Monday, March 19, 2007

Faith, Integrity, and Flexibility

Yours truly near the seat of the Universal House of Justice on Mt. Carmel in Israel. I LOVE THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE!

Jim Carrol, a fine editorialist for the Boston Globe with whom I often disagree has an interesting piece about "fundamentalisms". While his focus appears to be Catholicism, he makes some more general points that are worth thinking about. Here's a taste of his editorial:

"But all fundamentalisms, rejecting a secular claim to have replaced the sacred as chief source of meaning, are skeptical of Enlightenment values, even as the Enlightenment project has begun to criticize itself. But now "old time religion" of whatever stripe faces a plethora of threats: new technologies, globalization, the market economy, rampant individualism, diversity, pluralism, mobility -- all that makes for 21st-century life. Fundamentalisms will especially thrive wherever there is violent conflict, and wherever there is stark poverty, simply because these religiously absolute movements promise meaning where there is no meaning. For all these reasons, fundamentalisms are everywhere." (Enjoy the whole thing here)

Here's a few Baha'i thoughts while I finish my morning tea before the sun comes up (I'm still participating in the Baha'i Fast!). It seems to me that "fundamentalism" or "conservatism" in religion and "liberalism" in religion are two sides of the same coin of faith and are really about two dimensions of religion that are key in Baha'i belief and practice, integrity and flexibility. Integrity and flexibility are mentioned in the Constitution of the Universal House of Justice (one of my favorite documents ever!):

Bahá'u'lláh, the Revealer of God's Word in this Day, the Source of Authority, the Fountainhead of Justice, the Creator of a new World Order, the Establisher of the Most Great Peace, the Inspirer and Founder of a world civilization, the Judge, the Lawgiver, the Unifier and Redeemer of all mankind, has proclaimed the advent of God's Kingdom on earth, has formulated its laws and ordinances, enunciated its principles, and ordained its institutions. To direct and canalize the forces released by His Revelation He instituted His Covenant, whose power has preserved the integrity of His Faith, maintained its unity and stimulated its world-wide expansion throughout the successive ministries of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. It continues to fulfil its life-giving purpose through the agency of the Universal House of Justice whose fundamental object, as one of the twin successors of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, is to ensure the continuity of that divinely-appointed authority which flows from the Source of the Faith, to safeguard the unity of its followers, and to maintain the integrity and flexibility of its teachings. (The Universal House of Justice, The Constitution of The Universal House of Justice, p. 3)

How this integrity and flexibility are maintained is worthy of a much longer post than I am able to offer before the sun comes up, but to put it simply Baha'u'llah, the Founder of the Baha'i Faith has empowered the Universal House of Justice, the International Governing Council of His religion to legislate on those matters that have not been explicited addressed in the Kitab-i-Aqdas (the Most Holy Book) which contains those laws which are to form the foundation of the global civilization. The House of Justice is also able to elucidate upon those issues that are "obscure" or "cause difference" within the community of Baha'u'llah's followers in a way that allows the Baha'i Faith to be flexible and evolve according to the needs of the social evolution of humanity. This evolutionary quality of the Baha'i Faith is balanced with the integrity of the Laws that have been explicitedly addressed in the Kitab-i-Aqdas and cannot be changed by any institution or individual in the Baha'i community.

It could be said that those with a more fundamentalist mind set, place a greater emphasis on the integrity of their faith, seeking to protect the divine authority of the Founder, the sacred scripture or religious institutions. This sometimes involves a rigid adherence to a literal interpretation of the Word of God. The problem is that it does not allow for the flexibility that maintains the dynamic and organic nature of religion, rendering it a static and dead thing which is not capable of meeting the challenges of a changing world.

Those with a more liberal mind set, place a greater emphasis on the flexibility of faith, seeking to protect the free exercise of reason in matters of belief and practice, and the sanctity of individual conscience in meeting the challenges of morality. This sometimes involves the rejection of any divine authority of either the Founder of their faith, scripture or religious institutions. Personal or popular opinion of the meaning of their religion becomes the authority to which such people turn for guidance in their lives. The problem with this is that it tends to undermine the integrity of religion, turning the mind or the ego into the object of worship rather than God. It also exposes religion to the chances and changes of popular culture such that rather than being a means of transforming the social order, religion simply lends its authority to whatever trends capture the imaginations of human beings in the moment. Anyone who takes seriously the understanding that God is the Sovereign Lord and Creator of all things must accept that humanity does not inhabit a moral universe that springs from our own imagination, or is simply the product of our social constructs.

There are fundamentalist and liberal proponents in all religious communities and indeed, both elements of belief can be found struggling for dominance within each of our own hearts. As a Baha'i, I believe that a mature faith requires commitment to both integrity and flexibility in equal measure and that a sane, balanced and truly spiritual civilization does as well.