Meditations

Irfan messages 1998

Date: Thu, 16 Apr 1998 19:06:07 +1200
Subject: The covenant

Dear Irfan

I have found it extremely difficult to get past current Baha'i thinking on the covenant. I have been so imbued with the fear of being disobedient, that I have had to get past that before I could 'feel' or see intellectually what was beyond the generally accepted set of beliefs. But the last couple of days have been a watershed and want to tell you about it 'cos it's got me really excited and feeling different.

I was reading old Talisman 1 messages (early 1995) at the weekend and came across one person's postings on the covenant that I hadn't read in detail or taken any notice of before. (I have quite extensive Talisman 1 archives, of which I have largely filtered out the chat, and have recently been going through some of them with a view to getting a handle on things like 'infallibility' and 'interpretation'.) This person argued that the people who demand miracles of manifestations before they will believe, exhibit the same kind of thinking as people who demand infallibility (propositional inerrancy) of authority before they will obey. He argued that it was a travesty to reduce the covenant to such simplistic notions (and it was destroying the Cause). In particular, he pointed out the one-way nature of these paradigms, and asserted that the covenant was a power that moved in a circular direction: from God to humanity and back, and so on, around and around. As an aside here, I also note comments from 'way back that the covenant is not a contract but an abiding relationship of unconditional love, such as in marriage.

Yesterday, I came across support for this view of the covenant not being a one-way affair. I was reading the chapter in Abbas Amanat's "Resurrection and Renewal" that covers the declaration of the Bab. This chapter begins with an amazing quote from one of the Bab's prayers:

"I was alone in my own abode and nobody was aware of my status. Then You brought out some humble people from their dwellings and sent them to me. Afterwards, You made Your command to the [new] call (da'wa) my intent and when Your command reached maturity, I acquired Your covenant from the heart of those who were aware of Your cause, and they submitted to Your cause in such a way that not one of them from that party denied me." (p. 153)

Amanat points out that the new revelation would not have gotten off the ground without the participation of those who chose to believe. "But 'the command of God,' as the Bab indicates, may not have matured without the covenant of those who first recognized him in Shiraz. If a predestined will was in action, so was human initiative". (p. 153) This is symbolically represented by the fact that the beginning of the Babi revelation is considered to be the point in time when it was right for the Bab to declare and when the first person chose to believe. I remember discussion on Talisman 1 about who actually was the first person to believe in the Bab, and it was not Mulla Husayn; there were others such as members of his family. But the Babi revelation began with Mulla Husayn nonetheless, because it was the time when the covenant had matured and was established.

Amanat describes Quddus as a person who "exemplifies the outlook of that generation of Shaykhis who saw the recognition of the Bab as the outcome of a personal quest assisted by divine guidance. Both the seeker, and to some extent the claimant, are subject to this guided search." (p. 185) Unfortunately for Quddus, his position challenged Shi'ite orthodoxy because "it denies the mujtahids' ... claim to exclusive religious guidance."

The Bab shared the administration of his new religion with his leading disciples ("...it was a new departure from the spiritual absolutism that was traditionally attached to the doctrine of Imamate and even deputyship." (p. 190)) and the disciples participated in the development of Babi thought! ("The role performed by Mulla Husayn and other early believers, who directed this [sic] undefined and still unintelligible inspirations of the Bab into the preconceived framework of Shaykhi prophecies, was far greater than is usually attributed to them." (p. 174))

So what have we got? That the creation of the covenant required a decision to believe on the part of at least one person; that we participate in the covenant (recognition) by going on a journey and allowing God to guide us in it; and that the idea of an ordinary person being divinely guided was threatening to the ruling orthodoxy. We also have the idea that the Bab shared power with his believers and that the believers shared in the development of Babi thought - both radical ideas in the prevailing religious climate at the time.

This certainly leaves me with the impression that the covenant is not a one-way affair. It is not something I am fed, but that I actively participate in. I am a necessary participant in the new revelation; I am on a journey that is directly guided by God, and I have a right as a result of the covenant to participate in the development of the administration and theology of the Faith.

If these ideas are what characterise the new revelation, then, I believe, the covenant by its very nature challenges much of what we currently perpetuate in our communities today. Current ideas emphasise the institutions' authority and obedience of the individual to the institutions - a one-way affair - and this is repeated so often in regular discourse that has the effect of stunting individual initiative and keeping people in line by subtly producing fear of being disobedient.

The idea that the institutions also must be obedient to the covenant is not something that is often referred to, with the result that the circular forces that should be at work are not able to do their job and individual believers become disenfranchised from their religion. In relation to the right to participate in the development of Baha'i thought, we know, for example, that to assert certain views about women on the House of Justice, even though they may be based on reasoned argument, is something that the current administrative order takes exception to. As I understand it, the House of Justice believes that once it makes a statement on a sensitive topic such as this, nearly all subsequent discourse or scholarship becomes illegitimate because it is viewed as an attempt to pressure the House to change its view or because such views are by definition 'not Baha'i'. Individuals collectively who express an illegitimate opinion are viewed as pressure groups; there appears to be no consideration for the possibility that many individuals acting independently may be persuaded by the same reasoned arguments.

I think this shows that the Bab's new covenant is just as challenging now as it was in the 1840s, and I am excited and inspired by its empowering effects and sense of possibility.

Alison

Date: Sat, 18 Apr 1998 13:10:25 +1200
Subject: Re: the covenant

Hey, X, so we are both on the shelf together, eh? :)

I think you ask a very important question. "What constitutes 'current Baha'i thinking' on the Covenant?" I was wondering this myself. I know that I am imbued with Baha'i culture and therefore know my strong reactions to things, and from this can make some kind of determination about that culture. But there can be no doubt that what I experience is entirely personal, and therefore could be way off track. However, one thing that backed up my experience was the experience of getting on the Internet and finding people all over the world talking in exactly the same way as me and reacting to things just as if they all lived inside my heart. This indicated to me how successfully a Baha'i culture has been spread over the globe. Your own statements about the covenant also prove how much we share fundamental beliefs about the covenant, both on an emotional and intellectual level. You said for example that "talk on the covenant makes Baha'is nervous, as it is prone to being broken and no one is really sure what that means." Balanced against that, though, are your expressions of it being a "miracle" and a "solitary shining gem of truth." This view is backed up by X's expression of it being a "mystery".

I think it would be useful for the progress of the Faith if some serious research were done on things like what does 'the covenant' and 'infallibility' mean in current Baba'i culture. If we were able to establish things like that, it might stop us arguing about whether, for example, my assertion that the current notion of the covenant produces fear.

I have stumbled across evidence to support my argument that the popular notion of the covenant emphasises *authority* and *obedience*. It comes from the letter that the House of Justice sent to Micheal McKenny's wife, when she protested his expulsion from the Faith. If you read the language carefully, you can easily see how much 'authority' is referred to and that this is viewed as an essential aspect of the covenant. Moreover, as a result of the House's perception that Micheal did not accept that authority as they defined it, that he was considered not a Baha'i.

----------------------

"The means by which Baha'u'llah has chosen to preserve the unity of Baha'i society is the ****institutions established in the Covenant**** which He made with those who accept Him. His Writings make it indisputably clear that the spiritual and social teachings thus set forth ****cannot be separated from the institutional means**** their Author has provided for their promotion. Particularly is this true of the interpretive functions with which the Guardianship has been endowed and the ****ultimate decision-making power invested in the Universal House of Justice****, both of which are assured of unfailing Divine guidance.

... What one cannot properly do is to behave in a way that undermines the unity of the Baha'i community, by ****challenging the institutional authority**** that is an integral part of the Faith one professes to have accepted.

This is precisely what Michael has persisted in doing. He has made it unmistakably clear that he does not accept the nature of the ****authority conferred in Baha'u'llah's Covenant**** on either the Guardianship or the Universal House of Justice, in important areas of belief. Indeed, some of his statements give the impression that he does not accept ****Baha'u'llah's many statements about the nature of the authority of a Manifestation of God.****

...his deliberate decision to continue a series of open Internet postings in which ****he challenged the authority of Baha'i institutions**** in language alternating between conventional professions of respect and contemptuous reflections on the integrity and actions of those institutions....Indeed, as a general rule, it would raise a question about the ****loyalty to the Covenant**** of an individual behaving in this fashion.

----------------

Letters from the House of Justice are one way that current Baha'i thinking on the covenant is shaped.

I think this letter shows that the House of Justice uses its interpretation of the covenant as a means to underscore its authority, to require obedience and to ensure that the believers think in the same way as it does. It also demonstrates what will happen to a person who openly declares opinions that are at variance with its own conclusions.

The letter talks about how the House of Justice went through a process of trying to get Micheal to see things in the same way as it does. It says that it even produced writings to back up its view and even this was to no avail. But what of the writings that I, for example, can produce to back my opinions on the covenant? Why do their quotes trump mine? Why do my quotes threaten their authority?

It is my feeling that the House's interpretation of the covenant removes my covenantal right to express the fruits of my guided journey towards God. My right to express those fruits is not in any way at variance with its authority. Surely, the 'mystery' of the covenant is partly captured by the fact that the expression of my considered opinions is in fact a demonstration of my *support* for the House.

Alison

Date: Thu, 23 Apr 1998 22:53:11 +1200
Subject: Re: covenant and infallibilty

Dear Irfan

As I see it, the problem is this: the Faith is not growing in the West, but becoming increasingly obscure. There is good evidence to suggest that the reason for this is the psychic dissonance people experience when they are faced with logical inconsistencies like the fact that there are no women on the House of Justice when we all stand for the equality of the sexes. It is things like this that make it impossible for people to teach. X says he cannot teach when things do not add up logically for him; I know I cannot teach the Faith for exactly the same reason; on H-Bahai one person said that members of his community expressed the very same opinion when asked by a visitor why they did not feel OK about teaching the Faith.

This is a fundamental problem. We all have a right to expect that our faith should be logical and make sense. Our desire for this cannot be put down to the fact that we have personal problems or are spiritually immature and therefore desire leadership, cannot obey legitimate authority, always want our own way, are wont to weigh the book of humanity against that of God's, or are academics first and Baha'is second! These are all ad hominem arguments -- shoot the messenger responses. We provide reasonable and logical arguments and evidence to support our concerns, and we very reasonably ask for reasonable and logical arguments and evidence in response.

Now, given that many believers experience this psychic dissonance, why aren't they all out there shouting the house down about it? Answer: fear. Fear that they may be being disobedient, fear that they may look stupid, fear that they may be told off, fear that they have just plain got it all wrong, fear that they may have their administrative rights removed, fear that they will be told they are not Baha'is; that they will be called covenant breakers. This fear has socialised them into keeping their innermost concerns quiet. They are told to use the 'legitimate channels', but when they do and they get responses that are a denial of their experience, then they are left in the wilderness and stay quiet.

As I have argued before, this fear is produced using a narrow interpretation of the covenant (the power works one way -- top down), which also assumes a particular interpretation of infallibility (we're right).

What is missing from this narrow interpretation of infallibility is the concept of the separation of powers, which applies not only to the rulers and the learned, but also to the rulers/learned and the interpreters. We seem to have completely missed the glaring fact that there is *not one* person or institution on the face of the planet that can give an authorised interpretation of the writings. In order to function, the institutions have to interpret the writings, and their interpretations will by necessity have great weight, but even so, these interpretations are not infallible (their sphere of 'infallibility' is legislation) and are not in any way an authority on scripture.

It follows, therefore, that when ordinary believers express an opinion on matters, they have every right to do so and it is an abuse of power to threaten them to be quiet simply because their opinions are not in accord with those of the institutions.

We've got to get past this silliness if we want the Faith to grow and to survive. I do not need the House to be infallible, I just want it to use its ears and genuinely listen and consult with the believers (including scholars) so that the power of the covenant can work both ways and the Faith can get back to doing what it oughta be doing -- serving humanity.

Alison Marshall

Date: Tue, 28 Apr 1998 19:24:43 +1200
Subject: honesty and sacrifice

Dear Irfan

I have received a private message that has alerted me to the fact that some people on Irfan may not know what has happened over the past few years since Talisman began in late 1994. Lots of people come and go from lists, but for some members (like me) who have watched lots of things go down pretty much since the beginning, there is a shared history and I, anyway, tend to post messages that assume all that history. So, in brief, this is what happened as I see it, and this is how I react to it and why I react to it the way I do.

Talisman began in late 1994 and over the course of a couple of years, thrashed out many key issues that Baha'is rarely discuss:
-- what is the meaning of infallibility?
-- what is the covenant?
-- who and what has the power and authority to interpret what scriptures?
-- what does interpretation mean?
-- why are there no women on the House of Justice?
-- what is the relationship between science and religion?
-- what is freedom of conscience in the Baha'i faith?
-- what is freedom of speech in the Baha'i faith?
-- what are human rights in the Baha'i faith?
-- how would it be possible to implement a bill of rights?
-- the nature of Baha'i jurisprudence
-- what is the relationship between church and state?
-- all aspects of Baha'i history
-- myths held in popular Baha'i culture
-- the need for greater emphasis on mysticism and the devotional aspects of life
-- Baha'i theology
-- the meaning and symbolism of the Maiden
-- discussion on current policies of the House of Justice
-- discussion on current adminstrative practices
-- how many Baha'is are there and are the numbers inflated?
-- discussion on various philosophical positions and how these relate to the Faith
-- whatever happened to Dialogue magazine?
-- the need for Baha'i review and its impact on Baha'i academics.
If I keep thinking, I'm sure I'll come to see that I have missed out many other important issues.

By mid 1996, it became clear that the discussions on things like infallibility, the covenant, interpretation and women on the House in particular were not liked by the administration. Counsellor Birkland came on Talisman and expressed concern about what was being discussed and some people who were posting frequently were contacted by counsellors and told they were saying things that were contrary to the covenant. The result was that some of those contacted fell silent and some resigned. One person lost his administrative rights. Talisman list owner, John Walbridge, closed the list down.

Juan Cole, who resigned from the faith because he was threatened with being called a covenant breaker, kept the discussions going by setting up Talisman II (the one we see today). He also set up a new list, Irfan, which had strict entrance criteria to protect the participants from threats by the administration. In 1997, he also set up H-Baha'i and the members of Irfan decided to open up Irfan to anyone who wished to join it. Juan's purpose was to create a list that could not be interfered with by the administration.

In mid 1997, Michael McKenny, who was deeply disturbed by the fact that women are not allowed on the House and that this conflicted with a basic principle of the Faith, put his concerns in writing to the House as counselled to so by his local ABM. The House replied, saying nothing new from what it had already said on the matter. Michael replied repeating his concerns. The House then wrote to the Canadian NSA and told them to remove Michael from membership because he could no longer be considered a Baha'i. Michael's wife was deeply concerned about what had happened to her husband and wrote to the House telling them so. They wrote back. During the whole affair, Michael continued to post his concerns about the exclusion, and his correspondence with the House, on the Internet.

For me, two things are clear: Michael held opinions that were contrary to those of the House and he made these opinions public. The passages that I quoted in a previous message came from the reply of the House to Michael's wife. I think the letter makes it clear that *in the end* Michael's crime was to make public on the Internet opinions that are contrary to those held by the House.

For me, this cleared up a lot. As I understand it, you can hold opinions that are contrary to those of the House so long as you do not go spreading those opinions around. This would appear to be the essence of what all these people have done 'wrong'.

Now, this turn of events troubles me deeply. I have prayed about it for three years now and I still have not got rid of the disturbing feeling inside. In fact, driven to despair about it, I decided to pray about it every day this past fast, and I asked God to tell me what to do. The answer came back loud and clear: speak out! So that's what I'm doing. I'm bringing this matter to your attention because I think it is a very serious matter and I think everyone should know about it. Perhaps I am particularly affected by it because, in general, I agree with the opinions expressed by those people who have been silenced and threatened, and I know it means that I cannot say what I honestly believe. I am silenced and threatened too.

I am forced to some staggering conclusions. I can't read one page of Amanat's Resurrection and Renewal - our spiritual history - without seeing parallels everywhere! The Babis sacrificed what they had in order to make known something that those in authority did not want made public. The authorities tried to silence them, and this resulted in a growth of the spiritual fire. Abdu'l-Baha says in "A Traveller's Narrative":

"For it hath been proved by experience in the world that in the case of such matters of conscience laceration causeth healing; censure produceth increased diligence; prohibition induceth eagerness; and intimidation createth avidity. The root is hidden in the very heart, while the branch is apparent and evident. When one branch is cut off other branches grow."

I am proof of the fact that this phenomenon is happening right here, right under our very noses. The root is in my heart.

A thousand ways I tried
My love to hide -
But how could I, upon that blazing pyre
Not catch fire!

No need to search the history books for cases of sacrifice and people putting their everything on the line for what they honestly believe. You'll find this spiritual drama unfolding in 1998 - at the cutting edge of the debate over issues we don't want to talk about.

Alison Marshall

Date: Thu, 30 Apr 1998 21:50:33 +1200
Subject: re: honesty and sacrifice

Dear X

You state that "No administrative body, nor any individual for that matter, ever objected to any of the topics discussed on the lists."

On the face of it, it is an entirely reasonable position. However, I think the situation is more complex than you paint it, and, as Baha'u'llah is at pains to point out in the Iqan, things are never as they seem. Moses was a murderer, Mary was viewed as a prostitute; how could such people have been given a divine mission? Mirza Yahya was given leadership by the Báb (who knows best), but was ultimately passed over for Baha'u'llah - and the Azalis were the ones to become the covenant breakers.

Now, I do not have any problems with the fact that the House of Justice is the head of the Faith and, as such, we should obey it, and that it is has been given the job of legislating for situations that are not already covered in the Book.

The question is: what does the above mean both theologically and in practice? The Baha'i community has developed a certain shared understanding of it. The trouble is that this understanding is asserted as if it is a given (The Truth), and it is not appreciated that this understanding is *just one* interpretation of a number of possible scenarios. This is reinforced by the fact that Baha'is assume that everything the House says is The Truth too.

This has led to a situation where, if someone asserts another possible interpretation, which conflicts with the one that is held by the majority of Baha'is, that person is viewed as wrong and threatening.

This is why I say that you're assertion that no institution or person objected to the discussions on Talisman is simplisitic. On the face of it, there is no harm in discussing things, but when those discussions lead us to question things that we hold to be True, then they are perceived as dangerous. In such a situation, it is natural to feel that people holding those discussions are in some fundamental way questioning the authority of the House. And it also follows that those people are motivated by a quest for leadership or are simply mistaken or are influenced by their Western or academic backgrounds.

But none of this holds water. No one ever gets thanked for questioning positions we hold to be True. The point is more that we have missed the point. We would be closer to certitude if we were to constantly hold our positions provisionally, always being prepared to update them as new evidence comes in. Surely, this is the scientific approach that would marry religion with science, as X has so eloquently argued on many occasions.

We know that every other religion so far has made the mistake of asserting an untenable orthodoxy. How do we, the Baha'is, avoid that?

We take the principle that religious truth is relative *seriously*. There is no person and no institution on the planet that can provide us with authoritative interpretations, so it is very important that we get on with discussing difficult issues and using consultation to progress the Faith. It is equally important that we learn to manage our reactions to challenging ideas maturely, and not attack personally those who hold opinions we disagree with.

Alison Marshall

Date: Mon, 4 May 1998 20:10:15 +1200
Subject: re-election issue

Dear X

I had a similar feeling of disappointment, not that I expected anything different to what happened. I just had a gut reaction that it was business as usual, unfortunately.

I wouldn't bother to write to the House about your concerns - it won't change anything. But do it if it'll make you feel better. I suggest that the House would argue that new blood is a good thing, but not something we want too much of because we need to maintain some sense of continuity, but that they can't legislate for it.

The problem, as always with election results, is with the culture of the voters. They don't see anything wrong with what's going down now. That's the depressing part about it. You and I can see huge problems showing themselves now and looming into the future, but others can't. The situation is not helped by the fact that 'deepening' is considered 'education' instead of what it actually is - a way of maintaining rather than challenging the perspectives we popularly hold.

Love
Alison

Date: Sun, 10 May 1998 15:14:24 +1200
Subject: mud in your eye

Dear Irfan

I have been thinking about X's analogy of mud and cars and his challenge to the anti-establishment that they need to come up with a positive models for change.

I think the analogy of the car in the hole and lots of mud everywhere (although understandable) is unfair. I can see that it looks like those who are disenchanted with the AO are throwing a lot of ---- around, and I accept that this is also true to some degree. But I don't think it's fair to say that this fully describes what is happening. A large part of what has happened over the last three or so years has resulted in a thorough-going analysis of what is dysfunctional in the community and I think this has resulted in a burgeoning of scholarship and a discourse that can be used to conceptualise our difficulties. This is an essential part of the growth process.

I think this has the potential to lead us, and has led us, in positive directions. We have the whole movement of the Mashriq, which has heightened our appreciation and practice of devotional life. There will be a handbook on the Mashriq published at some point. There is the issue of church and state. We used to hold an unquestioning acceptance that the Baha'is would one day form governments. Research has turned up staggering evidence to debunk that myth. There is Juan's book, which is a complete rethink on Baha'u'llah's thought and challenges how the community interprets Him now. There is also the 'personalising' of the manifestation and other players in Baha'i history, which makes them easier for us to relate to, which has come out in books such as Salmani's memoirs and Resurrection and Renewal. These are just a few macro-level outlets that immediately come to mind.

On a micro level, I personally have been completely changed by my exposure to these 'anti-establishmentists' and by what has been produced. My spiritual and intellectual life has gone through the roof. This is having an effect on my local community. Just this morning, I attended a study class on the Iqan and I argued a couple of ideas from our discussions here on Irfan - the one on church and state and the one about religion being a dialogue between the believer and the manifestation. This is one example of many ideas that I share locally and which are received with great enthusiasm. I'm hopeful that the process will led to fundamental change in what the community thinks is important and what it chooses to focus on in feast consultation. People are saying now that what is important is the inner spiritual life of each of us, as opposed to how much money we have in the fund. Spontaneously people are realising that the administration has been put before the spirit, and has not remained a servant to it. They are beginning to speak up and take their faith back.

As I see it, the structure of the faith has been set in place by Baha'u'llah and we do not been a positive alternative to replace it. What we need is rigorous Baha'i theology - not dogma - to flesh it out. Here we need a positive alternative, but I think that this alternative theology is being produced in abundance. We also need people to translate that theology into everyday community experience so that individuals and communities can be transformed. I'd be interested in hearing about other people's attempts at doing this.

Alison

Date: Sat, 16 May 1998 23:03:26 +1200
Subject: Re: Feb 8 letter

Dear Irfan,

I have some responses to this, the last of the letters of the House to Susan.

"It nevertheless questions some presumptions of certain current academic methods because it sees these producing a distorted picture of reality. The training of some scholars in fields such as religion and history seems to have restricted their vision and blinded them to the culturally determined basis of elements of the approach they have learned. It causes them to exclude from consideration factors which, from a Baha'i point of view, are of fundamental importance. Truth in such fields cannot be found if the evidence of Revelation is systematically excluded and if discourse is limited by a basically deterministic view of the world."

I am aware of the argument that the House cannot name actual examples of what it is referring to here because it would in effect be branding something heretical, but I wonder what could be an example of this. Is "Resurrection and Renewal" a candidate? It is an academic work of history. That book has had a lot of bad press amongst the Baha'is; Peter Khan (I think it was him) said it was an example of bad Baha'i scholarship. I was extolling the virtues of this book on another list, and someone said to me that Professor Amanat was trying to explain the Babi phenomenon in purely economic, social and political terms. In other words, I guess, the argument could be put that it attempts to systematically exclude the evidence of revelation.

But does it? I think it is completely silent on the matter. Nowhere does it say, "Oh no! God couldn't possibly have been a factor in this or that." However, it goes into a lot of detail in revealing the religious experiences of the Babis and how they interpreted their circumstances in relation to their relationship with God. Far from having a deadening effect on my personal religious experience, to have discovered in such a profoundly personal and detailed way the beauty of the religious experiences of the Babis as they are revealed in that book has had a tremendous effect on my spiritual life and transformed me in ways that I could never have imagined. I therefore testify that I am a living example of the transformative power of 'materialistic' history - if "Resurrection and Renewal" is an example of one such work.

In fact, it was precisely the fact that the book brought out the more human aspects of the history that I was so profoundly affected. It is important that people *do* write books that focus on the economic, social and political aspects of religion. These things are spiritual too! If this is materialism, give me more of it. Without this aspect of history, the believers cannot relate to their religion and the heroes in it. They become estranged from it and feel unworthy and uninspired. I think this is a phenomenon that is happening right now in the community. I have witnessed people's eyes light up the minute I start telling them about the beauty of the people who played their part in the history of our faith. This is a feminist issue too. Virginia Woolf argued that a culture that keeps "its heroes in a 'sublime and precipitous' position - that is, away from common readers - kills its own culture." (Marcus: Invincible Mediocrity The Private Selves of Public Women in Shari Benstock(ed): The Private Self 1988, p. 118)

In the end, what we want and need is a balance of all perspectives, not a banning of this or that. If it's "Truth" we want, and the House argues that that's what it's after, then I suggest that it lies somewhere in the milieu of the diversity of approaches. It doesn't lie solely in the religious sphere, for we know religious truth is relative - as is every other truth, including the historical.

"Some of the protagonists in the discussions on the Internet have implied that the only way to attain a true understanding of historical events and of the purport of the sacred and historical records of the Cause of God is through the rigid application of methods narrowly defined in a materialistic framework. They have even gone so far as to stigmatize whoever proposes a variation of these methods as wishing to obscure the truth rather than unveil it."

I've been on Talisman since late 1994 and I don't recall anyone arguing for a position anything like this. Although, I am not sure what "the rigid application of methods narrowly defined in a materialistic framework" actually means. As for anyone proposing an alternative being described as wanting to obscure the truth, I repeat that the only argument I recall is the one above, that the 'truth' lies in all methods and that we need all of them to progress. I see it as a unity in diversity thing, not a trumping of one method over another.

"The House of Justice recognizes that, at the other extreme, there are Baha'is who, imbued by what they conceive to be loyalty to Baha'u'llah, cling to blind acceptance of what they understand to be a statement of the Sacred Text. This shortcoming demonstrates an equally serious failure to grasp the profundity of the Baha'i principle of the harmony of faith and reason."

This is interesting. If this extreme is equally as serious as the one described above, then why am I not hearing about these people having their voting rights removed, or being visited by counsellors telling them that their opinions are covenantally questionable. Is this happening? If the House really sees this issue as equally as serious, then why is it not acting even-handedly? There are numerous examples on the net of such people proposing positions that demonstrate they are clinging to blind obedience, but I don't see them being silenced. And they are causing the faith a great deal of harm, no question.

"The danger of such an attitude is that it exalts personal understanding of some part of the Revelation over the whole, leads to illogical and internally inconsistent applications of the Sacred Text, and provides fuel to those who would mistakenly characterize loyalty to the Covenant as 'fundamentalism'."

Baha'u'llah himself abhorred literalist positions. *It is fundementalism.* But these people get the benefit of the doubt because their motive is interpreted by the House as being love for Baha'u'llah. Whereas those who say, "Gee, there are many ways to interpret this", in line with the fact that the meaning of the sacred text is inexhaustible, are perceived to be forming lobby groups.

Beyond contention, moreover, is the condition in which a person is so immovably attached to one erroneous viewpoint that his insistence upon it amounts to an effort to change the essential character of the Faith. This kind of behaviour, if permitted to continue unchecked, could produce disruption in the Baha'i community, giving birth to countless sects as it has done in previous Dispensations. The Covenant of Baha'u'llah prevents this. The Faith defines elements of a code of conduct, and it is ultimately the responsibility of the Universal House of Justice, in watching over the security of the Cause and upholding the integrity of its Teachings, to require the friends to adhere to standards thus defined."

Here we have the blurring of the distinction between freedom of expression and freedom of conduct. Does the expression of one's views amount to 'conduct'? If it does, then freedom of conscience becomes something not worth having. No point in being able to think what you like if it follows that you can't talk about it. As 'Abdu'l-Baha has explained in "A Traveller's Narrative", a person cannot control his or her thinking; it is a function of the mind to think. So if you limit what a person can say, you effectively make them a prisoner of their own conscience.

"The Universal House of Justice does not see itself obliged to prescribe a new scientific methodology for Baha'i academics who make study of the Faith, its teachings and history the subject of their professional activities. Rather has it concentrated on drawing the attention of these friends to the inadequacy of certain approaches from a Baha'i point of view, urging them to apply to their work the concept which they accept as Baha'is: that the Manifestation of God is of a higher realm and has a perception far above that of any human being. He has the task of raising humankind to a new level of knowledge and behaviour. In this, His understanding transcends the traditions and concepts of the society in which He appears."

Although it's true that Baha'u'llah is all these things, it doesn't follow that religion trumps all. Religion is just one phenomenon that is a sign of a name of God, but there are others, such as science and art. These things all work together. It is not a matter of one dominating the other. This is where the problems always come in: the state wants to dominate the church, the church wants to dominate the state or science, or science wants to dominate religion. In his book, "Modernity and the Millennium", Juan shows how experiments in each permutation of domination have led to grief and how Baha'u'llah argued for the freedom of each phenonemon. All are signs of the attributes of God, not just religion.

"It will surely be clear to you from the above comments that the categories of "issues of doctrinal heresy which must therefore be suppressed" and "the imposition of orthodoxy on the Baha'i community", to which you refer, are concepts essentially drawn from the study of Christianity and are inapplicable to the far more complex interrelationships and principles established by the Baha'i Faith."

I can't comment on whether these concepts are essentially drawn from Christianity, but if they are, I don't see why it logically follows that they cannot therefore apply to the Baha'i Faith. Given that these concepts describe conditions that every single religion so far has fallen prey to, why should we be immune? They are issues associated with the condition of the heart. They are not structural issues. No amount of scripture, no amount of tinkering with the structure of the AO, and no matter how divine the structure is, we cannot legislate for the removal of these issues from religion. This *is* a problem, and I think we ought to start looking seriously at it. The Tablet of the Holy Mariner is a good place to start. It predicts the future, and it doesn't sound rosy to me. "Wherein the ark of the Cause remaineth motionless even though to its dwellers be declared all divine attributes."

"The element which exacerbated a dispute which had been simmering during the past two decades and erupted on the Internet was the participation of some persons who, while nominally Baha'is, cherished their own programs and designed to make use of the Baha'i Cause for the advancement of these programs. To this end they strove to change the essential characteristics of that Cause. This behaviour has been abundantly confirmed by statements made and actions taken by certain of the involved individuals since they withdrew from the Baha'i community. They sought to use the language, the occasions and the credibility of scholarly activity to lend a counterfeit authority to a private enterprise which was essentially ideological in nature and self-motivated in origin."

This is completely untrue. There never was, nor is, such a program or enterprise. The House has consistently misinterpreted the actions of certain individuals and misrepresented their motives. But that's alright, abasement is the garment of glory.

"Even if their original aims were idealistic in nature -- no matter how ill-informed and erroneous in concept -- they had evolved in practice into an assault on the Covenant which Baha'u'llah has created as a stronghold within which His Cause would evolve as He intends. The purpose of some of those responsible would seem to be that, by diminishing the station of Baha'u'llah -- a disservice done to previous Manifestations by people similarly inclined --, by casting doubt on the authority conferred on`Abdu'l-Baha, the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice, and by calling into question the integrity of Baha'i administrative processes, they would be able to persuade a number of unwary followers that the Baha'i Faith is in fact not a Divine Revelation but a kind of socio-political system being manipulated by ambitious individuals."

No one has tried to persuade me that the Baha'i faith is not in fact a divine revelation. The truth of the matter is that, as a result of rubbing shoulders with these terrible people, as they are painted to be, I have never felt so spiritually alive and never been so enamoured of Baha'u'llah as I am right now. I say, the House makes a big mistake making martyrs of these believers. There is nothing more compelling to the human heart.

Alison Marshall

Date: Wed, 20 May 1998 19:56:51 +1200
Subject: Re: civil discourse or civil war

Dear friends

There seem to be a lot of people out there who have gripes against the scholars who are at the heart of all this debate. But I don't believe that pointing out their faults alters the following: that there is a crisis of spirit in the Baha'i community that more of the same is not going to fix. It will not achieve anything to shoot the messenger, even if he or she seems to speak without wisdom.

As I have argued before, I suggest that the theological basis for this spiritual crisis is (1) a naive understanding of the concept of infallibility, which in effect seems to mean: "Whatever the House says is The Truth", which is backed up by (2) a naive understanding of the concept of the covenant, which in effect seems to mean that power in the faith flows one way - from top to bottom - and this has the effect of enforcing (1).

I know that others don't believe that there is such a crisis, but it's real for me and I think there is evidence for it. Perhaps the best evidence is in the current Ridvan message. The House is saying that the community is making progress on entry by troops, but only the institutions are getting in behind it. There is still a problem with the fact that the individual is not acting. I think the House would do well to ask itself why. I find that the individual is often blamed in this way; how often do you hear people on a local assembly saying "Oh, I'm run off my feet. I have to do all the work around here. Why don't all those inactive believers get off their backsides and help?" The problem is in the way of thinking, in the dynamics of the community; it is not with the inactive believers.

This is a spiritual issue. How do you tell a spiritual assembly member that he or she need not be so busy, and that all his or her perceived problems have been caused by an insistence on the part of the assembly to control the development of the faith in that area - that the individual members of the community have been written out of the script? How do you change people's perceptions so that they can see that if they lightened up a bit, this would decrease their stress and empower others so that the Faith will grow? But no, what tends to happen is that the assembly focuses on the faults of the inactive members - they are apathetic or 'undeepened'.

Such a situation is going to go nowhere until someone pipes up and says that the assembly must take a long hard look at itself; in particular, it's gotta let a little chaos reign. What will the assembly members say to this? Thanks a lot, we're really glad you pointed this out? No. That person will cop it big time. And, I believe, that's what's going down here, on an international level. God uses martyrs as agents for change; a divine drama is being acted out here.

The House is saying that there is an attempt to change the essence of the faith. But what is the essence of the faith and who gets to say what The Essence of the faith is? No one, not even the House. I believe this kind of thinking, like the one about 'doing things contrary to the covenant', just produces fear. No one wants to be accused of this. It is a terrible and unthinkable prospect. Individuals dampen their creative responses to the revelation lest they fall foul of the lurking horror, and this affects the spirit of the faith. In effect, it controls the development of the Cause because it produces believers that are consumers of religion not creators of their religious experience. It's the same old theology that is getting us nowhere and it will not lead to the empowerment of the individual or the growth of the faith.

I like Shoghi Effendi's attempt to grasp the essence of the faith; he said it was fundamentally mystical in character. In my mind, we want a faith that is dominated by the spirit, not the administration.

Alison Marshall

p.s. As for the notion that 'anti-establishmentists' are not doing anything constructive, I reiterate that exploring and proposing alternative theologies is indeed very useful and is what's happening. These will challenge the current Baha'i culture and may inspire change and growth. Ironically, publishing such material could be seen as running a campaign! So it's damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Date: Wed, 10 Jun 1998 19:52:12 +1200
Subject: uniting Talisman and Irfan

X asks about the future of Irfan.

I feel strongly that Talisman and Irfan should be united. Perhaps there are things that I don't know about, but it seems sad to me and without purpose that there should be two seperate lists.

Prior to the last few weeks on Talisman, the traffic on both lists had almost ground to a halt. There doesn't seem to be enough energy to sustain two lists.

There is a close relationship between the two lists. This is proved by the fact that many people in the past have wanted to cross post messages to both lists. Now, when one list discusses something, the others don't know about it. For example, there has been talk about women on the House on Talisman, but many on Irfan aren't in on this even though they are probably interested in it. If the lists were united, more people would benefit from more people's input - and I wouldn't have to choose which list to post on.

I think Talisman and Irfan play a vital role for Baha'i Studies, inasmuch as not everyone gets to be on H-Bahai and it is good to have a place where that kind of discussion can take place among a wider audience. So I am all for doing something that develops these lists and for making sure they continue to be a success.

Love
Alison

Date: Tue, 21 Jul 1998 17:49:54 +1200
Subject: Re: writings reference

Dear X

I was delighted to read your message. In particular, I can relate to your comments about the faith being in your heart. I feel sure, also, that this is the only reason I have remained a Baha'i (18 years now). Also, in a similar way to the one you describe, I was lucky to have been put onto this wonderful cyberspace community (Talisman, Irfan and H-Baha'i), where there was *real* discussion of issues that Baha'is bury their heads in the sand over. Since 1994, when I first joined Talisman, this community has inspired and guided me into the mystical and intellectual realms of the faith. Far from having the demon effect that many fear, it has confirmed me as a Baha'i in a way that I never dreamed possible.

As I said, I was particularly interested in your comments about the heart. I think about this issue all the time. If I could only download to your mind in some instant Spock-like fashion the journey I have walked in the past couple of months over this issue! Suffice to say, that I have now discovered to my very great relief that I am an incurable mystic, and this accounts for the the years and years of unrelenting dissatisfaction that I have felt with the path the Baha'i community is taking. The only thing that stopped me feeling like I was a mad person was discovering that Baha'u'llah actually *counsels us to live* in the world of the spirit. "The first call of the Beloved is this: O mystic nightingale! Abide not but in the rose-garden of the spirit." When this finally sunk in, it was the end of me. I cut loose.

I was many years a Baha'i, and yet, it took me ages to see this. Why? Well, here's at least one explanation that I think is significant. All those years, my energies were taken up with matters pertaining to Baha'i administration and 'teaching' (mostly this manifested itself as paralysing guilt). With my new perspective, I now believe that all this activity, which goes on in Baha'i communities, is a very big waste of time. The acid test came when I went along to feast - yes, the feast of the spirit - and wanted to talk about living in the world of the spirit. Something was wrong somehow - the Baha'is only barely understood me; they didn't seem to speak Baha'u'llah's language - the language of the Hidden Words. But wait, aren't we supposed to be Baha'is? "Ponder awhile. Hast thou ever heard that friend and foe should abide in the one heart?" In short, I think the Baha'is have come to worship their administration, not Baha'u'llah.

This experience explained why I had attended many Baha'i activities and felt like the reality of my heart was somehow not reflected in the reality of the group. I always interpreted this expereince as proof that we have not yet understood the spiritual import of the principle of the equality of men and women. Although I still believe this is true, in fact the problem runs deeper than that.

It has been a painful struggle working out that the lack of validation was not a problem with me, but a problem with Baha'i culture and understandings.

With love
Alison Marshall

Date: Mon, 27 Jul 1998 20:56:30 +1200
Subject: Re: UHJ and women: "the sound of one wing flapping"

X said:
> In other words, there is no sentence, to my knowledge, in
>the Writings or interpretations thereof which says
>specifically or equivalently, "This exclusion is
>permanent and unconditional."

In relation to this, I append below all the quotes from Baha'u'llah on this matter. As you will see, you could hardly call them quotes on the matter. The most we have here, is the word *men* mentioned *in passing* to describe the members of the House.

In the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha'u'llah on one occasion addresses the members of the House of Justice as men (rijal). "Oh ye Men of Justice! Be ye, in the realm of God, shepherds unto His sheep..." (Aqdas p. 38)

In Questions and Answers, he says: "Should a treasure trove be found, one third thereof is the right of the discoverer, and the other two thirds should be expended by the men of the House of Justice for the welfare of the people." (Aqdas p. 137)

In Ishraqat (a supplement to the Kitab-i-Aqdas), he says: "The men of God's House of Justice have been charged with the affairs of the people." (Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p. 128) And again: "It is incumbent upon the men of God's House of Justice to fix their gaze by day and by night upon that which hath shone forth from the Pen of Glory for the training of peoples..." (Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p 125)

In Kalimat-i-Firdawsiyyih (a supplement to the Kitab-i-Aqdas), he says: "We exhort the men of the House of Justice and command them to ensure the protection and safeguarding of men, women and children." (Tablets of Baha'u'llah, pp 69-70)

As I see it, nowhere does Baha'u'llah actually come out and say that the House of Justice members must be men. He describes them in passing as men, but never makes a positive law of it. So, in effect we have based a positive exclusion on a word that was not even necessary for the purpose of the passages in which it was used - Baha'u'llah could have referred to the "women of the House of Justice" and those passages would not be altered in meaning. IMV, this is bad law. Surely, justifying an exclusion that prima facie is inconsistent with the positive principle of equality needs a more solid foundation. Look at the law relating to polygyny. There 'Abdul-Baha clearly says that Baha'u'llah meant men to have only one wife, and in doing this, gave a positive principle to justify his position, that of justice and treating people equitably. But here there seems to be no principle that can be invoked to overturn equality, except perhaps the idea of gradualism, as suggested by 'Abdu'l-Baha's position, but this would last only a limited time.

Given the lack of clarity, I agree with X that we have a situation that is not covered in the Book. This means that the House of Justice *can* rule on the matter, and change its constitution, which would bring it into line with modern circumstances.

Alison