Investigating and Explaining Baha'i Liberalism.

By Charles Black

Imagine that a friend from work tells you about a recent scientific discovery.  He says that scientists have discovered the true nature of God.  Everybody's talking about it.  So, you go online and start looking for articles.  But, what if none of the articles agree with each other at all?  Wouldn't this cause you to sit back and meditate?

That's probably how Rene Descartes felt in 1641.  That's when he wrote the aptly named book "Meditations on First Philosophy, in Which Is Proved the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul."  It would be as if you started by refusing to trust any authority at all.  So, none of the newspaper articles are credible.  How do you know that the journalists that wrote those articles even exists?  Can you even trust your senses?  How do you know that your friend from work exists?  After all, he's the one who told you about this scientific discovery.

"If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things."

-Rene Descartes

Start by systematically eliminating every piece of knowledge that you can't absolutely prove.  All you really end up knowing is that you are thinking about something.  Hence, the famous Rene Descartes quote "I think therefore I am."  Actually, the original French phrase was "Cogito, sum."  In the context of Descartes arguments, the word "Cogito" came to mean self-evident.  But, he didn't stop there.

He started by assuming nothing except the existence of his own thoughts.  Then he built an entire world of deductive conclusions.  The existence of thoughts proves the existence of a benevolent God.  The existence of God proves that all clear and distinct knowledge must not be a deception.  Therefore, clear and distinct knowledge must be true.  All other knowledge can be derived from these truths.

Descartes's process begins with the rejection of authority.  But, it could potentially end with the re-acceptance of that very same authority.  Many scholars chose to ignore the re-acceptance half of this equation.  This earned Descartes a posthumous reputation as the bad boy of the enlightenment era.  Since his death, many scholars have asserted that he was a Catholic only by birth and convention.  Others go so far as to call him an atheist.  In fact, he is one of Gods most ardent believers.

Liberalism is often seen as the rejection of religious values.  But, the enlightenment philosophers saw liberalism as a return to the Christian text.  Most enlightenment era criticism of the church was actually a criticism of church culture.  But, it was not a criticism of the actual written words or Jesus Christ.  If Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, how do you think that they would weigh in on this debate?  Do you think that they would attribute their success to God?

Baha'i Liberalism in America

Rene Descartes died in 1650.  Almost, 200 years later, Baha'u'llah was born.  He became the leader of the Baha'i faith.  Followers of this religion consider him to be a dispensation.  That means that the laws he created are infallible.  After Baha'u'llahs death, his son Abdu'l Baha continued his work.  Today, millions of believers consider Abdu'l Baha's interpretation of his fathers work to be infallible.  

On November 6th, 1912, Abdu'l Baha gave a speech at a Universalist Church in Washington DC.  He complimented the United States on it's protection of human liberties.  Then, he used this congregation as a fine example of liberalism.  He spoke of their pastor and said;

"Surely men who are leaders of thought must conform to the example of his kindliness and goodwill. Liberalism is essential in this day—justness and equity toward all nations and people."

-Abdu'l Baha

What did Abdu'l Baha mean when he used the word liberalism that day?  What would that word have meant to his audience?  After his death, the interpretation of Abdu'l Baha's work would be entrusted to Shoghi Effendi.  A democratically elected Universal House of Justice (UHJ) was established by Shoghi Effendi to serve as the supreme governing body for the faith.  Today, the UHJ's interpretation of Baha'i documents is considered to be infallible by Baha'is around the world.  Before you read the following UHJ quote, I want you to recall Rene Descartes approach to the rejection of authority.

"The aggressiveness and competitiveness which animate a dominantly capitalist culture; the partisanship inherent in a fervidly democratic system; the suspicion of public-policy institutions and the skepticism towards established authority ingrained in the political attitude of the people and which trace their origins to the genesis of American society"

-Universal House of Justice

In this case, the "genesis of American society" is obviously referring to The Declaration of Independence.  This document was entirely about "skepticism towards established authority".  Also, The Declaration of Independence is widely thought to be partially based on Rene Descartes work.  Remember that the original French version of "I think therefore I am" was "Cogito, sum".  The French word "Cogito" came to refer to self evident truths.   Hence, the famous line "We hold these truths to be self evident" was written into The Declaration of Independence.  But, was Descartes method being properly applied by Americans when the letter was written in 1994?  The letter by the UHJ went on to say;

"the cynical disregard of the moderating principles and rules of civilized human relationships resulting from an excessive liberalism and its immoral consequences—such unsavory characteristics inform entrenched habits of American life"

-Universal House of Justice

In this letter, the use of the word liberalism appears to be negative.  Remember that Descartes's method could potentially lead back to the re-acceptance of the very same authority that was initially rejected.  But, in the 1990s, not enough Americans were re-accepting ligitimate authority.  The UHJ appears to be attributing this to "entrenched habits".  

Entrenched habits were plentiful in the United States in the 1990's.  But, many of those habits represented blind imitation of historic traditions.  Without the proper spiritual context, those traditions are nonsensical and dangerous.  In short, people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. did things that made sense.  But, in the 1990s, many Americans were doing those same things in a different situation that made no sense.  

Navigating the Sea of Perspectives

Imagine yourself swimming around in a sea of social action.  The water is so cloudy that you can't see your feet.  You know that you are surrounded by sea creatures.  But, you don't know which ones you can trust.  Baha'is are encouraged to interact with the followers of all religions and cultures.  But, not all of those ideologies are consistent with the Baha'i text.  Here's the basics of how we deal with that.

I want you to imagine yourself halfway through Descartes method.  You have rejected all authority as well as sensory perception.  You are at the "I think therefore I am" part of the process.  What you do next will determine what type of person you become.  What are your values?

For Descartes, the next step is to accept the existence of God.  But, not everybody chooses to go that route.  The 17th century French philosopher Antoine Arnauld rebutted Rene Descartes logic.  He developed the Cartesian circle.  Arnauld asserted that Descartes argument represented circular logic.  Therefore Descartes did not prove the existence of God.

If you choose to accept the Cartesian circle, you might decide to become an atheist.  Or, you might choose to find God without the use of Descartes methods.  I welcome anyone reading this article to research the Cartesian circle.  But, before you do, you should note that it was developed by a Catholic priest.  You see, Antoine Arnauld wasn't trying to disprove the existence of God.  He was just disagreeing with Descartes logic.  

Let's suppose that you reject the Cartesian circle.  Thus, you choose to accept the existence of God.  Now, you are confronted with the task of rebuilding the rest of your beliefs from the ground up.  This will require the acceptance of at least some authority.  Nobody can get through life without at least listening to somebody.  

At this point, there are a seemingly infinite number of routes that you can take.  You can choose from a multitude of organized religions.  Or, you can choose to believe in God without organized religion.  But, this article is about Baha'i liberalism.  So, we are going to focus on those people who choose to accept Baha'u'llah as an infallible authority on the word of God.  

Baha'is are strongly encouraged to engage in social action.  This means that we often interact with feminists, vegans, anti speciesist, and a wide array of other secular institutions.  But, how should Baha'is interact with these groups?  I think the answer lies in the approach that Abdu'l Baha takes to ancient secular philosophers.  Consider the following quote.

"The influence of the wisest philosophers, without this Spirit Divine, has been comparatively unimportant, however extensive their learning and deep their scholarship.

The unusual intellects, for instance, of Plato, Aristotle, Pliny and Socrates, have not influenced men so greatly that they have been anxious to sacrifice their lives for their teachings; whilst some of those simple men so moved humanity that thousands of men have become willing martyrs to uphold their words; for these words were inspired by the Divine Spirit of God! The prophets of Judah and Israel, Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel, were humble men, as were also the apostles of Jesus Christ."

-Abdu'l Baha

Philosophers are plentiful in social action groups.  But, not all of these philosophers are right.  In fact, some of them are just plain dangerous.  So, how do Baha'is find their way to the truth in a situation like that?  It's very simple.  Just follow the Baha'i text.  If a philosopher makes a point that contradicts the Baha'i text, then they are wrong about at least one thing.  They might be wrong about other things.  So, be cautious.  

Many of the Baha'is reading this have been exposed to scientific, academic or literary philosophers.  But, none of those philosophical thinkers are right about everything.  I should know.  I'm one of those philosophers myself.  So, what happens when a best-selling social-action writer contradicts the Baha'i text?  Shouldn't science win out over religion.  After all Abdu'l Baha once wrote.

"Furthermore, religion must conform to reason and be in accord with the conclusions of science. For religion, reason and science are realities; therefore, these three, being realities, must conform and be reconciled. A question or principle which is religious in its nature must be sanctioned by science. Science must declare it to be valid, and reason must confirm it in order that it may inspire confidence. If religious teaching, however, be at variance with science and reason, it is unquestionably superstition."

-Abdu'l Baha

So, this infallible religious teacher seems to be contradicting himself.  Is he really saying that religion could potentially be proven wrong by science?  Yes he is.  But, I don't think that he's saying that the Baha'i religion could be proven wrong.  On the contrary, I think that he is reiterating the infallibility of the Baha'i text.  I would interpret this statement as a challenge to the scientific community.  Otherwise, one would have to interpret this to mean that Abdu'l Baha was claiming that his life's work was more or less arbitrary.

It's important for Baha'is to participate in multicultural social action groups.  In fact, Baha'is are required to consort with the followers of all religions.  But, always consult the sacred text before you weigh in on any group initiative.  This will surely be conducive to unity and peace.  Also, you will ultimately confront fewer obstacles and unintended consequences.  

Baha'is and Politics

Baha'i liberalism should always be conducive to social progress.  But, Baha'is are prohibited from participating in politics.  The two distinct worlds of social action and politics have a strong tendency to collide.  Thus, for Baha'is it is crucial to define politics in unambiguous terms.  What is participation in politics?  Or, we could ask an equally important question.  What isn't participation in politics?

Lets start with the second question.  We will ask ourselves what politics isn't.  If it's not politics, it's fair game for Baha'i social action.  Consider the following quote;

"The purpose of these references is to establish the fact that the religions of God are the true source of the spiritual and material perfections of man, and the fountainhead for all mankind of enlightenment and beneficial knowledge. If one observes the matter justly it will be found that all the laws of politics are contained in these few and holy words:

And they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is unjust, and speed on in good works. These are of the righteous"

-Abdu'l Baha

If all of the laws of politics can be contained in a few holy words, then politics must exist within the domain of religion.  Can you think of any situation in which a person does not participate in an entity that exists within his or her domain?  What about teachers?  After the students leave their classroom, that's it.  The teachers job is over.  All one can do is hope that the students use their knowledge for the betterment of humanity.  

I want you to imagine yourself as a political science teacher.  One day you discover a new way to unify people.  Anyone who learns this will surely be catapulted into high level government positions.  So, you develop a training course.  Then, you start teaching politics to everybody who can afford tuition.  After all, what could go wrong?

Lets suppose that you are the kind of teacher that likes to keep up with your former students.  In this case, your students are not difficult to keep up with.  All you have to do is read the newspapers.  That's because all of your students win high level government elections.  But, not all of them make good leaders.  Some of them are just tyrants.  While others are more or less benevolent.  A review of the Baha'i text reveals the following quote;

"When a ruler knows that his judgments will be weighed in a balance by the Divine Judge, and that if he be not found wanting he will come into the Celestial Kingdom and that the light of the Heavenly Bounty will shine upon him, then will he surely act with justice and equity. Behold how important it is that Ministers of State should be enlightened by religion!

With political questions the clergy, however, have nothing to do! Religious matters should not be confused with politics in the present state of the world (for their interests are not identical)."

-Abdu'l Baha

Baha'is can teach politics.  But, they have to use discernment.  Try to teach people who are already heedful believers in God.  Or, try to teach people to become more benevolent believers.  But, after that, your job is over.  A Baha'is relationship with a politician is more or less limited to teaching and consultation.  Even within those limitations, Baha'is should be careful.  But, how should Baha'is go about being careful?

Baha'is are becoming more and more involved in social action.  For many of us, it is difficult to know the line between social action and politics.  This article is designed to help with that.  But, it is by no means exhaustive.  Instead, it is a work in progress.  

Baha'i liberalism is a continuous process of discovery.  To that end, I am providing a list of things that Baha'is consider to be participation in politics.  Some of you will find things to add to this list.  Those people should post a discussion in our Multi Faith Social Action Facebook group.  But, be mindful of the group rules.  Remember that participation in politics is prohibited by the Baha'i faith.  So, this is a list of things not to do.  However, we are not prohibited from consorting with people who do some of the following things;

  1. Baha'is can not join or show loyalty to political parties.  Nor can they publicly endorse any political candidate.  In The Advent of Divine Justice Shoghi Effendi wrote; "It must characterize the attitude of every loyal believer towards nonacceptance of political posts, nonidentification with political parties, nonparticipation in political controversies, and nonmembership in political organizations and ecclesiastical institutions."
  2. Baha'is can pursue careers in the following occupations.  But, they must refuse any specific jobs or assignments that violate the sacred text; lobbyist, bureaucrat, appointed public servant, political consultant, and political science teacher.
  3. Baha'is can not publicly protest any war sanctioned by a sovereign government.  Instead, we must teach the people involved in that war.  Those teachings should be conducive to the overall peace and unity of humanity.  Abdu'l Baha wrote "A conquest can be a praiseworthy thing, and there are times when war becomes the powerful basis of peace, and ruin the very means of reconstruction."