by Jack McLean
Published in Making the Crooked Straight: A Contribution to Bahá’í Apologetics, by Udo Schaefer, Nicola Towfigh and Ulirich Gollmer (Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, 2000); updated 2007
(See also The Refutation of Francesco Ficicchia and the Dangers of Silence, and a letter to World Order, below.)
The publication of this book — a refutation of a 450-page monograph written by an embittered ex-Bahá’í named Francesco Ficicchia — has wider implications than what otherwise might be viewed as a localised scholarly dispute in German-speaking Europe. Three reasons come to mind. First, by way of apologia, the reader is led into an instructive exploration of the salient and distinctive features of the sacred teachings and history of the Bahá’í Faith, its organisation and administration. Beyond its polemical value, Making the Crooked Straight is a serious and useful didactical tool, yielding solid information on the Bahá’í Faith.
Among this book’s other merits is its offering of a critical analysis of much of the erroneous information disseminated mainly by Protestant missionary theologians in the West since the turn of the century. This material will be of interest to those who are not yet familiar with it. Ficicchia proved himself to be an eager collector of the previously disseminated disinformation on the Bahá’í Faith which he put to good use in Der Bahá’ismus. Schaefer, Towfiqh and Gollmer examine and clarify several issues regarding early key sources such as those used by the Azalís as well as more scholarly interpretations of the Bábí and Bahá’í Faiths by such writers of the time as the well-known Cambridge orientalist Edward G. Browne (1862-1926) and Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816-1882). A fresh approach is also taken to a wide range of theological, community and governance issues (e.g., methodology, divine law, the political dimensions of the Bahá’í Faith, as well as in-depth analysis of such questions as the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice and “covenant breaking.” Making the Crooked Straight also responds to a harsh critique of Shoghi Effendi and the Guardianship and addresses the question of the authenticity of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament.
The second reason is a moral one. The object lessons to be drawn from Ficicchia’s case are in effect bigger than the author himself. According to Schaefer, Gollmer and Towfiqh, a decidedly unsound methodology is employed throughout Ficicchia’s entire book. The case of acrimonious defection and deliberate distortion represents a phenomenon, a typos of style and pattern of which the author is not the unique representative. In fact, the method and stratagems that are rejected by Schaefer, Gollmer and Towfiqh are, in some respects, typical of a larger pattern spun by those who choose to write defamatory representations of the Bahá’í Faith, however such representations may be disguised as scholarship.
The third reason for this book’s importance is that this substantial volume may be a foreshadowing of things to come. For as we move ahead into the newly dawned third millennium, and as the Bahá’í Faith continues to steadily assume its rightful place as the youngest of the sister religions of the world, other officers of disinformation may come and go. In this sense, Making the Crooked Straight provides both a welcome rejoinder and serves notice that Bahá’í scholars are well qualified to respond either to open or covert attacks on the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh.
It is pertinent to this discussion to focus briefly on a key issue raised by the publication of this book — the nature and function of critical apologetics in Bahá’í scholarship today, only one of, it should be noted, several modes of learning pursued by Bahá’í scholars. Paul Bernabeo writes in his article “Apologetics” in The Encyclopedia of Religion: “Any religion, monotheistic or otherwise, might adopt an apologetic posture under circumstances in which it perceives the need to defend itself against misunderstanding, criticism, discrimination or oppression….” This book clearly falls into such a category, particularly under the mention “misunderstanding” and “criticism.” But in this case, these words are euphemisms. Schaefer, Gollmer and Towfiqh contend that the author’s numerous distortions are not simply the misunderstandings of one who has failed to grasp some essential feature of the Bahá’í Faith; not merely poor scholarship. The authors argue that Ficicchia’s presentation makes errors of both omission and commission, that is, misapprehension and systematic disinformation. Such serious assertions, however rare they may be in the usually polite world of scholarly debate, are well-supported by their textual arguments.
While running against the temper of our times, historically, apologetics is usually at its peak during the formative age of a religion, an age in which the Bahá’í Faith currently finds itself. While certain scholars have sometimes deplored the apologetic tone of some Bahá’í scholarship, such a stance has been necessitated by the demands of the present historical situation and by works such as the one written by Francesco Ficicchia. Systematics theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) and David Krieger, one of today’s global theologians, remind us that it was the “apologetic impulse” that first drove formative Christian theology. This statement has a certain validity if applied to the development of Bahá’í theology. In terms of being suited to the present historical juncture, apologetical approaches to Bahá’í scholarship are far from being passé.
While Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, counsels his followers ‘not to view too critical an eye the sayings and writings of men’, but to approach them ‘in a spirit of open-mindedness and sympathy’, those who have assailed the ‘tenets of the Cause of God, are to be treated differently.’ For these individuals Bahá’u’lláh has directed that: ‘It is incumbent upon all men, each according to his ability, to refute the arguments of those that have attacked the Faith of God.’
While critical apologetics may differ from other forms of Religionswissenschaft, the distinction disappears at the level of performance. This volume demonstrates that critical apologetics is not anachronistic, nor can it be relegated to a second class, narrowly functional speciality employed only when the Bahá’í Faith is subjected to attack. Here I note in passing that when the Protestant theologian Emil Brunner (1889-1966) wrote that apologetics was not “…a distinct discipline but rather a dimension of all theology,” he probably did not have the great world religions in mind, but his statement would appear to apply to them all.
In the Introduction to this book, Udo Schaefer cites comparative religionists N. Ross Reat and Edmund F. Perry who, in the pluralistic spirit of the times, confidently assert that “Dogmatic, sectarian polemic — whether religious or secular in origin — is well and truly anachronistic at this, the dawn of the second [sic] millennium of the common era.” While all those who recognize the value of interfaith dialogue and the necessity of peaceful conflict resolution readily assent to such an affirmation, polemical works such as Der Bahá’ismus, while they still exist, demand a more assertive kind of refutation. For, if theological truth, like all truth, is still to be discovered and told, those who seek it have the right to be availed of authentic and reliable sources.
Looking at the apologetic approach from a broader perspective, one that collapses the secular-sacred distinction, we sometimes loose sight of the fact that apology applies as much to the secular world as to the realm of the sacred. Apology characterises any advocacy or activist viewpoint and is very much alive in many secular movements today. As such, secular apologists, whatever their cause, share certain common features with their religious counterparts. Both are committed and convinced of the viewpoint they represent. On this basis, one could argue that there is nothing intrinsically religious about apologia. It is a basic dynamic of human thought that aspires to a truth-seeking, truth-defending function.
Apologetics as advocacy is grounded in an ancient perspective. Historically, the earliest uses of apology in ancient Greece were forensic. In the fifth century BCE, the rhetorician Coax of Syracuse gave legal counsel to those living under the newly established democratic regime in Syracuse who had been dispossessed of their property by earlier autocratic rulers. The “Art of Coax” consisted of a five part rhetorical/legal argument on their behalf. Socrates’ defence before the Athenian Law Court recorded in Plato’s Apology is perhaps the most influential, classical presentation of apology and has left traces on legal discourse, theology and certain notions of morality and, of course, rhetoric.
Socrates’ defence points to both the legal and moral aspects of apology. Wrongful accusation (several pointed cases are to be found in Der Bahá’ismus) requires defence so that the truth might be told. Where truth is told, justice is more readily served. In this sense, Making the Crooked Straight takes the part of the Paraklétos or advocate, one who pleads the cause of another. The three Bahá’í scholars who argue in this volume plead for truth-telling vis-à-vis the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh, a case of apologetics in the interests of justice, that is, discursive reason employed for the purpose of righting a wrong.
Today apology prevails in forensics, politics, teaching and advocacy journalism. Apology is implicit in the praise and maintenance of any socio-political system and/or world view. David J. Krieger writes that the situation of “radical pluralism” today is an outcome of “apologetic universalism” in which both Christian theology and secular humanism (ironically), and indeed all western thinking are based on the “apologetic method.” Faced with what he sees as the collapse of both, Krieger seeks “Presuppositions for a Global Theology,” which seem to be increasingly taking the form of a new apologetic for a global society in which pluralism is increasingly becoming the norm.
Making the Crooked Straight presents itself as a variation of answering theology. In Paul Tillich’s monumental three volume work, the Systematic Theology (1951-1963), answering theology forms part of the method of “correlation,” a method that is basically apologetic. In A History of Christian Thought Tillich writes: “This is the apologetic form of theology which I use in my own systematic theology, that is, the correlation between question and answer.” Tillich points out that “…An apologia means a reply or answer to a judge in a court…” In his Systematic Theology Tillich’s view of answering theology (correlation) reflects an existential perspective of the predicament of the human condition in that “It answers the questions implied in the ‘situation’ in the power of the eternal message and with the means provided by the situation whose question it answers.” By contrast, in Making the Crooked Straight, answering theology comes in the form of refutation. But the arguments of these scholars are nonetheless pre-dialogical, written in the hope that they might lead to open inquiry and to real dialogue whose preeminent goal is, as always, the search for truth.
Critical apologetics is responsible apologetics, a function that can be traced to the etymological root of the word “responsible,” from the Latin respondere, meaning to answer. Answering theology is, moreover, covenantal since it sees itself as being charged with a duty or obligation. The covenantal origins of the notion of responsibility are to be found ultimately in a sense of divine vocation and by implication define the theologian’s role as that of an committed member of a believing community.
Robert Parry well articulated this answering function of Bahá’í theology some twenty years ago during the Second Ethics and Methodology Seminar at Cambridge, England in a statement that still strikes the reader as being timely. Parry made the following point that typifies the approach taken in the present volume:
Apologetics is not shouting, neither is it passive listening to the criteria of the ‘world.’ It is responsible engagement. Responsible, because it strikes at clarity and is undergone in responsibility and honesty by responsible believers; engagement because it is not afraid. What is continuous with the Word — the Bahá’í Revelation, i.e. a world conditioned by the possibility of being addressed cannot be a fearful prospect.
Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), referring to both the Cause he proclaimed and the unconcealed manner of his own conduct, despite the prolonged hostility of his persecutors in Persia and the Ottoman Empire, wrote in the Sixth Taráz of the tablet of Tarázát (ornaments): “Concealment hath no access unto this station, nor is there any occasion for fear or silence.” His precept finds concrete expression in the pages that follow.
- – Jack McLean
- Entitled Der Bahá’ismus—Weltreligion der Zukunft [?]
- “Apologetics,” The Encyclopedia of Religion, Mircea Eliade, editor in chief, vol. 1, p. 349.
- David J. Krieger, The New Universalism. Foundations for a Global Theology, p. 17. Krieger writes: “I will show first how pluralism resulted from an internal split, a break in the continuity of Western cultural identity. This entails showing how Christian theology arose from apologetic impulse and how, to this day, the pragmatics of theological thinking, indeed all Western thinking, remain determined by what may be called the apologetic method.” (pp. 17-18).
- Tillich called the apologetic movement “…the birthplace of a developed Christian theology.” The History of Christian Thought, p. 24.
- Gleanings 154:1
- Brunner’s position as stated by Avery Dulles in A History of Apologetics, p. 233. Like Karl Barth, and notwithstanding the difference between them over the possibility of natural theology, Brunner also maintained a uniquely salvific role for Christianity.
- From A World Theology. The Central Spiritual Reality of Mankind, p. 311.
- “Rhetoric” in Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 19, 1959.
- David J. Krieger, The New Universalism. Foundations for a Global Theology. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books) pp. 17-18.
- Krieger, pp. 37-44.
- See Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).
- A History of Christian Thought. Ed. C. Braaten, (New York, Harper and Row, 1968) pp. 26-27. Tillich, however, was aware of the dangers of the apologetical approach. In historical Christianity, he deplored the continual narrowing down and exclusion that resulted from dogmatic definition.
- Ibid, p. 24.
- Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 6. For a fuller view of “correlation,” see Tillich’s methodological introduction to vol. 1.
- Robert Parry, “Phenomenology, Methodological Agnosticism and Apologetics” in the proceedings of the Second Bahá’í Ethics and Methodology Seminar, Cambridge, England, 15-16 September, 1979, p. 19.
- Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 40.
Letter to the Editor (World Order)
Re: Issue Dedicated the Publication of Making the Crooked Straight: A Contribution to Bahá’í Apologetics
I would like to thank the editors for having dedicated volume 35, number 3 (2004) to a review and instructive response articles by Fazel, Abizadeh, Kazemzadeh and R. Danesh on Schaefer, Towfiqh and Gollmer’s Making the Crooked Straight: A Contribution to Bahá’í Apologetics (George Ronald, 2000). It was a judicious choice, for this book has had a considerable impact, not only in the Bahá’í community, but more importantly in non-Bahá’í academic circles on students, scholars and critics of the Bahá’í Faith.
As just one of a team of several consulting editors and advisors who offered support for this worthwhile project, prior to the book’s publication, I had the pleasure of being able to participate in a working visit with Udo Schaefer, and his talented researcher and able secretary-assistant, wife Sigrun, in Heidelberg. During that visit Dr. Schaefer was able to explain to me, in some detail, the successful negative impact Ficicchia’s Der Bahá’ísmus had in certain departments of Religious Studies, particularly in Germany.
If it was not already made clear from a perusal of the articles in the 2004 issue of World Order, I wanted to draw readers’ attention to the fact that the publication of this book, a serious and thorough scholarly rebuttal of Ficicchia’s deliberate distortions in his Bahá’ísmus, is something of a success story. Prior to the publication of Desinformation als Methode (Disinformation as Method) by Olms Verlag in 1995, the original German version of Making the Crooked Straight, Ficicchia’s book had succeeded in being touted as the “standard work” (Standardwerk) on the Bahá’í Faith in Germany. Through the publication of their book, as well as by personal visits and lectures to professors of the Academic Study of Religion in Germany, our three authors were, happily, able to correct the many false impressions left by Ficicchia’s by now discredited book.
Three morals of this story come to mind: (1) The politics of silence are never helpful under such circumstances. In the interests of truthfulness and accuracy, and the good reputation of the Bahá’í Faith, such attacks require a ready response, in spite of the fact that some scholars of religion, whether they are Bahá’ís or not, might assert that we are better off living in a post-polemic age. As Firuz Kazemzadeh has pointed in the conclusion to his article, “Misuses of History,” we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that attacks on the Bahá’í Faith are now passé. They are, more probably, about to begin in earnest. (This assumes, of course, that the Bahá’í Faith begins to grow in much larger numbers). In this respect, Schaefer, Towfiqh and Gollmer have laid an important foundation for future work. (2) It is naive to assume that non-Bahá’í scholars know better. Non-Bahá’í academics are entirely dependent on reliable sources for their information on the Bahá’í Faith. It should not be assumed that they can clearly distinguish truth from falsehood. (3) Despite the fact that a few Bahá’í scholars would like to relegate critical apologetics to a second class type of scholarship — the first being “scholarship”; the second being apologetics — it is only too clear that such a view, particularly at this historical juncture, is ill-advised and premature. This is not decry the importance of scholarship that does not serve overtly apologetic purposes. Such approaches are badly needed. But it needs to be recognized — and this book succeeds well in this endeavour — that apologetics and scholarship need to be part and parcel of the same enterprise.
As an afterthought to this last point, it is important to remember that Bahá’u’lláh has exempted no one, regardless of his or her academic discipline or persuasion, from defending the Bahá’í Faith when it is subject to such attacks. Such an injunction is scriptural. It is to their credit that these three authors took on this long, painstaking and onerous task. We have all greatly benefited from their labours.
- – Jack McLean