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>>   Letters from the Universal House of Justice
Abstract:
Letter to the House requesting guidance concerning a possible "atmosphere of distrust" among some academics, followed by a response which sets the problem in the context of the current intellectual and spiritual crisis afflicting society at large.
Notes:
See also Plausibility Alignment on a Bahá'í Email List. Submitted by and name retained with permission of recipient.

Scholars and the Administrative Order

by / on behalf of Universal House of Justice

1997-07-20

1. Letter to the Universal House of Justice

To:     Bahá'í World Centre
Subject:   Letter to the Universal House of Justice
Date:     Sat, 10 May 1997 22:38:25 EST

Dear Universal House of Justice:

I wish to bring to your attention a situation which I view with increasing dismay, and which I believe fosters an unhealthy atmosphere within the body of the believers. If left unchecked, I fear the problem threatens not only the unity of the community, but the image of the Bahá'í Faith in the eyes of people of capacity and influence in the world at large. I refer to the present atmosphere of distrust and marginalization towards Bahá'í academics, and the corresponding fear among some academics that there are those within the Administrative Order who are "out to get them."

Deeply concerned over this issue, I have recently consulted with Counsellors ... and .... What I have observed is that some academics have, at times, abused their calling as a scholars to make pronouncements on matters which are not at all within their area of expertise or responsibility. To be more explicit, it is my current conviction that it is a grave error for academics to attempt any interference whatsoever with the proper affairs and functioning of Bahá'u'lláh's Administrative Order. Much of the deterioration of relations between academics and the Administration is due to a significant lack of wisdom in this regard by certain scholars. Correspondingly, an increasing and alarming atmosphere of suspicion towards Bahá'í academics and scholars has led to the disaffection of several believers. This same atmosphere has fuelled an anti-intellectual mind-set which is further encouraged by the current wave of "right-wing" political rhetoric so prevalent in the tempest-tossed and reactionary society around us. Anything causing a breach in the body of the believers, or that gives rise to animosity, decreases enthusiasm, or stunts the efforts of expansion and consolidation, is of serious concern.

I am convinced that the fear and intimidation under which many scholars are currently forced to operate will, in the long run, prove highly detrimental to the progress of scholarship within the Bahá'í community. Just as the Administrative Order cannot rightly function without the believers trusting in its self-correcting nature, so history has shown that scholarship cannot flourish unless it is pursued in an atmosphere of freedom from intimidation and interference. When the principle of the independent investigation of truth (which secular scholars term academic freedom) is upheld scholarship exercises the same qualities of self-correction as does our Administrative Order. Serious errors will be quickly overtaken by new and better scholarship. Just as strident criticism often undermines the ability of the Administrative Order to fulfill its sacred mandate, so institutional interference with scholarly issues destroys scholarship's ability to conduct an independent investigation of truth and to make needed corrections. Religion itself is damaged, for under such circumstances it often then sinks into the abyss of superstition.

Dr. xxxx, in a widely promulgated public talk, echoed the words of our Beloved Master warning of dangers posed by "enemies within" and the "mental tests" facing the American believers. These warnings were both prophetic and timely. An upsurge of Remeyite Covenant breaking afflicted some areas of the United States, and increasingly their delusions were promulgated on the Internet.

Unfortunately, Dr. xxxx's statements were used by many to validate their personal suspicions about the activities of Bahá'í scholars who use standard research methodology to investigate Bahá'í themes. Many times I have heard Dr. xxxx's talk interpreted as a direct reference to the "dangers" we scholars and academics pose to the Faith. The greatest "mental test" for me has been dealing with the way my thoughts and motives as a scholar are so often misunderstood and misrepresented within the Bahá'í community. This has become like acid eating away at my soul. Sadly, I find this experience is shared by nearly all other Bahá'í academics involved in history, religion, and Middle East Studies.

The paralysis created by such an atmosphere often prevents scholars and academics from participating as they might towards meeting the goals of the Four Year Plan. A major area in which a considerable amount of research has been conducted is in the field of the mass teaching within the Bahá'í community. Yet the information which might assist the community in reaching its goal of "entry by troops" is not being utilized. Many scholars have striven to encourage regular devotional meetings, yet their efforts have been largely ignored or even discouraged. Nor have the expertise of many Bahá'í academics been called upon in developing Bahá'í institutes.

The fears afflicting academics, and the corresponding suspicions about them, often seem to be perpetuated at conferences on Bahá'í scholarship itself. While these conferences and workshops strengthen solidarity with the Covenant, discussions of Bahá'í scholarship are perceived by participants as "warnings" rather than encouragement. One such conference was held on 31 August 1996 at Green Acre Bahá'í School. Although I am relying on others' notes on that occasion, these points seemed to be the prevailing themes:

  1. A condemnation of statements made by Prof. ... and Prof. ....
  2. A reassertion of the principle of infallibility in order to discourage the questioning of authority.
  3. That materialistic and power-oriented scholars value liberty of thought and personal freedom in order to further their elitist agenda.
  4. That one should beware of the "odor of mischief" among intellectuals.

No mention whatsoever seems to have been made of any of the recent achievements of scholarship and the contributions it could make to our understanding of the Faith. It should come as no surprise that attendees at such a conference would come away with the impression that scholars and their work was, at best, something to be wary of. It is inconceivable that anyone would come away valuing scholarship or encouraged to pursue it in any way.

In another case, Dr. ... attended a Bahá'í Studies conference in Persian at Louhelen Bahá'í School where Counsellor ... spoke on a number of themes, including the Internet. As you are aware, many Bahá'í academics participate on Internet forums. According to Dr. ..., "He [the Counsellor] categorically stated that the Internet has become a place for those suffering from such deep spiritual illness. I must say that I was absolutely bewildered by his sweeping generalizations, particularly as they made a deep impression on the friends gathered at the event." Counselor ... is deservedly admired for his open-mindedness, so such statements coming from him were especially alarming. Internet media, as predicted by the Guardian, will clearly increase in global importance. If the Bahá'í community adopts a distrustful attitude to email fora and the people who use them—who for the present are largely academics—it is the development of the community which will be retarded.

Other well-intentioned statements by Counsellors are received in ways that reinforce this atmosphere of distrust. In another case, Counsellor ..., speaking in London, described the renewed efforts of the Remeyites. He then went on to talk about Talisman's activities. I have spoken directly with Counsellor ... on this particular talk and the Counsellor assured me that it had not been his intention to compare the activities on Talisman with that of the Covenant Breakers, and I don't doubt his sincerity in this matter. But the interpretation that was generally given of his talk further validates my concern that when Covenant Breaking, the Internet, and Bahá'í Scholars are all mentioned together, the perceived message is that Bahá'í scholars and academics, on the Internet or not, are at worst Covenant Breakers, or at least suspected of disloyalty to our beloved Faith.

A dramatic and tragic example comes from [a state in the Northeast] where Bahá'ís who were known to participate on Talisman were actively shunned by their fellow believers until the LSA intervened. This was too late, however, to keep a new believer, dismayed by the community's behavior, from withdrawing from the Cause. While the LSA is to be praised, the very fact that the situation existed demonstrates the extent to which paranoia has permeated the Bahá'í community. In other cases speakers at Bahá'í summer schools have had their engagements cancelled because of their association with suspect scholars.

In my consultations with Counsellor ..., we discussed specifics of his London talk in which he stated that Talisman participants were in favor of a "Bahá'í Ulama" type class, openly attacked all branches of the Administration, questioned the Infallibility of the Universal House of Justice and the Guardianship, and objected to Bahá'í "review" as a form of censorship.

I pointed out to Dr. ... that far from wishing to claim special authority within the Bahá'í community similar to that of the 'Ulama in Iran, the Bahá'í scholars and academics largely suffer from the opposite fault. As Dr. xxxx rightly pointed out in one of his talks, Bahá'í scholars have all too often isolated themselves from the body of the believers and become insensitive to many of their concerns. Their presence is all too seldom seen at conferences and summer schools. Although I did not mention this in my conversation with Dr. ..., I might add Bahá'í review, as it applies specifically to academic publications, jeopardizes academic integrity and violates professional ethics. This discredits both their work and the Faith itself in the eyes of their colleagues. While I recognize and accept that the House of Justice currently finds it necessary to continue review for the time being, it must also be acknowledged that it will continue to represent a moral dilemma for most Bahá'í academicians. I would also suggest that it is healthy to study/question the spheres of Infallibility conferred upon the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice when such study and questioning is undertaken to gain greater understanding, insight, and appreciation. Questioning does not always mean opposing or denying, it is most often a quest for deeper understanding.

It is quite true that certain individuals, which included some scholars, marginalized by what they perceived as a history of Bahá'í administrators stifling public discourse, began to consider their shared negative experiences as normative and characteristic of Bahá'í organizational practices. Through a process of mutual validation and encouragement, they made ill-advised statements regarding our Faith's administrative institutions and enmeshed themselves inappropriately in administrative affairs. Cyberspace communication ought to have been a natural environment for broadening the horizons of intellectual exchange, creating a synergy of mind and soul power amongst us, enriching our community by the services that we could render by our scholarship. Instead, all too much energy was dissipated in airing past aggravations, and in the case of Talisman this eventually set off a sad chain of events. These lamentable actions should not, however, be an excuse to stigmatize so much of scholarship and intellectual life itself.

Lest I be perceived as overstating the situation, allow me to share one recent instance where such suspicions have led to immoderate and unfounded statements concerning the loyalty of a British Bahá'í [who] put together an excellent compilation of research material. In response to the posting of Mr. ...'s compilation, an Auxiliary Board Member asserted that this was from a "dissident" and "critic" of the Bahá'í Faith and the friends should perhaps "disregard it altogether."

Mr. ... is most assuredly neither a dissident nor critic. Since the original post had been made to H-Bahá'í, a list sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities which I moderate, I vigorously, but privately, protested the Board Member's statements. Although the Board Member immediately admitted that he had exceeded his jurisdiction in this matter, and Counsellor ... also addressed this issue in a positive manner [correspondence to follow] , as yet nothing has been done which would clear the good name of Mr. ... on the lists where such accusations were made.

My hope is that the opening of Centre for the Study of the Holy Text will inaugurate a new era in relations between Bahá'í academics and the Administrative Order. To further that end I would ask the Universal House of Justice to consider the following steps:

  1. Strongly encourage the International Teaching Center to quickly implement its mandate to foster a climate of tolerance on diversity of opinion within the Bahá'í community and actively discourage the shunning, accusing, and suspicious behavior towards equally devoted believers who simply pursue a different vocation -- one of academic scholarship related to the Bahá'í Faith.

  2. That intensive consultations take place as quickly as possible between Counselors and Bahá'í academics in non-threatening environment free from recrimination in which the means for creating mutual cooperation can be developed.

  3. That concerted efforts be made towards harnessing the energy and expertise of Bahá'í scholars and academics towards meeting the goals of the Four Year Plan.

Again, I implore this Supreme Institution to do whatever is in its power to heal this state of affairs, and guide us towards a healthy and productive resolution of this disheartening situation; a resolution which will foster a relationship of consultation and cooperation between academicians and the Institutions. I fear that if nothing is done the bulk of this generation of scholars might well be lost. Please remember the Bahá'í academics in your prayers at the Sacred Threshold.

    Obediently yours,
    Susan Stiles Maneck

2. Response from the Universal House of Justice to Maneck

TO:   Dr. Susan Stiles Maneck
DATE: 20 July 1997

The Universal House of Justice has given consideration to your email letter of 10 May 1997, in which you share your concern over what you see as a serious rift between Bahá'í academics and the administrative institutions of the Faith. We have been asked to convey the following.

The candour with which you have expressed your views is much appreciated, as is the earnestness of your desire to see the Bahá'í community overcome a situation which is unhealthy in itself and risks creating misunderstanding in segments of the academic community. The House of Justice is, of course, aware that problems have arisen in this area, and it welcomes the opportunity to acquaint you with its thinking and perspectives. Having considered these, you should feel encouraged to respond with any related suggestions you think might assist in relieving the stresses you perceive.

The House of Justice believes that it will be helpful to set the problem in the context of the current intellectual and spiritual crisis afflicting society at large. Scholarly training and professional experience will have sensitized you to the implications for the study of religion of certain assumptions about human nature and the processes of civilization that a purely materialistic interpretation of reality has imposed on scholarly activity of every kind, at least in the Western world. A related paradigm for the study of religion has gradually consolidated itself in the prevailing academic culture during the course of the present century. It insists that all spiritual and moral phenomena must be understood through the application of a scholarly apparatus devised to explore existence in a way that ignores the issues of God's continuous relationship with His creation and His intervention in human life and history. Yet, from a Bahá'í point of view, it is precisely this intervention that is the central theme of the Teachings of the Founders of the revealed religions ostensibly being studied.

As a result of this insistence, opinions that should have remained matters of learned speculation have tended to assume the character of dogma. Equally regrettable is an intolerant attitude toward other perceptions of reality, which too often characterizes the expression of these opinions. In the context of historical circumstance, this development is understandable. The rigid intolerance exhibited in the past by much of organized religion, together with the domination of scholarship long exercised by theological elites, could not but arouse strong negative reactions. From a Bahá'í point of view, however, bigotry is retrograde and unacceptable in whatever form it chooses to present itself.

Such conditions would not normally be a matter for comment; they represent only a few among the host of less than encouraging circumstances in which the Cause must carry out its work. Devotion to learning has been an integral feature of Bahá'í life and belief from the beginning. It ensures that the community will not be deterred by shortcomings in any of the traditions of scholarship from according these traditions the full respect they merit or from seeking to benefit to the utmost from such endeavours.

Problems will arise, rather, if an attempt is made to impose, on the Bahá'í community's own study of the Revelation, materialistic methodologies and attitudes antithetical to its very nature. The Faith is not the possession of any among us, but belongs to Bahá'u'lláh. Through the Covenant, which is a distinguishing feature of His Revelation, He has specified in unmistakable terms the means by which He wills to preserve the integrity of His message and to guide the implementation of His prescriptions for humankind. If one accepts the Bahá'í Teachings, one cannot, in good conscience, claim to be studying the Faith while ignoring the centrality of Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant to all aspects of the religion He has established.

It is in this context that the House of Justice believes that the concerns expressed in your letter must be addressed. There may well be Bahá'ís who, whatever their educational background, have not yet fully resolved for themselves the fundamental issues touched on in the foregoing. Where this happens, an individual risks finding himself or herself at odds not only with the institutions of the Cause, including the Universal House of Justice itself, but with the clear interpretations of the Teachings by the Master and the Guardian. In such cases, Counsellors and Spiritual Assemblies will certainly do all they can to help. Knowledgeable believers like yourself can also be of great assistance, but belief, for Bahá'ís, is a matter of personal conscience. Should a person conclude that he or she cannot persist in a commitment to the Cause, such a decision is respected by the Bahá'í community.

It is not out of a desire to take issue with the views you have expressed, but rather in an attempt to respond frankly to your concerns, that the House of Justice has asked us to convey its comments on a number of points where its perceptions differ from those you have presented. These relate chiefly to the behaviour of a very small group of Bahá'ís who, rejecting all efforts of the administrative institutions to counsel and appeal to them, have aggressively sought to promote their misconceptions of the Teachings among their fellow believers. These efforts extend back many years, harnessing to their purpose a wide range of Bahá'í activities and associations, most recently Internet lists. Such activities have not been limited to interference with the administration of the affairs of the Bahá'í community, although they have, as you note, included such interference. A far greater problem has been the persistent effort to arouse doubts about the integrity of the Teachings, as interpreted for us by `Abdu'l-Bahá and the Guardian, to undermine the authority of the Faith's institutions, and to alter the essential nature of Bahá'u'lláh's message. Seizing on apparently unwise interventions on the part of a few Bahá'ís of rigid mind-set, this campaign has boldly sought to exclude from consideration the implications of the Covenant for the discussions taking place.

These efforts have been accompanied by a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the institutions of the Faith as repressive of learning and to introduce into a Bahá'í discourse a fevered debate on individual rights, borrowed from the political environment. You can yourself testify that not only are Bahá'ís urged to uphold the principle of unfettered search after truth, but they have also been encouraged from the time of the Faith's inception to pursue knowledge in all its forms and to excel in such attainments. If one is sincere in a concern for the Bahá'í community's intellectual advancement, one will not compromise scholarship by entangling it in private, ideological objectives which undermine its influence.

You will want also to take into careful account the fact that the individuals seeking to generate these controversies, although vociferous, are in no way representative of the opinions of the great majority of Bahá'ís with academic and other scholarly qualifications. Indeed, a sad feature of discussions on one or two Internet lists, which has been brought to the attention of the House of Justice, has been the number of academically well-qualified believers who have eventually been driven to give up an interchange of ideas that could have been extremely fruitful by what they perceived as merely the relentless pursuit of a partisan agenda.

The House of Justice urges you to reflect deeply on the reasons why those pursuing this agenda seek by every means possible to represent their actions as a disinterested search for knowledge and themselves as victims of authoritarianism. The principle which should guide our efforts to share the fruits of Bahá'í scholarship has been made clear for all of us in this passage from Bahá'u'lláh's Writings:

Thou hast written that one of the friends hath composed a treatise. This was mentioned in the Holy Presence, and this is what was revealed in response: Great care should be exercised that whatever is written in these days doth not cause dissension, and invite the objection of the people. Whatever the friends of the one true God say in these days is listened to by the people of the world. It hath been revealed in the Lawh-i-Hikmat: "The unbelievers have inclined their ears towards us in order to hear that which might enable them to cavil against God, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting." Whatever is written should not transgress the bounds of tact and wisdom, and in the words used there should lie hid the property of milk, so that the children of the world may be nurtured therewith, and attain maturity. We have said in the past that one word hath the influence of spring and causeth hearts to become fresh and verdant, while another is like unto blight which causeth the blossoms and flowers to wither. God grant that authors among the friends will write in such a way as would be acceptable to fair-minded souls, and not lead to cavilling by the people.
(From a Tablet translated from Persian and Arabic)

Not surprisingly, the abuse of Internet discussions on the Faith and its Teachings has had the effect of greatly distressing friends who became aware of it. That the response has included, as your letter suggests, a degree of intemperate criticism, inappropriate comment and unjust accusation is lamentable, but also not surprising, for contentiousness begets contention. You should be confident that the House of Justice will not permit a climate of intolerance to prosper in the Bahá'í community, no matter from what cause it arises. Further, the House of Justice will continue to encourage use of the greatly expanded opportunities for the discussion of Bahá'í concepts and ideals, which Internet communication so marvellously provides.

Finally, it is no doubt helpful to keep in mind that Bahá'ís who are trained in various academic disciplines do not constitute a discrete body within the community. While the Bahá'í institutions benefit on an ongoing basis from the advice of believers in many fields of specialization, there is obviously no group of academics who can claim to speak on behalf of Bahá'í scholars generally. Scholarly qualifications enable individuals to make greatly valued contributions to the work of the Cause, but do not set those possessing them apart from the general body of the believers. The House of Justice feels confident that, with patience, self-discipline, and unity of faith, Bahá'í academics will be able to contribute to a gradual forging of the more integrative paradigms of scholarship for which thoughtful minds in the international community are increasingly calling.

Be assured that the House of Justice will offer fervent prayers at the Holy Threshold, that Bahá'u'lláh may confirm every effort you make to serve the interests of Bahá'í scholarship and to foster among others a spirit of search that is in harmony with His purpose.

Department of the Secretariat

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