Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Picking and Choosing in Religion

In a post late in 2007 I wrote:

...So, we Baha'is do pick and choose which rules or teachings we accept literally and which we take metaphorically, and without any authorized interpreter left on this mortal plane, we really don't have any persons with authority to tell us when we are correct or incorrect in our interpretations and understandings of the many metaphorical teachings. So often the scriptures are abstract, and rarely are they concrete or specific. So, we're left to be mature and thoughtful and rational, and take things as best we may. So, this is a religion where we do some picking and choosing. ...

A very thoughtful reader, Mavaddat Javid thought about this and decided he didn’t agree. On February 18th of 2008 he posted on his livejournal a careful explanation of why he didn’t agree, titled “Vanquishing Dissonance and Baha’i Cherry Pickers.” He returned to the subject on February 20th of 2008 with a post on freethinking and the Baha'i Faith. I think I owe him a response here on my blog, and he’s given me some good solid points for consideration.

First of all, I’m not sure I was saying that Baha’is are supposed to cherry pick (as opposed to “picking and choosing”). For me, the term “cherry picking” has connotations of willfully ignoring some evidence and only selectively taking evidence that supports one’s view. But "cherry picking" can also simply mean "choosing the best," and in that case, by definition, I was advocating that, as Baha'is should pick the best evidence and authoritative sources as reference materials with which to inform their ethical decision-making. As to selectively taking evidence to support what one believes, it may be human nature to approach almost all questions this way, with a bias that favors evidence that confirms what one already values or believes. We do seem to easily ignore ignore evidence that would create dissonance in our belief systems. Yet, I think I was merely saying that if one looks at the entirety of Baha’i scriptures, the reported words of the Central Figures (the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi would not have wanted himself included as a fourth figure, so neither do I), and various other historical acts of these Central Figures, one finds it possible to conclude that some laws are subordinate to other laws, and some principles are of greater significance than others. Likewise, sometimes the laws are written in language that, it appears to me, is hyperbolical, exaggerated, metaphorical, or limited to contexts and situations that don’t universally apply. Given these two perceptions, many Baha’is (including myself), will need to use discretion and wisdom in considering how to behave and how to best follow the Baha’i teachings regarding ideal human behavior. We will need to make decisions about applying Baha’i religious teachings or law in our lives where we must pick and choose which laws to emphasize, which principles or teachings to prioritize, and how to apply general teachings in specific cases. Yes, in doing this, some of us will engage in intellectually dishonest cherry-picking. I think that’s unavoidable, given human nature. But, I think the Baha’i Faith, taken as a whole, seems to encourage flexible and independent thought when it comes to application of religious law and religious teachings.

I think this idea that in ethics and religious law there are no absolutes is fairly mainstream, or has been since Aristotle wrote the Nichomachean Ethics with its emphasis on goal-directed ethics. It seems to me that a thoughtful follower of the Baha’i religion can embrace this mainstream stance. Codes of behavior are not like laws of physics or axioms of mathematics that apply absolutely in the same way in all situations (if that’s even true of laws of physics and mathematical axioms). Saying so and living according to this insight isn’t intellectually dishonest.

This seems obvious to me, yet when I hear people say, “you can’t pick and choose” and imply that you must take everything in a religion, I usually interpret them to be saying, “in this situation your choice of emphasis and the passages from our holy texts you are considering are leading you toward faulty conclusions. If you consider other passages from our holy texts you will reach a better conclusion, one that I agree with.” I don’t think people really mean “you can’t selectively consider the laws and teachings of the religion, because they all apply in every situation, and they always apply literally, and they are all of equal weight and equal significance in whatever particular situation you are facing.” People might mean that, but if they do, I don’t think they are thinking very carefully about what they are saying.

I’ll offer some real examples I’ve known about in my life to help illustrate. In a large city in Taiwan a Baha’i died. He was a member of the local spiritual assembly (a sort of elected council of deacons who have some administrative and spiritual responsibilities in a local community), and he was a very devout and dedicated believer. His family, including his wife, his children, and his extended family did not identify as Baha’is. They mostly followed the Buddhist and Taoist teachings that are popular in Taiwan. It was the family’s wish that this person’s body be cremated. The Baha’i Faith’s teachings on how to treat the bodies of the deceased are:
The Lord hath decreed that the dead should be interred in coffins made of crystal, of hard, resistant stone, or of wood that is both fine and durable, and that graven rings should be placed upon their fingers…. …The Lord hath decreed, moreover, that the deceased should be enfolded in five sheets of silk or cotton. For those whose means are limited a single sheet of either fabric will suffice…. It is forbidden you to transport the body of the deceased a greater distance than one hour’s journey from the city; rather should it be interred, with radiance and serenity, in a nearby place….
And so, with this sort of law, Baha’is generally do not have corpses cremated. Rather, we typically bury our dead. The remaining members of the local spiritual wanted their dead co-religionist to be buried according to Baha’i religious law. This was, to them, important. It was so important that they opposed the dead man’s family, who wanted him to be cremated. In fact, they very actively tried to prevent the family from cremating their dead co-religionist. Their well-meaning (but misguided) desire to adhere to an approach to religious law in which each law must be taken literally and applied in all situations brought them into a situation where they deeply distressed the man’s family and totally alienated his family from the Baha’i religion, which had been so important to him.

A Hand-of-the-Cause (a sort of appointed “saint” in Baha’i society—there are none left alive today) visited Taiwan and heard of this incident. She was disgusted, and said something to the effect that this was a stupid application of Baha’i teachings. She said something to the effect of, “They have inflicted damage on the faith and transgressed our core teachings about love, kindness, and teaching-by-example in order to follow a trivial law about burial.” Faced with a non-Baha’i family that wanted to cremate their dead Baha’i husband-and-father, the Baha’is of this city had to pick and choose whether to stand firm on the importance of following Baha’i burial law or let that law be violated in order to follow teachings and principles about respecting families, showing kindness, and using wisdom. The Baha’is of this city did pick a literal application of the legal letter-of-the law, and fought the family, but in doing this they had decided not to choose other principles that would have told them not to make a big issue about it, and instead let the family have their way. The Hand-of-the-Cause thought they should have picked and chosen differently.

I’ll give other examples, these about the consumption of substances that damage the intellect. When intoxicated by alcohol our intellects are impaired, and therefore Baha’is do not drink much alcohol (some of us do drink small amounts of alcohol, because physicians have recommend medications that contain some alcohol or have recommended one serving per day based on scientific evidence that this is helpful to persons who are not susceptible to alcoholism).

The relevant laws and teachings concerning alcohol consumption include, from the Kitab-i-Aqdas (a book that is something like a Baha’i foundation for religious law):
It is inadmissible that man, who hath been endowed with reason, should consume that which stealeth it away...
Also, from a passage revealed by Baha’u’llah, we have: “Beware lest ye exchange the Wine of God for your own wine, for it will stupefy your minds, and turn your faces away from the Countenance of God, the All-Glorious, the Peerless, the Inaccessible. Approach it not, for it hath been forbidden unto you by the behest of God, the Exalted, the Almighty.
Now, that second passage comes from “a tablet revealed by Baha’u’llah” but I don’t know to whom the tablet was addressed. Some early Babis and Baha’is had problems with alcohol dependence or abuse. If the tablet was revealed in a personal letter to one of these earlier believers, or to a community where a few of the believers were notoriously suffering from alcoholism, that might put the meaning in a different context than if the source tablet was one generally revealed to humanity, or used by Baha’u’llah in works He ordered to have widely disseminated.

[Right here I'm showing my disagreement with literalist interpretations. Some who ridicule scientifically-minded and free-thinking Baha'is tell us that the Baha'i Faith has all sorts of hidden anti-intellectual and nasty stuff that must be given equal weight to all the liberal stuff, and one only finds it after one has studied carefully everything in Baha'i source documents. Those of us who aren't burdened with the idea that we must ignore context and instead use literalist interpretations of everything we encounter shrug our shoulders in amazement. For us it seems obvious that some material should be given greater weight than other material. For example, a central thesis of a major work revealed by Baha'u'llah, and indeed almost anything revealed by Baha'u'llah and then used by Him in the materials He ordered to be widely copied or published, should have more significant weight than letters written to individuals by Shoghi Effendi's secretary, or more obscure personal tablets written by Baha'u'llah to individuals, and then never referred to again or used by Him, but later discovered by reseearchers combing through all the letters He ever wrote or revealed. That is, if you assume that there is some sort of hierarchy of importance and significance, you don't let relatively trivial sources overrule the fundamental sources.]

Here are two examples of picking and choosing related to this law against alcohol consumption. In one case, I joined a small group of Baha’is from Nairobi, including one who was an administrator at a high level (A continental counselor for Africa) and another who served as an elected member of the national spiritual assembly. We went to some villages to visit newly elected local spiritual assemblies. At one small town the local spiritual assembly was inebriated. It was the habit in that region to make a mildly alcoholic home-brewed beer and drink copious amounts of it, and most of the local believers celebrated our visit by getting drunk. Our group did not sternly rebuke the local spiritual assembly members or point out that they were breaking Baha’i law. Rather, we joined them in some joyful singing of songs of praise, and visited some of their homes with them to discuss some of the Baha’i teachings. One of the Nairobi group gently discussed the laws about alcohol with one of the sober local spiritual assembly members, saying something to the effect that as the community grew and learned more about the faith they would drink less, and eventually as Baha’is they would stop drinking, as it was forbidden in the religion, but it was important not to embarrass or blame anyone for the situation that day, as the community was full of newly declared Baha’is who were unfamiliar with all the laws and teachings.

This advice was a matter of picking and choosing. The continental counselor or national spiritual assembly member could have addressed the problem of alcohol consumption and drunkenness, and could have urged the local community to immediately give up the practice and start following the Baha’i laws about refraining from beer. But no, the importance of tact and wisdom (also Baha’i principles) seemed more important in this context, and so there was no “enforcement” or emphasis on the laws about alcohol, only a gentle reminder. The emphasis was instead on principles about love and unity. That seemed like a wise application of “picking and choosing” to me.

In another example, in California there was an appointed administrator who cared very much about the law against alcohol consumption (I think this person was an assistant to an auxiliary board member, a person who is supposed to advise local communities and encourage local communities to follow guidance from the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, and generally help protect and propagate the faith). This woman was concerned that an individual believer in one Bay Area town in California might be drinking beer or wine. So, she came to visit him, pretending to be there on a social call. When this Baha’i had allowed this administrative zealot into his home she went to his refrigerator to inspect it for wine or beer. In fact, there was some beer in the refrigerator, but it belonged to this person's housemates, who rented bedrooms in his house, and not him. The administrator had duties to help Baha’is live according to the Baha’i teachings. So, from her point of view, she was helping this Baha’i obey laws about alcohol consumption. She had decided that her duties to help Baha’is conform to Baha’i law and the specific Baha’i law about alcohol consumption were extremely important. She had, in doing this, devalued principles and laws about honesty (she had come into the Baha’i home on false pretenses, pretending to intend a friendly visit when in fact she was conducting an inspection). She had also chosen to subordinate Baha’i teachings about kindness, tact, mutual respect, and the importance of the privacy of one’s home to the teachings about duties of Baha’i administrators and the law about alcohol consumption. I think her choice was bad. It would have been better if, in her picking and choosing which laws and responsibilities to emphasize, she had given greater weight to honesty, kindness, and civility, and de-emphasized the law against alcohol consumption.

So, I’ve now illustrated my proposition that Baha’is must pick and choose with a few specific real examples of Baha’is picking and choosing. I think that we do this picking and choosing all the time. In every decision we make about how to spend our time we are deciding whether to follow Baha’i teachings that emphasize family, or emphasize service to humanity, or emphasize the importance of prayer, or emphasize the importance of self-cultivation and self-improvement. In essence, we are stewards of our lives, and our lives belong to God. When we decide to allocate our time among various activities there are many pursuits that our religion advocates. Can we do something that will build family unity? Should we do some service to people in our community, our neighbors, persons who are suffering in grief or poverty? Should we participate with our Baha’i community in events that will improve our community life? Should we read a book to become better informed about events of the world? Should we study some Baha’i scriptures or histories, or should we perhaps pray? Every hour we have choices about what we do with our time, and in essence these are ethical decisions, related to the various Baha’i principles that tell us what we ought to be emphasizing in our lives. If we took all the Baha’i principles literally we would always be neglecting some duty that the Baha’i religion enjoins us to satisfy.

I think we’re safe in refusing to take all Baha'i principles literally. Even ‘Abdu’l-Baha, our perfect example, sometimes enjoyed visiting a garden to enjoy the beauty of the flowers and trees and fountains, when he could instead have been out teaching the faith, praying, helping the poor, or attending to the psychological needs of his wife and daughters. It's not literally true that we must spend every waking moment "in service to the Cause of God" (whatever that means).

I’ll get on with my response to Mavaddat Javid now by quoting some of his propositions and explaining why I disagree with him.

Mavaddat wrote:
...if cherry picking is acceptable in the Bahá'í Faith (or any religion, really), then there's fundamentally no way to hold the religion accountable for its teachings: The believer can always shift the debate by feigning the excuse that they personally don't adhere to the more reprehensible parts of the religion, as if that was relevant....
The idea here is that a belief system that demands faith and obedience (such as a religion) should be held accountable for its teachings. What does it mean to be held accountable for its teachings? I suppose it means that when a religion makes claims we should be able to test those claims, and the results of such tests give us a way to determine the validity of a religion. Likewise, when a religion demands certain behaviors, or advocates certain behaviors, we should be be able to evaluate the morality of those behaviors and use our evaluations as a way of determining whether the religion is worthy of our belief. For example, if a religion asks us to wage religious war against the infidel, and if we personally think that waging religious war is repugnant, then we can know that those religions that advocate religious war have among their teachings at least one teaching that we find incompatible with our sense of what a true religion or good religion should teach. This will presumably make it possible for us to decide to avoid belonging to a religion that has such teachings. (Incidentally, the first law Baha'u'llah revealed when He declared His station was the abrogation of religious war).

I am suggesting that literal interpretations of every passage and fragment of revealed writings or authoritative communication from Baha’i Central Figures are inadequate methods for understanding Baha’i religious law. I claim that my opinion is based on fundamental core teachings of our Baha’i religion (as found in the Kitab-i-Iqan, the Book of Certitude). That is, our religion teaches us to not use blind imitation. Our religion teaches us to expect metaphorical meaning or figurative meaning in some types of religious texts. Our religion teaches us to be pragmatic, and to some degree goal-oriented in our ethics. Our religion also emphasizes taking the whole religion as a system rather than taking little passages from specific tablets out of context and trying to use them to build systems of belief or religious law that contradict the core teachings of the religion. The Baha’i religion also depends on people using their intellects, their rational faculties, and their common sense. We haven’t any clergy to tell us what to do, so we are told to study the religion for ourselves and use the independent search for truth, the discipline of Baha’i consultation, and so forth. Thus, I see Baha’i Law as being similar to nearly all other systems of law, where the written text of constitutions or legal codes is only the visible manifestation of a wider invisible system of assumptions, propositions, values, and contexts. (We have the Universal House of Justice to legislate, but it seems so far they hardly legislate much at all, and instead focus mainly on their administrative duties.)  I suggest that a religion must be held accountable to the whole system of what is there in the literal text and the wider context of that text. Both the words in the Kitab-i-Aqdas (the Baha’i book of laws) and the religion that surrounds that book must be considered. It seems to me that if we take the Kitab-i-Aqdas literally and apply it without thinking about its context we may very well be “turning away from the precepts laid down by God” in other sources, including the invisible and latent meanings and assumptions embedded within the literal text of the Kitab-i-Aqdas.

With this point of view, I don’t take the Kitab-i-Aqdas as a list of things we must do and things we must not do. It’s not that simple, and it’s not that straight-forward. Also, it’s more than that. A simple list of laws is not on the sublime level of spirituality one expects from the Kitab-i-Aqdas: “Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power…” (fifth paragraph of the Kitab-i-Aqdas).

So, this is a disagreement I have with Mavaddat. I think you can hold a religion accountable without taking every passage and law or precept as it is literally written in a holy text. The religious teachings must be taken in the context of the whole religion, and not torn apart in a reductionist exercise of taking the parts in isolation from the whole. Also, religion includes various forms of human language and communication beyond the sort of writing that one finds in instruction manuals and cookbooks. Religion includes forms of literature and expression related to poetry, folk tales, dreams, music, visual arts, and body language. It’s futile to try to reduce all this non-literal meaning and aesthetic beauty to a religion that works like blueprints for the construction of a building. If you take religious texts and study them as if they were mere blueprints (and sure, many Baha’is do this with our holy texts), I think you lose something profound and significant, and any evaluations you make of the religion based on such a nuts-and-bolts approach is going to lack validity.

Mavaddat also wrote that, “I felt it intellectually irresponsible to pick and choose.” I don’t see things the way he does. I think religions demand that we pick and choose, and so if we have intellectually integrity we must face this responsibility and do our picking and choosing carefully, and stop denying that picking and choosing will be part of our religious life.
Mavaddat quotes “Shoghi Effendi” (actually, he is mistaken, as he is quoting Shoghi Effendi’s secretary), who wrote:
"To follow Bahá’u'lláh does not mean accepting some of His teachings and rejecting the rest. Allegiance to His Cause must be uncompromising and whole-hearted."

Mavaddat doesn’t give the context of the passage, but I think the context is important. This was a letter written by Shoghi Effendi’s secretary to a local spiritual assembly on the topic of whether Baha’is should remain full members of other churches. And, if we continue where Mavaddat left off, we find that the rest of the paragraph written by Shoghi Effendi’s secretary confirms my point that Baha’is pick and choose. Here is the rest of the paragraph:

...During the days of the Master the Cause was still in a stage that made such an open and sharp disassociation between it and other religious organizations, and particularly the Muslim Faith not only inadvisable but practically impossible to establish. But since His passing, events throughout the Bahá’í World and particularly in Egypt where the Muslim religious courts have formally testified to the independent character of the Faith, have developed to a point that have made such an assertion of the independence of the Cause not only highly desirable but absolutely essential....

So, when you see the whole paragraph and understand the context, you see that the “law” of uncompromising and whole-hearted allegiance was itself a rule that only became “highly desirable” and “absolutely essential” when times and the context were ready for it to be applied. Further, it’s clear that this passage has something to do with with self-identifying as a Baha’i. I doubt it could literally mean that all Baha’is had to hold orthodox beliefs in Baha’i theology as Shoghi Effendi understood it, because around the time Shoghi Effendi’s secretary wrote this passage there was in fact a Hand-of-the-Cause who clearly believed in reincarnation, and didn’t apologize for believing in it. We also have the very famous case of the psychiatrist Auguste Forel, who wrote to ‘Abdu’l-Baha asking if he could, in good conscious, call himself a Baha’i when he didn’t believe in the personal immortality of the soul. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s letter in reply to Dr. Forel’s question (which is more important as a source of Baha’i law, since it was composed by a Central Figure in our faith, and not written by a secretary to the Guardian), did not tell Dr. Forel that he should stop calling himself a Baha’i because he didn’t believe in each and every teaching in the Baha’i Faith.

In fact, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s letter to Auguste Forel is an important source here. Dr. Forel was asking exactly this question about whether it was intellectually honest to call oneself a Baha’i when one didn’t actually accept every teaching of the Baha’i Faith, so ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s response is a direct response by a Central Figure to the question of whether it’s okay to pick and choose what we believe and still call ourselves Baha’is.

Mavaddat offers a few other quotations to support his idea that Baha’is must be dogmatic because our faith is dogmatic. He refers to a passage from a letter Shoghi Effendi wrote in 1924 to the American Baha’is, in which he wrote:
Are we to doubt that the ways of God are not necessarily the ways of man? Is not faith but another word for implicit obedience, whole-hearted allegiance, uncompromising adherence to that which we believe is the revealed and express will of God, however perplexing it might first appear, however at variance with the shadowy views, the impotent doctrines, the crude theories, the idle imaginings, the fashionable conceptions of a transient and troublous age? If we are to falter or hesitate, if our love for Him should fail to direct us and keep us within His path, if we desert Divine and emphatic principles, what hope can we any more cherish for healing the ills and sicknesses of this world?
First of all, I think this has to be taken in context. Religions must urge their followers to resist secular teachings that lower ethical standards, and it seems to me this is a passage reminding American Baha’is to keep their minds and hearts focused on religious teachings rather than secular substitutions for religious faith. Further, this was written early in Shoghi Effendi’s guardianship, and this was a time when obedience was very important, because ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s half-brother Mirza Muhammad Ali was challenging the institution of the Guardianship and Shoghi Effendi in particular. Given those contexts, this passage seems to me like a straight-forward reminder to remain loyal and obedient to our religion’s teachings, and not to abandon these for inferior substitutes (non-religious belief systems or anti-Baha’i religions). If it’s clear (as it is to me) from the whole body of Baha’i scripture that “the revealed and express will of God” includes the proposition that we should not use blind imitation, and that we should instead use independent search for truth and wisdom and common sense in discerning what aspects of a religion are metaphorical/figurative and which aspects should be taken literally, then this passage affirms my understanding rather than contradicting it.

There is also this reference to a passage from a ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Last Will and Testament:
To none is given the right to put forth his own opinion or express his particular conviction. All must seek guidance and turn unto the Center of the Cause and the House of Justice. And he that turneth unto whatsoever else is indeed in grievous error....
But again, this isn’t given in context. If you read the entire Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and this particular passage in its context you can reach several fairly obvious conclusions. First, this is hyperbole. ‘Abdu’l-Baha is exaggerating to make a point. Second, this is a specific rule for the time immediately following ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s death, when Shoghi Effendi was young and the Guardianship was a new institution without precedent in Baha’i scripture or history. Baha’u’llah’s Will had said that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s half-brother Muhammad Ali should become the leader of the Baha’is after ‘Abdu’l-Baha died, and ‘Abdu’l-Baha was claiming that things had changed and Muhammad Ali was no longer fit to be the leader of the Baha’is. ‘Abdu’l-Baha correctly anticipated that young Shoghi Effendi would encounter significant and serious opposition from Muhammad Ali and some other senior Baha’is, and this sort of exaggeration was useful and helpful in this situation, to get people who might doubt whether they should follow the guidance from ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament or Baha’u’llah’s to decide in favor of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s. Also, if you look in part two of the Last Will and Testament, you find this passage:
O dearly beloved friends! I am now in very great danger and the hope of even an hour’s life is lost to me. I am thus constrained to write these lines for the protection of the Cause of God, the preservation of His Law, the safeguarding of His Word and the safety of His Teachings.
Again, I think this implies that the Will and Testament needs to be considered in the context of its times and the situation in which is was written. I don’t think the hyperbole within it ought to be taken as a new law that supersedes core Baha’i teachings about consultation, the independent search for truth, or freedom of conscience. Rather, those fundamental and core teachings must be understood in a perspective that also values the authority of the Guardian and the House of Justice in their spheres of authority.

Mavaddat refers to a passage from a Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-i-Aqdas:
The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behoveth every one who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other.

Mavaddat suggests that the part about “it behoveth every one... to observe every ordinance of Him...” is to be taken literally. If it is to be taken literally, and without any context, then he’s right, and Baha’is can’t pick and choose. But such a literalistic interpretation of this passage seems ridiculous to me. I don’t understand it literally. I take it to mean that the two duties of humans are: 1) to recognize manifestations of God and have faith in religion, and 2) to behave ethically, following the laws of God. In behaving ethically and following the laws and precepts of religion, we must pick and choose. We cannot follow literally every law and precept in all occasions in exactly the same way. That is why I say we must pick and choose. In fact, I think our religion recognizes this.

Mavaddat wrote that:
In a sense, of course, you can pick-and-choose what laws to follow and which to ignore while calling yourself a Bahá’í. You “can” do whatever you like. But I think that beyond being profoundly dishonest intellectually, it also contradicts the expectation of being a Bahá’í as found in the writings of the Central Figures, UHJ, and Shoghi Effendi.

I disagree with him that picking and choosing is profoundly intellectually dishonest. Rather, I think admitting that we must pick and choose is intellectually honest. I think the source of the disagreement between us is Mavaddat’s understanding that every passage about obedience and Baha’i law must be taken literally, and may be taken out of context of the whole Baha’i Faith. I don’t see things that way, so I see things differently than he does.

In my earlier post I said that it was "bad logic" to say that if you are a Baha'i you must accept everything. I meant that this was a false dilemma, or "black and white thinking" where the two propositions were: "Baha'is must believe in everything in the entire body of Baha'i scripture as being literally true" or "Baha'is can choose to accept just whatever they like or want to accept from their religion." Neither of these propositions is true. Baha'is do not need to take everything in their religion as literally true, and they do not need to make superficial and ill-informed personal interpretations of every little fragment they encounter in their religion's holy texts, particularly when they are encouraged to take literalist understandings of fragments of texts given without the whole context. And, Baha'is aren't free to pick and choose according to personal preferences and tastes. Rather, they must use sincere judgement and an honest search for truth as they decide for themselves what things in the holy writings should be taken literally and what things are given to us in exaggerated poetic language or metaphor.

Mavaddat wrote that the Baha'i faith demands believers take a literalist approach to Baha'i law where everything must be accepted in its entirety, and there is no room to pick and choose. He says there is no false dilemma in this proposition, as it's simply a fact of Baha'i doctrine enshrined in authoritative Baha'i texts. I've explained why I don't accept this is as a matter of Baha'i doctrine, explained how I understand the texts that Mavaddat cites, and explained the propositions I think are there in the false dilemma (bad logic) in the statement that Baha'is must accept everything or else they aren't really Baha'is. Study 'Abdu'l-Baha's letter to Auguste Forel and the letter Dr. Forel wrote to 'Abdu'l-Baha and see what you think.

- Eric


Randy Burns said...

Thanks Eric, I really enjoyed reading this. A fresh perspective is always welcomed and often helps in creating a greater unity.


Priscilla said...

Eminently reasonable. I'm glad you are putting your voice out there. I wish I had encountered more of this kind of thinking when I was a Baha'i.

Anders Branderud said...

You wrote:“If you consider other passages from our holy texts you will reach a better conclusion, one that I agree with.” I don’t think people really mean “you can’t selectively consider the laws and teachings of the religion, because they all apply in every situation, and they always apply literally, and they are all of equal weight and equal significance in whatever particular situation you are facing.”

According to Torah – a central book in the Jewish religion – one must do ones best to observe all of the directives in Torah.

There is one principle: pi•qu′akh nëph′ësh; (Explanation: cognizance (overseeing, supervising) of the psyche, i.e. saving an endangered soul / life from any reasonably perceived threat, a medical emergency. )

One is allowed to breach a directive of Torah in case of piquakh nephesh (except one is never allowed to murder, commit adultery and idolatry).

I recommend the following article: proving using formal logic based on science the purpose of the Creator with humankind.