March 4, 2009
This PDF file (above) is a copy of the chapter on “The Administrative Order” from “The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah” by Shoghi Effendi.
In it Shoghi describes a certain Baha’i Administrative Order which, he claims, is “the framework of [Adbu’l-Baha’s] Will” and “the very pattern of the New World Order destined to embrace in the fulness of time the whole of mankind”.
He goes to great lengths to dilineate the ways in which this Administrative Order “is fundamentally different from anything that any Prophet has previously established”, and to explain that “it would be utterly misleading to attempt a comparison between this unique, this divinely-conceived Order and any of the diverse systems which the minds of men…have contrived for the government of human institutions”. In other words, he makes it clear that it is the very “salient features” of this Administrative Order which distinguish it from other systems, and which make it what it is: “the” Baha’i World Order.
In this chapter Shoghi further explains that, while it is not his object to “define with accuracy and minuteness the features” of this Order, it nevertheless is his intention to “explain the character and functions of the twin pillars that support this mighty Administrative Structure”, and to “elaborate certain salient features of this scheme which, however close we may stand to its colossal structure, are already so clearly defined that we find it inexcusable to either misconceive or ignore”.
In other words, he wishes to give the Big Picture here. He wants to explain, not the minutiae, but the important things; the parts of “this scheme” which are essential to the World Order he is describing.
And what are these “salient features” of the Administrative Order? What, in other words, are the “twin pillars” he is referring to?
He says: “The pillars that sustain its authority and buttress its structure are the twin institutions of the Guardianship and of the Universal House of Justice”. Both of these pillars he characterizes as “essential” and “inseparable”, and declares that the World Order would be “mutilated”, “paralyzed”, and “powerless” without them, and that certain vital functions would be “totally withdrawn” and “completely lacking”.
In other words, in the absence of either the Guardianship or the UHJ, the World Order of Baha’u’llah would cease to be “the” World Order of Baha’u’llah, and would, in fact, necessarily stagger, fall, and come to an end. As Shoghi himself quite correctly asserts, his language is in fact quite “clear and unambiguous”.
However, this Administrative Order was not to be. For (schismatic controversies aside) it is claimed by the UHJ that Shoghi died without being able to appoint a successor, and thus the Guardianship, as hereditary institution, came to an end before it even began.
The present World Order is therefore deprived of the institution of the Guardianship: that is, there is no longer a living Guardian to fulfill some of the functions that Shoghi considered vital and necessary to the World Order of Baha’u’llah. And Shoghi also made it clear that no one but a Guardian could perform those functions. The consequences of this situation must, obviously, be catastrophic.
And Shoghi has, in fact, in typically “clear and unambiguous” language, interpretated the significance of this situation:
“Divorced from the institution of the Guardianship the World Order of Baha’u’llah would be mutilated and permanently deprived of that hereditary principle which..has been invariably upheld by the Law of
God…Its prestige would suffer, the means required to enable it to take a long, an uninterrupted view over a series of generations would be completely lacking, and the necessary guidance to define the
sphere of the legislative action of its elected representatives would be totally withdrawn.”
“Permanently deprived”…”completely lacking”…. “totally withdrawn”. Shoghi is not mincing words here; he is not leaving any wiggle room. He is, in fact, being quite clear, and quite logical: without the Guardianship, the World Order of Baha’u’llah would be deprived of certain vital functions, and would thus fail.
The “divinely-conceived Order”, the “colossal structure” with its “salient features”, simply failed to materialize.
One of the twin pillars “sustaining its authority and buttressing its structure” was taken away, and the edifice crumbled before it was even built.
Shoghi’s “new-born child”, was, in fact, still-born.
In spite of this (or, perhaps, because of this….) the Universal House of Justice claims that it is the Head of the Faith, and that the Administrative Order which it governs is the same World Order as that “embedded in the Writings”, including the writings of Shoghi Effendi, which the UHJ claims “constitute [its]binding terms of reference” and its “bedrock foundation”.
But, obviously, an Administrative Order consisting of only one pillar is not the same Administrative Order as that consisting of “twin pillars”.
According to the UHJ, the “salient features” of the Administrative Order of Baha’u’llah are as follows:
“The UHJ is the supreme institution of an Administrative Order whose salient features…consist, on the one hand, of a series of elected councils….and, on the other, of eminent and devoted believers”.
Again: the “salient features” according to the UHJ: “elected councils and believers”.
In contrast to Shoghi’s “salient features”: “twin pillars” (Guardianship and House).
Obviously, these are descriptions of two very different “World Orders”.
Typical of the “reasoning” which the UHJ uses to escape from Shoghi’s unambiguous language is the following statement:
“As you point out with many quotations, Shoghi Effendi repeatedly stressed the inseparability of these two institutions. Whereas he obviously envisaged their functioning together, it cannot logically be deduced from this that one is unable to function in the absence of the other”.
What, then, did Shoghi mean by “inseparable”? Did he mean, in fact, “separable”? Shoghi was defining these two institutions in terms of each other: their very definition depended on the existence of the other, not to mention the viability of the World Order itself (when certain vital functions cease, an organization, like any organism, simply dies; or else, the functions were not really “essential”, or “vital”).
Similar unreasonableness is found when the UHJ says:
“The Guardianship does not lose its significance nor position in the Order of Baha’u’llah merely because there is no living Guardian”.
“Merely”…???!!! That is like saying that the office of the President of the United States would not lose its significance or position in the government of the United States if there were, in fact, no President.
Shoghi’s language is, indeed, quite clear and unambiguous. And it simply leaves no room for a World Order of Baha’u’llah without a living Guardian.
It leaves no room for the World Order presently headed by the UHJ of Haifa.
This is, obviously, unacceptable to that same UHJ, and hence it attempts to wriggle free of the Catch-22 which negates its legitimacy. However, the very irrationality of its attempts betray its true position: it is, in fact, in a Catch-22, and it cannot, in fact, escape from it. All it can do is what it has done: descend into unreason; and obfuscate, ignore, and twist Shoghi’s otherwise clear and unambiguous language…..
Schism has already happened in the Baha’i Faith. It always does, in every fundamentalist religion. This one is no different. Indeed, it is fundamentalism itself–the kind of religion that claims to be “the” religion (“the” Church, “the” Baha’i Faith, etc.)–which is the very cause of schism.
The attempt to find “The” Truth and to claim it as one’s own is itself the surest path to discord and disagreement, to shunning and anathema and excommunication. It is over “the” Truth that religions split. They do NOT split over shared opinion, common uncertainty, or over “well, it seems to me”…..
There are in every religion (from their very inception all the way through every stage of their growth) both fundamentalist and universalist strains: and the universalist in each religion is always open to the truth to be found in other religions. And that is a truer kind of unity than mere doctrinal conformity, isn’t it?
Unity can exist across doctrinal borders. In fact, real unity MUST exist across doctrinal borders, or it will not exist at all, for every person in fact has his or her own interpretation of their faith–even the most conservative and conformist people will still, inevitably, have an understanding of their faith that is not identical in all respects with their fellow believers. Even dogma must be interpreted…..
There will always be differences. And all attempts to wipe them out will always, and in every single case, eventually fail (though often not before they have left quite a long trail of blood and tears behind them).
The Haifan Baha’i obsession (and I would add the fundamentalist Catholic, the fundamentalist Protestant, and the fundamentalist Muslim obsession) with doctrinal, or even Covenantal, conformity must therefore surely be a misguided approach to the establishment of real spiritual unity.
Unity is NOT of the mind, or words, or doctrine; it is of the heart.
Perhaps Baha’u’llah really is the Prophet for this age, and perhaps everything that happened was meant to happen. Who knows? I certainly don’t.
However, I’m not even sure it matters, for even according to the Writings themselves, there is, now, no living infallible Interpreter. There is only a set of Writings. Words. And words must be interpreted before they can mean something. But in the absence of authoritative interpretation, no one can, authoritatively, interpret them. And no one can claim the right to authoritatively interpret what has happened since Baha’u’llah began his mission.
To me, personally, the meaning of what has happened is this: events led eventually to the Catch-22 that I have described elsewhere on the blog, and, as a result, we have been required to grow up spiritually, and to set aside, once and for all, the search for inerrant scriptures and infallible leaders. And we have been given (either by God or by chance) a lesson in the need to renounce fundamentalism.
But that is just my opinion. The Universal House of Justice may have another opinion. But what they cannot say is this: they cannot claim to authoritatively interpret the Writings, for, even according to the House itself, no one but a Guardian would have had that right. And there is, now, no Guardian. The House therefore has no more interpretative authority than I do. Or than you do. In other words, no one can, now, claim to have the authority to declare, dogmatically, what “World Order of Baha’u’llah” must mean.
Where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with each other. In consultation.
And that, I would suggest, is a very good place to be.
Being fallible, I could of course be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the truth is this: the universe does not support “inerrancy” and “infallibility”. Wherever and whenever those concepts are introduced, intellectual decadence, injustice and moral destruction are sure to follow (just as wherever fundamentalist authoritarianism’s opposite twin–fundamentalist relativism–is introduced, intellectual decadence, injustice, and moral destruction are also sure to follow).
But notice this: the history of the Baha’i Faith (if I am right about the Catch-22), provides a kind of “crash course” in learning this truth.
Who knows? Might this not be part of what Baha’is call “the Major Plan”…..? Might not a group of Baha’is who have first been trained in the ways of fundamentalist thinking (along with sound universalist ideals), and who have then been forced to extricate themselves from fundamentalism (due to the ending of the Guardianship and thus the ending of the “minor Baha’i plan”)—might they not be in an exceptionally good position to challenge the forces of fundamentalism threatening to destroy our world?
For they have first faced the fundamentalism within themselves, and overcome it…..
This kind of universalism, one that is achieved through an internal spiritual struggle (“jihad”)–is it not therefore a stronger universalism, a universalism better equipped to fight the fundamentalist forces arrayed against knowledge, understanding, civil liberty, brotherhood and peace?
Might not THIS be one possible meaning of the Baha’i experience?
Could be? What do YOU think?
This last section is not for the faint of heart: it involves the interpretation of a rather obscure passage in the Baha’i Writings, which the UHJ has used to justify its own position.
This passage from the Kitab-i-Aqdas speaks of some kind of authority that passes from “the Dawning-Place of Revelation” (the Prophet, I believe), then to the “Agshan” (Branches, descendents of Baha’u’llah, though some think it means his sons only), and then “after them” to “the House of Justice–should it be established in the world by then.” If not, the authority passes to “the people of Baha”.
According to the UHJ (as they interpret it), this passage seems to “envisage the possibility of…a break in the line of Guardians”. Since it also mentions a House of Justice, and leaves it open as to whether that House would have been established “by then”, that is, by the time of the break in the line of Guardians, the UHJ apparently concludes that the present situation–namely, a UHJ without a Guardian–has been foreseen, and is thus acceptable.
And yet, is that the only possible interpretation of this passage?
Maybe a break in the Guardians had been forseen (if, in fact, that is how one must interpret “Aghsan”). But notice there is no provision for what to do about a House of Justice that had not yet been established at the time of the break–i.e. “by then”.
All Baha’u’llah says is that some limited authority would then pass to “the people of Baha”. That’s all he said. Nothing at all follows from that. Nothing but speculation.
He doesn’t say “until the House is established”. He doesn’t say, “and then, once the House is established, the authority will pass to the House”. No. He just says: “should the House be established in the world by then”.
Maybe Baha’u’llah DID forsee the present situation. But maybe he saw it differently than the UHJ does…..
So, yes, maybe he saw the end of the Guardianship before the House had been established. But maybe the World Order he was talking about was, in fact, the same World Order as the one described by Shoghi Effendi. That would mean that any House established NOT “by then” would in fact be deprived of its “essential” and “inseparable” twin, the Guardianship.
And what would that mean? It would mean that the “minor plan”, the Baha’i plan, would not be realized, and any House established in the world AFTER “then”, after the end of the Guardianship, would not be “the” House referred to in the Writings, and could not function, for “divorced from the institution of the Guardianship the World Order of Baha’u’llah would be mutilated and permanently deprived of that hereditary principle which..has been invariably upheld by the Law of God…Its prestige would suffer, the means required to enable it to take a long, an uninterrupted view over a series of generations would be completely lacking, and the necessary guidance to define the sphere of the legislative action of its elected representatives would be totally withdrawn.”
So maybe Baha’u’llah foresaw that the “minor” Baha’i plan was not going to come to pass. And maybe that’s what Shoghi saw too, and why he didn’t write a will–because he couldn’t, and because it was “foreseen”.
And what would that mean? It would mean that the minor plan would be swallowed up by the Major Plan.
Perhaps part of Baha’u’llah’s Major Plan was that the Baha’s were going to be tested: would they follow Shoghi Effendi’s clear and unambigous language, and realize that no infallible House could be established without a Guardian (though perhaps some other International Body could be, one that could still promote the Major Plan’s goal of world peace)?
Or would the Baha’is fail the test and descend into unreason and try to escape the Catch-22 that inevitably arises from the establishement of a House without a Guardian, a House that had not, in fact, been established in the world “by then”?
In other words, would they free themselves from fundamentalism, or would they turn fundamentalist in their attempt to salvage “infallibility”?
Could be? Why not? This interpretation fits even better than the UHJ’s interpretation. It maintains both the integrity of Baha’u’llah’s writings AND the writings of Shoghi Effendi. It avoids the Catch-22. And it does not in the least obstruct the basic Baha’i desire for world peace and inter-faith understanding. For there is nothing to prevent Baha’is from promoting International law, and inter-faith understanding. They could still practice consultation. They could, perhaps, even re-construct a World Order with checks and balances, with an Interpreter of sorts (though I think “infallible” should be left behind with the Old World Order), acting in conjunction with a House of Justice of sorts (though, again, not an “infallible” one).
It would a humbler World Order, to be sure, deprived of “infallibility”.
But, without claims of “infallibility”, wouldn’t the way to peace and mutual understanding be made even smoother? After all, it is fundamentalism itself which causes schism….
Most Baha’is naturally feel that the World Order of Baha’u’llah MUST survive. For them, Baha’u’llah’s promises are guarantees. But Baha’u’llah himself also mentioned the possibility of the Baha’is failing in their mission. And what did he say would happen then? Why, he would raise another people to take their place……
It would seem, then, that even the Writings themselves do not quite guarantee the inevitable survival of the present World Order, for they envisage the possibility of failure. And of replacement…..
And isn’t that rather like the rest of Western religious history? The Holy Texts the different religions use to justify their various forms of fundamentalism also contain passages that seem to undermine fundamentalism itself. But that is another story….. (See the post “Words and the Word”)
February 7, 2009
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?