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.