Monday, 29 September 2008

The Baha'i modernist worldview

For those who haven't had a chance to read Sen's fabulous blog entry, I recommend they do. It's called "For the betterment of the world" and this blog entry is a response to it.

Although Sen wrote the essay because he wanted to discuss the issue of Baha'i involvement in politics, I find the ideas in it clarify other issues I have been struggling with - and these have to do with how modernism has shaped the way Baha'is see the faith. One of the crucial things that Sen does in his essay is explain clearly the difference between pre-modern society, a modern state and a postmodern state. The modern state is described as "rationalised, centralised, nationalist, colonialist (and oppressive where it can get away with it), with a state ideology and ideological political parties - intrudes on the sphere of thought, including religion. It tries to "train" the citizens it needs, or thinks it needs, and to justify its actions and ambitions, and it employs ideological tools such as patriotism or a particular state ideology to do it." When I read this, I see the Baha'i administration with its community fallen into line. OK, it's not nationalist, but it is triumphalist within the sphere of religion. Most important for my discussion here is that it intrudes into the sphere of thought of members and trains them for its ideological goals.

Towards the end of the essay, Sen says that: "It is important for Bahais to note that the high tide of the modern state coincides with the end of Abdu’l-Baha’s ministry and the whole of Shoghi Effendi’s ministry." To me, this explains the worldview in which the Guardian dreamed up the Baha'i administration. No doubt the Guardian never intended to it to fall prey to the negative aspects of modernity - using the administration as a way of getting power and wealth, attacking social groups that are disliked, or to promote exclusivity and triumphalism - but he had a modern worldview nonetheless. And because Baha'is are stuck in a Guardian time warp, they still see the faith in a modernist way. Key features of this include: a centralised administration that wields absolute authority using the ideology that the administration is, exclusively, the Baha'i Faith. This is justified on the basis of a self-serving, narrow interpretation of the covenant, backed up with the idolatrous doctrine of infallibility. All those wishing to join are persuaded to accept this claim, encouraged to put all their resources into carrying out the centralised plans, and indoctrinated to believe that there is no salvation outside this realm. All activity must take place within the acceptable spheres of participation; those who follow their own star are ostracised and those who speak out in a persuasive way are disenrolled.

A crucial idea that helps to prop up this ideological structure is the argument that the term 'unenrolled Baha'i' is an oxymoron (a contradition in terms) - to be a Baha'i, one must be a member of the Baha'i community. One way to see the huge psychological power this idea has on the minds of Baha'is is to liken it to the concept of 'pointing the bone' once used, as I understand it, by Australian aborigines. If a person had the bone pointed at them, they simply wandered away and died. It was a death sentence. Similarly, Baha'is cannot imagine surviving without membership in the Baha'i community, as if there's no oxygen 'out there' to breathe. This notion that being an unenrolled Baha'i is impossible does not have its roots in the revelation; it comes out of the Baha'i modernist worldview.

Sen's discussion on the concept of modernism has shed light on another issue that has been with me for several years - and that is the push to work like a Trojan, 24/7, because there isn't any time! Previously, I interpreted this drive to work, work, work, and its associated anxiety about laziness, as the protestant work ethic. But recently, in conversation with Steve, I realised that there is another source for this nagging silent voice, and that is the words of the Guardian: "The field is indeed so immense, the period so critical, the Cause so great, the workers so few, the time so short, the privilege so priceless, that no follower of the Faith of Baha'u'llah, worthy to bear His name, can afford a moment's hesitation." (Advent of Divine Justice, p46) That was written in 1939, just before World War Two, and, I realise now, is also a crucial aspect of the Baha'i modernist worldview. Not only must Baha'is operate within sanctified spheres for salvation, but there isn't time to do anything else if we're to save humanity. Don't glance out the window, keep facing straight ahead, don't lose your chance. I swear, I've spent nearly three decades running around in a panic because of that quote (hence the feelings of uselessness expressed in the earlier blog entry). All for what? Have the Baha'is saved humanity? No, they can't even save themselves. We are all still here; it's just 70 years on. But I can see the passage in its context now; I see it from the point of view of one who lives beyond the millennium, outside the Baha'i community, and free of Baha'i modernist ideology.

And so the last 30-odd years of my life will be spent being a Baha'i in a postmodern world, free to discover for myself what that means. Sen describes the postmodern state: "In the postmodern state, the state recognises its limitations. It has no business in the world of thought, it cannot direct the economy although it can provide good law. It does not have any legitimate means to train the right kind of citizens..." I'm going to follow my own star; I'm going to fulfil my duties to Baha'u'llah according to my spiritual calling; I'm going to do things I would never have done had I remained a member of the Baha'i community; and I'm going to discover things about myself I wouldn't have discovered otherwise. And one day - it'll come - the Baha'i administration will realise that it needs to get out of the world of thought, stop indoctrinating its members according to its self-serving ideology, and get down to the virtuous business of making good law.


oneness said...

This is the most interesting blog I have found for a long time. As an european bahá'í in a country where the number of adult bahá'ís fall below 1.000 I don't have the same experiences as North American bahá'ís, but I recognize much in your articles.

I often wonder what the result should be if all bahá'ís in the world should vote about whom the most important mans of God are in the Bahá'í history. Should the sequence be:

1) Bahá'u'lláh
2) The Báb
3) 'Abdu'l-Bahá
4) Shoghi Effendi
or should the Guardian be ranked higher tha the Báb?

Anyway, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi have at times dogmatized or speculated wrong about the 20th century. In some of His writings 'Abdu'l-Bahá says that the new world order should be established before year 2000. The Guardian obviously feared that a rapid and accelerated growth of the Bahá'í faith should provoke attacks against the faith from outsiders (older and long-established religions) as well as from insiders (bahá'ís who find oddities and quirks). The accelerated growth has defaulted, but the Bahá'í administration is nevertheless unsociable outwards and trust to the Administration and the Five-Year Plan almost more than God. Furthermore, the women in the local Bahá'í community work much more as servants compared with the men.

But the Cause is never the same as God. Never.

Phoenix Sanmare

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

The Bahai administration is almost wholly of a Max Weber view of bureaucracy (that follows charismatic and traditional authority). It is pyramidal and, for Weber, pessimistic. It is indeed very modernist. What one would look for in a humane and sensitive body is something like Burns and Stalker systemic authority or even Mayo's human relations authority - much more flexible and workable within a postmodern setting that the Bahai founders did not foresee.