Words and The Word

February 7, 2009

Words and The Word curriculum

This is a PDF file of a course I designed to encourage reflection on the relationship between words and meaning. It is also designed to disarm those of us who would use words–especially the words of scripture–to attack our brothers and sisters.

Another way of expressing the goal of the course would be to say that it aims at freeing the human mind (my mind, your mind) from fundamentalist thinking.

Pages 95-97 (“Father Abraham and Paradigm Shift, Shift, Shift”) and 102-106 (“Orthodoxy: Words, Infallibility, and Interpretation”) touch upon the Baha’i Faith.

Any part of this course may be copied at will, without needing to obtain my permission.

The comic strip selections are not part of the course itself, and are intended to serve as an example of how one might use humor to facilitate learning. Any public use of the comic strips would probably require getting permission from the authors of the comic strips themselves.

Letter to the Baha’i Universal House of Justice, 1988


The Baha’i Faith is, I believe, rather unique in the world.  It is an essentially fundamentalist faith, and yet it’s doctrines are, by and large, what most people might call “progressive”, and the image of itself that it projects to the world is an image that many people who identify with liberal religion might, at first, find appealing.

It is fundamentalist, for it claims, quite explicity,  that it’s founding prophet, Baha’u’llah, and his writings, are infallible and inerrant.  Likewise, it claims, quite explicitly,  that Baha’u’llah’s successor, his son Abdu’l Baha, and his son’s successor, Shoghi Effendi (Abdu’l Baha’s grandson), are likewise infallible, and that their official writings are, likewise, inerrant, which, predictably, also includes the idea that they are contradiction-free: “In attempting to understand the Writings…one must first realize that there is and can be no real contradiction in them”. And it claims, again, quite explicitly,  that the Universal House of Justice, the legislative body presently acting as head of the faith,  is likewise infallible in its collective decisions.  As for the ordinary believers: “our part is to cling tenaciously to the revealed Word and to the institutions that He has created to preserve His Covenant”. And, as Shoghi Effendi has written, “Either we should accept the Cause without qualification whatever, or cease calling ourselves Baha’is.”

Inerrant scriptures. Infallible authority. Total allegiance… You can’t get much more fundamentalist than that. 

And yet…it claims to promote understanding and appreciation among the different faiths of the world (though it does not, in fact, accept those faiths as entirely legitimate, for Baha’is believe that all faiths, except theirs, have become distorted over time, and that their faith has come to restore the purity of God’s teaching).   And it claims to promote the equality of the sexes (though women are not allowed to serve on the Universal House of Justice, and certain Baha’i inheritance laws favor male children).  And while many individual Baha’is may be tolerant of gay people, the Baha’i teachings on homosexuality are certainly not “liberal”.


The Baha’i Faith also claims to promote world peace, and to be working for a new international order in which all international conflicts are resolved peacefully, by rule of law, and all religions are respected, and the sovereignty of all nations safeguarded.  However, what they usually fail to mention is that the New World Order is to be a Baha’i World Order, and the Universal House of Justice is to be, quite literally, the law of the land…the law of the planet (though I’m actually not sure what the Baha’is see as the exact relationship between the Baha’i Administrative Order and the secular world government of the future; there seems to be a variety of opinions among Baha’is on the subject).

Nevertheless, I believe the Baha’i Faith offers us an opportunity to see in an exceptionally clear way what happens when reality and fundamentalism collide–and the way reason is made to bend to the demands of fundamentalist doctrine, rather than provide for true understanding or promote real human solidarity.  It is, in other words, a good example of what can go wrong if good intentions are welded to fundamentalist thinking.

I believe the Baha’i Faith is worth investigating (though I would caution against joining it).  I was a Baha’i once, and I personally have found much of value in that faith.  And I continue to be influenced by it in positive ways.  And, for me, there was value even in discovering its fundamentalist side:  it helped me learn to more clearly recognize that kind of thinking in myself and, perhaps, to help other people recognize it as well. 

There is no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  It is only fundamentalist thinking that would insist otherwise.  There is something to be learned from everything and everyone, even from fundamentalists, for not only is their longing for inerrant and infallible authoritative guidance understandable, they are right to be wary of individual judgement…for I think we all would agree that our individual judgements are all too often wrong.  The only problem is that we simply cannot escape from them.  This is seen most clearly in fundamentalists who wave the Bible (or the Baha’i Writings, or Das Kapital, or the Constitution of the United States) in the air, and claim that those words on paper are actually “saying” something.  It is, in fact, we ourselves who “say” what those words “say”.  Yes, there may be Ecumenical Councils that claim to speak for God, or with God, or by God;  and, yes, there may be a Univeral House of Justice, or a Vatican, that assures us it can be trusted to guide us to the truth. 


But notice that these inerrant guides do not agree among themselves.  The world is, in fact, splintered into different groups claiming to have truth and righteousness on their side.  And, of course, one of them may in fact be right.  I suppose it’s even possible that all of them may be right–in some way that goes beyond anyone’s ability to understand (or at least beyond my ability to understand).

And, if we are honest–or, at least, if I am honest–I recognize that deep down, hiding behind all sorts of different masks (even behind “tolerance”, “enlightenment”, “orthodoxy”, “fairness”, “righteousness”), there lies (in both senses of that word) a fundamentalist in me, perhaps in all of us:  a fundamentalist who really does want someone, or something, to tell me the absolute truth, to guide me infallibly;  a fundamentalist who really does, sometimes, forget that the world he sees, the interpretations he makes, and the judgements he lays upon others, are, sometimes, little more than a  projection of his own fallible heart…and a judgement laid upon himself .

Fortunately, however, we have each other…to prod and be prodded, to correct and be corrrected, to love and be loved.  Someone once said that “hell is other people”.  I’m sure that is “true” i.e. those words can be interpreted in such a way that they do, in fact, accurately describe certain aspects of our experience.


But when I once asked my father about the meaning of life, he said something like, “Well, there are other people”.  And he didn’t say much more (though he could be quite eloquent).  Those words have resonated throughout my life, and I continue to understand them differently as the years go by.  Yes, other people may, indeed, be hell.  But, properly understood, perhaps they are heaven as well.


My conversion experience to the Baha’i Faith was before I was completely aware of its fundamentalist nature, and before I had any idea of the existence of the Catch-22 to which I have referred in other posts on this blog.  The Baha’i Faith goes to great lengths to hide the Catch-22 “in the open”, as it were.  The Universal House of Justice gives the appearance of dealing with the issue while managing to evade it entirely. 

I have certainly ceased calling myself a Baha’i.   And yet, the conversion experience was very profound, and my vision of the world and of God and of faith have been transformed forever by that experience.  As I said before, there is, of course, no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. 


I think all that is good in the Baha’i faith can be found within any number of other faiths (even a universalist and ecumenical spirit can be found within many other faiths), and I personally no longer feel the need of seeking God through that particular channel.

However, I might offer some Baha’is (those still reading…) a way out of the Catch-22.  Not out of the fundamentalist Catch-22, the one the Universal House of Justice finds itself in, but a way out of the more profound Catch-22:  if the faith as it is presently portrayed is a fraud, and yet my personal experience of Baha’u’llah is too real for me to ignore, what do I do?

Here is one suggestion.  One admittedly quite personal and quite fallible interpretation of what may in fact have happened.  And let us make one (quite debatable) assumption, namely, that God is behind everything that has happened.  For the sake of the Baha’is reading this, let us also make another assumption, namely, that Baha’u’llah was, in fact, who he claimed to be (though on that point I am, personally, thoroughly agnostic).  And let us also not retreat into fundamentalism or anti-rational thinking, that is, let us not somehow imagine that the present Baha’i World Order is the same World Order as that described by Shoghi Effendi (please refer to the other posts on the blog for a fuller explanation of the issue I am referring to here).

So, how can one still have the Baha’i faith, and yet be rational?  Here’s my suggestion:  might it not be possible that this is a test, to see if we will “cling tenaciously” to words (words that have collided with reality, and lost) or follow reason?  Might not the whole Baha’i experience in the world–it’s failed expectations and the irrational cover-up which followed–not serve as an example to the world of the need for discernment (what is the baby and what the bathwater)?  Might not the failure of “inerrant words” and “Infallible guidance”–the explicitness of which is truly matched by no other faith on earth–might not this itself be part of God’s plan (God’s “Major Plan”) to wean us out of spiritual childhood into a more mature spirituality?


As I said at the beginning of this post, many of the Baha’i doctrines represent teachings that the world very much needs today:   international peace, some kind of international law, the equality of men and women, the need for one second language for all, the appreciation of all faiths, etc….

Perhaps that is the Baby. 

The bathwater….?  Is it not fundamentalism?  Is it not spiritual immaturity, the desire to attribute inerrancy to words, and infallibility to human beings?

Is it really necessary to have “inerrant” words, or “infallibe” guides?  Isn’t simply “being right” enough?  And how do we determine who or what is “right” and who or what is “wrong”?  Is it not through reason, debate, consultation, personal example, and results (or “fruits of action”)?  And isn’t the only alternative to consultation always some kind of violence, or some form of coercion?  Doesn’t the dark heart of fundamentalism ALWAYS, sooner or later, lead to violence, or tyranny of some sort?

What does “infallible” really add to the our conversations?  It does not assure unity, for fundamentalist faiths are particularly prone to deep divisions and schism. Even if we assume that Shoghi Effendi (or the Pope, or the Bible, or the Ecumenical Councils…or the Founding Fathers, or Marx, or…we ourselves) is inerrant, of what value is that?  Doesn’t one ultimately still have to decide for oneself whether or not to believe, or to follow?  And isn’t it still to our own understanding of those “inerrant” words or “infallible” guides that we are really pledging allegiance?  Is there really any escape from this fact?


There is a verse from the book of Isaiah which, I think, speaks to this. And please note: I am not quoting Isaiah as an “authority”, nor referring to scripture as “the Word of God” here. I am just saying that Isaiah’s words seem, to me, to match reality as I experience it. That’s all.

From Isaiah 44: “He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is man’s fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, Ah! I am warm; I see the fire. From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, Save me; you are my god. They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so that they cannot see, and their minds closed so that they cannot understand. No-one stops to think, no-one has the knowledge or understanding to say, Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”

Words on paper are like the block of wood that Isaiah 44 talks of; even literally, they are made of wood. Scriptures, too, can be burned; we can use them to bake bread and warm ourselves.

There is no “mind” in the Bible; there is no meaning “in” the words that are
on the paper, for the paper is, quite literally, a block of wood.

There is only meaning in the mind that wrote the words, and the minds that read them and interpret them.

And so, all words on paper are, in a way, “a block of wood”.

And our interpretations of those words are the work of our own hands, our own minds.

The fundamentalist “bows down” to the work of his own mind: his own interpretations, his own doctrines. Does he not?

Our own interpretations of words all too easily become our own “idols”, for the ingrained tendency of the human mind is to confuse our own understanding of words with “the words themselves”; or, when it comes to scripture, to confuse our own understanding of “God’s words” with His own understanding of “his words”; or, worse still, when it comes to God himself, and to Life itself, to confuse our understanding of God and Life with the Truth Itself.

That is the quintessentially fundamentalist mistake: to interpret words, and then attribute absolute authority to one’s own interpretation of those words, under the guise of “just saying what the words say” (be they the words of the Bible, the Koran, the Constitution, Marx, or the Baha’i Writings).

Words do not “say” anything. Words have no understanding of themselves. We read the words, and then we say what the words say; we interpret the words. We, ourselves, are the inescapable intermediary between the words and our understanding of them.

Note that I am not saying that real communication is impossible, for I think that language is a remarkable, almost miraculous, instrument of communication. It can even be relatively exact, clear, and unambiguous. And I depend on it, for otherwise I would have no hope of you, the reader, ever understanding what I am trying to communicate to you at this very moment. But like any instrument, it is the Player who creates the music, the meaning: the instrument itself is a block of wood (or a heap of metal, as the case may be).

Our interpretations may coincide with what the author of the words really meant to say, or they may not. When the words are words on paper, there is no way to find out. The author is not there to confer with, to either deny or to confirm our understanding of his or her words. And “the Holy Spirit” is notorious for “inspiring” different people with radically different understandings of the very same texts. No. We have no access to infallible inspiration. And even if we did, we, ourselves, being fallible, would have no way of knowing that for sure.

The fundamentalist mistake is usually committed unconsciously. Most fundamentalists (i.e. most of us) are not cynical opportunists. They–we–are just not aware of what they/we are doing.

And so, deprived as we are of infallible guidance, we only have each other, and God, whatever we conceive Him or Her or It to be; reading the words together, and sharing our understanding of them–passionately, vigorously, boldly…and honestly.

Perhaps uncertainty and fallibility shared is itself a kind of perfect guidance…..


There is no God but God.  And the Jews and the Christians and Muslims and Baha’is all agree on that.  Might we not also add, there is no infallibility but God’s?  The Bible is not God.  The Koran is not God.  The Pope is not God.  Shoghi Effendi is not God.  And I think we all agree on that as well.    But, when we fight each other, and go on our personal or collective jihads or crusades, is it not really our own fallible interpretations of the words of the scriptures that we are actually fighting about? Are we not, really, fighting over a block of wood?

How dare we, in a sense, fight each other in the name of God?  It’s a very strange Name to fight about, after all: I AM WHO I AM….  

Hmmm…not a lot of doctrine, not many concepts or images in that NAME.  Not much to really pin down, is there?  And, in fact, is that not our experience of Him…even of life itself?  Isn’t He…isn’t it…ALWAYS making us reconsider……?

When reality collides with fundamentalist doctrine, which do we choose?  Reality, or our cherished doctrine?

When our beliefs collide with our neighbor’s beliefs, how do we proceed?  Do we set up an Inquisition?  Do we burn a flag?  Do we pass a proposition?  Do we organize a certain kind of “camp” and give him a one-way ticket there?  Do we invade his land, destroy his pagan altars, and kill his people?

When WE collide with our NEIGHOR…what do we do? 

What do YOU think?  How do YOU read?