Sunday, May 15, 2005

One Common Faith, paragraphs 21-23

Few today among those who have some degree of objective familiarity with the subject are likely, therefore, to entertain an illusion that any one of the established religious systems of the past can assume the role of ultimate guide for humankind in the issues of contemporary life, even in the improbable event that its disparate sects should come together for that purpose.

Oh, I don't know. People who are seeking such guidance from their religion on these issues generally find it. The Bible doesn't say "Thou shalt not do research on stem cells obtained from aborted fetuses", yet many Christians find a religious basis to object.

Each one of what the world regards as independent religions is set in the mould created by its authoritative scripture and its history. As it cannot refashion its system of belief in a manner to derive legitimacy from the authoritative words of its Founder, it likewise cannot adequately answer the multitude of questions posed by social and intellectual evolution.

Religion is constantly being re-fashioned and re-interpreted, in every age. There are plenty of people who are quite certain they have all the answers they need. Of course, those answers don't do the rest of us that much good, because for them, the answer is for the rest of the world to adopt their religious viewpoint. In fact, I think this may be the kind of answer this paper is offering us.

Distressing as this may appear to many, it is no more than an inherent feature of the evolutionary process. Attempts to force a reversal of some kind can lead only to still greater disenchantment with religion itself and exacerbate sectarian conflict.

I am guessing that by "reversal" they mean the solutions proposed by fundamentalism -- which does disenchant those who can't swallow it and lead to sectarian conflict.

The dilemma is both artificial and self-inflicted.

The dilemma being, I suppose, that religion is needed, but none of the older traditions are adequate. Well, I suppose it is "self-inflicted" to choose a religion other than the Baha'i Faith.

The world order, if it can be so described, within which Bahá'ís today pursue the work of sharing Bahá'u'lláh's message is one whose misconceptions about both human nature and social evolution are so fundamental as to severely inhibit the most intelligent and well-intentioned endeavours at human betterment.

O.K., but this paper is quite vague on what Baha'i answers are going to be superior to those already tried.

Particularly is this true with respect to the confusion that surrounds virtually every aspect of the subject of religion. In order to respond adequately to the spiritual needs of their neighbours, Bahá'ís will have to gain an in-depth understanding of the issues involved. The effort of imagination this challenge requires can be appreciated from the advice that is perhaps the most frequently and urgently reiterated admonition in the writings of their Faith: to "meditate", to "ponder", to "reflect".

Again, there's this vagueness -- Baha'is are exhorted to think about these issues. That's great; I can get behind the notion of thinking about issues. I've been doing that right here, but I'm not sure the UHJ would appreciate the thoughts I've come up with.

A commonplace of popular discourse is that by "religion" is intended the multitude of sects currently in existence. Not surprisingly, such a suggestion at once arouses protest in other quarters that by religion is intended rather one or another of the great, independent belief systems of history that have shaped and inspired whole civilizations.

Actually, that depends on the awareness of the person one is talking to. Probably most Americans, when talk about "religions" think of the various denominations of Christianity. In the vernacular, to "get religion" means to become a Christian. Most of the people I know that have a broader awareness of religion are those that have been interested enough in the subject to look outside Christianity.

This point of view, in turn, however, runs up against the inevitable query as to where one will find these historic faiths in the contemporary world. Where, precisely, are "Judaism", "Buddhism", "Christianity", "Islam" and the others, since they obviously cannot be identified with the irreconcilably opposed organizations that purport to speak authoritatively in their names?

Actually, these religions are quite unconcerned about that. When Baha'is go bragging to Christians about how united they are, Christians just look at them blankly -- they don't view the multiplicity of denominations as a fault. Denominational lines have become less important than the liberal/fundamentalist divide, anyway. It reminds me a bit of when Christians criticize the Baha'i Faith for not promising salvation, saying "You don't know you're saved". Well, that's because it isn't an issue to us. If you're going to talk to other religions, a good first step might be to find out what they *do* care about.

Nor does the problem end there. Yet another response to the enquiry will almost certainly be that by religion is intended simply an attitude to life, a sense of relationship with a Reality that transcends material existence. Religion, so conceived, is an attribute of the individual person, an impulse not susceptible of organization, an experience universally available. Again, however, such an orientation will be seen by a majority of religiously minded persons as lacking the very authority of self-discipline and the unifying effect that give religion meaning.

The "spiritual, but not religious" category is one of the fastest-growing approaches to religion in this country. It must be meaningful to somebody. I would agree that it is sometimes approached in a rather haphazard fashion, where you're religious when you feel like it, but don't have to worry about any of those pesky restrictions on behavior. I have even seen supposed devotion to one's spiritual quest used as an excuse for utter selfishness. However, that does not necessarily have to be the case. Nor does formal adherence to an organized religion necessarily mean "self-discipline" and "unity". The person who goes to church on Sunday, and plays dirty the rest of the week is a cliche all of us have heard about. The person who prays and meditates daily, carefully weighing their moral actions, but does not belong to a religious community is certainly more devout than the one who checks in once a week in his best clothes and doesn't give God a thought the rest of the time.

Some objectors would even argue that, on the contrary, religion signifies the lifestyle of persons who, like themselves, have adopted severe regimens of daily ritual and self-denial that set them entirely apart from the rest of society.

Well, that most certainly is one form that religion can take.

What all such differing conceptions have in common is the extent to which a phenomenon that is acknowledged to completely transcend human reach has nevertheless gradually been imprisoned within conceptual limits-whether organizational, theological, experiential or ritualistic-of human invention.

Wait a minute. Didn't this document just say that being outside an organizational framework, and just operating as a spiritual individual was meaningless? I would certainly agree that God cannot be contained within any kind of conceptual limits, or organization, or theology, or ritual -- that's basic Baha'i teaching. In fact, the next several paragraphs go on to recap some basic Baha'i teachings, and so this is a good place to break.


Anonymous said...

Attempts to force a reversal of some kind can lead only to still greater disenchantment with religion itself and exacerbate sectarian conflict.

Personally, this seems to me to be a pretty good description of what the argument of this paper leads to, in so far as such an argument can be discerned from the clouds of confusing prose.

As such, the fact of this paper containing the seeds of its own criticism is an irony I can greatly appreciate.


Karen said...

Dear Paul,

Yeah, that's the sort of feeling I have, that this paper is leading "back to the future".

There has been an outline written of *One Common Faith*, which is supposed to be posted in the Baha'i Library soon. That might make the course of argument here a little easier to follow. I'd really like to see some mainstream Baha'i analysis, but while the *One Common Faith* has been talked about, and posted, I have yet to see any in-depth look at what its saying.

Skye said...

Wonderful that someone is posting critical comments on Baha'i. Have to find time to read your entire analysis, but 'back to the future' probably summarises well. I find it intriguing that Baha'i goes on about past religions not having a contemporary approach, then providing this minutia about how to live daily life which would seem to effectively prevent much mental expansion. I mean, alcohol is a sin for which you lose your church voting rights - where's the religious justification. At least Christian fundamentals limited themselves to basic precepts.