Infallibility is an attribute
In the last installment, we saw that Baha'u'llah says that infallibility "has diverse meanings and stations", which is the opposite of John Hatcher's claim that "Infallibility admits of no degrees". I also covered the basic idea of infallibility, which, Baha'u'llah says, is that it is the name given to a person – any person, not just leaders of religion - who God protects from sin. (I'll note here for clarification that the meaning of infallibility has another dimension altogether when it is applied to the manifestation. But for now, I want to focus on infallibility as it is applied to ordinary humans. I'll discuss the Most Great Infallibility later. Infallibility is such a big topic that I have to deal with small chunks at a time.)
In order to shed more light on the above, I want to discuss next the idea that infallibility is an attribute of God. In my view, this idea is very important because it gives us a way of understanding how infallibility works in the scheme of things. The trouble Baha'is face, I think, is that they see infallibility as a magical thing because they have no framework in which to view it. And, because they see it as magical, they are happy to apply it to others such as their religious leaders, who are people they will never know personally, and assume it couldn't possibly apply to them.
What do I mean by 'attribute of God'? I simply mean the attributes of God that we see referred to all through the writings. A good place to find attributes of God is the Long Healing Prayer. It is a prayer based entirely on the recital of attributes and names of God. Let's quote a few lines from the US Baha'i prayer book (p91) to see what I'm talking about:
"He is the Healer, the Sufficer, the Helper, the All-Forgiving, the All-Merciful.
I call on Thee O Exalted One, O Faithful One, O Glorious One! Thou the Sufficing, Thou the Healing, Thou the Abiding, O Thou Abiding One!"
The above are attributes and names of God. Examples of attributes are: healer, sufficer, helper, all-forgiving, all-merciful and so on; examples of names are: O Exalted One, O Faithful One, O Glorious One. The point I want to make is that 'infallible' is another attribute too – God is also infallible or, as a name, Infallible One. It may seem to some like I'm saying something obvious, but believe me, this obvious idea cuts ice in a big way when the logical consequences of it are examined. If infallibility is an attribute like any other, then we should view it in the same way that we view other attributes. Whatever principles apply to other attributes apply to it also. We know from the writings a lot about the attributes of God and the way they behave, and so we can get a long way to understanding infallibility simply by applying those principles to it.
It is clear from the passage about infallibility in Some Answered Questions that Abdu'l-Baha thought of infallibility as an attribute of God. This comes through in these two sentences:
"Know that infallibility is of two kinds: essential infallibility and acquired infallibility. In like manner there is essential knowledge and acquired knowledge; and so it is with other names and attributes." (`Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions, p171)
I expect you'll be familiar with the first sentence: that infallibility has two stations – essential infallibility and acquired infallibility. But you may not have taken much notice of the second sentence. Here, Abdu'l-Baha is likening knowledge to infallibility. He is saying that, like infallibility, which has two stations, knowledge has two stations also. And, what's more, so do other names and attributes. What Abdu'l-Baha is doing here is thinking of infallibility as an attribute of God; he is explaining how infallibility works in terms of the framework that all attributes operate in. And, in this passage, he is making the point that all names and attributes have two basic stations: an essential one and an acquired one.
Now, the thing is this: Baha'is like to say all over the place that infallibility has two levels – they are very aware that there is this thing called 'essential infallibility' and this thing called 'acquired infallibility', which they usually refer to as 'conferred infallibility'. Take John Hatcher's classic mainstream explanation about infallibility for example. He is aware of the two levels. I've italicised the two words that indicate where he is referring to the passage above from Some Answered Questions:
"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
But there is not, as far as I'm aware, a single Baha'i commentator who has pointed out that the other attributes have two levels too. Baha'is don't emphasise, when discussing trustworthiness for example, that there are two levels: essential trustworthiness and conferred trustworthiness. And yet, there are. There is essential trustworthiness and conferred trustworthiness. What's more, there is also essential loving kindness and conferred loving kindness, essential forgivingness and conferred forgivingness, essential generosity and conferred generosity, essential truthfulness and conferred truthfulness. In the sentences following the above passage in Some Answered Questions, Abdu'l-Baha does something similar to what I have just done, he points out that, just as there is essential infallibility, there is also essential knowledge and essential power.
"Essential infallibility is peculiar to the supreme Manifestation, for it is His essential requirement, and an essential requirement cannot be separated from the thing itself. The rays are the essential necessity of the sun and are inseparable from it. Knowledge is an essential necessity of God and is inseparable from Him. Power is an essential necessity of God and is inseparable from Him." (`Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions, p171)
The characteristic of the two levels – essential and conferred – is a characteristic of the framework in which all the names and attributes operate. All attributes have an essential dimension and a conferred dimension to them. This is because the essential dimension applies to God and the manifestations, and the conferred dimension applies to the rest of us. For God and the manifestations, their attributes are an inherent part of them and this means that they do not lack perfection on any level. We, on the other hand, receive our perfections as a ray of bounty from the manifestation (who reflects them to us from God). All our perfections are conferred on us from the manifestations. They are not an inherent part of us; we have to work at acquiring perfections by carrying out the spiritual disciplines outlined for us by Baha'u'llah, such as reading the writings, praying and fasting. Abdu'l-Baha refers to these things when he says the following about acquired infallibility: "But acquired infallibility is not a natural necessity; on the contrary, it is a ray of the bounty of infallibility which shines from the Sun of Reality upon hearts, and grants a share and portion of itself to souls." (`Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions, p172)
In light of this, let's go back to the statements in the first paragraph. First, Baha'u'llah says that infallibility "has diverse meanings and stations", which is the opposite of John Hatcher's claim that: "Infallibility admits of no degrees." Let's look at this using another, different, attribute, such as patience. You probably have no problem accepting the idea that being patient has diverse meanings and stations. One person might wait patiently while a disabled person slowly moves across in front of them on the footpath; another person might put up with decades of irritating behaviour from a spouse. It is certainly not true that "Patience admits of no degrees." This is not true of any attribute of God. The attributes are reflected by us in varying degrees and at varying levels, and this principle applies equally to the attribute of infallibility.
Baha'u'llah says that infallibility is the name given to any person who God protects from sin. Let's look at this in terms of degree. A person refuses to participate with fellow believers in a backbiting session about another member. This person is reflecting the attribute of infallibility. A person stops themselves from making a cutting remark in response to an underhand comment from a spouse. This person is reflecting the attribute of infallibility. A person walks through a valley of gold and doesn't notice it. This person is reflecting the attribute of infallibility. A person refuses to recant their faith even though it means they lose their life. This person is reflecting the attribute of infallibility. A person says publicly 'I believe in Baha'u'llah' even though this means being ostracised by their family. This person is reflecting the attribute of infallibility. We can show the attribute of infallibility in a multitude of situations. To everyone who has ever stood up for truth, justice and moral integrity in the face of adverse circumstances, 'infallibility' is your name. We are selling ourselves short in a big way if we imagine that only our religious leaders can be infallible. We never say that only the House of Justice can be loving, powerful and knowledgeable. Similarly, we should not imagine that only it can be infallible.