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COLLECTIONLetters from the Universal House of Justice
TITLEAcademic Methodologies
AUTHOR 1 Universal House of Justice
AUTHOR 2Susan Maneck
ABSTRACTTwo letters to the House on the relationship between "materialistic methodologies" and "doctrinal heresy" in the academic fields, followed by the House's detailed response.
NOTES Submitted by and name retained with permission of recipient.
TAGSCriticism and apologetics; Materialism; Scholarship

1. Letter from Maneck to the Universal House of Justice

Dear Universal House of Justice,

Thank you for taking the time to respond at length to my letter in the message dated 20 July 1997 [below]. I have given this letter much thought, but remain confused by several portions of it and would greatly appreciate your clarification.

If I understand you correctly you are suggesting that Western academic methodology is typified by a "purely materialistic interpretation of reality" which "ignores the issues of God's continuous relationship with His creation." I am not entirely sure what is meant by this. It is true that Western scientific and historical methodology admits its inability to determine the truth or falsity of spiritual claims and cannot presume their existence as they conduct their study. But I would think that such a method would become materialistic only if the scholar or scientist insists that because their scholarly apparatus cannot equip them to detect divine intervention or involvement, that such intervention does not therefore exist. The historical-critical methodis rather like the proverbial the spider's web. It is very good at capturing the "flies" of historical circumstance and context, but utterly useless in snaring the "phoenix" of revelation. If the tendency of some to deny the existence of the "phoenix" because their inability to "snare" it, is what is intended by "materialistic interpretations" I would certainly agree. Sound academic methodology does not call for such a conclusion and those who assume it are overstepping the proper bounds of their field. It has been my observation that materialism arises in scholarship, like all science, when it attempts to "take over" the sphere belonging properly to revelation, whereas religion becomes superstition when it attempts to assert its authority over scientific matters. Just as in the case of the equality of men and women we regard complementarity not sameness as the proper relationship, so such complementarity ought to exist between science and religion. When conflation occurs we end up with monstrosities like Scientific Creationism and Scientology.

However, your connection of "materialistic methodologies" with Covenantal issues make me wonder if there is not something else at stake. Any academic enterprise dealing with texts requires that the scholar get as close to the original source, those closest in time to the events they describe, as possible; and attempt to read these within the context in which they were written. This can create a certain amount of tensions with the common understanding of the Covenant which tends to give precedence to authority and later interpretations. I remember this issue came up for me in the course of a conversation I had with Mr. ... years ago when I received an award from the Association of Bahá'í Mr. ... was emphatic that I should never write anything which might contradict things in any way either the Dawnbreakers or God Passes By. I did not feel I could in good conscience give him the assurance he asked me for because it was my understanding that historical matters needed to rest upon evidence rather than authority. Is this insistence on relying upon original sources and giving precedence to evidence over authority what the House of Justice has in mind when it refers to "materialistic methodologies?"

I am well aware that the House of Justice has, on numerous occasions, condemned materialistic methodologies in connection with scholarship. Confusion on this issue has created a great deal of estrangement among many Bahá'í academics in relationship to the Bahá'í community at large. Often times the community tends to regard any discovery made by academicians as "materialistic" if it conflicts with commonly received beliefs. Academicians, for their part, see many of the so-called "integrative" methods supported by some Bahá'ís as a reformulation of the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, which was guided by the principle that authority must override the evidence and guide its interpretation. They are resistant to it for they see this method as having impeding the progress of science. I think it would be of great help if the House of Justice would clarify this matter by providing some precise models of what kind of scholarship they deem "materialistic."

I note the statement towards the end of your letter to the effect that "Bahá'ís who are trained in various academic disciplines do not constitute a discrete body within the community" and that there is "no group of academics who can claim to speak on behalf of Bahá'í scholars in generally. I hope that the House understands that any references I have made to "academics" or to "administrators" within the Faith referred solely to function and not to any class or body. By academics here I meant solely those who have taken the Bahá'í Faith as their object of study and not simply those who apply Bahá'í principles to their scholarship in whatever field.

The House of Justice urged me "to reflect deeply on the reasons why those pursuing this agenda seek by every means possible to represent their actions as a disinterested search for knowledge and themselves as victims of authoritarianism." Please, allow me to make some observations based upon what I know from my long years of association with many of these individuals, friendships which have extended to the greater part of my adult life. First, it must be recognized that however distorted the picture which these people have presented, it does genuinely reflect what they, themselves believe to be true. At the same time, one must acknowledge that those perceptions have been so out of keeping with the evidence of what actually happened as to verge on paranoid delusion... The question which remains is how this distrustful attitude towards authority came to prevail over so many of the Bahá'í academics. Over a number of years scholars experienced growing frustration with their difficulty in gaining access to primary sources. Furthermore when one seemingly legitimate academic endeavor after another come to naught because of the disapproval of the Institutions, they began to suspect that the Institutions were endeavoring to withhold the truth from the body of believers. Thus, a significant portion of the Bahá'í academic community, myself included, came to harbor grave doubts regarding the integrity of the Institutions. Furthermore, many of them came to believe that the only way in which truth could be adequately safeguarded was to foster a kind of "civil society" within the Bahá'í community which would allow for unfettered discourse. Increasingly they began to make common cause with non-academics within the Bahá'í community who were calling for extensive administrative reforms. Then, when internet access allowed for the kind of free-wheeling discourse they supported, long-festering doubts rapidly became malignant in character and what had hitherto been misgivings and suspicions came to be perceived as fact. The paranoid mind set which prevailed so clouded the judgement of some of the academics that they began to make wild accusations which betrayed all the methods of sound scholarship and the rules of evidence which they had fought so hard to defend.

The quote which you provided me on the subject of hikmat may well hold the key to the very different perceptions of the reality of this situation. Although references to "wisdom" appear numerous times in the Writings, Bahá'ís in the Western world are almost entirely ignorant of what it signifies. Furthermore, the concept itself is utterly foreign to the ethical standards which prevail in the West, and for Westerners it is difficult to perceive of the exercise of hikmat as anything other than sheer hypocrisy and deception. While Bahá'í academics trained in Persian and Arabic are more familiar with this term and its usage, they especially cannot find ways of reconciling it with the standards of truth promoted both in their profession and the Writings as well. My own article "Wisdom and Dissimulation", published recently in Bahá'í Studies Review, represented my own feeble attempt to come to terms with this issue. To my knowledge it is the only thing written in English on this topic and I do not think I was able to reach any satisfying resolution to the dilemmas posed by the demands for both truth and wisdom as found in the Writings. It is my perception that this inability to balance truth and wisdom represents a much more fundamental issue facing Bahá'í scholars than either issues of methodology or the question of individual rights versus responsibilities (although the latter is certainly related.) Guidance from the Institutions which would assist Western Bahá'ís and professional academics in particular regarding the manner in which they might exercise wisdom without compromising standards of honesty, integrity, and truthfulness which they hold so dear might help remediate this problem. It may be as well, that Bahá'í academics all too often have not recognized that to a great extent failure to exercise wisdom represents a failure of love.

I appreciate the assurance of your prayers at the Sacred Shrine.

    With loving Bahá'í greetings,
    Susan Stiles Maneck

2. Second letter from Maneck to the Universal House of Justice

To: Bahai World Centre
Subject: Addendum to Sept. 21 letter
Date: Mon, 17 Nov 1997

Dear Universal House of Justice,

I am writing this letter as an addendum to the letter I sent you dated September 21, 1997. There was a question I still had in regards to your message to me dated 20 July 1997 which I did not ask because at the time I could not decide how best to articulate it in a befitting manner. You will recall that I had suggested that many of the difficulties had arisen because many Bahá'í historians and Middle East specialists had exceeded the proper bounds of their calling as scholars by interfering in administrative affairs with their constant criticisms of the institutions. You responded by stating that there were far greater problems involved, referring to "the behavior of a very small group of Bahá'ís who . . . aggressively sought to promote their misconceptions of the Teachings among their fellow believers." You further refer to attempts "to alter the essential nature of Bahá'u'lláh's message."

While I recognize that in some cases certain Bahá'ís have done precisely that, these statements were troubling to me inasmuch as they raised questions in regards to the limits of tolerance within the Bahá'í Faith. Specifically, as you are no doubt aware, Dr. ... has been vigorously insisting that the investigation which was launched by the International Teaching Center against himself and others was motivated by a desire to impose a rigid doctrinal conformity on Bahá'í scholars which would be inconsistent with our ability to function as academics. I had argued, to the contrary, that the investigation was largely launched in reaction to what was seen as an attack on the Institutions themselves. For this reason your letter of 20 July created much confusion for me because it seemed to vindicate Dr. ...'s perception of these events.

My question is, to what extent does the House see these problems as issues of doctrinal heresy which must therefore be suppressed and to what extent are the Institutions empowered to do this? I am aware, for instance, of the verse in the Will and Testament which reads: "To none is given the right to put forth his own opinion or express his particular conviction. All must seek guidance and turn unto the Centre of the Cause and the House of Justice." I note, however that the term for opinion here is rai which is one of the principles (usul) of Islamic jurisprudence. Given the juridical language of this entire section of the Will and Testament I would assume that `Abdu'l-Bahá was speaking here largely of opinions in regard to matters of Bahá'í law and practice rather than doctrine.

If the Universal House of Justice does regard the imposition of orthodoxy on the Bahá'í community as within the purview of the authority of the Institutions I wonder if you could explain to me how this fits in with the tolerance which `Abdu'l-Bahá calls for elsewhere within the Writings. I am thinking for instance of the passage in Kitab-I Bada'i al-Athar 1:294 where `Abdu'l-Bahá insists that there must be no interference in beliefs or conscience. I also note that in another Tablet `Abdu'l-Bahá states that so long as courtesy is maintained that in the Faith no one can rule over a persons conscience. He goes on to say that such freedom does not extend to matters of divine law. (Ma'idih-yi Asmani 5:17-18.) I also have in mind Bahá'u'lláh's Tablet to Bourjerdi where even over the vital issue of the station of the Manifestation, Bahá'u'lláh refuses to allow the imposition of rigid dogma.

Thank you for your careful consideration of the issues I raise and for your continued prayers at the Sacred Shrines.

    Obediently yours,
    Susan Maneck

3. Letter from the Universal House of Justice to Maneck

8 February 1998              

Transmitted by email

Dr. Susan Stiles Maneck

Dear Bahá'í Friend,

    The Universal House of Justice received your emails of 21 September and 17 November 1997 and much regrets the delay in responding. It has instructed us to send you the following comments which it trusts will be helpful to you in your endeavour to understand various points made previously to yourself and other friends.

    Your email of 21 September covers a number of issues, the first of which relates to methods followed in researching, understanding and writing about historical events, and the elements of these methods which the House of Justice regards as being influenced by materialism. The purpose of scholarship in such fields should obviously be the ascertainment of truth, and Bahá'í scholars should, of course, observe the highest standards of honesty, integrity and truthfulness. Moreover, the House of Justice accepts that many scholarly methods have been developed which are soundly based and of enduring validity. It nevertheless questions some presumptions of certain current academic methods because it sees these producing a distorted picture of reality.

    The training of some scholars in fields such as religion and history seems to have restricted their vision and blinded them to the culturally determined basis of elements of the approach they have learned. It causes them to exclude from consideration factors which, from a Bahá'í point of view, are of fundamental importance. Truth in such fields cannot be found if the evidence of Revelation is systematically excluded and if discourse is limited by a basically deterministic view of the world.

    Some of the protagonists in the discussions on the Internet have implied that the only way to attain a true understanding of historical events and of the purport of the sacred and historical records of the Cause of God is through the rigid application of methods narrowly defined in a materialistic framework. They have even gone so far as to stigmatize whoever proposes a variation of these methods as wishing to obscure the truth rather than unveil it.

    The House of Justice recognizes that, at the other extreme, there are Bahá'ís who, imbued by what they conceive to be loyalty to Bahá'u'lláh, cling to blind acceptance of what they understand to be a statement of the Sacred Text. This shortcoming demonstrates an equally serious failure to grasp the profundity of the Bahá'í principle of the harmony of faith and reason. The danger of such an attitude is that it exalts personal understanding of some part of the Revelation over the whole, leads to illogical and internally

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8 February 1998
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inconsistent applications of the Sacred Text, and provides fuel to those who would mistakenly characterize loyalty to the Covenant as "fundamentalism".

    It is not surprising that individual Bahá'ís hold and express different and sometimes defective understandings of the Teachings; this is but an evidence of the magnitude of the change that this Revelation is to effect in human consciousness. As believers with various insights into the Teachings converse -- with patience, tolerance and open and unbiased minds -- a deepening of comprehension should take place. The strident insistence on individual views, however, can lead to contention, which is detrimental not only to the spirit of Bahá'í association and collaboration but to the search for truth itself.

    Beyond contention, moreover, is the condition in which a person is so immovably attached to one erroneous viewpoint that his insistence upon it amounts to an effort to change the essential character of the Faith. This kind of behaviour, if permitted to continue unchecked, could produce disruption in the Bahá'í community, giving birth to countless sects as it has done in previous Dispensations. The Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh prevents this. The Faith defines elements of a code of conduct, and it is ultimately the responsibility of the Universal House of Justice, in watching over the security of the Cause and upholding the integrity of its Teachings, to require the friends to adhere to standards thus defined.

    The Universal House of Justice does not see itself obliged to prescribe a new scientific methodology for Bahá'í academics who make study of the Faith, its teachings and history the subject of their professional activities. Rather has it concentrated on drawing the attention of these friends to the inadequacy of certain approaches from a Bahá'í point of view, urging them to apply to their work the concept which they accept as Bahá'ís: that the Manifestation of God is of a higher realm and has a perception far above that of any human being. He has the task of raising humankind to a new level of knowledge and behaviour. In this, His understanding transcends the traditions and concepts of the society in which He appears. As Bahá'u'lláh Himself writes in the Hidden Words:

    O Son of Beauty! By My spirit and by My favor! By My mercy and by My beauty! All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.

Although, in conveying His Revelation, the Manifestation uses the language and culture of the country into which He is born, He is not confined to using terminology with the same connotations as those given to it by His predecessors or contemporaries; He delivers His message in a form which His audience, both immediate and in centuries to come, is capable of grasping. It is for Bahá'í scholars to elaborate, over a period of time, methodologies which will enable them to perform their work with this understanding. This is a challenging task, but not one which should be beyond the scope of Bahá'ís who are learned in the Teachings as well as competent in their scientific disciplines.

This brings us to the specific points raised in your email of 17 November 1997. As you well understand, not only the right but also the responsibility

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of each believer to explore truth for himself or herself are fundamental to the Bahá'í teachings. This principle is an integral feature of the coming of age of humankind, inseparable from the social transformation to which Bahá'u'lláh is calling the peoples of the world. It is as relevant to specifically scholarly activity as it is to the rest of spiritual and intellectual life. Every human being is ultimately responsible to God for the use which he or she makes of these possibilities; conscience is never to be coerced, whether by other individuals or institutions.

    Conscience, however, is not an unchangeable absolute. One dictionary definition, although not covering all the usages of the term, presents the common understanding of the word "conscience" as "the sense of right and wrong as regards things for which one is responsible; the faculty or principle which pronounces upon the moral quality of one's actions or motives, approving the right and condemning the wrong".

    The functioning of one's conscience, then, depends upon one's understanding of right and wrong; the conscience of one person may be established upon a disinterested striving after truth and justice, while that of another may rest on an unthinking predisposition to act in accordance with that pattern of standards, principles and prohibitions which is a product of his social environment. Conscience, therefore, can serve either as a bulwark of an upright character or can represent an accumulation of prejudices learned from one's forebears or absorbed from a limited social code.

    A Bahá'í recognizes that one aspect of his spiritual and intellectual growth is to foster the development of his conscience in the light of divine Revelation -- a Revelation which, in addition to providing a wealth of spiritual and ethical principles, exhorts man "to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye". This process of development, therefore, involves a clear-sighted examination of the conditions of the world with both heart and mind. A Bahá'í will understand that an upright life is based upon observance of certain principles which stem from Divine Revelation and which he recognizes as essential for the well-being of both the individual and society. In order to uphold such principles, he knows that, in certain cases, the voluntary submission of the promptings of his own personal conscience to the decision of the majority is a conscientious requirement, as in wholeheartedly accepting the majority decision of an Assembly at the outcome of consultation.

    In the discussion of wisdom in your email of 21 September 1997, you observe that maybe "Bahá'í academics all too often have not recognized that to a great extent failure to exercise wisdom represents a failure of love." The House of Justice agrees that the exercise of wisdom calls for a measure of love and the development of a sensitive conscience. These, in turn, involve not only devotion to a high standard of uprightness, but also consideration of the effects of one's words and actions.

    A Bahá'í's duty to pursue an unfettered search after truth should lead him to understand the Teachings as an organic, logically coherent whole, should cause him to examine his own ideas and motives, and should enable him to see

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that adherence to the Covenant, to which he is a party, is not blind imitation but conscious choice, freely made and freely followed.

    In many of His utterances, `Abdu'l-Bahá extols governments which uphold freedom of conscience for their citizens. As can be seen from the context, these statements refer to the freedom to follow the religion of one's choice. In the original of a passage to which you refer in your email of 17 November 1997, He gives the following analysis of freedom.

    There are three types of freedom. The first is divine freedom, which is one of the inherent attributes of the Creator for He is unconstrained in His will, and no one can force Him to change His decree in any matter whatsoever....

    The second is the political freedom of Europeans, which leaves the individual free to do whatsoever he desires as long as his action does not harm his neighbour. This is natural freedom, and its greatest expression is seen in the animal world. Observe these birds and notice with what freedom they live. However much man may try, he can never be as free as an animal, because the existence of order acts as an impediment to freedom.

    The third freedom is that which is born of obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Almighty. This is the freedom of the human world, where man severs his affections from all things. When he does so, he becomes immune to all hardship and sorrow. Wealth or material power will not deflect him from moderation and fairness, neither will poverty or need inhibit him from showing forth happiness and tranquillity. The more the conscience of man develops, the more will his heart be free and his soul attain unto happiness. In the religion of God, there is freedom of thought because God, alone, controls the human conscience, but this freedom should not go beyond courtesy. In the religion of God, there is no freedom of action outside the law of God. Man may not transgress this law, even though no harm is inflicted on one's neighbour. This is because the purpose of Divine law is the education of all -- others as well as oneself -- and, in the sight of God, the harm done to one individual or to his neighbour is the same and is reprehensible in both cases. Hearts must possess the fear of God. Man should endeavour to avoid that which is abhorrent unto God. Therefore, the freedom that the laws of Europe offer to the individual does not exist in the law of God. Freedom of thought should not transgress the bounds of courtesy, and actions, likewise, should be governed by the fear of God and the desire to seek His good pleasure.

    Education of the individual Bahá'í in the Divine law is one of the duties of Spiritual Assemblies. In a letter to a National Assembly on 1 March 1951, Shoghi Effendi wrote:

    The deepening and enrichment of the spiritual life of the individual believer, his increasing comprehension of the essential verities

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    underlying this Faith, his training in its administrative processes, his understanding of the fundamentals of the Covenants established by its Author and the authorized Interpreter of its teachings, should be made the supreme objectives of the national representatives responsible for the edification, the progress and consolidation of these communities.

    Such is the duty resting on the elected institutions of the Faith for the promotion of the spiritual, moral and ethical lives of the individual believers. Parallel with this, the Bahá'í Faith upholds the freedom of conscience which permits a person to follow his chosen religion: no one may be compelled to become a Bahá'í, or to remain a Bahá'í if he conscientiously wishes to leave the Faith. As to the thoughts of the Bahá'ís themselves -- that is those who have chosen to follow the religion of Bahá'u'lláh -- the institutions do not busy themselves with what individual believers think unless those thoughts become expressed in actions which are inimical to the basic principles and vital interests of the Faith.

    With regard to the accusation that to make such distinctions borders on restriction of the freedom of speech, one should accept that civil society has long recognized that utterance can metamorphose into behaviour, and has taken steps to protect itself and its citizens against such behaviour when it becomes socially destructive. Laws against sedition and hate-mongering are examples that come readily to mind.

    It will surely be clear to you from the above comments that the categories of "issues of doctrinal heresy which must therefore be suppressed" and "the imposition of orthodoxy on the Bahá'í community", to which you refer, are concepts essentially drawn from the study of Christianity and are inapplicable to the far more complex interrelationships and principles established by the Bahá'í Faith.

    It is important for all those Bahá'ís who are engaged in the academic study of the Bahá'í Faith to address the theoretical problems which undoubtedly exist, while refusing to be distracted by insidious and unscholarly attacks and calumnies which may periodically be injected into their discussions by the ill-intentioned. Discussion with those who sincerely raise problematic issues, whether they be Bahá'ís or not, and whether -- if the latter -- they disagree with Bahá'í teachings, can be beneficial and enlightening. However, to continue dialogue with those who have shown a fixed antagonism to the Faith, and have demonstrated their imperviousness to any ideas other than their own, is usually fruitless and, for the Bahá'ís who take part, can be burdensome and even spiritually corrosive.

    The problem which aroused the concern of the House of Justice, and has been the subject of a number of communications, was the systematic corruption of Bahá'í discourse in certain of the Internet discussion groups, a design which became increasingly apparent to many of the Bahá'í participants and whose first victim, if it were to succeed, would be Bahá'í scholarship itself. The element which exacerbated a dispute which had been simmering during the past two decades and erupted on the Internet was the participation of some persons who, while nominally Bahá'ís, cherished their own programs and designed to make use of the Bahá'í Cause for the advancement of these programs. To this end they strove to change the essential characteristics of that Cause. This

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behaviour has been abundantly confirmed by statements made and actions taken by certain of the involved individuals since they withdrew from the Bahá'í community. They sought to use the language, the occasions and the credibility of scholarly activity to lend a counterfeit authority to a private enterprise which was essentially ideological in nature and self-motivated in origin. Even if their original aims were idealistic in nature -- no matter how ill-informed and erroneous in concept -- they had evolved in practice into an assault on the Covenant which Bahá'u'lláh has created as a stronghold within which His Cause would evolve as He intends. The purpose of some of those responsible would seem to be that, by diminishing the station of Bahá'u'lláh -- a disservice done to previous Manifestations by people similarly inclined --, by casting doubt on the authority conferred on `Abdu'l-Bahá, the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice, and by calling into question the integrity of Bahá'í administrative processes, they would be able to persuade a number of unwary followers that the Bahá'í Faith is in fact not a Divine Revelation but a kind of socio-political system being manipulated by ambitious individuals.

    Your own familiarity with these same persons' behaviour will have provided you with ample illustration of the violence being done by their public and private statements to Bahá'u'lláh's teachings, which they profess to honour, and to the cause of scholarship, which they profess to serve. We cannot separate method from spirit and character. In The Secret of Divine Civilization, `Abdu'l-Bahá gives the standard for the "spiritually learned" whom He describes as "skilled physicians for the ailing body of the world" and "the sure antidote to the poison that has corrupted human society":

    For every thing, however, God has created a sign and symbol, and established standards and tests by which it may be known. The spiritually learned must be characterized by both inward and outward perfections; they must possess a good character, an enlightened nature, a pure intent, as well as intellectual power, brilliance and discernment, intuition, discretion and foresight, temperance, reverence, and a heartfelt fear of God. For an unlit candle, however great in diameter and tall, is no better than a barren palm tree or a pile of dead wood.

    We trust that these comments will help you to see the implications of the points conveyed in the emailed letter of 20 July 1997. The House of Justice asks us to assure you of its continuing prayers on your behalf.
    With loving Bahá'í greetings,
    Department of the Secretariat
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