Friday, November 30, 2007

Wait a Momen: Part 2 with Preface

(Part 1 here.)

Oh, poopy—I’m all out of sync with the goings-on in Baha’i cyberspace. While I procrastinated on posting Part 2 of “Wait a Momen,” word of Moojan Momen’s latest article in the academic journal Religion, “Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha’i Community,” hit the Internet and has created quite a stir in some corners, with good reason. You can read the abstract here. He focuses on twelve individuals whom he names as “apostates,” which in his definition are people who have left the Baha’i Faith and dedicated themselves to attacking it. I’ve read the whole article. The only person his argument might fit is Wahid Azal, who has accepted the accusation with pride. His remarks can be read in the comments here. Here are links to some other responses, mostly by persons named or referenced in the article:

Alison Marshall
Karen Bacquet
Umm Yasmin
Steve Marshall
Brendan Cook

Momen’s article is a strange tangle of accurate perceptions, assertions with scant or absent evidence, factual errors, exaggerations, omissions, and underneath all an annoyance that anyone is publicly criticizing the Faith and being heard.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program:


When it comes to traditions of worship, I’m a bit of a slut. I love the silent receptivity of ascetic contemplation. I love the joyful noise and agonized cries of the Black sacred music tradition. I am so smitten by Abraham Heschel’s writing on the meaning of the Jewish sabbath that I have considered observing it myself. And after a few months of reading Anna Dirks’s essays on Islam at her blog, Annalog, I long to hear the muezzin call, to perform wud’u, and to prostrate myself five times a day in prayer. The passive/active dichotomy Moojan Momen uses with its bad/good implication doesn’t seem to me a very useful way to look at religious practice.

Momen draws his model of passivity from the worship and ritual of an imagined, generalized Christianity, but I’d like to take him to the real Episcopal church I attend when I’m up to it, where, in the course of an average Sunday morning service, those gathered sing, stand, kneel, eat, drink, read scripture singly and collectively, greet each other with “The Peace of the Lord,” and listen to a sermon which may be given by a member of the clergy or of the laity, or even by a group of youth with mics, drums and electric guitars. That one kid looks so sweet when he sits with his family in the pews, but he can wail somethin’ good when he goes down on his knees singing, heavy-metal style, “Confess your siiiiiiiiins!” The congregation goes wild.

And we do too many other things to mention. Just recently I watched the children carry to the altar groceries brought by congregants as donations to the local food pantry. Giving to others is giving to God. A one-year-old toddled up with a large box of Life cereal. Depending on the day he came, Moojan Momen might have his feet washed by a member of the congregation and wash the feet of another. On the first Sunday of the month he could receive the hands and prayers of members who have joined together under the rather hokey name “the healing team” and who pray with individuals for their specific needs during communion. I try to go on the first Sunday of the month.

One of these days I will ask that the whole congregation lay hands on me and pray for my healing. It is lovely when it happens, usually when someone is going to have an operation. She sits in a chair and all gather close around her. Those closest place their hands on her head, shoulders, legs, arms, and everyone else places their hands on those in front of them so that we chain together. Then we pray, the priest aloud, the rest in silence. All healers in the name of Christ. I would be happy—and I do not mean this sarcastically—to have Moojan Momen there on the day I receive this gift. Lay and ordained, visitor and member, we all give. And we all receive.

What rubs my heart like 60 grit sandpaper is the way Moojan Momen maligns receiving. He reads it as passive, as the negative opposite of active. In this view, receiving is lazy, it is not doing for yourself. “Each Bahá’í must be his or her own priest.” What a lonely vision. But receiving is not the negative, passive opposite of being active; it is the fulfillment of giving. And is it easy? For me, learning to receive has been both hard—a letting go of pride—and healing. What can you give if you do not receive? A religious community which defines itself as purely active, each member doing for herself in contrast to the supposedly passive receivers of other faiths, will be a collection of exhausted people doing a lot and giving little.

Yes, during the Sunday morning service we “receive” the sacraments. But, Mr. Momen, the sacraments are gifts of God. You do not need to believe in them to find sympathy with this phrase—“gifts of God.” In the post-communion prayer we give thanks for these gifts and, addressing eternal God, say “send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” In other words, to do the work God has given us to do, to love as we have been loved. “Let us bless the Lord,” the deacon says. “Thanks be to God,” the people answer.

Baha’i writings are, in the context of Baha’i faith, gifts of God. Those who meditate on them privately or attend Feast, devotional gatherings, or services in Baha’i houses of worship receive them afresh as they are read, and then, like Christians, go out into the world to love and serve the Lord—as they feel inspired to by the receipt of those gifts.

Or do they? Oh yes, the House of Justice says, some Baha’is have been doing it wonderfully, but not enough Baha’is, not everyone, and, dear me, not in the efficient, systematic, and membership-expanding way the House wants. Speaking of the changes Shoghi Effendi made, Momen says, “the charisma of Bahá’u’lláh and Abdu’l-Bahá needed to be routinized—to be institutionalized.” With the House now dictating what few activities local communities must focus on, how exactly Baha’is should study Baha’i writings, and what can and can’t be discussed during consultation at National Convention and in delegates’ reports to their communities, it seems more likely that the charisma of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha will be banished or simply lost in the commotion than that an egalitarian grass-roots renaissance will sweep the Baha’i world.

The authority and command of the Universal House of Justice peers around every idea and clause of Momen’s prose, lending it a self-conscious awkwardness. These, I think, are the words of a man trying hard not to think his own thoughts. He must conclude that “[t]he direction towards which the Universal House of Justice is pointing the Baha’is is clearly the next logical step in the development of the Baha’i community”: his faith depends on it.

The most remarkable sentences in his essay come near the end. They leave me feeling sad for the Faith, for Baha’is, and for Moojan Momen.

Indeed it may appear strange to some to say that this change of culture is a change that seeks to create communities where individual Bahá'ís are initiating activities and decisions are made at a “grass-roots” level, and at the same time to say that this change is a process that is being initiated by the Universal House of Justice and is thus being directed from the top. However, one has to consider the question: how else would such a change of culture occur in a community that is used to receiving its directions from the top and is prevented, by the concept of the Covenant, from launching a grass-roots rebellion in order to achieve such a change?

Odd, isn’t it, under these conditions, to trace passivity in the Baha’i Faith to other religious communities?

Everyone knows the Faith is supposed to be expanding rapidly. Everyone knows it isn’t. Momen and the House say that it’s because, among other things, Baha’is have been passivated by the religions around them. But I say that blaming other religious groups is just a trick, a trick that exploits our too-common willingness to see the ways of others as inferior without seeking any substantive understanding of them. It sounds quite harsh to name it, but the word for this is prejudice. Prejudice is used by the House and extended by Momen, perhaps unwittingly, as a distraction so that Baha’is will not protest against the real blaming implicit in this discourse: rank and file Baha’is have failed.

I’m not going to replace this fallacious blame with any other; there are other souls in cyberspace who can do that much better than I can. Besides, I’d like to see the whole idea of entry by troops tossed in the dustbin with a hearty laugh. What a liberation that would be. Baha’is and Baha’i institutions need a better purpose than membership-expansion. The real desire of Baha’is to help the world has been too long co-opted by that fantasy. And if Baha’i communities receive, give, and thrive, growth will likely happen anyway.

After years of listening to consultation at Feast in Chicago, which consisted largely of a succession of people saying “I suggest we do this,” “We need to do more of that,” “We’ve got to do much more of this,” “I suggest the Assembly should do that,” “The friends need to,” “The friends must,” I finally stood up one feast and said, “I don’t think we need to do more. I think we need to do less.” I got serious eyes from Assembly members but continued, “We need to do less and show up for each other more.”

Until very recently I had not seen The American Baha’i in five years. Looking through the October 16 edition, which a friend passed on to me, I was at first confused by certain uses of the term “resources” and then aghast. For example: “new resources were identified and Assemblies were informed of trained resources in each of their communities.” We the people are not resources to be trained and exploited, located and utilized. We are gifts of God. If we slacken our will a bit, our drive to achieve—and I am thinking now not just of Baha’is, because we are, after all, in a world-wide pickle together—and turn our attention more to receiving each other, I think we will find ourselves already, to our surprise, where we want to be. And from that place we can give real service to the world.

And we’ll do the hokey pokey and we’ll turn ourselves around, ’cause that’s what it’s all about. Clap clap!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Wait a Momen: Part 1

A change is happening in the Baha’i world. Moojan Momen says it’s a necessary, right, and good change of culture. Or, rather, he says the Universal House of Justice says it’s a change of culture, and Moojan Momen confirms this is so. He says a bunch of other stuff too; you can read Momen’s essay “A Change of Culture” here. But what has me up off my couch of heedlessness to call across the Atlantic, “Momen, honey, please think again,” is this:

Clearly, the Universal House of Justice considers that the Bahá’í community is still tainted by certain characteristics that it considers should not be part of the Bahá’í Faith and that it is these characteristics that are holding back the progress of the Faith. These are, broadly speaking, characteristics which exist in current religious communities and which Bahá’ís have brought with them into the Bahá’í community.

These unwanted traits include the passivity implied by the words “member of a congregation.” Members of a congregation play a receptive role—receiving sermons, sacraments and advice from the priest. They are told what their scriptures mean and how to apply that to their lives. In some congregations, it is even considered to be within the priest’s powers to hear confessions and pardon sins. Bahá’ís can no longer, in the new culture, play such a passive role. They must actively participate in their communities, study and interpret their scriptures for themselves, and work out their own salvation. Each Bahá’í must be his or her own priest.

How’s that for a quick smackdown of the Christian laity? In his elaboration of the opinions of the Universal House of Justice, Momen is talking about Christianity for sure, though he doesn’t say it. Sermons, sacraments, priests, confessions—other communities use some of these terms but no other community uses all of them. And he uses no terms and describes no practices that are specific to Islam or Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism. It’s the infectious Christian passivity that has gotten into the Baha’i community and must be gotten out.

Is there passivity in Christendom, an over-reliance on clergy? Sometimes, yes. But comparing worst Christian practice to Baha’i ideals is not exactly fair; nor is speaking in such breezy generalities about something so diverse as Christianity. Even if Momen’s words are not read as Christian-specific, I object to them no less. Is this how Baha’i individuals and institutions should relate to other faiths—using them as a crutch to prop up the stumbling greatness of the Baha’i Faith?

Baha’is and Baha’i institutions should think critically about how other religious communities function and learn from them, but these generalities don’t qualify. Momen makes his case for the passivity of Christians from worship and ritual, with a little kick to pastoral care on the side. He makes no attempt to understand those practices or to discern their relationship to the functioning of Christian communities and the action of Christians in the world, which would be more relevant points of comparison, since the subject of his essay is not Baha’i worship but the responsibility of individuals in the operation of community. Momen does not seem to be interested in understanding his religious neighbors. He knows they are passive. But, as a scholar of religion, he ought to know better.

The Baha’i metaphor of levels of education, overused to describe the relationship of religions to each other, misleads many minds, perhaps Moojan Momen’s. The Faith is not graduate school to the kindergarten of Judaism and Hinduism, the middle school of Christianity and Buddhism, the high school of Islam. The Faith is more like a stereotype rebellious teen amidst the village elders who have done it all and have a lot of good stories to tell. The Faith has lots of good ideas and a lot of opportunity, but it is also too convinced it has the answers and is going to do things differently. Learn from the worst, the bad, and the not very good of other communities and avoid those mistakes if you can. But also look for the best and be challenged by it.

What I really want to know is exactly what activity in this new Baha’i culture is not already performed by Christian laity all over the place? Does Momen think that only Christian clergy run children’s classes? That Christians never pray together unless they have a priest or a pastor there to lead them? That Christians don’t read, discuss, write about, or meditate on scripture unless someone with a white collar tells them what to think or how to read it? Has he not noticed the abundance of non-ordained Christian theologians, public intellectuals, artists, and writers, not to mention pig-headed crazies? Or that the laity play a large role in church governance in many Christian denominations? Goodness me, has he not noticed the political influence of the Christian right in the U.S. lately? That wasn’t achieved with a limp laity. No, for good and for ill, lay Christians are plenty active.

And what of Baha’is? Momen says, “It is no longer sufficient in the new culture for Baha’is to fit in their Baha’i activities into odd nooks and crannies of their lives.” I guess “Baha’i activities” refers to children’s classes, study circles, devotional gatherings—you know, the core activities—and does not refer to fulfilling the commandments of Bahá’u’lláh to earn a living through the exercise of a skill or trade that is of service to humanity, to raise children and care for elderly parents, to tend to the needs of the body, to pray and meditate alone in the privacy of your home, to be a good friend—you know, all the things around which Baha’is have been fitting in their “Baha’i activities.” This point of view wants the Faith to become more of people’s lives, but is in fact urging people to see it as less of their lives. Attending a cluster meeting is a Baha’i activity, making love with your spouse is not; filling in the blanks in Ruhi Book 2 is a Baha’i activity, managing your finances is not; voting at unit convention is a Baha’i activity, tending a vegetable garden is not. There is something anti-human in this point of view, and Baha’is would do well to resist it. To paraphrase a well-known sage, the Faith was made for humanity, not humanity for the Faith.

But what have actual, living, breathing Baha’is been doing? Have they just been a bunch of couch-of-heedlessness potatoes? Well, here’s a little sample: One of my best friends barely escaped three years ago with her life from an abusive marriage, which in three months had escalated from aggressive nose pinching to attempted strangulation. She has been healing, regaining her strength, learning a new job, supporting other women. The house of another friend burnt down last year. She escaped with her husband, her pocketbook, and their cat, but nothing else. Incidentally, she has also lived with chronic illness for 30 years and raised seven children, fielding much other trouble and tragedy with wisdom and wit. Another friend works to pay for her children’s college education, after having raised them pretty much alone. She’s also exploring a quiet romance with a longtime friend who has suffered from severe mental illness since being severely sexually abused in early adulthood. Needless to say, he hasn’t been the same since, and being intimate with him is complicated, though, she reports, well worth it.

I have a Baha’i friend who, after years of being abused by her husband, separated from him a year ago when she realized he was sexually abusing their son. She is caring for her son on her own, with a greatly reduced income and inadequate support from family and her local spiritual assembly. Two friends have been coming to terms as adults with attention-deficit disorder and learning disabilities. Another friend had to fly to Germany a few years ago to locate her son, who had disappeared after being pulled from military service in Iraq because of psychological breakdown. She has since helped him find his way again.

If this sounds like I know a remarkably afflicted bunch of Baha’is, I would say . . . I think not. This is life. Major difficulties are common, not rare. Baha’i community is healthiest when supporting people in their lives and least healthy when whipping up a more cult-like absorption in community activities and plans of expansion. If Baha’i administration treats Baha’is as if their lives are obstacles to the progress of the Faith, then it risks irrelevance to those lives. People will walk away—and they have been, at a good clip.