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Seeking Truth, Seeking Unity

It will not be news to anyone reaching this page that there is a great deal of controversy going on now in the Baha'i community. The Baha'i Faith has essentially declared war on its own best and brightest. This is a very bitter battle with a good deal of anger, fear, and hurt feelings to go around. It is perhaps presumptuous of me, coming to the knowledge of this controversy so recently to offer comments about it. But it seems to me that it might be profitable to take another look at the principles involved.

If one looks through the scriptures of the world, it becomes clear that the Founders of the world's major religions encouraged their followers to seek their own answers. This principle is not new and unique to the Bahai Faith, but one of the eternal truths reconfirmed by each Manifestation. However, this kind of free inquiry very often proves troublesome and threatening to religious authorities, and so it gets lost or forgotten. To take just one example: Compare Jesus' words "Seek and ye shall find" with the 2nd century theologian Tertullian who declared that "Questions are what make heretics." The questions that some 2nd-century Christians were asking were seen as very dangerous to the unity and authority of the Church. What Baha'is have now, in our own 2nd century, is the attempt of modern-day Tertullians to maintain as authoritative a particular interpretive viewpoint. But as in the example found in Christian history, the definition of orthodoxy and the persecution of heresy does not create unity; it creates division.

Even though the duty of the individual to investigate truth is described in other religions, nowhere is it as eloquently, repeatedly, and insistently given as a fundamental principle as it is in the Baha'i revelation. Here's just one example of what 'Abdu'l-Baha said about it:

"The first teaching of Baha'u'llah is the duty incumbent upon all to investigate reality. What does it mean to investigate reality? It means that man must forget all hearsay and examine truth himself . . . Whenever he finds truth or reality, he must hold to it, forsaking, discarding all else; for outside of reality, there is naught but superstition and imagination."(Promulagation of Universal Peace p.62)

People usually tend to view the search for truth in terms of the personal, experiential quest for a relationship with God. And certainly that is correct, and part of what is meant by it in the Writings. However, it would be a mistake to limit it to that viewpoint. Consider how often Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha will tell us to "ponder", "reflect", or "meditate" during the course of an explanation. I don't know the implications of the original language, but to me that means "Don't just accept what I say at face value. Think about it!" This is not a mystical experience that is referred to here, but the use of our minds.

The basic Baha'i principle that science and religion are in agreement means we cannot draw and arbitrary dividing line between the two, saying that search in the religious arena is acceptable, but the use of more scientific or academic methods is suspect. In fact, in some ways the entire controversy centers upon whether or not academic methods are a legitimate means of examining Baha'i texts, history and beliefs, especially when people using such methods express opinions that are challenging to the status quo. Here's more of what 'Abdu'l-Baha had to say:

"Baha'u'llah has declared that religion must be in accord with science and reason. If it does not accord with scientific principles and the processes of reason, it is superstition. For God has endowed us with faculties by which we may comprehend the realities of things, contemplate reality itself. If religion is opposed to reason and science, faith is impossible; and when faith and confidence in the divine religion are not manifest in the heart, there can not be spiritual attainment."(Promulagation p. 298)

What is especially interesting in this statements of is that it is religion that has to compromise, i.e. religion must conform to science, not the other way around. Science has no obligation whatsoever to conform the answers it discovers to religious doctrine. Now, certainly both Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha condemned the destructive effects of science when it has detached itself from the basic moral principles brought to us through the Manifestations of God. But this does not imply that science must conform its answers to religious doctrine.

In fact, the concept most commonly associated with the search for truth in the Writings of Baha'u'llah is that of detachment. At the very beginning of the Kitab-i-Iqan, He says "No man shall attain to the shores of the ocean of true understanding except he be detached from all that is in heaven and all that is on earth." Later in that same book, in the portion known as the Tablet of the True Seeker, we are warned that we must beware that our own loves and hates do not lead us astray in our search. If we must be on guard even against our own prejudices and preconceived notions, then how can we allow the opinions of other people, even powerful people holding institutional authority, to influence the way in which we find our answers?

I cannot find any basis in the Baha'i Writings for any sort of restriction whatsoever to any kind of investigation except those that have to do with the moral qualities of the seeker. The person who is seeking direct insight through the use of meditation is engaged in a search for truth; so is the person conducting a scientific experiment. Now the mystic and the scientist may very well find each other incomprehensible, but that doesn't really give either the right to say that what the other discovers is invalid. They are simply operating in different spheres. People have different capacities and access to different tools. Different methods of inquiry are suitable to different types of truth to be found.

It could be fairly said that I, as a literate person, have a greater opportunity for understanding the Writings than an illiterate person, but that doesn't mean I can discount the search of those illiterate Baha'is in developing countries. Likewise, the person who can read the texts in the original Arabic and Persian is inevitably going to have a better understanding of them than I do, but that does not invalidate my experience. And besides not looking down on those who have less knowledge than we do, we must also resist the temptation to defend ourselves by doubting the experience of those who have greater skills and knowledge as well.

To illustrate: I've know more than one person who seems to see some kind of spiritual meaning in quantum physics. More than one person has tried to explain this to me. I even bought the book "The Tao of Physics" that was around in the mid-80s, which linked Eastern religious concepts with those used in physics. I could understand the religious concepts just fine, but I could not grasp the scientific ones, nor could I really understand how the two were linked together. I would very carefully go over a passage in this book, and think that I understood, but I couldn't retain it. This was a novel and frustrating experience for me, because I usually don't have that much trouble understanding new ideas. Now, if I decided, out of this frustration, to ciriticize those who see some kind of meaning here that is veiled from me, then I would be absolutely wrong. Baha'u'llah clearly said that creation mirrors its Creator, and if a person finds spiritual meaning in scientific inquiry, then that is entirely valid, even if I don't have the tools to understand it.

The most insidious charge laid against some of these Baha'i scholars is that they have some kind of "agenda", a political platform to which they want the Baha'i world subjected. Even if that were true, I don't see how a handful of academics would acquire the institutional power to put such a platform into effect. One gets the impression, upon reading the letters put out by the UHJ and NSA, that these people have attempted some kind of coup d'etat instead of simply expressing opinions based upon the academic examination of the Baha'i Faith. These academics, as much as some people may dislike their opinions, are simply one part in the chorus of voices that make up the Baha'i community.

What I would like to see as a thinking person, is for the institutions to fight fire with fire. I mean, to take just one example, if the well-known Service of Women paper is wrong, and the exclusion of women from the UHJ really is meant to be a permanent feature of Baha'i administration, then let's see the proofs supporting that position instead of the blunt assertion of authority.

Even better, and more conducive to the maintenance of unity in the Baha'i world is for the UHJ to keep itself strictly neutral on these interpretive issues, since that institution has no interpretive authority anyway, according to the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Baha, and the letters of Shoghi Effendi. If the UHJ insists on imposing some sort of line between "right thinking"(orthodox)Baha'is, and those who make other choices(heretic)Baha'is, then the unity of the Baha'i world is in very great danger. It is not the presence of the diversity of ideas that threatens the Faith of Baha'u'llah; it is those that fear such diversity.

"While the religion of God is the promoter of truth, the founder of science and knowledge, it is full of goodwill for learned men; it is the civilizer of mankind, the discoverer of the secrets of nature, and the enlightener of the horizons of the world. Consequently, how can it be said to oppose knowledge? God forbid! Nay, for God, knowledge is the most glorious gift of man and the most noble of human perfections. To oppose knowledge is ignorant, and he who detests knowledge and science is not a man, but rather an animal without intelligence. For knowledge is light, life, felicity, perfection, beauty, and the means of approaching the Threshold of Unity. Knowledge is identical with guidance, and ignorance is real error. Happy are those who spend their days in gaining knowledge, in discovering the secrets of nature, and in penetrating the subtleties of pure truth! Woe to those who are contented with ignorance, whose hearts are gladdened by thoughtless imitation, who have fallen into the lowest depths of ignorance and foolishness, and who have wasted their lives!"(Some Answered Questions p.137)

(November 15,1999)

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