Question: What, if any, safeguards are present in the religious doctrine to prevent a decay of the religion into dogma? –Sidfaiwu
Answer: I recognize your concern about single authority. The history of religion is rife with abuses by its leaders. A Baha’i treatment of history of religion might describe HOW religions devolve into dogma as you succinctly put it.
Given the Baha’i concept of Manifestation described above, one can see the Author of a revelation (Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Baha’u'llah, etc.) as being the source of the most accurate spiritual truth for the time in which it was revealed. (Again, not to say truth isn’t also found in other ways or other sources – it’s about intention and accuracy and context). However, these beings are not immortal in this physical plane. They pass away as they have a human nature as well as this divine reflection nature. So what happens to the lessons when they go? Historically, there has always been an open question on the death of the various Manifestations as to whom, if anyone should continue to guide the community gathered around them. Often, these questions have become the vehicles for political manipulation and have lead to contrasting interpretations and authority claims. These competitive forces caused retrenchment and exclusivity and, often, violent suppression of one by another sub-group.
One need only look to the early histories of the Christian church around the various "heresies" propagated and suppressed. In no text of the Gospel did Jesus establish the structure of institutions to co-ordinate his community, nor did he express, to our knowledge, an explicit declaration of who should have authority to interpret what he did not explicitly state. So absent such, the church had little possibility BUT to eventually become increasingly political, increasingly fractious, and for someone to attempt to consolidate their power. Similar situations can be perceived in the early Muslim faith, with certain parties believing that Ali (Muhammad’s son-in-law) was authorized to lead the community and interpret, with others believing that the community elders should choose a leader in traditional way of the Arab tribes.
So one side of the question of central authority is: Who has legitimate authority. That’s the first start. Especially if you are presuming that the truth-claims of the religion are important, which one must when considering a belief system. In the Baha’i Faith, this is explicitly handled, as Baha’u'llah went to great effort to ensure that this same fate would not befall his religion. In short, since the goal of His religion is to see the eventual unification of humanity, the Baha’i Faith could scarcely speak on the issue if it were wracked by internal dissent and division. So Baha’u'llah appointed His son `Abdu’l-Baha as the "Centre of his Covenant", and as the "Expounder of the Word of God". His was the sole authority to interpret Baha’u'llah’s words, and whatever he said, was as if his Father had said it, according to Baha’u'llah. Upon Abdu’l-Baha’s passing, he authorized his grandson Shogh Effendi to continue this interpretive role, giving him the title of "Guardian". The Guardian died without heir or will, so the Baha’i Community sees the total body of Baha’u'llah, Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi’s works as revealed scripture and guidance.
However, An important aspect of keeping religion from becoming dogma is to keep it relevant. How is this done? Baha’u'llah assured the Baha’is of `Abdu’l-Baha’s infallible guidance in interpreting the sacred text, but he authorized another institution to create new law for those things that were not expressly given in the scriptures. He declared this the "House of Justice" and conferred it with similar unfailing guidance within its sphere of authority. So if Baha’u'llah did not explicitly reveal something, or his Successors did not clarify it, then it was for the House of Justice to deliberate and pass laws – laws which that same institution could later repeal, should the needs of the age change. The "Supreme" House of Justice, according to Baha’u'llah, was to be elected from the body of mankind and would be global in scope, and each locality would also have a House of Justice which was subordinate to the supreme House. Today, the “Universal House of Justice”, elected from the worldwide Baha’i community in indirect elections every five years, governs Baha’is. Baha’is elect local "Spiritual Assemblies" (precursors to local Houses of Justice) in any local community of 9 or more Baha’is on a yearly basis. Since the passing of `Abdu’l-Baha, we also have "National" Spiritual Assemblies, destined to evolve into "Secondary Houses of Justice" at the national level, also elected every year. These elections are non-partisan, non-nominational, and operate on a fairly unique set of principles and practices. No campaigning, no electioneering – individuals are elected based on personal qualities. Our agreement or disagreement with a person is irrelevant to their potential election – their character, wisdom, intelligence, devotion, sacrificial nature are relevant. Wealth or poverty or any material considerations are explicitly disallowed as considerations. In short, we get the nine people whom the greatest number of people find to be in possession of the necessary qualities. They vote on their conscience and are discouraged from block-voting, caucusing, or any other partisan behavior. The above is part of what keeps these bodies from straying too far into authoritarian posture. The positions are honored, but provide no personal power in the community. Save the role of the Guardian (a role which is now permanently unfilled), no individual has any personal authority. Period.
In practice, the above-mentioned scripture and guidance acts as a sort of constitution and framework, and the House of Justice is a legislature-judiciary. Because of the clear authority provided in Baha’u'llah’s writings and those of his Successors, 99.9% of those who consider themselves Baha’is are associated with this organization.
But what about diversity? Is unity bought at the price of conformity? Not quite. I’ll quote the Guardian on this:
"Let there be no misgivings as to the animating purpose of the world-wide Law of Bahá’u'lláh. Far from aiming at the subversion of the existing foundations of society, it seeks to broaden its basis, to remold its institutions in a manner consonant with the needs of an ever-changing world. It can conflict with no legitimate allegiances, nor can it undermine essential loyalties. Its purpose is neither to stifle the flame of a sane and intelligent patriotism in men’s hearts, nor to abolish the system of national autonomy so essential if the evils of excessive centralization are to be avoided. It does not ignore, nor does it attempt to suppress, the diversity of ethnical origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples and nations of the world. It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration than any that has animated 42 the human race. It insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world. It repudiates excessive centralization on one hand, and disclaims all attempts at uniformity on the other. Its watchword is unity in diversity…"
-Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u'llah, p. 41)
Now, how well are we doing? I’m sure it depends on who you ask. But I’ve seen in my 16 years of membership a transformation in the Baha’i community. In the 70′s and 80′s we tried a lot of central planning and there were many challenges to the whole scheme, which certainly had their consequences. However, throught the last two decades, the tone of the world-wide community has changed dramatically, and in my view increasingly towards the character of "unity in diversity" mentioned by Shoghi Effendi above. A combination of shifting demographics (towards the third world, primarily), the increasing maturity of national and local institutions, and the increasing application by the Universal House of Justice of lessons in community development learned in grass-roots initiatives in Baha’i communities around the world has led the Baha’i Community as a whole to be both more focused, and more diverse in its response to the foci to which our attention is turned. Increasingly Baha’i institutions call out the high-level priority, and then step back to encourage individual and local initiative and allow unique responses to local challenges to be discovered. Good ideas are propagated throughout the Baha’i world by the "International Teaching Centre" and its subsidiary agencies who keep us all informed of exciting work being done elsewhere. This cross-pollination keeps us from getting to inwardly focused.
These plans and priorities range from simple "spiritualization" of our communities by holding devotional gatherings and small-group "study circles" and children’s classes, to promoting literacy and health, projects to uplift and promote the equality of women and minorities, promotion of human unity (anti racism, cross-cultural communication, etc.), and we work also at international levels with a lot of UN agencies. While we always did many of these things, the whole tone has changed, and Baha’is are highly encouraged to creatively apply their own approaches to the conditions of their local community and family.
The interaction of increasingly grass-roots-focused community action, the maturity of legitimate institutions elected from the body of the Baha’i community, the strong prohibitions against excessive centralization, the strong prohibition against partisanship and against the arrogation of personal authority – these all contribute to the health of the Baha’i community and help to prevent its decay into dogma and fractious extremist thrashing.