Friday, 16 May 2008

Infallibility 4

Infallibility and the idea of never being wrong

In earlier instalments of my infallibility series, I have argued that infallibility means what Baha'u'llah says it means: being guarded against sin, rebellion, impiety, disbelief, joining partners with God and the like. In this instalment, I want to begin exploring the common understanding Baha'is have about infallibility - that it means never being wrong. At some later point, I will compare it with what Baha'u'llah meant by the term.

The Shorter Oxford Dictionary tells us that the English word 'infallible' means: "of a person or judgement etc: not liable to err or be deceived". The idea here is that the person or judgement is guaranteed to be right. When we say in English that something is infallible, we are thinking to ourselves: we can rely on this thing because it's accurate - it always gets it right. Characteristic of this understanding is that it does not allow for a grey area. If something gets it wrong, we'll quickly say that it's fallible. Something can't be usually infallible or 90 percent infallible. It is either infallible or it is not. The concept of infallibility is understood in the same way as the concept of uniqueness. Something is either unique or it is not; it is one of a kind or it is not. So, an important aspect to the meaning of the English concept of infallibility is that it is an all-or-nothing affair. It does not admit of degrees.

This understanding is reflected in John Hatcher's article on infallibility: "Infallibility does not admit degrees. That is, a statement is either infallible or it is not." Hatcher is emphasising the very idea that infallibility is not a grey area, it is an all-or-nothing affair, a statement or advice is either infallible or it is not. Note that it is not usual, as Hatcher has done here, to assign infallibility to a statement or advice; usually we say that a person or institution is infallible. What is likely intended is that a statement or advice from an infallible source is guaranteed to be right, end of story.

This position is often referred to by its critics as 'propositional inerrancy'. 'Proposition' here simply means a statement or assertion. The idea is that a person is propositionally inerrant if that person's statements or assertions are never wrong. I think the common Baha'i view on infallibility is wider even than this, for the common view is not only that the House's statements and assertions are inerrant but that its guidance and decisions are too. Despite this, I will label the common view on infallibility 'propositional inerrancy' so that I can easily refer to it and distinguish it from other positions.

Having thought about propositional inerrancy a great deal, I've discovered that one could write a whole book about it. Issues associated with it spring off in all directions. I don't intend to try to tackle them all. In this instalment, I'll deal with some and cover others later. Here I will look at issues associated with the contingency of the physical world.

The common criticism of the position that John Hatcher argues for is that people go for it because it provides them with certainty. As Sen McGlinn so aptly put it, by aligning ourselves with something infallible, we guarantee that we are "not-wrong" ourselves. It is, he continues, "a way of short-circuiting the critical faculty and banishing doubt and reflection". If we rely on something infallible, then we don't have to think about any issue ourselves. It's easy.

A fundamental problem with propositional inerrancy is that it runs completely contrary to the way the physical world works. The physical world is contingent. God created it that way. The Shorter Oxford defines 'contingent' as: "of uncertain occurrence; liable to happen or not". If we put that idea with the physical world, we get a world that is made up of happenings that have occurred, that may or may not occur and that may change in any way at any time. It is a world where things are uncertain and not reliable at all. If anything, the contingency of the world makes it the very opposite to infallible. It's easy to see, then, that if we take propositional inerrancy and apply it to an aspect of the contingent world, it cuts a path of certainty through the morass of life. Even if certainty is not what motivates people to believe in propositional inerrancy, there can be no doubt that generating a realm of certainty is a natural consequence of the position.

Is certainty in a contingent world possible? Best place to look for it is in relation to the prophets. For them, do we find a realm of certainty that has banished the contingency of the world to outside its borders? In what follows, I will look at some prophets and at Baha'i central figures and identify situations where, in my view, they were not propositionally inerrant. Note that I am not arguing that they were not 'infallible'. I'm arguing that they were not propositionally inerrant. Note also that I am not trying to be disrespectful of the prophets. I am just trying to show the reality of the situations they faced.

To start with, we have the story of Noah that Baha'u'llah recounts in the Kitab-i Iqan (para 7). Baha'u'llah tells us that, several times, Noah promised victory to his followers and prophesied the hour. Each time, the prophecies failed and this caused some of his followers to leave. Here is an example of a prophet's fallibility. He made statements and they proved to be wrong, and this is confirmed by Baha'u'llah himself. In fact, Baha'u'llah tells us that God actually caused the prophecies to fail (para 8).

You might be saying: yes, but Noah is a minor prophet and not one endowed with constancy. I argue that the principle still applies. Let's look at a couple of stories about Muhammad:

"Ibn Ishaq, who is said to have been a Shi'ite, relates two revealing early Muslim stories about the Prophet Muhammad. One is that at one of the battles with the Meccans, the Prophet staked out a position on a plain at the bottom of some hills. One of his companions asked him, 'Is this from God or is it your idea?' Muhammad allowed as how it was his own idea. The companion said, 'In that case, I suggest we take the high ground.' And the Muslims did, and they won. On another occasion the Prophet noticed that in Medina the date cultivators hurried things along by manually fertilizing the female date trees with pollen from the males. He found this human/plant sexuality disturbing and ordered it to cease. Of course, the date crop was awful the following year. When the date farmers complained to him, he admitted that perhaps his intervention had been an error. 'Antum a`lam bi dunyakum,' he said: 'You are more knowledgeable about your world.'" (cited by Juan Cole, email message to Talisman 02 Aug 1998)

And what about the Bab? The Bab told his followers that he would go to the Shrine of Husayn in the Atabat (Iraq) after his pilgrimage to Mecca, to make a crucial declaration of his mission to a gathering of his followers. The Babis placed huge weight on this public declaration, believing it to be the fulfilment of the centuries-old prophecy that the Qa'im would come and defeat his enemies completely. However, persecutions in the Atabat at the time had become serious and this caused the Bab to call the meeting off and he went home to Shiraz instead. This was a serious challenge to the faith of the early believers. Their expectation that the Qa'im would triumph over his enemies was not borne out and this caused them to doubt the Bab's authenticity. They interpreted this turn of events as proof that the Bab was fallible. He had arranged a momentous gathering, but had not proved himself able to overcome the contingencies thrown up to prevent it. (For details about this story, see Abbas Amanat: "Resurrection and Renewal", pp 250-254)

A good example from Baha'u'llah can be found in the Kitab-i Iqan. Baha'u'llah clearly states there that when he left Baghdad for the mountains of Kurdistan, he had no intention of returning. But, as he puts it, his "mortal conceptions" and "human designs" were overridden by God and he was summoned to return:

"Alone, We communed with Our spirit, oblivious of the world and all that is therein. We knew not, however, that the mesh of divine destiny exceedeth the vastest of mortal conceptions, and the dart of His decree transcendeth the boldest of human designs. None can escape the snares He setteth, and no soul can find release except through submission to His will. By the righteousness of God! Our withdrawal contemplated no return, and Our separation hoped for no reunion. The one object of Our retirement was to avoid becoming a subject of discord among the faithful, a source of disturbance unto Our companions, the means of injury to any soul, or the cause of sorrow to any heart. Beyond these, We cherished no other intention, and apart from them, We had no end in view. And yet, each person schemed after his own desire, and pursued his own idle fancy, until the hour when, from the Mystic Source, there came the summons bidding Us return whence We came. Surrendering Our will to His, We submitted to His injunction." (Iqan, p 251)

What are we to make of this? Baha'u'llah sets out with the intention of not returning. If we'd been on the spot at the time and could have asked him what he was doing, every indication is that he would have said something like: I'm going to the mountains of Kurdistan in order to avoid being the subject of discord and I do not intend to come back. But that was the fallible plan of a mortal and a human, which didn't turn out as planned. Baha'u'llah even admits here that he did not know that God would override his plan not to return.

Moving from the prophets to Abdu'l-Baha, we have the issue of the Guardianship. Shoghi Effendi was unable to appoint a successor because no suitable candidate existed among those eligible and this caused the Guardianship to lapse. This was not anticipated by Abdu'l-Baha. The Will and Testament itself testifies to the fact that Abdu'l-Baha believed the Guardianship would last through the centuries.

As for the House of Justice, the Guardian himself did not consider it to be propositionally inerrant. This is clear from the following statement in World Order of Baha'u'llah, where the Guardian envisages the possibility that the House of Justice might make a law that he believed was not in the spirit of Baha'u'llah's teachings:

"Though the Guardian of the Faith has been made the permanent head of so august a body he can never, even temporarily, assume the right of exclusive legislation. He cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members, but is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Baha'u'llah's revealed utterances." (Shoghi Effendi: World Order of Baha'u'llah, p 150)

The point of these stories is that, even for the prophets and chosen ones, the contingent world was not made certain for them, despite their privileged spiritual knowledge. Events they expected to happen did not always eventuate. The contingency of the world did get in the way. Baha'u'llah has much to say about the contingency of the world. But I have not found anywhere where he says that God makes the contingent world constant for believers. On the contrary, Baha'u'llah explains that the contingency of the world is there for a purpose and plays an important part in God's plan. In explanation, he says that God causes the prophets to get it wrong, and appear powerless and fallible in the face of contingency in order to test the faith of the believers. What do they have their faith in - in the world or in God? In his discussion about Noah and the fact that God caused his prophecies to fail, Baha'u'llah says:

"from time immemorial even unto eternity the Almighty hath tried, and will continue to try, His servants, so that light may be distinguished from darkness, truth from falsehood, right from wrong..." (para 8)

Interesting, isn't it, that God should cause these doubts to occur in the minds of believers, in order to distinguish right from wrong? What exactly could be "wrong" here? I would say that what's wrong is placing one's faith in the world being certain. This is wrong because it conflicts with the principles that God does whatever God wills, and that God's hands are never chained up. When you think about it, there is actually nothing 'wrong' about not being right all the time. Who cares? There is no lack of virtue in it. But there is something truly wrong about putting one's faith in the world being the way you expect it to be.

"Say: By God, you are only as a wayfarer resting in the shade of a tree. But that shade is of necessity ephemeral, and you must not repose your confidence in it or in anything that will pass away. Put your trust in what does not perish, in what endures in the immortality of God, the everlasting, the eternal, the glorious. Have you found that your mornings are like your evenings, or that your youth is like your old age? All this is a reminder to you, Muslims. The contradictions apparent in all things were only ordained to remind you of the impermanence of your selves, so that you might become aware of it and not be obdurate." Baha'u'llah: City of Radiant Acquiescence, para 11

1 comment:

Priscilla Gilman said...

Hi Alison,

Well, I posted this first to Baha’is Online, and then Steve informed me that you are allowing comments now. That’s great; I’m curious to see what kind of dialogue unfolds here.

I'm having a bit of difficulty with the section of this piece on the "physical world" and fallibility/infallibility. I wonder if “physical world” is not quite what you mean or if you mean it in a way I do not understand. Perhaps you can clarify.

You write,

"A fundamental problem with propositional inerrancy is that it runs completely contrary to the way the physical world works. The physical world is contingent. God created it that way. The Shorter Oxford defines 'contingent' as: "of uncertain occurrence; liable to happen or not". If we put that idea with the physical world, we get a world that is made up of happenings that have occurred, that may or may not occur and that may change in any way at any time. It is a world where things are uncertain and not reliable at all. If anything, the contingency of the world makes it the very opposite to infallible."

Both the definitions of infallibity that you give assume a judging, acting consciousness, something the physical world (trees, rocks, stars, dog turds, water molecules, etc.), as far as I know, does not have. Since I don’t see how the physical world can err, be deceived, sin, or disbelieve, etc, I don’t see how it can be “the very opposite” of infallible in either the propositional inerrancy sense of the term or in the sense that you attribute to Baha’u’llah.

As I think about it more, I realize that I have been under the impression that the Baha’i writings (somewhere I can’t locate at the moment, perhaps because the passages don’t exist) give the idea that the physical/natural world perfectly reflects the divine to the degree that it can because it has no choice but to do so. (And also that we humans have the capacity to more fully reflect the divine, but also the free will that allows us not to.) This idea of the “physical world” seems to me to be more in-line with the idea of infallibility you attribute to Baha’u’llah than opposite to it.

I would note, too, that Muhammad’s error in stopping the manual fertilization of date trees was in ignoring the predictability of changes in the physical world, not an outcome of its liability to “change in any way at any time.” It seems in the examples you give that it is human choice and consciousness that are contingent, not “the physical world.” Of course, we are part of the physical world, too . . . but I don’t think our part can really be generalized to all of it, to the very nature of “the physical world.”

Much more could be said, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Thanks for your good work.

my best to you,