Church and State: A Postmodern Political Theology. Sen McGlinn. University of Leiden, 2005. 432 pages.
Reviewed December 19, 2007.
In light of the Haifan Universal House of Justice having declared Sen McGlinn a “kafir,” infidel, shortly after the 2005 publication of Church and State, the book resonates with many unintended ironies and contradictions. Written in hope of “recasting,” “reformulating,” “reinterpreting,” “refocusing,” and “rethinking” the contemporary popular Baha’i understanding of Baha’u’llah’s Teachings, Sen McGlinn has been thrown into the role of heretical Bahai theologian, denounced and excommunicated, tossed out of the church he had hoped to save from its own gross ignorance, Philistinism, anti-intellectualism, and fanaticism.
It will be interesting to see if McGlinn learns from the experience or is crushed by it. No greater test can be given an intelligent soul. It either calls out of one’s being an even deeper engagement with evil and truth, a struggle for clarity and understanding, or it destroys the fragile foundations of the self, exposing the shallowness of the structure one has built on. If I am not wrong, McGlinn has resources he has only begun to call upon. Nothing could prove his thesis more than the reactionary attack of the corrupt, decadent, and fraudulent universal house of justice.
Setting aside what he himself realizes is a tedious academic literature review of Islamic and Bahai sources on the relations of church and state and blind belief in theocracy, giving the benighted sources way too much attention, McGlinn presents, as a Bahai theologian, not a historian or apologist, the first glimmer of a deeply considered vision of Baha’u’llah’s Faith in the post-modern world. Far from a simplistic fanatical rejection of Enlightenment values, McGlinn defends their worth and realizes that, on the deepest spiritual level, so did Baha’u’llah—He Himself teaches that the separation of church and state is the way things should be, is God’s Will, and not something to be overturned and supplanted with a despicable theocracy of one sort or another—Christian, Islamic, Baha’i, or whatever—worldly power and coercion should be in the hands of those pragmatists who live with two feet on the ground and are not tempted by religious visions of spiritual utopias and New Jerusalems descending upon the earth at any cost. No wonder the organization based upon a spurious will and testament has pronounced his ideas and book “takfir,” anathema. He has gone deeper into Baha’u’llah’s Teachings than they can ever hope to reach.
In a key passage of the book, McGlinn writes,
“What is needed is not simply to recast Bahai thought in contemporary terms, or to hold the theological thinking of the Bahais up for critical examination in the light of Bahai scripture . . . but rather to drag Bahai thinking bodily from one world-view into the next. We can scarcely understand, now, the extent to which the Christians of the second and third centuries saw their religion in terms set by the shape of Roman society and the Roman state. If we do focus on that, we also see the magnitude of the transition initiated by Augustine’s theology, in disentangling the Christian religion from outdated suppositions about society” (10).
The historical sweep of McGlinn’s vision is truly awe-inspiring. He alludes elsewhere to Plato and Ibn Farabi. I wish he would have discussed Ibn Khaldun, instead of merely relegating him to the bibliography, since he understood so profoundly the extent to which Islam had departed from its early beginnings and had been transformed into a separation of the practical control of the state under royal princes. Ibn Khaldun is the locus classicus of that realization about Islam. Analogously, McGlinn sets his entire discussion in a context and at a level that addresses the postmodern dilemmas that confront world civilization in our age and articulates a persuasive argument that Baha’u’llah can only be properly understood from such a vantage point, as a prophet of post-modernity, laying the foundation and rationale for a new stage of human evolution and civilization, material, political, and spiritual. Elsewhere, in his article “Baha’i Meets Globalisation,” McGlinn states it quite directly, “Baha’u’llah must be re-envisioned as the prophet of post-modernity” (14).
McGlinn’s discussion of Postmodernism is unsatisfyingly brief, perhaps a reflection of the paucity of his own knowledge and omnipresent Bahai Philistinism, but, in a sketchy way, demonstrates his understanding of the issues involved, including the literary and philosophical dimensions of the underlying spiritual and religious disruptions and upheavals. Reading a book written by a Bahai scholar, one can’t expect much when it comes to culture. I’m accustomed to and prefer Postmodernism in literary terms, its most consciously articulate and allusive form.
Part of his discussion draws from sociological studies of globalization and technology, which emphasize the “differentiation” and “individualization” of modern life, producing, in Enlightenment terms, pluralism and relativism, all of which gives a much needed fresh, intelligent context for discussions of the Bahai Teachings, and a vastly more compelling framework within which to understand “the world we live in,” of “lasting pluralism,” contrasted with the current unthinking fundamentalism of the current Haifan denomination, for whom Baha’u’llah’s writings have become a static, literal, unchanging fossil that they seek to cram into the “now empty socket where ‘religion’ belongs,” the socket of their antiquated conception of a new world order, merely imitating past dispensations, imagining their assumed “infallibility” enables them to know better than Baha’u’llah.
Nothing could prove how wrong such benighted doctrinaire fanaticism is than its treatment of such an intelligent, outstanding mind as Sen McGlinn. One only need recall the similar witch hunts and expulsions of Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, Linda and John Walbridge of Indiana University, Denis MacEoin of England, and other gifted scholars and writers. The corruption runs, though, much deeper than McGlinn even realizes. There’s a naivete to many of his comments. His courting a particularly bigoted and fanatical Bahai pseudo-scholar, a few times in the book, cannot appear as anything but ridiculously misconceived, all the more so given her subsequent hatchet job on his work, the only thing she’s capable of writing.
From such a perspective, Church and State presents a sad spectacle. He clearly is trying to reform and renew the intellectual and spiritual stagnation the Baha’i Faith has fallen into, but it is while courting Torquemada, without having the courage to confront the inquisitor and tyrant. Torquemada demonstrates no such scruples about Sen McGlinn. Many souls died on the rack. Few, like Martin Luther, understood that the unmitigated corruption revealed a disease so evil as to require a more profound engagement with the issues involved, a return to, and renewal of, its deepest principles, to truly “re-invent itself.” McGlinn has rightly understood those principles, as Baha’u’llah did, “in terms of globablisation, to offer itself as a means of giving meaning to a post-modern society.” Similarly, McGlinn realizes the theocratic interpretation is wrong and a complete departure from Baha’u’llah. Whether he will have the strength to allow himself to acknowledge that the root of the problem is the fraudulent will and testament of Abdu’l-Baha, and almost everything produced by it, remains to be seen. His many quotations of Shoghi Effendi may indicate he’ll never be able to regain an independent Bahai perspective that would allow him to search out the truth for himself and to return to the actual writings and teachings of Abdu’l-Baha and His 1912 Authentic Covenant, as well as acknowledge Abdu’l-Baha repeatedly taught, in a sense difficult to understand, that “The Bahai Movement is not an organization.”
Souls can be crushed by suffering, by coming up against challenges to their inmost beliefs and sense of being, of identity. Some cravenly kiss the hand that whipped them, the dream of every tyrant. Many, if not most, go down or walk away from such ultimate confrontations and struggles for understanding and belief. Whatever the outcome for McGlinn’s own personal spiritual battles, and whether he breaks through to new and deeper insights, he has broken new ground for Bahais who have already learned from their experiences and have moved on to truly Reform and renew Baha’u’llah’s Faith in the globalized world of post-modernity.
I agree with McGlinn’s evaluation of the ecumenical role of the Mashriqu’l-Adkar or Bahai House of Worship, in this book and his articles. Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha teach that it should be open to all people for prayer and worship, not merely Bahais, and the social, educational, medical, and economic dependencies and charities related to it are crucial to both community growth and the transformation of global society. McGlinn explains, quoting Abdu’l-Baha:
Religious and cultural pluralism is here to stay and will increase, because of mobility, individual choice, and the fact that successful modern states cannot have a religious policy. The project of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar is to create an ecumenical devotional sphere, not bound to a particular doctrinal system, and open to a variety of popular devotion: “In brief, the purpose of places of worship . . . is simply that of unity . . . that is why His Holiness Baha’u’llah has commanded that a place be built for all the religionists of the world; that all religions and races and sects may gather together; that the Oneness of the human world may be proclaimed.”
. . . In the modern world, the progression from a sectarian role to a religion informing society and providing religious services to all society—a ‘church’ in the Weberian sense—can be achieved not by winning state patronage but by developing devotional, aesthetic and intellectual forms that sustain and are sustained by the diversity of popular religious feeling in a pluralist society (143).
Much has been damaged and lost by setting aside Abdu’l-Baha’s unifying vision for the theocratic temptation, relegating people to the paternalism of the derisive “rank and file” and “popular devotion.”
God creates both the individual and the community, and neither truly exists without the other, especially in a globalized society:
Globalisation is a dynamic package in which individualisation is the underlying drive, and functional differentiation (including the separation of church and state), feminisation, global integration, pluralism and relativism are the results. This is in effect a new world, entailing a new principle of individual identity, and the transition places great demands on individuals’ capacity to adapt (144).
The House of Worship is more than a Bahai mosque or church. A whole new conception of sacred, religious space is required to understand it. After God, the individual stands at its center, independently seeking truth, in unity with humanity, not merely other “believers.”
McGlinn rightly argues it is the role of religion, in Baha’u’llah’s postmodern conception of the relation of church and state, that carries the responsibility for inculcating morality and virtue into the individual and community. The problem of how to instill altruism to resist extremely self-serving individualism and license stems from the very beginning of the Enlightenment and modernity, with the separation of the state from the church in the late 1700s, with the philosophes, Voltaire, Rousseau, and other writers. The best social thinkers of our own time have struggled with the reverberations of that problem, Christopher Lasch, Robert Bellah, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, to name a few. Baha’u’llah preserves that separation as the Will of God, making it a religious duty to support and participate in a just government, delegating the cultivation of virtue into the “hearts of men” to his followers and to all religions. Religion and state complement one another in an unprecedented balance in human religious history, instead of a destructive contest convulsing society, though religion retains the duty to critique government, in service to virtue, humanity, and God. It is not enough for religion to say all this; it must prove it. The currently dominant interpretation of the Bahai Faith hasn’t done too well in this regard. Mirza Ahmad Sohrab realized in his courageous book Broken Silence that the Baha’i organization under Shoghi Effendi had become corrupt and destructive of the spiritual life and independence of the individual, seeking to strip the soul of the freedom of conscience and the gift of the will with which God has endowed human beings. Shades of Dostoyevsky.
McGlinn’s Church and State might have benefitted from his pondering this passage from Ibn Khaldun’s An Introduction to History, of 1377, echoing, I would say, Plato’s Republic:
All this has its origin in group feeling…. Luxury wears out royal authority and overthrows it. …Eventually, a great change takes place in the world, such as the transformation of a religion, or the disappearance of a civilization, or something else willed by the power of God. Then, royal authority is transferred from one group to another—to the one God permits to effect that change.
Such a “transformation of a religion” has been long under way for the Bahai Faith, not only postmodern society and Western civilization. The dominant “group-feeling” of the Haifans began to sink into “luxury” with the passing of Abdu’l-Baha and the imposition of the falsified will and testament, leading to many mistakes and excesses, not the least of which was the inhuman destruction of families by requiring husbands and wives and children to shun one another over doctrinal absurdities. Many tens of thousands of Bahais realize there is something extremely unloving and wrong about the naked royal emperor; many have been driven out like McGlinn, for possessing a brain and soul; many others are waiting, looking, searching for the Will of God, for the Bahai theologian who can help them understand His Will. Sen McGlinn has earned the honor of possibly being the first Bahai worthy of the role. As has often been observed, intellectual, spiritual, and cultural history is strewn with examples of scholars and writers merely laying a brick or two in the foundation of the next generation. No small achievement in itself, but not the lofty edifice.
McGlinn’s intelligent though flawed book should help seeking souls in their quest for a world beyond the postmodern, offering a way to understand Baha’u’llah’s “lasting pluralism” in a global world of multiplicity, where religion is the mirror of “individual distinctiveness, not of collective identity.”