Archive for March, 2018

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Do Indigenous Prophets Count?

March 27, 2018

Recently in response to the article, Recognizing and Respecting the Sacred Lakota Traditions by Christopher Buck + Kevin Locke on the BahaiTeachings blog a Baha’i objected to the idea that White Buffalo Calf Woman could be a Prophet of God for the Lakota in line with the Baha’i teaching that God has sent many prophets of God throughout time and to differing peoples.

One of the objections that this Baha’i made was that he said that there were only 9 existing religions and hence only 9 messengers of God were therefore possible. This Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi supports this: “The number nine which in itself is the number of perfection is considered by the Bahá’ís as sacred because it is symbolic of the perfection of the Bahá’í Revelation which constitutes the ninth in the line of existing religions, the latest and fullest Revelation which mankind has ever known. The eighth is the religion of the Báb, and the remaining seven are: Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the religion of the Sabeans. These religions are not the only true religions that have appeared in the world, but are the only ones still existing. There have always been divine Prophets and Messengers, to many of whom the Qur’án refers. But the only ones existing are those mentioned above.”
(From letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, July 28, 1936: Bahá’í News, No. 105, February 1937, p. 2, Lights of Guidance, p. 414)

We could argue that the secretary who penned this letter in 1936 didn’t know of the existence of the Lakota people or that the secretary thought that the Lakota didn’t have an existing belief system or we could argue that this letter was intended as advice to the addressee (see: “when he gives advice” (1944)). “(S)ometimes one statement is exactly the right for one type of mind and wrong thing another.” (see the letter below) Perhaps if we saw the question that was asked, the intention might be clearer.

There is a later letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which also states that there are only 9 religions and hence only 9 Prophets of God possible: “First, regarding the significance of the number nine; its importance as a symbol used so often in various connections by the believers lies in three facts: first, it symbolizes the nine great world religions of which we have any definite historical knowledge, including the Bábí and Bahá’í Revelations; second, it represents the number of perfection, being the highest single number; third, it is the numerical value of the word ‘Baha'”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, July 9, 1939, Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 414.)

And there is also a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which states the number nine refers to the numerical meaning of the word Baha “…In telling people of the 9 religions of the world, that is, existing religions, we should not give this as the reason the Temple has 9 sides. This may have been an idea of the architect, and a very pleasing idea, which can be mentioned in passing, but the Temple has 9 sides because of the association of 9 with perfection, unity and ‘Baha’.

“The Guardian feels that with intellectuals and students of religion the question of exactly which are the existing religions is controversial, and it would be better to avoid it. He does not want the friends to be rigid in these matters, but use their judgement and tact, sometimes one statement is exactly the right for one type of mind and wrong thing another.

“Strictly speaking the 5-pointed star is the symbol of our Faith, as used by the Báb and explained by Him. But the Guardian does not feel it is wise or necessary to complicate our explanations of the Temple by adding this.”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, October 28, 1949, Lights of Guidance, p. 415)

I have pasted the 1949 letter in the same formatting as can be found in the 1983 book of compilations, Lights of Guidance. This letter is also in the book, Directives from the Guardian but there the dating of letters is not clear whereas in Lights of Guidance it is clear and so I would assume that the editor made the spacing for a reason – to show that the gaps were in the original letter or that the excerpts come from parts of a longer letter.

So what do I do as a Bahai? I go to the Bahai Scripture and see what is written there. I didn’t find any number for how many prophets of God there have been. Here is Baha’u’llah: “A divine Manifestation Who hath extolled and magnified the one true God, exalted be His glory, Who hath borne witness to His knowledge and confessed that His Essence is sanctified above all things and exalted beyond every comparison — such a Manifestation hath been called at various times a worshipper of the sun or a fire-worshipper. How numerous are those sublime Manifestations and Revealers of the Divine of Whose stations the people remain wholly unaware, of Whose grace they are utterly deprived, nay, God forbid, Whom they curse and revile!”
(Baha’u’llah, Tabernacle_of_Unity)

I found not only the word “numerous” but also the idea that all these messengers have equal importance.
“…all the Prophets and Messengers of God as one soul and one body, as one light and one spirit, in such wise that the first among them would be last and the last would be first. For they have all arisen to proclaim His Cause and have established the laws of divine wisdom. They are, one and all, the Manifestations of His Self, the Repositories of His might, the Treasuries of His Revelation, the Dawning-Places of His splendour and the Daysprings of His light. Through them are manifested the signs of sanctity in the realities of all things and the tokens of oneness in the essences of all beings. Through them are revealed the elements of glorification in the heavenly realities and the exponents of praise in the eternal essences. From them hath all creation proceeded and unto them shall return all that hath been mentioned. And since in their inmost Beings they are the same Luminaries and the self-same Mysteries, thou shouldst view their outward conditions in the same light, that thou mayest recognize them all as one Being, nay, find them united in their words, speech, and utterance.”
(Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 34-35)

So we have one letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which states “the question of exactly which are the existing religions is controversial, and it would be better to avoid it. … sometimes one statement is exactly the right for one type of mind and wrong thing another.” (October 28, 1949) and we have two other letters which state that there are only 9 existing religions.

Because these letters have a lesser authority, I am not thrown into confusion about which letter is correct. If the idea that there are only 9 religions is only expressed in a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi and nowhere else in Bahai Scripture, then that is not enough of an argument as far as I am concerned to make this a Bahai Teaching. A letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi cannot create a Bahai Teaching because Shoghi Effendi assigned a lesser authority to these letters than his own authority as official interpreter (See my blog Does a letter from a secretary create a Bahai Teaching?). Bahais can and do interpret Baha’u’llah’s words more or less inclusively. Personally I think interpreting what Baha’u’llah writes more inclusively makes more sense because this approach is endorsed by other Bahai Writings that stress unity in diversity as a teaching for the world and not just parts of the world.

If the Universal House of Justice were to state that Bahai communities were only allowed to accept 9 religions, then this would be policy they have the authority to make, and Bahai communities would have to obey this but the Universal House of Justice cannot tell us, individually, how to interpret the word “numerous” Baha’u’llah uses. The Universal House of Justice has the authority to make policy based on their own understanding of Baha’u’llah’s Texts as well as any other texts that are relevant to the policy they are making. If it were to be found, for example that there was no finite number stated by Baha’u’llah, then a later Universal House of Justice is free to make differing policy based on differing understanding or because this new policy is the best policy of the conditions of the times. This is all hypothetical because as far as I know there is no policy from the Universal House of Justice making any sort of statement on the number of world religions. There is a 1996 letter from the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice responding to a request to make a statement that Prophets of God appeared in the Americas: “The Bahá’í Teachings do not explicitly confirm, nor do they rule out, the possibility that Messengers of God have appeared in the Americas.”
(Excerpt from a Memorandum from the Research Department addressed to the Universal House of Justice dated 16 May 1996)

So if there is nothing in Bahai Scripture to state that there are a finite number of religions then the next thing would be to look and see how the Manifestations of God are spoken of, to see whether White Buffalo Calf Woman could possibly be counted as one of these “numerous … Revealers of the Divine”

“… consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship, to proclaim that which the Speaker on Sinai hath set forth and to observe fairness in all matters. They that are endued with sincerity and faithfulness should associate with all the peoples and kindreds of the earth with joy and radiance, inasmuch as consorting with people hath promoted and will continue to promote unity and concord, which in turn are conducive to the maintenance of order in the world and to the regeneration of nations. Blessed are such as hold fast to the cord of kindliness and tender mercy and are free from animosity and hatred.” (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 35-36)

I found a number of texts that express “all religions” or all beliefs but none that limit where these prophets come from. However this Bahai made the argument that all prophets of God could only originate in countries “from the Orient,” which is based on unauthentic text attributed to Abdul-Baha and I will look at that in my next blog.

 

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Does this mean that one may not express critical thought?

March 19, 2018

Freedom of Speech cartoon found on a blog possibly by a Russian cartoonist. The initials are AZ.

Cartoon found on this blog,
possibly by a Russian cartoonist
by the name of Azim or AZ where I have
changed the texts.

Recently in a discussion a Baha’i wrote:
“We as Baha’is I believe should look at each quote and prescribe it to ourselves. This is one I take very much to heart”.
“To accept the Cause without the administration is like to accept the teachings without acknowledging the divine station of Bahá’u’lláh. To be a Bahá’í is to accept the Cause in its entirety. To take exception to one basic principle is to deny the authority and sovereignty of Bahá’u’lláh, and therefore is to deny the Cause. The administration is the social order of Bahá’u’lláh. Without it all the principles of the Cause will remain abortive. To take exception to this, therefore, is to take exception to the fabric that Bahá’u’lláh has prescribed; it is to disobey His law.”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, May 30, 1930: Bahá’í News, No. 43, August 1930, p. 3)

This Baha’i was using this quotation to imply that “to exception to” meant that no one is allowed to disagree with any policy of the head of the Bahai Administration, The Universal House of Justice. I then looked for the context to this letter because I think Baha’is are free to express their personal opinions on the topic of equality for the LGBTQ community or same sex marriage. This was the context for the sharing of that quotation.

It is my view that one of the most basic of the Bahá’í principles is that each individual has the right and duty to seek out the truth which means the individual’s right to free expression, but I also believe that the context for how one expresses one’s views is just as important and sometimes silence might be better than causing pain or suffering. That is how I interpret Baha’u’llah’s text: “Say: Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets.” (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 143)

Sometimes silence is best and sometimes speaking up is best. So are there rules for Bahais in relation to freedom of speech?

Shoghi Effendi wrote:
“At the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views. If certain instructions of the Master are today particularly emphasized and scrupulously adhered to, let us be sure that they are but provisional measures designed to guard and protect the Cause in its present state of infancy and growth until the day when this tender and precious plant shall have sufficiently grown to be able to withstand the unwisdom of its friends and the attacks of its enemies.” (Bahai Administration, p. 63)

The second sentence does not refer to limiting the freedom of expression of the individual. It refers to “prepublication literature review” which Abdul-Baha brought in as a temporary measure. This means that Bahais are not allowed to publish any book, paper or article without a committee approving the contents of this. However the UHJ has stated clearly that blogs or websites are free from this as long as the author makes it clear that what they write is just their own understanding.
“In general, at this stage in the development of the World Wide Web, the House of Justice feels that those friends desiring to establish personal homepages on the Internet as a means of promoting the Faith should not be discouraged from doing so. It is hoped that the friends will adopt etiquettes consistent with the principles of the Faith, including clearly indicating what materials constitute their own interpretations. While it is inevitable that some attempts will be found wanting, the House of Justice has not formulated guidelines or policies specifically addressed to Internet sites.” (The Universal House of Justice, 1997 Apr 24, Personal Web Pages Promoting the Faith Approved)

So what does “to take exception to one basic principle” refer to in that letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi? And how might it have been perceived by the readers in 1930?

I found that “to take exception to the fabric that Bahá’u’lláh has prescribed; it is to disobey His law” refers to rejecting the idea of a Bahai administration.

Some background
From 1914 onwards some Baha’is thought that the reference in Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-i-Aqdas to Houses of Justice was about a form of parliament and that the Baha’i community was not to have any form of administration. In fact the number of references to the idea that the “Bahai Movement is not an organization…” suggests that it was a common idea among various Bahais of the times (See a circa 1917 publication) as it was attributed to Abdul-Baha via a pilgrim’s note. See Sen McGlinn’s blog (“You can never organize the Bahai Cause”) where he shows more context for this.

The text is not authentically Abdul-Baha. Page 4 of the booklet, Some Vital Bahai Teachings by Charles Mason Remey, published circa 1917

NOTE: The text is not authentically Abdul-Baha. Page 4 of the booklet, Some Vital Bahai Teachings by Charles Mason Remey, published circa 1917. See the booklet here


Then in March 1922, in the magazine Star of the West there was a 5 page essay called ‘Baha’i Organization: Its basis in the revealed word,’ written by Louis G. Gregory, Agnes S. Parsons and Mariam Haney at the request of the National Spiritual Assembly to counter this pilgrim’s note.
To paraphrase from Sen McGlinn’s blog: This begins by pointing to a generalised distrust of all organization, as an infringement on liberty and then refers to the Bahai Writings that specify the establishment of Bahai Houses of Justice in every town, and cites briefly a tablet from Abdu’l-Baha on religious law and the House of Justice, (Sen has translated this tablet by Abdul-Baha here).Then it switches to a discussion of the International Court, a different institution, to be organized by the Governments of the world (p 324), before switching back to citing Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions to organize spiritual assemblies. Then it states, “It is known that some misapprehension exists as to the need of organization in the Cause. This has grown out of a widely circulated statement, attributed to Abdul baha, that the Bahai Cause could never be organized. The true statement was, as corrected by Abdul Baha, that the Bahai Cause can never be rigidly organized; it can never be confined to an organization. The context of the statement tells why, namely: “It is the Spirit of the Age, the essence of all the highest ideals of the century.”
At Haifa, Syria, in 1920, the following question was asked Abdul Baha by some American pilgrims:
“It is misleading, is it not, to say that the Bahai Cause cannot be organized?”
Abdul Baha replied: “How is it possible that there should be no organization?
Even in a household if there is not organization there will be hopeless confusion. Then what about the world? What is meant is that organization is not rigid! In ancient times it was rigid. In the Torah all the political affairs were rigidly fixed, but in this Cause they were not. In this Cause there is political freedom i.e., in each time the House of Justice is free to decide in accordance with what is deemed expedient. This is a brief explanation of the matter.” (Star of the West, Volume 13, no. 12, March, 1923, p. 325)

After the death of Abdu’l-Baha in 1921, Ruth White, an American Bahai who also challenged the authenticity of Abdul-Baha’s Will appointing Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian of the Bahai Faith, produced a pamphlet called, The “Bahai Organisation, the enemy of the Bahai Religion,” where on page 5 she wrote of a recollection from 9 years earlier, “when I visited Abdul Baha at Haifa, Palestine, in 1920. … one day when he very opportunely spoke of certain conditions existing in America among the Bahais, I mentioned to him that I had never belonged to the Bahai organization (Spiritual Assemblies). His face beamed with happiness as he replied:
Good, very good. The organization that the Bahais have among themselves has nothing to do with the teachings of Baha’ollah. The teachings of Baha’o’llah are universal and cannot be confined to a sect.
The same thought runs through all the writings of Baha’o’llah and of Abdul Baha. It is expressed in many different ways, ranging from the above, and the following unequivocal statement: “The Bahai Religion is not an organization. You can never organize the Bahai Cause,” to the less obvious way of saying the same thing. For instance, Abdul Baha says that it will be impossible to create any schism in the Bahai Religion. The Bahais have interpreted this as meaning that two Bahai organizations cannot be formed when, as a matter of fact, both Baha’o’llah and Abdul Baha show that no organization can be formed” (on h-net.org)

In February 1929, a month after Ruth White’s pamphlet was published, Shoghi Effendi wrote to the members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States and Canada stating:
“It should be remembered by every follower of the Cause that the system of Bahá’í administration is not an innovation imposed arbitrarily upon the Bahá’ís of the world since the Master’s passing, but derives its authority from the Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá, is specifically prescribed in unnumbered Tablets, and rests in some of its essential features upon the explicit provisions of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. It thus unifies and correlates the principles separately laid down by Bahá’u’lláh and `Abdu’l-Bahá, and is indissolubly bound with the essential verities of the Faith. To dissociate the administrative principles of the Cause from the purely spiritual and humanitarian teachings would be tantamount to a mutilation of the body of the Cause [emphasis added), a separation that can only result in the disintegration of its component parts, and the extinction of the Faith itself.” (World Order of Baha’u’llah by Shoghi Effendi)

So the similarity of the words in the 1930 letter by the secretary to the 1929 text above indicates that in context “one basic principle” in the 1930 letter refers to the existence of a Bahai Administration and not freedom of speech regarding policies of the day. Perhaps there is more context to this 1930 letter that one day someone else can provide.

I read the text “To take exception to this, therefore, is to take exception to the fabric that Bahá’u’lláh has prescribed; it is to disobey His law.” in the way Shoghi Effendi wrote “To dissociate the administrative principles of the Cause from the purely spiritual and humanitarian teachings would be tantamount to a mutilation of the body of the Cause …” Not that this means Bahais may only express their own interpretations of the Bahai Writings if these are in agreement with the policies of the Baha’i Administration.

It would be a different story if the Universal House of Justice stated that it was a Bahai law that Bahais were not allowed to express their own views, understandings or perspectives or if the Universal House of Justice announced that Bahais were not allowed to discuss the topic of homosexuality. They have not. So individual Bahais cannot then imply it is disobedience to “His law” if Bahais do interpret the Writings for themselves or express their own views or even discuss the topic of homosexuality. It isn’t a closed case nor a taboo subject.

A lesson I learnt from looking at Ruth White was that she was both the victim of her own misunderstanding and stuck with an idea of the Bahai community as static – as she first experienced and understood it during the lifetime of Abdul-Baha. The establishment of the House of Justice is clear in the Bahai writings and the development of an international tribunal is also clear. But a footnote in the 1908 English translation of Some Answered Questions asserted that these were the same thing. If the House of Justice was just another word for the supreme tribunal, which was to be elected by the nations and solve political questions, then you can see how she might think that there was no provision in the Writings for an administration of a Bahai community by Bahai institutions. Then there was the widely circulated pilgrim’s note saying “you cannot organize the Bahai movement…” So perhaps because Shoghi Effendi was working on the establishment of the Bahai Administration, something that she saw as false, made her assume that the Will and Testament was a fake – an idea she pursued in the face of all evidence. [See Sen’s 2009 blog, “Mitchell’s mistake”]

So as I see it we always need to be open to the idea that our own interpretation of the Bahai Teachings might be wrong and we need to remain open to change if evidence shows new information or to keep the Bahai Administration “in the forefront of all progressive movements.” (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 22)

That’s why, sometimes, I hammer on about only authentic Scripture, being what counts, not what a Bahai or even 99% of Bahais might say to me. Perhaps somewhere there is a text penned by Baha’u’llah that does restrict marriage to only be possible between a man and a woman? I will keep writing that it is my belief that there is nothing in Bahai Scripture that supports discrimination against lesbians or gays until someone shows me some evidence. Even if I should be wrong – on the topic of freedom of expression the Universal House of Justice – wrote:
“Because the Most Great Peace is the object of our longing, a primary effort of the Bahá’í community is to reduce the incidence of conflict and contention, which are categorically forbidden in the Most Holy Book. Does this mean that one may not express critical thought? Absolutely not. How can there be the candor called for in consultation if there is no critical thought? How is the individual to exercise his responsibilities to the Cause, if he is not allowed the freedom to express his views? Has Shoghi Effendi not stated that “at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views”?
(Addressed to the NSA of the USA, 29 Dec., 1988)

So while some Bahais might think that no Bahai is allowed to express any view, or write anything that is not in agreement with the policies of the Universal House of Justice, such as their current policy which does not allow gays or lesbians to marry in countries where this is legal, I think that the Universal House of Justice does allow individuals such as myself to express their views. I certainly do understand that raising this topic at a Bahai event might not be appropriate but a Bahai such as myself may express my views on my own blog where it is clear that my views are just my own.

Another Bahai wrote in that same discussion:
Abdul-Baha last will and testament: “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”

This isn’t the first time this selectively cut quotation has been presented to me. 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.

“O ye the faithful loved ones of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá! It is incumbent upon you to take the greatest care of Shoghi Effendi, the twig that hath branched from and the fruit given forth by the two hallowed and Divine Lote-Trees, that no dust of despondency and sorrow may stain his radiant nature, that day by day he may wax greater in happiness, in joy and spirituality, and may grow to become even as a fruitful tree.
For he is, after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the guardian of the Cause of God, the Afnán, the Hands (pillars) of the Cause and 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 convictions. 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)

I elaborate on this in my 2015 blog “Is Criticism Allowed” here.

So back to the beginning, the above and the first quotation assert the importance of the authority of the Universal House but when you see the context of each, this authority doesn’t infringe on the duty of each of us to express our views, hopefully with wisdom and tact.