Infallibility 2

'Infallibility' means protection from sin or error

I argued last time that, when discussing an issue in the Faith, we should start with what Baha'u'llah has to say about it. This time I will look at how Baha'u'llah defines the concept of infallibility.

Baha'u'llah's definition is given in Ishraqat (Splendors), which is found in Tablets of Baha'u'llah, p 108. In an email message about infallibility that I published on my blog last year, Sen McGlinn gave a literal translation of the relevant passage. Recently, I obtained from Sen a slightly revised translation of the first three sentences. With thanks to Sen, here they are:

"Know that infallibility (`is.mat) has diverse meanings and stations. If God guards (`s.mahu) someone from slipping (az-zalal), God confers upon him this name (infallible) as a station (fii maqaam). Similarly if God has guarded someone from sin (khataa'), rebellion (`is.yaan), impiety (`iraaz), disbelief (kufr), joining partners with God (shirk) or the like, God grants each of them the name of 'infallibility.'"

First up, let's deal with discrepancies with the official translation, which says:

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Infallibility 1

I've decided to discuss at length the concept of infallibility. I think misunderstandings about infallibility are doing incalculable damage to the Baha'i community, and, contrary to what my detractors say about my hating the faith, I actually care about nothing more.

"Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements." (Baha'u'llah: Gleanings, CVI)

{josquote}This may sound obvious to some, but a discussion on infallibility should start with what Baha'u'llah has to say about it.{/josquote}

Sen McGlinn wisely has concerned himself with misunderstandings in the Baha'i community about church and state, demonstrating beyond any doubt that Baha'u'llah never intended the Baha'i institutions to morph into state governments. In a similar way, I want to focus on misunderstandings about infallibility, which prevent believers from fulfilling their spiritual capacity because, they are told, the covenant requires them to just follow the 'infallible' House of Justice.

Go to the original blog entry...

Sen on infallibility

Sen McGlinn

The following message was posted by Sen McGlinn to the Talisman9 discussion list, on 14 September 2007. In it, he discusses the meaning of the term 'infallibility' in Baha'i scripture.

Message begins:

I think XXX has explained why people want to get hold of something infallible, in the sense of its never being wrong. It is so that they can be not-wrong themselves, it is a way of short-circuiting the critical faculty and banishing doubt and reflection. The inerrancy of scripture in Protestant doctrine is the clearest example: the claim is usually not used as a statement of humility in the face of scripture, but as a claim of superiority: it generally says, "I have the scriptural faith which cannot be wrong, so everyone different is wrong." Infallibility is also an assurance that something will be constant: it is used as a crutch for people who are having difficulty in coping with a world of constant universal change.

Infallibility in the sense of never being wrong is simply a non-existent thing. Arguments about its general nature are therefore futile, and it cannot be proved or disproved in any specific case. What we can say is that, for infallibility in this sense to exist in the world, there would first have to be one universal standard of "rightness" and then one contingent thing or being which somehow escapes contingency and always has and always will be "right" against this one standard. Which standard then? The will of God? Scientific accuracy? effectiveness in maximising human happiness? Effectiveness in some other respect? If there is no universal "rightness" there cannot be anything which is universally and always right.

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Infallibility parallels

Over the last couple of weeks, some events have happened in New Zealand that have parallels with the Baha'i community's struggle with the concept of infallibility.

When I ran my case against the New Zealand NSA in 2002, my lawyer, Colin Withnall QC, was at the same time preparing a case for a young man, David Bain, who had been accused of killing all his family. This mass murder occurred here in my hometown of Dunedin in the early 1990s. What happened was that David Bain went out early one morning as usual to deliver newspapers. When he got back, he found all his family dead. The police argued that David had sneaked back early, killed his family, and then used his paper round as an alibi. A message had been left on the computer in the house by, apparently, the murderer. It said something like "You were the only one who deserved to live". The police argued that David had turned on the computer and written the message to make it look like his father had done the killings, left the message and committed suicide. As it turned out, David was convicted of the murders and sentenced to 16 years' imprisonment.

But that wasn't the end of it. A businessman from up north, Joe Karam, took up David's cause and tried to get David's conviction quashed. New evidence kept on emerging; for example, some witnesses testify that one of David's sisters was having an incestuous relationship with her father and that she was about to make this known to the family. A year after my court case in 2002, Colin Withnall took this new evidence to the New Zealand Court of Appeal and asked for a retrial. But the court refused. David's supporters argued that the Court of Appeal made the mistake of itself determining whether the evidence was persuasive, not whether the evidence should be put to a jury in a retrial.

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