The Baha’i teachings say that everything we perceive through our senses reveals the signs and attributes of an Unknowable Essence.

Does this mean that everything that exists is a revelation of the attributes of God? On some level, yes. However, there is a vast difference between what God has created and what man may have done with that creation.  

We humans can think, reason and apply logic to life. It is through the gift of God that humans have this power, possessed by no other of His creations, and one of the reasons why man is described as “created in the image of God.” However, it may be more difficult to discern or even to affirm that perfections of God are directly revealed in whatever man does with God’s creations—for man may make something ugly and harmful out of what was originally beautiful and harmless.  

So our freedom of choice is a sign of God—but every choice we make is not necessarily a sign of God in itself, for man may turn either towards God or away from Him. If man turns away from God that act does not directly reveal the attributes of God at the same level as his turning towards God.

Man, in virtually every culture and civilization, has believed in a divine power, and in many cases has multiplied that divine power even to the point of believing that it animated every phenomenon of nature and many phenomena of human experience. Ideal or divine philosophy certainly affirms the spirit in all beings—in the mineral, the vegetable, the animal, the human, the prophets, the afterlife, dreams, visions, and beyond all of these phenomena, the Unknowable Essence we call the Creator.  

Many human beings, or perhaps human beings generally, have spiritual experiences. They’re often triggered by specific sensory perceptions such as sunrises or sunsets, climbing to the summits of hills or mountains, coming to the banks of a river or the shores of an ocean, witnessing a meteor shower or an eclipse or a volcanic eruption or a migrating flock of birds. Those awesome, beautiful experiences impel us to a feeling of gratitude for the gift of life, a feeling of wonder at the miraculous beauty and variety of the world we inhabit.

At such moments, at least some of us, overwhelmed with gratitude and joy, feel that God must exist.  

Is this a sensory proof of the existence of God? Of course not. It is an intuitive response to a sensory experience, a convergence of highly pleasurable sensory impulses, sometimes coupled with sentimental memory significances.

Yes, nature has enormous beauty and can even have inner symbolic significance, just like all of God’s creation. It can inspire pure awe and astonishment. It can even move us emotionally. But nothing in nature can possibly comprehend the higher realms of the spirit:

When thou dost carefully consider this matter, thou wilt see that a lower plane can never comprehend a higher. The mineral kingdom, for example, which is lower, is precluded from comprehending the vegetable kingdom; for the mineral, any such understanding would be utterly impossible. In the same way, no matter how far the vegetable kingdom may develop, it will achieve no conception of the animal kingdom, and any such comprehension at its level would be unthinkable, for the animal occupieth a plane higher than that of the vegetable: this tree cannot conceive of hearing and sight. And the animal kingdom, no matter how far it may evolve, can never become aware of the reality of the intellect, which discovereth the inner essence of all things, and comprehendeth those realities which cannot be seen; for the human plane as compared with that of the animal is very high. And although these beings all co-exist in the contingent world, in each case the difference in their stations precludeth their grasp of the whole; for no lower degree can understand a higher, such comprehension being impossible. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 46.  

The mineral cannot know God. The vegetable cannot know God. The animal cannot know God. So how is it possible for a human being to know God, Who occupies a plane infinitely exalted above that of human existence and consciousness? This is not merely a question of appropriate and possible instrumentalities or perceptions, but an essential existential problem that philosophers and prophets have asked for millennia.

Abdu’l-Baha attests that:

… there are two kinds of knowledge: the knowledge of the essence of a thing and the knowledge of its attributes. The essence of each thing is known only through its attributes; otherwise, that essence is unknown and unfathomed.

As our knowledge of things, even of created and limited ones, is of their attributes and not of their essence, how then can it be possible to understand in its essence the unbounded Reality of the Divinity? For the inner essence of a thing can never be known, only its attributes – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 253.  

You might well be astonished to encounter such an argument in a series of essays devoted to divine philosophy. In fact, this argument may appear to resemble the classic description of the agnostic or even the atheist position. But Abdu’l-Baha’s purpose simply acknowledges the truth that all existing concepts of God are limited to the minds which have conceived them—and have less claim to reality by far than their creators, human beings. The Baha’i teachings say that the old “god” or “gods” are dead, meaningless, false. While some thinkers have stopped here, Abdu’l-Baha continues:

That which comes within human grasp is finite, and we are infinite in relation thereto because we can grasp it. Assuredly the finite is lesser than the infinite; the infinite is ever greater. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 421-422.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

2 Comments

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  • Melanie Black
    May 05, 2017
    Hi Peter, I have no problem with God being an unknowable Essence. In fact, His being such a mystery makes it so much easier for me, since I never had an image of Him from the time I was a very young child. I hope you don't mind if I take issue with one of your ideas on spiritual experiences. Since this can be such a personal thing, Some people do have spiritual experiences which are not triggered by things felt through the five senses.. The other kind is most often experienced within prayer or meditation as the bliss that ...goes along with love of God or nearness to Him...or of sudden insight, or intense longing, or a pervading sense of unity with all the people of the world. Thank you.
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  • Barbra Levine Pakravan
    May 05, 2017
    Dear Peter, hello and warmest greetings! I'm enjoying your articles and posting them on FB! Barbra