God and creation
The following is an outline of some of Baha'u'llah's teachings about God and the nature of creation.
The transcendent God
Baha’u’llah teaches that God transcends creation. This means that God is beyond the realm of creation altogether. Baha’u’llah says that God is “apart from, and immeasurably exalted above, all created things”. We can get an idea of what this means from Baha’u’llah’s comment that “All creation … is standing in one spot in the presence of God.” If you look at a spot in front of you and think about how you are ‘beyond’ that spot, you will get an idea of what it means to say that God transcends us.
The image of a spot or dot can be used to explain how God is the source of existence. Baha’u’llah’s oldest son, Abdu’l-Baha, says that the essence of God is like a dot of ink. Inside that dot is potentially stored up all the writing that ever was or will be. It contains the letters of all alphabets and all the words that can be made up from them. In addition to being the source of creation, God is also its one and only sovereign. Imagine yourself using a pen to write something. In doing this, you are its author and ruler. You decide what words to write and what story to tell. The same is true for God, who ‘writes’ creation into existence in whatever manner God pleases.
Abdu’l-Baha points out that although the dot of ink is the source of all letters and words, this does not mean that the dot itself descends into the words or becomes the words. Similarly, the essence of God does not enter into creation. Baha’u’llah explains how this principle works by comparing it to the way that humans function. He says that although a human being is one ‘self’, a person nevertheless is able to perform many actions, such as talking and thinking. The ‘self’ is like the source and the actions are like the words. These actions all come from one self, but the self does not enter into the actions. For example, when a person speaks, the self remains apart from the act of speaking and the speech.
The manifestation of God
Because God transcends creation, humans cannot know God directly. This is the reason why the prophets of God appear on earth from time to time. They are a special kind of human being, who has the capacity to know God in a way that ordinary people can’t. Baha’is call them ‘manifestations’ of God because they ‘manifest’ or reveal God and teach us about God. Examples of manifestations of God include Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha and Baha’u’llah. They are the founders of the major religions.
How, exactly, does a manifestation reveal God? We can grasp this idea using the earlier example of the functioning of the human being. We saw that a human being is one person able to perform many actions, such as talking and thinking. The self of the person was the source of the person’s actions, but the self never descends into the actions. Rather, the actions carry the characteristics of the person only. The same is true for God and the manifestations. The manifestations of God carry the characteristics of God, but God in essence does not become a part of them. The characteristics of God revealed in the manifestation are commonly referred to as the ‘names and attributes of God’. Examples of these names and attributes include mercy/merciful and power/powerful. It is not a coincidence that we can look at ourselves and gain an understanding of how God works. Like Christ before him, Baha’u’llah says that humans have been made in God’s image.
The manifestations are one
Baha’u’llah explains that the manifestations of God have two dimensions.
In the first dimension, they are just like other human beings. They experience the limitations that living in a human body entails, such as oppression, poverty and sickness. They live among people without most people realising who they really are. Baha’u’llah alludes to this in this line of poetry: “The great king of the exalted spheres… frequents alleyways and bazaars!” [Baha'u'llah: Nightingales]
In the second dimension, the manifestations are the source of our reality. You'll recall from the earlier discussion that God is the source and ruler of creation and 'writes' creation into existence. This process takes place through the manifestations. It is they who 'write' our existence with the invisible dot of ink. In the Bible, Jesus is referred to as the Logos or Word of God. Likewise, all the manifestations are the Word of God. Baha'u'llah also calls himself the Most Exalted Pen. In their capacity as the Word of God, the manifestations are the authors of existence. They hold within themselves all the meaning, stories, drama and so forth that we as their letters and words play out in the field of reality.
A key teaching of Baha’u’llah is that the manifestations are one; that is, there is no difference between them. This is true from the point of view of their second dimension as the authors of reality. In this dimension, they are all the Word of God and are all writing one story or ‘cause’. Baha’u’llah says: “Know thou assuredly that the essence of all the Prophets of God is one and the same… They all have one purpose; their secret is the same secret.” However, from the point of view of their human dimension, they are obviously different people. They lived at different times throughout history, had different personalities and even brought different messages.
Baha’u’llah illustrates the oneness of the manifestations using the days of the week. He says: “If it be said that all the days are but one and the same, it is correct and true. And if it be said, with respect to their particular names and designations, that they differ, that again is true. For though they are the same, yet one doth recognize in each a separate designation, a specific attribute, a particular character.” [Baha'u'llah: The Book of Certitude p31]
Baha’u’llah tells us that every thing in creation is a sign of God’s revelation. This means that every thing reveals something about God and in so doing is a ‘sign’ of God. The sign of God is a thing’s inmost reality. The sign of God should not be thought of as an ‘object’ that subsists in things. It is not something you can reach out and grasp. Nor can you burrow inside and find it.
In humans, the sign of God is the soul. It is the self that stands behind all experience; that is, it is behind our sensual experience; our movement; and our inner experience, such as our emotion, imagination, thought and will. All these faculties rely on the soul to function. The soul is not the same as any one of these faculties – for example, it is not the same as our sight. If we lose our sight, we do not lose all our faculties.
Abdu’l-Baha likens the soul to the central point of a compass. A compass is designed to always revolve around its center point and is incapable of breaking free of that limitation. The soul works in us in the same way. It generates a universe or reality in which we find ourselves completely submerged. But however much we develop spiritually, we can never step outside that universe. Spiritual development within our own universe is eternal, but it is nevertheless confined to the pre-ordained limitations inherent in our soul.
The soul of humans is eternal. That means that all of us live on in the next world when we die. We all shed the physical body, take on a spiritual body and continue our existence in the next world.
This means that the term 'eternal life', which is used in the Bible, the Qur'an and the Baha'i scriptures, does not refer to the fact that we continue to live after we die. Rather, it refers to the quality of our life in the next world. Abdu’l-Baha explains this using the following example. He compares the quality of life humans experience with that of a stone. When they are compared, the stone appears to be ‘dead’ and the person is said to be 'alive'. Therefore, although both the stone and the person exist, only one can be said to be 'alive'.
People attain real 'life' or eternal life when they are born into the spiritual world of the Kingdom of God. This spiritual world is brought to us by the manifestations, who teach us about it and how to journey there. The idea of being born into the Kingdom of God is the same idea as the Christian concept of being 'born again'. Baha’u’llah explains it in the following passage:
"Even as Jesus said: 'Ye must be born again.' Again He saith: 'Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God…' The purport of these words is that whosoever in every dispensation is born of the Spirit and is quickened by the breath of the Manifestation of Holiness, he verily is of those that have attained unto 'life' and 'resurrection' and have entered into the 'paradise' of the love of God." [Baha'u'llah: The Book of Certitude p118]
How can we be born into the Kingdom of God and attain eternal life? This process takes place in our hearts. The only way to be 'near' to God is through our hearts. We must free our hearts of characteristics that consume us; for example, hatred, anger, envy, greed and arrogance. Instead, we have to develop a kind, loving and generous heart. By doing this, we draw nearer to God because these are the qualities of God. Ultimately, people with spiritually healthy hearts find themselves born into a new spiritual world of God, which rules over the world they left behind. They experience life with a joy and ecstasy that is limitless and never ending. Baha'u'llah expresses this principle in his first Arabic Hidden Word: "My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart that thine may be a sovereignty, ancient, imperishable and everlasting."
The Day of God
Baha’u’llah explained that the religions of the past taught that humanity would, in the fullness of time, witness a great day in its history. It would be the Day of God, when God would return to judge the world and bring peace. There are many references to the promised Day of God in the Bible and Qur’an. For example:
For example: “The great day of the Lord is near… even the voice of the day of the Lord: the mighty man shall cry there bitterly.” Zeph. 1:14. See also Amos 5:18, 20, Joel 2:11, Micah 4:1, Mal. 3:2, and Isa. 2:12.
For example: “Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ” 1 Cor. 1:8. See also 2 Peter 3:10, Phil 1:6, 10, and 1 Thess 5:2.
For example: “The Day whereon they will all come forth: not a single thing concerning them is hidden from God. Whose will be the Kingdom that Day? That of God, the One, the Overpowering!” 40:16. See also 18:47-48, 22.56, 25:26, 39:67-69, 69:15-17.
Baha’u’llah announced that he is the one sent by God to fufill the promise of the Day of God. He testifies: “Verily I say, this is the Day in which mankind can behold the Face, and hear the Voice, of the Promised One.”
Baha’u’llah divided religious history into two parts. The first part is the Prophetic Cycle, which stretches from antiquity to the appearance of the Bab in 1844. The second part is the Day of God, which began after that. To bring about the Day of God, Baha’u’llah explained that he has, in his capacity as the Word of God, ‘recreated’ the world, cleansing it of the past and making it new. We can see this in the extraordinary changes that occurred in human affairs in the 20th century and that are still taking place.
The Day of God is the greatest time for humanity and a time for celebration and joy. Baha’u’llah testifies: “All glory be to this Day, the Day in which the fragrances of mercy have been wafted over all created things, a Day so blest that past ages and centuries can never hope to rival it, a Day in which the countenance of the Ancient of Days hath turned towards His holy seat.” [Baha'u'llah: Tablet of Carmel]
The challenge to each person
Baha’u’llah said that the most important thing a person can do in response to his message is to investigate it, recognise who he is and participate in the greatness of this day.
It is very important that we do this with an open mind and heart and not allow our prejudices, or the opinions of others, to get in the way of finding the truth. The manifestations appear in cultures and times different to our own and this can cause us to reject them out of hand. We think to ourselves, “He’s no prophet; he doesn’t look or talk like one!” For example, it is a challenge for people in the West to imagine that Muhammad was a manifestation of God. Muhammad lived in a culture we don’t understand and spoke a ‘foreign’ language. The Qur’an calls God ‘Allah’ (literally, ‘The God’) and talks about spirituality using concepts that are unknown to us.
Baha’u’llah called our religious and cultural differences ‘clouds’ because they get between us and our ability to see the Divine Reality behind all the prophets. In Matthew 24:30, Jesus says that he will return “in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory”. Baha’u’llah interprets this passage to mean that God will send Jesus – and, indeed, all the messengers - in ways that challenge our traditions and expectations.
God creates this challenge to test whether we are worshipping God or the forms and trappings of our religious tradition. In order to recognise the new manifestation, we must be willing to look beyond our limited image of God to the unlimited Reality of God.
Baha'u'llah tells us that the purpose of our creation is to know and worship God.
He gives us guidance on how to do this. He says we should read the sacred writings every morning and evening and pray regularly. Baha'u'llah and Abdu'l-Baha revealed many prayers for us to use. In particular, Baha'u'llah revealed three obligatory prayers and believers are required to say one of them each day. Baha'u'llah asks Baha'is to fast for 19 days each year from March 2 to 19. The fast entails believers not eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. Baha'u'llah also says that work done in the spirit of service is regarded by God as worship.
In addition, Baha'u'llah asked local Baha'i communities to get together and worship God with prayer and readings. In particular, communities gather every 19 days and on holy days.
The purpose of worshipping God is to take our attention away from the things and activities in the physical world and focus it on the spiritual world of the Kingdom of God. The Word of God is a healing power that frees us from petty concerns and centres us in spirituality and virtue. It enables us to overcome spiritual diseases like hatred, bitterness, anger, unhappiness and arrogance and replace these with joy, forgiveness, love and service.
"They who recite the verses of the All-Merciful in the most melodious of tones will perceive in them that with which the sovereignty of earth and heaven can never be compared. From them they will inhale the divine fragrance of My worlds... Say: These verses draw hearts that are pure unto those spiritual worlds that can neither be expressed in words nor intimated by allusion. Blessed be those who hearken." (Baha'u'llah: The Kitab-i-Aqdas, para 116)
The oneness of humanity
One of the central teachings of Baha’u’llah is a concept known as the oneness of humanity. It refers to a spiritual reality that pervades the physical world and the world of humanity.
In the section above, “The manifestations are one”, I explained that the manifestations, in their capacity as the Word of God, are the authors of existence. When they come to the world, they bring about change by ‘rewriting’ what is at the essence of our existence. Baha’u’llah uses the image of letters being disconnected from each other, shuffled around and then put back together again in a new way. In this way, the reality of the past is wiped out and a new reality is ‘written’. This reality has a new story to tell and it is revealed in the actions of humanity in the centuries following the manifestation’s visit to the world.
Baha’u’llah explains in his writings how he has ‘rewritten’ the world of existence and ushered in the Day of God. He says that he has removed from the reality of existence anything that would lead to division among people. He has suffused the world with God’s attribute of oneness. Put simply, this means that everyone is now a member of one spiritual family. Abdu’l-Baha explains it like this: “So intensely hath the glory of Divine Unity penetrated souls and hearts that all are now bound one to another with heavenly ties, and all are even as a single heart, a single soul. Wherefore reflections of the spirit and impressions of the Divine are now mirrored clear and sharp in the deep heart's core.” [Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Baha, p19]
This is a very challenging spiritual principle with innumerable consequences. For example, it means that, not only should we be loving to friends, we must also be kind to people who are not our friends. If somone is unkind to us, this does not give us justification for being unkind back. There is no justification for treating people unkindly.
The principle also means that we cannot regard people who are different to us as strangers. It obliterates entirely all bases for prejudice. We cannot draw an invisible line and put others on the other side just because they think differently to us or are from another nationality, culture, gender or religion. Abdu’l-Baha explains that, in the past, people were exhorted to love and associate with one another, but that this requirement was “limited to the community of those in mutual agreement, not to the dissident foe.” [Ibid p21] In this Day of God, Baha’u’llah has thrown out this limitation so that everyone must be regarded as a member of one worldwide community. Here is Baha’u’llah’s declaration of this:
“Of old it hath been revealed: "Love of one's country is an element of the Faith of God." The Tongue of Grandeur hath, however, in the day of His manifestation proclaimed: "It is not his to boast who loveth his country, but it is his who loveth the world." Through the power released by these exalted words He hath lent a fresh impulse, and set a new direction, to the birds of men's hearts, and hath obliterated every trace of restriction and limitation from God's holy Book.” [Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, section XLIII]
The sufferings of the world today are caused by people acting in ways that violate this principle of oneness. People do not realise that Baha’u’llah has come and recreated the world, suffusing this principle into its core. But gradually, the principle’s spiritual influence will bring about change and humanity will found a society that is just and peaceful.