When Games Collide (for Brent)
Jan 19, 1995 11:38 AM
by K. Paul Johnson
Brent Poirier's post on Shoghi Effendi's statement about the
House of Justice being inseparable from the Guardianship inspired
ambivalent reactions in me. (Theosophists-- you'll see why I'm
crossposting this in just a minute, OK?) On one hand, I'm
impressed by it as a virtuoso performance, and feel envious of
his legal mind and persuasiveness. On the other hand, I have a
sneaking suspicion that one could grab the same ball and run a
hundred yards in the opposite direction. This morning I woke up
thinking about the issue he raised (waking up engaged in thought
is a fairly weird phenomenon for me, which the Internet seems to
have evoked). Here's the gist of what my unconscious had worked
out on the subject.
I see Brent as playing (participating in) a language game that is
quite different from the one I play when I think/talk/ write
about Baha'i. Both are called "explaining the history of a
religion" but the similarity is in name only. However, I think
Brent's rules are identical to those of "orthodox" Theosophists
in the way they think/talk/write about TS history. Sylvia
Cranston's recent biography of HPB seems to follow them for
example. Here are the rules as I see them:
1. The outcome must be supportive of (or at least not
challenging to) the institutional status quo.
2. The outcome must be comforting to all believers.
3. The process must assume that no major authority figure was
ever mistaken about anything. (Variant lists of authorities).
4. The process must reconcile all apparent discrepancies so as
to conform to 1,2, and 3.
5. The process must respect rules of evidence and logic.
Now, what rules am I following when I play the "same" game of
explaining religious history, among either Baha'is or
1. The outcome must distinguish between those aspects of the
institutional status quo that are solidly grounded historically
and those which aren't.
2. The outcome must be expressed diplomatically so as to
minimize offense taken by believers and consequent rejection
experienced by me.
3. The process must assume that regardless of mistakes made by
the authority figures, they meant well and should not be
vilified. (Bending over backwards to give HPB the benefit of the
doubt will cost me something with academic reviewers, I fear, and
not even be noticed by Theosophists who take it for granted.)
4. Apparent discrepancies must be first regarded as stimuli to
empirical investigation, and assumed to be genuine until evidence
to the contrary is sufficient.
5. The process must follow rules of evidence and logic enough to
satisfy a university press.
Brent's argument, as I understand it, is that Shoghi Effendi's
dire statements about a House of Justice with no Guardian should
be taken as subjunctive rather than conditional. E.g., not "if I
don't pay my bill the lights will be but off" but "if little
toads had wings they could fly." He finds many other examples of
rhetorical flourishes with parallel wording, and is persuasive
thus far. But how far can one go in taking as subjunctive those
phrases that don't work out in other tenses? In fact, my view of
the Aqdas is more or less along these lines. I see it as a
"what-if" futurist fiction, written by someone whose soul was
illumined with an intuitive sense of the future but whose brain
was 19th century Persian and lost a lot of the soul-wisdom in
translation. The whole thing is subjunctive because based on a
contrafactual condition-- what if the world were run by Baha'is.
Of course that condition is not accepted as contrafactual by
y'all, making the Aqdas conditional. Although Baha'is have
resisted making it present indicative for a long time!
To play with the Shoghi Effendi quote with my own rules would be
prohibitively time- and energy- consuming for writer and reader
alike. But here is an outline of the paper I'd write to counter
Brent's in a conference.
1. Shoghi Effendi had a mistaken view of the future of the
2. Therefore, his rhetorical flourish was intended by him as
contrafactual; he never dreamed that the first clause would come
3. By the time Shoghi Effendi was in his 60s and his wife in her
late 40s(?) and they were still childless, it would have been
obvious to any sane person that no legitimate descendant would be
4. It is entirely reasonable to expect someone is such a
position to acknowledge it and take steps to resolve it. (A will
appointing a new Guardian, or plans for the end of the
5. That this was not done suggests that Shoghi Effendi and the
entire Baha'i world were so caught up in the rules of the game
that they were willfully blind to the obvious impending crisis.
6. To the extent that Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l Baha really
foretold the future of the Baha'i Faith as Shoghi Effendi did (or
may have?), they too are failed prophets in this regard.
7. To the extent that Shoghi Effendi's failed-prophetic view of
the Faith's future conflicts with those of his predecessors,
their prophetic prestige can be rescued. (Paradoxically, after
the collapse of the future as planned by Shoghi Effendi, Baha'is
embraced his vision ever more tightly. Festinger's When Prophecy
Fails offers some psychological perspective.)
8. Therefore it should be a priority to ascertain the extent to
which history has invalidated various Baha'i leaders' predictions
of the future of the Faith; consequently, a reevaluation and some
changes of course should take place.
I tend to see in this the ghosts of Twelver Shi`ism coming back
to haunt you all. Who's to say that a century hence, someone
will claim that there really was a son hidden away, starting a
cycle of claims to be in touch with him? The tragedy of the
missing descendant seems to be replaying itself.
With apologies for this long post, I close with a comment on the
collision of games. While Brent's rules are no more or
inherently valid than mine, I think that one game is relatively
sterile, the other fertile. Staying within the closed circle of
Baha'i thought patterns is not what the Faith needs right now
IMHO. Indeed, I suggest that a terrible confusion about the
Covenant has occurred. The unconscious consensus about "the way
we think/write/talk about what we hold sacred" is in a sense a
covenant among Baha'is. When someone breaks the rules of this
game, he/she is perceived as breaking a covenant. The original
complex of thoughts and feelings about covenant breaking is
mobilized in a wholly inappropriate manner as a result. E.g.
the Dialogue affair, or Payam's recent comments about wild
accusations by members of institutions. But the real Covenant is
something much different from the "growed like Topsy" unconscious
consensus that seems to have so many people hypnotized.
What I think is great about the Internet is the way it forces us
up against people playing by very different rules, and challenges
us to figure out why we're not communicating well. Opponents are
rather like tennis players who can see the fans in the stands
behind each other, but not those behind themselves. Translate
those onlookers as unconscious assumptions, and the metaphor
proceeds to reveal that I can see yours and you can see mine, but
we can't see our own. Thus the adversarial discussions on the
net are like mirrors in which we reveal those unconscious
assumptions to one another. I'll show you yours if you'll show
me mine! Of course my reading of history above is biased and
distorted, but so's yours. Maybe we can help each other.
A final note returning to my theme of "back to `Abdu'l Baha."
Shoghi Effendi had to play HIS game HIS way; `Abdu'l Baha could
play anyone's game according to THEIR rules and impress them with
his skill. Which makes him a better role model in this
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