Interpretation and the Guardianship
by Ian C. Semplepublished in Lights of Irfan, 6, pages 203-216
Wilmette, IL: Irfan Colloquia, 2005-05
The subject of this session, as you can see from your programs, is "Interpretation and the Guardianship". This may seem to be a very straightforward matter, but the more I thought about it, the more I became aware that the Bahá'í concept of interpretation is very different in many ways from that prevalent in earlier Dispensations and that, even within the Faith, there are many misconceptions, which can, indeed, give rise to tests for the believer.
Here I would like to digress from the subject for a moment, to make a personal comment about the coexistence of divine authority and individual freedom of expression - I think it was a pilgrim - once commented to me that he thought that if the Guard ian had been sitting in the meeting of the Universal House of Justice it would have been impossible for the members to say frankly what they thought. I have had the privilege of only a few hours in the presence of the Guardian, but I do not agree with that point of view. I believe that in his presence one would not have dared to do anything but say exactly what one thought. I am also confirmed in this view by the actions of the Hands of the Cause of God since the coming into being of the House of Justice - the Hands who worked so closely with the beloved Guardian. They have always demonstrated absolute loyalty and also absolute frankness in all their consultations with the Universal House of Justice, and this combination has been a tremendous source of strength and inspiration to the House of Justice.
So I believe that the presence of a source of divine guidance in the Faith, while being a guarantee of its unity and preserving the purity of its teachings, is no contradiction to the principle of freedom of thought. I doubt if it is possible to obtain a totally clear understanding of the subject of interpretation, but perhaps we can clarify it to some extent.
I propose to divide the subject into three main topics:
distinction between the interpretation that we all do when discussing any
subject, and authoritative Interpretation as exercised by the
1. Aspects of Interpretation
It is, of course, impossible to understand or speak about any statement, whether written or oral, without interpretation. The Manifestation of God has the superhuman task of conveying to mankind truths that it does not yet understand and training it in modes of behavior that it has not yet risen to. To do this He has to use the limited languages that are spoken around Him, with all their accumulated meanings and connotations. He not only uses words and metaphors and similes with consummate skill, but in using old forms and old concepts, He transforms them and breathes into them new meaning. So, in trying to educate ourselves in the Revelation, we need to study three meanings in each text we read: the meaning of the words themselves; the meanings they will have had for the particular person or persons that the Manifestation was addressing; and also the new meaning or meanings that He will be trying to convey. In other words, we must avoid three pitfalls: one is that of ignoring the obvious meaning of the words (in the past people were sometimes so keen on extracting the esoteric significance of a text that they were blind to the clear meaning of the words); the second is that of taking the words out of their historical and social contexts; the third is that of thinking that the social and historical contexts will, in themselves, give us an understanding of the obvious meaning and of what the Manifestation is saying.
A good example to show this is Bahá'u'lláh's Tablet to a Physician. Some passages are quite straightforward. To understand others we need to remember the caution of the Guardian that this Tablet was addressed to a physician of the old school of medicine, and that without an understanding of the terminology of that school, we could not understand what Bahá'u'lláh was saying. However, it is clear that Bahá'u'lláh was not merely recounting to the physician what the physician already knew; He was explaining to him, in terminology that he could understand, certain truths that he wanted to convey about health and healing.
The historical and social context is not the only context of a passage. There is also the context of the other teachings. In "Gleanings", section 127 we find the following words of Bahá'u'lláh:
This, I think, implies among other things that the most important keys to understanding the Writings are the Writings themselves; that we must read them not merely from our point of view, trying to see what we can understand, but consider them from Bahá'u'lláh's point of view: what is He trying to convey? And for what purpose? It is no good taking one text and trying to understand it in isolation from all the other teachings which might bear upon it. Therefore we must relate every statement to all the rest of the Revelation and try to understand what Bahá'u'lláh is striving to convey. The consequence of this realization is to accept that, since we can never encompass the whole Revelation we must always be tentative in our understanding even when it may seem to us to be absolutely clear. A striking example of the importance of this occurs in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, where we find the verses: "God hath enjoined upon you marriage." and "Enter into wedlock, O people, that ye may bring forth one who will make mention of Me; this is My commandment unto you, obey it as a succour to yourselves." One would think that these are very clear statements not susceptible of any interpretation. It seems, on the face of it to be unambiguous and binding command. Yet one of the believers asked Bahá'u'lláh Himself about this passage, and whether it meant that marriage was compulsory. Bahá'u'lláh replied: "This is not compulsory." I instance this because it is quite a temptation sometimes for Bahá'ís, during discussion of a subject, to assert dogmatically (and sometimes heatedly!): "You can't say that! Here are the words of the Text and they are quite clear!"
Individual interpretation of this kind is not only inescapable. It is essential if we are to increase the depth of our understanding and also recognize its permanent limitations. I believe the combination of encouragement of individual thought with the existence of an infallible centre of authoritative interpretation is one of the unique strengths of this Dispensation, the effects of which endure even in the absence of the Guardian. The very fact that there is in principle in the Cause a centre of such guidance, and that all other interpretation is deprived of authority, teaches us a humility in our thinking that is one of the strongest cements of unity.
Although individual interpretation has no authority, we should not be led to the extreme of concluding that the explanations given by individuals can never be inspired. In a Tablet which is published in section 203 of "Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá" the Master wrote:
It would be a mistake, therefore, to assume that the Bahá'í Revelation will be deprived of believers who can give us profounder insights into the meaning of the Teachings of the Faith. But none of these kinds of interpretation, no matter how learned the believer who expresses them, are authoritative. Although, they may enlighten us there is always the inevitability of some degree of error. Let us never forget the example of the Christian Dispensation. The gospels are filled with prophecies and warnings given by Jesus About His Second Coming. Christians have laboured to understand these for some 2,000 years. Their scholars have worked out many interpretations and understandings of what would happen, but I do not know of any who came to the correct conclusion, namely, that it signified the appearance of another Manifestation of God.
Authoritative, divinely-guided interpretation is of a wholly different order to what we have been considering and is exclusively the function of the Master and the Guardian.
2. Authoritative Interpretation and Divinely Guided LegislationThe prerogative of authoritative interpretation conferred by Bahá'u'lláh, first upon `Abdu'l-Bahá and, after Him, upon the Guardian, lies in the heart of the Covenant.
In the previous Dispensations no clear distinction was drawn between interpretation and legislation. the two functions were subsumed under one process of deducing conclusions and guidance for new situations from the study of the Holy Word. Because these deductions were believed to be the process of making explicit what was implicit in the Text, they were virtually unalterable and turned into a massive accumulation of dogma, ritual and laws. In Judaism it became primarily a multiplicity of minute regulations governing every moment and aspect of a person's life, obedience to which was conceived as identical with obedience to the Law of God. Christianity, to a large extent, broke free of this, but replaced it with the erection of a formidable structure of dogma, belief in which was understood to be essential for the eternal salvation of the soul, and which led to such abuses as the sale of indulgences, which precipitated the rebellion of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.
In this Dispensation we have two separate divinely-guided authorities, one to provide authoritative interpretation, the other to provide supplementary legislation. The essential distinction between these two functions is explained by the Universal House of Justice in its letter dated 9 March 1965. On pages 52 to 53 of "Wellsprings of guidance" is the following passage:
One important consequence of this distinction is that when we have a question about what we should believe, or what the Text means, and this is not answered for us in the Text itself, there is no one, in the absence of the Guardian, who can answer it authoritatively and bindingly. If, however, we wish to know what we should do in any instance, the Universal House of Justice is fully empowered to convey the divine guidance on the subject.
Two other important consequences are the prohibition of the formulation of dogma or creeds in the Faith (these are, after all, but man's attempt to tie the truths of God up in a parcel and are forever doomed to inadequacy), and the recognition of the profound difference between the Laws actually given by the Manifestation of God, which can be changed only by another Prophet, and those which the Universal House of Justice is inspired to make, which are repealable by the House of Justice itself. This gives an unprecedented degree of elasticity to the Bahá'í system of law.
There is, of course, a hierarchical relationship between the Guardian's interpretation and the legislation of the Universal House of Justice. The supreme authority in the Faith is the Word of God and all legislation is bound by that authority. The Authoritative Interpreter is the living mouthpiece of that Word, the Expounder of its true meaning. He therefore naturally has the authority to define the sphere of the legislative action of the Universal House of Justice. Shoghi Effendi has stated categorically that neither the Guardian nor the Universal House of Justice would ever usurp the function of the other. Both, after all, are under the protection and unerring guidance of the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh. Therefore we can be confident that, even in the absence of the Guardian the Universal House of Justice is not going to legislate outside its sphere of authority. I suspect, however, that in its care not to step beyond its boundaries, the House of Justice may well refrain from legislating in areas which, if we had the Guardian with us, he could have told us were within its sphere. There are two very interesting examples of what I mean.
As you know, in both Christianity and the Bahá'í Faith, murder is prohibited. The question then arises as to whether abortion and euthanasia are permissible or not. The Catholic Church has concluded that the law is clear, "Thou shalt not kill", and therefore both are prohibited. In the Bahá'í Faith, however, we have statements by the Guardian on both issues. In both cases he states that there is nothing explicit about them in the Writings - which implies that they are not quite the same thing as murder. The following are three statements made on his behalf relating to these subjects:
On the basis of these three statements the Universal House of Justice has ruled that to have an abortion just for the sake of getting rid of an unwanted birth is absolutely forbidden, but that there may be cases in which an abortion would be permissible, and this is for the Universal House of Justice to legislate on. Pending such legislation the decision is left to the consciences of the individuals concerned in the light of the above principles and of expert medical advice.
Another area concerns the obligatory prayers. In the thirteenth Glad-Tidings Bahá'u'lláh states: "All matters of State should be referred to the House of Justice, but acts of worship must be observed according to that which God hath revealed in His Book." On one occasion when one of the believers asked the Universal House of Justice to designated a prayer which could be said for the House of Justice it referred to this Text and refused to make any such designation. One could have assumed, likewise , that this Text would have made it impossible for the House of Justice to answer any questions about Obligatory Prayers, but the Guardian has written that matters of detail that are obscure in relation to the Obligatory Prayers are to be decided by the Universal House of Justice, specifying, therefore, just what aspect of these matters do lie within its sphere of legislation.
3. The Function of Interpretation
The way in which Shoghi Effendi exercised his function of Interpreter is highly illuminating, both in regard to our understanding of what Authoritative Interpretation implies and regard to our understanding of the infallibility of the Sacred Text, a subject which has been badly misunderstood in earlier Dispensations. All these quotations immediately following are from letters written by the Guardian's secretaries on his behalf.
3.1 In some cases Shoghi Effendi simply gave clear simple statements about what a particular passage meant, for example:
In the Kalimat-i-Firdawsiyyih Bahá'u'lláh states: "We have formerly ordained that the people should converse in two languages, yet efforts must be made to reduce them to one, likewise the scripts of the world, that men's lives may not be dissipated and wasted in learning divers languages. Thus the whole earth would come to be regarded as one city and one land." A believer asked the Guardian how this related to Bahá'u'lláh's command that an auxiliary international language should be chosen and taught in all the schools in addition to one's mother tongue. The reply was:
- What Bahá'u'lláh is referring to in the Eighth Leaf of the Exalted Paradise is a far distant time, when the world is really one country, and one language would be a sensible possibility. It does not contradict His instructions as to the need immediately for an auxiliary language. (1946.03.16 - Sec)
>From these specific interpretations we learn not only what the particular passages mean, but we receive an object lesson in studying the Writings. We see some passages are to be taken literally, others allegorically. some are even stylistic exaggerations to produce the intended effect, and some relate to a different stage in the development of the Dispensation than do others.
3.2 Sometimes the Guardian would go considerably beyond a brief interpretation of the passage in question, such as in this beautiful description of the Short Obligatory Prayer:
3.3 Sometimes, he would develop an entire concept from just a seminal reference in the Writings. There is, for example, his definition of the Namus-i-Akbar (the Greater Law) as the constitution of National Spiritual Assemblies, and the Namus-i-A'zam (the Most Great Law) as the constitution of the Universal House of Justice. the development of the institution of the Hands of the Cause of God, with their Auxiliary Boards is undoubtedly another example of the same process.
3.4 On the other hand, there are many examples of matters on which he refused to give an interpretation because there was nothing specific in the texts. For example:
3.5 This leads us to the Guardian's own definition of the limitations of the sphere of his infallibility as Interpreter.
An implication of the Will and Testament that must not be lost sight of is the injunction on the friends to obey the Guardian and the House of Justice. This may be related to their functions of divinely-guided interpretation and legislation, but it is not necessarily the same thing and can apply in other contexts, as is shown from the following explanations from letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi.
3.6 Now I find it very interesting that all the questions that I have given so far, which are, for the most part what previous dispensations have regarded as compromising "interpretation" are all in the words of the Guardian's secretaries. He himself devoted his main attention in this field, not to the elucidation of obscure passages or the definition of terms used in the Scriptures, but to the illumination of the overall significance of the Revelation. He would take certain themes, such as the nature and significance of the Bahá'í way of life, the theory and functioning of Bahá'í institutions, the relationship of the Cause to current events and its place in the history of mankind, the station of the Master, the destiny of certain Bahá'í communities, the proper way of teaching the Faith, and, with his own hand, write long letters which, like the string of a necklace, would thread together quotations from the Bab, Bahá'u'lláh and the Master, showing the sources from which ideas were welling up, the implications and importance of those passages and the actions that they called for from the believers.
This, to my mind, is the greatest aspect of the Guardian's function as Interpreter. This Revelation is so enormous, so profound, that the believers would be struggling like minnows in the shallows of a vast ocean. He it was, following in the footsteps of the Master, who drew together those aspects of the Cause that require our immediate attention, showed their relationship to the vast implications of the entire Revelation, the riches of which we are only beginning to taste, and gave us a vision of our work far into the future, even to the end and beyond the end of this Dispensation.
3.7 In "the Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh" Shoghi Effendi wrote that "Without such an institution" as the Guardianship "the means required to enable" the Faith "to take a long, an uninterrupted view over a series of generations would be completely lacking." I have heard friends relate this statement to the fact that the Guardianship is a hereditary institution, and that it was this hereditary factor that would provide the means to the Faith to take this long view. I have not seen this point made in any of the Guardian's writings, however, and it seems to me that although, of course, there is an element of truth in the assumption, the mere fact that each Guardian would have succeeded his father in office does not seem an adequate basis for the exercise of such an exclusive function. The function of inspired interpreter, however, does imply it. As interpreter the Guardian is able to understand not only the outward meaning of the Writings but their inner implications. although others, by studying the Writings and the progress of human affairs, can gain some idea of the way society will develop, the Guardian alone could clearly see the whole panorama of Bahá'u'lláh's intention and could delineate for us the course that the Manifestation of God se es as lying before us. This, indeed, Shoghi Effendi has done in his World Order letters and also in "God Passes By". The latter is not only a history book, magnificent though it may be in that respect, it is also an inspired commentary on the events it recounts, illuminates the past, challenges us in the present and gives us a vision of the future.
These writings have already been wonderfully described by Counsellor Isobel Sabri in her talk two weeks ago.