You’ve heard the saying: we are not material beings having a spiritual experience–rather, we are spiritual beings having a material experience. If that’s true, how should we think about the material world? Do we have to renounce the material things of the world to lead a spiritual life?
In many spiritual traditions, if a person decides to dedicate him or herself to living a spiritual life, it can often mean renouncing the things of the world: from money to marriage. The Baha’i teachings have a unique and fascinating perspective on this important question. Baha’u’llah says:
Know ye that by “the world” is meant your unawareness of Him Who is your Maker, and your absorption in aught else but Him… Flee it, that ye may be numbered with the blest. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 276.
And in another instance Baha’u’llah says:
Say: By the world is meant that which turneth you aside from Him Who is the Dawning-Place of Revelation, and inclineth you unto that which is unprofitable unto you. Verily, the thing that deterreth you, in this day, from God is worldliness in its essence. Eschew it, and approach the Most Sublime Vision, this shining and resplendent Seat. Blessed is he who alloweth nothing whatsoever to intervene between him and his Lord. – The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 77.
These words do not refer to any particular types of material objects, social relationships or ways of living that need to be renounced in order to live a spiritual life.
In a broader way, Baha’u’llah tells us that we need to renounce anything that stands between us and God. This could mean that some things we usually considered worldly, are in fact acceptable. About this Baha’u’llah says:
Should a man wish to adorn himself with the ornaments of the earth, to wear its apparels, or partake of the benefits it can bestow, no harm can befall him, if he alloweth nothing whatever to intervene between him and God, for God hath ordained every good thing, whether created in the heavens or in the earth, for such of His servants as truly believe in Him. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 276.
The Baha’i teachings ask us to enjoy the riches the world offers, as long as they do not come between us and God. But how do we make sure that they do not block us from God? Baha’u’llah explains:
No harm, assuredly, can befall him if he partaketh with justice of the benefits of this world, inasmuch as We have created all things for such of Our servants as truly believe in God. – The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 77.
The Baha’i teachings also counsel moderation. If we use the things of this world with moderation, they are less likely to become barriers between us and God. That being said, while material wealth does not necessarily need to be renounced, it can often be a spiritual road block. On this subject Baha’u’llah wrote:
O ye that pride yourselves on mortal riches! Know ye in truth that wealth is a mighty barrier between the seeker and his desire, the lover and his beloved. The rich, but for a few, shall in no wise attain the court of His presence nor enter the city of content and resignation. Well is it then with him, who, being rich, is not hindered by his riches from the eternal kingdom, nor deprived by them of imperishable dominion. By the Most Great Name! The splendor of such a wealthy man shall illuminate the dwellers of heaven even as the sun enlightens the people of the earth! – The Hidden Words, p. 41.
Here Baha’u’llah makes it clear that it is easier to live a spiritual life without too much wealth, because wealth can so easily tie us to the world. However, Baha’u’llah also says that if a wealthy person can manage to stay connected to God, he can benefit the world through this wealth. Such a person would be able to use his wealth for the betterment of mankind, and in consecration to God, because he is not attached to it.
In the end “the world” does not mean everything in this physical world. It refers only to the things in this world that stand between us and God. Our material attachments in this world block us from God. An interest, passion, hobby, career, souvenir, relationship or any other noun that we have in our life can function as a potential barrier between us and God. We are the only judges of these barriers; therefore, we must stay vigilant in weeding them out.
Two approaches seem possible here. One approach: to simply rid ourselves of the attachments in our life. The other: to keep those things in our life, but change our relationship to them. Prayer and reflection will help us find the best approach.