Abstract: The dialogue presents a fictitious conversation between two believers on the meaning of faith, love, obedience, conscience, freedom, and dissent. It explores the significance of all of these concepts within the Bahá'í Faith.
The scene is a busy outdoor patio in downtown Toronto. It is a warm, clear, late September day. NEPIOS and SOPHOS are sitting at one of the tables, underneath the shade of a canopy. NEPIOS looks to be in his late twenties, with prematurely greying hair: he is dressed casually, and sits somewhat uneasily in his chair. SOPHOS is somewhat older and better dressed. She has just finished participating in the ABS conference that took place in the city over the weekend, and she still looks the part.
SOPHOS: I’m glad that you could make it here. I find it’s a lot better to talk about these things in person – there’s less room for misunderstanding.
NEPIOS: I agree. When all you have is what someone’s written, it’s easy to come to the wrong conclusion. I just hope that I’m not in any trouble over the things I’ve posted online.
SOPHOS: Of course not. All I wanted was to discuss your writing face to face instead of at a distance. And anyway, I don’t hold any official position in the Faith. This is just a friendly visit... really.
NEPIOS: Well, no offense to you, but that’s something I’ve heard before.
SOPHOS: That was different. I’m not here to bully you into stopping writing or anything like that. I wanted to understand, mostly for myself, why you feel as strongly as you do about these things. I think that a lot of differences can be sorted out if people are willing to talk them through in a civilized way. So perhaps I should start by finding out what you think. What do you believe is the reason I’ve come to talk to you today?
NEPIOS: Because I don’t agree with all of the standard teachings of the Faith –- at least what some people say are the standard. First of all, I don’t believe that homosexuality is a sin or a disorder. I believe that a gay couple has the same right to be married as my fiancée and I do. I think that the Faith should celebrate gay marriage and that we ought to cherish the love between two people, no matter what their sexual orientation. Second, I don’t think Baha’is should be forbidden from taking part in politics. I think we should be free to join organizations like Amnesty International, and to participate in protests against wars like the one in Iraq, and to work in elections for the candidates who will do good for our communities. I also can’t accept the teaching that we must be obedient to governments: not when it means serving in wars or committing other actions that we know are wrong, or tolerating policies like Apartheid that go against everything we’re supposed to believe. And I think that this whole idea of shunning people... but it’s not just that. It’s much more... basic.
SOPHOS: Can you tell me what you mean?
NEPIOS: Well, sometimes it feels like it’s not any one belief I have a problem with, but the general attitude that as Baha’is, we have to think the same way about everything. I wouldn’t mind that other believers didn’t agree with me if they wouldn’t act as if I didn’t have any right to disagree with them. It feels like there’s no room to have another point of view, that there’s no tolerance for different opinions, especially if you try to express them publicly. Freedom of discussion is such an important part of life outside the Baha’i Faith, and it needs to be even more important inside. And yet when I try to say what I think, my ABM visits me and tells me I should be spending more time on the Five Year Plan.
SOPHOS: I’m not going to get into that. But I can understand why you feel this way. But do you see why some people might find a contradiction here? You say that you're a Baha’i, but to be a Baha’i means that you accept Baha’i beliefs. If you believe Baha’u’llah is a manifestation of God, you will obey Him in what He has taught us. He has given us certain laws which He says we must follow for our spiritual good, and if you're serious about what you believe, you will take those laws seriously. And the same goes for the Universal House of Justice, which has received its authority from Him.
NEPIOS: But what happened to independent investigation of the truth?
NEPIOS: Well, I’m the first to admit I don’t understand everything perfectly, but isn’t making up your own mind one of the central principles of our religion? How can we say we’re supposed to explore the truth with perfect freedom and then turn around and dictate what people believe? Don’t you see the contradiction? We say people have to think for themselves, and then we tell them what to think.
SOPHOS: But people are perfectly free to believe what they want. No one has to be a Baha’i, no one has to choose Baha’u’llah: but if they do, they have to accept what it means.
NEPIOS: So that’s what you mean by independent investigation of the truth? The freedom to choose which religion you'll surrender your brain to? To me, that just sounds perverse. What you’re saying is that we only need to think for ourselves before we become Baha’is –- after that all we need is unquestioning obedience.
SOPHOS: Of course I don’t mean that. We need to keep thinking even when we’ve chosen a religion: that’s the only way we can know if we’ve chosen the right one. Let me ask you: have you read Ian Semple’s essay *On Obedience*?
NEPIOS: No, I haven’t, but I think I’ve heard of Ian Semple. He’s a member of the House, isn’t he?
SOPHOS: Yes, and he’s written some things I think you might find helpful. He goes over the very issues that we’ve been talking about now: why we need to think critically before and after we are Baha’is, but also why we need to offer our obedience to God.
NEPIOS: And how does he manage to explain that?
SOPHOS: Well, Semple writes that our search for God happens in several stages. It begins with recognizing that we have a responsibility to think for ourselves, that we can’t simply live according to what we’ve been raised to accept blindly. We have to test everything that we’ve learned to take for granted.
NEPIOS: I can agree with that.
SOPHOS: Once we’ve done that we can come to the next stage, which means admitting that we can’t go it alone. We realize that we need help from God in our lives and that we need guidance from outside of ourselves. And so we have to look for something that can give us that guidance.
NEPIOS: That seems to me what any religious person would think.
SOPHOS: Well, I hope you agree with the next step Semple identifies. He says that once we’ve chosen a source of authority outside of ourselves we need to obey it. Semple stresses that this doesn’t mean laying aside good judgment, but it does mean taking obedience seriously. “You can’t bargain with God” is what he tells us. Accepting an external authority means either obeying it or not: we can't choose which commandments we will obey and which we won't.
NEPIOS: But that’s ridiculous... what happens to thinking for ourselves then?
SOPHOS: That still matters, just not in the way that you wish it would. According to Semple, we need to remain critical so that we can be sure about the authority we're following. It’s the only way we can tell if we’ve given our obedience to someone who doesn’t deserve it. What he says is this:
"The continuing exercise of our search for truth enables the followers of a true prophet to draw ever closer to Him, to absorb His teachings, and to integrate them into their lives. The same principle when applied by the followers of a false prophet will enable them, sooner or later, to discover his falsity. This is why it is false prophets who, above all, require blind obedience from their followers. They fear the truth –- and for very good reason."
So Semple isn't suggesting for a moment that we need to obey blindly. We need to keep our eyes open and think critically so that we can know the source of authority we have chosen is legitimate. And even legitimate authority must be obeyed judiciously.
NEPIOS: Well, I find it hard to see what’s judicious about indiscriminate obedience. So what happens when there's something we disagree with? Are we free to say that we don’t accept a particular teaching?
SOPHOS: Well, according to Semple, that depends on the disagreement. If it’s serious enough, we can reconsider our whole faith; but if it isn’t, we have to take it for what it is. The important thing is what he means when he says “you can’t bargain with God.” You accept everything or you accept nothing, but you can’t pick and choose. This is how he puts it:
"If we have trouble with understanding or obeying a law of Baha’u’llah Himself, we should not balk from examining the basis of our faith. We have accepted Baha’u’llah as the manifestation of God for reasons which we were convinced were valid. What does this one disagreement with His writings signify? Is it sufficiently serious to throw into doubt all the evidence on which I have accepted Him in the first place, or is it an indication of a shortcoming in myself? If one finds that one’s faith in Baha’u’llah is not shaken, and that it is merely the particular law that is a problem, one should obey on the basis of faith."
NEPIOS: And you call that freedom: to choose between obeying everything or renouncing the Faith?
SOPHOS: That’s the freedom we’re given, to choose to be obedient. “Obedience for a Baha’i,” Semple says, “is the free exercise of one’s will to follow what one believes to be right.” No one has to follow Baha’u’llah, no one will ever be forced to obey Baha’u’llah, but those who choose Him must obey Him, in all things.
NEPIOS: Well, alright then. I see what you’re saying. But I also think that you aren’t making any allowance for the complexity of the question. Can I tell you what I mean?
SOPHOS: I’d like nothing better.
NEPIOS: Like all Baha’is, I was attracted to the Faith because of what it teaches. Everyone comes to the Faith with their own history and I understand that the teachings of the Faith mean different things for different people. But for me at least, the central point of the Faith is the idea that we must love one another. I think that the inner truth of the Faith lies in our calling to be the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch, to treat the entire world as one family. And it was through the Baha’i writings, even through being raised in a Baha’i household, that I came to learn this, to really know it as more than just words. This was what the Faith meant for me, above all else. This idea is important for me because there have been times where the choice seemed to be not between either obeying Baha’u’llah or disobeying Him, but between obedience to a higher law or a lower one.
SOPHOS: I’m not quite sure what you mean. What’s a higher law?
NEPIOS: What I mean is that there's a difference between what is primary in Bahá'u'lláh's teachings and what is only secondary: the distinction between the letter and the spirit. Take the example of gay marriage. Now, I know Baha’u’llah says that the only acceptable relationship is one between a man and a woman, so I understand that if I think differently I’m going against what He’s said. But I also know Baha’u’llah has taught us that we should love people, that we should cherish and value them. And for me at least, loving people means recognizing the most important event in their lives: the union of marriage, which is based on love. If two Baha’is of the same gender want to get married, I feel I have a duty to support them and celebrate what they share. If I didn’t, I would be denying something more essential than Baha’u’llah’s specific commandment: I’d be acting against the deeper principle of love that runs through everything that He wrote.
SOPHOS: You may feel that way, but it isn’t for you to decide. Do you accept the authority of the Universal House of Justice?
SOPHOS: And do you accept that it is infallible?
NEPIOS: Yes, I suppose I do.
SOPHOS: But then you must accept the authoritative character of its statements. In his essay, Semple writes that “the authority of the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice go back to Baha’u’llah Himself... we should obey them because they are divinely guided.” Do you know what the Guardian and the House have said about homosexual relationships?
NEPIOS: As a matter of fact, I do. And I don’t pretend I’m of the same mind. In fact when I read this letter of 1995, I found it shocking that they place homosexuality within a larger category that includes things like pedophilia.
"The condition of being sexually attracted to some object other than a mature member of the opposite sex, *a condition of which homosexuality is but one manifestation*, is regarded by the Faith as a distortion of true human nature, as a problem to be overcome... If, therefore, a homosexual cannot overcome his or her condition to the extent of being able to have a heterosexual marriage, he or she must remain single, and abstain from sexual relations..."
SOPHOS: Well, you might also mention that the same letter says that homosexual Baha’is “should be treated with understanding,” but the point is that the Faith has a certain standard. And it is that “the kind of sexuality purposed by God is the love between a man and a woman.” If you don’t agree with this, the answer is to examine the basis of your faith, as Semple suggests.
NEPIOS: OK, but let me try another example on you, then. The Universal House of Justice has said that we must stay out of politics, and that we must always obey the laws of the country where we live. I understand this ruling, and I understand the reasons for it, and I accept that the House has the authority to make it. But that still doesn’t mean I agree. There are times when if we obey the laws of our country, we go against what is most precious to the Faith. We say women should have the same rights as men, but if a law takes rights away from women, we have to obey that law. We believe that all races are equal, but we can’t protest governments that legislate against racial equality because that would involve partisan politics. When David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana, Baha’is couldn’t campaign against him, even though he was an admitted racist who had belonged to neo-Nazi organizations and the KKK. We couldn't publicly denounce someone who opposed everything we stand for. Even with what has happened so recently in Iraq, the National Spiritual Assembly of Great Britain has suggested that Baha’is shouldn’t protest the war because it would be political. Even Amnesty International, which does good work around the world, even Amnesty is considered a political organization, so the House forbids us to be members. To me this is another example of where our choice isn’t between obeying Baha’u’llah or disobeying Him. It’s between choosing what's vital in the Faith and what isn’t. What does it mean to say we’re Baha’is if we’re not willing to stand up for Baha’i values, for the truly important principles that make our religion what it is?
SOPHOS: But obedience to government is a Baha’i value. And if we accept how the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States has explained the words of the Guardian, it is one of the very highest. In War, Government and Conscience, which was published back in 1969 at the height of Vietnam draft, the NSA addresses the question in a section with this title: “BUT WHAT IF THE GOVERNMENT ORDERS US TO DO SOMETHING AGAINST ONE OF OUR OTHER PRINCIPLES?”
NEPIOS: That’s incredible. That’s exactly how I would have phrased the question. What answer did they give?
SOPHOS: The Assembly pointed out that the Guardian has instructed Baha’is to follow the orders of their governments with only one exception: we can never do anything that would mean renouncing our Faith as Baha’is. You say we should uphold the principles that matter, and this is exactly what we're doing. This is how the American NSA put it.
"Note the major emphasis the Guardian puts on the duty of obedience to government. This principle is deemed so important that only principles the compromise of which would constitute 'a departure from the principle of loyalty to their Faith' and would be 'tantamount of a recantation' have higher priority and must be defended to the death. Activities reflecting other principles may have to be subordinated and temporarily suspended if the established government so requires."
For the Guardian, obeying the laws of our country has a priority over the values you mention. All of them, the equality of women, of different races, or anything else, must give way to the higher principle of obedience. Our identity as Bahá'ís is the only thing that's even higher.
NEPIOS: Yes, but do you see how that sounds? You’re proposing a system where the first thing we have to do is say we’re Baha’is, the next to obey our government, and the last – if it's not inconvenient – is to love each other and work to make the world a better place. You’re saying that we should treat the most important principles as the least important.
SOPHOS: It’s not me who’s saying it: it’s the Guardian. He’s the one who has decided this.
NEPIOS: But even if we say that the one thing Baha’is must never do is renounce their Faith, there are more ways to do that then just through words. What about our actions? If I were drafted to fight in Bush’s war in Iraq, I would have to share in the responsibility for all the civilians who have died, I might even have to kill people, innocent or not. What if I lived in the Sudan, and I was asked to take part in the massacres going on there? All around the world, people are facing choices like this.
SOPHOS: They are. In fact, the Baha’is in Iran were in a situation just like the ones you're talking about. During the war with Iraq in the 1980’s, they were drafted into the army and fought for their country.
NEPIOS: But doesn’t war go against what's most essential in the Faith? Shouldn't the belief that we're all the members of one family count for something? What about standing up for human solidarity?
SOPHOS: I agree that this is important, but the Guardian has made it clear that obedience to government is more important still. We just have to understand where the limits lie. Bahá'ís were willing to serve in the war, but when they were asked to deny their Faith, they refused to do this. Even when the school system demanded that their children be registered as either Jews, Christians, or Muslims, they wouldn’t do it. So there are limits to obedience, but only when something even more important is involved.
NEPIOS: But can’t you see what this implies? What does this mean if not that saying we are Baha’is means more than acting like Baha’is? We can’t say we don’t believe in Baha’u’llah, but we can do things contrary to everything Baha’u’llah taught if our country orders us. Does registering our children as Baha’is matter more than modeling Baha’i values in our lives? You say we have to obey laws that institutionalize sexism, racism, and injustice, but not laws that make us call ourselves Christians, Muslims, or Jews. To me that seems backwards. What really counts here: what we do with our lives or who we say that we are? I would rather be someone who acted like a Bahá'í without saying that I was than someone who kept the name without living the life.
SOPHOS: Both the name and the life matter, but which comes first isn’t something you can decide. This is what Semple means when he says "you can't bargain with God." And I don't expect you to find it easy.
NEPIOS: Well, I don't. There was one idea of the Faith that I was raised with, and now you're telling me that I had it wrong the whole time. Nothing means what I thought it did, not independent investigation of the truth, not any of the other principles of the Faith. I feel like the ground I'm walking on is giving way beneath my feet. I feel like I'm being cheated, like I'm being told I have no claim on something I had always imagined I had a share in.
SOPHOS: I understand what you're going through, it was the same for me. What helped me was encouragement from the right people at the right times, but it was an upward journey. And it also helped to be able to read what Semple has to say, to hear him describe the difficult process that was taking place.
"To admit that God is God, to accept that one is but a small part of His creation, and to understand that the fruition of the exercise of one's own independent authority is to surrender it to the authority of God, can be a very humbling and painful experience... Sometimes we are left in the dark because our understanding has not yet grown sufficiently. The light that enables us to go forward through such dark patches is our faith in Him, our conscious knowledge that in spite of immediate appearances, He is right, and He really does know better than we do."
NEPIOS: But I how can I be asked to do things that I know are wrong? If I do something, I do it because I think it is right: my actions speak louder for what I believe than my words. If I don’t think something is right and I do it anyway, aren’t I just pretending, just saying I believe something when I actually don’t? Does God want me to lie to Him?
SOPHOS: No. He wants you to obey Him and He wants to ensure that when you do as He has said, you really think that you're doing what's right. And this gets to the heart of what Semple means by obedience. It’s not deciding that you'll do something and pretend it’s the right thing. It’s having the faith in God to trust that whatever He tells you to do must be right. Obedience, Semple tells us, “isn't reluctant obedience to a law that one disagrees with; it is full-hearted obedience to a law one cannot understand but knows must be right.”
NEPIOS: Even if I think it’s wrong?
SOPHOS: You may have your opinion about what’s wrong, but you’ve got to remember that it’s God’s opinion that matters here. This is what the beloved Guardian has said:
"Are we to doubt that the ways of God are not necessarily the ways of man? Is not faith but another word for implicit obedience, whole-hearted allegiance, uncompromising adherence to that which we believe is the revealed and express will of God, however perplexing it might at first appear, however at variance with the shadowy views, the impotent doctrines, the crude theories, the idle imaginings, the fashionable conceptions of a transient and troublous age?"
Human theories are fallible, human ideas can be mistaken, but the judgments of Baha’u’llah, of Abdu’l Baha, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice are more than human. They are a revelation of what God wants for us, and they have an infallible authority that our own opinions lack.
NEPIOS: But must that mean they're inconsistent with common sense; with reason? I don't know the writings of the Faith half as well as you do, but I know what Abdu'l Baha says about reason and religion in the *Paris Talks*. It's pretty obvious to me that he doesn't approve of this notion that religious commandments can't be judged by human standards.
"I say unto you: weigh carefully in the balance of reason and science everything that is presented to you as religion. If it passes this test, then accept it, for it is truth! If, however, it does not so conform, then reject it, for it is ignorance!"
SOPHOS: That's fine. But if you want to invoke Abdu'l Baha, you also have to remember what he says about the authority of the future House of Justice: “whatsoever they decide is of God... whoso contendeth with them hath contended with God.”
NEPIOS: I understand that the judgments of the House are authoritative and infallible, I went over this with my ABM. But does that mean that my perspective doesn’t matter?
SOPHOS: Certainly not.
NEPIOS: Well then, why can’t I be entitled to my point of view, weak, fallible and human as it may be? Another principle of the Faith, which up until now I thought I understood is unity in diversity. I know that one of its meanings is cultural diversity: that we’re supposed to celebrate different languages and national traditions, but I also thought it meant more than this. I was of the understanding that we cherish diversity in all things, including diversity of ideas, attitudes and approaches to the Faith.
SOPHOS: Yes, we do.
NEPIOS: Well then why can’t I have my opinion without being treated like someone outside the Faith? Why does my ABM visit me and tell me that discussing these issues is doing no good? Even you quote Semple to me saying that I can't choose between which of the teachings I will accept. I guess what I’m trying to say is what happened to the principle of dissent? In a liberal society there's room for people to hold different views from the majority. And nothing is more important than free expression. We have the right to say what we think, to share our positions publicly, no matter how others may react.
SOPHOS: That’s true in society, but a religion isn’t like that. Belonging to a religion implies that one believes certain things: if someone doesn't share those beliefs, they need to consider whether they really have a place in it. We have to recognize that there are certain beliefs that would put us outside the definition of what it means to be a Bahá'í. This is what the House has said:
"Since there is a wide range of meanings in the Sacred Scriptures, there are bound to be different ways in which individuals understand many of the Bahá'í teachings. Nevertheless, it is necessary for the viability of the Bahá'í community that its members share a common understanding of essentials. This implies a commitment by each member to function within the framework established by such an understanding."
NEPIOS: I know I’ve said it before, but what about dissent? What about the right to feel differently from the majority?
SOPHOS: Feeling differently from the majority is one thing. Feeling differently from the House is another. But this is the problem with relying only on our own opinions. So many of our attitudes are taken from our culture. Without knowing it, we absorb many of the prejudices and unexamined assumptions that society promotes. For Baha’is in the West, that means taking the division and contention, the emphasis on disagreement and opposition that we see in politics and society and bringing it into the Faith. You see, our whole political system, our whole society is based on conflict and competition. We set right against left and rich against poor, community against community. Each person is expected to stand up for their own interests against everyone else. And what's worse, we’ve come to think that this kind of divisiveness is inevitable, or even something good in its own right. This is what the House means when it criticizes systems which have “dignified conflict.” What they're trying to say is that instead of focusing on unity, we’ve built division and discord into the system itself. And part of this attitude is the emphasis on the value of criticism which we’ve come to accept as natural and acceptable. This is what the House has said:
"How incalculable have been the negative results of ill-directed criticism: in the catastrophic divergences it has created in religion, in the equally contentious factions it has spawned in political systems, which have dignified conflict by institutionalizing such concepts as the 'loyal opposition' that attach to one or another of the various categories of political opinion: conservative, liberal, progressive, reactionary, and so on?"
NEPIOS: "Dignified conflict?" You have to be kidding me! You're talking about a system that's guaranteed our civil liberties for centuries. This is what the founding fathers of the United States were doing when they ensured a system of checks and balances that would mediate between competing interests within the community. It's what we mean in the British Commonwealth when we expect opposition parties to stand against the government and present an alternative to the official policy. It's what it means to have a multi-party system.
SOPHOS: Notice how all the examples are taken from your own culture, from the tradition that you've been brought up in. I just want you to stop for a moment and consider this. Perhaps the hardest thing about accepting a revelation that comes from God is that we want to read our own values into it. We want it to confirm what we've always thought and done and what our parents have done before us. If it teaches us something new, we may have trouble accepting that. In different cultures, different aspects of the Faith prove the most difficult. In some places, Bahá'í teachings on the status of women, for example, may be what are hardest to accept. But in the West, the biggest obstacle is the idea that the Faith has developed a means of reconciling disputes and settling differences that is unlike what we practice here. We find it hard because it's not what we're used to. And it's something that the House understands too. They say that the problem comes when we try to impose the values that we've inherited upon the Faith.
"We have noticed with concern evidences of a confusion of attitudes among some of the friends when they encounter difficulties in applying Bahá'í principles to questions of the day. On the one hand, they acknowledge their belief in Bahá'u'lláh and His teachings; on the other, they invoke Western liberal democratic practices when actions of Bahá'í institutions or of some of their fellow Bahá'ís do not accord with their expectations. At the heart of this confusion are misconceptions of such fundamental issues as individual rights and freedom of expression in the Bahá'í community."
Pay attention to that last sentence. "Misconceptions of such fundamental issues as individual rights and freedom of expression in the Bahá'í community." What the House is trying to say is that because we think we know what these values mean in a liberal democracy, we think that we also know what they mean in the Faith, but we don't.
NEPIOS: So are you actually admitting that there isn't a place for freedom of expression and individual rights in the Bahá'í Faith? Could it be possible I'm hearing this correctly?
SOPHOS: I think you know by now that's not true. What the House is saying is that we can't expect the Faith to conform to our culture's definition of these things. The Faith offers a different model and a better system for solving our disputes. What's really at stake here is whether or not we believe in Bahá'u'lláh and His Covenant. If we do, we have to admit that he has a grasp of spiritual realities beyond anything we can imagine. And that means accepting that some of our attitudes need changing. We need to develop what one member of the House, Dr. Peter Khan, describes as "a heightened spiritual consciousness." And as long as materialism is the reigning doctrine, this is bound to be difficult. According to the House, all of us have been influenced by the prevailing attitude, whether we like it or not.
"The aggressiveness and competitiveness which animate a dominantly capitalist culture; the partisanship inherent in a fervidly democratic system; the suspicion of public-policy institutions and the skepticism toward established authority ingrained in the political attitude of the people and which trace their origins to the genesis of American society; the cynical disregard of the moderating principles and rules of civilized human relationships resulting from an excessive liberalism and its immoral consequences –- such unsavory characteristics inform entrenched habits of American life, which imperceptibly at first but more obviously in the long run have come to exert too great a sway over the manner of management of the Bahá'í community and over the behavior of portions of its rank and file in relation to the cause."
NEPIOS: So I suppose you think I've been influenced by all of that then. "Excessive liberalism and its immoral consequences." Is this my problem?
SOPHOS: The House says it's a problem for a lot of believers in North America. It's something we all have to be aware of. Which is why I think you'll be hearing more on this in coming years. Enayat Rawhani, who's a long serving member of your Canadian NSA, mentioned something about this last year during a deepening I had the honor to attend on the letters of Shoghi Effendi. In the session held on December 23rd, 2005, he responded to a question on the role of the individual in religion by saying that "the Abha Kingdom is not a land of the free." American values aren't necessarily God's values, after all, and I think that Mr. Rawhani was right to remind people of that.
NEPIOS: Well you still haven't answered my original question, though.
SOPHOS: I'm sorry, what was that?
NEPIOS: I tried to ask you what the House teaches about dissent. If freedom of expression and individual rights don't mean what I think they mean, what do they mean? What place is there for someone who won't toe the party line and who insists on presenting an alternate point of view?
SOPHOS: To understand that, you have to understand the importance of unity in the Bahá'í vision. At this point, what humanity needs above all is to come together. We can't afford more division and disagreement. And so the House feels that it has a duty to protect the Faith from divisive behavior.
"The strident insistence on individual views, however, can lead to contention, which is detrimental not only to the spirit of Bahá'í association and collaboration but to the search for truth itself. 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 behavior, if permitted to continue unchecked, could produce disruption in the Bahá'í community, giving birth to countless sects as it has done in previous dispensations... The Faith defines elements of a code of conduct, and it is ultimately the responsibility of the Universal House of Justice... to require the friends to adhere to the standards thus defined... Dissidence is a moral and intellectual contradiction of the main objective animating the Bahá'í community, namely, the establishment of the unity of mankind."
NEPIOS: Do you know what I think?
SOPHOS: Please tell me.
NEPIOS: I think that you've redefined everything out of existence. You say you believe in independent investigation of the truth, you say you believe in unity in diversity, you say that you believe in freedom of expression: but you really don't. You affirm all of these things, but then you define them in ways that make them meaningless. What is the use of independent investigation of the truth if it doesn't mean we can decide for ourselves what we believe and what we don't? What good is unity in diversity if every Bahá'í has to accept the same set of teachings? How can we say we protect freedom of expression if we feel dissidence undermines the central goals of the Faith? All you're doing is keeping the names so that people can't see how you've stolen away the real meaning that these things were supposed to have.
SOPHOS: I've told you before that what these things mean isn't something you or I can decide. Our society promotes egotism and individualism, but we have to see past that to how Bahá'u'lláh defines the central values of the Faith. And until you learn to look on this with the eyes of faith, it will always appear strange to you. But if you can find the strength to do it, everything will seem different. Understanding that we need to submit to God, Semple says, "brings an accession of joy and strength that can scarcely be imagined, because one ceases to be alone, one becomes a willing, integral part of the whole motion of the universe." And we can hear much the same thing in *One Common Faith* where...
NEPIOS: Actually I know that one. We've held deepenings on it in the Toronto Bahá'í community. It's the one that says gay marriage is deviant. "Perversions of various kinds unabashedly claim the status of civil rights" is how it goes, I think.
SOPHOS: We've already talked about that. And it's only a passing reference anyway. The main message of *One Common Faith* concerns unity, the vital, even urgent need to put aside the division that has nearly destroyed the human race.
"If the appalling suffering endured by the earth’s peoples during the twentieth century has left a lesson, it lies in the fact that the systemic disunity, inherited from a dark past and poisoning relations in every sphere of life, could throw open the door in this age to demonic behavior more bestial than anything the mind had dreamed possible."
NEPIOS: And what does that have to do with individualism?
SOPHOS: That’s what One Common Faith explains. In order to achieve unity, the first thing we have to do is set our differences aside.
"By its very nature, unity requires self-sacrifice. 'Self-love,' the Master states, 'is kneaded into the very clay of man.' The ego, termed by Him 'the insistent self' resists instinctively constraints imposed on what it conceives to be its freedom. ...The individual must come to believe that satisfaction lies elsewhere. Ultimately, it lies, as it has always done, in the soul's submission to God."
NEPIOS: So in the end, that's what you make of what I've been saying here? All of my concerns, my questions, my challenges, the urgent problems that you seem to leave unanswered –- does it really just come down to my failure to submit? Is it just because I'm not spiritually mature enough or I don't have the proper humility?
SOPHOS: Humility is a problem for all of us. The point isn't to single out you or me or pass judgments on anyone's personal failings. But it's only stating the obvious that if we don't cultivate humility or learn to look outside of ourselves, we can't make lasting spiritual progress. Semple touches on this in his essay. He says that it's less about whether we're good or bad people as whether we can recognize that we're human.
"So long as he remains the center of his own universe, (the individual) remains limited by his own nature. Alas, we have all met members of the Bahá'í community who have suffered from this limitation. Take, for example, someone who is afire for social justice and... has evolved a philosophy of social reform that is very close to the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh. When he meets the Faith, he finds a whole community of people with similar ideas. He declares himself a Bahá'í and is registered as a member of the community. If his attraction does not develop into true understanding of the teachings and into obedience to Bahá'u'lláh, he... meets with Bahá'í teachings which do not fit into his own philosophy, so he challenges them and tries to change the Faith to be closer to his own ideals. He does not succeed, so, in disillusionment, he leaves the Faith."
NEPIOS: You said you wouldn't get personal, but it sounds like you're describing me.
SOPHOS: Semple is describing a type here. Whether it matches the pattern of your life is something you have to judge for yourself. I'm not saying anything about why you may personally have become a Bahá'í.
NEPIOS: But in a sense, that’s what really matters. The more I think about it, the more I see that it's absolutely crucial. This whole question that we've been discussing revolves around a deeply personal issue. It depends on the reasons that I and other Baha’is like me chose the Faith in the first place. You tell me that going against my conscience –- whether the cause is war or gay rights or simply the need to stop sharing my views it's the same –- you tell me that denying my conscience doesn't mean denying my faith in Bahá'u'lláh.
SOPHOS: That's what I would tell you, yes.
NEPIOS: I know that by now, and I finally think that I have an answer. You see, it was through listening to my conscience that I was attracted to the Baha’i Faith, and so as a Bahá'í I find it hard when you tell me to ignore my conscience. I know you say I have the freedom to leave the Faith, but that isn't an answer. For me, freedom of conscience means freely exercising my conscience inside the Faith. I have to be a Bahá'í on the same terms that I became a Bahá'í: I can't turn my back on what I know is right. You will define this as egotism, or individualism, or insufficient humility, but it also has another name: it's also called personal integrity. And this isn't just some special fixation of mine, either. This is vital to all of the world's great religions. Behind the specific laws God reveals, there is the supreme law that we must be true to ourselves. This is what every prophet has taught and it is the foundation of every manifestation.
SOPHOS: Not every manifestation.
SOPHOS: I doubt if there are any religious traditions which have actually taught unconditional obedience to conscience. And this is certainly not true of the Baha’i Faith.
NEPIOS: I’m sorry, could you come again? I was waiting for you to tell me that the Baha’i Faith honors the individual conscience and that I’ve just misunderstood it.
SOPHOS: No, you haven’t. You understand conscience perfectly well. What you don’t understand is its place in the Faith. Like many North Americans, you come from a Protestant tradition which gives personal responsibility an importance out of keeping with its role in Bahá'u'lláh's system. This is what another member of the House, Douglas Martin, meant when he said that “we have inherited a dangerous delusion from Christianity.”
NEPIOS: What did you just say? "A dangerous delusion?"
SOPHOS: You had your turn to explain your position. Now please allow me to tell you mine. This is what Martin said in his talk four years ago in Lowell, Massachusetts:
"We have inherited a dangerous delusion from Christianity: that our individual conscience is supreme. This is not a Bahá'í belief. In the end, in the context of both our role in the community and our role in the greater world, we must be prepared to sacrifice our personal convictions or opinions. The belief that individual conscience is supreme is equivalent to 'taking partners with God' which is abhorrent to the Teachings of the Faith."
Listen to those words and weigh them carefully. “We must be prepared to sacrifice our personal convictions or opinions.” Do you see what he means? What Martin says here is what I have tried to tell you all along. Were every person to follow only their conscience, the result would be chaos and division: the human race would be plunged into spiritual night. This is because conscience is human and fallible. It can never provide the certain assurance of God’s Covenant. And if what I say is not enough to convince you, hear the words of the only infallible institution on earth: “an accumulation of prejudices learned from one’s forebears or absorbed from a limited social code.” This is what, according to the House, our conscience can become. This is why the House warns us never to rely on conscience alone. It is not for us to decide what is right, but for God through his Manifestations and His chosen successors.
NEPIOS: But that’s impossible. There’s no such thing as a religion that tells us not trust our conscience. Religion isn't founded on obedience. Religion is founded on love.
SOPHOS: But love is meaningless without obedience. Baha’u’llah’s injunction “obey me, for love of my beauty” affirms it. He wants us at once both to love and obey Him and to realize in doing this that our highest freedom lies in surrendering our freedom to Him. “The liberty that profiteth you is to be found nowhere except in complete servitude unto God, the Eternal Truth.” This may seem incredible to you, but this is how it must be, since it transcends human wisdom. What the Baha’i Faith seeks to accomplish can only be conceived according to spiritual insight: materialistic reasoning will never grasp it. Our mission is not to be simply one religion of many, it is to remake the human race. We are attempting something never before dreamed of in the long history of the earth. We are creating a new society, a new community, and a new humanity. The old system of division and discord will be done away with, and a new order of harmony and perfect unity will emerge from its ruins: a global, spiritual civilization that will exalt all of creation and reveal, for the first time, the true station of man. Unfettered conscience stands in the way of this vision, and personal integrity unbalanced by submission to God has no place within it. They can only divide us by undermining our obedience to Him. "If we falter or hesitate," the beloved Guardian tells us, "if our love for Him should fail to direct us and keep us within His path, if we desert Divine and emphatic principles, what hope can we any more cherish for healing the ills and sicknesses of this world?" I have spoken to you today because I care about you and wanted to impart to you the strength of my conviction. It is because so much stands to be won or lost that I would do what was in my power to persuade you of all that is at stake. Read Semple’s essay yourself, if you can. And if you won’t, at least consider carefully the last lines. “Only the guidance of God and Baha’u’llah’s system of united and willing obedience of individual souls to His guidance can carry mankind from a world of tyranny and oppression across the narrow bridge over the abyss of fragmentation and chaos to the bliss of the Kingdom of God on earth.”
NEPIOS: I will read Semple’s essay, and I promise to think about everything you've said. But if I could say only one thing more, it would be this. I hope that there still might be a place for me within the Faith, even if I continue to trust my conscience. I hope that there will be a place for all of us who still cling to the “dangerous delusion.”
SOPHOS: That’s not for me to decide.