Internet Communications; Virgin Birth; Encyclopedia; Administrative Order
by / on behalf of Universal House of Justice1996-02-16
1. Questions to the World Centre, dated 12/2/95
Beloved and honored Supreme Institution,
Let me first express my profound gratitude for the Covenant which has provided mankind with the Administrative Order, the Kingdom of God on earth, of which your Institution is the pivot and center. I am writing to you, therefore, with confidence and hope.
I recently joined a discussion group on the internet called "Talisman"-- a discussion group composed primarily of Bahá'ís-- and while much or most of the discussion was interesting and thought-provoking, I was nevertheless disturbed by some of the things which I saw thereon. I said so in some of my postings, with perhaps less detachment than I could have fostered; but the approach taken in some cases was shocking to me, both in tone and in substance. One common flavor in the postings was irreverence to the point of insult to the Institutions, and many of the substantive statements seemed to me to present rather serious challenges to the Covenant.
Eventually, primarily because of a lack of time, I left the group (unsubscribed), but some of the issues raised continue in my thoughts. Thereafter, I re-read your stirring letter entitled "Individual Rights and Freedoms..." and found both comfort and a deeply increased appreciation for the areas addressed, the approach taken, and the enlightenment offered.
Still, some of the issues which had been raised, mentioned, and discussed continued to gnaw at me, albeit rather gently.
Last week, while in the process of rereading the Kitab-i-Iqan, I began to see how so many of the issues addressed by the Blessed Beauty were related to these thoughts, and it came over me that I should write to you about some of these subjects, seeking further assurance and certitude. My hope also, unless you counsel me otherwise, is to provide relevant portions of this correspondence to the participants of Talisman.
Therefore, I ask your indulgence, and seek forgiveness for adding to the burden of your work. Without further preface, then, please allow me:
It seems unequivocally clear from the quoted letter in Lights of Guidance that the Virgin Birth is a canon of our Faith (#1637: "This is an established fact.."; also 1638 through 1641, and 1643.). Further evidence is offered in the Guardian's statement in The Promised Day is Come, pages 113-114.
Some believers, however, assert that such a thing is scientifically impossible, although after some searching, I am unable to come up with any evidence that there has been any scientific work-- as contrasted with opinions offered by scientists-- which demonstrates the impossibility of this event. (In this latter regard, the statement of Abdu'l-Bahá in Some Answered Questions on page 88 would seem definitive.)
Still, in spite of these many references, I recognize my many limitations, and I may misunderstand. Therefore I ask if the Virgin Birth is an established belief of the Faith and is asserted as a physical reality, reflecting a spiritual truth. If so, what should we say (assuming that it can be made as a timely utterance), to those Bahá'ís who are confused on this issue?
There was some discussion on Talisman about presumed structural deficiencies in the Administrative Order. The questions which arise with regard to this issue are many. I would presume that the evolution and efflorescence of the Administrative Order will continue, as for example with the development of the Auxiliary Boards, the extension of the Institution of Huquq, the creation of the International Teaching Center, and so on.
However, these are, for the most part, not the sort of changes which were being discussed.
Rather, the discussion centered around two issues; one other issue was mentioned to me privately. The two issues publicly discussed were the method by which the National Spiritual Assembly is elected, and the appointment of Bahá'í judges. I have no opinion on the latter, as I do not think my understanding of the issues involved is sufficient. If you could point me to areas of study which would prepare me to be able to consider the questions involved, I would very much appreciate it.
With regard to the election of the National Spiritual Assembly, I feel somewhat better prepared to understand, but obviously I am unable to address the questions with any authority. Most of the talk centered around the idea that the membership of the National Spiritual Assembly -- as some participants saw it -- did not change often enough. There was also discussion about whether the believers should be more fully informed about what salaries are paid the various members, et al. Further, some of the participants raised questions about the authority and ability of the Institutions, local and national, to adjudicate issues which involved their own members in one way or another. Further, some participants were worried that believers somehow had no "protection against" the Institutions, which are not required to reveal the reasons for their decisions. Related to this is the idea that the Institutions have no constituency. As a partial result, there were some expressions of the thought that there should be a "Bahá'í Bill of Rights" fashioned in some sense after the amendments to the Constitution.
I would be profoundly surprised if the fact that these and many similar issues were being discussed is unknown to you, and I do not presume therefore to be informing you of these sentiments. Further, it seems clear to me that a full understanding of the Covenant is not reflected in these ideas. To me, "Individual Rights and Freedoms..." plainly addresses some of the underlying issues, and should therefore suffice, yet "repeated review" may well be needed for some time.
Therefore, I wanted to raise the issues more directly to assist in the process of offering an antidote to troubling symptoms which, it seems to me, could develop into a full-blown disease if untreated.
Please, therefore: What guidance would you offer regarding such discussions, such subjects, and such concerns?
As I thought about the above issues, it began to seem to me that the full and complete answer to such questions would be found only in the increasing maturation of local and national bodies, and of the believers themselves.
This is related in turn-- at least in this country-- to the subject of the spiritual destiny of the American Bahá'í community. My recent thought is that such a display of independence, and the fearlessness with which thoughts such as those above are voiced (and somewhat in spite of some of their other characteristics) both demonstrate some of the virtues with which we as a people are invested. They further point to the pivotal importance which other virtues-- such as submission and long-suffering-- will have in winning our way into the higher realms to which our prophesied destiny would deliver us.
But clearly submission cannot be enforced; it can only be called forth. I would think this is one of the many reasons that your august Institution guides us at the level of principle, thus preserving human honor, and preserving the greatest possible measure of freedom. Would this be the case?
That line of thought leads me to the mention of another subject which was repeatedly raised on Talisman: the Bahá'í Encyclopedia. Several participants were quite distressed that the project had come to its current pass. I use that last phrase rather than saying "...has been closed down", or "...was stopped" because I am not sure regarding the view of the Universal House of Justice of the current status of this project, and more importantly your hopes for its future.
It was mentioned on the forum that the Universal House of Justice had not -- according to the view expressed -- provided much clear guidance about what changes, if any, needed to be made to the articles submitted. (It is partially for this reason that mentioned guidance at the level of principle, which, to some, can sometimes seem vague and unspecific.)
Clearly, it may not be my place to bring the subject up: I am ignorant of the history of the project, its stated goals, and indeed almost any matter of substance concerning this project.
If I may digress for a moment: many years ago I used to keep silence every Saturday. As an exploration of the process of making decisions and of my own nature, I imposed this restriction on myself. One of the many interesting things I learned was that my friends often would "speak around" me, one asking another, in my presence, if I might be hungry or would like to do this or that with them. It was as if my imposed silence had also rendered me invisible, and indeed deaf.
Thus, in spite of my nearly perfect ignorance of the project, my experiences had sensitized me to the awareness that many of the opinions which were offered and the questions which were raised in the attempt to speculate about this subject could easily be resolved by asking the Source, simply and directly. I can't see that anything would be gained by an autopsy of the past, but I would like to ask what the Universal House of Justice would suggest in the process of getting the project on-track again. What letters should be studied, what quotes might provide the needed guidance, what changes should be made? Is it time to renew the effort? If not, what characteristics need to be present?
Again, I apologize for taking so much of your time. I can only hope that it will redound to the benefit of many.
2. Response from the Universal House of Justice
16 February 1996
Dear Bahá'í Friend,
The Universal House of Justice received your email of 2 December 1995, and has instructed us to send you the following replies to the questions you raise.
Email Discussion groups
The House of Justice notes that you have been disturbed by some of the postings made to the email discussion group of which you have recently been a member. Email discussion groups are a new phenomenon; they can provide immense benefits for communication between people and for the teaching of the Faith, but, as you have seen, they can also give rise to far-reaching problems. The use of email requires an adjustment of perception. In the past, discussions among Bahá'ís would take place orally among groups of friends in private, or at summer schools and other Bahá'í events, or in letters between individuals. Inevitably, many erroneous statements were made; not all comments were as temperate as they should have been; many statements were misunderstood by those who heard them. After all, not all Bahá'ís have a profound knowledge of the teachings, and it is clear that even academic eminence is no guarantee of a correct understanding of the Revelation of God. Before email such extravagances had a limited range and were of an ephemeral nature. Now, the same kind of discussion is spread among a hundred or more people, who often do not know one another, is in a form more durable than speech, and can be disseminated to a vast readership at the touch of a button. A new level of self-discipline, therefore, is needed by those who take part. Such discussions among Bahá'ís call for self-restraint and purity of motive as well as cordiality, frankness and openness.
The central, unifying element of the Faith is the Covenant. This is the institution which guarantees that the Faith and its teachings will remain true to the Revelation brought by Bahá'u'lláh and expounded by His divinely guided Interpreters. It is the one agency which can protect the Faith against the distortion and disruption to which all previous Revelations have been subjected by the efforts -- whether well-intentioned or not -- of the self-opinionated and ambitious among their followers to force the Cause of God into patterns which they personally favoured.
Thus, if any participant in an email discussion feels that a view put forward appears to contradict or undermine the provisions of the Covenant, he should be free to say so, explaining candidly and courteously why he feels as he does. The person who made the initial statement will then be able to re-evaluate his opinion and, if he still believes it to be valid, he should be able to explain why it is not contrary to either the letter or the spirit of the Covenant. The participants in such a discussion should avoid disputation and, if they are unable to resolve an issue, they should refer the point to the Universal House of Justice since, in accordance with the Will and Testament of `Abdu'l-Bahá, "By this body all the difficult problems are to be resolved..." and it has the authority to decide upon "all problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure, and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book." In this way the Covenant can illuminate and temper the discourse and make it fruitful.
As to the specific points which you have seen discussed, and on which you request clarification, we have been instructed to convey the following comments.
The Virgin Birth of Jesus
As you realize, the Bahá'í teaching on this matter is quite clear. In letters written on behalf of the Guardian to individual believers, we find the following:
...regarding the birth of Jesus-Christ. In the light of what Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá have stated concerning this subject it is evident that Jesus came into this world through the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit, and that consequently His birth was quite miraculous. This is an established fact, and the friends need not feel at all surprised, as the belief in the possibility of miracles has never been rejected in the Teachings. Their importance, however, has been minimized. (31 December 1937)
To any of your friends who are confused on this issue, you can explain that the principle of harmony between religion and science, while it enables us, with the help of reason, to see through the falsity of superstitions, does not imply that truth is limited to what can be explained by current scientific concepts. Not only do all religions have their miracles and mysteries, but religion itself, and certain fundamental religious concepts, such as the nature of the Manifestations of God, are far from being explicable by present-day scientific theories.
The Structure of the Administrative Order
The Administrative Order of Bahá'u'lláh is in the process of growth and unfoldment. In its structure and functioning there are aspects which, the Guardian explained, should be uniform throughout the world. There are also secondary aspects which can be varied from country to country as decided by the responsible National Spiritual Assembly in accordance with the needs and conditions in the area under its jurisdiction. The aspects which must be uniform are set out in the Constitution of the Universal House of Justice and the Constitutions of the National and Local Spiritual Assemblies.
As the Bahá'í communities grow, the Universal House of Justice will ensure that this divinely-founded system will unfold in accordance with the unerring guidance of which it is the recipient.
Those who from time to time express their dissatisfaction with the current structure of the Administrative Order would be better advised to turn their attention to a thorough study of the principles upon which it is based, as expounded by `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, and to concentrate their efforts on putting into practice the spirit and letter of these texts. Virtually every problem which is blamed on a deficiency of structure is, in fact, traceable to a defect in the manner in which the individual believers understand and implement the administrative principles of the Faith.
In "The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh",1 Shoghi Effendi states:
This new-born Administrative Order incorporates within its structure certain elements which are to be found in each of the three recognized forms of secular government, without being in any sense a mere replica of any one of them, and without introducing within its machinery any of the objectionable features which they inherently possess.
The three forms of secular government to which the Guardian refers are autocracy (rule by one person), aristocracy (rule by the best people) and democracy (rule by all the people). Referring again to these three forms of secular government, the Guardian writes, later in that same document:
Whereas this Administrative Order cannot be said to have been modelled after any of these recognized systems of government, it nevertheless embodies, reconciles and assimilates within its framework such wholesome elements as are to be found in each one of them. The hereditary authority which the Guardian is called upon to exercise, the vital and essential functions which the Universal House of Justice discharges, the specific provisions requiring its democratic election by the representatives of the faithful -- these combine to demonstrate the truth that this divinely revealed Order, which can never be identified with any of the standard types of government referred to by Aristotle in his works, embodies and blends with the spiritual verities on which it is based the beneficent elements which are to be found in each one of them. The admitted evils inherent in each of these systems being rigidly and permanently excluded, this unique Order, however long it may endure and however extensive its ramifications, cannot ever degenerate into any form of despotism, of oligarchy, or of demagogy which must sooner or later corrupt the machinery of all man-made and essentially defective political institutions.
In "God Passes By"2 the Guardian comments further on the same theme of the characteristics of the Bahá'í Administrative Order:
It incorporates within its structure certain elements which are to be found in each of the three recognized forms of secular government, is devoid of the defects which each of them inherently possesses, and blends the salutary truths which each undoubtedly contains without vitiating in any way the integrity of the Divine verities on which it is essentially founded. The hereditary authority which the Guardian of the Administrative Order is called upon to exercise, and the right of the interpretation of the Holy Writ solely conferred upon him; the powers and prerogatives of the Universal House of Justice, possessing the exclusive right to legislate on matters not explicitly revealed in the Most Holy Book; the ordinance exempting its members from any responsibility to those whom they represent, and from the obligation to conform to their views, convictions or sentiments; the specific provisions requiring the free and democratic election by the mass of the faithful of the Body that constitutes the sole legislative organ in the world-wide Bahá'í community -- these are among the features which combine to set apart the Order identified with the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh from any of the existing systems of human government.
Although the Administrative Order must now function without a living Guardian, and thus without a continuing source of divinely guided authoritative interpretation, beneficial elements of all three types of government are still embodied in this Order: in the continuing authority of the Sacred Texts and the binding effect of the interpretations of `Abdu'l-Bahá and the Guardian; in the obligation resting on the members of the House of Justice "to follow, in a prayerful attitude, the dictates and promptings of their conscience" ungoverned by "the feelings, the general opinion, and even the convictions of the mass of the faithful..."; in the election (direct or indirect) of the members of all governing bodies by the unfettered vote of the mass of the believers, uninfluenced by either nominations or electioneering and untroubled by the spirit of factionalism and of concern for power which are such common features of current society. Above all, it is firmly rooted in the "spiritual verities" revealed by Bahá'u'lláh.
In the years following the writing of the words quoted above, moreover, Shoghi Effendi not only accelerated the process of bringing the Universal House of Justice into being by appointing the International Bahá'í Council, but also, in accordance with the provisions of the Will of `Abdu'l-Bahá, appointed the Hands of the Cause of God and began the development of the series of institutions comprising "eminent and devoted believers appointed for the specific purposes of protecting and propagating the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh under the guidance of the Head of that Faith",3 the vital importance of which can now be clearly seen in the functioning of the International Teaching Centre, the Continental Boards of Counsellors, the Auxiliary Board members and their assistants.
From certain quarters, for a number of decades, there have been repeated attempts to import into the Bahá'í Administration the concept that it is desirable and proper to bring about change in the community by forming a constituency of like-minded believers to bring pressure to bear on the elected Assemblies. Such a concept is very similar to the formation of parties and factions which is an accepted and familiar feature of many representative democracies. It is, however, wholly antithetical to the spirit of Bahá'í Administration, and would distort its nature and undermine that unity which the Covenant is designed to preserve.
The elected institutions do, indeed, have the responsibility to "acquaint themselves with the conditions prevailing among the community" and "must weigh dispassionately in their minds the merits of any case presented for their consideration", but this process is not helped by a prevalence of negative criticism and disunity among the friends.
Calling forth the latent qualities of human beings
As you so perceptively note, the Universal House of Justice tries to guide the followers of the Faith to the standards they should uphold and to the services they need to render, by presenting them with guidance on principles rather than by providing detailed guidelines for every instance. The very act of responding to such guidance and applying the principles to specific circumstances is, in itself, a process of education. However, there are limits to such an approach by the institutions of the Cause. In some cases, especially where the guidance has elicited an inadequate response or is being misapplied, specific instructions must be issued or sanctions applied.
"A Short Bahá'í Encyclopedia"
A series of events brought to the attention of the Universal House of Justice the fact that considerable revision was required for a number of the articles if they were not to give a distorted and incorrect picture of the Faith. It has been stated that the House of Justice is interested in matters merely of "tone". This is not so. Its principal concern has been to ensure that an encyclopedia of the Faith, written by Bahá'í authors, would give a faithful and accurate picture of the Faith and its Teachings. The House of Justice has suggested to the National Spiritual Assembly that the Bahá'í Publishing Trust might consider the interim publication of those articles which are of a high or acceptable quality.
The House of Justice asks us to say that you are welcome to share the contents of this letter with whomever you please.
Department of the Secretariat
2. God Passes By (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1987), p. 326.
3. Constitution of the Universal House of Justice, preamble to the By-Laws.