The International Teaching Centre has produced a wonderful compilation, which you've all received, of texts on the subject of obedience. I'm assuming that you're familiar with those, and therefore I want to approach the subject from a more general point of view--principally about obedience in relation to freedom of thought and also to discussing the importance of obedience both to the individual's spiritual development and to society as a whole.
Mankind has suffered appallingly from tyranny, throughout virtually its whole history, and obedience has often come to be equated with servility and acquiescence in oppression--or even worse, to be used as an excuse for taking part in oppression. You know, because of having lived in Israel for some time, how often this comes up when the question of the Holocaust is being discussed. Those who took part in the Holocaust said, "Well, I was just obeying orders; I am not the one to blame." Now, because of this history of oppression, obedience has become widely despised, and freedom and "rugged individualism" are prized as true goals of social life. What, then, are we to make of this statement of Bahá'u'lláh:
What mankind needeth in this day is obedience unto them that are in authority, and a faithful adherence to the cord of wisdom.
To understand this we need to see the other side of the picture. We need to appreciate the enormity of the problems mankind is grappling with, which are caused by violent nationalism and tribalism, by individual greed and ruthless competition in economic life, by unbridled permissiveness in morality, and by the ever-growing incidence of crime and terrorism. These are all distortions of freedom.
History has shown a tendency of mankind to oscillate between extremes of tyranny and unbridled license, with a few happy periods in between when society has attained a moderate condition. Now I think we need to recognize that in the Bahá'í teachings we are not merely trying to attain a moderate balance between freedom and obedience, but rather, through the teachings, Bahá'u'lláh has shown us how we can freely give obedience to the standard of truth so that obedience and freedom combine in a harmonious whole. They no longer become antitheses of one another.
To explore this concept I want to consider it in the light of five processes:
The next step is to learn that for a person to follow his own inclinations in everything leads to chaos in his own life and in society as a whole.
This leads one to search for an external source of authority, for what is truth. When one thinks one has found such a source it is essential to validate it. To fail to do so is to sacrifice one of the most fundamental rights and duties of a human being.
Having decided that a source of authority is valid, and that one wishes to obey it, one can only put this into practice if one understands what that source of authority requires.
Finally, unless one uses one's intelligence and good judgment in exercising one's obedience to authority, one may well end up doing the opposite of what it really intends.
All five of these processes require the exercise of one's reasoning powers. They are the negation of the concept of "blind obedience," and I believe that this concept of blind obedience is contrary to the spirit of the Faith. Obedience, for a Bahá'í is the free exercise of one's will to follow what one believes to be right. Blind obedience is the abdication of one's free will.
Recognition of the individual's responsibilityThe responsibility placed by God on each individual soul to take command of his own life is stressed again and again in the Writings. Consider the following words of Bahá'u'lláh. The first passage is so familiar that we may be in danger of failing to ponder the many elements it contains, and that is why I am going to read it in a rather disjointed way:
Then we have these three other passages which develop the same theme:
Judge ye fairly the Cause of God, your Creator, and behold that which hath been sent down from the Throne on high, and meditate thereon with innocent and sanctified hearts. Then will the truth of this Cause appear unto you as manifest as the sun in its noon-tide glory. Then will ye be of them that have believed in Him.
In these and a multitude of other passages, Bahá'u'lláh's first call to us is not to obey, but to use our minds, to judge fairly, to recognize, and then to believe and then to obey. He assures us that we have the capacity to recognize the truth and to follow it.
That ultimate authority resides in ourselves is true for any human being, whether he understands it or not. One may choose not to use this authority, to allow oneself to drift along like a bit of flotsam at the pull of the tide, or one may take charge of one's own life.
All too often nowadays we seek the cause for our actions in conditions and events which are beyond our control and which lie in our heredity, our upbringing or our circumstances. There is a certain truth in this, and I'm not saying these don't influence us, but in most cases it is a thoroughly debilitating excuse for doing the wrong thing and for failing to do what one fundamentally knows to be right.
One always has a choice of whether to bow to external events or to take steps to deal with them, whether to obey or disobey an external authority. To take steps to change our conditions may take effort, and we may decide not to make the effort--but that is our decision. Sometimes the alternative of disobeying an external authority brings with it such unpleasant consequences that one decides to obey in spite of one's disagreement. Even that is one's own decision. Ultimately, if one believes that the choice is serious enough, one will accept dqeath rather than choose wrongly. But there's still always a choice, and I think this is very important because sometimes you find someone giving the excuse, "I'm sorry but I couldn't do the right thing--I'd have been shot!" That was a choice; you could have been shot.
In Iran it has been a perpetual astonishment to the persecutors of the Cause that Bahá'ís have made this choice, that rather than deny the Faith or breathe a word in denial of the faith they have accepted to be killed. Now this is where we have to be independent and strong.
So the first point of reference for any human being is himself, and his own God-given ability to decide. For an atheist or agnostic there is no central point of reference apart from himself and his own wishes and ideas. If he does not think at all, he will tend to be driven entirely by his likes and desires--in other words, not what he thinks is right, but just what he feels. Few people, however, live entirely at that sub-animal level, fortunately. Sooner or later they begin to think about what is best for them. They begin to exercise their powers of choice. But usually they do not go far enough in the process. Many people merely exist from day to day, following the fashions and whims of the society in which they live, absorbing its prejudices and pursuing its standards.
For an individual to unthinkingly follow the promptings of his own self-centred desires necessarily brings him into conflict with others and increases the sum of misery in the world. Inevitably, if Number One comes first, and everybody is Number One, everybody is in conflict. Now, this is so whether or not he gets to the point of trying to dominate others for his own satisfaction. On the other hand, when people unthinkingly adhere to the prejudices of their society or of its leaders, this breeds animosity towards other groups. Both lead to spiritual decay and chaos. In the Seven Proofs the Bab writes:
And, earlier in the same Book:
Nay, by God, be thou neither a divine without discernment nor a follower without discernment, for both of these shall perish on the Day of Resurrection.
Recognizing one's own insufficiency
As soon as a soul begins to wonder, not what he can do to please himself, but what he ought to do; when he allows himself to consider the difference between right and wrong; when he begins to ponder the purpose of his life; when, in other words, he becomes a person of discernment, he has taken the first step away from true godlessness. Truth and Right and Justice and Mercy are Names of God, and whoever seeks those is on the path to seeking God. Many a self-styled atheist is not really an atheist at all; he is merely a person who has seen beyond the superficialities of traditional religion in his search for truth. I think this is what we're seeing happen now in the East. People who are theoretical atheists, many of them, have been at heart truly spiritual people and merely haven't known what they were looking for, and now they're finding it.
When he starts to think in that way, any person, atheist or not, will begin to look around for examples, for patterns of behaviour that are apparently successful and which he can follow to achieve similar success. He will start out with a whole range of behaviour patterns that he has learned from childhood. These he may maintain, or he may discard them for other patterns. But even then, unless he finds a central point of reference outside himself, he will find it very difficult to rise above his current level. It's like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps-- you just can't do it.
So long as he remains the centre of his own universe, he 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 who, from his own experience in life and from ideas that he has drawn from others, 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 sooner or later 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 and drifts off to link up with others of like mind with whom, in due course, he comes again to disagree. Because he is self-centred he remains alone, in a sense, throughout his life. He may connect with some people but then break up again.
Thus, for the full development of the individual soul, and to enable it to work in harmony with other souls for the evolution of human society, it is essential for each human being to recognize the insufficiency of his own self and to seek a collective centre outside himself.
Validating an external source of authority
Unless one has a truly authoritative collective centre in harmony with the nature of the universe, no combination of individuals will endure. This is why mere social movements, and political parties, no matter how much loyalty they may inspire, are doomed to change, disintegration and ultimate collapse. But if one is to submit one's individual authority and freedom to an external authority, one has a duty to validate the source of that authority, whether it be the civil government, a political party or whatever.
The essential difference between religion and philosophy is that religion claims to be linked to God Himself, the Creator, Upholder and Mover of the universe. It is not merely a formulation of well-argued ideas, but a revelation of eternal truth. The authority it claims is absolute. This is both its strength and its danger. Its strength is that, when one is really linked to God, one is in harmony with all Truth and Justice and Beauty. Its danger is that, if one gives to a false prophet the obedience due to God Himself, one can descend into a perversion far worse than any that a philosophy can create. Consider the havoc wreaked by such charismatic leaders as Hitler. They have laid claim to absolute loyalty and obedience from their followers. Such leaders really create pseudo-religions rather than political parties. But even so, it is in the area of religion that validation of the source of authority has supreme importance.
No knowledge is more important to the individual soul than the understanding that, while one is responsible for seeking the truth and for distinguishing it from error, one also has an absolute obligation to follow the truth wherever it may lead. One must recognize that God cannot be bargained with.
Bahá'u'lláh encapsulates this truth in a sentence in one of His prayers:
"What power can the shadowy creature claim to possess when face to face with Him Who is the Uncreated?"
Now this is a very important, very difficult, and very uncomfortable truth. And here perhaps I can say something about the fear of God, because if one really thinks about God, it is a fearful prospect. You know, if one is an atheist, not having a God at all, one can blind oneself to some degree to the horror of the universe, by jogging along from day to day. But if one really thinks about it, the universe is an appalling place. Just look at the magnitude of the stars, just the sun itself with its sunspots, and think of oneself as this tiny little microbe crawling about on the surface of the earth. One is utterly powerless; what can one do? what can one do for the future? This is one of the theoretical problems that the Communists are facing. They had this marvelous idea that a person should be selfless, that an individual didn't live in a future life, there was no eternal life, but your future was in a future society. You served here to the best of your ability, you loved your fellow man, and you would create a world that would be a pattern of perfection on earth. That was your eternal life. The problem they found was that people began to realize this world doesn't last forever, either. Some time is going to come when this world will be destroyed. There is no permanent future in the perfection of this world. And when there's no future at all, one begins to wonder, "Well, why bother? Why do I sacrifice this seventy-odd years I have for something that's not going to last anyway?" Pascal, centuries ago, saw this problem: that the poverty and misery of a world without God is such that people cannot face it. They begin to seek distractions so they don't have to think about it. This is why a society, if it's an increasingly irreligious society, becomes more and more absorbed with amusement and diversion and thrills, because people cannot face the truth. Now then, to come to recognize that this world is not just a mass of atoms and molecules, but that there is something controlling it--there is God, in other words--can be for a time a nice philosophical concept, until you begin to treat it seriously. Then you realize that, if God is God, you can't say anything to God; you can't bargain with God. C.S. Lewis commented on this once. When he was drawn to recognize the reality of God he realized a demand was being made of him. God wasn't saying "Give me all or nothing." There was no choice; He said, "All." That's it, there is no alternative. God is God.
Now this is difficult but very important to realize. The tremendous bounty we get through the teachings of the Manifestations is to realize that this incomprehensible force behind the universe is not just a blind force but is the power of love, that the individual human soul has an importance in His sight and is within His care. This is a revolutionary idea and is, I think, at the heart of all religion.
But still one has to accept the fact that you can't bargain with God, and I recommend to any of you who have problems with the idea of accepting the concept of the fear of God, or are troubled by what seems to be injustice in the world, to study the Book of Job. It's a very old book, but it's all about this problem. Job is a very upright man, a very wealthy man, a very prosperous man, and in the story--of course the whole thing is an allegory--the Devil comes to God and says, "Look, he's only being so good because you're treating him so well. Take away all his wealth and all his happiness, he won't obey you any more." So God says, "All right", and He allows the Devil to take everything away from Job. And everything goes wrong. There comes a whole series of friends and comforters, who are like the chorus of the story, continually explaining to Job why things are going wrong. They try to point out to him it's because he must have sinned. "No, I haven't sinned. I'm not going to say I've sinned, I haven't sinned! I'm not being punished for something I've done." But he maintains all the way through his obedience to God and his love for God. He says, "Even if He slays me I will believe in Him." This whole pattern continues and we get these different excuses for what's happening. And eventually Job himself is persuaded to ask God. And God's voice comes out of the whirlwind:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge. Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me, Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measure thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
There is no way that we can understand the nature of God or His purposes, and we have to accept that. Now this is, shall we say, the fear, and yet the exaltation of finally accepting the nature of God. I have never forgotten the extraordinary perception of this truth that was shown by a young man that I used to work with. He was an articled clerk in a firm in which I was an accountant. One day he began to inquire about the Faith and I gave him, I think, "Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era", and then we went on different jobs. Then one day we were on the same job again, and he said, "You know, I no longer have a choice. When I began to read this book I realized it was so important that I have no alternative but to study it and decide whether it is true or not. And if I find it's true, I have no alternative but to follow it." Now there aren't that many people who have such deep perception so soon after hearing of the Faith--he hadn't even decided it was true. But he studied, and he decided, and he accepted the Faith. He understood very well the truth of Bahá'u'lláh's words:
They should in no wise allow their fancy to obscure their judgment, neither should they regard their own imaginings as the voice of the Eternal.
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. Once done, however, it 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. It is a revelation of the mystery of sacrifice and of the astonishing fact that God is Love.
One of the dangers is that the joy that such self-surrender brings can be experienced by someone who surrenders to a false prophet as well as by someone who surrenders to the true Manifestation of God. Self-surrender is, itself, a virtue and you can get the same exaltation even by surrendering to the wrong thing. This is the danger. The methods by which we seek truth and accept it we know, and I shall not elaborate them here. You all remember the four criteria described by 'Abdu'l-Bahá by which we can ascertain the truth: the senses, reason, tradition and inspiration. Each of these four standards is fallible, but we try our best to combine them all, and it is the guidance of God which is the final, infallible guidance.
What happens, however, if we have, to the best of our ability, satisfied our senses, our reason, the traditions we know, and we think we've been inspired, and have satisfied ourselves that a source of authority is valid, and have given it our obedience but, alas, we are mistaken? How are we to find out our mistake?
This brings us to the fourth process which I mentioned at the outset.
Understanding the requirements of authority
In his letter to the United National Special Palestine commission Shoghi Effendi stated that the Faith "enjoins upon its followers the primary duty of an unfettered search after truth."
This injunction is, at one and the same time, the safeguard against following a false prophet, and fountainhead of the light of consultation and the guarantee of the successful implementation of Bahá'u'lláh's command given in the Words of Paradise:
Schools must first train the children in the principles of religion, so that the Promise and the Threat recorded in the Books of God may prevent them from the things forbidden and adorn them with the mantle of the commandments; but this in such measure that it may not injure the children by resulting in ignorant fanaticism and bigotry.
We return again here to the antithesis between blind obedience and willing, conscious obedience, which I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. You may ask: "But why should we continue our independent search for truth after we have found it by accepting Bahá'u'lláh? Doesn't this indicate that we have doubts about His Station?" But do you think that finding Bahá'u'lláh is the end? Surely it is only the beginning. When one accepts that Bahá'u'lláh is the Manifestation of God, that He and His actions and His words are a perfect mirror of the nature of God, of His Truth and of His intentions for this age, then begins the long task of learning exactly what He is telling us, of putting His commands into practice in our lives, and of permitting the light of His Revelation to illumine our hearts and our understanding. This cannot take place if we close the shutters of our minds.
A true principle of action remains true no matter to whom it applies. 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. But how can He who is Truth itself ever suffer from the pursuit of truth by His followers?
Then there is the matter of deepening ourselves in the teachings. How can we do this if we do not think about them, relate them to one another, try them out and study them in the light of experience? The teachings of Bahá'u'lláh are to suffice mankind for at least a thousand years. Can we imagine then that, without a lot of profound thinking, we shall really understand what He is saying and what He intends us to do?
It is only through independent, clear thinking about the vast range of the teachings that one can foster the growth of one's understanding.
But the texts are not our only source of guidance. Bahá'u'lláh has also given us consultation as our guide. To make this work we must exercise freedom of thought, frankness of expression, courtesy and obedience. Without the exercise of unfettered search after truth, and without obedience to its conclusions, consultation would be abortive.
So we have established the need for the use of an unfettered search after truth in understanding the requirements of authority. What are we to do when we find ourselves unable to accept those requirements? This can happen at various levels, and is a problem that should be squarely faced and tackled:
How are we to react in such cases? They all lead back, I believe to the earlier part of the process, the validation of the source of authority. If we have trouble with understanding or obeying a law of Bahá'u'lláh Himself, we should not balk from examining the basis of our faith. We have accepted Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá'u'lláh is not shaken, and that it is merely the particular law that is a problem, one should obey on the basis of faith. Now I want to stress: this is not blind faith or blind obedience. 'Abdu'l-Bahá has said:
By Faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge and second, the practice of good deeds.
We have a solidly based reliance on Bahá'u'lláh as a source of authority in all things. Sometimes we can go forward in clear understanding of what He wants us to do. Sometimes we are left in the dark because our understanding has not yet grown sufficiently. The light that enable 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. This knowledge enables us to act with full confidence accordingly and I stress this "full confidence". It 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. As Shoghi Effendi wrote:
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? If we are to falter or hesitate, 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?
The authority of the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice go back to the authority of Bahá'u'lláh Himself, so similar principles apply. One should obey them because one knows that they are divinely guided. I can recall more than one occasion on which I found myself either unable to understand or in disagreement with a decision of the Universal House of Justice. You know, the House of Justice doesn't always have unanimous decisions; it has majority decisions sometimes. Such a situation is not surprising of course. The House of Justice is infallible, but individual human beings aren't, so it's only logical that sometimes one should initially disagree with a decision that is reached. In all cases, naturally, I have accepted the decision and after a lapse of time I have always found why the House of Justice was right and I was wrong. The interesting thing is that it isn't only that it was for reasons that I didn't recognize at the time-- "All right, that was what I misunderstood in the consultation, I now know what was right"--but sometimes even because of things that I could not have known at the time the decision was made. The ways of God, again, are mysterious, even when they come through His institutions. One cannot always expect to know everything at the outset.
Such experiences cause one to grow spiritually and enrich one's understanding to a unique degree. Intelligent and open-eyed obedience, therefore, promotes the growth of the soul.
Obeying a Spiritual Assembly which one believes to be wrong can be much more difficult. Here one obeys because of the overriding principle of upholding unity in the Faith. At the same time, if one judges the matter to be serious enough, one can always appeal the decision. Here again one must use wisdom. One has the right to appeal a decision, but one should consider not only one's own interest or the principle of the matter, but also the interests of the Cause. Is it right to occupy the time of the Assembly by insistently pursuing the point, even if one is sure that its decision is wrong, or is it better to pass it over and allow the Assembly to carry on with its main task, which is the teaching of the Cause of God? Sometimes it's right, sometimes it's wrong; sometimes one should insist, sometimes one should let it go. Again, it's a matter of judgement and good reason. So, here you come to the question of the role of reason in carrying out the commands of a source of authority.
The role of judgement in carrying out commands
There are two different sources of authority one needs to think of here, because they are a little bit different. One is an issuer of commands, and the other is laws and regulations.
The difference between these is that a specific command from a source of authority is often quite clear, explicit and related to a particular matter, while a law or regulation is usually a more general commandment and its application to a specific case may need study and correlation with other regulations.
An interesting instance of the difference between these kinds of authority arose during the 1960s in America. You know, that was a time when there was great tension between the races, and the Bahá'ís were very much involved in the whole question of challenging colour prejudice and establishing unity as far as they could, both within the Bahá'í community and outside it. The problem that was put to the House of Justice by the believers was: What happens if you're in one of the southern states where there's a law that prohibits a certain degree of association between people of different colours, but it so happens that this has got to the point now where the non- Bahá'ís are debating this law? Do the Bahá'ís have to obey it because we obey the civil law and it's a principle to obey the government, no matter which one it is? The House of Justice said, no, the Bahá'ís should carry out the principles of the Faith as far as they can, but if a person in authority says, "Don't do it", you don't do it. In other words, if the law says that whites and blacks shouldn't be around together, the Faith obviously says they should be. All right, they should go around together. But if a policeman comes up and says, "You sit in different places," you go and sit in different places. There is a difference between the law as it is written and the law as it is enforced, and this comes into play in many relations between the Bahá'í Faith and civil law. This came up, I would imagine, in similar situations in Nazi Germany. I am told that there, for example, when the Nazi authorities instructed the Bahá'ís to segregate their meetings between Jews and non-Jews, their solution was simply to stop having meetings. You can get around such problems in various ways.
Then there is the matter of obeying laws and principles of the Faith when to do so causes one difficulty or even suffering. As I have said, it is often obedience through faith, and accepting unpleasant choices, which make us grow spiritually and morally, and in our understanding. Such obedience also has an effect on the community as a whole. It produces a society which is united, loving, firmly righteous and courageous, but entirely free from "ignorant fanaticism and bigotry". This is the difficult balance: to be firm, to be principled, but not to be fanatical, and not to be bigoted.
One of the truths that one must accept is that life is not easy. It was not meant to be easy. If we acknowledge and accept this and work with it, we grow and progress through all trials and tribulations. This is a very profound realization. I think it was Carl Jung who attributed a great deal of psychic illness to the attempt of people to avoid what he called "legitimate pain". You see, all growth in life causes pain at certain stages. Think of the pain of adolescence, when we don't know how to cope with suddenly becoming adult. And when you marry, two people coming to live together, there's pain involved. And Jung, I think, put his finger on a very important point: to try to avoid legitimate pain produces psychic breakdown, and this is so in society as a whole. But it can make one seem somewhat ruthless, at times, if one goes ahead with obedience and acceptance of pain.
True obedience, thus, is not servility. It requires courage and endurance; and an essential element of obedience is the exercise of judgement in carrying out the requirements of the authority one has accepted.
Whether the source of authority in a particular instance is an instruction from an authoritative body or the requirements of a law, it is seldom possible for it to cover all possibilities and eventualities.
I remember reading a story once of a man who was particularly fond of one of his suits--men very often like their old suits and try to hang onto them forever--but as it was quite worn he couldn't hang onto it any longer, so he went to a tailor and told him to make an exact copy. The tailor duly did so, and said he had tried to make as good a copy as he possibly could, but apologized that he had had some difficulty in exactly reproducing the coffee-stain on the front of the jacket! This is the sort of problem that the Works Office is facing all the time. In this case, when you're repairing a Holy Place, you do want to reproduce it exactly as it is. When you have two windows next to each other, one a little bit smaller than the other, you don't want some bright person to come along and say, "It could be a bit more beautiful if we had them both the same size." You want the new one smaller than the other, exactly as the old one was. On the other hand, if we are replacing a leaky drain-pipe, we do not want the new pipe to leak like the old one did. This is where you have to exercise good judgement, and it's astonishing how often in life you'll find that in just such cases people do not use good judgement, and it drives you crazy when you give what you think have been very clear instructions and the person comes back with something absolutely haywire, and says, "But you told me to!" And you know you told him to, but you wish he'd used his good sense and done it differently.
These are extreme examples, but the same principle arises continually in carrying out the laws of the Faith. When to be strict, when to be lenient, which exceptions are justifiable and which are not. How to be forbearing without sacrificing principles, how to be righteous without being fanatical. Generally speaking, it is a good guideline to be very strict with oneself and lenient with others. In the Second Taraz Bahá'u'lláh writes:
This Wronged One exhorteth the peoples of the world to observe tolerance and righteousness, which are two lights amidst the darkness of the world and two educators for the edification of mankind. Happy are they who have attained thereto and woe betide the heedless.
The paralleling of tolerance and righteousness makes this, I think, a very interesting passage.
Here again, one is forced back on the principle of the ultimate responsibility of the individual. We should accept that God has given us minds to use, He has given us free will, and He has exhorted us to exercise wisdom and good judgement. This is one of the pains in life that we must accept.
I characterize it as a pain because we must be careful not to misuse this freedom as a licence to disobedience. In one of the letters written on behalf of the Guardian his secretary gives the sobering warning that "We must be hopeful of God's Mercy but not impose upon it."
But there are valid cases where wise judgement would say to a person: "In this case I would be justified in doing what would normally be unacceptable." Some believers, fearing to accept this responsibility, ask the Universal House of Justice to grant an exception. This, of course, it often cannot do, because to do so would have far wider implications than that one case. But I remember more than one occasion when the House of Justice had to answer such a question, and the comment has been made: "We do wish he'd just gone ahead with it and not asked." I remember a similar comment recorded by a pilgrim who asked the Guardian a question and, before answering, the Guardian said to him, "Are you sure you want to know the answer?"
There are cases where you really have to judge for yourself. I remember one case where there was a chappie who was a student of comparative theology, and he was studying for his degree, and he felt it essential for this to read some writings of Covenant-breakers. So he wrote to the House of Justice and said, please may I have permission to read these writings of Covenant-breakers. The House of Justice wrote back and said, but you're not prohibited from reading the writings of Covenant-breakers; you are warned that it's very dangerous, but you're not prohibited from doing it, so we can't give you permission to do it. So he wrote back and said, yes, I realize that, but please I want permission! So the House of Justice wrote again. He just did not want to accept the responsibility. It was a danger to his soul, how could the House of Justice tell him, "You are free to endanger yourself"? There's no prohibition. He had to judge: Do I need to do this, or should I not? So, one must accept these responsibilities.
The exercise of one's mind and the use of one's judgment in obeying a law or instruction are also avenues for divine guidance. I was profoundly impressed by something that the Hand of the Cause Paul Haney once related. He said that sometimes when the Universal House of Justice asked him to undertake a task, he was able at the outset neither to see the wisdom of it, nor how he was to carry it out but, confident in the divine guidance given to the House of Justice, he would set out to do it, and he would find that at every step that he took forward a door would open and the next step would become clear, and he would find at the end that he had been enabled to achieve just what he had been requested to do and he could see the reason for it. This is a perfect example of obedience, faith, wisdom and judgement.
The processes of accepting one's personal responsibility, recognizing one's insufficiency, of seeking and validating an external source of authority and thereby finding the Manifestation of God, of understanding His teachings and of using one's intelligence in implementing them are essential for the development of the individual soul and enable it to fulfil its destiny of coming into harmony with the purpose of God and living in perfect obedience to His designs.
How much more is obedience in this sense essential for the well-being and progress of mankind as a whole. In all parts of the world people are clamouring for freedom, and this striving after freedom and after the material goods of this world is resulting in conflict and war, which are the destroyers of freedom and well-being. Only the guidance of God and Bahá'u'lláh'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. Then all peoples will recognize the truth of Bahá'u'lláh's words:
The liberty that profiteth you is to be found nowhere except in complete servitude unto God, the Eternal Truth. Whoso hath tasted of its sweetness will refuse to barter it for all the dominion of earth and heaven.