Thursday, June 17, 2010

Gaming the Baha'i Writings

Gaming the Baha'i writings may be broadly defined as selection or suppression of particular passages by one or more persons who deem such action will achieve certain goals. Hypothesis: Gaming the Baha'i writings has been and will continue to be a normal and acceptable feature of the development of the Baha'i world community both by individuals and by its institutions. Some concrete examples of gaming the Baha'i writings will be briefly considered.

Teaching, Proclamation, Public Relations
Perhaps the most common example is presentation of the Baha'i Faith where one selects the major teachings first, emphasizing those with which the listener is likely to agree or which fit specific interests or general level of comprehension. This gaming is consistent with accepted, effective communication and education methods.

Was Yes, Then No or Never
Even in the Baha'i community, basic Baha'i laws have not been applied universally in all parts of the world. For example, the Huququ'llah (a Baha'i fund to which Baha'is contribute if their net assets reach a specific threshold) was not applied in the West until well after The Universal House of Justice (UHJ) was first elected in 1963. This delay in application of certain Baha'i laws (established by Baha'u'llah, the founder) leaves the door open for an infinite delay -- some of those laws might never be applied or enforced. Some Baha'i members might think that such an infinite delay is unthinkable, and they might be right. The present gaming point is just that history thus far shows it has happened up to the present.

In contrast, other Baha'is may rejoice that this history shows an important flexibility in the Baha'i Administration, enabling it to adapt to new conditions, which indeed is a fundamental part of the Constitution of its highest administrative body -- the UHJ, which states, in part [emphasis mine]:
To enact laws and ordinances not expressly recorded in the Sacred Texts; to abrogate, according to the changes and requirements of the time, its own enactments; to deliberate and decide upon all problems which have caused difference; to elucidate questions that are obscure; to safeguard the personal rights, freedom and initiative of individuals; and to give attention to the preservation of human honour, to the development of countries and the stability of states;...
A new Independent forecast is that the UHJ will "abrogate" some of "its own enactments" in the near future, for multiple purposes, one of which will be to clarify the meaning of infallibility for the Baha'i community, as described below.

Authorized Interpretation
Baha'is hope to maintain unity by avoiding competing factions with different interpretations of the writings of Baha'u'llah (Glory of God), by limiting who can make authorized or official interpretations to two persons: 'Abdu'l-Baha (Servant of Baha), the son of Baha'u'llah and the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, grandson of 'Abdu'l-Baha. The ministries were 1863-1892 (Baha'u'llah), 1892-1921 ('Abdu'l-Baha) and 1921-1957 (Shoghi Effendi).

Of course, everybody is free to make their own interpretations of the Baha'i writings. Quite a diversity of conceptions can coexist in a unified Baha'i community. In short, the idea of limited authorized interpretation has been a factor in preventing major schisms and an important asset to the present center of the Baha'i Faith, the UHJ.

In the Constitution passage cited above, while the UHJ can "deliberate and decide" and "elucidate questions", as the top administrative unit of the Baha'i community, it is not an authorized or official interpreter of Baha'i scripture. This fact may be a key asset.

1. For one thing, it provides a lot of wiggle room. That the UHJ has based a decision on a particular meaning or significance (i.e., interpretation) of passages from Baha'i scripture at time A, does not prevent it from finding a substantively different meaning or significance at a later time B. That is, it has impressive freedom to act "according to the changes and requirements of the time", helped by the fact that it is not an authorized interpreter of the Baha'i writings. Note that different interpretations at times A and B can optionally lead to different policies.

2. Baha'is agree that decisions of the UHJ are "final and binding" at any particular time, which is, by definition, the function and prerogative of a top-most administrative body. Meanwhile, since the historical period of authorized interpretation ended in 1957 as described above, Baha'is are free to discuss, debate, and analyze the interpretations offered by the UHJ to justify its rulings, to educate, "to elucidate questions that are obscure", etc.

In short, the UHJ can and does exercise considerable authority at the same time that it can continuously benefit from discussion among Baha'is of the meaning and significance of Baha'i scripture, in general or specifically as presented in the writings of the UHJ itself. In short, since the UHJ is not an authorized interpreter, it can receive continuous feedback from Baha'is -- their ideas, questions raised, research, etc, which represents a substantial resource.

Some Baha'is falsely claim that the mere act of discussing or raising questions about UHJ statements or directives undermines UHJ authority, while the true effect is actually the reverse. Indeed, UHJ statements would lack authority if they are not acted upon and subject to detailed analysis, consultation and yes, debate. Encouraging such discussion helps the UHJ fulfil its mission "to safeguard the personal rights, freedom and initiative of individuals".

Peter Khan: Two Gaming Chapters
My Baha'i friend from the late 1960s in Ann Arbor, MI, Dr. Peter Khan, has surprised me twice in subsequent decades.

Surprise #1: Dr. Khan apparently cultivated a reputation as an extreme and divisive figure in Baha'i affairs as described in my articles here (such as "Fundamentalism Bubble Burst", "Peak Fundamentalism" and "Collapse of Fundamentalism"). With his fundamentalist notoriety, he developed "strong negatives", as a political pollster might say. I had known him as a gentle, charming person, not as a seeker of conflict.

As discussed in detail in the fundamentalism articles cited above, chapter one of gaming the Baha'i writings led by Dr. Khan and a small clique of associates who had risen to high appointed or elected levels in the Baha'i community featured a theocracy-flavored authoritarianism. This gaming ostensibly aimed at increasing the prestige and admiration accorded by Baha'is to the UHJ. However, Baha'i respect for the UHJ was already near a maximum; and one may argue that this gaming actually served to decrease it as well as to provoke conflict among Baha'is where none had been present before, resulting in loss of a great many Baha'i members. In sum, the "strong negatives" may have been well earned.

On the other hand, confidence in Baha'i teachings and specifically in the UHJ may well have increased since both survived this conflictive gaming by fundamentalists over a period spanning several decades. However, damages directly attributable to the conflict-seeking fundamentalists remain to be addressed, as a simple matter of need for a sort of "post-war" justice and healing within the Baha'i community.

Surprise #2: Although there was no obvious reason for me to expect change, Dr. Khan now appears to be remaking or moderating his image toward a more conventional Baha'i model -- as a seeker of unity. If so, promoting unity is better than promoting conflict; moderation is better than extremism.

And such moderation may signal a second gaming chapter. In Khan to convention, precis, Sen McGlinn summarizes a talk by Dr. Peter Khan at the US Baha'i convention, 2010:
He appears to be preparing the friends for some major change to be introduced by the Universal House of Justice (see the last sentence)...

He distinguishes between "strategic applications of Shoghi Effendi" and his "enduring interpretations" - ie we will not be following every letter of Shoghi Effendi indefinitely.

...the Cause will adopt different strategies and approaches as it deals with a variety of circumstances appropriate to the growth of world order. Some of these will be similar to strategies described by Shoghi Effendi and some of them will be different and some of them will be radically different. And believers who confuse constancy with change will be worried that we are forsaking the interpretations of Shoghi Effendi when in fact all we are doing is changing some of the strategies of that master strategist that was Shoghi Effendi.

...Things that were very cherished by a number of believers were discarded. New practices were introduced by Shoghi Effendi in those early years of his ministry. This has proceeded during the ministry of Shoghi Effendi, during the interregnum and now during the ministry of the Universal House of Justice.

...The strategic applications of Shoghi Effendi are quite different to the enduring interpretations of Shoghi Effendi which remain valid for the entire course of the dispensation.

...Another element of uniqueness of the UHJ is its being endowed with a specific commitment to make change. This is an institution that has change built into it, in its very fibre .. it is charged with making change. It has the right to make decisions within the specified parameters, that are equally binding as the laws of Baha’u'llah and to change its rulings.
This sampling from Dr. Khan's speech is remarkable, suggesting that he is distancing himself to some extent from his previous authoritarian notoriety and more important for the Baha'i community as a whole, that the UHJ may be issuing some new milestone decisions or positions. This is a welcome and exciting prospect. Naturally, one wonders: new positions about what?

What Are Current Hot Topics?
Baha'i blogger Nicholas Bridgewater has listed three biggies: the ideas
that homosexuality is somehow a legitimate tendency, that women may one day serve on the Universal House of Justice or that the House itself isn't quite as infallible as it's cracked up to be.
Outstanding choices for an agenda. Bridgewater lists these topics as ideas which certain Baha'i scholars are "promoting". Further, he claims that discussion of these ideas undermines the authority of, and is "condemned" by, the UHJ.

However, there is probably not a single Baha'i active in teaching the Baha'i Faith who has not discussed these ideas extensively, since they cannot be avoided as seekers raise questions. Therefore, Bridgewater might appear to be "promoting" a rather silly concept that all Baha'is around the world active in the Baha'i community and its teaching efforts are engaged in undermining the authority of the UHJ.

For present purposes, suffice it to say that this is a good topic list to illustrate the kind of future gaming of the Baha'i writings that Dr. Khan may have foreshadowed. While detailed analysis of each idea is beyond the scope of this article, let us consider a few possibilities.

1. Homosexuality As far as I know, the word "homosexuality" does not even appear in Baha'i scripture, defined as the writings of Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha. This is perfect for gaming, since the UHJ can pretty much take any position without worry of contradicting scripture.

In fact, homosexuals have always been very active, important contributors to building the Baha'i community, perhaps in much higher percentage than found in the general population, given the warm and accepting atmosphere typical of Baha'i gatherings. For example, if 11 percent of adult Baha'is are homosexual, about double an estimated percent in the general population, then each Baha'i assembly would have an average of one homosexual member (11 percent is one in nine odds).

By almost any standard, there is no justification for exclusion of such a major sub-population from the Baha'i community, much less for their persecution by Baha'is, as for example, in the reported harsh measures such as removal of voting rights, which might best be viewed as nothing more than cruelty and administrative incompetence. It almost goes without saying that there must be a better, more gracias way to address this phenomenon.

Most important, Baha'u'llah sought to attract the hearts and spirits without any exclusion based on sexual preferences. It seems clear that some definite re-positioning of Baha'i administrative practice regarding homosexuals is fertile ground for enhancing justice in, and growth of, the Baha'i community.

2. Women UHJ Members This one is extremely easy to game, since the issue can be reduced to semantics, concerning how words like "mankind" and "men" are interpreted, leaving plenty of room to spin a modified approach. Even more easy with the history that 'Abdu'l-Baha, one of only two authors of Baha'i scripture, reportedly changed his mind from "men only" to "men and women" for "House of Justice" (Spiritual Assembly) members. By the way, this bit of history may provide some insight into the meaning of infallibility, which apparently does not preclude changing policies.

This item is especially easy. It is the topic of almost universal discussion among Baha'is and in teaching efforts like firesides precisely because it is like a "false flag" event -- namely, exclusion of women actually decreases respect for, and the authority of, the UHJ, especially in the eyes of the general public. As such, it may be classified as an untreated wound.

Lucky for the Baha'i community, this one can be handled by simple decree from the UHJ. It might be as simple as announcing that if a female Baha'i receives enough votes, freely cast by the NSA electors, to be within the top nine in a UHJ election, such a result could not be invalidated. Yes, the previous sentence is a bit indirect, merely to show that new positions can be hatched in a variety of direct or indirect ways.

Over the years, the best defense of the "male only" policy for UHJ membership that I have used is simply, "If women could serve on the UHJ, then no men would be elected. Everybody knows that women are smarter; men would not have a chance in hell to be elected, so we would in effect have an all-female UHJ." Get it? This is my lame "laugh it off" strategy.

The present policy might also lead to some comic situations. Have you ever asked how "maleness" is determined, in the Olympics or in UHJ election results? Do the vote-getters have to be tested by a physician to determine if they are "men"? What if there was an impostor -- a female who always had posed, in dress, behavior and so forth, as a male? Yes, I suppose there would have to be a medical exam before UHJ election results could be certified. Is that currently a little-publicized step in UHJ elections? Given the odds cited above, would a male homosexual be placed in the "men" category?

3. Infallibility
As with the first two ideas on homosexuality and women on the UHJ, Baha'i authors have written extensively on UHJ infallibility. Per the present focus on gaming changes in policy and practice, this item may also be rather easy to handle.

First, the word "infallibility" does not even appear in the Constitution of the UHJ but apparently became a focus of attention by a much later UHJ statement in response to questions from Baha'is. If I have this history right, then we may have another situation where the UHJ can "abrogate" "its own enactments".

Second, and again similar to the first two ideas, the interpretation of infallibility as "free of error" or "errorless" might seem to be a huge price to pay -- maybe a much-too-high price. Being "perfect", never making any sort of error, can be a huge impediment to optimal function of the UHJ and needless to say, the integrity of UHJ function is all-important to the vital needs of the Baha'i Faith.

In retrospect, has being "errorless" helped or hindered the Baha'i Cause? Has it helped or hindered UHJ functionality? If infallibility as being "error-free" is applied to Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha, as it is presently, Baha'i authors already have a formidable job in defending that concept. It helps that this is pure history. These central figures are no longer alive. In the case of the present UHJ, who knows what "bomb-shell" (or suspected "error") might arise when we wake up each morning into the indefinite future?

One wonders, in the case of the UHJ, just how sustainable, defensible and useful the "error-free" concept is and what it in fact adds to the already high and unmatchable prestige of the UHJ. Obviously, certain people will be watching the UHJ like predator hawks, some hoping to find any error -- even a misspelled word or misstated fact. Would such a situation be a counter-productive distraction?

Certainly, among Baha'is, adding "error-free" to the UHJ mix does nothing to increase respect for the institution, which was and remains at near maximum levels. There is an abundance of Baha'i scripture establishing the uniqueness and lofty standards of the Baha'i Administration. So what exactly does "error-free" add?

In addition, Baha'i scripture clearly indicates that decisions and directives of local and national assemblies and of the UHJ should be supported. Infallibility does not necessarily add force to that ample, clear and logical scripture.

Perhaps a simple start would be a policy reversal illustrating to the Baha'i community that infallibility is time-dependent -- namely, policy A is infallible only until the UHJ changes to policy B. If infallibility is time-dependent, what other dependencies might it have? Is it also context-dependent in some manner? Is the idea really worth the trouble? Clearly, being "error-free" might act as a sort of ball-and-chain burden and lead to endless issues, problems, and distractions from more important matters regarding the core business of administering the Baha'i world community, where there is no replacement for the UHJ. Does being "errorless" return anything of real worth, given the high price it demands to be paid?

Already, it appears that Dr. Khan, a former member of the UHJ, is opening the door to game the infallibility of Shoghi Effendi, using a reclassification technique, putting some of his statements in category A and others in category B -- clear beginnings to a process of gaming as described herein.

Summary
Gaming the Baha'i writings has been and will continue to be a normal and acceptable feature of the development of the Baha'i world community both by individuals and by its institutions. Various examples are presented to illustrate the concept. It is way beyond the scope of the current author to determine which developments, if any of those discussed as examples, are advisable. However, the three ideas listed by Bridgewater do appear to be the subject of discussion by most Baha'is and observers of Baha'is and as such, might well be productive areas to do some gaming.
© 2010 James J Keene