Wednesday, August 25, 2010

With Casuistry to All

On Charity and Casuistry

"In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity."

For many years I had in mind a quote that I just knew I had come across somewhere in the writings, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials variety," or something like that. Recently I stumbled across a possible answer to my bothersome piece of "kitab-i-hearsay" floating around in memory. Here is how it happened.

A friend doing some research asked me a question about sources on the life of Kieth Ransom Kehler. After some surfing, I was unable to answer her question. However, in digging for this information, I came across the following pilgrim's note from KRK's visit to Shoghi Effendi, sometime in the 1930's. She reports the Guardian as answering a question about that annoying sort of person who up and reads long prayers at random times during meetings.

 "In many places the believers use healing prayers continuously in regular meetings. Many object to this practice."

 S.E.: "No one in any assembly [community or meeting] should insist upon saying healing prayers, but we must acquiesce if some one should want one. When we have general rules, we become dogmatic and inflexible. But friends who do not care to sit through long prayers regularly may go or stay as they wish. This does not determine anyone's spirituality, but there must be no criticism or controversy on the matter. Great patience is required to unite the differing elements in our Faith. Time is the best healer. These differences of opinion will disappear with time. We might remember the words of Saint Augustine, in essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity." (

 I wondered about this saying, commonly attributed to St. Augustine, and after some more netsurfing came across this comment by Christian academic Mark E. Ross,

 "Philip Schaff, the distinguished nineteenth century church historian, calls the saying [In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.] ... "the watchword of Christian peacemakers" (History of the Christian Church, Vol. 7, p. 650). Often attributed to great theologians such as Augustine, it comes from an otherwise undistinguished German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century, Rupertus Meldenius. The phrase occurs in a tract on Christian unity written (c. 1627) during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a bloody time in European history in which religious tensions played a significant role. The saying has found great favor among subsequent writers such as Richard Baxter, and has since been adopted as a motto by the Moravian Church of North America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Might it serve us well as a motto for every church and for every denomination today?" (

The same pilgrim's note starts off with a very amusing exchange about the ever vexed question of infalliblity in the Central Figures (the phrase "central figures" is itself a term that somebody came up with to get around having to lump four leaders of the Faith, with vastly different stations, all together in one reference). At one point Shoghi Effendi says that he is a man like anybody in the room, and KRK points out that if she ever said that in America that she would be booted out of the faith for saying such a thing. And here I thought this kind of argumentation started with the Internet!

Anyway, I wanted to quote the whole thing but had to pare it down to the following small excerpt, which I think is helped by having the definition of the world "casuistry" defined first. Essentially, what we need is to get past casuistry, endless babbling about doctrine, and get down to constructive conversation about what we can actually change with our beliefs.

casuistry \KAZH-oo-uh-stree\, noun
1. Specious, deceptive, or oversubtle reasoning, esp. in questions of morality.
2. The application of general ethical principles to particular cases of conscience or conduct.
The popular objection to casuistry is similar to the popular objection to the maxim that the ends justify the means.  -- John Dewey, Experience and Nature and Human Nature
"And how will it work in infinite time? It's nothing but casuistry, casuistry. It's a way of explaining my own impotence." -- Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Seance
Casuistry comes from the French casuiste and the Latin casus, "case," perhaps related to making a case or justifying behavior.

Shoghi Effendi: How far does my independence extend with the House of Justice, and what is my relation to it?

KRK: You are its chairman and interpreter of the Book of laws, the Akdas.

Shoghi Effendi: Yes, but as chairman I have only one vote as has any other member. If my vote happens to be with the minority I must cheerfully follow the will of the majority though it be contrary to my wish and conviction.

KRK: Your word is infallible when it comes to interpreting the text.

Shoghi Effendi: Yes, the GUARDIAN alone can determine whether any piece of (legislation] can be undertaken or whether the condition is covered in the holy text. It is promised that the Guardian is protected by God from making mistakes in these decisions. But apart from that I am like anyone else.

KRK: I have been teaching that it is wrong to think of you as a human being. I have been teaching that you know the end from the beginning and have a spiritual status that endows you with superhuman knowledge.

S.E.: This is entirely wrong. I am a human being endowed with the unfailing protection of Bahá'u'lláh. To claim for me a station different from that of humanity or to consider me endowed with superhuman powers is quite unjustified. For example I have no idea what is going on in America at present. I must depend upon information for such knowledge.

KRK: The Master tells us your utterance[s] are infallible.

S.E.: Under certain explicit conditions. In many instances I give human opinions and suggestions.

KRK: Undoubtedly you speak with unchallengeable authority and we must consider your words authoritative and infallible.

S.E. (Smiling): I leave that to your own judgment.

KRK: If I mentioned this conversation to any of the friends who like me have looked upon you as divinely endowed they would at once say "How utterly lacking in spirituality she is, that Shoghi Effendi completely conceals his station from her. If she was spiritually awake he would without doubt reveal his true divinity to her. Abdul Baha used to say the same thing to the believers. They had themselves to know his station before he confided it to them, so likewise the Guardian is testing you with his denials."

S.E.: (positively amazed) Do the believers believe Abdul Baha would deliberately disavow himself and mislead them? When I make these statements categorically I mean them. You must utterly disregard such casuistry on the part of the believers. 



1 comment:

Sen McGlinn said...

You may not perhaps know that in connection with all National Assemblies the Guardian is advising that rules and regulations should not be multiplied and new statements on "procedure" issued; we should be elastic in details and rigid in principles; consequently he does not want your Assembly to issue statements of a binding nature unless absolutely necessary....

(Shoghi Effendi, Dawn of a New Day, p. 122)

"In matters of principle, therefore,there should be uniformity, while in matters of detail and procedure not only is diversity permitted, it is also encouraged. As condition vary from country to country and, indeed, can vary from community to community within the country, Shoghi Effendi repeatedly advised the friends that they should be uncompromising in principle but flexible in subsidiary details."

(From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of Burundi, October 22, 1986)

(Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 38)