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!


Anonymous said...

What a very intelligent article. As much as I have "issues" with the Baha'i Faith myself, I really wanted to see it succeed. But, it's as if this sense of tribalism has infected its followers, and its institutions. It's this sense that the Baha'i Faith can do no wrong. It's all everyone else's fault. We did everything we had to. The people were just not receptive. We gave them the message. They rejected it. I hear this attitude from Baha'is all the time, and it really saddens me because this Faith was supposed to save the world...

Anonymous said...

I second Steve's comments. It seems the Baha'i administration has been taken over by HR consultants - it comes out in the language.

It's ironic that at the same time that real individuality and initiative is heavily censured in reality - that Baha'is are being lambasted for not being individuals of initiative.

One of the reasons I did turn to Islam (not the primary reason, but still there as a partial motivation) was the freedom as an individual to be my own type of Muslim. There is no orthodoxy that can expel me if they don't like my particular brand of Muslim progressivism or feminism.

kaweah said...

Excellent. Penetrating points about passivity and top-down control. Never let it be said that the Baha'i Faith has no clergy. How ironic that they keep the constrictive, authoritarian aspects of clergy and abandon the supportive role of clergy. Baha'is are so coldly, pitifully maneuvered by their, er, "administration". The very word ought to send us running for the hills. So often it seems that the bureaucratic machinery of the religion itself serves to dissolve communities.

Ok, maybe I'm getting a little carried away. There are counter-arguments, but these are the thoughts that Momen's reactionary rhetoric bring to my mind.

Thanks for making me think!


sonja said...

nice analogy about passivity.

Actually in our family we have decided that we want the 'sense' of community in our worship and so we do it ourselves and invite friends who tend to see this as an arty-spiritual and often fun experience.

So my take on what's missing in Bahai activities, is 'community', which in your posting is about touch + focus on the individual.

We are spiritual beings and we need this sort of stuff to feel in 'touch'. If feasts or Bahai activities operate like committee meetings, then something is missing.

N. Wahid Azal said...

Dear Priscilla, Nur 'Aleykum (the Light be upon you),

First, if that is your picture, you are quite an attractive Person. That out of the way...Yes, I take my public apostate designation with much, much pride. It also runs in our family: on my mother's father's grandfather's mother's side, the Great Apostate Tahirih Qurrat'ul-'Ayn and on my father's father's grandfather's side the notorious Ayatollah Babi of Kirman (i.e. a first cousin to the preeminent Kirmani Shaykhi leader Hajj Muhammad Karim Khan Kirmani who publicly broke ranks with his entire family and became a Babi in the late 1850s after coming back home from 15 years of study in the Iraqi shrine cities, losing his whole family inheritance in the process due to his conversion).

All my heroes have been apostates of one stripe or another: Hallaj, Abulafia, Fadlullah Astarabadi, the Bab, et al. Apostacy as an act of Adepthood in the service of the Truly Real is the Apotheosis of Love. That is how I look at all this and why I am happy to be accounted an apostate from the lie!


Priscilla said...

The following links to responses to Momen's apostasy article appeared on my sidebar for a couple months and I'm moving them here. Many more responses have been made since. Alas, I'm not up to the work of listing and linking to all.

Baha’i Angst is back.
“Dr. Moojan Momen (he really is a medical doctor) has written a new prescription, so to speak, in which he at once diagnoses, identifies, and cures the problem, the malady, the odious nefarious and sometimes hilarious soap opera of Bahai Apostasy. He comes to kick ass and he names names.”

And Dan Jensen of the Forum for Bahá'í Investigations has two responses up plus K. Paul Johnson’s response.

“The list of “apostates” Dr. Momen has provided is not a satisfactory representation of his model. There may be angry apostates, bitter apostates, obsessive apostates, and even insane apostates, and there may even be apostates who conform to Momen’s model, but until this latter group can be identified, we cannot apply the model to the population as a whole.”

Dan has also posted his own apostate's narrative. I think it quite lovely.

And Momen has posted the original full article he submitted to "Religion."

Mrs.Love said...

"I'd like to see the idea of entry by troops tossed in the dustbin". Pricilla, this really struck my heart with Truth. I see this as a place where my faith started to wane... back in 2000 when we were supposed to see the explosion of "entry by troops" and like the Y2K catastrophe that never happened, neither did the EBT event. This brought on the whole Ruhi movement which never filled me with any inspiration but was drudgery. What I liked doing was reading the Writings with my spouse, alone or with friends who were interested and deepening on Meaning in this way. I was brought into the Faith in a grassroots Alaskan environment where the people who taught me felt revolutionary and open minded and willing to hear anything, respond to anything. One of my favorite teachers used to tell me his Bahai firesides were shared with a lot of marijuana - until later learning that wasn't what Baha'u'llah prescribed... nonetheless.... coming to truths and ways on their own with gentleness and the thrill of discovery. Ruhi for some is a thrilling spiritual journey... for others not so much. I must say I wholeheartedly agree with you... Bahai's focusing on "living the life" rather than what is now happening would be so much more inspiring. I recall firesides that were full of seeking and spirit and love and inspiration... in Alaska.

That brings me to the next point - the American Bahai. Not to reference the publication but the culture there. Alaska is a different country in the Faith and the culture in my past experience is very "frontier" feeling, much like we are as Alaskans.

My Faith really got the death blow when I moved to the Lower 48 and had to live in an American Bahai community. I was sorely disoultioned and uninspired by that experience - which by the way was in St. Louis, MO not far from Chicago. The NSA felt distant and cold. Whereas back home many of the members of the NSA were friends of mine. I remember being SHOCKED at a recorded message from the NSA at a St. Louis Feast. I can't even tell you now how that felt but that it was NOT something I'd ever felt before as a Bahai. The Bahai's were totally different kinds of people than what I was used to. And my Alaskan Bahai friends met me with so much love and acceptance when I told them I'd fallen away from the Faith (but still loved it). One lovely man said only "Fields must lie fallow" which I had to research to understand LOL... I don't know. I think there is a different world "down there". Perhaps I have rosy glasses about the Alaskan community but it seems a kinder place to be in many respects - at least in my humble experience.

Unknown said...

Anonymous RonPrice said...

It has been several years since I dropped-in to your site, Priscilla. I have, as you suggested, posted my essay elsewhere and will post a link here, as you also suggested.

I thank you for your referring to me a gentle person. I like to think I am, and I like to think my essay(now a book)reflects that gentleness.

I hope you have gained in health and physical stamina since I was here last, so that dealing with complex social issues in cyberspace is not as painful for you as it once was.

I, too, am not in good health, but on those occasions when I do drop in I will try and make my posts on-topic and of reasonable

May 31, 2013 at 9:04 AM

Unknown said...

This link: ....will take you to a book on the Baha'i culture of Learning. It is a book which began as a response to Momen's essay on the Baha'i paradigm.-Ron Price, Australia