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Is criticism allowed?

May 28, 2015

A number of responses by Bahais on several Facebook groups to my previous blog “Critiquing the Universal House of Justice” indicated that I was doing something wrong by critiquing. Some called this criticism. For arguments sake, I thought, let’s see if criticism is allowed in the Bahai Teachings?

Baha’u’llah’s writings contain many references to the importance of seeking knowledge for oneself such as:
“The incomparable Creator hath created all men from one same substance, and hath exalted their reality above the rest of His creatures. Success or failure, gain or loss, must, therefore, depend upon man’s own exertions. The more he striveth, the greater will be his progress.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 81-82)
And not only that, but: “Knowledge is one of the wondrous gifts of God. It is incumbent upon everyone to acquire it.” (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 39)
Abdul-Baha wrote: “Thank thou God that He hath given thee a power for discriminating the reality of things.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v1, p. 79)
So it seems that being critical, in the sense of thinking or looking into things for oneself, is so important that in Baha’u’llah’s words, a person “must search after the truth to the utmost of his ability and exertion, that God may guide him in the paths of His favour and the ways of His mercy.” (Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 27-28)

So far I have not found any text by Baha’u’llah nor ‘Abdul-Baha that restricts the topics one is allowed to critique, although there is also a stress on the importance of unity and warnings about not using words just for their own sake. To me this means we should question our motive, or at least be open to change, if we find that our motive is not productive. It seems to me that it would be up to each of us to determine what is meant by motive or being productive. For me, obeying an instruction without question, without considering the implications, is not a very productive route to take. I obey road rules because I understand them and because I understand them I can use them, I hope, with wisdom. There might be occasions when I have to break them – to save someone’s life, for example. If I only follow rules without question, I would not be in a position to adjust to a new situation, such as if I should see someone collapsed on the street and quick action is necessary.

So back to the topic. It seems to me there is nothing in Bahai Scripture that states we are not allowed to critique or to criticise, but there is plenty to warn us that we should use wisdom so we do not cause divisions.

To avoid the problem of Bahais mistaking my critique as divisive I wrote in my last blog:
Abdu’l-Baha said that we must obey the Guardian to safeguard the “mighty stronghold,” the Baha’i community. The same could be said of obedience to the House of Justice, which is the Head of the Bahai community today. Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha wanted to avoid the problems other religions had of being torn into schisms, so they emphasized obedience very strongly. It doesn’t mean that Bahais can’t think for themselves.
So I am free to disagree and to critique, but I am not free to go and claim any form of leadership or a new Bahai religion. I am also not interested in any ideas associated with what might be called reform because I see no need for these. My arguments and the ideas I express on my blog here as just a Bahai aim to follow Baha’u’llah’s pleas for each of us to be “an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 93)

If I wanted to lobby the Universal House of Justice or wanted to attempt to have any influence on them, I would write a letter directly to the Institution, but I do not. I do not see it as my place and I do not think they should take any notice of what any particular Bahai might say. Their goal, I think, should be on how best to act according to their understandings and in line with the Teachings of Baha’u’llah.
“…the Universal House of Justice is not omniscient; like the Guardian, it wants to be provided with facts when called upon to render a decision, and like him it may well change its decision when new facts emerge” Secretariat for the Universal House of Justice, 22 Aug, 1977

In critiquing the first few paragraphs of the 2014, May 9th letter penned by the secretariat of the Universal House of Justice I was looking at what the words seem to mean or imply to me. In doing this, I am not suggesting how I would write this nor am I making any form of an evaluation, only a critique. That’s all. I wouldn’t assume that I would know a better way, and I say this not out of fear but out of principle. Bahais should be free to critique everything including texts written by the Universal House of Justice, knowing that the Universal House of Justice has the authority to have the final word. I am not critiquing their authority. Why would I?

I think it is human nature to speak up when you see something you disagree with and to say nothing when you do agree. Most of my blogs here are written because I am trying to grapple with what I perceive as discrimination against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. But another aspect of Baha’u’llah’s teachings is that they focus on the positive and optimistic. Abdul-Baha wrote “…the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age, this glorious century. Of this past ages have been deprived, for this century — the century of light — hath been endowed with unique and unprecedented glory, power and illumination. Hence the miraculous unfolding of a fresh marvel every day.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 31). I am a Bahai because of the positive. My words here are because I believe the Bahai teachings allow for critique and criticism and if I critique something it doesn’t mean that I know better, but if I don’t critique then I will only have myself to blame. Personally I think self-censorship is the worst form of censorship.

If criticism was not allowed then we would end up with a managed democracy, much like how Iran currently operates, where there are elements of free speech, but the parameters for differences of opinion or investigation are controlled by an authority in power who can operate without transparency or accountability.

A statement from the Bahai International Community, a PR department of the Universal House of Justice, sums this up nicely: “Those who wield authority bear a great responsibility to be worthy of public trust. Leaders — including those in government, politics, business, religion, education, the media, the arts and community organizations — must be willing to be held accountable for the manner in which they exercise their authority.” (Baha’i International Community, 1998 Feb 18, Valuing Spirituality in Development)

Also, unlike other religious authorities in the world, the Universal House of Justice may not interpret what the Bahai Teachings are, but at the same it has full freedom to make policy and to change this policy in light of its understandings of the teachings and of current issues. This is another revolutionary aspect of Baha’u’llah’s teachings – an authority which can change its own policy. One reason Bahais get upset at me is that they see the Universal House of Justice’s policies as being set in stone.

“We make these observations not to indulge in criticism of any system, but rather to open up lines of thought, to encourage a re-examination of the bases of modern society, and to engender a perspective for consideration of the distinctive features of the Order of Bahá’u’lláh. What, it could be asked, was the nature of society that gave rise to such characteristics and such philosophies? Where have these taken mankind? Has their employment satisfied the needs and expectations of the human spirit?” (The Universal House of Justice, 1988, Dec 29, Individual Rights and Freedoms, p. 6)

Is there any reason why it would be un-Bahai, to take the same approach and ask the same questions of the evolving policy of the Universal House of Justice regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage? It has changed over time, and for the better, as the science and the social understanding of questions has developed. But this blog is looking just at the 2014, May 9th letter penned by the secretariat of the Universal House of Justice and the first step is to clarify for myself just what the Universal House of Justice is saying now.

A comparison with letters from the 1980s would show the development, and could be used as evidence of the flexibility that Shoghi Effendi takes pride in (World of Baha’u’llah, p. 54). That trajectory will continue. Those who reject criticism or critique of any present policy seem to be implicitly supposing that whatever may have changed in the past, the policy is now perfected and the flexibility is at an end — so analysis is futile.

For some Bahais it appears that any form of critique, whatever the topic, is a big no, no. Here are a few responses to my question “Can a Bahai critique texts penned by the Universal House of Justice or the Department of the Secretariat?”

Bahai A: No. We must leave our egos behind and obey the word of God

Bahai B: If I want to come to the point of critiquing Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi, or the Universal House of Justice (which is the only authorized elucidator of the Writings), I would simply take my name off the list.

Bahai C: …it depends. If one’s purpose and attitude is to better understand or to bring up an unforeseen consequence, surely so; if one is trying to undermine the institution or to showcase oneself… no.

It is not a Bahai Teaching that letters penned by the Universal House of Justice are “letters from God.” In fact, both Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi were very clear about the separation of spheres between legislation (making rules and policy which the Universal House of Justice does) as separate from Bahai Scripture and Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi’s interpretations of this.

“As Shoghi Effendi explained, “…it is made indubitably clear and evident that the Guardian of the Faith has been made the Interpreter of the Word and that the Universal House of Justice has been invested with the function of legislating on matters not expressly revealed in the teachings.” The Universal House of Justice, 7 Dec, 1969, published in Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1963 to 1986

“Shoghi Effendi has given categorical assurances that neither the Guardian nor the Universal House of Justice ‘can, nor will ever, infringe upon the sacred and prescribed domain of the other.’ Therefore, the friends can be sure that the Universal House of Justice will not engage in interpreting the Holy Writings. . . .” The Universal House of Justice, 25 Oct 1984, Messages of the Universal House of Justice 1963-1986, p. 645

Bahais are free to their opinions as much as I am to mine, but we do need to be careful if we assert that what we say is a Bahai Teaching. So I am free to critique and still remain a Bahai.

Not only is it not a Bahai Teaching that I cannot critique, but that I should critique the Bahai Writings. If I can critique Baha’u’llah’s writings, then why not texts penned by the Universal House of Justice?

Another Bahai pasted a section from a 1997 letter penned by the secretariat of the Universal House of Justice – “Furthermore, at the very end of the Will and Testament, in warning against the danger of Covenant-breaking, `Abdu’l-Bahá wrote: ‘Beware lest anyone falsely interpret these words, and like unto them that have broken the Covenant after the Day of Ascension (of Bahá’u’lláh) advance a pretext, raise the standard of revolt, wax stubborn, and open wide the door of false interpretation.’ In this context, He continues: ‘To none is given the right to put forth his own opinion or express his particular conviction. All must seek guidance and turn unto the Centre of the Cause and the House of Justice. And he that turneth unto whatsoever else is indeed in grievous error.’” (Secretariat of the Universal House of Justice, 3 June 1997)

Without any further context it appears that Abdul-Baha is saying that our own opinion or expression is not allowed, however what Abdul-Baha was referring to at the end of the Will and Testament was to avoid the schisms and infighting after the death of Baha’u’llah. Abdul-Baha meant that we (Bahais) must accept Shoghi Effendi as Centre of the Cause. Here is more of the text which makes this context clear
“O ye the faithful loved ones of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá! It is incumbent upon you to take the greatest care of Shoghi Effendi, …. he is, after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Guardian of the Cause of God … the beloved of the Lord must obey him and turn unto him. He that obeyeth him not, hath not obeyed God; he that turneth away from him, hath turned away from God and he that denieth him, hath denied the True One. Beware lest anyone falsely interpret these words, and like unto them that have broken the Covenant after the Day of Ascension (of Bahá’u’lláh) advance a pretext, raise the standard of revolt, wax stubborn and open wide the door of false interpretation. To none is given the right to put forth his own opinion or express his particular conviction. All must seek guidance and turn unto the Center of the Cause and the House of Justice. And he that turneth unto whatsoever else is indeed in grievous error”(Abdu’l-Baha, The Will and Testament, p. 25)

So now we can see that the ‘grievous error’ is to fail in our duty to turn to Shoghi Effendi or not to obey the Universal House of Justice. The grievous error is not that we express our opinion or critique.

Another Bahai posted an excerpt from the same 1997 letter “As you recognize, the authority of the Universal House of Justice is unchallengeable.” But critiquing or even criticism of a letter penned by the secretariat does not challenge the authority of the Universal House of Justice. In fact, because the authority of the Universal of Justice is so solid, so clearly outlined in Bahai Scripture, I think it should be clear that any criticism or critique of any texts has to do with the content at hand and not to do with their authority.

I finish by quoting Udo Schaefer a Bahai scholar: “It is dangerously reductionist — almost a dismemberment of our faith — to portray rational thought and the qualities of the heart, rationality and spirituality as opposites, and to identify critical thinking with an absence of spirituality. There is widespread skepticism — one might almost call it a profound mistrust — within the Bahá’í community, which has been directed at critical thinking. This is a serious prejudice, harmful to the faith.”
Schaefer, Loyalty to the Covenant and Critical Thought, p. 2)

And Abdul-Baha said: “The fourth teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the agreement of religion and science. God has endowed man with intelligence and reason whereby he is required to determine the verity of questions and propositions. If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science, they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible, and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation.” (9 June 1912 Talk at Baptist Temple, Broad and Berks Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.180)

I am just a Bahai, and this means that I aim to question, and to seek clarity, and to express my opinions. I do believe that through the clash of differing opinions, sparks of truth illuminate understanding.

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