Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Elucidating Obscure Questions

The Constitution of the Universal House of Justice (UHJ) of the Baha'i world community states that functions of this nine-member, elected administrative body include:
to deliberate and decide upon all problems which have caused difference; to elucidate questions that are obscure;...
as discussed in some detail in the Independent "Gaming the Baha'i Writings" article. The UHJ should focus on increasing the strength of the Baha'i world community which in part may be best achieved by refraining, as much as possible, from elucidating obscure questions.

Primarily an administrative and legislative body, the UHJ has been the center of the Baha'i world in many senses ranging from the spiritual to the physical, being located at the Baha'i World Centre in Haifa, Israel. Prior to its first election in 1963, the center of the Baha'i Faith was its founder Baha'u'llah from 1863 to 1892, his son 'Abdu'l-Baha from 1892 to 1921 and Shoghi Effendi from 1921 to his passing in 1954.

For over 90 years (1863 - 1954), these central figures of the Baha'i Faith entertained questions from Baha'is and others on almost every conceivable subject, including philosophy, religion, government, civilization, the human being, society and science. Indeed, a popular book is "Some Answered Questions", a compilation of such questions and answers by 'Abdu'l-Baha. Thus, when the UHJ was elected in 1963, it was natural for Baha'is around to world to address an enormous assortment of questions to that body, seeking guidance which might satisfy particular needs or curiosities.

These questions often probed some extremely obscure issues, if only in the sense that scientific data and understanding was not yet available. Often the questions addressed to the UHJ would focus on current social issues and controversies, where a UHJ response might help people cope with those situations. As examples, there were questions about complex subjects such as participation by Baha'is in various social organizations, ability of women to be elected as members of the UHJ itself, homosexuality and many others.

Slowly but surely in the last 50 years for the UHJ, the incredible difficulty in producing coherent, well-informed answers to many such questions became increasingly apparent. In some cases, an answer might express some application of passages from the Baha'i writings. However, scholars might need years if not decades to study and debate exactly how certain passages in Baha'i scripture might best be translated and understood. In others, a well-informed answer would require a boat load of scientific understanding, far beyond that presently available. Not to mention the difficulty that scientific study of individuals and groups -- psychology and sociology respectively -- is notoriously imprecise and subject to various fads among investigators and radical change in perspectives over relatively short periods.

To make matters worse, the size of the Baha'i community had grown to include substantially increased diversity in cultural, religious and social variables among Baha'is around the world. This factor probably increased the number and variety of questions posed to the UHJ. In short, it seems that elucidating obscure questions may have reached a threshold where it becomes next to impossible to produce a sensible, intelligent answer, except in a very limited number of highly selected cases.

Since the founding of the Baha'i Faith to the present UHJ, the increasing pressure to answer every conceivable question has had many "escape valves". For example, the answer might be along the lines that words cannot express it or the human mind cannot comprehend it, especially with questions on various intangibles, such as the soul, life after death and so forth. Alternatively, the UHJ might just decline to offer a specific answer leaving the investigative task to the questioner to explore further.

A working hypothesis is that since 1963, the UHJ has answered too many questions -- most of which might better have been left in the "answer pending", "we don't know", or "figure it out for yourself" categories. Consider that the difficulties mentioned above tend to decrease the odds of producing workable, sensible, accurate and useful answers. In addition, answers to questions posed by Baha'is might be evaluated by the important criterion of likelihood to increase unity in the Baha'i community. Obviously, answers that do the opposite, inadvertently increasing disunity, discord and dissension among Baha'is, are clearly counter-productive.

In other words, both qualitative and quantitative developments may have changed the flavor of how questions posed to the central figures of the Baha'i Faith and to its UHJ might best be fielded. Previously, the central figures mentioned above with their special status as individuals typically provided immediate, pithy, clear and conclusive answers to questions. More recently with the UHJ, which lacks authority to interpret the Baha'i writings, this "flavor" or qualitative change appears to have a definite threshold where answers to many questions might actually be divisive and therefore, arguably, better not provided at all.

This train of thought brings us to the first item in the UHJ Constitution quoted above -- "decide upon all problems which have caused difference". One might surmise that all controversial social questions should be answered to prevent division or "difference" among Baha'is. On the other hand, this may be a generally very weak approach. For one thing, Baha'is pride themselves on the diversity in their communities, including differences of opinion. Further, differences of opinion are featured as a very significant factor in the all-important consultation procedure used in Baha'i communities. Hence, disagreement among Baha'is on particular obscure or social issues is considered normal and acceptable, not something to be avoided at all costs, so to speak.

If there be any worry, the UHJ can remind the Baha'is that all debate where there is a clash of different opinions be polite and non-violent. If anybody throws a "sucker punch" or generally if fist or gun fights erupt, the local police should be called and the offenders hauled to jail. Keep in mind that fire arms, rocket propelled grenades and other weapons should be checked at the door, before the consultation section of the Baha'i Feast or assembly meeting. With these precautions, the clash of opinions on controversial issues might produce excellent results, according to the Baha'i writings.

Individual Baha'is including the author cannot definitely pin-point this threshold, that apparently being a prerogative of the UHJ itself. However, step one might be for all to recognize that such a threshold exists and when crossed, consequences are most likely very negative to the interests of the Baha'i Faith. What is better?
(A) A perhaps excessive number of questions answered which may be wrongly taken by many Baha'i members as a sort of "ultimate and final answer" to a difficult, complex question.

(B) Refraining from a specific answer and encouraging Baha'is to investigate, research, debate and explore for an answer on their own.
Alternative A has the liability that the answer itself may do no real good and may indeed produce negative consequences in the community. Alternative B would tend to unleash the creative capacity of Baha'is and no doubt increase interest and enthusiasm beyond what can be imagined. In addition, alternative B is probably most likely to reveal in the fullness of time the outlines of a sensible, workable answer.

Perhaps the most appropriate questions to address to the UHJ would be on topics where its primary functions reside -- administration and legislation. To illustrate this point, let's consider a few juicy examples:

Example 1
Question: Should women be allowed to serve on the UHJ?

Answer: At present, only men are allowed as members of the UHJ. However, we have not gone so far as to do DNA tests or have a medical doctor do a physical examination (wearing rubber gloves) to check the gender of newly elected members. Hence, we cannot be certain that a woman has not already served as a member of the UHJ (groomed, dressed and acting like a man). Recall that NSA (National Spiritual Assembly) members elect the UHJ and may decide to vote mostly or only for females. If this were to happen, the current UHJ at that time would be obligated to accept the will of the NSA voters or not.
Example 2
Question: We have a homosexual couple in our community who has been showing affection (kissing) in public. What penalty should the LSA (Local Spiritual Assembly) apply?

Answer: The UHJ does not at present have a particular penalty for this infraction, due to different cultures and circumstances. For example, public knowledge that homosexuals are welcome in the Baha'i community might actually be desirable in some jurisdictions, in which case the behavior described would not be an infraction at all. In the worst case, an appropriate punishment may be that the couple provide the desert for the social section of the next Baha'i feast. If they accept this and comply, some Baha'is may actually encourage them to do more kissing assuming the desert provided is sufficiently delicious and high calorie.
Summary
This article explores the proposition that the interests of the Baha'i Faith might be best served if the UHJ refrains from elucidating obscure questions as much as possible.
© 2011 James J Keene

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