Saturday, August 21, 2010

Infallibility Artifice

According to official Baha'i sources, certain inputs to, and the design of, The Universal House of Justice (UHJ) may possess an attribute of infallibility, which does not necessarily extend to UHJ outputs. This working hypothesis is based on a simple "black box" model shown in the figure and a brief literature survey.
The major result is that individuals, without any authority based on Baha'i scripture, may have wrongly described UHJ outputs -- its writings and actions -- as infallible, which can be an unnecessary source of confusion and distortion of the unique attributes of the Baha'i administration, to the detriment of the Baha'i world community.


As a world religion founded in 1863 by Baha'u'llah, who claimed to be a messenger or manifestation of God, the Baha'i Faith teaches that God is key in both the inputs to and the design of the UHJ.

Referring to the Ministry of 'Abdu'l-Baha, son of Baha'u'llah, the official Baha'i web site writes:
'Abdu'l-Baha confirms that the Universal House of Justice is "under the protection and the unerring guidance of God."
Note the adjective "unerring" might be considered as redundant or for emphasis, if it is assumed that "guidance of God" would be unerring, infallible, etc.

In the Constitution of the UHJ, referring to its elected members, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith (1921-1957), is quoted;
"God will verily inspire them with whatsoever He willeth", is Bahá'u'lláh's incontrovertible assurance. They ... have thus been made the recipients of the divine guidance...
where "divine guidance" is, of course, an UHJ input.

Individual Baha'is have echoed this thinking. Brent Poirier wrote:
...the House of Justice is infallibly guided when it legislates to fill the gaps intentionally left by Baha'u'llah in the fabric of His laws.
with the focus on the input of promised divine guidance.

Naturally, the facts pertaining to any matter, along with relevant teachings in Baha'i scripture, are also very significant inputs to the decision-making process of the UHJ.


First elected in 1963, the UHJ is the highest administrative body and also the spiritual center of the Baha'i community. As such, its decisions have a "final and binding" attribute.

The ideas regarding divine guidance cited above may also be considered as part of its design. The design of the Baha'i Administration, including its top body -- the UHJ, is a vast subject beyond the scope of this article. In aggregate, this rather unique system no doubt provides ample food for thought for students of religious studies and social and political science and philosophy. However, some introductory remarks are cited, again quoting Shoghi Effendi:
...this Administrative Order is fundamentally different from anything that any Prophet has previously established, inasmuch as Bahá'u'lláh Himself revealed its principles, established its institutions, appointed the person to interpret His Word, and conferred the necessary authority on the body [the Universal House of Justice] designed to supplement and apply His legislative ordinances...
While the design is considered by Baha'is to be divinely inspired, it includes provisions for things that might go wrong, so to speak. First, the UHJ can change its rulings as conditions in the world change and develop. Even elected members might be removed from office for certain behaviors, as described in its Constitution, although there is as yet no known case of this type of removal.


UHJ outputs include all of its writings -- formal statements and correspondence, its plans, actions, legislation or rulings and guidance to Baha'i individuals and communities.

As the focus of the present working hypothesis, the literature search thus far reveals no clear and definitive statement in Baha'i scripture that UHJ outputs, however inspired, informed, lucid and widely-followed they might be, are necessarily infallible in the sense of being absolutely free from error.

Rather one finds a collection of often ambiguous and/or vague statements by individuals who do not possess official administrative authority (as the elected bodies do), which may imply to many, without firm foundation, that UHJ outputs are indeed infallible.

1984 (approx.)
In 2005, Dr. Susan Manech wrote:
...nearly a decade before Doug Martin was elected to the House of Justice, for instance, I remember him insisting that each and everything the House said was infallible, by which I think he meant propositional inerrancy.
Since Mr. Martin was elected to the UHJ in 1993, we might place "nearly a decade before" in about 1984.

Apparently struggling with the assumption of infallible UHJ outputs, in "Infallible Institutions?" Udo Schaefer wrote:
This paper analyses two categories of "infallibility": essential infallibility which is inherent in the messengers of God, and conferred infallibility which is a characteristic of the institutions of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice. This paper focuses on the Universal House of Justice. Does its infallibility operate to an unlimited extent? Are every one of its decisions infallible, and if not, what are its boundaries? The immanent limits of this charisma are analysed and a detailed argument provided that supports a defensible restrictive interpretation.
In short, this sort of heroic analysis is not needed if the present thesis is accepted -- namely, that there is no scriptural basis to assume that UHJ outputs are infallible.

In a talk given by Dr. Peter Khan at the National Teaching Conference, Auckland, New Zealand, June, 2000, Dr. Khan, an elected member of the UHJ from 1987 to 2010, reportedly said:
...we have at the centre of our Faith a body called the Universal House of Justice,... ...then I laid on them the fact that it was, that we regard it as infallible, divinely guided and freed from error.
Dr. Khan's statement in a major talk that the UHJ was (or is) infallible and that "we regard it as infallible" as a "fact" must have been big news at the Baha'i World Centre. When he returned to Haifa, perhaps the UHJ told him, "Please do not promulgate your personal theological views as if 'we' (the UHJ) endorsed them."

J. T. Lamb wrote:
The UHJ is infallible
where no distinction is made among UHJ input, design and output.

R. Khanam wrote:
...the Universal House of Justice ... is infallible and divinely inspired in its rulings and legislative activity.
where the "is infallible" part is a general statement and the "divinely inspired" part specifically refers to the input section of our model.

A Wiki article states:
The books and documents published by the Universal House of Justice are considered authoritative and its legislative decisions are considered infallible to Bahá'ís.
This statement specifically ascribes, without known basis, infallibility to UHJ outputs.

The author may also be counted as assuming that UHJ outputs are officially deemed to be infallible, without firm basis, in his recent "Gaming the Baha'i Writings" article. However, that article did note the fact that the word "infallible" or "infallibility" does not even appear in the Constitution of the UHJ.

In an effort to define two types of infallibility -- strong and weak, Ron Stephens wrote:
...The Baha'i Faith...requires a more true, "Weak principle of Infallibility", which includes evolutionary tendencies, and as guided by an Infallible Universal House of Justice...
Unlike the present approach, it seems some sort of infallible UHJ output is assumed and therefore Stephens tries to make sense of such a concept.


1. The almost 50 year history of the UHJ since its first election in 1963 shows its staying power, among other things. In that time, its accumulated writings and correspondence fill many volumes. Hence, the present brief literature search may have missed material significant to the topic.

However, the unmistakable conclusion is, first, that the institution of the UHJ possesses attributes of infallibility in both its inputs and design. After all, the Baha'i Faith is a religion based on a revelation believed to be God's will and teachings for this era, and hence, the foregoing points are more or less established by definition. One either accepts that sort of conception or not.

Second, in a result that may be surprising and even controversial to many Baha'is, there seems to be no firm basis to conclude that UHJ outputs are infallible, "free from error", "unerring", an "expression of divine guidance" and so forth. In this light, it may be shocking that so many speakers and authors have assumed and asserted this baseless assumption as if it were written in stone in Baha'i scripture.

As a result, efforts to define categories of infallibility may seem to have completely missed the point. For most purposes, there is no need to do so, at least regarding the UHJ. Thus, infallibility categories -- strong or weak, full or restricted, inherent or conferred and so on -- if relevant at all, would seem to apply only to UHJ input and design, but not to UHJ output.

2. The statements above connecting some sort of infallibility with UHJ output were presented as efforts by individuals, not as part of Baha'i scripture and not as communications from official Baha'i institutions. Concerning these individuals, first, the Baha'i Faith has no clergy, no sub-set of persons with higher authority to determine the meaning of Baha'i scripture or institutions than any other Baha'i members. Second, as far as the present analysis has proceeded, there is no scriptural basis for these statements associating infallibility with UHJ statements (output).

3. The author's "Gaming..." article cited above may therefore be amended to suggest that Baha'i authorities explain to the Baha'i community the present result to avoid further confusion re the "infallibility status" of UHJ outputs.

4. The present result can be a valuable asset in promoting the Baha'i Faith. For one thing, there is no need for it and its UHJ to be the object of the kind of ridicule that can arise from claims that UHJ outputs are infallible.

5. This report raises the question of the motive of individuals in the apparent promotion of the idea that UHJ outputs are infallible, thereby subjecting the Baha'i Faith to unnecessary ridicule. Were these just innocent cases of simple confusion arising from vague statements and unwarranted assumptions? Or did some of this activity have more sinister motives? For example, could it be mere coincidence that two leading fundamentalists as operationally defined here -- Mr. Martin and Dr. Khan -- were among the voices promoting the infallible output thesis?

6. According to the present analysis, belief that UHJ statements are infallible is unfounded and appears to have developed over the last quarter century, promoted by individuals with no authority to do so. Indeed, promotion of this unfounded belief arguably is an artifice to distort the unique and lofty design of the Baha'i administration and its UHJ, and as such, is hostile to the interests of the Baha'i Faith and the UHJ.

The unfailing strength of the Baha'i community is close adherence to its fundamental teachings -- a potent unifying factor.


Using official Baha'i sources and a simple black box model, (1) divine guidance plays a significant role in inputs to and the design of the UHJ; (2) however, claims that outputs of the UHJ -- its writings and actions -- are infallible have no known scriptural basis. Assertions by individuals and by Baha'i books that UHJ statements are infallible might be an effort to undermine or weaken the credibility of the UHJ by making it an object of ridicule.
© 2010 James J Keene