Sunday, 14 October 2007

Scriptural inerrancy

I'm very busy at work at the moment and thought I'd put up some archives. Below is a 1999 H-Baha'i message from Juan about scriptural inerrancy; that is, reading scripture literally. In it, he explains that the concept of scriptural inerrancy is alien to Baha'u'llah's revelation. Instead, Baha'u'llah adheres to what Juan calls 'perspectivist epistemology', which basically means that what is true for Person A in spiritual station X might be false for Person B in spiritual station Y. People interact with the writings depending on their spiritual station. Given this, the idea that scripture has one specific and literal meaning that we all ought to adhere to is nonsense.
And this is basically where I come unstuck with the administration. I have no trouble with people in power seeing the writings in a different way to me. They can believe the House has propositional infallibility if they want. They are in spiritual station X and I am in spiritual station Y and we see things in different ways as a result. But I am not granted the same respect. For some reason, I have to be wrong.
Quoted message begins:
I just want to demur from the idea that Baha'u'llah taught scriptural inerrancy. I think such a notion does enormous damage to Baha'u'llah's own thought, which was formed in the matrix of Muslim Neoplatonism and Ibn al-`Arabi's Sufi metaphysics, and which was premised on the notion that the physical, external world, is theo-semiotic, full of signs pointing toward the divine. Thus, it is a point of view completely incompatible with scriptural inerrantism, which to the contrary sees divine revelation as merely a set of factoids about the physical world that can be taken in a literalist way at face value.
It is true that Baha'u'llah insisted that his prophecies were borne out, and that this was because they were divinely revealed. But it *isn't* true that he insisted that the minor details of the prophecies were all perfectly fulfilled; that is, he did not insist that he was a mere weatherman making predictions and that everything depended on the details and minutiae.
Moreover, in untranslated tablets Baha'u'llah often admits that the truths he wishes to communicate are obscured by historically conditioned human language. He explicitly complains that he has to communicate 'in your tongue.' Indeed, his entire idea of progressive revelation, as explained in the Responses to Questions of Manakji Sahib, is based on the notion that each religion consists of a distinct *discourse* (guftigu), and that these are incommensurate with one another. When Manakji tries to get him involved in the basically syncretic activity of judging propositions in one religion against those of another, Baha'u'llah refuses precisely on the grounds that those were previous guftigu's, and now a new guftigu has come.
And, of course, Baha'u'llah's own discourse/guftigu was historically conditioned, and the acceleration of scientific advance and cultural interaction in modernity and postmodernity has already made some minor parts of it outmoded (alchemy, Greco-Islamic historiography, etc.) This vulnerability of the guftigu to becoming outmoded is the whole basis of the notion that humankind needs progressive revelation.
One problem is that relatively little of the vast corpus of Baha'u'llah's writings has been translated. Taherzadeh, an Iranian Baha'i fundamentalist (and an engineer untrained in literary or historical analysis), is extremely selective in what he presents, and he spins it heavy-handedly. So, of course it is easy to misread Baha'u'llah through his late 20th century lens as himself a fundamentalist. But anyone who knows Baha'u'llah's oeuvre well in Persian and knows the Sufi and Neoplatonic traditions in which he worked can only gape in astonishment at the idea of him as a scriptural literalist.
Instead, Baha'u'llah had a perspectivist epistemology, in which the truth-value of a proposition depended not on its intrinsic properties alone, but on who was perceiving it and under what circumstances. Thus, what is 'true' for one person at maqam/station "A" might be utter falsehood for another person at maqam/station "B". Such a standpoint epistemology is, again, incompatible with any theory of scriptural inerrancy, since the propositions of scripture cannot all be seen from the same perspective, given that every individual is at a different spiritual level.
I see fundamentalism in religion as an aspect of the High Modernist project (it is no accident that it is a 20th century phenomenon that reacts to science by appropriating scientistic rhetoric but inserting scriptural premises rather than scientific ones). I'm afraid I think that the importation into the Baha'i faith of what is essentially Protestant Fundamentalism is one of the ways in which the High Modernist project has rather set perhaps a majority of the Baha'i community on the wrong path, indeed, on a path that is 180 degrees away from Baha'u'llah's own.
Juan R.I. Cole
13 April 1999

Forthcoming book about Baha'u'llah's mystical teachings

  Paradise of Presence: Conversations in the Mindscape of Eternity by Alison Elizabeth Marshall