by Jack McLean
To The Journal of Bahá’í Studies (1993)
Chris Buck’s mainly negative review of Michael Sours’s The Prophecies of Jesus makes an argument based on a putative distinction between apology and scholarship in which apology emerges as a fearful word. While I do not aim to side here with either Buck or Sours on the review, I would like to broaden the issue by raising questions about the apology/scholarship distinction made by Buck. I am not at all sure if Buck’s distinction is desirable or tenable, particularly in the context of a still emerging Bahá’í scholarship. It seems to me that the same identity crisis that has occurred in the Bahá’í community over the legitimacy of Bahá’í theology, both among the rank and file and among some scholars as well, is also now playing itself out regarding the oldest systematic sub-discipline of theology, apologetics.
One notes a curious ambivalence to the word apologetics in Bahá’í scholarship. On the one hand, one senses a reverential tone in Shoghi Effendi’s epithet of Mírzá Abúl-Fadl as “the learned apologist”. The reference to the model apologist for whom a prayer was revealed by Bahá’u’lláh and who was effusively praised by `Abdu’l-Bahá as the outstanding Bahá’í scholar of his time, would seem to have ensured entrenchment for the discipline solidly within Bahá’í studies. This is, however, currently not the case. I do not have the impression, moreover, that the recent passing references to “apologetics” and “apologetical” in the articles and reviews of some Bahá’í scholars echo the same insider tone of respectability for the discipline that one senses in Shoghi Effendi’s and `Abdu’l-Bahá’s éloge of Abú’l-Fadl. Michael Sours, for example, who ironically has also been a target himself of the same distinction by Chris Buck in the review cited above, also demarcates the apologist from the critical scholar. Speaking of approaches to the study and presentation of Bahá’í and biblical scripture, Sours says:
Most literature has been apologetic in nature and in a few cases ideas which were never investigated closely have been accepted and perpetuated from one generation of Bahá’í apologists to the next. What is needed is more in-depth study and the development of critical scholarly literature. Then Bahá’í apologists, trying to share and defend the Faith, would have better materials to draw upon.
It would seem then that one person’s apologist is not another’s, and that the definition of just who is an apologist would increasingly appear to be determined by the relativity of a sliding-scale. In any case, there now seems to be a conscious effort on the part of some to distinguish the critical scholar from the apologist. As I have indicated above, my contention is that such a demarcation in Bahá’í scholarship makes for a false dichotomy. In his review of Sours’s book, Buck lays bare the scholar/apologist distinction. Sours’s book, says Buck in a partial concession, may be good apology, but “without being a work of scholarship.” Let us have the whole context of Buck’s sentence: “Presentationally, The Prophecies of Jesus is scholarly in respect of research and documentation, without being a work of scholarship.” What does Buck mean by the finesse of a distinction between “scholarly” without “being scholarship”? Buck points among other things to polemics. “Scholarship is presumed free of polemics.” (emphasis mine) Apologetics presumably is not. But Buck may be presuming too much. One reads, for example, the anecdote reported by Huston Smith of Norman O. Brown jumping to his feet following a lecture by Paul Tillich at Weslyan University, during which Tillich alluded to his famous, if not co-optive, ontological existential definition of God as the state of being “ultimately concerned”. Brown, Smith tells us, shook his fist at Tillich and shouted: “Your definition deprives me of my God-given right to be an atheist!” The insider politics among academics, religious or not, on paper or off, are far from being polemic free.
Yet Buck points to something more solid when he refers to distinctive levels of discourse. One must make good use of works of “critical scholarship” at the top levels. Such a well-established canon of academic practice scarcely needs debate. Yet regardless of whether Chris Buck has been kind or unkind, right or wrong, or lies somewhere among the many shades of grey in his review of Sours’s book, Buck’s review (and Sours’s comment with all its irony) has served to reinforce a negative connotation of the word “apologetic”. After some seven pages of indicting The Prophecies of Jesus, Buck writes: “This is the failing of Bahá’í apologetics generally; that criticism is not sufficiently counterbalanced by construction.” Bahá’í apology would seem to be thus far engaged in tearing down. Hopefully, one can look forward to more of the building up.
Although Buck’s comment leaves the door open for constructive apologetics, he would seem to have ignored in his somewhat hasty judgement the fully justified criticism of apologetic theologians who respond to scurrilous attacks and/or distortions of the Bahá’í Faith, both of which seem to be on the increase from the pens of poorly informed and ill-willed Christian evangelicals. Moreover, if `Abdu’l-Bahá’s prophecy about a future, global, and severe attack on the Bahá’í Faith is correct, the Bahá’ís are going to be in serious need of apologetic theologians to respond to such learned distortions as well as to the anticipated diatribes. According to Chris Buck’s scholarship/apologetics distinction, however, Bahá’í scholars might not be showing good form by responding because, although they might turn out to be good apologists, they would be diminishing themselves as scholars. This, moreover, is one of the central weaknesses of the anti-apologetic argument in a Bahá’í context. In cases of attack, apologetic is not only fully justified. It is absolutely necessary to defend one’s view of the truth and all the values that undergird it. Aside from this point, however, Buck’s pronouncement has unfortunately tended to reinforce what may be an emerging fearful stereotype of the Bahá’í apologetic theologian. There are the apologists, Buck seems to be saying. Then there are the scholars. The implication is pretty clear. But is Buck’s implication really tenable?
As the brothers Gershwin said in a song from “Porgy and Bess”, “It ain’t necessarily so”. If any distinction is to be made between apology and scholarship, preferably it will be made, not at the level of genre, but rather at the level of quality; not at the level of the song, to use a musical analogy, but at the level of the performance. I argue that it is mistaken to relegate apologetics to the low end of the Bahá’í scholarly spectrum, and to promote “critical” scholarship to the more lofty anti-pole. For, as I see it, there is only good, fair and poor apologetics, as there is only good, fair and poor scholarship. These two, however, can clearly function together as good, fair or poor apologetics, as the case may be. Moreover, even if one concedes to a clear province between apology and scholarship, the distinction has become increasingly blurred in recent years since marked advances continue to be made by Bahá’í apologists whose methods are increasingly “critical” and “objective” in what is emerging more and more as a cross-over theology. For scholarship is not merely a function of one’s subjective engagement or non-engagement. It is a function of the method and the depth of analysis used in the presentation, a reflection of the analytical and critical skills deployed to present an argument. Moreover, the key catch-words “critical” and “objective” which seem to be so highly prized by those who would sharply distinguish the apologist from the scholar serve as a double-edged sword. The words “critical” and “objective” may just as easily refer to inimical treatments of the Bahá’í Faith that through either ignorance or ill-will distort or misrepresent the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh.
The revelations of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh have, moreover, broken in on the world in recent history with their own compelling Kerygma, and have challenged the community of scholars with an appropriate response. Heilsgeschichte has repeated itself. It shall go on with us or without us. It would be unfortunate if some scholars were to see the imperatives of Bahá’í Kerygma with its compelling need to persuade in favour of Bahá’u’lláh’s claims to truth and transcendence as being out of step with the current methods, or ill-adapted to the present preoccupations of the sacred academy. It would seem that Bahá’u’lláh has fixed his own timetable and set his own agenda for the proclamation of the latest divine revelation to the world. It would, moreover, be inaccurate to view the apologist as a curious dinosaur, a relic of some heroic, by-gone age, who uses only the techniques of rhetoric and embellishment to present his/her stylised but presumed unsubstantive versions of theological truth. Paul Tillich, one of the greatest systematic theologians of the Christian tradition in modern times, although aware of the certain dangers of the method of apology, still recognized the apologetical method in his own theological writing. While Tillich saw the tragedy in the process of a continual narrowing down and exclusion that resulted from dogmatic definition in historical Christianity, he also made his readers more fully conscious that it was the Christian apologists of the early Greek church especially who first recognized and integrated the truths of Neo-Platonism and the other forms of Greek philosophy with the truths of the Gospel. In that sense Jerusalem was more inclusive than Athens.
Moreover, one senses clearly that Tillich’s criticism of the Christian tradition was made from inside the “theological circle” as one who had placed himself in a situation of faith, not as a neutral, passively detached, or alien outsider. Further, learned apologists tend to be critical of their own work. Karl Barth, for example, writes that the theologian “must always be putting the question, `What is the evidence?'” and has pointed to the provisional nature of dogmatics which he also called systematic theology, when he writes that the systematic theologian is always having to “begin at the beginning”. Within Catholic Christianity, one could add the names of Étienne Gilson, Karl Rahner and Bernard J.F. Lonergan as eminent scholar-theologians who have pursued serious, critical and “responsible apologetics” of the highest order. Neither has Siyyid Hossain Nasr, to cite a living example, made his interest in phenomenology and comparative religion incompatible with publishing the truths about Islam as he sees them, in an only slightly disguised apologetic demeanour. In Bahá’í scholarship, Udo Schaefer, to name but one scholar, continues to produce a series of books and monographs that are both apologetical theology and instructive sound scholarship.
It should, moreover, not be forgotten that the socio-political systems in which untold millions live and die are apologetic ideologies for whole civilisations and their governors, civilisations that stagger along, tantôt bien, tantôt mal, and which seek to perpetuate themselves into the future, some as militant or imperialistic religious or political systems, others as civilisations in decay. Indeed David J. Krieger writes that the situation of what he calls “radical pluralism” today is an outcome of “apologetic universalism” in which both Christian theology and secular humanism, and indeed all western thinking are based on the “apologetic method”. Faced with the collapse of both, Krieger seeks “Presuppositions for a Global Theology”, which seems to be increasingly taking the form of a new apologetic for a global society in which pluralism is becoming increasingly the norm. It would be wise, consequently, to choose one’s apology well.
There is, however, certainly a sense in which popular apology is suspect. Homily, a perceptible absence of critical thought, the fireside chat, and unjustified acrimonious polemics do not respond to the needs of a disciplined theology, a theology that makes use of rational discourse, concrete historical data, sensitivity to source languages, and in-depth analysis and research. In fairness to Buck, his review of The Prophecies of Jesus was not intended to be a full exposé on the nature of apologetic. However, the distinction that he has made raises serious questions on the apologetics/scholarship relationship in a Bahá’í context. In spite of the disclaimers of some and the unwillingness to identify with Bahá’í apologetics, real apologetics has only begun to emerge in modern Bahá’í scholarship. Responsible and constructive Bahá’í apologetics will combine the best of both worlds.
- The Journal of Bahá’í Studies, 5:2, June-September, 1992, pp. 79-86.
- God Passes By, p. 195.
- In Star of the West, 4:19, March 2, 1914, an issue which reported the death of Mírzá Abúl-Fadl, Ish’te’a’l ebn-Kalanter wrote that: “Mirza Abul-Fazl had a wonderful genius in explaining subtle philosophical points, which skill was his specialty. He himself thought that he received this gift as a fulfillment of the prayer which the Blessed Perfection [Bahá’u’lláh] made for him in a Tablet written to Haji-Mohammed-Kazen of Isfahan. It is as follows: “I beg of God to enable Fazl (Mirza Abul-Fazl) to teach His Truth, and to unveil that which is hidden and treasured in His knowledge, with wisdom and explanation. Verily He is the Mighty, the Bestower!”
- `Abdu’l-Bahá said of Mírzá Abúl-Fadl that “In every way he was unequalled”. (Star of the West, 9:3, April 28, 1918). `Abdu’l-Bahá referred to Fadl with other epithets such as `a billowing ocean’, `the light of guidance’, and a `lamp of this Cause’. `Abdu’l-Bahá wrote that not only was Fadl’s learning unrivalled, but his moral and spiritual being were a `supreme exemplar for the Bahá’ís to follow’. On one occasion `Abdu’l-Bahá directed a friend to take care of Fadl while he (Fadl) was in Egypt with these words: `His person is to be regarded as My own self’. (Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, 3:106)
- Michael Sours, “Concerning the differences between Christian and Bahá’í terminology in Dr. Robert Stockman’s article `Jesus in the Bahá’í Writings'”. (Commentary) The Bahá’í Studies Review, 3:1, 1993, p. 85.
- Buck, p. 80.
- Buck, p. 81.
- Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith, (New York: Harper, 1957), p. 1.
- Huston Smith, “Postmodernism’s Impact on the Study of Religion” in M. Darrol Bryant, editor, Huston Smith, Essays on World Religion, p. 269. (New York, N.Y.: Paragon House, 1992)
- Buck, p. 80.
- Buck, p. 86.
- Seena Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir cite J. Boykin’s The Bahá’í Faith (1982) and J. McCormick’s The History and Doctrine of the Bahá’í Faith (n.d.) and F. Beckwith’s A Christian Response to Bahá’ísm, The Religion Which Aims Toward One World Government and One Common Faith (1985) as religions which are inimical to the Bahá’í Faith. See “A Bahá’í Approach to the Claim of Exclusivity and Uniqueness in Christianity” in The Journal for Bahá’í Studies, 3:2, 1990-1991, pp. 16-17. Fazel’s and Fananapazir’s article, moreover, is apologetical theology since it seeks to dispute Christianity’s claim to finality and thereby defend and promote the claim of the Bahá’í Faith to be a subsequent, valid divine revelation.
- `Abdu’l-Bahá has prophesied that in time there will be universal opposition to Faith of Bahá’u’lláh: “…How great, how very great is the Cause! How very fierce the onslaught of all the peoples and kindreds of the earth. Ere long shall the clamor of the multitude throughout Africa, throughout America, the cry of the European and the Turk, the groaning of India and China, be heard from far and near. One and all, they shall arise with all their power to resist His Cause.” (Cited in Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh: Selected Letters, rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), p. 17.
- Tillich said, referring to the method of correlation between question and answer which he used throughout his Systematic Theology: “This is the apologetic form of theology which I use in my own systematic theology, that is, the correlation between question and answer.” A History of Christian Thought, ed. C. Braaten, (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), p. 24.
- Reformulated from “Paul Tillich and the Classical Christian Tradition”, Carl E. Braaten’s preface to Perspectives on 19th and 20th Century Protestant Theology, xiv, xviii-xxii (New York: Harper and Row, 1967).
- Dogmatics in Outline, (Dogmatik im Grundriss) p. 13.
- “Exactly halfway between exegesis and practical theology stands dogmatics, or, more comprehensively expressed, systematic theology.” (Dogmatics in Outline, p. 12.)
- Dogmatics in Outline, p. 12.
- In “Proposition 5: Responsible Apologetics and the Method of Correlation” of my article “Propositions on a Comprehensive Theology” now under review, I have analyzed more closely the notion of responsible apologetics.
- David J. Krieger, The New Universalism. Foundations for a Global Theology. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books) pp. 17-18.
- Krieger, pp. 37-44.