Excerpts from a talk by Dr. Peter Khan on 3 July 2009 regarding the concept of change in religion and in the Bahá’í Faith, and the importance of wholehearted obedience to the Covenant in this context, with reference to the Ridván 2009 Message (read it here). The whole of the talk is available here. Please note that this transcript may not be entirely accurate.

“The solution [to meeting the challenge of change in the Faith] is no more and no less than unreserved acceptance of whatever the central authority of the Cause, in this case the Universal House of Justice decrees. If we would hold to that, if we would contemplate it deeply, if we would absorb the implications and meaning of unreserved acceptance and implementation of whatever the Central Authority in the Cause decrees we are safe.  Nothing can trouble us…”


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A talk by Dr. Peter Khan

3 July 2009

THE RIDVAN MESSAGE

I’m very very pleased to have the opportunity to speak about a document as significant and of such far reaching importance as the Ridván 2009 Message.

As you know it was and is unique, as far as I can tell, among the various messages of the Universal House of Justice in its brevity and in its tone.  It comes hard on the heels of a remarkable event, unprecedented in the history of the Cause, or indeed in the history of the religion throughout the world; and that was the convening, at the instruction of the Universal House of Justice, and with the invaluable assistance of the Members of the International Teaching Centre, of a series of 41 Conferences held throughout the length and breadth of the planet, attended by some eighty thousand people.

As you are, I am sure, aware, that series of conferences had a galvanizing effect on the Bahá’í Community throughout the world and ultimately on the larger society. It was a tangible demonstration of the global spread of the Faith and it created a most welcome surge toward the goal of 1500 Intensive Programs of Growth by the end of the present plan.

This Ridván Message can be regarded as celebratory in [tone]: celebrating the fact that we have achieved an important milestone in reaching  some 1000 Intensive Programs of Growth by Ridván 2009, and expressing the confidence of the Universal House of Justice that the goal of the Five Year Plan would be accomplished.

My purpose tonight is not to dwell specifically on those details, but rather to share with you my thoughts about what I see to be two underlying issues, the exploration of which I believe to be crucial to a deeper understanding of this Ridván Message and indeed of the direction in which the faith is now going.

These two issues which I will address in turn have firstly to dwell upon the significance of Bahá’í activity at the present time in the history of the world, and secondly to examine the question of change in religion. …

Change in the Bahá’í Faith

We now come to the Bahá’í Faith. Obviously it must deal with change, and it must deal with it in two quite distinct, but somewhat related dimensions: one is legal and the other one is psychological.

Within the structure of Bahá’í Law the problem is straight forward: the authority Bahá’u’lláh conferred upon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and in turn upon the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice provides an impregnable stronghold for the legal authority to implement an appropriate degree of change. In the case of the House of Justice, the authority is given to implement change is quite fascinating, it has several components to it.  They include:

- The right of the House of Justice to carry out progressive clarification and application of Bahá’í Law gives it authority to make change.  For example Huqúqu’lláh: it was around in the books for a long time, but it became universally applicable in 1992. There are a number of other laws in the Kitab-i-Aqdas not yet applicable, change will occur as the House of Justice decides to apply them.

- The right of the House of Justice to make and change subsidiary laws is also a legitimate application of the legal authority of the House of Justice to make change, obviously within the limits prescribed.

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Members of the Universal House of Justice, April 2005. First row, L to R: Dr. Payman Mohajer, Mr. Hartmut Grossmann, Mr. Kiser Barnes, Mr. Paul Lample Second row, L to R: Mr. Glenford Mitchell, Dr. Firaydoun Javaheri, Dr. Peter Khan, Mr. Hooper Dunbar, Dr. Farzam Arbab

Shoghi Effendi has referred to the Faith as it developed in the future and he says:

“The Bahá’ís should not always be the last to take up new and obviously excellent methods, but rather the first, as this agrees with the dynamic nature of the Faith which is not only progressive, but holds within itself the seeds of an entirely new culture and civilization.”[11]

And this right, the legal right of the House of Justice to make and change subsidiary laws is part of the apparatus of the Faith to remain progressive and at the forefront of cultural civilized change.

-  The House of Justice is also given a remarkably broad authority, as stated in its Constitution; it has the right to found Institutions, to usher in the World Order of Baha’u’llah: this is an enormous degree of power and authority assigned to the House of Justice as its legal right in this religion.

Nevertheless it remains the challenge to the Bahá’í community to deal with the psychological dimension of change. I mention this because one tends to be secure if there is no change: one does the same old thing day after day, you do it in your sleep, you do it without even thinking, and everything is stable and comfortable. Change disturbs all that, and one just tends to be resentful of it: “this is not the way it used to be, I have very fond memories of childhood and the pattern of behaviour of that time.”  Shoghi Effendi has in a number of places warned us of avoiding extremes.  It tells us for example:

It is our primary task to keep the most vigilant eye on the manner and characteristic of the characteristic of the growth of the Faith,…lest extreme orthodoxy on one hand, and irresponsible freedom on the other, cause it to deviate from that Straight Path which alone can lead it to success.[12]

And there are a number of other passages which deal with the same theme. There’s one of the House of Justice.

In past Dispensations believers have tended to divide into two mutually antagonistic groups: those who held blindly to the letter of the Revelation, and those who questioned and doubted everything. Like all extremes, both can lead to error.[13]

I mentioned this because one is more comfortable clinging blindly to the letter of the law:

-  “Why are you doing this?”

- “Look, here it’s written black and white, read for yourself. It’s so clear!”

And yet we are warned to avoid the extreme of clinging blindly to the letter of the law, just as Shoghi Effendi warns us against extreme orthodoxy. And ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also of course warned us against this rigidity. In one place, this was a statement attributed to him, it’s in Star of the West, he says:

“Holding to the letter of the law is many times an indication of a desire for leadership. One who assumes to be the enforcer of the law shows an intellectual understanding of the Cause, but that spiritual guidance in them is not yet established.”[14]

It’s quite a sobering passage from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

At every stage of the unfoldment of the Cause, where there has been change it’s been a test to the believers: …

The House of Justice, in its conduct over the years has provided the same degree of test through change. Sincere, devoted, highly faithful believers were tested. When the House of Justice, in one of its first actions, combined the Eastern and Western pilgrims, I’ve talked to a number of people who were deeply tested by that. They remained faithful to the Cause, they remained devoted, but they were shaken by it. The decision that the Huqúqu’lláh, in the absence of the Guardian, should come to the House of Justice was a test to many. The establishment of the Continental Board of Counselors tested a number of individuals who had some misgivings about appointed people and titles and all the rest of it, and then of course the Teaching Centre; the establishment of Regional Bahá’í Councils, even though the Constitution of the House of Justice has the right to found institutions, this was a test to the believers:  “what will happen to the National Assemblies? Why was their power been taken? We got by very well without Regional Bahá’í Councils for decades, why do we need them now?” Etcetera.

The House of Justice has far greater latitude than that, and I think if we would live for another century, we would see all kinds of changes in the future.

I dwell on this as my final point because the House of Justice in 1996 began a process of quite significant change and that change is a test to some sincere and devoted believers.  The concept of clusters has been a challenge to some, not to everybody, but to some: “what about the LSA, are we going to forget about that?  Shoghi Effendi gave us the LSA? Why do you need the cluster?”

The priority given to the core activities such as the focus on the intensive and prolonged group study of the Ruhi books, has been a test to some:  “It means we can’t have firesides? We can’t have deepening classes? What about all the things in the Writings?  Is that all we have to study?”  And the like.

The focus on Intensive Programs of Growth has been a test. The deeper involvement of the International Teaching Centre, the Counselors, and Auxiliary Board Members in the life of the community has been a test, not to disputative or contentious believers, but to a number of devoted believers who remember the old days, who remember when life was simpler: they went to Feast, we had a fireside, we went to deepening classes and occasionally did something else. Life was simple, life was straight forward, it was entirely comprehensible, and then along came this whole apparatus using words that do not appear in the Writings, as far as one can tell from earlier times: Cluster, Intensive Program of Growth, Core Activity and the like.

This is a challenge of change.  It can be avoided very simply by allowing the Faith to remain static and to wither. We cannot do this, we have no choice, we have to build the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh. Things have to expand and develop in ways we cannot yet comprehend. This requirement of necessity is that change can and must occur if the Faith is to fulfill its ordained destiny and its future.

We must overcome any psychological barrier to change, any misgivings, any concerns and troubles. We must recognize that when there is change you get extremes.  In this case the change since 1996 has produced in a few people a very colorful extreme: the accusation that the Ruhi material is only applicable to the Third World . This is very interesting, it’s very colorful, because when you open a Ruhi book what do you find there? The sacred Texts! The authoritative Writings.

If you look at Book 1, there are passages you can spend your life contemplating, just as devoted Christians have spent their lives contemplating the phrases of the Lord’s Prayer.  Another extreme is the accusation that we are ignoring Assemblies, feasts, firesides, and deepenings; the false accusation that Anna’s presentation could be given by a parrot; these are an extreme distortion which reflect one’s unease and frustration at the change that has been brought about by the House of Justice.

The automatic equivalence in the minds of some between the House of Justice call to direct teaching, to present the coming of Bahá’u’lláh in more direct terms, based upon the condition of the world, based upon the spiritual hunger of mankind, trivialized and gravely distorted into a call for the universal application of door to door teaching. These are all expressions, to my mind, of the unease of capable and devoted believers who are struggling with change.  Of course when you go to one extreme you get the other extreme, you get the criticism of those who are not involved in the Institute Process, extreme statements to not bother with the LSA or with firesides, the confusion between priority and exclusive, and so on.

This is the challenge we face and it’s inherent in the Ridván 2009 Message.  The solution is childish simple; the solution is so simple, it is hardly worth mentioning.  The solution is no more and no less than unreserved acceptance of whatever the central authority of the Cause, in this case the Universal House of Justice decrees.

If we would hold to that, if we would contemplate it deeply, if we would absorb the implications and meaning of unreserved acceptance and implementation of whatever the Central Authority in the Cause decrees we are safe.  Nothing can trouble us, we are in an impregnable stronghold, and we would become part of this massive movement of humanity to rescue the world from the perilous disorder, the intense suffering of the declining process and to usher in the ordained new world civilization in the Golden Age of the Cause.

Notes:

[11] Compilations, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 283
[12] Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 42
[13] Compilations, Scholarship, p. 16
[14]  Star of the West, vol 6, no. 6, June 24, 1915, page 44

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Gathered on the steps of the Seat of the Universal House of Justice on Mt. Carmel in Haifa, Israel, in 2005, are members of the Continental Boards of Counsellors together with members of the Universal House of Justice, the Counsellor members of the International Teaching Centre, and, at front, centre, the Hand of the Cause of God Dr. Ali-Muhammad Varqa.

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No wonder that He Who through the operation of His Will has inaugurated so vast and unique an Order and Who is the Center of so mighty a Covenant should have written these words: “So firm and mighty is this Covenant that from the beginning of time until the present day no religious Dispensation hath produced its like.” “Whatsoever is latent in the innermost of this holy cycle,” He wrote during the darkest and most dangerous days of His ministry, “shall gradually appear and be made manifest, for now is but the beginning of its growth and the dayspring of the revelation of its signs.” “Fear not,” are His reassuring words foreshadowing the rise of the Administrative Order established by His Will, “fear not if this Branch be severed from this material world and cast aside its leaves; nay, the leaves thereof shall flourish, for this Branch will grow after it is cut off from this world below, it shall reach the loftiest pinnacles of glory, and it shall bear such fruits as will perfume the world with their fragrance.”
To what else if not to the power and majesty which this Administrative Order—the rudiments of the future all-enfolding Bahá’í Commonwealth—is destined to manifest, can these utterances of Bahá’u’lláh allude: “The world’s equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind’s ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System—the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed.”
The Báb Himself, in the course of His references to “Him Whom God will make manifest” anticipates the System and glorifies the World Order which the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh is destined to unfold. “Well is it with him,” is His remarkable statement in the third chapter of the Persian Bayán, “who fixeth his gaze upon the Order of Bahá’u’lláh and rendereth thanks unto his Lord! For He will assuredly be made manifest. God hath indeed irrevocably ordained it in the Bayán.”

- Shoghi Effendi, WOB, p. 146-7

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(Obtained through an email list, 26 July 2009) (Images reproduced with permission of the Bahá’í International Community, view here and here)

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