an ethical dilmemma over whether or not folks in the pews should be told what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. And the Baha'i administration does more than lecture; Baha'is live under the threat of sanction to a much greater extent than any of the well-established religions, and that's one reason so many leave.

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