Further evidence that the Baha’i Faith is text-centered

When I wrote the post Shoghi Effendi and Christian authority, I came under criticism that I hadn’t expected. I mentioned as an aside that in the Baha’i Faith, religion is text-based, and this predisposes Baha’is to misunderstand other religions by assuming that they are always summed up in their text.

Well, a few days ago Marco Oliveira demonstrated my point.

Mr. Oliveira, a Baha’i and author of the blog Povo de Baha, was commenting on my reaction to his comments on Youtube (see A “very ironic” defense of the Pope). In the comment thread he observed,

Maybe it is important to define what do we mean by a “Catholic tradition”. Do we mean a set of teachings that exist on the Bible? Do we mean a set of teachings plus several dogmas? Do we add to that several teachings produced by Church Councils and theologians?

The Papacy is a human construction. Even if one claims it has divine guidance, it is a fact that it is not mentioned in the Bible.

it is not part of the Christian sacred writings. Unless one believes that a council-made-dogma has the same value as the Writings…

It is clear from these statements that he regards the Bible as the only valid source of Christian doctrine. He’s even telling me that, as a Catholic, I shouldn’t believe in the validity of ecumenical councils or obey the pope because these things aren’t found in the “Christian sacred writings”.

Thus, for Mr. Oliveira, it is writings that determine Christianity. A Christian must have a written revelation to justify any belief or practice. Like I said in the thread Shoghi Effendi and Christian authority, not all religions work this way. But Mr. Oliveira doesn’t seem to know that, probably because he has been taught as a Baha’i that there are Manifestations and they bring revelations and those revelations form the basis, and the only basis, for everything that goes on in that religion.

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A “very ironic” defense of the Pope

Marco Oliveira, author of the popular Baha’i blog Povo de Baha, has posted some comments on Youtube regarding the recent flap at La Sapienza University. (I embed his comments here, but I may at some point change this to a link to Youtube if I need more disk space in the future.) Here is Mr. Oliveira:

I agree with the spirit of his comments. Freedom of expression is a good and should be protected, and what the small group of radical students and professors at La Sapienza sought to accomplish was censorship and, as Mr. Oliveira put it, “an attack against freedom of expression”.

He offered two observations on the episode. The second one is very well put: “Fanaticism and radicalism do not only exist within religions. They exist also amongst those who think that religion is the source of all evil.” Consider how strange this is: opponents of Church teaching seek to silence Christians and prevent us from practicing our religion, all in the name of tolerance. Strangest of all, they seem to be entirely unaware of their own hypocrisy.

The speech the Pope had planned to make is available here in English translation. (Here is the original Italian, and here is the Portuguese translation.) In this speech the Pope states that reason and revelation go together, that you cannot have one without the other.

By the way, that has always been the position of the Catholic Church, and theologians throughout our history have expressed the Christian truth by means of human philosophy, such as Platonism and Aristotelianism. Recent theologians have used recent philosophies. For example, John Paul II expounded his Theology of the Body (a theological explanation of Christian sexuality) through the philosophical language of Phenomenology.

Many Christian groups accuse the Catholic Church of having corrupted the purity of the Gospel with human philosophies. They have a very narrow understanding of truth. Catholics believe that truth can be found throughout the world and in all human societies. Naturally human philosophies contain some error along with the truth, but it does not corrupt the Gospel to express Christianity in terms of a given philosophy or cultural paradigm. The truth of Christ remains, and all Christian theologians, philosophers, pastors and laymen, whether they lived in Ancient Rome, medieval Ethiopia or modern Peru, are all part of the same Catholic tradition because they all express the same truth.

This brings me to where I disagree with Mr. Oliveira. He claims that Benedict XVI is a member of a “conservative faction” in the Church. He further states that it is ironic for the Pope to be portrayed as a victim of censorship since he and his faction enforce censorship on others, giving as examples Hans Kung and Leonardo Boff.

Here Mr. Oliveira is applying a double standard. Given that he is a Baha’i in good standing and loyal to the Baha’i Covenant, he must have some appreciation for such Baha’i practices as literature review, administrative sanction and declaration of covenant breaking. Literature review ensures that literature written by Baha’is conforms to the teachings of the Faith. Critics of the Faith (notably the ex-Baha’is mentioned in Dr. Momen’s recent article) frequently claim that this practice amounts to censorship. Yet what the Church did with Hans Kung was milder even than literature review.

In literature review, all Baha’is without exception must get approval for any book or article they publish on the Faith. I’m not saying this is a bad policy; I have no problem with it. I point it out only for the sake of comparison. In Catholicism, there is no such literature review. If you are licensed as a Church theologian, though, it is expected that what you say about Catholic beliefs conform to Church teaching.

Hans Kung had such a license, meaning the Church endorsed him as qualified to explain Catholic doctrine. When he insisted on publishing ideas contrary to Catholic doctrine, the Church (more specifically Cardinal Ratzinger) revoked his license. He was not excommunicated, and he is still a priest in good standing.

If Mr. Oliveira regards this as censorship, then does he regard literature review as censorship? Will he speak as disparagingly of the disenrollment of Sen McGlinn, a harsher punishment than Hans Kung received?

The same goes for Leonardo Boff. In fact, these two theologians have some basic ideas in common. They both question the legitimacy of the Church’s hierarchy. They both question the divinity of Christ. They both question the effectiveness of the sacraments. But without these things, there is no Catholicism.

Imagine a comparable theologian in the Baha’i community – he questions the legitimacy of the Universal House of Justice, he questions whether Baha’u’llah really was a Manifestation. If he’s like Boff, he might promote worship of Bahiyyih Khanum as a goddess, or he might promote an alternate meeting in place of the Nineteen Day Feast, where the poor Baha’is can talk about the value of armed revolution to overthrow their wealthy oppressors, including members of the Baha’i administration.

Baha’is would naturally be horrified to see a Baha’i theologian expounding such views. But when a Catholic theologian does it, he’s just contributing to Christian diversity and to sanction him is censorship. Can someone explain this to me?

This double standard becomes even more stark when we consider Hans Kung. Kung’s approach to his faith is very much like that of the Baha’i dissidents discussed in Dr. Momen’s recent article. Do Baha’is think that it’s okay for the Baha’i administration to sanction dissidents, but it’s not okay for the Catholic Church to do so?

In short, would Mr. Oliveira characterize the members of the Universal House of Justice and the International Teaching Centre as a “conservative faction” within the Baha’i community?

Progressive unifications?

I have a question about this passage in The Promised Day Is Come, pages 117-118:

This will indeed be the fitting climax of that process of integration which, starting with the family, the smallest unit in the scale of human organization, must, after having called successively into being the tribe, the city-state, and the nation, continue to operate until it culminates in the unification of the whole world, the final object and the crowning glory of human evolution on this planet.

Does each specific stage correspond exactly to a specific Manifestation? Did one Manifestation bring about the unification of families, and a later one of tribes, and so on? And if so, which Manifestation is responsible for which stage?

Wanted: Baha’i bloggers

As many Baha’i blogs as exist out there (and there are plenty) there is an egregious gap in blogging content. As far as I can tell, there seems to be no Baha’i blog that defends the Baha’i position on controversial issues.

There are certain issues that many seekers will have trouble when they learn of them. Any Baha’i with experience teaching can rattle off a litany of them. Some seekers are motivated by social justice concerns. For them, the prohibition on involvement in partisan politics can be very confusing. Some can’t understand why lifestyle choices should have anything to do with spirituality. Others are attracted by the Faith’s message of religious unity and inclusiveness, and then they’re disturbed that non-Baha’is can’t attend Nineteen Day Feast, or that the readings at feast are supposed to be only from the Baha’i Writings. Many find the Faith’s emphasis on equality of women and men appealing, only to find out that women can’t serve on the Universal House of Justice.

I have not found a single blog dedicated to exploring these issues directly. There are a number of very good Baha’i blogs out there. Many of them are personal blogs that happen to be written by Baha’is. Martin’s Quest is by far the best example, an excellent blog. Others combine personal material with observations on current events as they bear on the Baha’i Faith. These include doberman pizza and Barnabas Quotidianus.

Another set of Baha’i blogs take on social issues from a Baha’i perspective, like Baha’i Thought and Black America and Correlating. (I wish Correlating would post more often, though.) There are blogs aimed at seekers, like 1863 Unity Road, but these take more of a fireside approach. There’s nothing wrong with that. What we also need, though, is a blog that handles doctrinal issues, and that directly engages non-Baha’is’ questions and objections. The nearest thing out there is Arise. It is relatively new, and I look forward to seeing how it develops.

All these, and other blogs I haven’t mentioned, are good at what they do and should keep doing it. It’s good to see so many blogs aimed at a non-Baha’i audience. What seems to be lacking in them, though, is a willingness to confront controversy. It’s easy to tout the Baha’i Faith’s teachings on the unity of women and men, for example. It’s much harder to explain why there are no women on the Universal House of Justice.

A Baha’i might be concerned that airing these issues in public could turn people off to the Faith. Better to help them fall in love with Baha’u’llah first, and then that love can sustain them as they look at these issues. But these issues are being aired anyway, especially by Baha’i dissidents and disaffected former Baha’is. If there is no Baha’i presence on the web to discuss these matters honestly and frankly and to explain the Baha’i position, then the Baha’is’ position will be explained for them.

Is anyone out there up to the challenge?