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)
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.
A brief outline of mainstream understandings
For mainstream Baha'is, the concept of infallibility means being free from error in the sense of never being wrong; that is, being 100 percent 'right' (whatever that means) all the time. This capacity of being always right is an attribute of 'the hierarchy' only; no one else has it. It passes from God to Baha'u'llah, who is inherently infallible, then he 'confers' it on the faith's leaders of religion – previously Abdu'l-Baha and the Guardian, and now the institution of the House of Justice. This unerring guidance will go on through the centuries until the next manifestation comes, at which time the House of Justice will do its best to recognise the new manifestation (should be OK; it's infallible, after all) - but there's no knowing what the rest of humanity will do (see reference below).
I'll quote two passages to illustrate this thinking. The first one is from John Hatcher and it was published in the American Baha'i Online. It gives a neat overview of the understanding mainstream Baha'is are expected to have about infallibility and how it runs through the hierarchy.
"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 infallible guidance from God.
Therefore, we correctly regard the Most Holy Book as containing the foundational laws for our personal lives, but the elucidation, interpretation, and implementation of these laws by 'Abdul-Baha, Shoghi Effendi, and the House of Justice should be regarded as having the same weight and authority.
Infallibility admits of no 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."
John Hatcher, "Letters from God". The Amercian Baha'i Online, 18 September 2007
Next, I quote from a Department of the Secretariat letter about how things will pan out when the next manifestation comes.
"There is nothing in the Writings to support the view that the opposition or persecution [of the next manifestation] will be instigated or inflicted by the Universal House of Justice.
You are aware, of course, that one of the reasons for the appearance of a new Manifestation of God is to bring forth a spiritual renewal, as the former Dispensation would have passed through its stages of growth and reached its zenith. You can be sure that the Supreme Institution of the Faith, "under the care and protection of the Abhá Beauty, under the shelter and unerring guidance of His Holiness, the Exalted One", will exert every effort to recognize, when the time is ripe, the reality of the new Manifestation, and lead men to Him. How the majority of the people at that time will respond is a truth locked up in the treasury of God's knowledge."
Letter from the Department of the Secretariat, 1997
I could say much more about the mainstream understanding of infallibility, but I'll go into details as I move on.
We should start with what Baha'u'llah says
This may sound obvious to some, but a discussion on infallibility should start with what Baha'u'llah has to say about it.
This is an issue of methodology. Consideration of any matter concerning the faith should start with Baha'u'llah and what he has to say (if anything). My experience of Baha'is is that they don't understand this principle. They pick up a book like Lights of Guidance or a collection of letters from the House of Justice or the Guardian, read what it says and go no further. Worse, they read what is said in the Ruhi materials and take that as gospel.
If you think about it, it is logical. Is there any need to go any further, when what the House or the Guardian says is infallible anyway? Surely, their statements alone suffice for understanding. Moreover, if the House of Justice counsels the believers to study Ruhi, then surely the Ruhi materials must be right (infallible) also, because otherwise the House wouldn't recommend them.
This logic comes through in the passage above from John Hatcher. He tells us that the "other sources" – that is, those apart from Baha'u'llah - are "equally authoritative" as Baha'u'llah. So why bother to look up what Baha'u'llah has to say when the other sources will do? For many Baha'is, what Baha'u'llah says is difficult to understand anyway because it is assumes a knowledge of Islam.
It's not my intention to discuss the issue of methodology at length, but I do want to address it in order to explain why I begin my discussion on infallibility with Baha'u'llah and not jump in, for example, with passages of Abdu'l-Baha from Some Answered Questions or his Will and Testament, where most Baha'is begin and end their discussion on the topic.
The statement that 'other sources are equally authoritative as Baha'u'llah' is at best, horribly misleading, and, at worst, plain wrong. The principles that define the relationship between the word of Baha'u'llah and the sayings of other sources are in many ways the same as those that define the relationships between the various institutions of a democracy.
In a democracy, the people elect a group of people to represent them and these elected representatives are empowered to make law that binds the people. The law they make is called 'legislation' and is found in statutes or Acts of Parliament. Sometimes, this legislation gives other institutions the power to make law themselves; for example, it might empower local councils to make law for their towns and cities. Sometimes, this legislation gives people like judges the power to interpret the law and decide disputes between people. Sometimes, this law gives institutions like the police the power to arrest people and take them into custody. A lot of legislation gives powers to others to do things that are law-like; in other words, to do things that restrict the rights and freedoms of others. What's happening is that the legislation 'confers' these powers on others.
But, and this is important, the powers that legislation confers on others have limits. For example, the police are allowed to arrest people, but only in certain circumstances, which are spelled out in the legislation. They can't arrest you just because you are enjoying an ice cream in a public place. But they can if you kill someone in a public place. Local councils in New Zealand are allowed to make law controlling dogs. This means that if your dog mauls someone, the council can have it put down. But it can't put your dog down just because it happened to bark the other night and wake up the neighbours. And so on it goes: limits like this apply to everyone with the powers to do law-like things.
As a result, you get a lot of debate in democracies about whether an action of a person or institution is within the limits set down by the legislation. For example, let's say a local council makes a law that says "The council can put down any dog that attacks a person". However, the legislation governing the council says something like "Local councils may impound dogs but may not put them down." This would mean that the law made by the council was outside the powers given to it by the legislation. A person could go to court and have the law struck down. The point to note here is that, when there is dispute over the extent of the powers given to a person or institution, the issue is decided by going back to what the legislation says. No one can do anything that is inconsistent with what the legislation says. What the legislation says controls what others can do or say. The legislation is the boss, and everyone else must act in accordance with it.
The same is true in the Baha'i context. The 'other sources' must act and speak in accordance with what Baha'u'llah has written. No one can do anything that is inconsistent with what Baha'u'llah says. What Baha'u'llah says controls what others can do or say. Baha'u'llah is the boss, and everyone else must act in accordance with his word. Therefore, if there is any question about any matter, the first step is to find out what Baha'u'llah says on the matter. He establishes the principles and, from there, we may get further insight from other sources. But whatever other sources say, it must be in accordance with what Baha'u'llah says.
In light of this, let's look briefly at the statement 'other sources are equally authoritative as Baha'u'llah'. This is like saying 'what judges decide is equally authoritative as legislation'. However, what a judge decides is not equally authoritative as legislation. A judge's decision is made in accordance with legislation. A judge simply applies law in order to make a decision. At all times, the judge and everyone else involved in the case have regard to the applicable legislation and any other relevant law. And, to find out what that law says, they must consult the original source. All decisions are based on the source.
The best that can be made of the statement that a judge's decision is 'equally authoritative' as legislation is that it is binding; in other words, the parties to the case must abide by the decision. In this sense, the judge's decision is 'law' (this is particularly the case if the decision is made by a high court). But the decision is not equally authoritative as legislation because it does not stand on its own. All decisions are made with reference to primary law and principles and cannot be understood except in the light of them. For this same reason, Baha'is should not content themselves with the words of the 'other sources' alone. They should read what those sources say in the light of the primary law and principles that Baha'u'llah has set down.
"O people, look not upon Me through your eyes or the eyes of your leaders, for by God, the Eternal Truth, that shall never profit you in any way, even should ye appeal for help to the first creatures to be created. Rather, look upon My beauty with My eyes, for if ye gaze with the eyes of anyone else, ye will never know Me. Thus hath the matter been revealed in the tablets of God, the Almighty, the Glorious, the Wise." Baha'u'llah, Garden of Justice, paragraph 14