Monday, October 29, 2007

Halloween Reading

This weekend I checked out some books about death from the Lincoln Library, which is the public library here in Springfield. It’s a rather nice library, although not as big as the one in Urbana, Illinois. It’s aptly named, as the Lincoln house is only a block away from it, and my usual practice is to visit his home and the library every week or two. I’ve been listening to an unabridged audio book of Lincoln’s Melancholy during my drives between campus and home, and his musings on death and the tragic aspects of life seem most applicable these days, as Halloween approaches.

It’s not just Halloween and the Day of the Dead that inspired my interest in these books. A little over a month ago we lost our unborn son, who was, after all, only twelve weeks along in his growth into a person, and so by some accounts he wasn’t even yet our son or a person or human at all. But that’s not what I felt when Jeri went into labor and held him on her hand, still somewhat bloody. I know that I don’t usually think of a 12-week old fetus as being something beautiful or lovable, but when it is your own baby, and you have been excited and full of happy anticipation, the little one does touch your heart, especially the well-formed hands and feet.

Well, anyway, these books I was reading Sunday are really quite good. The first was Michael D. Bailey’s Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present. I was particularly interested in the third chapter, on the varieties of magic in the high and late middle ages. The Church, in opposing the practice of using ceremonies and rituals that would trigger an encounter experience with an entity that seemed to be a dead person, had to stress that these were not in fact the souls of the dead returned to converse with the living. After all, according to Christian theology the dead were up in heaven or down in hell or perhaps in purgatory, and they could hardly leave to appear in our reality just because someone called them. Another book I read was Reunions: Visionary encounters with departed loved ones, by Raymond Moody and Paul Perry. I own Moody’s Life After Life, which I think I inherited from my step-father’s mother when she died in 1995. Moody doesn’t come out and say that the apparitions are the dead. They could be (and probably are) projections of our subconscious minds. The interesting thing to me is that given the right preparation and the right setting he claims that in more than half of cases a subject can have an encounter experience, and these experience are always good, therapeutic, and comforting. He suggests that the experience must come as part of a day in which the subject may spend a few hours walking and sitting while remembering the dead person, and talking about their relationship to the dead person. His subjects spend considerable time looking at objects that memorialize the dead (articles of their clothing, photographs, and so forth) while recalling all sorts of memories. After the preparation, the subjects sit in a comfortable chair, and look at a giant mirror on a wall, mounted in such a way that they can not see their own reflection in the mirror. This takes place in a room with only a 15-watt bulb for illumination, and a dark curtain and other props are used to block out light and sound and any other distracting things that would reflect in the mirror.

The most interesting book of the three I read was The Buried Soul: How humans invented death. This 2002 book is by Timothy Taylor. I found the book very compelling. He describes and discusses in detail some of the earliest graves or burial sites of human and proto-human history and prehistory. There is discussion of the continuing practice of ritual child sacrifice, a great deal about cannibalism, and a very touching discussion of Ibn Fadlan’s account of the pagan ship burial of a Rus chieftan. I like Taylor’s rejection of moral relativism when he describes the rape and brutal murder of the slave girl who volunteered to accompany the Rus (Viking) chief into the after-world, or the torture and massacre of children whose tears were collected to satisfy the Aztec rain god Tlaloc, or the sadistic ritualized killing of children for muti, ritualized objects used as charms by some southern Africans. I remember a Botswanan classmate of mine in graduate school who was very concerned about the practice of wealthy businessmen hiring witch doctors (sangomas) to procure young girls for human sacrifice to help their businesses prosper, but I hadn’t thought much about muti since.

Anyway, these were good books, especially Taylor’s book. I recommend them.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Musings on John Hatcher's commentary

In the October 16th (2007) issue of The American Baha’i a commentary by John Hatcher caught my attention. John Hatcher is a professor of English with specialized knowledge of medieval literature. He is also a productive Baha’i scholar, whose The Ocean of His Words (1997) has been influential on my own thinking about our religion. I often disagree with some of Dr. Hatcher’s opinions or understandings, but it has always seemed to me that in the vast majority of the essential matters we are in agreement, and I have benefitted from my study of his work.

The essential point of Hatcher’s commentary is that we Baha’is should be thankful to have the guidance of the Universal House of Justice (UHJ), we should take guidance from it seriously, study what it tells us, and do what it asks us to do. For a Baha’i, there isn’t anything controversial in these points. Catholics take their pope seriously. Tibetan Buddhists respectfully consider what the Dalai Lama says. Mormans care about the statements of President of the Church of Later Day Saints. Even United Methodists care about the decisions of their General Conference (before I became a Baha’i I was baptized into the United Methodist Church). Any religion that wants to maintain unity, avoid factionalism, and coordinate mass efforts will have some sort of organizational structure with leadership, and members of that religion are going to need to give the leadership a certain degree of allegiance and loyalty.

Any religion’s leadership will suggest rules, plans, and policies that the leadership believes are most likely to effect desirable outcomes. Our UHJ is no exception. Its letters and decisions are given to us in the belief that we will take some influence and guidance from these things, and if we follow the guidance and open ourselves to the leadership’s influence, good things will happen for us and for our religion. These are just basic facts about organizational dynamics in ideology-driven groups (as opposed to commercial or public groups, where leadership may in exceptional cases intentionally try to ruin a company or discredit a public undertaking for personal profit or ideological reasons).

An important question in ideological groups such as religions relates to how carefully and how closely members must follow the guidance that comes from leadership. People only have 24 hours in a day, and after time is subtracted for sleep, socializing within a family or circle of friends, personal and household maintenance, and labor to earn material requirements for a decent life, only a few hours of truly discretionary time will be left over. People may want to devote this time to service work, prayer, hobbies, home improvements, gardening, television viewing, self-directed learning, newspaper reading, and any number of other activities. Most people do not want to give a significant portion of their discretionary time to the study of guidance from the leadership of their religion, their employer, or their government.

This has been a problem for all sorts of religions or organizations based upon idealistic or utopian visions of rebuilding societies and creating better civilizations. It’s also an unfortunate fact of history that most of the idealistic or religious movements that did take secular power have tended toward fanaticism.

Societies in which people have devoted a large portion of what would otherwise be discretionary time to the study of guidance from their ideological leadership seem aberrant to us. Chinese studying Mao’s Little Red Book during the cultural revolution or the North Koreans studying the lessons of their Great Leader and Dear Leader seem pitiable. The idea of Russians in the early 1920s carefully studying the writings of Lenin can seem sadly humorous. As a youth who found some of the writings of Marx and Engels rather attractive, I always thought it was a pity that when I visited the Soviet Union or East Germany in the 1980s I could find all sorts of published speeches and talks of the then current leadership in the Communist Parties, but very little of that idealistic stuff Marx wrote. Who really wanted to read Tikhonov’s or Chernenko’s speeches? I have a collection of such documents I picked up in the mid-1980s as a visitor in the Soviet Union and East Germany, but I don’t think many other visitors bothered to read such propaganda, and I found that few of my hosts in Russia or Germany did either. Did the Committee for Public Safety during the French Revolution ask citizens to carefully study their decisions or the Jacobin publications? I’m sure Robespierre would have liked to have every literate person in France read his speeches, but how many actually did? Did the leadership of the Spanish Inquisition insist that the literate public study the works of Tomás de Torquemada, Don Alfonso, and Villacreces? Did Puritans and Pilgrims in the Massachusetts Bay Colony ask the believers to supplement their study of the Bible with the study of the writings of Robert Browne and John Winthrop? I’m sorry to compare our Baha’i leadership to such flawed movements, but my point is that it is unusual to have an organization in which the rank and file are urged to carefully study letters from the administrative or ideological leadership, and the historical precedents for such exhortations will discourage many educated people from approaching the Baha'i situation with an open mind.

Hatcher and other educated western Baha’is are probably aware of how strange it seems to emphasize the importance of studying the guidance from the UHJ. Hatcher and myself want to make a clear distinction between Baha’i leadership and the other sorts of leaderships that have historically asked rank-and-file members to study their guidance, such as I've mentioned above. There are many ways to distinguish the UHJ from such unsavory characters, and one of these is the idea we have in the Baha’i Faith that our leadership structures (at least the UHJ) our founded upon an idea that came from God through Baha’u’llah, rather than an idea that originated purely in the human imagination. Another idea we have comes from ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament, where ‘Abdu’l-Baha assured us that we could trust our House of Justice, and we could know that God would be working to guide our leadership. The various other idealistic organizational leaderships did not have such an endorsement from the son of a Manifestation of God, and from a Baha’i point of view, ours does.

But, if you’re a critical thinker, and especially if you are a critical thinker who isn’t a professing Baha’i, already many questions arise. What is the difference between something that springs from the imagination of a human and something that springs from the mind of a Manifestation of God? Is there a difference between the imagination of Husayn-'Ali Nuri (Baha’u’llah) and the Revelation He received from God through the Holy Spirit? If there is a distinction here, and Baha’u’llah had some thoughts that were supernaturally directly revealed through the Holy Spirit and others that were rooted in His human brain, perhaps influenced by His life in a particular historical and social context as well as being influenced by his connection to the Holy Spirit and God, then how can we (or should we) attempt to distinguish one type of thought from another? Would Baha’u’llah’s ideas and inspirations that were more human and less a function of His station as a Manifestation of God be qualitatively different from our own ideas?

Say, for the sake of argument, that we accept that the basic idea of the Universal House of Justice and the core principles governing it did come from God, can we make a distinction between an essential idea inspired by a Divine Revelation and the actual implementation of that idea in a real institution, one where humans have “filled in the details” so to speak, in trying out various approaches in the way the idea is implemented? Many Baha’is aren’t going to feel comfortable even asking these questions, but if we want to teach our religion (as I do) and engage the world outside our religion we need to be prepared for such questions, and that means we need to consider how to ask and answer them for ourselves.

I think the areas where we are destined to have diverse opinions are related to the degree to which we as Baha’is must study the guidance from the UHJ and the degree to which we must follow such guidance. Is it enough for the rank-and-file Baha’is to devote an hour every few Baha’i Months (about once every eight weeks) to reading letters from the UHJ? Should we devote an hour each week? An hour each year? Also, how carefully should we follow the advice or the suggestions of the UHJ? Some of us think the UHJ is trying to guide the entire world, and as the world has many diverse circumstances, some of the specific suggestions may be useful in most places, but not in our particular corner of humanity. Others believe that everything the UHJ encourages should be applied everywhere. Some people take the suggestions and encouragements of the UHJ as orders and commandments, others take these literally as suggestions we might follow or might not, depending on the wisdom of applying them in our particular circumstances. The UHJ probably has an interest in pushing the Baha’i rank-and-file toward taking its letters more seriously, spending a little more time studying them, and generally following the directions with a bit more care and energy. After all, the UHJ, like any leadership group, thinks it has good advice, and the nature of good advice is that it will be more effective if people listen carefully to it and follow it with determination.

Another area where there are likely to be differences is the way we understand the role and station of the Universal House of Justice. All Baha’is who investigate their history know that Baha’u’llah, upon His death in 1892, appointed ‘Abdu’l-Baha as the leader of the Baha’is. It’s also a fact that ‘Abdu’l-Baha appointed his grandson Shoghi Effendi to a position of Guardianship and gave to the Guardian the power to decide when to establish the Universal House of Justice. Shoghi Effendi wrote about the Universal House of Justice as if he expected a Guardian to be part of it, yet he also considered that the Universal House of Justice and the Guardianship would be twin institutions, co-existing. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, in his Will and Testament, told Shoghi Effendi to establish a successor. However, evidently, Shoghi Effendi didn’t establish a successor, and therefore Baha’is will not have any Guardians after Shoghi Effendi, and our Universal House of Justice must exist without a Guardian as a member of it. Baha’is and critical thinkers who consider joining the Baha’i Faith will probably ask questions about whether the Universal House of Justice as it exists now, without a Guardian, is the same as the Universal House of Justice described in ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament and the writings of Shoghi Effendi, since things haven’t worked out exactly as described in the earliest foundational documents Baha’is use to understand their UHJ and the institution of Guardianship. Such questions are legitimate, and Baha’is will reach different conclusions about the correct answers. What is pretty clear is that Baha’is are supposed to have a Universal House of Justice, as Baha’u’llah wrote about this institution before He ever wrote anything about a Guardian (and some Baha’is say the entire idea of a Guardianship was introduced by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and doesn’t exist in any of Baha’u’llah’s writings, although this position is controversial). The Hands of the Cause of God, who were leaders of the Faith appointed by Shoghi Effendi (others had been appointed before Shoghi Effendi, but these were not alive at the time of Shoghi Effendi’s death), quite reasonably decided that the Baha’is should have a Universal House of Justice after Shoghi Effendi died without appointing a new Guardian or leaving written instructions for specifically how and when the Universal House of Justice should be established. And so, ever since 1963, we Baha’is have had the UHJ as a our leadership. If you are a Baha’i, you are pretty much forced by logic and the facts of history to accept the UHJ as the leadership of your religion, and the UHJ gets this leadership through a clear line of succession from God through the Holy Spirit and the Revelation down into Baha’u’llah, then ‘Abdu’l-Baha, then Shoghi Effendi, then the Hands of the Cause of God, and finally the UHJ.

Now, Hatcher says some interesting things about the Universal House of Justice in his commentary piece in the American Baha’i. He says,
The Guardian called the revealed writings of Baha’u’llah the “creative word” because His works constitute the holy scriptures of the Baha’i Faith. Of course, there are other “authoritative” writings in the Baha’i Faith: the writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the writings of Shoghi Effendi, and the decisions and guidance of the Universal House of Justice.
What we may not understand is that while the writings of Baha’u’llah are regarded as the Revelation itself, these other sources are equally authoritative—they should likewise be regarded as the infallible guidance from God.”

That’s an interesting proposition. We should regard the decisions and guidance of the Universal House of Justice as the infallible guidance from God. I recall that at the end of the National Baha’i Convention this past April one of the speakers, an administrator (a Continental Counsellor named Rebequa Murphy), included in her remarks the proposition that, “We don’t want to be those people that want to see God with their own eyes or hear his melodies with their own ears. Because we’ve been given the gift of being able to see through the eyes of the House of Justice and listen through the ears of the House of Justice.” I also recall a community meeting I attended last year where a Baha’i Friend of mine urged us all to give more careful attention to the guidance from the House of Justice, and explained to us that, “they are the center of the covenant that is still actually here on the planet, so for all practical purposes we can consider their words as the voice of God.” I took his words to mean that while the UHJ is not actually God, for practical purposes, we Baha’is should consider the UHJ as if it was God. I admit I looked over at my wife and rolled my eyes as I heard this.

Some kinds of truth are best expressed through exaggeration. Artists, political cartoonists, storytellers, and poets often exaggerate and stretch the literal truth to make a point about the fundamental truth. Some of us in the Baha’i Faith reckon that Manifestations of God might do the same. I suspect that John Hatcher, Rebequa Murphy, and my friend here in my local Baha’i Community are all engaging in a sort of hyperbolic exaggeration to stress a valid point, that people ought to pay some attention to the Universal House of Justice and its guidance.

But, I’m not so sure I like all this exaggeration. Rebequa Murphy, for example, seems to have been paraphrasing a couple famous passages from Baha’i scripture. In the Tablet of Ahmad, Baha’u’llah wrote: “...For the people are wandering in the paths of delusion bereft of discernment to see God with their own eyes, or hear His Melody with their own ears. Thus have We found them, as you dost witness. Thus have their superstitions become veils between them and their own hearts and kept them from the path of God. . .” In the Hidden Words Baha’u’llah wrote, “By [the aid of justice] you will see with your own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and will know from your own knowledge and not through the knowledge of your neighbor. Ponder this in your heart, how you should be.” In both of these passages it seems to me that Baha’u’llah is encouraging us to see with our own eyes and not try to see everything filtered through the understanding of others. Well, I know some Baha’is will say that the UHJ isn’t equivalent to “your neighbor” or a “superstition” that has become a veil. On the contrary, they will contend, the UHJ is the voice of God for us. Okay, that’s one way of seeing it, but I don’t see it that way, and I don’t see why this is a question where all Baha’is should feel it necessary to agree. To a person like myself, Murphy’s comments, or the comments of Hatcher, seem a little creepy. They aren’t creepy, that’s just the way I react to them.

Here are some more excerpts from Hatcher’s commentary:

Infallibility does not admit degrees. That is, a statement or advice is either infallible or it is not. Thus, in this dispensation, only Baha’u’llah as a Manifestation partakes of the “most Great Infallibility”; only He is inherently infallible. The infallibility of guidance from ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice is conferred and derives from Baha’u’llah.

I have a few remarks about this. First, Baha’u’llah wrote about infallibility in the Tablet of Splendors:

. . . Know thou that the term ‘Infallibility’ hath numerous meanings and divers stations. In one sense it is applicable to the One Whom God hath made immune from error. Similarly it is applied to every soul whom God hath guarded against sin, transgression, rebellion, impiety, disbelief and the like. However, the Most Great Infallibility is confined to the One Whose station is immeasurably exalted beyond ordinances or prohibitions and is sanctified from errors and omissions. Indeed He is a Light which is not followed by darkness and a Truth not overtaken by error. Were He to pronounce water to be wine or heaven to be earth or light to be fire, He speaketh the truth and no doubt would there be about it; and unto no one is given the right to question His authority or to say why or wherefore. Whosoever raiseth objections will be numbered with the froward in the Book of God, the Lord of the worlds. ‘Verily He shall not be asked of His doings but all others shall be asked of their doings.’ He is come from the invisible heaven, bearing the banner ‘He doeth whatsoever He willeth’ and is accompanied by hosts of power and authority while it is the duty of all besides Him to strictly observe whatever laws and ordinances have been enjoined upon them, and should anyone deviate therefrom, even to the extent of a hair’s breadth, his work would be brought to naught.
Consider thou and call to mind the time when Muḥammad appeared. He said, and His word is the truth: ‘Pilgrimage to the House is a service due to God.’ And likewise are the daily prayer, fasting, and the laws which shone forth above the horizon of the Book of God, the Lord of the World and the true Educator of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. It is incumbent upon everyone to obey Him in whatsoever God hath ordained; and whosoever denieth Him hath disbelieved in God, in His verses, in His Messengers and in His Books. Were He to pronounce right to be wrong or denial to be belief, He speaketh the truth as bidden by God. This is a station wherein sins or trespasses neither exist nor are mentioned. Consider thou the blessed, the divinely-revealed verse in which pilgrimage to the House is enjoined upon everyone. It devolved upon those invested with authority after Him to observe whatever had been prescribed unto them in the Book. Unto no one is given the right to deviate from the laws and ordinances of God. Whoso deviateth therefrom is reckoned with the trespassers in the Book of God, the Lord of the Mighty Throne.
O thou who hast fixed thy gaze upon the Dawning-Place of the Cause of God! Know thou for a certainty that the Will of God is not limited by the standards of the people, and God doth not tread in their ways. Rather is it incumbent upon everyone to firmly adhere to God’s straight Path. Were He to pronounce the right to be the left or the south to be the north, He speaketh the truth and there is no doubt of it. Verily He is to be praised in His acts and to be obeyed in His behests. He hath no associate in His judgement nor any helper in His sovereignty. He doeth whatsoever He willeth and ordaineth whatsoever He pleaseth. Know thou moreover that all else besides Him have been created through the potency of a word from His presence, while of themselves they have no motion nor stillness, except at His bidding and by His leave. . . .

The above excerpt from the Tablet of Ishraqat (Splendors) seems to suggest that John Hatcher is wrong about “infallibility not admitting degrees,” or at least he is wrong if we are discussing infallibility as a term with technical meaning in a Baha’i context. Infallibility, as a term in Baha’i theology, has numerous meanings and divers stations. From the tablet, I take it that “error” in a Baha’i context is related to sin. The word “sin” itself comes from a term that expresses a sense of guilt, and the concept in Hebrew is associated with the word “chata” that implied one had missed a mark (as in shooting for targets in archery).
It appears to me that the Tablet of Ishraqat is saying that this infallibility has to do with the authority to make rules that people observe as the official rules of a religion. I suppose this means that when the Universal House of Justice legislates, it is in a realm where the concept of “bad legislation” or “wrong legislation” or “correct legislation” just doesn’t exist. The Universal House of Justice is above that. When the UHJ says, “decision x is our legislation” no Baha’i can say, “no, decision x isn’t Baha’i legislation.”

Of course, we shouldn’t just read the Tablet of Splendors on its own. It must be taken in the context of other things Baha’u’llah wrote about infallibility and the Universal House of Justice, and this must be understood through a familiarity with ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s and Shoghi Effendi’s interpretations on the subject.

This Tablet of Splendor makes another point I think pertinent to what John Hatcher claims. I know that the House of Justice is an important institution, and we Baha’is respect and obey it, but the Tablet of Splendor says that God has no associate or helper. That would make me hesitate to make the point that for all practical purposes, “letters that emanate from this infallible institution” are just like “a letter from God giving us the best advice for those actions we need to carry out right now.” This is, however, exactly what Hatcher claims in his commentary.

Another point to make is it’s not clear to me that everything the Universal House of Justice does is “infallible” in a technical Baha’i sense. It seems to me that the UHJ has a particular realm in which it is empowered by the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Baha to be infallible, and Shoghi Effendi has interpreted this. Some people think that every scrap of advice, every letter, and every message we get from the Universal House of Justice is the equivalent of legislation. I’m not sure about that. I doubt it. It seems the matter is open for personal investigation and consultation.

What does infallible mean? Many Baha’is, including, I suppose, John Hatcher, seem to think that the term “infallible” literally means “freed from all error” in the sense of “never being wrong” about anything. This may a be a function of the limitations of English or the quality of the translations from the Arabic and Persian originals. My understanding of the term we get as “infallible” is much closer in meaning to “immaculate” or “free from being limited by error” or “not under the power of error, corruption, or decay.” It seems obvious to me that the UHJ does make errors in the sense that it has limited information and makes decisions based on limited and sometimes faulty information. I think also that the style of the English prose that Hatcher says “emanates” from Haifa is proof enough that our UHJ can’t be free from all error and limitations, at least when it comes to crafting impressive English writing. Since I don’t think “infallible” literally means “free from making any mistakes or less-than-perfect decisions” I’m not disturbed that the UHJ has shown on a fairly regular basis that it has an imperfect command of the English language, and that it is an imperfect judge of the character of some of the people that get appointed to Continental Boards (a level of Baha’i administration). These are just not areas where I expect infallibility, and even in areas where I do have faith in the UHJs infallibility, that infallibility has something to do with avoiding making illegitimate legislation.

Another issue I have with Hatcher comparing the UHJ’s messages to letters from God is that I don’t think ‘Abdu’l-Baha or Shoghi Effendi ever made such claims. Shoghi Effendi would probably have felt dismay and frustration if people compared his letters to “letters from God.” Hatcher must obviously disagree with me, but that’s my understanding of Shoghi Effendi. I think ‘Abdu’l-Baha would also have refrained from making the comparison between the authority or significance of what he wrote and the authority and significance of what Baha’u’llah revealed. If anyone knows of authoritative writings where Shoghi Effendi or 'Abdu'l-Baha did compare their own words to words from God, I'd like to know of it so I can revise my position here. I do, however, know of a person in Baha’i history who did claim that his writings were the word of God. This was Baha’u’llah’s son Muhammad Ali, the half-brother of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, who so bitterly opposed Shoghi Effendi and the institution of the Guardianship. I don’t think Hatcher or any of my other devoted Baha’i Friends want to be in Muhammad Ali’s company.

Hatcher writes, “. . . the guidance by the Universal House of Justice that we all employ this program [the Ruhi courses] is both authoritative and unquestionably the most propitious path we can take to do our part.” If the UHJ has legislated that we all employ the Ruhi courses, then I agree that this guidance is authoritative. If the UHJ has only decided or asked or suggested, without legislating, then the degree to which this guidance is authoritative might be less. Clearly, the UHJ is the leadership of our religion, so in that sense anything they write is authoritative, but it’s not clear to me that everything they do is equally authoritative. Leaving aside this issue of how authoritative the decisions of the House of Justice are (when they are decisions rather than legislations, if that distinction can even be made), we still have the question of whether their guidance is “unquestionably the most propitious path.” I understand that Baha’is can sincerely question the wisdom of decisions made by the UHJ. I understand that Baha’is can question the methods by which UHJ decisions are implemented. I mean here that we can remain critical thinkers, who apply our personal conscience and our understanding of the Baha’i Faith to our understanding of what the UHJ does. I don’t mean that I think we can question the UHJ in the sense of questioning its legitimacy, or its appropriate institutional authority. A Baha’i individual must not say, “the UHJ is encouraging Ruhi courses, but I am discouraging Ruhi courses, and I question the right of the UHJ to make its decision in defiance of my personal preferences.” No, that sort of questioning isn’t what I have in mind. Nor can we individual Baha'is appoint people into positions that the Universal House of Justice has legislated are positions that it alone must appoint. In the case of Ruhi courses, I personally have sincere doubts that the Ruhi courses are a propitious path. I’m going along with them, using them, applying them, and encouraging others to try them, but that doesn’t mean I am sure they are “what is right” for my personal community. In fact, I suspect there may be a few exceptional places where core activities and the Ruhi courses are killing, rather than empowering local Baha’i community life. But the UHJ must guide the whole world, and in general, across the whole planet, Ruhi courses must be given a chance to work, and I’m not going to question the importance of our giving core activities and Ruhi courses a chance to work, at least in general.

John Hatcher also points out in his commentary that the Universal House of Justice writes about "focusing our lives on the processes and plans the institution has created for us.” I wonder what focusing our lives on processes and plans could mean. Does “focusing our lives” mean devoting five hours per month to the processes and plans instead of five hours per year? I became a Baha’i because I wanted to devote my life to the teachings of Baha’u’llah and the elaborations on those teachings made by his son ‘Abdu’l-Baha. I was glad of the Guardianship of Shoghi Effendi and the guidance of the UHJ, but these administrative figures weren’t main objects of my adoration. No, Baha’u’llah and God (and the other Messengers of God) have been the focus of my spiritual life, and I don’t think I want to replace Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s core teachings with some system of belief that is built on anything else. Shoghi Effendi and the House of Justice can serve the Baha’i world in their appropriate roles as administrators who have kept us unified, given us some directions, and helped organize us so we can better study and follow the examples and teachings of Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Shoghi Effendi, as a Guardian, was an authorized interpreter, and the Universal House of Justice has the authority to legislate. But, I don’t think the administration and its plans and processes really should take so much of our discretionary time that we miss opportunities to teach by living the life and serving our communities and social networks, being examples like ‘Abdu’l-Baha was. The administration is a means to an end, not an end in itself. I actually confirm this conclusion by my study of letters from the UHJ.

I like Baha’i events where Baha’is and their interested friends find joy and laughter, where there are songs, where there are prayers, and where people smile and love each other. I like far less the Baha’i events where Baha’is sit passively and listen to lectures about the guidance from the International Teaching Center and how we need to be studying the plans and following the processes. The whole point of those plans and processes is to connect Baha’is to the Creative Word of God, help us find a way to live a life of service to our community, and become outward focused, looking for opportunities outside our faith fellowship to show Baha’i solutions to problems by our examples (such as our children’s classes or devotional meetings). If the plans and processes are stopping us from connecting to the Creative Word of God or are diverting our attention from living lives of example and teaching the faith through our deeds, then the plans and processes need to be reconsidered and approached in a different way.

John Hatcher writes, ". . . When we have questions about any part of the guidance we are receiving from those involved, we should not quarrel, quibble, or feel dismayed, but rather go to the source itself: the authoritative text of the letters of the Universal House of Justice and the guidance in documents that have been prepared at its behest by the International Teaching Center." I wonder why we need to be told not to quarrel, quibble, or feel dismayed. Is it Dr. Hatcher's perception that many rank-and-file Baha'is are quarrelling, quibbling, or feeling dismayed? Also, the "source itself" would include the writings of Baha'u'llah, 'Abdu'l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi. Wouldn't it? Why only mention the UHJ and the ITC as the source? Just some thoughts.

God has given us Baha’u’llah, who has given us a Universal House of Justice, and a process of consultation and democratic elections of the members of the UHJ. That is an exciting fact, and it does make me feel good about the institutions of leadership in my religion. That is enough for me. I don’t agree with Hatcher that the UHJ’s guidance is God-given guidance in the same way Baha’u’llah’s was. This is probably a matter of secondary importance. Dr. Hatcher and myself both revere the institution of the Universal House of Justice. We probably have a very different conception of its role in the world, its future destiny, and the way in which some of its actions may be considered “infallible,” but these need not be a source of division or estrangement between us, or between any Baha’is who share our various diverse opinions.