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.

16 comments:

Marco said...

Miguel Torga, a famous Portuguese writer (who called himself a non-believer) once wrote: "God. The nightmare of my days. I always had the courage to deny Him, but I never had the strength to forget Him."

It seems the Baha'i Faith is also the nightmare of your days. You have the courage to deny it but no strength to forget it.

Priscilla Gilman said...

Marco,

Is there some reason I should forget the Baha'i Faith? It is not even close to being "the nightmare of my days." But it did save me once and shaped a sizeable chunk of my life. I have no desire to forget it. That would mean forgetting part of the world, the history of my own heart, and quite a few people I love. Besides, it is so much fun to write about the Baha'i Faith. Perhaps you don't like what I say?

peace,
Priscilla

Anonymous said...

Let's see: the bad old way was a passive congregation, rote learning of catechism, a hierarchy of learning that made some believers qualified to teach others (who could however learn themselves and climb the ladder). The new culture is Ruhi. What precisely is the difference?

What would be really new would be practising what Baha'u'llah taught: reading the scriptures for ourselves, no special status for the "qualified", the affairs of the community in the hands of elected assemblies of ordinary believers and not (self-) appointed Palabrian Brothers, and worship (not administrative meetings) providing the centre of a community of *friends.*

Ruhi inserts a basically Roman Catholic community structure and culture into Bahai life. I studied at a seminary, I loved what I saw there -- but it is just not what Baha'u'llah had in mind for his religion.

Brendan Cook said...

Priscilla,

Wow! This was completely unexpected and yet, as I consider it, very convincing. I'd heard about Momen's article, but the point you make had never occurred to me. I see of course that you're right, that the point of a religion must be to help us in our daily lives and to help us help each other. That will bring more adherents -- if all you want is more adherents -- than any number of intensive teaching campaigns. I especially liked this passage.

"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."

What can I add to that? Nothing. You've said it all.

Brendan

Andrew said...

Clearly he is not familiar with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the United Church of Christ, Reform Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism, and a whole host of religious communities. A receptive role? A passive role? These communities of faith have been in the forefront of advocacy for a variety of civil rights and civil liberties issues, not the least of which have been same-sex marriage, affirmative action for women, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and rape awareness. The Baha'i? Give me a break. It's completely disingenuous to suggest that faith communities other than the Baha'i foster "passivity." As usual, there's a lot of projection (and a bit of diversion) going on here. Anyone who isn't a blinkered Baha'i in the mainstream, Haifan tradition can see this for what it is.

Steve said...

"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."


I find this statement to be the most ironic, because independent thought and scholarly research of the Faith seems to be discouraged greatly by the Institutions. I'm not just referring to those who "went too far." Even the "mild" scholars have to deal with a certain degree of suspicion from the believers. So, "Each Bahá’í must be his or her own priest" is a very ironic statement in my eyes.

Priscilla Gilman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Priscilla Gilman said...

Andrew's comment reminded me of the story of Beacon Press (a department of the Unitarian Universalist Association) and the Pentagon Papers which Senator Mike Gravel entered into the congressional record. Beacon Press helped stop the Vietnam War by publishing the papers when no other press would. Amy Goodman moderated a great panel on this. You can find a link to the audio at http://www.beacon.org/client/pentagonpapers.cfm. Gravel is a Unitarian himself and the story of what he did is incredible. Give it a listen. I wish we had more US senators like him. And I wish the Baha'i Publishing Trust had that kind of guts.

Baquia said...

Classic Marco! Say nothing about the matter at hand but take an ad hominem pot shot at the author.

Can't say I'm surprised nor have I come to expect more.

Priscilla, thanks for this. It is a wonderful point that needs to be made. The Baha'i Faith, and every other religion for that matter, is about LIFE & how we are to live it.

Many have lost sight of that and mistake it for Ruhi, feast and other little "activities" here and there. It would be infinitely more meaningful to be as a Baha'i every day and yet not attend any of those "activities".

Pioneering Over Four Epochs said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Priscilla Gilman said...

Dear Ron,

Thanks for visiting my blog. I have deleted your comment because 6000+ words (four times my longest post) just seems too too long. Also, it is not really in response to my post. You can post your essay elsewhere and post a link here, if you wish. From looking over your writing you seem to me like a gentle person. I would like to ask for the benefit of some of that gentleness if you comment here in the future. I am physically quite limited, and the amount of computer work that I can do is so small as to be hard for a person in normal health to believe: dealing with issues like this is physically, literally painful for me. So I would respectfully ask that if you do comment again, you make your post on-topic and of reasonable length.

My sincere thanks,

Priscilla

Polychrysos said...

Priscilla,

I just found this quote, from Peter Khan, which confirms exactly what you're implying. I don't know whether Momen is thinking specifically of Christians when he criticizes passivity, but Peter Khan definitely is.

"Another element of the vision of a Bahá'í community found in the Four Year Plan is the emphasis now placed upon self motivation. Especially in the development of the local community... It means that we are moving in the direction of a Bahá'í community which will not look like a Christian congregation in disguise. It will not consist of a small group of overworked administrators, who we call the Local Spiritual Assembly or the National Spiritual Assembly, surrounded by a congregation of passive participants. It will be a different kind of community from a Christian congregation."

This Christian-bashing isn't disguised, not slightly. It's really rather overt, isn't it?

Brendan

Priscilla Gilman said...

Brendan,

That is overt. I am so sorry to see this kind of thing from Khan. I met him once and was really impressed, but reading his words recently I've had to adjust my ideas of him. I don't know if he has changed or if the change is mostly on my part.

By the way, could you post a source for this quote?

Thanks,
Priscilla

Brendan Cook said...

Priscilla

The excerpt is from Khan's talk at the University of Maryland Conference Centre on Sunday, 29 September 1996. I didn't think they needed to be sourced because the source can be found by putting a sentence in quotation marks through google. It says that the transcript is based on a tape, so it's probably pretty accurate. This is the link, if needed:

http://snipurl.com/1x1im

For my part, I disagree with Peter Khan on a lot of things, although I'm sure it would be easy to like him in person. And isn't it always that way? For me, at least, nothing bothers me more than when he talks about how we need to believe things that can't be explained rationally. He's often declaring that the things that the House demands will look crazy if don't look at them in 'spiritual' -- i.e. irrational -- terms. I don't know if you've read my story *The Emperor's New Clothes*, but it takes on this idea. The two tailors argue, like Peter Khan, that to be spiritual means casting reason and logic aside. This is why, in the end, they have Abdu'l-Baha, who represents the unity of reason and faith, arrested and locked up.

In any case, they've actually studied Peter Khan's talks in my community, at least the time that I was invited. That's what first set me writing, in fact. I thought that there were some very unpleasant aspects to his talk, and I wanted to point them out and see if anyone else felt the same way. I would certainly encourage you to read anything of his you can find and so get to know him better.

Brendan

Amado said...

Thank you for listing some more core activities (families, friends)! How many "good Bahais" (been there, done that) short-change these other core activities!

And yes, when we point at tendencies to grow beyond, we don't need to claim we are still sheep from a prior fold, when our current format is sheeply enough!

Amado said...

THIS IS NOT A POST! but 2 notes: there is really good voice-recognition software. One company is Nuance, Dragon Naturally Speaking is the brand name. Might be simpler than getting audio streaming plugged in!
And we do a bit of natural health care: biomagnetism and Reiki - maybe you've already tried them?
Sorry to butt in, only trying to help and say "thank you" for your strong, healing blog! (Especially because of recommending a brand and so on, I expect you to delete this, not post it!) Thanks again!