Fundamentalism and the Bahá'í Faith:
The Chapter Karen Armstrong Might Have Written in Her Book The Battle for God

By Roger Prentice

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #28
London School of Economics: London, England
July 14–16, 2000
(see list of papers from #28)

    We live in a troubled world characterized by warring ideologies as well as warring peoples. Such conflicts traditionally include rationalism and faith, where "faith" is seen as "Churchianity" and its jurisprudence and authority as repressive. But greater confusion reigns because on top of traditional ideological conflicts there are greater confusions where one or more "camps" have been found to be "sleeping with enemy"; churches that want the mystical to be rationalized, "camps" that have progressively delegitimized mythos to the point where it is "nonbeing," seekers who want (pseudo) spirituality free of communal and religious obligation, earnest philosophers who want to overcome the dichotomy of fact and value. It is not surprising that in this maelstrom many groups become fundamentalist.

    Is fundamentalism possible in the Bahá'í Faith? Karen Armstrong's book on fundamentalism, The Battle for God, published this year, concerns itself only with Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This presentation speculates what she might have included had she written a section on the Bahá'í Faith, following afair examination of the Bahá'í Writings and the state of the Bahá'í community.

    The presentation identifies some of the defining characteristics of fundamentalism and then goes on to identify some of the chief reasons, based on covenantal obligations and specific statements by Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, why fundamentalism can never prevail within the Bahá'í community.

    The presentation puts forward the "middle way" perspective as taught by Bahá'u'lláh, and other messengers of God, as both a means for analysis and as a means for restoring balance, should that ever be necessary. In particular the presentation uses the need for balance between "mythos" and "logos," a major theme through Armstrong's book, mythos being under pressure within both science and religion.

    Logos: (Greek, "word," "reason," "ratio"), in ancient and especially in medieval philosophy and theology, the divine reason that acts as the ordering principle of the universe. (Encarta)

    Mythos: I the complex of beliefs, values and attitudes, etc., characteristic of a specific group or society. 2 another word for myth or mythology. (Collins)

    N.B. The terms as used in this presentation include intrapersonal as well as cosmological meaning--they are intended to include such dualities as head and heart, masculine and feminine principles, yin and yang.

    Of course even with the safeguards that will always prevent fundamentalism consuming the Bahá'í Faith there are always difficult questiong such as: What is the place of subjectivity in the Bahá'í view of reality? What is the balance, or tension, between uniformity (sameness) and diversity? Is unity simply a limiting of diversity and individuality, or vice versa? Does Bahá'í unity include the notions of "catholicity" and "broad church"? Is "I'm OK, you're OK" a principle implicit in Bahá'í teachings or not? What freedoms, and responsibilities, are concomitant with such principles as "independent search after truth" (is that supposed to stop upon becoming a Bahá'í?) and the "autonomous individual," priesthood having been abolished? Are "religion and science" the same as "mythos and logos"? And, if so, how do they connect with concerns such as subjectivity and mystical experience--"the core of religious faith is that mystical feeling which unites man with God"? (LOG, p. 507) Does 'Abdu'l-Bahá actually tip the balance away from logos? How would Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá have treated contemporary "deviants"?

    The presentation ends by pointing out that the balance taught by Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá is needed in all areas of society. This is evidenced by the Reith lecture by Prince Charles. (Rather than say that the Prince put "the cat amongst the pigeons," we might more correctly say that he has "put the mythos amongst the logos.") The Reith lecture, and more particularly the responses that it elicited, show clearly the need for the same balanced middle way in dealing with the cardinal virtues of truth, beauty and goodness, that were given us by Bahá'u'lláh.

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