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?

“If we believe that God is located in the heavens, then the birds would be more fortunate than we”

Pope Benedict at midnight Mass

Here are some excerpts from the pope’s sermon at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve:

Saint John, in his Gospel, went to the heart of the matter, giving added depth to Saint Luke’s brief account of the situation in Bethlehem: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not”. …

These words refer ultimately to us, to each individual and to society as a whole. Do we have time for our neighbour who is in need of a word from us, from me, or in need of my affection? For the sufferer who is in need of help? For the fugitive or the refugee who is seeking asylum? Do we have time and space for God? Can he enter into our lives? Does he find room in us, or have we occupied all the available space in our thoughts, our actions, our lives for ourselves? …

In the stable at Bethlehem, Heaven and Earth meet. Heaven has come down to Earth. For this reason, a light shines from the stable for all times; for this reason joy is enkindled there; for this reason song is born there.

At the end of our Christmas meditation I should like to quote a remarkable passage from Saint Augustine. Interpreting the invocation in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in Heaven”, he asks: what is this – Heaven? And where is Heaven? Then comes a surprising response: “… who art in Heaven – that means: in the saints and in the just. Yes, the heavens are the highest bodies in the universe, but they are still bodies, which cannot exist except in a given location. Yet if we believe that God is located in the heavens, meaning in the highest parts of the world, then the birds would be more fortunate than we, since they would live closer to God. Yet it is not written: ‘The Lord is close to those who dwell on the heights or on the mountains’, but rather: ‘the Lord is close to the brokenhearted’, an expression which refers to humility. Just as the sinner is called ‘Earth’, so by contrast the just man can be called ‘Heaven’.”

Heaven does not belong to the geography of space, but to the geography of the heart. And the heart of God, during the Holy Night, stooped down to the stable: the humility of God is Heaven. And if we approach this humility, then we touch Heaven. Then the Earth too is made new. With the humility of the shepherds, let us set out, during this Holy Night, towards the Child in the stable! Let us touch God’s humility, God’s heart! Then his joy will touch us and will make the world more radiant. Amen.

Credo

Three weeks ago John made this comment on the thread Shoghi Effendi and Christian Authority:

Given that you are a convert to the Roman Catholic faith I wonder if a good place to start may be the nature of God, of man and of Jesus Christ. As there are many views on these questions among Christians in general, and amongst some Roman Catholics, it would be interesting to explore these questions to see if it is possible for us to arrive at a common understanding about them. If you are interested in pursuing these themes a good start may be for you to outline the nature of the God you believe in, the nature and purpose of man and his relationship with God and the nature and purpose of Jesus Christ in your world view. A more fundamental question is what is the purpose of creation per se.

I’ve been remiss in getting back to this. Haven’t had time for blogging in a while. But now I can take a crack at it.

The easiest way to sum up my belief would be to recite the Nicene Creed. But instead I’ll put my beliefs in my own words.

The nature of God

God is eternal, which means he exists outside of time. He created everything that exists, including time and space. God is a community of persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit (called the Trinity).

(Since leaving the Baha’i Faith and becoming Christian, I have fallen out of the habit of capitalizing pronouns when referring to God. Hope that isn’t too distracting.)

The nature and purpose of man and his relationship with God

Man, like all of God’s creatures, are created first and foremost to glorify God. They also reflect the image of God according to their nature. So in man, the love between men reflects the love within the Trinity. When a husband and wife have a child, for example, this is an image of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the love shared by the Father and the Son.

Humans consist of body and soul. The two together make up a human being. So we glorify God and reflect his nature by means of both our body and our soul. That’s why, for example, we perform movements when we worship: have processions, kneel before the Eucharist, etc. We worship God according to our nature, and our nature includes our body.

God calls us to be in relationship with him, and to participate in his work. So when God creates a new person, he includes us in the act (through the marital embrace). When God saves a soul from sin, he includes us in that too (through our teaching, or our companionship, or through sacraments which we humans perform, or whatever God calls us to do).

The nature and purpose of Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ is the link between us and God. I mentioned above that our purpose is to be in relationship with God and to participate in God’s work. Ultimately we are to be with God for eternity. Jesus Christ is how that happens. He brings us into the life of the Trinity.

There’s a line in the liturgy: “May we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” So this is how the link takes place: Christ, who is God, becomes a human being, so that human beings who join themselves to him may share in his divinity.

There’s a lot more I could say about everything I’ve written above, but this is sufficient for now.

Shoghi Effendi and Christian authority

This is the second in a series on Shoghi Effendi’s comments in The World Order of Baha’u’llah. In this series we are exploring yet another facet of the Baha’i Faith’s misplaced superiority complex. In this case, Shoghi Effendi insists that the Baha’i Faith is superior to Christianity and Islam because the Baha’i Writings explicitly spell out how the Baha’i administration should be put together.

He [Baha’u’llah] has not merely enunciated certain universal principles, or propounded a particular philosophy, however potent, sound and universal these may be. In addition to these He, as well as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá after Him, has, unlike the Dispensations of the past, clearly and specifically laid down a set of Laws, established definite institutions, and provided for the essentials of a Divine Economy. …

Not only have they revealed all the directions required for the practical realization of those ideals which the Prophets of God have visualized, and which from time immemorial have inflamed the imagination of seers and poets in every age. They have also, in unequivocal and emphatic language, appointed those twin institutions of the House of Justice and of the Guardianship as their chosen Successors, destined to apply the principles, promulgate the laws, protect the institutions, adapt loyally and intelligently the Faith to the requirements of progressive society, and consummate the incorruptible inheritance which the Founders of the Faith have bequeathed to the world.

Should we look back upon the past, were we to search out the Gospel and the Qur’án, we will readily recognize that neither the Christian nor the Islamic Dispensations can offer a parallel either to the system of Divine Economy so thoroughly established by Bahá’u’lláh, or to the safeguards which He has provided for its preservation and advancement. (WOB 19-20)

I hope Shoghi Effendi doesn’t think all Jesus Christ did was “merely enunciate certain universal principles,” because he didn’t. But that’s another post. More to the point, Shoghi Effendi misunderstands the purpose of the Bible. I discussed this in the previous post on this topic, but I should make one more point in that regard.

It is important to understand that the Bible is a witness to the establishment of the kingdom of God. It doesn’t contain specific prescriptions for the Christian hierarchy (again, that’s not what the Bible’s for), but the Bible does, as a witness of events, give glimpses of that hierarchy being established.

It is clear that Jesus intended for there to be an organized church that would act in his name and be led by a designated authority. Speaking to his disciples, he said,

Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear you, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established’ [Deut. 19:15]. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:15-18)

So not only does Jesus anticipate the establishment of the Church, but he gives his disciples the authority to expell people from it. Earlier, when speaking to the apostle Simon he said,

And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18-19)

So while the Gospels don’t spell out how the authority of the Church will be structured, they assume such an authority will exist. This authority is not given to just any old Christian. Not all disciples exercise the power of binding and loosing. It’s given to specific individuals within the Church who are publicly recognized as holding this authority.

After the resurrection, when Jesus appeared to the apostles in Jerusalem, he finally grants them this authority that he had promised them:

Then Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, so I send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

What is Jesus’ legacy? Is it a detailed set of regulations? Clearly not. But look at what his legacy is:

And being assembled together with them, he commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, “which,” he said, “you have heard from me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Therefore, when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And he said to them, “it is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:4-8)

When a charismatic, innovative thinker founds a new movement, he takes care to delineate for his followers exactly how the movement should be run after his death. Jesus is different. He doesn’t go into much detail. He tells them, “You’ll receive the Holy Spirit, and he’ll guide you into all truth.” Far from being a weakness, as Shoghi Effendi claims, this is a strength of Christianity’s claim. Jesus didn’t rely on human power for the success of his movement. (And creating a detailed administrative code would be exactly that.) He left everything to God, literally – by leaving the movement to God the Holy Spirit.

Shoghi Effendi demonstrates a fundamental stumbling block for Baha’is. Baha’is assume that a religion is ultimately summed up in its text. While the Manifestation is bodily present, he can convey God’s commandments orally and answer questions. In his absence, his followers have no choice but to rely on his teachings in written form.

Notice what Baha’i spirituality consists of: reading the Writings. Period. If you have a doctrinal question, you read the Writings. When you pray, you read the Writings. Even group worship consists of sitting in a circle and reading the Writings. If you want to mix things up a bit, you’ll listen to the Writings set to music or recited in another language.

There’s nothing wrong with that. If that’s how your religion works then so be it. I just want to highlight that in other religions, that is not normal. And to assume that other religions work that way is wrong. Case in point: Christianity.

Shoghi Effendi claims that the Baha’i Faith is superior to Christianity because its Writings contain more administrative detail. From a Christian point of view, his assertion is irrelevant.

Getting back to the Bible, in the Acts of the Apostles and in some of the letters we can see the hierarchy, the Christian administrative order if you will, continuing after the Ascension.

There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need. Thus Joseph who was surnamed by the apostles Barnabas (which means, Son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:34-37)

So the Bible doesn’t prescribe “when Christians share their possessions, the common property will be administered by the apostles.” Like I said, rather than giving a set of regulations, it witnesses the formation of the hierarchy. Moreover, the apostles didn’t claim the right to hold this authority because of a quote from Jesus written somewhere. Their authority is not based on a text. It is handed on directly from the Lord.

They also hand their authority on to others. See for example Paul’s letter to Titus:

For this reason I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you…” (Titus 1:5)

Let’s close with a look at Acts 15. At the beginning of the chapter, a controversy arises in Antioch over a doctrinal question:

Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Because there arose no little dissension and debate by Paul and Barnabas with them, it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and presbyters about this question. (Acts 15:1-2)

So again, the Bible witnesses to the fact that the Church operated with a recognized authority. They went to Jerusalem, and the apostles and presbyters had a long discussion of the matter. Some of the Christians were on one side, some on the other. Then the apostles Peter and James spoke before the assembly, and they reached a decision and drafted a letter. There are a a few things to highlight about the letter:

1) In order to make statements about Christian doctrine you have to have authorization from the rightful leaders:

Since we have heard that some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind… (Acts 15:24)

(In another English translation it is rendered, “…some went out from us without our authorization…”.)

2) The Holy Spirit was involved; it was not just a human decision:

It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities… (Acts 15:28)

3) The decision was reached not by looking for an answer in the Hebrew scriptures (they gave no clear answer, anyway). It was by taking their understanding of the principles of the Gospel, gathered from their knowledge of the scriptures and the light of their own experience with God, coupled with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that they were led to their decision. And this is how the Church continues to make decisions.

Crusade myths

Here is a good, short webpage debunking some widely-held myths about the Crusades. The author is Thomas F. Madden, a professional historian.

Some of the myths he debunks:

Myth 1: The Crusades were wars of unprovoked aggression against a peaceful Muslim world.

Myth 3: When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 they massacred every man, woman, and child in the city until the streets ran ankle deep with the blood.

Myth 5: The Crusades were also waged against the Jews.

And while we’re at it, take a gander at Professor Madden’s review of the recent film “Kingdom of Heaven.”