Baha'i studies

Review of Church and State by McGlinn

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I’m a little over half way through Sen McGlinn’s Masters thesis Church and State: A Postmodern Political Theology, and I do plan to write a review when I’ve finished, but with all good books that take a while to read, I’ve been mulling some of the points over in my mind.

I picked it up because I’m looking at the problem of being a religious person in a secular, pluralist society as part of my doctoral work. McGlinn’s title may appear strange at first, given that the ‘church’ is a Christian institution, nevertheless the content of the book is McGlinn’s interpretation of Baha’i scriptures on the question of the separation of religious institutions and governance of nation-states (and potentially a federated world commonwealth).

McGlinn argues that it is a fundamental teaching of the Baha’i religion that religious organisations and states are separate institutions with their own spheres of authority. The role of Religion is to inspire, educate, advise, whereas the state’s role is coercive. Where a religion attempts to displace the state (as in theocracy), then religion becomes corrupted, due to the coercive nature of the state: we all know that coercive religion leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

{josquote}Where a religion attempts to displace the state (as in theocracy), then religion becomes corrupted, due to the coercive nature of the state{/josquote}

I can understand why the Baha’i institutions disenrolled Sen, without really going into the details. I think they would have trouble arguing that his thesis is wrong. Better to just disenroll him and speak no more about the matter.

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Two by two


Noah's Ark by Edward Hicks

There is a delightful story - which I have reason to think is true, in broad lines at least, about the martyr and Hand of the Cause Mirza `Ali-Muhammad Varqa (Grandfather of the Hand of the Cause of the same name who died in 2007). Mr. Varqa made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land during the lifetime of Baha’u'llah. He found himself with fellow pilgrims in the presence of the Manifestation. He watched as Baha’u'llah spoke to the gathering, and thought to himself, “How fortunate I am! To have recognized the Manifestation of God for this Day, and to be in His very presence!”

Then he thought to himself, “I believe that He is the Manifestation of God. But I want to *really* believe. What could Baha’u'llah do, that would make me know beyond all doubt that He is the Manifestation of God?”

He thought for a time, and then thought, “I have always wondered about the verse in the Holy Qur’an, where it says that Noah brought the animals into the Ark in pairs. This can’t mean a pair of giraffes and a pair of gnats. I have always wondered what this verse means, and if right now Baha’u'llah departs from His comments and explains that verse — then I will know that He is truly the Manifestation of God.”

{josquote}as interesting as Church and State is in itself, for me it is simply the twoness that is most clearly described in the Bahai scriptures.{/josquote}

In the next instant, Baha’u'llah looked at Varqa, and interrupting the flow of His discourse said, “In the Holy Qur’an it says that Noah brought the animals into the Ark in pairs. This does not refer to the beasts of the field…” Baha’u'llah then went on to explain that throughout the universe, at every level of existence God has created two great forces. Baha’u'llah also explained that in the Cause of God, and in the human soul — in all of existence, God has created this dynamic.

When He finished his comments, Baha’u'llah returned to His previous discourse. Varqa was lost in wonder at the profundity of Baha’u'llah’s explanation. He thought to himself, “And He did this, at the very instant I asked that He do so.” He reflected on this for a moment, and then asked himself, “I wonder if that was just a coincidence?”

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What Religion Are We Talking About?

Slate.com has an interesting piece on social science related to religion and 'niceness'. Check it out:

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"Many Americans doubt the morality of atheists. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans say that they would not vote for an otherwise qualified atheist as president, meaning a nonbeliever would have a harder time getting elected than a Muslim, a homosexual, or a Jew. Many would go further and agree with conservative commentator Laura Schlessinger that morality requires a belief in God—otherwise, all we have is our selfish desires. In The Ten Commandments, she approvingly quotes Dostoyevsky: "Where there is no God, all is permitted." The opposing view, held by a small minority of secularists, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, is that belief in God makes us worse. As Hitchens puts it, "Religion poisons everything."

Arguments about the merits of religions are often battled out with reference to history, by comparing the sins of theists and atheists. (I see your Crusades and raise you Stalin!) But a more promising approach is to look at empirical research that directly addresses the effects of religion on how people behave.

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In a review published in Science last month, psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff discuss several experiments that lean pro-Schlessinger. In one of their own studies, they primed half the participants with a spirituality-themed word jumble (including the words divine and God) and gave the other half the same task with non-spiritual words. Then, they gave all the participants $10 each and told them that they could either keep it or share their cash reward with another (anonymous) subject. Ultimately, the spiritual-jumble group parted with more than twice as much money as the control. Norenzayan and Shariff suggest that this lopsided outcome is the result of an evolutionary imperative to care about one's reputation. If you think about God, you believe someone is watching. This argument is bolstered by other research that they review showing that people are more generous and less likely to cheat when others are around. More surprisingly, people also behave better when exposed to posters with eyes on them." (Read the whole thing here)

{josquote}...look them straight in the eye and ask "How was religion defined in this research?"{/josquote}

An important thing to keep in mind whenever you read about social science research is to look closely at the way the variables are conceptualized by the researcher(s). Whether you find that research on religion supports or challenges your current assumptions, a central question is "What 'religion' are we talking about?..."

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On Sen's "The Knower as Servant"


Buffalo Bill's Wild West, The Scout Giclee Print by Paul Frenzeny

These are some of my thoughts while reading Sen's "The knower as servant."

"However when I think of the needy, whom knowledge can help, it is not the merely ignorant, but rather the conflicted, that I have in mind."

A lot of my work on the Internet has been driven by concerns for people who might be confused, distracted or demoralized by Baha'i feuds.

"I think that the role of the servant is a better model for the learned Bahai than that of a scout, because the scout explores where he wants to go, while the servant helps people where they are."

In my understanding, it is not a part of the definition of "scout" that she explores where she wants to go. In fact it seems clear to me from the context of Mr. Lample's paper that he's talking about the kind of scout who explores where her community might go, as a service to the community.

{josquote} If the intent here is to promote using theology only for "ministering to the faithful," that sounds very unhealthy to me.{/josquote}

I see scouting and pastoral work as two possible ways of serving. I don't see scouting as inherently any more self-centered than pastoral work. It depends entirely on the spirit and manner in which it is done. Helping people in distress is notorious for its possibilities as an excuse for cruelty, violence and other ugliness. It's also notorious for its use as a way of recruiting people to serve some other people's economic and political interests. That includes economic and political interests masquerading as religious pursuits.

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The knower as servant (response to Paul Lample)

I’ve been reading Paul Lample’s “Learning and the Evolution of the Bahá’í Community.” He presents various possible roles for the “learned Bahai” in the Bahai community. I found it striking that he did not mention the possibility that the learned Bahai could be a servant, someone who uses knowledge to minister to the faithful.

The starting point seems to me to be

“”Are they equal, those who know, and those who do not know?…” (Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, citing Quran 39:12).

We must start here because it is the inequality between those who know and those who do not that creates the issue in the first place. This is not a social inequality, it is inherent in knowing something that is valuable, or not knowing it. But we can also see that the person with a spare dollar is not equal with the person who has no dollar to spare; that the person with a wonderful singing voice is not the equal of the croaker.


The parable of the talents, as depicted in a 1712 woodcut. The lazy servant searches for his buried talent, while the two other servants present their earnings to their master

That leads us immediately to the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14, the one that starts:

“For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another, one…”

and ends

“.. cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness.”

We certainly don’t want to go there! So the non-use of knowledge is not an option. Whatever has a use, cannot be left to lie fallow. And it seems to me that the proper use of the knowledge, the dollar or the talent we have is to help our fellows, most especially those in most need of whatever it is we have to offer.

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