Monday, December 22, 2008

Why I am not a Baha'i

In Marco's tradition of extremely long posts, and as part of a general tidying-up urge to make sure I have said everything I want to say before I go, I thought I would put this up.

I have been sitting on for about seven years and thought I would put it somewhere where it might theoretically be findable by someone who is interested in such things. It is a much-tinkered-with letter, never sent, written when I was a better person and could think more clearly than I do today. It would have been my fourth in a written dialogue with a Baha’i friend, and was last tinkered with about three years ago.

My objections to the Baha’i faith are seven:

(1) I am opposed to the ‘very heart of the purpose of the cause’, that is, bringing about the unity of mankind.

(2) I am strongly opposed to the doctrine that the laws of the state should be obeyed.

(3) No Holy Book is inerrant.

(4) No religion can claim to be an improvement on that of ‘Isa that does not enforce vegetarianism on its followers.

(5) If ‘progressive revelation’ exists, humanity will need another messenger in far less than 834 years.

(6) I feel that Baha’i teachings on Justice encourage self-righteousness and hard-heartedness.

(7) To say that God is knowable only through His Messengers is trivially true, but ultimately false.

To proceed to the first point, I have read that Abdul Baha has stated that bringing about the Unity of Mankind is the ‘very heart of the purpose of the cause’.

I do not hold this to be a laudable aim.

There are two possible interpretations of what is “good”. Good may be related to:

(i) The potential for each living being to reach their fullest capacity to be what they are, in this world.

(ii) The fitting of each living being into a “thing fit for eternity” like the pots of Robert Browning’s poem ‘Rabbi ben-Ezra’.

For both of these cases, many things remain the same: Hence, the prohibitions against killing, against taking what is not ours, against activities that disfigure the soul, are required in both. Food, shelter, education, clean water and clean air, true freedom of thought and expression; these all work towards them both. There are a few practical differences between the two definitions of good; merely removing a source of temptation will work towards (i), by minimising the hazards that must be avoided in a finite time, but will not help towards (ii). By (i), our consciences may lead us to take action against the few for the good of the many (e.g., murdering abortionists in order that the prevailing climate of terror will cause them to abandon their trade) – but by (ii) we must weigh our actions against the possible disfiguring effects of our actions on the souls of the wider community, who might be estranged from God by our actions. (I presuppose a perfect moral agent; that is, a selfless man who counts his own happiness as no greater or less than anyone else’s. Thus, the disapproval of the community that he will incur, and the possibility that he himself will “lose his salvation” cannot enter into his moral calculations.

Unity can only be a means towards good, by (i), under limited circumstances, and cannot help at all towards (ii). If (ii), it is always more important that division remain, no matter how difficult, to teach us patience and mutual respect. Diversity is what I would call a second-order good. It is true that specific instances of diversity should not be preserved if their presence brings more disfigurement of soul to individuals than its absence, for only individuals can suffer or feel joy, be sundered from God or abide forever in His presence; but you cannot look at the universe and not know Diversity to be dear to the heart of our Creator, our inordinately-fond-of-beetles God. No idea, no nation, no species, no religion, no culture, ought to be preserved if it causes more harm to individuals than it cures; but that many ideas, nations, species, religions, cultures are necessary for the health of the human race I hold as an article of faith. Just as a multiplicity of species maintains some kind of balance in the world of living things, the multiplicity of religions ensures that the harm done by prevailing errors in a particular one is minimised.

I agree with Toynbee that there is a true core to all religion; but I see the great multiplicity of outward forms of worship, devotional practices, theologies, etc., not as stumbling blocks, but as a thousand thousand different paths to the One God, each particularly suited for particular people in the very diverse world we live in. I feel it would be a tragedy to lose them. I believe that not only the revelations of Muhammad and ‘Isa are of value, but that Maronites and Pentecostals, Ismailis and Wahhabites, have a particular role to play in the Divine Plan. The fact that there are no sects and divisions within the Baha’i faith is to me a very great stumbling block to considering it seriously.

In the ‘Satanic Verses’, Gibreel tells Mahound that any new idea is asked two questions: the second is, ‘what do you do to those who disagree with you when you have power over them?’ This is a question that the Catholic Church has answered, that al-Islam and a few other religions have answered, but it is not a question that the Baha’i faith has yet had to answer. The true level of tolerance exhibited by the Baha’i faith, with its claim that all religions are of God, can be gauged by two admittedly anecdotal pieces of evidence:

(i) My father-in-law was once told by a Hand of the Cause, ‘make no mistake, eventually there will be no room for any other religion but Baha’i.’ This is a very good answer to Gibreel’s question, but is quite in the spirit of those offered by the Inquisitors and Ayatollahs.

(ii) When a person seeks to sever ties with the Baha’i faith, they are asked to sign a document stating that they no longer believe Baha’ullah is a manifestation of God. Those who continue to believe so, but do not agree with particular matters on which Abdul Baha, Shogi Effendi, or the International House of Justice have spoken, exist but are never mentioned.

These specific doubts, in combination with the general principle of the good of Diversity, lead me to reject strongly seeking the unity of mankind under Baha’i auspices as a positive value.

To proceed to the second point, it is reiterated in “The World is But One Country” and in many other Baha’i writings that the laws of the state should be obeyed, even to the extent of taking up arms and killing the enemies of the state when conscripted.

My belief is that where the laws of God and the laws of men come into conflict, the laws of men must always give way.

Very many thousands of Christians have died rather than obey the laws of the state. From the days of Tiberius to Jiang Zemin, we have suffered for placing the laws of God above the whims of man. This doctrine that the state should be obeyed is an insult to the memory of those martyrs.

In the Second World War, many catholic men were executed rather than serve in the armed forces of the Third Reich. The doctrine of the Baha’i faith is that they were going against the will of God! This is unacceptable to me. I believe a major factor in the ‘success’ of Hitler was the emphasis by Martin Luther on this very thing, respect for the state and the divine sanction of authority, leading to a perverse level of respect for authority in German society. In the history of Russia and China, the other homelands of totalitarianism, religion has always been subordinate to the state and encouraged respect for authority.

On the other hand, there is a quote by Mussolini that I have always treasured; “the human material that I have to work with,” he said, “is worthless, worthless.” This judgement is a great compliment to the Italian people. I will always remember the signs on the trains in Switzerland as an insight into the connection between respect for authority and national behaviour. In German and French, the languages of nations that have spread devastation across Europe in recent centuries: “It is forbidden to stick parts of your body out the window.” In English and Italian, the languages of nations that have not: “It is dangerous to stick parts of your body out the window.” For the one set, appeal to authority is sufficient; for the other, reason must be invoked.

Although the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has often sided with the state – for example, the disgraceful record in supporting repressive regimes in Latin America - when not a state-supported church it has usually encouraged obedience to the laws of God rather than the laws of man. The revolutionary priest has been a stock character in anti-catholic pamphleteering since the time of Queen Elizabeth I (recent examples equating Liberation Theology with Marxist revolution should be easy to find at any Christian bookstore!)

With regard to these first two objections, I fear that the idolisation of unity, combined with the exhortation to obey the state, will make the Baha’i faith an ideal tool for godless and evil movements that also seek world unification. Individualism may be a source of discord; but respect for authority is far more dangerous. It has killed many millions in this century, and keeps billions in chains of their own making.

To proceed to the third point, the Baha’i faith teaches that the writings of its founder, of Abdul Baha and of Shoghi Effendi, are of divine origin and cannot be contradicted without calling into question the validity of Baha’ullah’s Divine mission.

The idea of the inerrant “Holy Book” is strongly bound up with Judaism, with Protestantism, and with Islam. This concept I believe to be erroneous, and especially dangerous in the case of the Baha’i faith where there is such a very large amount of inerrant writing.

I fear that, due to the all-embracing nature of the inerrant prescriptions for human society within the Baha’i corpus, the Baha’i faith may be more than a tool of potential world dictators, but a totalitarian theocratic state in embryo.

To a large extent, the arguments in the ‘Wine of Astonishment’ are based on a very Protestant/Muslim understanding of revelation; the Holy Book is brought down from heaven, and all we must do is obey what is written. This same spirit pervades the teachings of Baha’ullah that I have read: if you accept that his mission was of God, you must accept all of his writings as inerrant. Clearly, if I accepted that the writings of a Prophet of God are inerrant, all my other objections would have to vanish as cobwebs in a blast furnace; but I have never accepted the idea of an inerrant Holy Book in the Christian community, seeing many things in the Bible that cast disgrace on the Holy Name of God and can only be human in origin. The difficulties I have here would be magnified with the large corpus of Baha’i writings, especially the legal ones.

I would like to discuss in particular my problems with the Muhammad = Paraclete equation, which has been carried over into the Baha’i community from Islam.

Our evidence of the life and career of Jesus must, in my opinion, rest almost entirely on the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Luke, and Matthew). Biblical scholars believe the gospel of John was written at a later date, and it is impossible to read it without noting that the character and the teaching of Jesus described are very different from what is written in the other three Gospels. I have found nothing that troubles me, in the sense that it seems to be unworthy of God, in the words of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, but this is not the case with gospel of John.

Now, the book of Acts is very clearly a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, and though I am no expert, I think the scholars are agreed that the two books had the same author. The whole plot of Acts is the sending of the Paraclete in the form of the Holy Spirit, and her nurturing the growth of the Church.

If we reject what is told us in Acts, how can we accept the evidence of the synoptic Gospels on the teaching and character of Jesus? What is the touchstone that can make Luke valid but Acts invalid? Without such a touchstone, the rejection of Acts leaves us completely at sea, and free to make up whatever Jesus suits the requirements of our philosophy.

‘Isa never wrote a book. I believe that he was a prophet of a greater order than Moses, Jeremiah, Buddha, Muhammad, Baha’ullah, et al., though all these were inspired by God, and that God does not endorse inerrant holy books.

To proceed to the fourth point, the Baha’i writings say that one day carnivory will pass away, but in no way exhort humanity to abandon the practice.

I have noted that for over three-thousand years the great sages and teachers of many lands have been telling us that carnivory is an abomination.

How can we claim to be followers of God when we gorge ourselves on the bodies of slaughtered innocents? It is true that ‘Abdul Baha said that the eating of meat would pass away eventually, but the clear retrogression from the teachings of Krsna so many years before throws the whole concept of “progressive” revelation into limbo.

I find the Baha’i position of claiming Krsna and Buddha as prophets, but ignoring what they said almost entirely, to be appallingly discourteous to practising Hindus and Buddhists. I will not discuss the immorality of eating animal food further, since many people greater than I have done so ably before.

To proceed to the fifth point, the Baha’i writings state that the next Messenger of God will be sent after 1000 revolutions of the earth around the sun have elapsed.

I believe that the environment of mankind has changed far more in the last 160 years than in the previous three thousand. In a further 834 years, the state of humanity will be unimaginable to us today. If revelation is made according to the needs of humanity, it appears obvious that new messengers will be required in far less than the thousand years foretold.

How will the Baha’i profession of the unity of ‘all religions’ hold on the world of Sevastna, where 99% of the population of four billion are Nambarunists? When there are more Selkites than Hindus in the universe, and more Mormons than any other Christian denomination? The ‘unity of all religions’ will look very silly if it leaves out the religions followed by the majority of humankind. This may appear to be a rather ridiculous fantasy of the future, but in a few hundred years I think it will be the strongest of all objections to the Baha’i faith.

The Catholic Church teaches that other religions contain truth, but has never compiled a list including some and excluding others. Rather than rely on ‘progressive revelation’, we believe that the Holy Spirit animates the Church, making her an adaptive entity that can change and continue to faithfully project the light of God to different times and places. My personal belief is that all revealed religions are in fact such adaptive entities - it is incontrovertible that most of the good achieved by Judaism, most of the real apprehension of God, has occurred since the revelation of Christianity. It is incontrovertible that most of the good achieved by Christianity, most of the real apprehension of God, has occurred since the revelation of Islam. Progressive revelation, as envisioned as the ‘passing on’ of the Light from one messenger to another, is not experimentally tenable.

To proceed to the sixth point, Baha’ullah has said in the Hidden Words: “best beloved in My eyes is justice.”

But ‘Isa said “See where it is written: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”.

I once told a Baha’i friend that I no longer felt anger at being cheated in my business dealings, for it was not a sin to be cheated, while wrath at being cheated might easily lead me into sin. He disagreed, quoting the verse from the Hidden Words mentioned above. This scared me. I do not believe such a verse can or should be applied to relations between human beings. We should by all means strive for justice in the world, but we are the last ones who should decide whether we are personally treated justly or not. All of us in the West, for example, are beneficiaries of an unjust distribution of the world’s resources and are accomplices in preserving the unjust status-quo.

Hitler and me and you are as alike as three raindrops, from the standpoint of the infinite righteousness of God; we are all absolutely reliant on the mercy of God, and stand condemned by his justice. Only by keeping this continually in mind can we escape the trap of self-righteousness and hard-heartedness that traps so many religious people. My community is excoriated by secular society for bringing forth feelings of guilt; but this is its great strength. We are all equally wicked before God’s justice.

Barry Goldwater has famously said: “extremism in defence of freedom is no vice; tolerance in pursuit of justice is no virtue”. I would agree with the first, but not the second; I suspect and fear that the Baha’i community would endorse the second, but not the first.

To proceed to the last point, a point reiterated in the Baha’i writings is “God is knowable only through His messengers”.

I do not know the point of saying that ‘God is knowable only through His messengers’. It is trivially true that it has been the work of the Prophets to break down the barriers between humanity and God, but it does not mean that we must approach God through the Prophets, know them by name, or necessarily do them any honour whatsoever. My personal understanding of the role of Christ is that the barriers between God and us have been broken down entirely, once and forever, and we need profess no intermediary.

“Seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you; ask and you will receive.” I cannot believe in ‘salvation by faith alone’ in the way that is taught in so very many Christian churches; this idea is very repugnant to me. If you asked me when I was six years old what Jesus did, I would tell you the same thing I would tell you today: ‘He taught us to call God our father.’ God is knowable as our human fathers are knowable. The grace of God is poured out continually upon all of us, ready to support our feeblest step towards goodness. One very great problem I have with the idea of progressive revelation is the way that Muslims and Baha’i’s do not call God their Father. From the outside, it appears to me that the Baha’i relationship with God is less personal, the Baha’i conception of God less immanent, than that of the Catholic Church.

The purest statement of what I believe about grace can be found in C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, where Aslan (the Christ of that world) speaks to Emeth the Calormene, who has all his life devotedly sought to know and serve Tash (not only a false God, but the Satan of that world):

“Child, all the service though hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me ... for no service which is vile can be done to me, and no service which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” Emeth replies that he has been seeking Tash all his days, and Aslan replies: “Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

The key has been turned; the door is open; all may enter. The grace of God is poured out like the rain, to feed a thousand thousand rivers, at which all may drink. In conclusion, I find that my faith is based on the words of Jesus recorded in the synoptic gospels. There is nothing in these words that I find conflicts with my experience of God. There is much in the writings of Moses, of Muhammad, and of the Baha’i teachers that conflicts with my experience of God, the Father of the Unborn Galaxies. I believe, almost against my will, that ‘Isa was special. I would much rather find the same pure light shining through equally in the recorded work of Jesus, Confucius, Moses, the Bab, etc., with appropriate allowances for time, place, and fidelity of transmission... But I can’t....

1 comment:

Marco said...

make sure I have said everything I want to say before I go

Everytime you say it that way it sounds "suicide note"ish. I get a cold chill until I realise I'm just being silly.

Ok. I'll read the post now :)